6th March 2021
Saturday night is here again, I'm in the living room, logged on to Meet on my PC.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City
Another hot stuffy day in Neon City, aircon down again and the apartment's shade did nothing to prevent waves of midday heat pounding down. I half-sat, half-sprawled on my futon, movements kept to a minimum, sipping away at cans of Kaia Cola, praying my supply would hold out until the rain came and listening to the growing arguments in the high rise. Rising temperatures meant rising tempers.
Then my Jinonghua began pinging, calling was Ashaglaya Lova, working girl and former puppet of the Russian mob. Her boyfriend/pimp Rostii Biniva had turned up dead recently and she'd been cut loose. Since then she'd managed to find gainful employment in the role of a Party Favour at a business promisingly called Coke & Whores.
Listening to Ashaglaya's voice, it was an octave too high and she was speaking a touch too fast, clear indicators of stress, something was worrying her. She told me that a friend, Valaya Dova had turned up dead, supposedly fallen to her death after getting drunk. Ashaglaya didn't believe a word of it, convinced it was murder and that she was next! I got her to calm down and tell me more.
Valaya had also been employed as a Party Favour for Coke & Whores, last night the two of them had been working the Goji Tower. It was a big party on the hundredth-and-fifty-sixth floor. Ashaglaya told me, a lot of important people - including Goji Rokkaku himself had shown his face.
During the night Valaya had dragged Ashaglaya into the women's toilets to tell her something; she thought it was some kind of gossip but Valaya said had seen something strange in one of the side-rooms attached to a bedroom she was working that didn't make sense, Valaya said she was going back to have another look.
It was the last time that Ashaglaya would see her friend, the next morning Valaya had turned up dead three districts over from the Goji Tower.
Ashaglaya didn't feel safe, so I told her come over to my one-bed in Hikage Street while we went and checked things out.
Two strange encounters in Goji Tower in a short time, not a coincidence, not in Neon City?
Time to investigate the remains of Valaya Dova.
Unless you were a member of the ultra-rich set, Neon City had no space and in fact no time for burials, Valaya's remains would soon be off for the recycler, plenty of demand for healthy body parts and the City of Electric Dreams always got its pound of flesh or liver or pancreas or whatever in the end.
Finding the morgue with Valaya's body in Hikage Street was relatively easy, it was equally easy for Bill to talk us in to seeing it, despite the ineffectual protestations of the administrative staff.
Located on a basement level below a grotty, small and underfunded municipal community med-centre was the morgue, a modest complex of dull grey polished faux stone-floored rooms and corridors. Isolated from the bustle of Neon City, a cold and quiet place, unflatteringly lit by weak LED strips.
Other than us, only staff could be found shuffling around the corridors here, mostly in scrubs and going about their depressing work. We were led into the room containing Valaya's remains, like some kind of morbid wallpaper, a grid of square doors entirely filled one wall of the room.
We were left to our own devices: The door to Valaya's tray opened with a low hiss, almost immediately the smell of vomit washed over us. It was not a good sign, a sign we knew, it meant something bad was going down at Goji Tower.
The tray holding Valaya slid out of the wall smoothly. She had been a good looking girl in life, now another almost forgotten pale and mangled icicle on a shelf in Neon City, it's what waited all of us. A reminder of where our choices inevitably took us, either the high road into rarefied heights of Neon City or the low road into some crappy morgue.
Her death certificate indicated that she had fallen to her death at a back alley close to somewhere walled Clean Convenience Hotel on Chuo Street in the small hours of last night. We searched her remains for any evidence that suggested otherwise but came up with zero. Returning Valaya back into her temporary resting place, we headed off.
It was a short clattering tram ride to Chuo Street, we disembarked under the afternoon sun and into the crowded maze of narrow alleys that stretched throughout the neighbourhood.
The oldest and lowest parts of Neon City tended to have been constructed of old-style brick, buildings here typically rose no more then about ten stories, dwarfed by their younger concrete cousins. Chuo street, being lower than most districts, was no different. One such building was the hotel; the site of Valaya's plunge, found on the corner of a under-lit back alley.
Clean Convenience Hotel was six storeys high, entirely unremarkable and indistinguishable from half-a-dozen competitors that lined the alley, its brown-red brickwork barely discernible beneath an accumulated lifetime of dirt, grime and general pollution.
Straining my neck I looked up, squinting and shielding my eyes against the strangely angled shape of a cloudless blue-white sky masked by the encroaching silhouette of Neon City's soaring skyline.
It seemed to us that with our layman's understanding that Valaya's injuries were not consistent with the distance it was alleged she had fallen; six storeys was not high enough.
Valaya's body had been found near to the hotel's service entrance next to a fire escape, any physical evidence that could have lingered had now been obliterated by Chuo Street's passing traffic. Rentacop didn't care enough to cordon it off, in fact they just didn't care.
The death certificate had also claimed that Valaya had struck a part of the fire escape during her fall; something to investigate.
The fire escape stairs were a steel construction of a series of rails, bars and slats bolted to the hotel's exterior wall. We managed to pull down the ladder to ground level and went up. The steel framed clanged and creaked threateningly as we climbed.
We checked the railings, black paint was sporadically bubbling and flaking away, revealing naked stains of rust but there were no recent signs of any impact, nor was there any evidence of blood to be found on the fire escape. We kept climbing and checking, still nothing. Eventually we reached the top floor without any result.
Using his Ashirada climbing augments Trigger got on to the roof and hauled us up.
It was a typical drab flat rooftop, dotted with some ancient straining aircon units and some old half-filled water tower, half-filled because they all were nowadays.
Six storeys down and the back alley had a become a distant thin erratically shadowed line that lost its way into the urbanised maze that was Chuo Street. Evidence of Valaya's demise had been reduced to memory as an unending procession of pedestrians obliviously walked by.
Up on the roof it was different though, quickly we had found something: Close to the top of the fire escape and directly above the site of Valaya's death the smell of vomit was faint but distinct, exposure had lessened but not eradicated it.
Looking further we found a thin oily film coating the rooftop and parapet too, same stuff from Hida Masu's apartment. Somehow Neon City's heat hadn't evaporated it nor had the rain washed it away. What was it?
Finally a significant amount of blood had congealed into a caked and dried brown stain on the rooftop here.
Searching more of the roof revealed nothing more.
In the hotel lobby half functional panel lights only provided dim lighting, it was as grubby and unkept as the exterior, decorated with threadbare carpets, peeling faded wallpaper and dusty fixtures. A receptionist lounged behind a faux stained-oak counter and some questioning revealed that he had found Valaya's body at the end of his graveyard shift.
Holding one hand outstretched, the receptionist told us that he had found the event very traumatising, too traumatising to talk about in fact. Luckily over the years Neon City had developed several cures for managing traumatic memories, in this particular case a handful of bits.
It was effective, the receptionist seemed to happy to talk now.
He told us that when he had found Valaya, she had been naked with a smell of vomit coming off her, he told us there was nothing else strange. Finally he said that he had taken some photos for personal reference. After some quick convincing he pinged us copies. We checked them out, they showed the twisted and crumpled body of Valaya, we noticed that there was practically no blood on the street around her.
The evidence was looking clear. Valaya had been murdered by those creatures and it had taken place on the roof. after she had been killed her remains callously tossed off. Ashaglaya had been right to be suspicious.
The creatures likely originated from Goji Tower, it would need further investigation.
Before we had a chance to discuss our next move, my media-slab pinged again; Ashaglaya.
She had absconded to my one-bed but something was up; I answered, Ashaglaya told me that a woman called Lucy had come in and was glaring at her, Ashaglaya said it made her nervous.
I should never have given Lucy a key-card to my one-bed!
She also told me that a dog from Dog & Bone Messaging had arrived and was waiting for me? I told Ashaglaya that we would be over soon.
It was a short tram ride over to Hikage Street and soon we were at my apartment. Ashaglaya was looking nervous, Lucy was looking furious and a dog was looking expectantly!
The dog messenger delivered their message to me, it had a name; Xylona Alder, someone we'd helped before and her number?.
Next I cooled Lucy down, I told her "It's not what it looked like!".
I could see her eyes move from Ashaglaya to me and back as she internally calculated whether to believe me or not. Having Ashaglaya in my apartment did look pretty bad on the hand it's not like we been caught red handed in a tryst.
After a few moments Lucy looked at me and hesitatingly said. "I suppose so...".
"Good!" I said quickly, putting my hand on her back. "You go home babe, this is all a work related thing I need to sort out. I'll speak to you later," with that I nudged her out of the door and shut it quick!
I pinged Xylona's number, it was answered by Toby, her bio-engineered and uplifted pet dog.
Toby told us that Xylona had gone to Sky Dinosaurian Square on a date with her new boyfriend and hadn't returned, He was worried. He had good reason to be, this new boyfriend was an unknown quantity and could represent a serious risk.
Daron was the boyfriend's name Toby informed us, he worked in the library at The Skyscraper District which is where Xylona had met him. Realising that we were calling in an archaic old landline, we got Toby to give us her media-slab's number, got no answer from it.
We had an idea on how to trace the slab though and I jacked into the GLOWNET.
Sensory telemetry streamed in, overriding material chemical receptors and flooding my consciousness with a multitude of data-rushes, I watched info-vistas cohere into polyhedral struts of multicoloured light as Neon City's unstable endlessly mutating data-topography filled my view.
I ran a hunter/search algorithm, arming it with whatever information we had on Xylona's media-slab and got some of hits back. Sifting through the results I found the encoded data-feed her slab routinely pushed out to the GLOWNET. I put the data through a decrypter protocol and checked the results: It showed the media-slab was currently located close to the Sky Dinosaurian Square tram stop.
Sky Dinosaurian Square was a short trip away but lacked a direct tram route from the Skyscraper District, instead we had to ride the Sunshine City Metro Link. Originally conceived as Neon City's main form of public transit, the elevated train network had its scope was seriously pared back by a funding scandal, as a result significant portions of the city did not join the city metro link.
Metro link trains were one of the few public services adequately maintained and still rode quietly and smoothly despite their age, they even remained hermetically sealed against Neon City's inhospitable climate. It would have made our trip a pleasant one but nothing be could be done about the overcrowding, end of the day was approaching, wage-monkeys and commuters were cramming on.
Eventually though and with a hiss the doors slid open, we escaped the crush of the metro link and right into the crush of Sky Dinosaurian Square Station.
The theme park was busy, only blaring inane attraction jingles drowned out the rumbling crowds of people emptying into the park and being drawn almost moth-like to the brightly decorated rides, we allowed ourselves to be pulled out of the station with them. My data-slab was still tracking Xylona's media-slab and it led us the short distance to a first-aid station beneath the steel latticework of an elevated tram stop.
Staff in cheerful theme park uniforms manning the station hadn't seen Xylona, double checked the signal, definitely coming from inside.
Bill spoke with one of the first-aiders, explaining that we were part of the municipal safety committee, here for a spot check. It was convincing enough.
Inside the station it was the antithesis of the exterior with an exposed grey concrete floor and unpainted walls. A couple of small cramped rooms were here, one was a supply room for the first-aid station, the other contained an assortment random items and personal effects, clothes, media-slabs, bags and the like.
That's where we uncovered Xylona's phone.
A staff member told us the second room was a lost and found room,.
"Nina bought it in," said the staff member when we showed them Xylona's media-slab.
Nina Chinova; a cleaner who worked the attraction; Dawn of the Day of the Zombie Apocalypse Fright Night Jamboree. First-aiders told us that she had come in with the media-slab and injuries to treat, notably some burns?
Wending through the drifting visitors we eventually got to the zombie attraction, its exterior decoration an eclectic mix of grimdark imagery and happy colours schemes. After asking some staff we found Nina Chinova; a heavy woman approaching middle years, we also noticed that she had been treated for burns and a wrist support was wrapped around one forearm.
Nina told us that she had witnessed a very tall man kidnapping two people. She had spotted him exiting the zombie attraction through the western service access door carrying them.
The tall man turned to face Nina when he realised she had seen him, his eyes grew red and beams shot out of them, Nina was burnt by the blast and felt terrified but instead of fleeing, Nina ignored the pain and charged in, tackling him! He was incredibly strong though, shrugging her off like Neon City water droplets from a raincoat and sent her flying then escaping. Finally Nina told us that during the brief tussle he had dropped a key card! She brandished it proudly like the gold medal for a hundred metre dash, we convinced her to hand it over to us and reluctantly, she did so.
Nina didn't mentioned it but seemed disappointed at the loss of the key card, her proof of her attack, we said we could get it on the record and called D4-VID, he was happy to interview her.
The key card was branded with Warm With Love Hotel, which turned out to be a hotel situated on Hikage Street.
It was back on the trams for a familiar shaky, crammed and creaking ride. Rush hour was in full swung now and even though few people in The City of Electric Dreams had anything like full-time employment, they still managed to pack out the trams.
Back on Hikage Street it was always busy; most populated district in Neon City and it showed. Wage-monkeys were beginning to slouch back home, the dissuaded and unemployed wandered thoughtlessly looking for cheap thrills and the loitering youth got ready to hit the neon mile on Ninety-Ninth, all lit by a gold-orange nimbus of sunsetting light.
Warm With Love Hotel could be found at the southern end of Hikage Street, where the grey high-rises met The Pipes and the crowds actually thinned out as residential space began to give way to commercial usage. In the day's lengthening shadows the hotel looked low rent - even by Neon City standards. inside was no different, the key card told us which room it unlocked so we headed straight up.
The door we were looking for was as drab and anonymous as every other door here.
Swiping the card, the door magnetically unlocked with a click.
Pushing it open, we looked in with caution. The carpet was a fading brown and the walls painted in a cheap beige colour, we could see some sort of electronics on a dressed, then, as the door swung further we could see three unmoving children sprawled ungainly across a drab hotel bed.
Trigger's thermals indicated that only the children were in the rooms. a physical sweep ensured the room was all clear.
Street kids in their tattered dirty badly fitting clothes, not even teenagers, they looked unharmed and a quick check confirmed that they were unconscious.
Koko checked the gear, it was a hotchpotch of elaborate micro-electronic repair kits, she told us it looked like they had come from some sophisticated cybernetics. Crumpled by the dresser was a Bric-a-Brac Shac bag, someone had been shopping and close by too, Bric-a-Brac Shac was short walk away from here.
We were able to rouse the kids with some basic stims, they came to with confused fearful looks, street-rat eyes darting for possible ways out.
We calmed them down, they seemed less agitated and composed enough to question.
All of them were homeless orphans living on Hikage Street, an anonymous part of its transient population, those who slipped though the social net and were forgotten or more likely ignored.
None of them had any recollection of how they got to the hotel room, their last memory's before blacking out were of being alone.
What did this tall man want with Xylona, why was he targeting street rats on Hikage. what did he need them for?
A long shot but we checked who the room was registered to: Joe Smith, not much to go on if it was even real.
Koko had an idea; contact Alex Chinsko - owner of Bric-a-Brac Shac. She pinged him at his shop and gave him a description of the gear she had in front of her. We got lucky, Alex recognised the tech, told us he'd sold it to a tall man yesterday. Alex didn't have any firm info on the man but he did ping us some camera footage. The tall man was tall, well over two metres tall, was it implants?
Before ending the call, Alex told us that the work on the Qiuonriji Yexingzhe SFS-70 night-flier we'd acquired was done, ready for pick up.
Facial recog got a hit on the tall man: Joe Montero, a chromed-up mercenary with high spec military implants, some of which looked code-black. A stone killer with a lot of history under his belt, wanted for war crimes and atrocities committed during the Kashmir Emergency of Forty-Seven.
Most of his company had been killed during that infamous incident, only one known living associate remained: Daron Zavaleta.
I guess Daron hadn't always been a librarian. A check on him revealed that he was also a wanted war criminal, somehow he'd gone from from a bloody warzone to a library.
Was it possible that Joe was searching out Daron, not Xylona?
After we had let the street rats go, we decided to stake the room out and took up position, if Joe came back, hopefully we'd get the drop on him. Several hours passed, the remaining day faded away into a black-red night, we could hear the near-torrential rainfall battering the room's dirt crusted window as we waited.
Our media-slabs pinged, Toby was on the line, Xylona had returned and he told us it was OK! The ambush looked like a bust, Joe was smart enough to realise he needed to burn this hideout once he'd lost the key card. So we headed into the rainy night and back to The Skyscraper District to speak with Xylona.
Xylona explained that she had groggily woken up in an alley close to the International Rail Link Hub, without her media-slab she had no way of contacting anyone, so she walked her way back home.
Now Xylona was worried about Daron, during the zombie jamboree it seemed that he was having some sort of episode.
"He's a timid soul struggling to deal with issues from his past," Xylona elaborated.
She told us as they went to leave the jamboree everything went black, we knew that's when Joe had struck.
As Xylona had woken up close to the rail hub. it looked like Joe Montero was skipping town fast.
Jacking into the GLOWNET, it was simple to hack into the security cameras servers at the international rail hub. I instructed the Nonohiki to sift the recent recordings for anyone who had a height of two hundred and ten centimetres.
Joe Montero was easily and quickly found on the footage, the cameras caught him catching a train out of Neon City carrying a massive holdall, big enough to carry a body. It looked like he had been hunting for Daron Zavelata....
Xylona was extremely upset at the fate of Daron, we decided to leave her in peace and head for home for the night.
Daron might have been looking to get a fresh start to escape a past he regretted or maybe just looking for a place to hide from his crimes. In the end it never mattered, in Neon City your past had a habit of catching up with you.
Another sweltering day rolled around in Neon City with a blazing sun and big heat. Our next step we had decided, was to get into Goji Tower, investigate whatever was happening there.
We had an angle to get into the tower too; Rokkaku employee Hida Masu who had encountered strange creatures and feared for his life had turned to us for help. Now he could help us. He agreed to lend us his security pass, he worked on the thirty-ninth floor and his card would get us there.
At sixteen hundred hours we made our move, it had given us time to formulate a strategy. Using his disguise implants Bill infiltrated into Goji Tower, once past the security door, the lobby had an air of almost subdued silence, Bill saw no rentaguards or corportate footsoldiers, seemed to be zero security presence and no visible camera setup either? His designer Oltrante shoes clicked as he crossed the impeccably polished faux marble floor and headed for the rows of elevators embedded in the beige coloured wall trimmed with chrome fixtures.
As expected, the elevators were set up in banks according to which floors they were restricted to, Bill could only go to the thirty-ninth story with the security pass but it was good enough. The ride up to was smooth and quick, the elevator was unoccupied apart from Bill and Hida Masu's reflection in the mirror.
With a swish the elevator doors slid open on the thirty-ninth to a mostly open plan office, diffused panel lights gave the office a soft light and low partitions separated workers into semi-isolated cubicles, the working day was drawing to a close, only about one-third filled of the cubicles were filled with suited staff mostly hunched over desk-slabs.
It was relatively quiet with a low background murmur, no staff paid any attention to Bill crossing the room with instructions to head for a certain cubicle and sit down then log on to the Rokkaku system with Hida Masu's credentials.
Our original plan had called for Bill to call in some external facilities support for floor thirty-nine and we would come in as the support staff. This was a problem as all facilities were fully automated and Hida Masu lacked the privileges to override them, so we had improvise.
Security had looked surprisingly lax when Bill had come in so after we had hastily discarded our anonymous grey boiler suits and donned an approximation of business suits, he was able to just swipe us in with Hida Masu's card.
Our search was limited to the thirty-ninth floor, we soon realised during our search that the floor was very much self-contained, there were breakout rooms with cushioned chairs, meeting rooms with smooth reflective tables, corner offices for execs, cafeterias, even a dormitory! Nowhere was off limits or seemed hidden and there was no evidence of anything strange or out-of-place.
A different approach was needed, physical searching had turned up nothing, I sat down in an empty corner cubicle and jacked into my Nonohiki and connected to their intranet system. It lacked the sensory interface of the GLOWNET, feeding only a static hierarchical structure overlay into my cognitive flow. I began by using a hacking protocol to probe the system's security settings, hoping to find the protocols that would get us off floor thirty-nine. Rokkaku's internal security wasn't so strong and I started seeing a filename I recognised; Akumu Accord, Hira Masu had mentioned it.
I noticed something else, the directory change log stack had abruptly begun flowing at twice the rate from a second ago. Other activity this deep in the intranet was causing it, some other independent process was active, another user?
I checked what this activity, without the GLOWNET's sensory input or its data-image algorithm, it looked just like code, still it was code I recognised: Black ICE, I'd encountered identical ICE at Executive Excess, designed to trace and attack any unlisted user it found in whatever system it was defending. I had no idea how it would with interact with me in this intranet and what the consequences would be. Luckily I managed to exit the system before the ICE could affect my connection.
It was from the same coder, had to be Ghost Radical's code.
Something was happening? A moment of disorientation followed after I jacked out of my data-slab. I had barely recovered as seconds later we felt an intensifying rumble and then a grinding screech. The ceiling above split apart along multiple lines, flinging out clouds of fragmented debris and folding in on itself. Crashing through came a number of massive thick steel panels, slamming down and crushing anything and anyone beneath, several Rokkaku staff were caught unware and killed.
By the time the rumbling had ceased we were surrounded by an assortment of steel panels, they ran from ceiling to floor with no way over them. A voice then sprang out of a speaker system, harsh and electronic yet mocking, taunting us to escape the maze. A faint almost unnoticeable smell of vomit hung in the air - and was growing stronger, irritating music began blaring out of the speaker system. To the voice it was a game but to us a trap, a steel labyrinth haunted by oily, vomiting, eyeless minotaurs.
Dancing to another piper's tune is always a bad idea, particularly in this situation. We couldn't risk being mice in the maze, we had to swing the odds in our favour.
We had to take it sideways or in this instance, downwards.
Standing back, Bill instructed Roderick to blast the floor with his explosive fletchette rounds. The robot worked through an entire magazine breaking through layers of the floor until a portion of it collapsed in on itself downwards. Like the entrails of some artificial beast, exposed networking and power cabling dangled and swung gently in the hole as aircon chutes spilled out from the underfloor cavity.
The hole was big enough for us to slip through to floor thirty-eight. As we made our escape we heard the voice on the speaker complaining, hearing its indignation. It was normal on the thirty-eighth, we didn't know if the labyrinth would extend down here, no time to delay, we didn't want to find out and needed an exit strategy.
Looking around, like the the floor above, this floor was about a third full of staff. They had been perturbed by the rumbling and thundering noise. We found the closest Rokkaku employee and snatched his security card, it would be needed to get into the elevators.
We ran for it, successfully getting into an elevator and reaching the ground floor. With a chirpy ding the doors opened, from there we dashed for the main entrance, Hida Masu's card still worked and we were out.
Another risky incursion into a corporate tower successfully escaped! We had left with more questions than answers unfortunately and at some point we would probably need to return.
Although it was also probably a good idea to advise Hida Masu not to.
Wage-monkeys were pouring out of the corporate towers in Rokkaku Dai heights, the work-day was ending and steady ant-like streams of suits headed for the trams, going home or hitting the bars. With Goji Tower behind us we were looking forward to kicking it back for the night ourselves but Neon City never lets go that easy.
Trigger's media-slab began pinging, it was an unknown ID, on the other end was Tsuka 'Lucky' Suko.
Lucky Suko; head of The Golden Rhinos, a yakuza outfit that operated out a gambling joint in The Fortified Residential Zone.
We'd crossed paths with him just once before when a client of ours had burnt Suko to the ground at mah-jong so hard that he cleaned out Suko twice!
To say Suko hadn't taken it well was putting it mildly, he ordered a bunch of goons to rub out our client, which we put a stop to.
We'd just been doing our job, did Suko take it personally? We were going to find out.
Suko told us that he had been impressed with our skills and had a proposal for us, a job?
"State your business," we replied neutrally with hesitant caution.
Lucky Suko explained that a violent street gang called The Crazy Bees was making trouble, in particular targeting Japanese people and businesses in a part of The Skyscraper District. One of their Japanese victims was an insurance business owned by his wife's cousin and called Shou Ga Nai Insurance. Suko told us that he had offered to deal with the situation but his cousin-in-law refused wanting nothing to do with any part of the yakuza.
Suko continued, telling us that he would pay us well to persuade The Crazy Bees to lay off the insurance business. He offered us six hundred thousand bits to get rid of the gang plus two hundred thousand per Crazy Bee gang member killed.
Finally Suko said that his cousin-in-law was to never find out that we were being paid to look into the matter.
As neutrally as possible we told Suko. "We'll look in it,".
Ethan's Eats was a sushi bar located in The Skyscraper District, it was here that we would find The Crazy Bees Suko had told us. Even though most of the district was dedicated to housing much of the city's workforce, ground level still contained large clusters and strips of retail units. This included Ethan's Eats; pretty unremarkable and much like a thousand other sushi bars in The City of Electric Dreams. The once-bright plastic signage at the front had faded, its primary colours drained by ultraviolet damage during the day and corrosive rain at night, a large subtly tinted window gave passing pedestrians a glimpse of the customers within and conveyor belts of food that enticingly circled round. Ethan's Eats described itself as selling Authentic Kosher Cockney Sushi and Jellied Eels.
Night had come and with it the rains, city lights awoke, appearing to cascade into existence throughout the district and delineating high-rises against the darkness. Finding a suitable dry vantage point, we waited and watched.
Despite the murky rain, gleaming interior lights bled out on to the slickly reflective street making it easy to view.
Many people came and went, including a good number in distinctively black-and-yellow clothing, had to be street colours for The Crazy Bees. We kept watching.
The Crazy Bees congregated in and around Ethan's Eats. They were young, a lot appeared to be skinny teenagers and many looked Japanese? We continued watching, they were rowdy and rude, jostling and bantering amongst themselves until their leader, an older looking man came on to the scene. Tall, lean and better dressed, he moved with a measured, calculated pace and they clearly all deferred to him.
This wasn't what we were expecting from the description given us by Suko. It was time to dig deeper. Information about them was readily available on the GLOWNET, rentacop reports, public forums, local newsfeeds and so on: General consensus was that The Crazy Bees were a pest more than a menace, they were considered juvenile delinquents more than gangers.
More than one than one report claimed that they bred giant North Korean genetically altered killer bees which they employed in scuffles with other street gangs!
For a while they hung out, grabbing takeout from Ethan's Eats in little cardboard boxes with disposable chopsticks and shooting the breeze. Eventually they split up, leaving a mess of empty discarded cartons behind. We followed a group of some twenty Crazy Bees as they went on their way, they exhibited signs of anti-social behaviour, minor acts of vandalism and external property damage, noisily spraying graffiti and gang tags on any free surface they could find and so on. They didn't seem to be targeting anyone, Japanese of otherwise, same with businesses.
This area included multiple Japanese or Japanese-themed retailers amongst the shops, among them were an anime-styled model-kit shop, clothing stores, gaming stores, even a Pouchebeast shop!
Entering the model kit shop, we spoke with the staff and asked them if they had experienced any trouble with The Crazy Bees, threats, extortion, assault?
They told us they never had trouble with The Crazy Bees, otherwise they'd be banned from buying the latest imported kits!
It didn't add up. The Crazy Bees weren't some hardened gang of criminal thugs in need of some Neon City street justice. Something was wrong so we took a chance.
Shou Ga Nai Insurance was our next destination, a large blind masked the front window of a dull looking shopfront. Inside it was inoffensively decorated in beige and eggshell white with a grey carpet. There was an occupied desk and several upholstered faux wooden chairs. The man at the desk looked up at us as we entered.
Luckily the owner was in when we asked to speak to him. An average looking guy, he looked at us with confusion when we asked about his cousin's husband, he told us his cousin wasn't married, we elaborated, he'd never heard of Tsuka Suko! Apologising for the confusion, we beat a hasty exit.
A set up, it was clear that Lucky Suko had set us up. Maybe he wanted rid of The Crazy Bees, maybe he wanted to make trouble for us, maybe both?
We thought about pinging him and calling him out but we didn't bother. Eventually he'd find out his ruse had failed. Let him stew.
Time to hit the bars, Neon City never slows down and we could do with some Dindanha beer.
Later we got a message from D4-VID, the interview with Nina Chinova had been a success, D4-VID told us that Nina scored well with focus groups and test audiences. Looked like she might be getting something on a network.
20th February 2021
Saturday evening and I'm the living room, logged into Meet on my PC.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
The day had been a quiet one, without the hassles of work, I'd spent most of it languishing on my futon sleeping in, lingering on the lip of consciousness, slipping in and out, allowing the noise and the heat of The City of Electric Dreams to just flow on by.
That came to an end when the Jaunkeu pinged; Lucy, she was complaining about how I was ignoring her or something? Wanted to go out for a meal somewhere.
I cooled her down and said I'd sort something out. A quick GLOWNET search got a hit on some new opening in Shibuya Terminal called Itadakemasu!, it's data-image a towering stylised and colourful human upper body that turned its cheerful face to track users and hand out iridescent photonic fortune cookies that when opened produced a data-node of their menu. I booked us a table; knowing the others wouldn't want to miss out on meal, I also booked one for them.
The others made their own way to the restaurant, meanwhile on the way over to pick up Lucy I bought some synthetically grown blue orchids, I knew she'd appreciate them.
Lucy was in a white Evoda short skirt and jacket combo with a black halter top, her hair up in an elaborate bun. She was very pleased with the flowers.
Rain had begun to patter on the streets, daylight was giving way to night-light and Neon City slowly flickered into its true life, one LED, fluorescent or neon tube at a time.
We got out of the crowds and into Itadakemasu!. Inside it was rammed, nearly every white plastic table and chair occupied with noisy excitable customers.
We were seated, Lucy didn't notice the others arriving separately to be seated at an adjacent table.
The staff handed us brightly coloured laminated menus. Traditional Japanese Food like Grandma Made announced the top of the menu proudly. We perused the variety of burgers, fries, pizzas and deep-fried chicken available, Lucy seemed quite happy with the choices.
A little while into the meal and front door swung open, a dozen-or-so small-time thugs swaggered in, easy to spot with their tattered denims and leathers, tell-tale bulging pockets, sneering expressions and cheap cosmetic implants.
They spread across the room like a wave of sewage, instantly souring the atmosphere as they pushed customers about, swiped food off tables, swore and shouted.
From the way some of them moved through the room and their eyes swept left and right, they were looking for something?
From the other table, Koko was having none of it. She stood and began loudly berating them, I could almost see the index finger wagging accusingly in their faces.
The thugs had found their excuse and everything kicked off. Tables were flipped and customers scattered as thugs reached for Qucoruba CP-2 machine pistols. As gunfire opened up, screaming and panicking of people fleeing filled the room, the start of a full blown firefight.
For a moment I heard Lucy squeal with terror as she dived for cover but almost immediately lost track of her in the chaos.
The attackers who had been searching the room lunged for one scrambling skinny man in particular, luckily Trigger and I were quicker. between my stun-baton and his gunblade, the assailants went down.
Koko, meanwhile had called in Felix and Sylvester, the two gun drones came crashing through Itadakemasu!'s front window, shattering it into a thousand shards to join the fight.
Soon it was over, a relative quiet calmness had descended and other than us, the restaurant was empty of staff and patrons, the thugs had either fled or were sprawled across the linoleum floor.
One of the attackers was conscious, Bill questioned him but got nothing, the killers had been hired by an anonymous fixer and the skinny man had been their target.
Before he could make good his escape, we had grabbed this skinny man.
He wore cheap counterfeit jeans and a dishevelled black t-shirt and with a pale complexion because he didn't get out under the Neon City sun so much. I could tell his type and what he was. I didn't know the face but I would know the handle when he told us; Crash Override, a member of the hackerati and crusading hacktivist.
When asked why he had been targeted, he let us know that they were muscle paid for by Oshin Amalgamated: After snooping on their servers he had found proof that they had their fingers deep into the city's zoning committee and threatened to release it. This carnage had been Oshin's response.
What was the dirt Crash Override had on Oshin?
Yaran Kitchie had been chairperson of the committee and openly blocked Oshin's plans for their water purification plant. A while ago he had been found dead and his successor, Lindsay Berrett had promptly approved Oshin's plans.
Crash Override had proof that Lindsay Berrett was on the Oshin payroll.
With a shrug and a sharp intake, he nodded and said he was going to publish the info on the GLOWNET now anyway. We offered to provide protection but he said he didn't need it. Crash Override then slipped away, disappearing through the gawking crowds now gathering under the rain outside.
Lucy came stamping back into the wreckage of Itadakemasu!, broken glass crunched under the quick, short steps of her wobbling designer Oltrante white high heels, aggravation clear on her face, upset that the others had also come to the date.
I cooled her down, she seemed to accept that yes they had also been at the restaurant but they had been at a completely separate table; so it had still been a proper date, at least until the bullets began flying.
Date night had ended early.
Things moved fast in Neon City, by the time the next morning came around, news of the firefight and high-level corruption in the zoning committee had been side-lined by more recent events. Literally yesterday's new.
Over my bowl of Paheheu Pops I watched with faint disappointment as GLOWNET news-vines were pushing out a scandal and corruption story about the election of the next Overseer of the Women’s Liaison and Consultation Executive, some sort of public consulting department in for what passed as Neon City's municipal authority.
Inane pundits and talking heads had been discussing the situation, discussing the two rival candidates, Ms Tatsuya Niko and Aglayata Banova. Then in the early hours a video file had begun circulating on the GLOWNET. It showed Ms Tatsuya Niko in a revealing and compromising situation with a trio of hirsute individuals.
Powering down my wall-slab, I realised I didn't care.
That was about to change.
My media-slab was being pinged again. Sniffing out the story behind the story of Tatsuya Niko was robotic vid-journalist; D4-VID. He told us that he was suspicious of the footage's authenticity, believing it had been shot at an establishment named The Lusty Thrust on Chuo Street and instructed us to meet him there.
The lowest alleys and walkways of Chuo Street were some of the narrowest and deepest, even by Neon City standards. High-sided rows of buildings almost claustrophobically encroached in on each other, resulting in thin, frequently shadowed towering canyons of glass fronted concrete.
Flitting in and out of the uncaring sunlight were throngs of people navigating past each other without breaking stride, conditioned to ignore the lack of personal space.
Chuo Street was densely populated with scores of small typically neon-signed hotels of every type as well as numerous brothels, The Lusty Thrust was of the second variety and a humming red neon sign with self-explanatory flicking two-frame animation brightly announced its status.
D4-VID had almost finished shooting background footage outside The Lusty Thrust when we came on scene. Midday was fast approaching and the sun was almost directly overhead, Chuo Street was providing no respite from the rippling noon heat.
Madame Ma Zhui-Bao was a short middle-aged Chinese woman dressed in something akin an exotic belly dance outfit and appeared to manage The Lusty Thrust. When she saw us stroll into the lobby, she began shouting and frenetically waving.
"No press," Madame Ma Zhui-Bao shouted. "No press," pointing at D4-VID. She absolutely refused to talk to us until D4-VID had dejectedly slouched off.
A curiously heady incense clung to the air as cliched generic Arabian-Eastern flavoured music of suspect origin played out of wall speakers.
The room was decorated with faux exposed and painted stonework, filled with colourful replica Turkish sofas and rugs, further decoration included eastern looking ornaments and fittings set in small alcoves or on shelves.
A number of mostly young men and women dressed in revealing Arabic themed clothing and were draped over the furniture, eyeing us suggestively but it was all business today.
"What you want?" Madame Ma Zhui-Bao demanded curtly now that D4-VID had gone.
Questioning Madame Ma Zhui-Bao, she told us that she had never seen and did not know Tatsuya Niko, when shown the footage, she recognised the three others; regulars, Tomac Khan, Moroccan Tom and Big Man Arthur Ardley, they had come here with a blonde Russian woman, not Tatsuya Niko. As far as she knew, they were construction workers currently employed at Sunshine City.
Madame Ma Zhui-Bao allowed us to see the room the footage was shot in; fairly small with same faux exposed stone work and Turkish/Arabic decorations.
We searched around, there was no evidence of anything here, then we extrapolated that the camera must have been placed on the small replica pine wood side table flush against a wall. No evidence of anything there either.
Looking around the room further we spotted hidden cameras belonging to Madame Ma Zhui-Bao, she allowed us to review her own footage, to no one's surprise, it had somehow been corrupted.
Our only lead took us to Sunshine City. During the characteristically uncomfortable, hot, cramped and noisy tram ride D4-VID explained how he though the footage had been doctored, showing us what he believed was digital manipulation on the face of Tatsuya Niko.
From a vantage point at the tram stop it was easy to spot the construction work taking place at Sunshine City. Significant remodelling of the children's playground in the park that ringed the monolithic titular tower of Sunshine City in greenery was underway after it had been mostly levelled by Roderick 4-20 a while ago....
On the way down we encountered Frank and Joey, the two uniformed park patrol rentaguards we had dealt with before. Making small talk, they cheerfully told us that that they had been called out to deal with someone who had defecated in the sandbox at the playground!
At the worksite it took a bribe to the foreman to find Tomac Khan, Moroccan Tom and Big Man Arthur Ardley; they were happy to talk with us about their encounter at The Lusty Thrust.
The footage had been altered, it was a different woman in the video; all three confirmed it.
At the end of a shift, after payday they had been approached by a young blonde Russian working girl who asked if they were looking for a good time. They were flush.... so why not?
They also gave us a name: Ashaglaya Lova.
It was something to go on.
Jacking into my Nonohiki, I sank out of material reality and descended into the mutating multicoloured light-emitting geometry of the GLOWNET and ran a hunter/searcher. I was unmoving, motionless as trillions of data-points orbited round me, seemingly merging into a incomprehensible storm of sensory outputs until a single shining mote of silvery data emerged and became a fixed point ahead of me, a north star.
I moved towards it and it entirely enveloped my view. Light faded and rows of data came into focus. The name Ashaglaya Lova was in the data, Ashaglaya Lova was at The Catnap Hotel back on Chuo Street.
It was possible Yennav Rybasei would have some info, so Koko contacted him. He told us he was too busy helping his sister-in-law win an election? Who was his sister-in-law? He told us it was Aglayata Banova, the second candidate in the electoral race. Koko asked if he knew anything about the fake video that had been released smearing Tatsuya Niko.
"Yes," said Yennav. "It was me!" He admitted.
Koko thanked him and closed the line a pensive look on her face. It meant we were moving against Yennav now.
Meanwhile; D4-VID had been filming it all.
The contrast between the narrow chiaroscuro of Chuo Street and the unfettered verdant openness that surrounded Sunshine City couldn't have been starker.
A cool-blue curled neon cat marked out The Catnap Hotel, buried deep the back alleys it was a small fairly narrow establishment in a row of grubby brock buildings that ran up several storeys and was surrounded by more grubby buildings.
A timeworn entranceway opened to a decaying colourless carpet that led us to a half-lit lobby. Tinny music played out of a speaker behind the counter, the clerk's eyes flicked our way for a few milliseconds before returning to his media-slab. A dishevelled old man sat precariously on one seat of a row of upholstered black plastic chairs placed along a wall, loaded up on something and blazing away, talking incessantly to his imagination.
The clerk stopped chewing his gum, tore himself away from his slab and stared at us approaching. We didn't seem like the hotel's usual clientele and he was right.
He was hesitant to give us anything on Ashaglaya Lova but a few words and a handful of bits from Bill changed that. Leaning forward he punched some instructions into his desk-slab, scanning the results.
With the room number in hand we headed up to Ashaglaya's door, from the other side we could faintly make out several Russian voices, they were slightly distorted, it sounded like a Russian language daytime soap opera, probably Dni zhizni nashikh gangsterov, the most popular Russian language show in Neon City.
We knocked on the scratched and scuffed old door, an attractive and slim blonde woman in a short skirt and very low cut crop top opened it. The easy smile on her face melted away and eyes widened in surprise.
"You're not from Beetroot Palace?" exclaimed Ashaglaya.
Before she could react we had pushed our way into the room. Like the rest of the hotel it had all the hallmarks of a decline from former glory, faded old wallpaper peeling off walls, scratched up old furniture and fixtures and stained windows.
"Get out or I'll call my boyfriend Rostii," Ashaglaya threatened. "He's a gangster," she added with unconvincing menace.
Unfazed, we told her to go ahead and she pinged someone on her media-slab.
Whilst we waited, we told Ashaglaya that we knew she was the original woman in the video, shrugging she said that Rostii had asked her to do it and had told her who to approach and when. She was happy to do it for Rostii, he loved her.
Fifteen or so minutes later and there's a knock, Koko answered
Rostii Biniva was fairly stocky with spikey blonde-tipped hair and several days' stubble. He wore a red and black polyester Osolilitki tracksuit with a tasteless amount of fake gold around his fingers and neck. There was of course the tell-tale bulge of a pistol under his zipped-up jacket and tucked into his waistband.
His eyes flittered around the hotel room, taking in the situation. He was pro enough to take it in his stride and change tack.
"You are friends of Yennav? How can I help?" He said smiling and shaking Koko's hand. "If the girl is a problem, I can kill her. She means nothing to me," he added.
Ashaglaya, shocked, visibly trembled.
"That's not what we're here for," Bill replied. "Just tell about your involvement with filming the footage with Ashaglaya,".
Rostii freely admitted that he had arranged the setup for filming Ashaglaya with the other three, once the footage had been acquired it was passed on to Yennav who he guesses then doctored it.
D4-VID asked Rostii to repeat it all for an interview and Rostii didn't see the harm in it, we were of course, friends of Yennav Rybasei.
Once the interview was completed, D4-VID went off to file his report, happy with the results, he agreed to leave us out of it.
There was no reason for us to remain either. Ashaglaya was struggling to maintain composure so before we left, I turned to her, squeezing her hand with just the right amount of pressure and looking into a reflection of a cloudless azure sky in a field of smooth ice that were her pale blue eyes which were of course a set of Uluoyelo replacement irises and daid.
"If you feel in danger at all...." Handing her my business card.
Back out into churn of Chuo Street as we sought out some respite the afternoon heat, our media-slabs pinged.
Ram Rat was on the line, he had been sitting on Ghost Radical's slush fund watching for signs of financial activity, now he had one.
Five hundred thousand bits had been transferred back into the slush fund account not so long ago, Ram Rat couldn't trace the source.
We understood the significance: Ghost Radical's modus operandi meant that he had likely just killed someone he'd previously employed and reversed the payment. If we found his victim, it might give us a lead on Ghost Radical.
Using my data-slab I ran a hunter/searcher algorithm for unexplained deaths on the GLOWNET with a cross-referencing filter for time-of-death close to the time of the money transfer.
There were no hits, closest result came from Firestreaker, a YourTube broadcaster who reported on fire-based incidents throughout Neon City. His latest video had just gone up on the GLOWNET, its timestamp only a few minutes after the transfer.
Jacking into my slab, I was able to watch his report with full clarity, he had managed to film an apartment engulfed in flames and very quickly become entirely gutted. Narrating to the camera Firestreaker explained that it was believed that the fire had been caused by a faulty microwave unit and luckily the tenant, known locally as Case Mod was out at the time.
Case Mod was a familiar name, rung a bell; another hacker.
Were we missing something? We had to join the dots.
Was it possible Case Mod had been hired by Ghost Radical? Was Case Mod the victim? That would have meant that the fire was no accident, the times matched.
Ghost Radical may have slipped up, not realising Case Mod was still alive?
We had to get to him before Ghost Radical did.
Staying in the GLOWNET I ran another hunter/searcher, this time for Case Mod: There was a hit, he had been picked up for public defecation in Sunshine City at the children's park! We'd been there a couple of hours ago, Frank and Joey had him, we had to get back.
While heading for the closest Chuo Street tram stop, Alison pinged Bill on his media-slab. There was concern in her voice, she had a friend who needed our help now, it couldn't wait. We had to get to Aisle 10 now.
There was no other way; we had to split up. Koko and Bill headed to Dogenzaka Hill, Trigger and I went for Case Mod.
It was a tense journey to Sunshine City, stakes were high and we felt on edge, I was tapping my toes on the filth coated tram floor and Trigger bit his nails. Seconds must have lasted hours and minutes seemed to morph into infinite length.
After an age, the tram grinded to a halt at Sunshine City and we ran, a short sprint over the grass and we arrived at the Park Patrol Headquarters. It was a functional dull grey concrete cuboid bunker, with small barred windows and a couple of doors, clearly designed for purely functional purposes.
Quietly humming fluorescent strips lit the sparsely decorated interior in an equally dull hue, inside was a front desk, some offices and even a knock-off Dengken' Doughnuts booth! A slightly paunchy and scruffy looking uniformed Park Patrol officer manned the front desk, his faux police badge indicated his rank was sergeant. We asked about Case Mod and for a brief moment he was confused.
"You mean Goth Shitter?" He laughed! "That's what we call him!".
Exposed concrete steps led down to a long row of cells with toughened polymer barred doors.
Sitting dejectedly on the plain cot in a dismal cell was a young triangle-faced man, skinny, almost weedy, with a pale complexion and dyed messy long black hair, he wore black denim jeans and a food stained white t-shirt. I could see the small disc shaped magnetic connecter of his Konketak head jack in his neck. Typical hacker.
His head tilted a touch, rippling a few locks of hair as we walked up to his cell and introduced ourselves. There was no response when we told him that we were here to get him out got, for a moment he stared at us through the black locks that tumbled over his face, then looked at the cell wall.
Questioning the sergeant; he confirmed that Case Mod's/Goth Shitter's offence had been a minor transgression and he was free to leave at anytime but was unwilling to do so.
The sergeant opened the door to allow us to converse.
Turning to Case Mod, he refused to explain why he wanted to stay, even when we pressed him about it. Then it clicked.
Case Mod knew that Ghost Radical or someone was out to kill him.
Somehow the microwave fire hadn't done its job and by taking a dump in the sandbox, he knew he'd get arrested and put into the cell. His way of getting protection from Ghost Radical. I was sure of it.
We told Case Mod that these cells wouldn't protect him for long. Once Ghost Radical realised that he had missed the mark, he'd come gunning for Case Mod. If we could find him, then so could Ghost Radical, we were his only chance. I just about saw his eyes move behind the curtain of hair.
Case Mod looked at us, then the sergeant and lunged!
He landed a fairly ineffectual blow on the sergeant but it was enough to enrage the man.
"That's assault!" The sergeant exploded, furiously storming off, no doubt to file more paperwork Case Mod.
"There's nothing you can do," the hacker stated matter-of-factly before dropping back on to the bed.
We were wasting time here, I pinged Bill to see what their situation was?
Bill told us that they had encountered a problem on the way to Aisle 10.
Koko and Bill had been navigating the usual teeming afternoon shoppers on Dogenzaka Hill when a commotion had broken out ahead. There was an uproar and screaming, Koko and Bill strained to see over the milling people, moments later shoppers spilling forward crashed into other shoppers, like a human wave they parted before a gang of bikers.
The paved streets of Neon City were never designed for personal vehicles, but that didn't stop cyclists and the occasional biker weaving through the crowds, unlike this gang though, they didn't ride directly at pedestrians.
Bill said it was an almost surreal experience, rampaging bikers threatening the crowds on almost silent Bidaga or Grosenge E-bikes, only the gentle whine of their electric motors and their voices could be heard as they knocked over people. Autonomous anti-collision detection obviously deactivated, stability systems preventing them from falling themselves. The bikers were yelling, hollering and blazing their horns, shouting incomprehensibly about 'what they deserved', 'risk for nothing' or 'their money'.
The bikers mostly wore denim and leathers with open faced helmets and shades, partly for protection and partly a fashion statement echoing a mostly forgotten look from long ago. Of course modern synthetic multi-weaved polymer and nylon clothing was lighter, more durable and more comfortable than any protective clothing from the past but I guess that wasn't the point. They accessorised with lengths of chain and showy katana, Bill also noticed the give-away bulge of small sidearms.
The disruption they were causing was preventing Koko and Bill getting to Aisle 10. Eventually Bill lost his rag, identifying what seemed to be their leader he managed to pull him up with an intimidating stare and a steely grasp.
After being given a stiff shakedown by Bill, the leader offered up his name: Rooster, president of the Doomriders. Middle-aged, bearded and fairly stocky, he wore a black faux reinforced leather jacket over a scruffy t-shirt with a skull motif and a faded tatty pair of jeans over some well polished black Nochreb boots, Bill had told me that they remined him of something, but the in heat of the moment he couldn't remember what?
He was clearly tense or aggravated, skin a shade of red, voice strained and in response to Bill's demands, he spoke through gritted teeth.
Rooster and his companions were veterans of the Planetary Guard Defence Force. They'd recently retired after completed their last induction of the latest cohort recruits - including some sort of pimp he exclaimed!
Now they had time to spare they'd formed the motorcycle club Doomriders to spend their free time roaming Neon City's highways. Their military pensions and discharge bonuses had however never materialised. Rooster told Bill that this had all been handled by a contractor called Mabana Multinational.
Mabana Multinational had just been conglomerated into Thetatec Advanced Research, during this transition, all of their financial records had vanished, supposedly lost.
Mabana and Thetatec were of no help getting their pensions back, so angrily they'd taken to the streets in protest.
To placate them, Bill took a deep breath and agreed to look into the matter of their finances if they'd just stopped rioting. Rooster hesitated, fingers waggling in a ripple as he gave it thought and finally agreed.
"Now that my grievances have been vented I somehow feel deflated?" Rooster stated.
Rooster gave his card to Bill who couldn't help but notice that Rooster's name was actually Nigel Cheal.
Back at the Park Patrol Headquarters Trigger and I finally gotten Case Mod to talk. While we were talking to Bill, he'd overheard us talking about Thetatec and pensions.
"I know what that's about," he said swinging forward on his cot.
Case Mod went on to admit that Ghost Radical had hired him to hack into Thetatec's systems and delete all the Mabana merger files on pensions for the space people but data could be recovered - if you knew how it had been deleted.
"Why would Ghost Radical go after the Defence Force's pensions?" We asked.
Leaning back again, Case Mod shrugged. "It's all about the bits man and the stock markets,".
Checking newsfeeds, rumours had begun circulating rapidly; supposedly Thetatec was trying to undermine the Planetary Global Defence Force in an attempt to get their military contracts. Rumours were worth as much as the truth wasn't in Neon City, Thetatec's Rep had taken a hit and so had its share price. Trillions had been wiped off their market cap.
Ghost Radical had it in for Porter Sladek, was this some new avenue of attack?
Case Mod then told us how to recover the deleted data.
Bill pinged us an update.
With the Doomriders at least temporarily dealt with, Koko and Bill rushed on to Aisle 10, the trendy fashion boudoir within the exclusive Chou-Nata Corporate Mall and like every other designer shop in the high class shopping complex, served a selective affluent clientele.
Arriving at the glass walled entrance, Koko and Bill slowed to a nonchalant stroll as they went in, navigating browsing customers and corridors of racked colourful garments until they got to the counter.
Alison waved them out back to a small out-of-the-way office.
Waiting for them was Hida Masu, a thin man in a nondescript two-piece grey Evoda suit.
He politely introduced himself as a employee of the Rokkaku Group who worked in payload insurance at Goji Tower and lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
It wasn't clear to Koko and Bill what this was about.
He continued: Last night he had been working into the late hours at the tower alone when he saw something incredible.
Strange creatures sloping through the semi-lit office, he was dumbfounded and stared at them. Hida Masu told Koko and Bill that they became aware of him and turned and stared back with stalks of wire for eyes. Moments later, before he could react they turned and left, vanishing, all of this in total silence.
Hida Masu could not tell if he had fallen asleep and hallucinated the encounter or it was real? He admitted that it had left him rattled regardless. So he called it a night and decided to have a few drinks to settle his nerves, this took him to Braindance. Koko and Bill had heard of Braindance, an up-and-coming bar on Chuo Street that specialised in serving a potent blend of tequila and peyote.
Hida Masu had drunken himself into a stupor on that potent blend and realising the trip back Rokkaku Dai Heights might land him in trouble during the small hours, staggered to a local capsule hotel called Otsukaresamadesu and spent the right.
Morning came and so did a throbbing headache explained Hida Masu. After splashing his face with the meagre supply of water available, he headed back to the rooftop shanty that was his home in the Heights and was dismayed to discover that his apartment had been turned over, someone had broken in and wrecked the place. Then he went on to say that a peculiar smell like vomit hung in the air and a strange thin coat of oily substance seemed to be covering everything.
Maybe his night at Otsukaresamadesu had saved him in an unexpected way.
Finally he admitted that he was worried that someone at Rokkaku had it in for him. A little earlier he had been included on an email that mentioned Akumu Accord and Rokkaku Project. Maybe this wasn't a coincidence.
Bill said that we'd check it out for him.
Time to go, Koko and Bill were heading straight to Rokkaku Dai Heights to check out something serious and we had to meet them.
We called the desk sergeant to lock up Case Mod's cell again, said goodbye to the hacker and got up to leave.
"Wait!" He blurted. "Take me with you."
After smoothing things over with the irate desk sergeant he allowed Case Mod to go with a fine to pay. On the way out to the tram stop we passed Frank and Joey.
"Goth Shitter!" they laughed and pointed.
Case Mod shifted around staring at the ground.
The afternoon crush was underway and it was a short squalid tram ride to the heights. Through stained windows I watched the cluster of alabaster-white high rises grow from beyond Neon City's crowded skyline to loom overhead as we rolled into our destination.
Now with Koko and Bill, we headed up to Hida Masu's apartment. Like most shanty dwellings in the Heights, it was a part of the dizzying high-rise community that haphazardly sprawled from rooftop to rooftop of apartment blocks, interconnected by rope-bridges and makeshift walkways.
Breaking into Hida Masu's apartment would have been easy, constructed as it was out of whatever materials the occupants could scavenge and lug up the high-rises. In this case an oblong sheet of planking that had been screwed on to hinges. Now it hung on only one hinge and swung freely.
Immediately we became aware of the vomit-like smell as we entered, even hours later it clung to the air. Stifling our gag reflexes we investigated the shanty.
Unpredictably shaped, the apartment was a composite of mostly sturdy polymer sheets and reclaimed two-by-four wooden supports. Makeshift tables, chairs and other furniture had been tipped over or outright smashed during the incursion. Knick knacks and ornaments had been swept off the homemade shelves, lying scattered or smashed across the piecemeal flooring, it was the same everywhere.
As Hida Masu had told us, a thin film of some kind of viscous substance or slime seemed to coat everything.
Searching the shanty found nothing incriminating, if it had been the strange creatures hunting Hida Masu, then they were capable enough to leave no clues. We took a sample of the slime, maybe get it tested in a lab?
On the way out. Koko got pinged; Yennav Rybasei.
Koko answered and from the looks on her face, it wasn't a pleasant conversation. Once the call was over she explained that D4-VID's report about Tatsuya Niko's faked footage had been released and she had been exonerated, her popularity was rising in the polls again.
It wasn't going Yennav's way and he was not happy. He told Koko that he was sure that someone in his organisation had flipped on him.
Yennav wanted Koko to investigate the leak. Considering that we were the leak, it looked like things were going to get messy, for Koko in particular and she did not look happy.
Next we contacted Porter Sladek's direct line and explained that the Mabana accounts had been hacked. On the end of the call, Porter sounded surprised, he hadn't heard anything about anyone losing their pension, his organisation was too big for him to oversee everything.
We explained the situation with the Doomriders to Porter, how the attack had been directed at him by Ghost Radical and also how to resolve it. Without delay he said he'd sort the pensions out and give them a bonus as compensation.
Street-lit silvery sheets of water began hitting the streets of Rokkaku Dai heights just as we did, falling rain marked the beginning of night and only just the beginning for us.
The night's ecology surfaced; a forest of gently swaying umbrellas sprang up, allowing Neon City's population to venture out under the pattering deluges of darkness.
Our media-slabs pinged, calling was conductor Hideki Naganuma, last spoken to during the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition in which he had been runner up. We had rescued his sister back then, looked like she was in trouble again.
Hideki Naganuma told us that we must immediately head to the Choose To Be Happy Hotel on Chuo Street, that's where Okan Ikomi could be found. From there we were to escort her to the Fortified Residential Zone.
Again, we got pinged on the way back to Chuo Street, a message from an unrecognised ID this time. It read: 'Where I have failed, you may succeed. Free the captives.', the message was signed off by Prophet Wei. He had also provided us an address for somewhere called Shou Shop in Highway Zero and told us a package had been delivered to Trigger's home which left him quietly pleased!
It didn't make much sense, who were the captives? It would have to wait, we continued on.
It felt like the morning we had just spent in Chuo Street was long ago but now here we were; for the third timek in the inadequately lit alleys, darker even thanks to the shroud of night. It was a small anonymous hotel, that didn't seem to want to be found. Working through the unabating crowds we eventually found it in an out-of-the-way back alley. Neon signage long since broken, the entrance unlit and unwelcoming.
Except for a capsule hotel, Choose To Be Happy was considered small even by Neon City standards. Inside it was unremarkable and quiet.
"We're expected," the desk clerk told us when we asked.
Okan Ikomi wasn't alone in her room, with her was a massive chromed up Jamaican Rude Boy in Noise Tank colours? With suspicion he grimly stared at us, I could see him become unsettled and reaching, we were about to do the same when Okan Ikomi pleaded with all of us to be calm.
The small woman went on to explain that Street was her boyfriend, that was quite a relationship for the mousey, quiet woman.
We asked them to explain what was going on.
Street was fleeing from gigantic cyborg killers, now that sounded familiar.
Charles 'Street' Spangler went on to explain that pretty much the entire Noise Tank gang had been instructed to attack a Protobase Global lab in Highway Zero and rescue some Galapagos tortoises.
"Instructed by who?" we asked.
"Great Prophet Wei," came the answer.
We had always suspected it, but this was the confirmation, Wei controlled Noise Tank and it answered the question about the captives from his message. Now it looked like we were going to be cleaning up the dirty work his gang couldn't finish. Worse still, it didn't shed any light on Wei's endgame.
Street continued; Noise Tank turned up at the lab in force but security was much heavier than anticipated and after an exchange of fire, the gang were driven off.
A few hours later, the retaliation came. A gang of giant cyborgs hit Noise Tank's most well known and popular hangout; cyBARtek and hit it hard too. Street couldn't tell us how many gangers were killed but he suspected it was a lot.
He was sharp enough to know when things were going south fast! Diving over the bar, avoiding fire and dashing for the back door, he barged it open, and ran for the back alleys, not slowing down, not looking back. The gunfire began to fade as he lost himself in the crowds and noise of Highway Zero.
After being contacted by Street, Okan Itomi came to Choose To Be Happy where he was hiding out. She then contacted her brother who had finished arranging an apartment for them in the Fortified Residential Zone and provided them with tickets for the Secure Residential Metro Link to get there.
It meant getting to the Skyscraper District, which is where we came in.
Exiting Choose To Be Happy took us back into the rainy, gloomy night of Chuo Street with its constant movement of workers, revellers and drunks, Closest tram stop wasn't far but it meant going through the badly lit and uncertain misty alleys. I tightened my Verskeit, pulled the collar up against the rain and sank my hands into its pockets, feeling the pistol grips within. I watched as Koko sent Kevin up above and ahead, melting into the night, despite the rain the drone might give us a decisive edge.
Concentrating on the risks ahead, we barely spoke as we went through unlit stretches, round blind corners and past unknown gaggles of people, the drumbeat of a million raindrops probably would have drowned most of the words out anyway.
Our slow caution eventually took us into one of Chuo Street's busy main thoroughfares, that's when everything changed. Soon Koko's control-slab began pinging, Kevin had picked up incoming hostiles, contact in a few seconds.
We ducked behind a nearby thriving food cart, drawing strange stares from diners sitting sheltered under a fluttering nylon canopy. Then we realised that with the crowds here, it might turn into a bloodbath.
The proprietor was about to lay into us when we repeatedly fired into the air, then he, his customers and everybody else fled, screaming and panicking. The cart's canopy was upended, tables were toppled and plastic chairs scattered into the rain. In moments this part of the thoroughfare was empty save for the hastily discarded umbrellas.
Still hidden behind the food cart, we waited for what might have been hours, blinking and wiping rainwater out of our eyes, gripping our weapons, taking controlled breaths and occasionally cautiously peeking at the way we knew the cyborgs must be coming.
Hopefully the cyborgs' tactical algorithms wouldn't pick up on the fleeing people and recognise an ambush.
Then they arrived; hulking four-limbed killing machines moving with robotic precision materialised out of the gloom, we broke cover and lit them up with everything we had. Protobase Global killer-cyborgs packed an immense amount of firepower, pressing our advantage was our best chance of destroying them before they turned that firepower on us.
Luckily we knew their design weakness, all critical functionality was managed by cranially implanted processors which were vulnerable to impact trauma; a solid head and down they went, like a sack of outdated and unwanted memory chips.
A short fierce firefight ensued. Soon it was over and only we remained standing with our guns out and soaked by the downpour, the ambush had swung it our way.
No time to congratulate ourselves, still had to get to a tram stop and no idea if more cyborgs were on the way.
Leaving the gunfight site in our wake we eventually merged into normal crowds, Koko kept Kevin flying until we reached a tram stop. Our eyes were peeled as we waited in the bustle of commuters, another tense wait that seemed to last hours except this time no cyborgs appeared as the tram came squealing into the stop.
We boarded, the trip to the Skyscraper District was uninterrupted and we arrived without a hitch, from there it was a short walk to the secured metro link. Koko kept Kevin in the air, scouting ahead for hostiles, nothing was detected so we pushed on.
It was fast approaching midnight when we arrived the elongated cubic concrete frontage of the metro link terminal with it's rows of steel and glass doors. They led into the bustling central lobby, even at this hour flocks of commuters came and went from the Fortified Residential District. Then we watched as Okan Itomi and Steel checked-in, Itomi turned and waved a thank-you as they were led into the terminal proper. That was the last we saw of them, they would be safe for the remainder of their journey, the entire line was called secure for a reason.
Despite time marching on, night wasn't over, we still had one loose end to tie up and some tortoises to find!
The address provided by Prophet Wei led to Shou Shop, small, discrete and some type of Chinese medicine shop, a deliberately old-style plain looking painted sign hung above the shop, designed to give it a traditional appeal. Signs of the Noise Tank attack were apparent, the window's safety glass had shattered into a spider's web of bullets holes which continued across the shop's façade and door.
It was still open for business, pushing the bullet-riddled door, we went inside. Replica wooden shelving lined with exotic packets and bottles filled the shop and behind the counter a middle-aged woman in a Chinese style high-collared tunic and loose cotton trousers looked at us. Just looking we told her, she smiled and nodded, handing us each some leaflets about healthy living and a fortune cookie.
I cracked mine open: 'Serious trouble will bypass you'.
Things were looking up!
An old man emerged from a back door labelled Treatment Rooms and exited the shop, giving the woman a goodbye wave.
Flicking on his thermals, Trigger swept the establishment. There were thermals for several people behind the walls beyond the door, nearly all of them laying down?
The shop looked clean, we browsed long enough to not raise any suspicion and left. We needed a way into the treatment rooms. Thanks to Street, we knew the potential risk that security posed.
Finding some shelter from the endless crashing downpour we waited and watched. Several more old people left one-by-one, using optics we managed to make out that they all seemed to be wearing identical bracelets on their left wrists? It wasn't too long before the middle-aged woman came out, locked the door behind her and went on her way. Shou Shop was closed for the night.
Another thermal sweep from Trigger showed that more people were still inside, mostly lying down, some moving around.
It was time for a hard infiltration and we now had our way in, using his implants Bill disguised himself as the middle-aged woman, in the dark it might be convincing enough....
Next, Koko worked on the door lock but the it eluded her. Roderick offered to try and open it.
"Be my guest," Koko replied.
Roderick grabbed the door and pulled, wrenching the lock out of its housing with the crunching noise of buckling and breaking plastic....
Still, we were in.
Bill led with Trigger following close by. Speed was of the essence, we were heading into the unknown, quicker this went, the better. Ignoring the shopfront, Bill went for the back door, it led into a featureless clinically white corridor brightly lit by strips lights, doors ran down the corridor at regular intervals until they reached a last door at the far end.
Bill checked a door, popping only his head through and it opened into what must have been one of the treatment rooms. It was a small room, equally white as the corridor, along one wall an old person was lying on a aluminium cot, under a surgical sheet. A cannula line was drip-feeding a colourless fluid into their arm from a bag hanging above. When the patient saw the disguised Bill, they waved, assuming he was the woman. Bill waved back and remarked that he was just checking in on them, then he closed the door.
Bill checked another door and it led into an empty office. A couple desk-slabs sat on a couple of vinyl coated tables. The terminals could have led to some useful info but there was no time.
It was probable that the other doors led to more treatment rooms, we went on to the last door.
Another clinically white room, this one larger though with a single door out on the opposite wall.
At the centre was a huge messy deposit of straw and placed on this straw were the two Galapagos tortoises. We had seen images and maybe videos of the creatures before but that didn't prepare us for the sheer size of these strangely limbed, long necked reptiles. They sat there, eating staring at us with their reptilian eyes. Each one had a cannula line coming out, extracting and pumping some fluid from the them through Saengdal Genetics med-slabs and into liquid bags. The med-slabs kits were clearly active, their readouts displayed fluctuating numbers, oscillating waveform graphs and constantly resizing bar charts. It was heavily customised software and the readings were beyond any of us. Is this what they were putting into people?
We carefully checked through the other door and saw a pair of pretty lax Protobase Global private security goons who didn't notice us, they were obviously weren't expecting any trouble after the pushback against Noise Tank. We were also keeping an eye on the corridor to our backs, at one point we saw someone in Protobase Global branded scrubs move from room to room. Definitely someone working here.
With their enhanced strength, it would take both Trigger and Roderick to carry one of these tortoises out, the rest of us had little chance. A GLOWNET search told us they would weight about four hundred kilograms each! We needed a solution. There wasn't much choice in our next move.
Quietly we contacted cyBARtek, there had to be some Noise Tank gangers still alive?
A voice answered at the other end, we told them that we needed to speak to someone in Noise Tank.
"Who is this?" the voice was bitter and questioning.
"Just tell them that Wei needs to contact Trigger now,".
Trigger's media-slab pinged and with a heavily modulated voice filter, Wei told Trigger that he was sending a sky-freighter to pick the tortoises up, we demanded to know what he was going to do with them? Wei assured us that he planned to return them to their natural habitat in the Galapagos Islands. It seemed fair to us. As the conversation concluded we could hear the low bass rumble of a heavy flier already landing outside.
We had to move, time had run out for subtlety.
Bill lured the two unsuspecting Protobase Base guards into the tortoise room where we got the drop on them, outgunned, they immediately surrendered, they were disarmed and stripped of their comms. Any Protobase Global staff were rounded up and also taken prisoner. Then they were all put into one of the treatment rooms, Roderick sealed the door by breaking the handle and lock. It would hold them long enough for us to do what was needed.
Getting the tortoises out was even harder than we expected. They were too big to get through the doorways! Perhaps they had been bought in another way, a way we had missed? It didn't matter, no time to search. It was relatively easy for Roderick to smash the interior walls down, none of them were load bearing. Out of the gleaming corridor and back in the shop, he kicked a shattered window out and one-by-one we could lug the tortoises into the waiting Armerdt sky-freighter. Fortunately, Highway Zero was the one district in Neon City where a sky-freighter could land at street level.
As the freighter's electric turbines spun up, they whipped the falling rain into a furious tornado of stinging droplets, a bulky backlit silhouette rose up against diffused streetlights, climbing higher, carrying the tortoises into the night and vanishing from our shielded eyes.
Next morning and results of the election of the next Overseer of the Women’s Liaison and Consultation Executive came in, Ms Tatsuya Niko had won a landslide victory despite the lewd video or because this is Neon City because of it.
Porter Sladek, dressed in grey Shaguaifu trousers and a black Avorukhclu shirt personally appeared in an impromptu news conference that was on all the GLOWNET's news vines. He announced that all Mabana Multinational records had been restored, including financial records regarding Planetary Global Defence Force pensions. He went on to give a personal assurance that all affected pensioners would receive a generous fiscal compensation for their troubles.
It resulted in a dramatic turnabout in Thetatec's share price and soon it was to skyrocketing to its earlier levels.
One thing you could not criticise Porter Sladek for was a lack of understanding of public relations.
Later that day; reports of a tragedy at Pharoah Park came in. A small unexplained fire, possibly from a small toy had caused a faulty power cell on an amusement ride to catastrophically explode. Among the victims was Ms Tatsuya Niko, winner of a recent local election.
The Neon City Oversight and Ethics Committee decided that running another election would unacceptably costly and timely. The committee's ruling decided it would be fair in reassigning the role to the first runner-up; Aglayata Banova.
It looked like luck had swung it Yennav's sister-in-laws way!
Even later; another news item came along on the GLOWNET news vines that caught my eye: A report stated that a waiter employed by the Union Trans Metropolitan Hotel had been found dead, accidental death by drowning was the verdict, although with unexplained puncture wounds.
He was identified as Rostii Biniva. It seemed as far as Yennav Rybasei was concerned, his leak had been found.
Koko was off the hook....
13th February 2021
It's Saturday night at home on my PC in the living room.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Fortified Residential Zone.
Rainwater crawled sideways across the condensed tram window as it sped its path over Neon City's crowded neon-lit rainy streets, rattling into the Fortified Residential Zone.
Getting late but our night was only beginning.
A large proportion of the district was exclusively reserved and walled off for the city's wealthy citizens, this mostly meant high level execs and their families. Homes were suitability luxurious, ranging from family-sized detached housing to faux Neo-Georgian mansions.
None of the racked and stacked apartments of the Skyscraper District or the boxy, cramped social housing of Hikage Street.
The riffraff that represented the general population of Neon City were also absent. The Fortified Zone was a gated district, access was by appointment only.
One does not simply walk into The Fortified Residential Zone.
Also outside the fortified was the Fuku Bakuchi Casino, prestigious gambling den run by The Golden Rhinos, a Yakuza gang who dominated criminal behaviour in The Fortified Zone with a polycarbonate grip.
Grinding to a halt at the elevated stop; we disembarked the tram within view of the featureless opaque monolith that was the tall steel-reinforced concrete wall ringing the Fortified Zone, silhouetted against the red-black sky.
Trigger's Yioujishi optical implants could see the walls were topped with an array of long-range detection and early warning systems as well as Kaxnan deployable defensive measures. Aliraiyo Patrolman class gun-drones circled the perimeter, sweeping for intruders.
From the tram stop it was a relatively short march meet to our contact, itinerant gambler; Vlegei Kreshoma
Even through the murky heavy downpour, the clamour and gleaming lights of the Fuku Bakuchi Casino were noticeable and it only grew louder and brighter as we closed in.
Someone had gone to great effort to give the casino's architectural exterior a traditional Japanese slant with a replica upward curving gable roofs, walls, windows and faux wooden supporting beams, decorated with authentic looking fixtures and lighting.
Unfortunately, someone else had gone to a equally great effort to ruin the effect by adding a trim of flashing and humming red and yellow neon piping to the beam and roof, as well as adding a flashing, rotating sign.
Where the ancient met the modern - Neon City style!
A churning tidal wave of flash-photographing paparazzi photojournalists, hopeful bloggers and craning gawkers were pressing up against the temporary steel barriers that cordoned off the casino's front. Jostling and shouting; desperate to get a look or a shot of anyone, anyone special or attract their attention
An intermittent flow of black, shining executive class sky-limos were descending out of the soaked sky, battering the unflinching sea of watching faces with jet-wash driven rainwater and disgorging their tuxedo and evening dress wearing passengers on to a red carpet. A high stakes game needed high rolling whales.
Vlegei Kreshoma was already here, his endlessly optimistic face with its receding hairline and cheerful expression sat on a stocky frame dressed in a Ralodet overcoat and expensive Duuner tuxedo with diamond tipped cufflinks. say whatever about the man but Vlegei could turn on the class when he wanted.
He greeted us with characteristic happiness when we approached, there was a twang of excitement in his voice, he was looking forward to this.
As a group we were ushered through the smoky glass and aluminium doors into the casino, soft apricot coloured panel lighting lit a minimalist lobby that belied the elaborate faux-trad exterior, thick typically red carpeting covered the sparse beige walled lobby and led down some gold-trimmed steps to the main hall.
Whatever accoutrements and gaming machines that had packed the high ceilinged main hall before had been swept away to create a large open floor lit with more rows of soft panel lighting and hanging replica Japanese lanterns that glowed red-gold. The hum of high quality air conditioning working hard to keep the room cool was barely discernible.
About twenty circular mah-jong tables with finely upholstered tub-chairs had been set out across the carpeted floor.
Smartly uniformed staff hurried to provide the arriving gamblers with drinks and other requests.
Seemingly lounging around the hall were also a number largely shirtless men with spiked or slicked-back hair, brandishing hatchets: Golden Rhino muscle.
A mixture of hitting the weights at the gym and bio-nylon-fibre Otoruy muscle implants gave them well-toned and extensively tattooed upper bodies; proudly displaying their Yakuza loyalties and affiliation.
With sidelong half-sneering glances they watched the whales take their seats.
Vlegei gave us a toothy grin and took his allotted spot.
Along with all the other bodyguards we were sat to one side of the hall at what could only be described as a glorified children's table at a family get-together. Except children mostly didn't bristle with code-black implants and firearms.
While we were sitting and watching, the last player appeared and went to his table.
Impeccably dressed, tall and lean, he wore the waistcoat and trousers of a well cut silver-grey Gaongha three piece suit with a eggshell white Avorukhclu shirt and silk Kokenzua tie, he cut a confident stride across the room.
Barely visible beneath shirt sleeves were the tell tail tattoos of a Yakuza man: Tsuka Suko also known as Red Tongued Suko and leader of the Golden Rhinos, so-called because he supposedly drank the blood of his enemies.
Games would be played over several rounds of elimination until only four players remained for the final game.
A quiet babbling murmur fuelled by hunched concentration spilled across the hall as the games got underway. Waitresses darted in and out, swapping filled glasses for empties.
Over time, one-by-one players would fling their remaining tiles away, push their chairs back from the table, get up and walk off.
Vlegei was doing well, perhaps mah-jong was his game or it was just going his way tonight. Lucky Suko was also progressing through the rounds.
Hours passed; sixteen tables became four then became one and Vlegei kept winning.
One player dropped out, then another. Now it was down to Vlegei and Suko.
Many of the other gamblers had stuck around, professionally fascinated to the see the outcome.
If, like Vlegei, you were a gambler, Lady Luck could be fickle. She could be a harsh mistress or gentle caressing lover - in which case you gripped on with all your strength. Which is what Vlegei was doing, too busy drinking in his good fortune to see the risk.
"I thought they called you Lucky Suko?" Vlegei remarked innocently as he won another hand off Suko.
Suko's jaw muscles rippled and tightened, veins bulged as he gripped the table's edge with whitening fingers and just about visible beneath the table was a rapidly tapping imitation Italian leather Leoojt shoe.
Tension was rising but the aircon kept it cool.
Carefully, we shifted in our seats and scoped the casino out, there was only one obvious way out - they way we came. The windows, despite their decorative nature were made of strengthened glass and reinforced with steel bars. There was of course also the matter of the twenty-plus Golden Rhino Yakuza thugs.
It things went sour, it would be hard getting out.
Soon enough Vlegei had cleaned out Suko.
The Yakuza boss curtly spoke to a member of staff and called in cash reserves to bankroll another buy in.
"I've won back four times what I lost last year," Vlegei exclaimed happily.
Pursing my lips, I ran my index fingers along the textured grips of my .45ACPs for comfort.
Play continued, Vlegei was unbeatable, every hand went his way and he was one away from cleaning Suko out again when he sat back like a satisfied diner with a full belly.
"There you go," Vlegei conceded the final small pot.
Suko snapped to his feet, grabbing the tiny winnings that Vlegei had magnanimously gifted him, hurling them on the floor with disgust in one swift move. A moment later he took a deep breath and a long look at the way out.
"Great game," Suko said precisely and slowly through a firmly set mouth with a dangerously neutral expression.
"Great for me!" Quipped Vlegei, obliviously raising his eyebrows.
It was time to leave.
With his winnings gathered, we had to drag Vlegei out and make our hurried way to the Fortified Zone.
Vlegei was ecstatic with his win, gamblers lived for these rare moments that validated their losses and downs.
The experience would be burned into his memory as no doubt right now, endorphins were flooding his brain, heightening the euphoria.
He was too carried away by the rush to recognise the danger.
That was our job though. It was the small hours of the night as we strolled through the rain drenched streets, navigating the anonymously lit crowds. Eyes sweeping every shadowy alley for a threat, every unknown corner an ambush and every low rooftop an assassin's perch.
We knew it was coming, just not where and how.
The where turned out to be a park north of Buku Bakuchi, one of the rare green spaces in Neon City and the who were about thirty Golden Rhino Yakuza foot soldiers, charging towards us over the waterlogged grass, waving their hatchets.
They no doubt thought that their numbers would give them the advantage and in most circumstances that would be correct.
Without hesitation, we reached for weapons, Trigger grabbed his gunblade and counter-charged, yelling, closing and splashing through the soaked ground; melee was his forte.
Fighting continued for a few moments, several of the foot soldiers fell to our attacks and others waivered. Sensing a small swing in momentum, we pressed and the other Golden Rhinos crumbled and fled into the night.
We immediately moved on, who knew if they'd have reinforcements? We weren't hanging round to find out.
From there we manged to escort Vlegei to The Fortified Residential Zone's security walls and safety. After he thanked us, he was granted entrance though the layered steel security doors, authorised by the attendant rentaguards.
It had been a long day and felt like a longer night, still a couple hours to sunup. We turned back and headed for the tram stop, setting off back home.
The noisy ride back to Hikage seemed to take an age, muscles ached and I was restless, looking forward to a good lie-in at my one-bed.
Looking forward to something in Neon City was just an invitation for disappointment, never a good idea.
Only a couple of hours of sleep went past before it was cruelly ended by the shrill pinging from my media-slab.
One arm reached out from my futon, tapping and searching for the slab somewhere close. When I found it I flipped it to speaker-mode from muscle-memory and answered.
We'd all received invitations to the Phineous' Phish Phestival, whatever the hell that was and had to be at The Ferry Terminal soon.
My temples pounded and I could hear the beat in my ears, my eyes didn't want to focus no matter how much I rubbed them with the ball-joints of my thumbs. A diagnostic on the optics showed no faults, must've been run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation.
Swinging my legs over the edge of the futon I pushed myself to my feet, still feeling the vague sting of lingering muscle fatigue.
I shambled over to the cluttered kitchenette, somewhere amongst the piled detritus was a half empty can of Huntudi. I used the stale lager to wash down some Woanqie Xingfa stims, it would have to do, no time for any breakfast.
Late morning had arrived and the day's heat was starting to kick in as we rolled into Highway Zero and walked the final stretch to The Ferry Terminal.
Foot traffic seemed busier than usual, an increased volume of people were briskly striding their way to and from The Terminal, dull roaring of the ground level highway intermingled with screaming and whooping children?
The Bay was in sight and reaching out from the east were its open, murky green-blue waters, it lacked the shade provided by the sprawling towers of the city and made the morning sun, still rising in the blue-white sky even more intolerably brighter than usual.
Fish shop owner Phineous had persuaded someone in authority somewhere to allow a stretch of beach along The Bay to be fenced off and reserved. He had arranged some sort of event or publicity stunt.
This stretch hosted rows of village-fair styled covered stalls selling processed junk food and tacky souvenirs, unusual delicacies in Styrofoam cups or white paper napkins were sold from aromatic steamy street vendors, a huge Senonable speaker system had been set up and had been playing some thumping beatwave synth until Phineous grabbed a mic and used it to address the massive and lively crowd that had congregated.
Phineous' slightly distorted voice was blaring over the vibrating loudspeakers, explaining that the Phineous' Phish Phestival was a ritual to invoke the local Water Yokai and pay them respect.
Children in colourful cosplay costumes noisily tore along the beach, playing games launching paper boats into The bay, kicking up sand and making nuisances of themselves.
Even the four uplifted penguins George, Jasper, Casper and Paisano had joined the festivities.
we stumbled upon an industrious beach vendor selling brown bottled Dindanha beer at a slightly inflated price from a brimming icebox.
We drank and waited.
After a while, Phineous got on the mic again and called for a pause and then a prayer to the Water Yokai.
Caught in the moment, most of the people on the beach felt compelled to mumble their intelligible contribution. We on the other hand, felt no such compulsion and slowly shuffled to the edge of the crowd, keeping quiet and making no eye contact.
A minute later in an ephemeral almost otherworldly moment, Water Yokai began emerging from the bay to confer their blessings?
It was of course actors, kitted out in some SCUBA gear, dressed in curiously elaborate costume in a variety of strange animalistic design and rising through the lows waves. Labouredly in the soaked heavy costumes, they began wading ashore.
The moment didn't last, in Neon City it never does.
The air shook with the deafening boom of an explosion, before it had to time to register the gathered crowd swayed and rippled from the shockwave.
About half a kilometre from the shoreline, heavy chunks of something had crashed loudly into The Bay throwing up huge founts of water, the more air resistant debris was burning as it flittered and spiralled downwards. The remains of a sky-limo?
The vaguely box shaped multipolymer armoured passenger ejection module appeared to have survived whatever caused the explosion. The limo's auto-systems would have immediately isolated and shuttered the passenger compartment before detaching it when the catastrophic failure was detected.
Nylon parachutes had opened as small directional thrusters auto-guided the pod in the direction of the beach.
It splashed down about one hundred metres from the beach, sinking for a second then bobbing to the surface like a piece of cork.
There was disquiet on the beach, no one knew what was going on, people didn't how to react, Phineous was calling for calm over the sound system.
We elbowed through the chattering, rubbernecking crowd gathering at the water's edge.
The module's directional thrusters continued to propel it to the shore.
I felt the hairs on my arms and neck rising, a strange metallic sensation filled my mouth, something was ionising the air?
The module beached itself and the top hatch opened, a 4-20 robot bodyguard popped it's head out and rotated it in a full circle, it was identical to Roderick and would be assessing any potential threats. Moments later the robot leapt out the hatch and took up a guard position, The 4-20 was followed by a middle-aged man in an expensive looking neutral grey two piece Shaguaifu suit and a Nightshade Overduster, bald headed with an creased oval shaped face, he was someone we all recognised.
Perhaps Neon City's richest inhabitant; Porter Sladek.
My eye was drawn to a bizarre wide circle of sunlight playing on the undulating water behind Porter.
Without warning, the water erupted into a massive boiling geyser of heat and steam, the 4-20 and Porter were sent desperately running to avoid a scalding downpour.
Milliseconds prior to the eruption, the circle of light's radius had abruptly shrank, exponentially intensifying to became a super-luminous needle of red neon stretching from beyond the sky, briefly flickering on the water's surface before vanishing.
None of us had ever seen one in action but it could only be one thing; an orbital laser strike.
A networked grid of orbital lasers commanded by The Global Planetary Defence Force blanketed the Earth in geosynchronous orbit above, pointed outwards towards potential aggressors. Somehow one had been rotated to face Neon City.
In that moment it all started to make sense, the pieces began to fit together in my mind's eye, dot joined to dot by bolt of lightning.
Who might have the juice and the skills to override a military satellite? Who was gunning for Porter Sladek?
Another circle of light had appeared where Porter had stood by the module a few seconds ago, it was beginning to shrink.
There was no time, no one understood the threat, there was nothing we could - a second lancing flash of red neon licked the beach. The ensuing explosion instantly killed several onlookers, injuring many more and showering countless others in super heated sand.
The 4-20 and Porter continued sprinting over the beach, we pursued.
It was pandemonium, fear and chaos rippled through the crowd like tall synth-grass caught by a breeze, they broke in a stampeding screaming mob.
"Sorry, there're no refunds due to extenuating circumstances," was the last thing Phineous very quickly managed to utter before dropping the mic and running!
Another circle appeared where Porter had just been and another explosive strike followed, shaking the ground. Porter was some how being tracked in very close to real-time, data on his position was being provided to whoever controlled the satellite?
Roderick had detected an anomalous encrypted data-flow being transmitted locally, he interfaced with the other 4-20 and it confirmed the findings.
Through near-instantaneous communication they managed to triangulate the source of the transmission; Porter Sladek.
The 4-20 scanned Porter as it ran with him. It narrowed the transmission down to his Overduster. The 4-20 instructed him to remove it.
Porter was confused but complied and flung it away, a few seconds later the coat was struck by the laser strike and completely vaporised.
For a minute we all stood still, breathing heavily and staring at the ground, waiting for the tell-tale circle of light, none came. It was over.
Porter spoke briefly to his robot bodyguard, he then came to us and thanked us for our assistance.
"Why have you got one of my four-twenty robots?" he asked, looking at Roderick.
We explained that he had fired Roderick as the result of a botched assassination attempt and he was now employed by Bill. We also explained that Ghost Radical was trying to kill him.
"So the sky-taxi that crashed into my high-rise apartment wasn't an accident?" Porter pondered.
We explained that it was likely another attempt on his life, maybe we could help, We knew Ram Rat was eager for payback.
Porter Sladek seemed impressed with our information and offered us a very generous compensation package along with expenses if we could find and stop Ghost Radical, would've been stupid to turn it down.
The Overduster had been our only lead, Porter told us that he'd only had it two days, it had come from Executive Excess but his personal valet-bot had swept it for security breaches when the delivery had arrived. It would have picked up any tracker.
We told Porter that we needed to see his valet-bot.
Back at the half demolished festival site, emergency services were beginning to crowd the location. There had been significant casualties, too many to sweep entirely under the rug, questions would be asked, better to not be here when they were.
His 4-20 had already ordered a new sky-limo and soon it arrived, typically it was a prestigious German executive sky-vehicle, a boxy yet sleek glossy black Tolitag-Bricna B Class with smoked screens.
Inside there was room enough for all of us, we sank into the extremely comfortable adaptive and climate controlled seating before the T-Class silently lifted off and powered upwards
As the crow flies, the journey to the Fortified Residential Zone was short. No doubt as we descended, the piloting system was responding the zone's defence systems with Porter Sladek's personal authorisation code.
He told us we were going to his personal residence.
Through the tinted screens we observed below a tiny, elaborate looking structure that reminded me of a model kit.
The sky-limo continued along its flight plan downwards and the mansion expanded before us. By the time the limo had touched down it had become massive and completely dominated our view.
The sky-limo put down on the mansion's personal landing pad and upon exiting, we saw the mansion was a sprawling example of corporate wealth. Almost nowhere in Neon City had grounds, lawns or gardens, not even fake ones.
Porter's mansion was surrounded by them.
Some sort of gardening robots were plodding round, diligently maintaining the lush grass radiating a shade of green I'd never seen, pruning and tending the vibrantly coloured rows of flowers or whatever it was actual gardeners used to do in the old world.
Statues of the even ancienter world punctuated this small haven of the natural world.
A paved path led from the pad through a vaulted arch to one of the mansion's doors.
The mansion was decorated in cream, elaborate stone features and windows. Deep blue-grey slate covered a roof of gablets, dormers and cupolas.
The opulence continued unabated inside, shining gold leaf trimmed fixtures reflected in the polished stone hallway floor as did the wall mounted lamplights.
We were led into a waiting room where it felt like our boots were sinking into the thick carpets and invited to sit on finely detailed chairs and served drinks on an actual wooden coffee table.
For a few minutes we waited, distracted by the framed pictures and painted vases that lined the walls until Porter took us to the valet-bot in his personal rooms.
In the tastefully decorated massive bedroom there was a walk-in closet that was bigger than my one-bed. Inside was the smoking ruin of Porter's valet-bot.
Koko had a look, the robot must have bypassed its own safety protocols. It had used its ironing attachment to melt its central circuit board, frying all its processors and circuitry.
The core memory bank looked undamaged, I hooked it up to my data-slab and checked the files out.
Few records existed for GLOWNET access or activity but there appeared to be a significant amount of interaction and chatter with Executive Excess, the valet-bot had the privileges to order clothing for the Sladek account .
The last entry was only two days ago, the valet-bot had taken delivery of Porter's Nightshade Overduster, there were no records of it finding anything suspicious in it's security sweeps.
Someone had gotten to the valet-bot, interfered with the sweep, instructed it to self-destruct and left no visible footprint while doing it.
Ghost Radical? Was he that good?
Nothing else could be gained from the ruined robot, time to move on to Executive Excess.
I jacked into the GLOWNET.
The representation of data that constantly updated within the GLOWNET that primarily moved around Neon City and then the world beyond saturated my consciousness, material reality receded into a fuggy background, sensory models expanded with unnatural evenness, enveloping my bio-image, drawing me into the GLOWNET.
Executive Excess had a massive bright neon data-image, a series of interlinked circles and triangles representing their public-facing data-vaults. Those were of no interest, beneath the polygonal façade was a code-wall and beneath that; was what we needed.
I launched a security-hack protocol, something was wrong though, data being fed back to me wasn't adding up? Progress getting through the code-wall was taking much too long, no retail business had security encryption this strong?
As I was reacting, something changed, fast, barely perceptible. A flat, uncoloured, untextured stygian shape slid from behind the data-image, some part of it had extruded almost shapeless flapping extremities and it soundlessly sped at me!
More a lunge than flight and too fast to evade, it made contact with my bio-image, I felt distant, numbed, slowly throbbing pain. Something was happening.
Customised code, black code; by design unrecognisable to the GLOWNET's bounding protocols and and therefore not required to adhere to the GLOWNET's functionality. So called in part because no one who wrote black code would bother giving it an image-mesh and because of what it was typically used for.
More than that, this was black ICE. designed to trace a bio-image back to the user's interface - usually a data-slab and trigger a massive but vacant data spike through that interface.
The energy carried by that surge was inconsequentially small by normal standards but when delivered into the brain chemical pathways, it induced significant pain and risk of trauma, a prolonged spike or repeated spikes had been known to be lethal.
Back in material reality, that's what was happening to me but in the GLOWNET, the distorted perception of time and congested flow of neural data was keeping me from fully experiencing it. When I jacked out, it would be a different matter....
Since I wasn't in a position to deal with the ICE and it was going to attack again, that was going to be now and I expected it would hurt.
It did hurt, a lot.
A migraine of nuclear explosive proportions wracked by body When I jacked out, as the magnetic interface unlocked itself I could feel thin lines of napalm spreading out from my spinal column into my veins. Slumping back in a chair I rubbed my eyes, I could've done with a cold Huntudi.
Instead I made do with a Likyal med-kit, meds kicked in quickly, pushing the pain away.
That ICE must've been the handiwork of Ghost Radical, now I knew what to look for next time.
The soft approach wasn't going to get us what we needed, it would require a hard approach.
Executive Excess was a boutique that served an exclusive clientele and was located in Sunshine City, the part-mall, part residential city-block which was a vast, soaring concrete structure that completely dominated the district and seemingly faded away into the hazy blue-white sky.
Sunshine City was always busy, they couldn't keep the people away.
Specially chosen inane music filled the walkways and escalators, the food courts and the atriums as dense crowds of every kind of person wandered their way throughout the mall. Browsing from shop to shop along the polished amber-coloured vinyl flooring and past wall mounted soft strip lighting, finding ways to justify the pointless consumerism that drove them here.
Executive Excess was entirely glass and silver-trim fronted with warmly-lit floor-to-ceiling shop windows that displayed numerous examples of the boutique's luxury bespoke products.
Our entry was abruptly halted as the automated doors refused to open? Staff were flitting about inside and lights were on? Peering through the windows, beyond the tastefully outfitted and posed mannequins I could see scores of branded designer clothes hanging off every rack or folded and piled up into large cubby holes that entirely filled one wall.
A camera, high angled and watching the door made me suspect that we had been singled out for exclusion!
The faux black leather trench coats that stank of smoke and grease with barely concealed armoured plates that we tended to favour along with our Harbief workman's' boots meant pretty much meant that we'd never shop there and they were keeping us out.
Bill seemed taken aback and briskly strode off only to come back a few minutes later in a smart Duuner ash-grey two-piece with a pair black Peidi Oxfords. His hair combed but slightly tousled hair.
As Bill walked up, the doors swished open, without breaking stride he loped in and we followed.
As expected a well dressed sales assistant floated up to Bill, he was slim with surgically sculpted delicate features and well sculpted peroxide hair, he introduced himself as Mister Sebastian and asked "How can I help?".
Bill went into a overlong entirely bogus explanation about the promotion he'd received at his job and how he needed a new overcoat to display his new status.
While Mister Sebastian was distracted we quietly began looking round.
Quickly we found a workstation, it wasn't locked and I began combing the records. Soon we found the Sladek account and according to the records, his account was managed by a Mister Julian.
I let Bill know over comms that we needed to find Mister Julian.
Bill name dropped Porter Sladek and explained that Porter had recommended Mister Julian. Mister Sebastian called over Mister Robbins and sent him to find Mister Julian - who seemed to be working in the stockroom.
Mister Robbins came quickly running back, arms flapping and obviously in a panic.
Mister Julian was sprawled across the stockroom floor, contorted into an unnatural deathly pose, empty eyes staring at some corner, mouth hanging slack and fingers clenched.
Wisps of thin grey-white smoke slowly curling up from his ears, his once shiny plastic coated Minomasa smart headphones scorched black.
Mister Julian must have been responsible for putting the tracker in Porter's overcoat, now he had paid the price of Ghost Radical's betrayal.
Neon City was a down and dirty kind of town, where the inhabitants got to see the ugly side of The City of Electric Dreams on a routine basis but Mister Sebastian and Mister Robbins spent most of their lives working in the rarefied executive attire industry and lived in Sunshine City. This had left them unsettled, we told them to go and call the emergency services.
While they were preoccupied, I took Mister Julian's headphones and searched through his pockets and found his ID, I scanned it's information and returned it.
Then I opened the phones and looked inside, most of the circuitry had been fried, but it's tiny firmware chip was still intact. I networked the chip with my data-slab and copied it's data.
I pinged all of that data to Ram Rat, he had a better handle on Ghost Radical than anyone else we knew.
After the remains of Mister Julian were carted off the remaining staff settled back to some sense of normality.
Bill took the opportunity to order a bespoke overcoat, it would come loaded with urban armour, reactive defences, bio-monitors, the works.
Mister Sebastian totted up the cost. "Thirteen million bits," he said looking at Bill with a smile.
It was an inordinate amount of money for us!
Without blinking, Bill told him to put it on his expenses tab with Porter Sladek.
In the meanwhile, Ram Rat had gotten back.
The firmware on the headphones had be re-flashed with new code, it had triggered the power spike that killed Mister Julian. It was Ghost Radical's work, Ram Rat was sure of it.
Ram Rat had found very little on Mister Julian, there was only one event that looked out of place. Two days ago someone had deposited half-a-million bits into his account.
Then, as we watched, the money started being withdrawn! Vanishing bit-by-bit, it went out in smaller packets, too small to be picked up by regulators and soon all five hundred thousand had been syphoned off.
They weren't too small for Ram Rat to trace though! All the transfers led to the same account - a credit card account in the name of John Smith and situated at the Rokkaku Bank on Hikage Street. .
Ghost Radical had been busy tying up loose ends; no witnesses and now, no money.
We'd gotten lucky, he'd been too slow.
It looked like we'd found Ghost Radical's slush fund but not his address.
If we wanted more info, it would require hacking into the bank's secure severs and that would be hard for either Ram Rat or I to do, risky too, as it could traced back to us.
So instead, Ram Rat would sit on the bank and watch.
If Ghost Radical moved any of the money, Ram Rat would be on it.
Once Bill had finalised his order, we left. It would take a little while to get his coat.
Soon after leaving Sunshine City, Koko was pinged a message from Yennav Rybasei, her Russian mob contact.
Yennav wanted us to meet him at an establishment in Highway Zero, Yennav was at Empty Is Run About Freely. He explained it was a colonic-irrigation clinic and he was currently undergoing a course of treatment.
Yennav's treatment was still under way when we arrived at Empty Is Run About Freely, from his padded table he looked up at us, inviting us to join him and offered to pay.
Politely we refused, unfazed Yennav chatted on, calling us his "Favourite deniable droog assets,".
He told us that his men had picked up a lead on Nozi Kinko From Irma's Funeral Home on Ninety Ninth Street and wanted us to investigate.
Nozi Kinko was a former Protobase Global employee and perhaps still worked for them off the books. He had crossed swords with Yennav and the two had history, it was likely that Nozi would move on Yennav's organisation again sooner or later. Yennav wanted us to investigate Nozi before this happened.
It was a short trip over to the bustling, noisy and colourful avenues of Ninety Ninth; Neon City's entertainment and hospitality centre.
Neon City's populace was always on the look out for a good time and Ninety Ninth's lure was irresistible, particularly as the work day was drawing to a close - for those who had work anyway. It was easy to find a safe spot to case the funeral home out unseen.
Amongst Ninety Ninth's constant churn of activity was Irma's Funeral Home, sitting in a row of old-style brick buildings from Neon City's earlier years, it was small and anonymous looking, low budget operation with a discrete front. Thick lacy white curtains blocked off the front windows and hid what might lie beyond and a single door led in.
Right next door was Irma's Implants, another low budget enterprise - except that is was some sort of cyber-clinic instead, advertising its low budget implants as reconditioned and refurbished augmentations.
It couldn't be a coincidence that these two businesses were side-by-side.
As we observed, detaching itself from the congested sky-lanes above came some sort of sky-flier.
Sleek and dart-like, the flier smoothly executed a near-silent vertical descent. Low-profile yet possessed of strangely angular contours, it was coloured a dark and dull neutral grey, no navigational or cockpit lights were showing and it sort of blended into Neon City's gleaming but nondescript background with its measured movements.
It was just about possible to make out weapons panels and a recessed turret on the exterior.
Military-spec stealth vehicles were understandably a rare occurrence in Neon City and most inhabitants who saw one would think the flier was just some sort of weird vehicle funded by corporate eccentricity but we understood what we were looking at.
It was a Qiuonriji night-flier, a Yexingzhe SFS-70 model, its contouring was a multipurpose durable polymer armour designed to deflect direct attacks and also diffuse all kinds of radar wave. it was currently in running-black mode to enhance stealth.
A serious piece of hardware, stealthy, armoured and packing a heavy punch. It was also shielded against electromagnetic pulses and any kind of hacking.
The Yexingzhe dropped behind some buildings and out of sight.
A few seconds later we saw four burley individuals exiting Irma's Implants. They were in street clothes but to our eye it was clear that they were mercenary contractors, black-baggers, assassin's or some other kind of corporate muscle or assets.
It wasn't the penchant for bland, practical Evoda or Tremeita clothing that gave them away nor the crew cuts and surely expressions, the way they marched as a group or the implanted synthetic muscles.
It was the highly polished Nochreb black army boots that did it.
These fat-necks would have started their careers in a boot camp somewhere, most-likely East Europe and polishing their boots would have been endlessly drummed into them. Now they probably polished their boots each morning without questioning it.
The four of them strode purposely until they ducked into an alleyway they had encountered and then the Yaxingzhe lifted off a minute later, effortlessly eating the sky and shrinking away as it did so.
Before we had the opportunity to discuss our next action, our media-slabs pinged; it was Binary Johnny.
"Someone needs to get out of Neon City immediately," explained Johnny.
He wanted us to do the babysitting and now.
Johnny went on to tell us that the package was a former operator of some kind or other, had worked in covert operations or hard-infiltration.
He gave us the address where she was currently holed up in Kibogaoka Hill.
We had to drop the job at Ninety Ninth and get moving.
By the time we got to Kibogaoka Hill, night had rolled around, and so had the unabated rain. The erratic badly constructed narrow roads were beginning to flood.
Kibogaoka's shanty town could be a curious place at night, it lacked any conventional streetlighting and was only intermittently lit, relying on the arrays and strings of eclectic lamps, LEDs and spotlights gathered by its population.
As we pushed up the hill towards Johnny's address, through the downpour Koko had managed to spot the Yaxingzhe night-flier hovering above and slowly moving over the streets, grey against black, barely visible.
A stealth-flier here, when we were looking for a vet of covert ops, no way was it coincidence? How did this link to Irma and Nozi?
The address took us along a narrowing, unlit and twisting back alley of corrugated sheeting, plywood panels and tarps.
It led to a PVC door designed to look like stained oak, small cracks ran along the vinyl surface, its lustrousness long faded,
We knocked and she answered, average height but muscular with an almost gaunt face and glinting mirrored eye-implants surrounded by crows feet. Once we explained who had sent us, she gave us entry, before shutting the door eyes scanned the inky cloud-filled skies above for a moment.
The Operator told us that several of her former colleagues had vanished in the last forty-eight hours and suspected she was next. She had no idea why this was happening?
She was planning to get out of Neon City by train from The International Rail Link Hub in The Skyscraper District but doubted she could get there alive.
The longer she stayed here, the greater the risk of discovery, we needed a plan and we needed quick.
We came up with and idea, fairly basic but hopefully effective.
As a group we all went out into the rain and darkened alleyways, found a main thoroughfare and attempted to mingle in with the milling crowds.
We didn't get far before the Yaxingzhe spotted us and came banking round in the rainy sky above us. It was something we were counting on it, so we picked up the pace.
What we didn't anticipate was their willingness to open fire on a crowded streets. Staccato machine-gun fire mixed with screaming as pedestrians were murderously cut down.
We sprinted down the street until we reached a junction, then we split up into two groups.
Bill, Koko and I went one way and Trigger, Roderick and The Operative went another; or so it seemed.
Prior to leaving the hiding place, Bill and The Operative switched clothes!
Bill then activated his Mannikten implant, using the cluster of nanites that permanently inhabited his head to reshape his features to match hers. Of course Bill couldn't match the height and build and the effect wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny, but at a distance, at night and in the rain it might work.
It did work! The Yaxingzhe swept round to follow the other group with the disguised Bill. We kept on running for the tram stop, there was always the chance the ruse might be discovered. Hopefully Bill and Trigger could keep them occupied for long enough.
Utterly drenched and out of breath, we raced up the steps to the elevated tram stop. A few agonising minutes until the next tram; we watched the night sky, standing amongst the commuters under the rain-lashed drumming shelter, gulping down air and waiting.
During this time, Bill and Trigger started shouting at us over comms, something about a cockpit and needing drones? Koko pulled out her control-slab and activated Felix and Sylvester, The Operative and I watched as she punched some commands into the slab and the two gun drones flew off humming.
Koko was watching the screen on her slab and told us that they were fighting aboard the flier as our ride rolled in.
We rode it all they way to The Skyscraper District without incident. Koko was on her slab most of they way, continually directing her drones. When we were about halfway there she powered off the slab, telling us it had been dealt with?
Meanwhile I ran a sweep of The operative, there were no tracers or bugs that I could find but I had no idea if there was military spec kit that could avoid my scans?
From the tram stop it was a short transfer to the rail hub.
The massive off-white concrete domed building sported a curved tinted glass and steel-meshed roof with high semi-circular windows. It housed a major terminus as part of the international rail network.
Passing through aluminium and glass automated doors took us into a voluminous vaulted and high-ceilinged room, creating a feeling of airy open space. Its acoustics somehow softened the clamouring racket of Neon City to a tolerable background babble.
During the day sunlight would filter down through tinted glass panels, giving the hub a deceptively hazy and welcoming warmth, at night the dome would be dominated by thick meandering rivulets of water.
Pigeons fluttered amongst the exposed high beams, occasionally swooping down to raid for scraps.
A long strip of small shops, concession booths and eateries lined the interior walls of the central hall, attracting a captive audience of waiting passengers looking for food or diversions.
Information on all arrivals and departures were displayed on a massive row of screens and occasionally a synthesised, automated voice would spout an announcement over the speaker system.
After finding the platform of The Operative's train we walked across the polished cream coloured stone floor and through the milling people to get departures.
Soon The Operative was through the security gate and boarded the heavily protected, border-crossing Kiogo Engineering train, that was the last we saw of her.
Then Koko and I went back to Kibogaoka Hill to learn what had happened with the others.
The Yaxingzhe had chased them as we hoped. Bill, Trigger and Roderick returned fire but the flier wasn't even scratched by small arms fire and Roderick's explosive fletchette rounds were having minimal effect, being designed primarily for use against soft targets.
Trigger was cursing; if only he get at it with his sword!
Roderick turned to him and said that he could throw Trigger on to the flier!
Trigger was never one to waste time worrying about the shortcomings of a plan, so he agreed.
Trigger shouted at everyone else to get close to the buildings as possible, forcing the Yaxingzhe to get a lower angle.
In turn the flier was firing almost indiscriminately, its raking machine-gun fire tearing apart the fragile makeshift shanties on the hill, blowing them apart and collapsing the flimsy buildings.
Adjusting for heading, wind resistance and calculating distance, Roderick thrust his arms upwards with exactly the required force.
Trigger felt his guts tighten and slosh as he accelerated sickeningly towards the flier, it filled his view as he thumped down and almost slid off the smooth grey bodywork.
Regaining his balance on the swaying flier, Trigger looked around. The turret, no longer recessed was rotating, trying to acquire a lock on him and next to it was a disc, flush with the flier's shell; an access hatch.
Dismissing the threat of the turret, Trigger went for the hatch, grunting with effort he managed to prise it open with his gunblade, then he dropped into a dim blue tinted cockpit.
There were four soldiers, Trigger charged.
In the cramped space, Trigger was at an advantage but there were four of them and they wore top tier, costly Verskeit Haanut fully enclosed smart combat armour, the kind given to expensively trained expert soldiers to keep them alive. They were also equipped with military grade firearms.
Trigger's was on the back foot until Felix and Sylvester buzzed through the open hatch, deftly controlled by Koko.
Even with the two gun drones, it wasn't going Trigger's way, back aboard the Tram, Koko took a risk and targeted the Yaxingzhe's pilot.
Despite the raging fight going on, the pilot hadn't put the flier on to auto-controls, while concentrating on the dashboard he was caught totally unaware by Koko's attack.
After the pilot went down, the Yaxingzhe lurched sharply to one side, rotating by nearly forty-five degrees, everyone was caught off balance.
One of the soldiers staggeringly lurched for the dashboard to try and regain control but Trigger pounced at him and a rolling tussle in the unsteady cockpit ensued.
Seconds later the flier stacked into the ground, aquaplaning along the waterlogged street, sliding through the scattering crowds before coming to a crashing halt halfway through the plastic coated plywood wall of a shanty home.
No one inside the flier would be getting to their feet for a while, Bill and Rodrick ran to the downed flier and scrambled in through the hatch, they managed to take the couple of surviving soldiers prisoner.
Crowds were beginning to gather to rubberneck, soon Neon City's first responders arrived. Bill and Trigger handed over the bodies of the two dead soldiers.
Bill explained that there had been no one else aboard, he was a crisis-evaluator for Neon City's Municipal Safety Regulatory Body and this gave him authority to take ownership of crash and it's ensuing investigation. The emergency services were relieved of their obligation explained Bill.
I don't know how much of it was utter crap, but it convinced the emergency services who left the flier with Bill.
It was about this time that Koko and I returned, after some discussion, we decided what to do with the flier.
It was time to call in a couple of small favours
We pinged a call to Lady Zero and asked her to come and pick the flier up, she was the only person we knew with the rig to carry it. Then we called Alex Chinsko and asked if we could put the flier into one of his lockups so he could fix it; both agreed.
In the time it took Lady Zero to arrive, there was an opportunity to question the soldiers.
Bill got them to talk easily enough.
They were working for Nozi Kinko, he had provided them a list of targets, all ex-military with extensive top quality military implants. The soldiers had been instructed to kill the targets and take them to Irma's Funeral Home. The soldiers weren't sure what happened to the targets next, they heard rumours that the implants would be extracted from the corpses to be put into someone else in the basement.
They didn't know anything else so we cut them loose and sent the packing.
Meanwhile I had been going through the disarrayed clutter that filled the cockpit as a consequence of the battle and the crash: I found a matte black Rekhang Dohoeunqgu 9mm, a short barrelled room clearing submachinegun and basically a knock off of the more pricey Russian Konseye K4 that I decided to hang on to.
Once Lady Zero had carted the flier off, it was time to get back to Irma's Funeral Home, somehow all of this was linked.
Midnight was fast approaching and neither the rain nor the noisy revellers on Ninety Ninth had let up. The funeral home and the clinic were spots of muted darkness that interrupted the ribbon of colourful neon shop signs and flashing lights that stretched out of sight in both directions.
Trigger swept the clinic with his thermals, there was only one heat signature. We knew that implants were being brought here and they were killing people for those implants, so we decided to go in.
A buzzer rang as we pushed the door open, it led into a dingy looking reception with a plain white counter, behind it a door went elsewhere. Plastic seating was located close to the counter and walls were adorned with posters and ads for various cybernetic applications or gene enhancing and resequencing treatments. A small screen screwed high-up on a wall was playing a looping promo video for Xideti branded implants.
Behind the counter was a stocky man in his early thirties with unkept hair and an unruly beard, shabbily dressed in a cheap white button-down shirt and leaning on the counter, he was engrossed with his media-slab.
Which meant he didn't see it coming when we pulled handguns on him, he immediately surrendered. Questioning him, he denied all knowledge of the basement's existence.
Through the door behind the counter were some gloomy corridors and a couple of scruffy unhygienic looking treatment rooms used to apply implants. Searching on; we found a couple of unremarkable doors, behind the first were stairs going down.
They were old stairs, constructed when wood was still considered an abundant building material and creaked slightly underfoot as we made of our descent.
The clinic's cold whitish lighting seemed to fade into darkness as we continued down. Inky blackness fled before the LED glare of our flashlights.
The stairs became a corridor and the corridor became a room.
Fluorescents ticked and flickered into life after we had hit the switch next to the way in. The walls were exposed brickwork and the floor and ceiling were plain concrete.
The centre of the room was dominated by a large metal table. Strapped to it was a burly unconscious man, heavily built and clearly bristling with implants. Lines led from the body to a med console, its screen displayed life signs along with other puzzling metrics.
Deciding not to tamper with whatever was going on, we returned to the shop.
Pushing our prisoner for more info, he admitted that it had something to do with Mister Honda, prompting him for more, he gave us a description of Mister Honda, it matched the profile of Nozi Kinko.
Nozi was illicitly acquiring cybernetic implants and adding them on the man in the basement, obviously to strengthen the man but to what end?
There was the one remaining door, the other unremarkable door to check out, from its position, it was likely to lead into the funeral home. Indistinct voices were coming from the other side of the that door's thin material as we approached, so we listened.
The voices of three people could be heard, a woman and two men: there was talk about implants for the subject, the other team going missing and no one being unable to find the last person on the list, a woman.
After a couple of minutes, the conversation ended.
Triggers thermals showed a woman alone on the other side and a little way off, we bustled through.
The funeral home's reception area was decorated in browns and greys and filled with replica wooden furniture, a customer service desk in one corner was empty, quickly we moved into the other parts of the property
The woman, Irma we presumed, was located in a backroom mortuary, she was disrobing a corpse, using a thick-tipped black marker to circle implants when we burst in.
She was short, middle-aged and dressed plainly if neatly in a dark grey business suit. Hesitation struck her for a moment before she quickly reached for an alarm button. Not quick enough though, a hit with a stun baton put her down.
When Irma came to her senses, she found herself tied up, with the four of us staring at her.
Bill got to work and managed to pull some info out of her.
She admitted to working for Mister Honda buts he didn't know his plans and had no contact details for him, he would come here of his volition once a week to review progress on the subject. Mister Honda was next due at the funeral home in five days.
Maybe we now had the advantage on Nozi Kinko, maybe we could get the drop on him. Five days were all we had to wait.
There were there two prisoners though, no doubt they would contact Nozi at the first opportunity if we let them go and give us away. The two businesses also needed to be operated normally to allay suspicions, we couldn't do this alone.
Koko pinged a call to Yennav and explained everything, he seemed pleased with the turn of events, he told us that he would have some guys run the business for five days until Nozi Kinko returned.
Then we'd all be ready for 'Mister Honda'.
6th February 2021
It's a Saturday, I'm in the living and logged on to Meet on my PC.
This means it's time for the next session of Matakishi's Wired Neon City's campaign.
Location: Neon City.
A week had passed since our last job, I'd spent the free time in a gluttonously indulgent blend of narcotics, intoxicants, euphoriants, depressants and stimulants.
Why not? The City of Electric Dreams didn't have anything much better to do.
During daylight the apartment was relatively cool and blinds kept the harshest effects of the sun out but even so, hazy and filtered bright sunlight filled the one-bed.
Daytime found me slumped on my futon, sprawled out while drifting in and out of sleep. Hours were spent watching dust motes swirl in the light crawling across the walls, listening to the neighbours alternately playing music that rhythmically thumped through the wall and screaming and shouting at each other.
Night brought rain, constant, heavy and droning. Outside the window, a million city-lights gleamed in the nocturnal precipitation. Hitting the streets with the others, we made a nightly ritual of our sodden journeys, rolling from bar to drunken bar, hours of darkness vanishing into a foggy blurred black-hole of excess.
Inevitably, the call for work came and I rolled off the futon to reach for my media-slab, head full of broken rattling glass, mouthful of sawdust.
Martha Woldt, our last client had reached out and pinged us?
She had ambitions that we'd never have guessed, baking ambitions to be precise.
Martha was a finalist in the annual Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition. One of the many inane reality shows that bombarded Neon City viewers, albeit the most popular.
It's format was simple, contestants competed in weekly baking challenges and every week one baker would be eliminated until only five contestants remained, then the show would hold a week long grand final to determine the overall winner.
Winning a season offered myriad lucrative opportunities, including but not limited to product deals, licensing, authorship deals, sponsorships and even video show hosting roles.
Stakes were high and competition was stiff to say the least, eliminations came thick and fast, often not in the way expected!
Last year's competition had resulted in fourteen murders.
How could we help?
Martha explained that she had ordered ingredients for the first challenge; a birthday cake over the GLOWNET several times but the delivery drones kept getting shot down by sniper fire!
Martha wanted us to deliver ingredients to her at Rokkaku Dai Heights
A simple task except for the sniper: It meant that one of the other competitors was making an off-the-camera play at winning.
Finding basic information on the vid show was easy.
The show had three judges:
Chiara Tameron: owner of Cheeze Dreemz, maker of exotic cheese.
Armand Philipe: owner of Lorenzo's Cuisine Français, a well known establishment in Shibuya Terminal.
Hideki Naganuma; famous composer.
As well as Martha, there were four other contestants:
Rahool Mandal; a scientific researcher, early favourite to win.
Jeffery Cake; owner of the Copper Kettle café in Dogenzaka Hill.
Annabel Twistom; winner of last year's Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition.
Sushi-Go Matto; robotic chef who ran a bakery stall at Kibogaoka Hill.
In theory, any of them could've been fixing the competition.
Dogenzaka Hill was busy and hot, heated even further by the endless churn of humanity crowding the streets, looking for an escape by indulging in mindless consumerism.
Working our way through the ever changing maze of bodies and under the midday sun, we made our way to a couple of colourful street-marts and picked up what Martha needed, then headed over on the tram.
As the packed tram came into Rokkaku Dai Heights, we expected that the delivery would be tricky and we weren't disappointed.
Brakes protested with a skull-piercing shriek, dragging the tram to a halt at the tram stop.
If you knew what to look for, you could spot them, loitering on the low platform; half a dozen stern-faced, shaven-headed foot soldiers for hire, bulky nylon Tremeita jackets or suspiciously voluminous faux-leather Gosiyi trench coats concealing their weapons of choice.
As commuters poured out and on to the stop's sheltered platform, they were aggressively stopped and searched by the foot soldiers. Someone had been thinking ahead.
We lingered back for as much as we could but eventually we had to disembark. They turned to us and tried pushing us about but it didn't go as they expected.
The firefight was short and one-sided, by the time it was over the platform had emptied of screaming, fleeing passengers but was littered with dead or unconscious guns-for-hire.
Moving into Rokkaku Dai Heights was a risk, Martha's address took us into a dense cluster of the district's tall alabaster-white apartment blocks.
Worse still was the shanty town that had built across those rooftops, the erratic and unpredictable buildings that filled provided any number of good vantage points for an opportunistic sniper.
Rokkaku Dai Height's angular skyline was profiled against the stark over-bright blue-white sky as we squinted at it, hoping to find evidence of a sniper. There was something maybe, we had spotted a twinkle of reflected sunlight, perhaps caught by a rifle scope? Hard to be sure.
Koko sent Felix up to investigate while we watched on the control-slab. His journey was cut short as he abruptly jolted to one side, followed a fraction of a second by a short thundercrack, a supersonic boom.
A high powered round had struck the drone. For a couple of seconds Felix spiralled in a uncontrollable freefall, destroyed in a shower of spinning debris after hitting the ground.
There wasn't the luxury of delaying under cover of the platform shelter, we had to move. So we did, quickly and hugging the towers blocks, hoping to minimalize exposure.
Either it worked, or the sniper was looking watching for aerial targets. Irrespective, we made it to Martha's block.
The stairwell up to her apartment stank, but the cool concrete kept the interminable temperature at bay as we climbed the dirty, worn steps
As we turned the final corner to Martha's home we were caught on the back foot.
Six more hired thugs had been watching her apartment and waiting. Their eyes met with ours. A moment passed, imperceptibly brief where we all looked at each other motionlessly.
Then the moment was over; amongst the yelling and shouting, augmentations were triggered, people dove for cover and hands grasped for weapons.
The loud, enclosed firefight was again short and one sided. It left six more unmoving crumpled figures in the corridor.
We were taking stock of the situation when movement caught our attention.
Popping out from another corner came a smallish, short bipedal robot. An Otocha Botcaster class vid-corder robot from Shiaosha Robotics.
It introduced its designation as D4-VID.
On his head was mounted the distinctive Kuaijing telescopic lens used for all visual recordings. The Otocha's were more than just fully autonomous video recording robots. D4-VID contained the ability, software and processing power to fully edit footage in virtual real-time. He was able to create news reports and upload them to news streams in minutes.
His head turned to stare at each of us one at a time with mechanical preciseness, if robots could express excitement, D4-VID was doing it. He knew he's stumbled on a potential story.
Martha got to baking once we handed over the ingredients. We were at a loose end until the next challenge.
A couple of blocks away we found ourselves sitting in the front space of a local dive bar, shaded by large threadbare cloth umbrellas, imbuing a liquid lunch of Etiptka beer from frosted glasses.
D4-VID had followed, he knew he had a story here.
News had reached us that Rahool had taken an early lead in the first round's scoring.
It was likely that Martha would remain a target for whoever was trying to fix the competition.
There was some time until the next challenge, an opportunity for us to look into matters.
I jacked into the GLOWNET.
In the GLOWNET, arteries of data pumped through the news-feeds and chat-streams, endlessly changing twenty-four hour data trends. I flowed from vault to vault, hunting for information.
Annabel Twistom was last year's winner, it was unusual for anyone, let alone a previous winner to enter the competition a second time.
Public records showed that Annabel was married to Benedict Twistom, he was Vice Chairman of the Ethics Committee at Protobase Global, a fulfilling role no doubt.
Strictly speaking Annabel lived in the Fortified Residential District along with all the high level exec families.
She maintained a second residence in Rokkaku Dai Heights which made her eligible for entry into the competition.
Annabel took it very seriously and obviously had a lot invested in it personally. We watched a number of her vid-interviews. A forgone conclusion she thought and seemed very confident that she would win. It revealed a nasty little streak of entitlement and superiority in her.
Of course maybe she expected to win because behind the scenes, it was Protobase Global stacking the deck?
It was not an entirely convincing argument. Underhand and exploitive as Protobase Global were, making a move into the world of bakery didn't seem like the kind of thing the makers of killer zombie cyborgs would do?
Moving on to Rahool we saw he was an early favourite with the bookies, it was possible that someone was trying to push him as the winner.
He was the target of our next search.
There were files on his past, employment records, MyFaceSpace history and the rest. It all looked uniformly regular.
Which meant it was fake, had to be.
A person's GLOWNET presence might overall leave normal footprints, but dig deep, look closely at individual footprints and something, somewhere will be always be off-kilter or swing to left-field, something hidden? Something unusual?
It wasn't weird, it was normal, that was people.
When it's all normal - it's weird.
When I ran a search with heavily specified parameters on Rahool Mandal's footprints, they all looked very normal.
Unsatisfied, I went down through layers of foundational code for the data and until I reached the metal. I could see inconsistencies, irregular timestamps and inexplicable code alterations.
Stories about this sort of thing were rife on the GLOWNET, the stuff of legen but the theory was sound enough.
Someone had seeded the GLOWNET with a algorithmic acorn.
A piece of coding that grew and spread and branched off, generating and falsifying all the requisite data and information required to create a person, at least a person that might exist digitally.
The algorithm's creative ability had its limits though, limits beyond which the nature of the falsified information could be unravelled.
Up until two weeks ago Rahool had been less than a ghost, not even a figment of imagination. His existence was the product of the union between a programmer and a mathematician somewhere.
All the data created by the acorn had by necessity contained shared lines of code, if only a few but it was enough. Step-by-step it could all be led back to where it had all started. The search had uncovered who was responsible the seeding: The Soy Green Corporation.
One of Neon City's biggest manufacturers of processed foods - and they were potentially involved in rigging a baking competition? Too much of a coincidence.
Staying in the GLOWNET, I travelled digital avenues of data, followed the right-angled, swerving pulsating lines of radiance until they led me to Soy Green's colourful and friendly public-facing data-image. Behind this glowing façade was their vault.
Their security measures were easily bypassed by the protocols on my slab, then I was in.
It was a pretty standard setup for a corporation. Various partitions of memory stored information on hiring, security, payroll, financial performance, fiscal projections and so on. I put Rahool's name through a search protocol and got hits from publicity and manufacturing.
The publicity partition had the proofs and mock-ups on a range of bakery products that had been branded with Rahool's name and image as winner of the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off.
Records in the manufacturing partition showed that manufacturing time had already been allotted in Soy Green factories to producing the Rahool bakery product line.
Soy Green were making the cakes before the competition was even over.
So we now understood who had skin in the game and were rigging the competition but how, was another matter.
It was time to turn our attention in the judges.
Chiara Tameron was the owner of Cheez Dreemz, an independent business that produced and sold exotic types of cheese throughout Neon City's high streets.
Cheeze Dreemz GLOWNET data-image was a translucent orange triangular prism filled with modules of customer facing data, a constant movement of consumer bio-images came and went from the image.
What we needed would be stored in a vault deeper within the data-images memory modules.
Hacking through their pretty standard defences proved no problem and soon I was sifting through their records. Latest Financial report showed on their balance sheet that Cheeze Dreemz had received an influx of sixteen million bits in operating capital two weeks ago. No source for this influx was shown on the records.
I would need to get into their banks accounts to begin getting more info on this. That would be a serious hack that would take time.
For now, what we had would have to be enough to work with.
While I was in the GLOWNET, Trigger had been pinged on his media-slab with a message. A package from Prophet Wei had been dropped off at his apartment.
Next we turned to Armand Phillipe; he was a well known celebrity chef in Neon City and the owner of Lorenzo's Cuisine Français, originally an Italian establishment that he had bought from the titular Lorenzo.
Hacking Lorenzo's systems were easier than Cheez Dreemz, they had a smaller GLOWNET presence and lower security. Their data-vault was equally small, barely containing any information other than menus, inventory etc.
There was one block of data that was out of place, a relatively small video file.
Opening it revealed that it was slightly grainy and washed out short clip of footage recorded from internal security cameras, it was the only piece of security footage in the vault.
Watching through the footage, nothing happened for a few seconds, then it showed an argument between two men, it quickly escalated and one attacked the other, resulting in his murder. Even though the footage low quality, it was still very clear.
Putting both faces through facial recognition showed the attacker was Armand Phillipe and the victim, Lorenzo.
I guess Armand's take over of Lorenzo's had been more hostile than expected.
There was no way that Armand would simply leave evidence like this sitting on the server, particularly since there was no other footage.
Someone else must have put it there after editing it from the original, someone had been sitting on this for a while. maybe I could find proof of that?
Deep in the memory partition were the data movement logs, they showed that the video clip simply appeared on the system two weeks ago, no user was logged as dropping it in, nor was a source location listed. A dead end?
Someone had been altering the logs, someone who knew what they were doing. Another hacker.
The only reason to send the video to Armand was to blackmail him.
Two of the judges had been gotten at, one was left to investigate.
Hideki Naganuma was the last judge. Going back into the GLOWNET, I journeyed the ever-variating data-vistas, navigating the obfuscating, randomized constructs and hazards, looking for data on Hideki.
A search with directed protocols instructed to focus on unusual events and inconsistent behaviour surrounding Hideki for the past four weeks got zero hits, nothing was flagged up as unexplainable or erratic.
Hideki Naganuma seemed to be exactly what he seemed to be; a popular and well known composer who lived in Neon City.
Without more time, investigating Hideki would also have to wait.
We took the short trip to Trigger's cramped apartment and D4-VID stuck with us.
Unsurprisingly, his package contained a couple of jars of White Lotus liniment; also an address that led to Kibogaoka Hill.
Guessing Prophet Wei's angle was always hard, he floated in a grey-space somewhere between gang-leading pusher and cryptic anarchist.
Why had he given us this address? What was his deal?
For now we were content to let Wie pull the strings.
Kibogaoka Hill was home to Neon City's poorest people and biggest shanty town; the crowded makeshift settlement that dominated the hill was constructed so densely that it was figuratively built on top of itself.
Most homes were erratically sized cuboids put together from whatever materials were to hand.
Wei's address led us to something that looked altogether different.
Fenced off in a large open yard and away from the rest of the shanty town was a single isolated building. Larger by far than anything else close by, it had the mosaic look of a shanty with metal sheets, plastic panels, wooden planking and more. All the mis-fitted windows had been boarded up.
Something was off though.
A small steel-framed chicken-wire covered gate was the only way in and it had been secured by some kind of cut-price rentaguard that also patrolled the perimeter.
Before deciding to go in, Koko sent Kevin to scout around. She also patched D4-VID into Kevin's feed.
Kevin went high, circling from a distance, giving us a high angle view. Unlike the gravelly unpaved paths that meandered through the shantytown, much of the the yard was covered with suspicious dark mud that had been baked dry and scarred with cracks by the fierce sun. One side of the main building that faced into the yard was furnished with a pair of loading bays.
Parked up were a couple of Cheeze Dreemz branded sky-freighters, a pair of workers with augmented muscle-frames were busy loading them up with shiny stainless steel two hundred litre milk vats?
Along one side of the fence ran a number of smaller boxy grimy looking sheds and something akin to a stable.
Several penned off squares of land containing animals dotted the yard.
It was looking a lot like Kibogaoka Hill's idea of a farm yard. A milk production plant for Chiara Tameron and Cheeze Dreemz.
Whey then, were there women here....?
As instructed, Kevin dipped to a lower altitude and we got a better look at those outbuildings. The pens did indeed contain animals, as did the stable. Horses, cows, pigs, goats, cats and dogs, even exotics like camels and llamas?
Was milk being farmed from all these animals?
There wasn't much we could see in the outbuildings, glimpses of glass, plastic and steel apparatus through the patchy walls.
Trigger gave the entire place a once-over with his thermals, the results were surprising.
He counted about sixty people, mostly women judging by the profiles of their heat signatures, grouped together in threes and fours throughout the building, seemingly in different rooms.
How was Wei involved with the bake off competition? Is that why he had sent us to this place?
They was a way we could possibly get info on the occupants. Quick as I could I went into the GLOWNET and hunted down the deliberately anonymous Universal Credit data-vault, a low profile blank granite brick of a data-image, unfriendly and unwelcoming.
Despite this, bio-image traffic was typically heavy as users bitterly fought the faceless behemoth for their rights.
I avoided the traffic, looking to go deep into the system. The hacking protocols on my data-slab circumvented their security cycles easily and I was into their memory-modules .
Their data-modules existed in a fairly well organised structure and I quickly found that about forty women had their Universal Credit addresses registered here. Time to find these women.
Rentaguard didn't try and stop us going through the steel-framed gate into the yard, they weren't paid enough to tangle with us. We went across the yard to the building.
The dried out and cracked mud snapped and broke under our steps like the crisp chocolate coating on a cake under a spoon, except underneath was nothing sweet. The disgusting stink of crap vented into the air as our boots sank into the mire beneath.
Inside the main house it was as dilapidated as it appeared outside. Wooden planked flooring filled gloomy, windowless corridors that connected to locked rooms, within which were dim lit by thin streams of dazzling sunshine that poured through irregular wall gaps.
It felt somehow strangely empty, wood creaked under loud echoing footsteps, yet nearly every room was occupied by incarcerated women in shabby loose clothing?
They seemed happy to talk to us.
These women were mostly being kept here against their will, whoever was running this place - and it looked Cheeze Dreemz was; they were collecting the women's universal credit payments and leaving them imprisoned without access to their accounts.
They explained why they were held captive here, turns out it wasn't just the animals that were providing milk to Cheeze Dreemz....!
We told them that we could find temporary housing for them if they wanted to leave and once out of here, they could then regain control of their Universal Credit accounts.
About half refused.
I returned to the Universal Credit data-vault and found the data on the twenty women who were currently unwilling to leave the milk farm and after some alteration of the records, control of the accounts returned to their rightful owners.
Jacking out, we turned to the women and showed them they had control of their accounts now. Ten more were convinced to leave.
That left another ten or so women still unwilling to leave, no amount of convincing or talking would persuade them to leave. Time to cut our losses.
Koko pinged Yennav Rybasei, her Russian mob contact, in his day job, Yennav ran The Grand Union Tran Metropolitan hotel, he would have more than enough spare room to put them up for a while.
Koko got Yennav to send a bunch of his guys to collect the women up and ferry them to safety.
D4-VID had been diligently recording all of it, he seemed very happy with the results.
It was also ammunition we were going to have to use against Chiara Tameron.
We had leverage on both Armand Phillipe and Chiara Tameron, only Hideki Naganuma was left.
The investigation into Hideki needed to be continued. Was he also getting squeezed by Soy Green? How?
We widened the search to include family. His only family in Neon City was a sister.
Okan Ikomi lived in a pretty unremarkable life The Skyscraper District, somewhere among the dull, concrete forest of characterless tall grey corporate towers.
Finding her address was easy.
Knocking on her cream coloured UPVC door got no answer.
Security camera coverage in The Skyscraper District was generally good - and we'd hacked their storage servers before. Getting into their system was easy.
I downloaded all the relevant footage I could and jacked in, got a search algorithm running through the footage at intervals in high speed while I observed.
It worked, there was a hit.
Fine detail was lost in the dimly lit, typically grainy, slightly out of focus footage with washed out colours. It didn't matter though, we saw enough.
Earlier on, a pair of individuals in yellow two-tone corporate-styled windbreakers with matching caps had gone to Okan's apartment.
I watched with virtual eyes flicking over the silent footage; the door was opened by who must have been Okan, dressed in joggers and a sweater, the two men then rushed forward, shoving her back into her apartment and out of camera shot.
A minute later they walked back out looking left and right, carrying an unmoving person-sized package.
We had a timestamp for the black-bagging and now knew when to look.
We managed to track them back to a nearby asphalt delivery pad and a small, yellow two-tone Nguayng Oianong class sky freighter branded with Eggybread.
Eggybread; The Snack Food Of Champions was a line of processed snacks produced by The Soy Green Corporation.
So they had been putting their foot on Hideki's neck.
They lugged their bundle into the back of the Oianong, climbed in and powered up.
Once the small freighter had lifted off in a cloud of kicked-up dust, it banked round and headed up for the sky-lanes and despite our best efforts, we couldn't keep track of it for long with.
The black-baggers - or their bosses had gotten sloppy though, there was a lead to follow.
Okan was safe at least until the bake off was over, they would have her stashed somewhere safe but it had to be off the books, somewhere that didn't leave a paper trail back to Soy Green so easily.
Jacking into the GLOWNET again, I returned to The Soy Green Corporation data-vaults and began sifting through their documentation and finances
Running a search algorithm got us the info we needed.
Recently Soy Green had taken out a very short term lease on a small property, I looked at the address; we were going back to Kibogaoka Hill.
The day had nearly passed and thanks to Neon City's weird microclimate, coffee-black clouds, thick with moisture had been menacingly accumulating in the darkening sky for the last couple of hours.
Avoiding the last dregs of rush hour we took the tram into Kibogaoka Hill. Night was stretching out, blanketing Neon City as rows and banks of city-lights buzzed and flickered into life.
By the time we arrived the nightly deluge was underway.
Nowhere else in Neon City was the rainfall louder than in Kibogaoka Hill, it thrashed down into the makeshift steel and plastic roofs with the drone of a thousand mistiming drummers.
The back alleys of Kibgoaka Hill spread out unreliably across the hill. Narrow, tall and unlit, at night they turned into a network of black water channels, fed by endless rivulets of rainwater streaming off every rooftop in every overpacked alley.
Halfway up the hill in one of these encroaching back alleys is where we found the address, an unremarkable shanty house wedged in a row of unremarkable shanty houses.
This close to the address had left us with no place to hide and observe. No time for subtly; Trigger ran his thermals over the address; seven signatures.
One prisoner, six guards, had to be.
These hired goons seemed to operate in sixes.
Trigger was happy to prove the theory right: Splashing through the puddles he took the door down with a flying kick and stormed in, we waded in behind.
Under a roof the thundering rain was even louder! In comparison, the screaming and shouting seemed somehow subdued, giving the fight a otherworldly quality as it spilled into the different rooms.
Soon all six thugs had been dealt with and we freed Okan, the slight Japanese woman with glossy black hair and dressed in the same joggers and sweater gave us a fearful look with wide eyes.
Bill smoothly calmed Okan down, she was persuaded that we were here to help her and was genuinely grateful. She asked to be taken to her brother.
Hideki was also grateful to see his sister and thanked us profoundly for rescuing her. Then Hideki gave us a note that had been delivered to him, telling him to vote for Rahool. Now that his sister was free, he would vote for who he thought should win.
One judge down, two to go.
We had dirt on Armand but we needed to know it was legit.
I contacted Binary Johnny, he was more plugged in than most hackers and might have the low-down on who had hacked Lorenzo's.
He did and gave me a name: Steel Witch. I told Johnny to get her to contact me
Soon I was pinged by Steel Witch and asked her for on the footage she had planted on Armand Phillipe's system. She was only willing to talk at a face-to-face, we arranged a meet at The Copper Kettle.
Located in the bustling retailer quarter of Dogenzaka Hill, The Copper Kettle was a throwback to a bygone era, a time past imagined to be elegant and tasteful. Inside it looked like a piece of history with chintzy themed fixtures and fittings, round tables covered in lacey tablecloths and decorated with fake silverware and fine replica China crockery sitting on elaborate doilies were surrounded by faux wooden upholstered Windsor chairs.
A counter stacked with trays, cups and kettle pots ran along one wall.
By a peculiar turn of coincidence, Jeffery Cake, competitor in the bake off was the proprietor of The Copper Kettle.
Chairs scraped on the replica tiled floor as they were pulled out and we sat, ordering some genuine replica snacks. Outside, raindrops trickled their weaving paths down the large front windows as crowds hustled passed in the streetlight-lit downpour.
A few minutes later Steel Witch came in.
Steel Witch was young and skinny, to the point of malnutrition. She had purple hair, wore a black and white top with voluminous mash sleeves, tight black leggings, heavy boots and a black choker. A lighter shade of foundation gave her face a paler complexion contrasted by thick eyeliner, black lipstick, various facial piercings and tattoos.
Every hacker that ever lived sat somewhere on a sliding scale, at one end was cause, the other, cash.
I reckoned she slanted towards the cause end of the scale.
She knew who we were, joined our table and ordered some tea.
We spoke over drinks about the footage of Lorenzo's murder that she had acquired and Steel Witch admitted that she had kept copies for herself and her employer whom she did not divulge.
Then we explained that D4-VID was going to release the footage on to the news streams, she and her employer would lose their hold on Armand.
Steel Witch shrugged, sipping her tea, she told us she had been payed and was okay with it, too bad for her employer she added.
D4-VID put the footage of Lorenzo's murder on to the GLOWNET news streams then released his expose on the Cheeze Dreemz human milk farm, ensuring that Chiara Tameron was correctly implicated in it as the owner.
Rentacop couldn't ignore Armand's murder of Lorenzo, it was too high profile. He was promptly arrested and charged.
In the ensuing trial, it was revealed that he had murdered Lorenzo over a mayonnaise recipe.
After news of the human milk farm had begun to circulate, a few hours later producers of The Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off had no choice but to remove Chiara from the show's panel.
We couldn't prove that she had been bribed but proving she was involved in forced human milking was enough.
We had sabotaged The Soy Green Corporation's attempt to sabotage the show. There was no reason for them to be involved anymore. The roving gangs in Rokkaku Dai Heights disappeared, as did the snipers.
Rahool did not make any further appearances in the competition, it was explained that his absence was due to visiting India to see his sick grandmother.
Rahool was not seen in Neon City again.
The show proceeded with Hideki left as the only judge and ran it's full course.
A week later the results were announced.
First prize went to Sushi-Go Matto.
Second was Jeffery Cake.
Third was Martha Woldt
Annabel Twistom took to MyFaceSpace to unironically complain that the competition had been rigged!
The night wasn't over for us though.
Vlegei Kreshoma, itinerant Neon City gambler we'd first met as he was being mugged pinged us a little later.
Last time we saw Vlegei, he'd been cleaned out so hard in a game that he couldn't pay us for the bodyguarding gig we'd just done for him!
He was pinging us to pay us our dues - and to hire us as bodyguards again.
A high stakes game had rolled into the Fuku Bakuchi Casino in the Fortified Residential District, the casino was run by Yakuza gang; The Golden Rhinos, it was said that their boss Red Tongue Suko would be playing.
"It's an opportunity to make a lot of money," Vlegei informed us cheerfully.
Or, it was an opportunity to get himself killed....
Later that night we had one last call.
Antin Grova, trash-art sculptor who lived in the Rokkaku Dai Heights was pinging us to make an announcement.
His latest work, a kinetic statue had been completed and was currently on display to the public at a park in The Heights.
Antin told us that the sculpture was of us! Anyone who knew us would readily recognise the subject matter.
He had called it; Heroes For Hope.
Maybe it would've been more accurate to call it Heroes For Hope - and a big payday.
31st January 2021
It's a Sunday and I'm logged into Meet on PC.
Time for the 2nd and concluding part of Those Dark Places' introductory adventure run by Matt.
Location: Argent III.
Doris and Cyrox were standing just on the inside of one of Argent III's ancillary airlocks. They had removed their helmets after confirming the air was breathable.
They were staring down an arrow-straight fairly long corridor that soon melted into the gloom. Argent class ships were big.
They called out, no reply came.
The extremely dim lighting was tinted with a slight green hue; non-critical emergency lighting.
After stripping out of their cumbersome EVA suits and stowing them away in an alcove, Doris and Cyrox cautiously proceeded down the unpainted metal-grey corridor.
In the silence their suit's underboots seemed to clank against the steel decking thunderously no matter how lightly they walked.
It took them a minute to realise that as well as silence, there was no subtle vibration to be felt through the floor.
They looked at each other.
"Perhaps the powerplant is offline," offered Doris?
Continuing on, they spotted mould growing in the top corners of the corridor, they knew it was a sign of moisture rising and accumulating along the ceiling and probably indicated prolonged faults of some type in life-support.
Things were not looking promising.
The corridor ended at a closed steel door in a wall, it was the only way on. Cyrox took a deep breath and opened the door.
As the door cracked open the pair of them were immediately flooded with horrific smell; a mix of rot, urine and crap, it gave them the urge to retch, they gagged for a few moments, their faces screwed in shock but they held on to the contents of their stomachs.
It took a few moments for them to get their breathing under control and proceed.
There was no light coming through the narrow opening they had left open.
Opening the door wider, they shone flashlights through. It was dark and the lights showed years of smeared results of years of neglect on the walls, the room was filled with filthy old looking barrels, of every shape and size?
Doris and Cyrox had no idea what the room's original use was for?
No one was in the room, there was one other door out. Safe to enter.
Entering and sweeping their flashlights over the room, at the all the barrels, they saw the original colours had long faded, stained now with thickly caked layers of dripped filth and grime, some were empty, others contained brownish water. Pipes and tubes ran from barrel to barrel, moving material from one to another.
Cyrox had a cursory examination and it looked like a rudimentary waste recycling system. Water reclamation to be precise.
It looked still in use, Cyrox wondered what had happened to the original systems? Was this in use? Were their survivors? Why hadn't they seem someone yet?
One other item caught Cyrox's eye, something was plugged into the system, something new that was not brown or caked in crap and looked relatively clean and well maintained.
He found and checked it's serial number, it matched codes from the decommissioned station?
Something had definitely happened there and somehow continued here.
There was only one way onward, Doris and Cyrox took it.
A featureless steel panelled corridor took them into a large and lengthy room, again unlit except this time, for some small strangely shaped bright spots of golden light near the floor. The room was filled with rows of large rounded, flattened cylindrical shapes.
This room seemed also empty, but Doris and Cyrox could hear a sound akin to a gently simmering pan on a hob?
Once inside, it took Doris and Cyrox a moment to realize that the cylinders were century old long-sleep pods. Over a hundred of them, enough here for the entire crew. They were mostly dark and looked inactive, except for a few, in a cluster together that were emitting the spots of light.
Doris and Cyrox searched the pods. None of them contained any people, alive or otherwise. The pods themselves looked completely inactive, jabbing some of the controls got no response, dead, no power was coming to the pods.
They carefully went over and investigated the lit pods. These pods were open and the light was coming from a series of what looked like some sort of portable heat lamps that had been set up inside the the open pods and were connected to wall sockets. There was at least some power in the Argent III.
The pods' sleeping areas had been filled with plants - fruit mostly, heat lamps were being used to grow them.
Along one of the long walls was a recessed alcove draped in shadow, it likely would have contained some sort of control panels for managing the pods and was definitely the source of the faint simmering.
Doris and Cyrox moved round to it, flashlights banishing shadows, as they got closer, they were inundated with a sickly sweet smell.
The alcove contained a vat, thin wisps of steam were curling upwards from the simmering and bubbling yellow liquid within.
Looking closer, Doris and Cyrox would see some dark, undulating, curving shapes just beneath the seething surface. They went closer.
They reeled back in revulsion. The vat was packed with layers of limbs and body parts, not dismembered or amputated but whole and undamaged.
After a cautious examination, it looked like this was the part of an outdated cloning process, one that hadn't been used for decades and was now outlawed.
Doris and Cyrox had a brief discussion, why were they growing clone limbs? Why were they needed? Had these limbs been grown to eat? What had happened here?
It had gone from not promising to outright horrific.
There was one other door out of the long-sleep chamber.
They followed the dark corridor and it went to another door. Beyond the door led into another unlit room, Doris and Cyrox swept their flashlights across the darkness, it was fairly open, seemed semi-circular and almost domed.
The room looked like it may have been the bridge, at least it may have been at some time in the past. Command consoles, wall panels, seating, all stripped away and seemingly random random junk had now replaced it, littering the barely recognisable room.
What once were the viewports had been wielded shut with the salvaged panelling. The room's now exposed reinforcing struts rose up from the floor and up along what would have been cavities in the walls to curve and congregate in the centre of the ceiling like the vaulted arches of some metallic cathedral. A place of bizarre holy sanctity.
Further investigation revealed half cleared and uncleaned crockery was scattered across a number of old crates looking like they were used as makeshift tables.
There were makeshift sleeping cots here too, at least fifteen of them and with the requisite filthily stained bedding.
People had lived here and looking at the evidence, still did.
Doris and Cyrox began discussing how to proceed when they both jumped at the sound of gasping breath.
Instinctively, the pair of them shone their flashlights in the same direction, at a box pressed up against one of the support struts.
The box was small, about one metre across, open fronted but barred. The lights lit up a woman's face inside, pale and distraught.
An equally pale and thin, scarred and scabbed arm came through the bar, reaching out.
"Please be real," a raspy, quiet voice. "Please be real.".
"We have to get out.".
It wasn't too hard to remove the bars. The woman crawled out tentatively, swaying as she stood. Slowly she stretched, joints distinctly clicking as she did so.
She introduced herself as Manuela: One of the missing crew from the station.
"We were wrapping up our decommissioning job when they came aboard through the airlock, they were thin and strangely white-skinned," said Manuela, continuing. "They attacked us, Killed Williams and took Batiste and me prisoner. After that they started searching through our gear, looking for food I think. Then they took us, what they wanted and used our shuttle to get here, I've been locked up ever since.".
The crew questioned Manuela and asked if she knew what was going on?
Manuela said she thought the skinny white people were very strange, when they looked worried they would have good vibes and stand still humming with their eyes closed hoping things would get better.
They seemed to have no language and communicated in grunts. Manuela believed that they must've been descendants of the original crew, several generations removed.
They knew nothing about the engines or powerplant and were using Batiste to try and repair them. The ship's powerplant had developed a fault sometime ago and now had a radiation leak. This had led to widespread mutations among them.
When they sent Batiste back to rest, he said that he's probably already dead from exposure.
When asked about her injured arm, Manuela visibly shook and took a deep breath. She explained that they took chunks of flesh out of her to clone, which was something they understood. The cloned body parts were used as food. Manuela had to breathe deeply for a moment
Manuela then urged the crew to leave, they had been here too long, they needed to leave. Doris and Cyrox agreed, but there was a problem.
There were now three people, but only two EVA suits. If there were any suits aboard the Argent III, they would have to go hunting for them and hope they were still usable
The crew asked if they could reach the shuttle. Manuela was doubtful, it was on the far side of the ship and would probably mean encountering the inhabitants.
The crew did come up with another plan.
Along with Manuela, the crew followed their footsteps back to the airlock. They advanced every step of the way warily through the darkness. With only flashlights to show the route.
They listened carefully along the way too, they shouldn't encounter anyone, unless they had missed a door?
After what seemed like hours, they were back at the airlock, they contacted Big Ounce who was back on The Icarus. They told him that he needed to get some weapons out of the secured locker, suit up, grab a spare suit and get over.
Luckily Ounce was The Icarus' security officer and had access to the secured locker, hastily he grabbed some taser pistols, a spare suit and his own suit.
Suiting up alone was a cumbersome process but eventually Ounce was done.
The walk to the Argent III's airlock wasn't too long but it was intense and made Ounce sweat.
At the airlock it was a long fifteen minutes for Doris, Manuela and Cyrox to wait. One then the other suited up again.
As time passed they could hear periodic, distant faint grunts and cries echoing down through the silent chambers.
Something was up?
Eventually Ounce arrived at the airlock, both doors were sealed and he got aboard the Argent III.
Once out, he handed the suit to Manuela and taser pistols to Doris and Cyrox.
Ounce and Cyrox stood guard, tightly gripping their tasers as Doris spent the time required to help Manuela into a suit.
As they kept lookout, Ounce and Cyrox saw something materialise out of the gloom. Slender and pale with thin wispy hair and riddled with sores, tumours and growths, it was one of the inhabitants.
He stopped dead when he spotted the crew, his grotesque, barely human face went slack with shock, he then began to scream, turning to run.
In that moment of hesitation, he had allowed Ounce and Cyrox to get a bead on him and open fire. Ounce managed to land a shot and he crashed to the ground instantly unconscious.
The two of them kept their pistols raised at the corridor, their eyes peeled and their breathing steady.
No one else came.
The wait was agonising, eventually Manuela was safely in her suit and they all backed into the airlock, closing the inner doors.
A minute and all the air had been evacuated, the outer door silently slid open and they were out.
The crew carried Manuela across the hull of the mute giant ship back to The Icarus over EVA and arrived without mishap.
Once inside, Ounce and Cyrox hurried to the bridge, stripping and discarding their suits like so much trash off along the way. They waisted no time powering up all systems and began a burn at the earliest opportunity.
No one wanted to hang around.
Having plotted the return course to Titan, The Icarus burned as hard as safety tolerances permitted for the next three days.
All the time the crew kept an eye out on the rear cameras and view ports, watching as Argent III and Viduus III silently shrank away, merging into a single white dot in the blackness.
They knew Argent III didn't have propulsion and couldn't follow.... even so....
During the three days, they also tended to Manuela's health and wrote their reports to Cambridge Wallace, they wouldn't get a salvage bonus but it was someone else's headache now.
Then it was time for the long-sleep back to Titan.
30th January 2021
Saturday evening is here again and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC in the living room.
It's time for session 10 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Highway Zero.
Midnight had come; Neon City was dematerialising into night's distant blur, consumed by the hazy spray of violently crashing rainfall.
It felt a strangely secluded march through the downpour, collars up and heads down. Navigating the endless crush of pedestrians and ever increasing puddles.
The Ferry Terminal was at the far eastern end of Highway Zero and Binary Johnny was waiting there for us.
He was making another covert run into Oshin Amalgamated territory to sabotage some excavator robots and foil their plan to flood part of Neon City. We'd worked with Johnny before and he wanted us to back him up as muscle.
The terminal stood apart from the urbanised glut that ruled much of Neon City, it was a matter of necessity since the structure straddled the lip of the waterfront.
A three storey high setback with a steel girder skeleton under a skin of polymer walls and doors, windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. The terminal's harsh white lighting blazed out into the rainy night like an artificially lit greenhouse.
Inside were several rooms linked by short corridors, a safety-glass fronted ticket office, a steamy concession cubicle selling coffee and snacks and waiting rooms where the subdued murmur of hushed talk hung in the air.
People stood or sat, most waiting to catch the ferry, some to escape the rain. The over-bright strip lighting highlighted the peeling beige paint and worn grey flooring, lines of chocolate brown curving plastic seats were bolted to the floor along the walls.
On the far side of the terminal, nearest to the bay exit was Johnny, he was sitting and staring out through the huge windows.
At night the bay was an vast, unlit and impenetrable inky body of fluid, only discernible thanks to the reflected city lights that bobbed along on undulating waters.
The exit went to a covered walkway that led to the plain concrete wharf that served the ferry service. We exchanged pleasantries with Johnny, there was still a little time to wait.
The service was the only way to reach Diver City Island and it was the only reason the ferries still existed.
They were a trio of old Ysekoe electrically powered, moderately sized, steel tubs fitted exclusively for passengers. We watched as one of the them sailed in and docked at the wharf, in the rain and under the weak spotlights it looked particularly dingy. Its once crisp white and blue livery had faded, dulled now, by time, layers of grime and stained with long smears of rust dripped from the bolts that held the ferry's steel plating together.
Even this late at night there was a demand for the ferry, a few minutes later and we were among the passengers had streamed aboard, then the ferry was underway Diver City Island.
A lump of rock located at the eastern side of the bay and mostly known for housing the Diver City Neon Plaza, yet another of Neon City's vast and excessive shopping malls that lured in consumers from across all the districts.
An ad blurb famously pronounced that Diver City Island had a zero crime rate due to the diligence of the Diver City Zaibatsu, an elite all volunteer police force. Of course we knew that was rubbish, because no one was stopping us from going there!
Other than the mall, there were only two other features of note on the island.
The Last Guardian. a giant mech-like robot construct that stood a motionless watchful guard over the island and the Oshin Amalgamated Saline Plant, ostensibly an ecological reclamation centre. We knew better though.
That's why it was the Saline plant that we were interested in, specifically the Robot Maintenance Facility.
Our arrival at Diver City Island was without event, we disembarked and waited. All the other passengers were of course making the short walk to the mall, a rising monolithic shape underlit by a hundred spotlights and blazing multi-coloured neon signs, silhouetted against Neon City's light polluted blood orange-red skyline.
Once the crowd had thinned out, we skirted the enormous building, heading west towards our target.
From a vantage point we had found and through the late night deluge, we could observe the plant.
Work on the Saline Plant was clearly in the early stages, an open and largely flat, earthen construction zone, dotted with several clusters of small prefabricated portable offices, sandy mounds, piles of building materials and work machinery, surrounded by a four metre high razor wire-topped wall that ran the entire perimeter.
Towards the centre was a large hangar-like building. This was where we'd find the excavator robots informed Johnny.
We continued casing the site: Euyrailad motion detectors were present, searchlights, alarms as well. There were roving gun drones and uniformed rentaguards patrolling with dogs.
As the patrols and drones went round, we saw that they weren't triggering any alarms, the on-site security system must have somehow tagged them as friendlies. Possibly they were carrying actual tags?
I jacked into the GLOWNET. The mundane blandness of the construction site was wiped from my brain. replaced by metamorphosing digital geometry decorated in vivid mainlined colours.
The construction site had a small data-vault, its image; a hexagonal pyramid branded with the Oshin Amalgamated penguin logo and colours.
An almost invisible data-flow bled out from the vault and disappeared into the pulsating horizon, impossible to spot unless you know what you're looking for. No doubt it connected to a main Oshin server-vault.
Oshin weren't expecting trouble here, getting through the security was easy.
There wasn't any data to speak of here, just a stack of protocols.
I checked them out, they were here to manage the security systems, it was the soft spot we were looking for, our way in.
I went further into the system and found what I was looking for, a fairly simple set of protocols managing the motion detectors.
If the motion detectors picked up anything that it was not recognised by its system, a response protocol was instructed immediately trigger the alarm protocols, which in turn would set off a series of alerts and alarms, both locally and off-site.
I got into the response protocol code and simply deactivated the instruction to trigger alarms. From a one to a zero.
This meant if and when the motion detectors spotted us, they would do nothing about it.
This just left the guards, dogs and spotlights to avoid.
Timing it carefully, Trigger picked his moment to climbed the chain link fence and at the top cut a length of the razor-wiring away, his Ashirada arm augmentation made it easy. After this we all managed to clamber over the wall.
Kicking up dirt, we ran for cover. Inside the walls much of the ground was open and sweeping searchlights were a risk, as were roaming patrols.
Patiently we went from cover to cover until we reached a side door in the hangar. It towered over us, we hadn't appreciated its size at a distance.
Inside the space felt vast, the furthest reaches swallowed by darkness.
Industrial sized pendant lights hung from exposed rafters and dim spots of weak light draped over rows of gigantic construction robots.
Still by the entrance, Johnny pointed at one robot in particular.
It was a Paakutoda class Nasuran Industries construction robot. It resembled a giant armoured, dull-steel coloured octopus, seventeen metres across and high. Covered in an array of sensors and equipped with segmented robotic tentacles that provided underwater motion, incredibly strong but equally precise in their movements and actions.
As we quietly moved, the Paakutoda's motors growled and it rotated it's position a few degrees, thumping loudly as it settled again.
"It's been locked into guard mode," whispered Johnny. "Without the remote access controls, the only way to disarm it is to get into the cabin near the top."
Captain Noodles volunteered to do this, he was small, fast and might avoid detection. He lithely jumped and soundlessly ran his way to the cabin without triggering a response. His paws however, couldn't get at the cabin's lock. Denied, he came back down dejectedly.
Koko knew locks better than any of us and her Ashirada implants allowed her to easily scale the interior wall. Koko then cautious shuffled along a rafter and lowered herself by rope on to the robot and began working on the lock.
A couple of minutes later, we heard her cursing under her breath over comms, she couldn't open the locks.
By now Trigger had had enough.
"Distract the robot," he said over comms.
Koko had pulled herself back up to the rafter, so she made some noise. The robot rotated again, stopping and starting several times in quick succession, unable to triangulate Koko's position directly above.
Trigger sprinted, bound up the robots central body and arriving at the cabin. With a thrust of his street-katana and a hefty pull, he jimmied the lock, springing it open. The internal sensors detected Trigger when he jumped into the pilot's seat and the robot powered down.
We were in.
I scrambled up to the cab and with my slab and jacked in. My vision blurred for a moment as I acclimatised to the system. Unlike the GLOWNET, this was a simple static code structure, I instinctively flicked through files like flicking through pages of an old style glossy paper catalogue and eventually accessed the lowest code level, the closest to the metal.
Then I fed it a Trojan, a little discrete slice of code disguised as an instruction interpreter that gave us full remote access to the octopus.
It was time to leave, we exited the hangar, avoided the patrol patterns and circling spotlights. Returned to our insertion point and then, out!
Outside of the saline plant, Johnny was free to push his sabotage virus on to the Paakutoda in safety. At some point the virus would exploit the robot's networking function to spread to the other robots and hit them all.
Hopefully, even when they cleared the virus out, they wouldn't catch the Trojan and Johnny could simply push the next iteration of the virus back on to the Paakutoda.
It was time to get back to the ferry, heavy rain was pelting , drenching us in darkness. Ahead was the shoreline, we followed the wharf lights as they danced madly through the curtain of falling raindrops
It was still a couple of hours until dawn when our return ferry docked with a shunt at Highway Zero. The rain hadn't let up and neither had Neon City's unsleeping population.
We were about to make our way back towards the tramline when Captain Noodles picked up something, his curious nature had made him stretch and sniff the air then stalk off?
We followed and he led us a fishmongers on the eastern edge of Highway Zero, close to the bay.
Fish were one one the few truly fresh foods that could be acquired easily in Neon City. The advantage of a major conurbation that sprawled on to the edge of coastal waters. Although, it being the Neon City Bay, it didn't pay to look too closely at the catch of the day.
A small crowd had gathered, drawn by the commotion. Phineous Phish was a fishmonger's shop right in the middle of a row of independent retailer units, it's logo read The Phreshest Phish You Can Phind!
Agonising alliteration aside; it had a fairly old fashioned, almost quaint frontage of brick and painted replica wood, with a large shop window that displayed white boxes filled with fish sitting on blankets of ice.
Inside was a glass counter displaying more fish.
Outside though, was a middle-aged man, presumably the proprietor and dressed in an Phineous Phish apron, he was waving his arms and shouting angrily about thieves, he was also covered in what we surmised were fish guts that had been dunked in some sort of slime?
Bill managed to calm him down, he was Phineous, the shop owner. He told Bill about the penguins!
Four penguins had come into his shop, the largest had distracted him by regurgitating on him! Meanwhile the other three had stolen fish, the four of them had then fled.
It had all happened a few minutes ago.
We didn't know anything about penguins but were pretty sure that their usual behaviour didn't involve thievery.
They must have been uplifted penguins, genetically altered and bio-enhanced to increase cognitive function, physical application and communication ability.
Even amongst the early-morning suited wage monkeys, late-night gangers, all-day street walkers and stoned revellers on the overcrowded streets of Neon City, penguins would be easy to track.
Hacking various security cameras showed four penguins waddling their way to the tram line. Footage showed that they swiped in with their Ostrea Transit Cards and then take the tram for Sky Dinosaurian Square, we knew that was where the tramline terminated. The only way out of there was Sunshine Metro or a sky-taxi.
I had hacked the transit system so many times I practically had my own login. Accessing their system was easy now and I looked for travel data on the four penguins, there were too many cards swiping into the system simultaneously to narrow it down.
Sky Dinosaurian Square was our next destination.
It was still an hour before dawn and sheets of rain kept on noisy pouring on the packed tram as it rumbled its way into the centre of Sky Dinosaurian Square.
A sprawling dinosaur-themed amusement park that dominated the district, Sky Dinosaurian Square was the biggest tourist and consumer pull in Neon City after Ninety Ninth Street and it's distractions, hospitalities and attractions were more family friendly.
Getting off the tram, we found ourselves in an open puddle filled circular paved area lit by floodlights.
Nauseatingly cheery music looped out of streets speakers and a colourful LED sign announced: Dinosaur Square.
Stalls and stands decorated in primary colours and selling sugary drinks, candy floss, ice cream, souvenirs, tourist tat and more lined the square.
Even at this time, people would be dragging their children here, crowds and the queues as heavy as any time.
Staff in dinosaur costumes patrolled the square, protected from spiteful, screaming sugar-fuelled children by rentaguard.
In the night sky flew autonomous anamorphic pterodactyls, screeching their digital screeches as they swooped over the square, dipping in and out of the light.
To the east against the faintest streaks of dawn light we could see a small silhouetted train speedily twisting and undulating its way along the still-lit skeletal shape of an enormous roller-coaster.
Unless the penguins had taken the Sunshine Metro, they had to be somewhere here?
Koko sent Kevin up to do a high altitude sweep and she found something.
To the south east were some ponds.
The ponds were a series of sealed and self-contained ecological water habitats. When the amusement park had received approval, it had stipulated that a percentage of the park had to be given over to educational attractions. The ponds were that percentage.
The crowds thinned out considerably as we got closer to the ponds, no one came to a place called Sky Dinosaurian Square for the ponds.
We watched for a while, until we spotted penguins!
When asked, the staff told us that they thought it was some sort of public relations stunt?
Once the staff had gone about their business, we went down to the ponds, their rocky banks turned out to fabricated from durable grey polymer. The penguins were there, eating fish, caught red-handed so to speak.
We spoke with the penguins, it was hard to tell but they seemed happy to talk with us.
Up until recently they had been employed in Rokkaku Expo Stadium at the Sea Life Attraction but events had taken a turn for the worse.
They had recently been laid off and to compound matters, because they were not classified as human, they did not qualify for Universal Credit.
Theft was only way to get food.
Koko piped up with a suggestion, perhaps they could work as brand ambassadors for the transport authority?
They seemed amenable to the suggestion and we knew someone who might be able to help: Silai Granskina, we were tight with him so we contacted him and put him in contact with the penguins.
By now the rain had stopped and a band of rosy colour was seeping into the cloudless eastern sky. Soon, along with the sun, the temperature would begin to soar.
It had been a long day, soon we would be hitting a straight twenty four hours awake, so we headed home, I could hear the raspy buzz of fatigue in my ears.
I was knocking down twice the recommended Toaizou painkillers; lunchtime had come too soon and sleep had been too short. There was a sharp stinging sensation in my ocular implants and the edge needed to be taken off.
Five minutes ago we'd been pinged on a call from Antin Grova, the up-and-coming urban sculptor who lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
He needed our help. More precisely he told us; a customer or associate of his did.
The son of this associate had gone missing, Antin described him as simple and was concerned about his wellbeing. He would pay us for our trouble since it was unlikely that the young man's mother could afford it.
We took the job, Antin gave us contact details for Martha Woldt, the boy's mother - she also lived in The Heights.
We arrived at her apartment block without much delay, the plain interior providing a cool respite from the heat outside.
Martha Woldt was middle-aged and fairly non-descript. She looked quite surprised to see us - Antin must not have told her that about us?
Martha told us that her son - Jericho had been looking for work, but his learning difficulties made it hard to find any.
Surprisingly, he eventually had found work and began his job yesterday, that was the last she had seen of him. Martha provided us a photo of Jericho, she didn't know where he'd gone to work, but she did know that name of the agency that had placed him; Office Plankton, located in The Heights.
It was reaching midday by the time we arrived at the agency office, despite the punishing heat and near-painful brightness, Neon City's people were undeterred and crowded the streets. Just another obstacle to navigate in a day in the life.
The Office Plankton office was an anonymous and easily-missed high street unit. It's narrow frontage bore the Office Plankton logo along with it's motto; Easy jobs that require no skills.
The window's blind had been pulled down, concealing any view of the interior.
Office Plankton was a job agency and a rare sight in Neon City with it's burgeoning unemployment rates and even rarer was Office Plankton with it's niche market!
Office Plankton specialised in filling vacancies for low-skilled jobs and finding work for people who lacked qualifications, people like Jericho.
It was surprising that these kinds of vacancies even existed in Neon City considering the amount of robots and level of automation available.
Inside was a rectangular room, the mostly bare walls were painted off-white and a thin, light-grey carpet covered the floor. It was obvious that little time had been given to considering the décor and overall the room said very little about its function.
Opposite the entrance was a faux-oak desk and sitting behind it was a stocky, flabby looking man who was preoccupied with a desk-slab. He wore a slightly off fitting white shirt and blue tie. Pinned to shirt was a name badge; Call Me Bob.
Behind Bob was a shelf filled with what seemed to be random office supplies and a door to the back.
As the front door swung open he looked up, smiled and asked how he could help?
Bill explained that we had an important message for Jericho Woldt and had been unable to contact him. Perhaps Bob could tell us his place of work?
As Bill was talking to Bob, I scoped the room. It felt remarkably empty. Only one thing of interest caught my eye; a framed photo sitting on the shelf.
Bob was sitting with several other equally stocky people at a fully stocked up dinner table, they were family maybe? Gripping their cutlery and grinning at the camera just before digging into a heavy looking meal.
It was unusual to see they kind of family meal at street level in Neon City?
Bob shrugged and turned away from the slab to face us, he'd never heard of Jericho Woldt? He told us that there were four other branches of Office Plankton in Neon City, perhaps we should try them?
He also informed us that none of the branches had direct phone lines, the jobseekers they dealt with could become easily confused and this kept matters simpler.
There was nothing else to be gained here, we had four other sites to check out.
I accessed the transit systems records again. They showed Jericho Woldt getting off the tram at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Next we hacked the servers that remotely logged camera footage from the tramline and used it to track Jericho's movements. Coverage was spotty though, we intermittently saw him going around the district, at one point we saw him looking intently at something out of picture at the Expo Stadium, after that we lost him. We saw nothing of him going to a Office Plankton branch.
There was one last play we could make. One of the few centralised databases in Neon City was the employment status database. It tracked who was eligible for Universal Credit and who had employment. Details about Jericho should show up on the Social Insurance Network.
Only in Neon City was working a S.I.N.!
We didn't get any hits. Either Jericho wasn't working or he was working off the books?
It meant we had to investigate the other Office Plankton branches. Time was critical, so we split into four to cover more ground, Noodles went with Koko and of course Roderick went with Bill.
Two hours later we met up to compare notes.
Bill had gone to the branch on Ninety Ninth. It was another small anonymous and strangely featureless office manned by a single rep. A friendly, large, doughy guy wearing a name badge saying; Call Me Dan.
Dan gave Bill the same thing he'd heard from Bob, nothing about Jericho.
While Bill had been chatting to Dan, his eye recognised a photo on Dan's desk, it was identical to Bob's photo but now Bill also recognised Dan as one of the other people. There was definitely something of a family resemblance.
At Dogenzaka Hill, the office I went to was equally small and bland as at The Heights.
Again, only one company rep worked here. Call Me Tom stated his name badge, he provided me with no information about Jericho and again; there it was, the same photo with Bob and also Tom at the dinner table?
The Office Plankton branch at Highway Zero had been Koko's destination. It was the same as the Rokkaku Dai Heights branch. A small office operated by a single staff member. A corpulent man wearing a badge saying; Call Me Dick. Koko didn't learn anything about Jericho from him but she did see that same photo with Bob and Dick.
Lastly, Trigger had gone to the branch at The Skyscraper District. He had spoken with the chubby woman who ran the small office there and saw the badge she wore named her as Call Me Madge. She did not recognise the name Jericho Woldt and gave Trigger no information. Before Trigger left, he spotted the photo identical to one on Bob's shelf, the one that contained Bob and also Madge.
More and more it looked like thing weren't adding up.
All five branches had no information on Jericho despite what his mother had said, nor was there any evidence that Jericho was even employed?
Office Plankton's chosen market seemed strange and all the branches seemed empty?
Finally since all five staff members appeared in the same photo, it must have been a family run business?
Time to take it up a notch. It was approaching the end of the day and we needed to dig deeper into Office Plankton. We headed over to the Highway Zero branch and found some shade from the glaring sun in a back alley.
Through the constant flow of people and rumbling traffic we watched the office.
At six Dick locked up and made his way to the closest tram stop, we followed. Only Koko had to keep distant, so she sent Kevin up to keep an eye on him. The rest of could safely take the same tram he did.
We'd hit rush hour, the tram was stuffier and more packed than usual, the smell of cheap antiperspirants mingled unpleasantly with actual perspiration as we squeezed aboard.
Heavy with crushed wage monkeys, the tram laboriously pulled away and they mindlessly swayed in unison to the acceleration, diligently scrolling through on their media-slabs, needing to forget where they were and most importantly who they were.
The tram creaked as it's worn breaks squealed their protest at bringing the tram to a halt in Kibogaoka Hill.
Dick disembarked and we followed suite. He went through the shanty town, up the hill towards what passed as the district's retail centre. His route took him through the treacherously winding side roads, narrow and high sided ravines of brick, wood and plastic with a multitude of blind corners and turn offs.
Bill was on point, it was tricky staying out of sight and shadowing Dick but he managed it.
Eventually Dick ended up going through the front door of shop with a fabricated crimson coloured frontage called Mother's Meaty Morsels?
A shop that currently looked shut for the day and from outside appeared to be some sort of small independent pie-shop? It's motto proclaimed; A MEAT pie is a NEAT pie. It also boasted of the naturally sourced ingredients?
Additionally, the shop seemed to serve both retail and commercial customers?
Real meat was hard to come by in Neon City and was generally the reserve of the wealthy, how was it that a small shop in the neo-shanty town of Kibogaoka Hill was able to get real meat?
We waited and watched, soon Koko joined us and after that we looked on as one-by-one Bob, Dan, Tom and Madge appeared and went into Mother's Meaty Morsels.
Things still didn't add up?
What happened to the people they supposedly found work for?
What was Office Plankton's link to Mother's Meaty Morsels?
How was the pie-shop getting its meat?
Neon City was always home to casual unpleasantness, indifference and crime but joining the dots here was taking us into one of the city's darker avenues....
Trigger was getting impatient, he flicked on his thermals and took a look.
Seven heat signatures were visible, they seemed to be congregating and taking up seats round a table. Nothing suspicious....
Trigger swept the building's rear, he saw the heat signature of a slumped figure with their arms in the air, it was the profile of someone hung up by their arms! Trigger also saw various cooler, dimmer amorphous blobs of heat?
It was enough for Trigger, he was up and running at the front door before he told us what was going on, we hurried to back him up.
Kicking open the door sent a now-broken lock skittering across the chequered black-and-white linoleum floor. It was unlit and unoccupied, the glass serving counter empty.
Scraping chairs could be be heard from a back door behind the counter. It flew open and several corpulent individuals came charging out, their faces were bestially contorted with anger and screaming, they closed in. We could see Bob and the others among the pack running at us.
Their aggression and desire for violence could not hope to match our skills, honed as they were by our lives The City of Electric Dreams.
The fight didn't last too long and there was little doubt how it would go. Soon they were lying on the floor, unconscious or dead - we didn't care which.
The room they had come from contained a dinner table lavished with an assortment of pies, we avoided it.
Another door seemed to lead into their processing facility, we steeled ourselves and entered.
It was a grim sight, the dirty, dimly lit room was populated with bloody, grisly detached human remains at various stages of being processed into pies!
As we suspected; cannibals!
We continued searching and found Jericho Woldt, he was chained to all steel ring that had been secured to a concrete wall. He was alive and breathing and in one piece. We took him and left that damned place and returned him home to his thankful mother safe and sound.
Later on Antin Grova pinged us with a call, thanking us for finding Jericho Woldt. He asked us what payment we wanted for the job?
"Nothing," we said, "consider it a favour.".
Even later, I got a call from Ram Rat.
He had been following the news: A sky-taxi had malfunctioned, crashing into Porter Sladek's high rise with a tremendous explosion. Sladek's apartment had suffered massive damage and was almost entirely destroyed. Fortunately the Thetatech executive had out at the time and was unharmed.
Ram Rat told me he was sure that Ghost Radical had made another move on Porter Sladek, he wasn't giving up.
24th January 2021
It's Sunday and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC, in the living room.
Matt is running the introductory adventure for Those Dark Places.
Those Dark Places
From what I've seen about Those Dark Places, it's a fairly rules-lite Industrial sci-fi RPG, which means it's default setting is sort where activities in space are everyday and commonplace but also impractical and possibly downright dangerous. Not a utopian paradise nor a dystopian nightmare.
The rules are pretty straightforward, each character has four attributes, something I've seen a lot of in recent games. A value of 1,2 3 or 4 is assigned to each attribute.
Additionally, each character has a primary and secondary crew position, these things like Helm, Medical Officer, Engineer, Science Officer, strangely it makes the game feel a bit like Star Trek?
Each character has a Pressure Bonus and a Pressure Level.
Tasks are attempted by rolling a single six sided die and adding a pertinent attribute to the roll, if a characters primary crew position is also pertinent, add a further +2, if there secondary crew position is relevant add +1 instead.
Target numbers range from 6-8.
Players will be called upon to make pressure rolls, these are done by rolling a die and adding their Pressure Bonus, if the result is 10 or higher, it's all good.
Less than 10 and they fill in a box on the Pressure Level track. Bad thing can happen when these boxes are filled.
There are some other rules, for combat and whatever, but that's the gist of it.
The default setting has the PCs signing with a vast impersonal space-faring corporation looking to make a fortune from mining or exploiting the resources on other planets.
The pay is lucrative but PCs start by having signed on for a 25 year contract, they'll only be paid at the end - once all expenses have been deducted. It's not as long as it seems; there is no faster-than-light travel here and all long distance travel is done via hibernation or long sleep as the game calls it.
Time passed in long sleep counts has time worked, thus a 6 month long sleep is 6 months off the contract.
I guess characters either make it to their 25th year or they don't!
Big Ounce: Played by Josh
Doris Sine: Played by Vicky.
Cyrox Calwin: Played by Giro.
Location : Icarus
The Icarus was a clumsy inelegant but effective workhorse of a spacecraft and so were the new three-person crew. All freshly signed up with Cambridge Wallace Incorporated for twenty five years.
The crew had been putting The Icarus and themselves through their paces after the latest refit when orders came through from Cambridge Wallace.
The Icarus was to proceed to planet Viduus III, upon arrival the ship was to pick up three passengers and their cargo from the decommissioned space station which was scheduled for demolition and then return them here.
The crew would earn performance based bonus if the orders were completed in one hundred and seventy days.
Cambridge Wallace had wrapped up their mining operation at Viduus III, the three remaining engineers had spent the last few months dismantling the station and now needed a ride home.
Cyrox plotted a course to Viduus III on the nav-systems, the computer calculated that the trip would eighty-one days to get there, a roundtrip would give the crew a margin of error of eight days.
Seventy eight days later and the automated long-sleep capsules started to bring the crew back to consciousness, warning lights were flashing and wake-up alarms chirping. With much effort the crew dragged themselves out of their pods.
Recovery from long-sleep was quick but tended to be disorientating and nauseating.
A couple of hours later and the crew were on the bridge.
A lot of green lights were winking away on the dashboard, all systems looked nominal.
The Icarus was less than seventy-two hours out from the station and deceleration was well underway. Everything was on schedule.
The Icarus was also now close enough to communicate with the station. A message was transmitted, but even taking into account the delay, there was no answer.
A check of the on-board systems showed no errors, the station must have received the message.
Even aboard a large ship, life was cramped and it was hard for the crew to not get in each other's faces over the next few days. Little consideration and space were given over to crew needs. Other than Ship Operations, there was a communal eating area and each crewmate had some personal storage and space, that was it.
Outside of Ops and personal spaces, the entire ship only ever seemed half lit, it was also fairly dark and dismal,
For the crew, it was nothing new.
During the remaining three days the crew put out regular transmissions directed at the station but on every occasion; there was no reply.
Three days passed and what was a bright speck in an endless sea of specks had grown until it dominated the scene out of a view port.
The station looked like a colossal skeleton, silently hanging in the sky against the backdrop of Viduus III.
The engineers had been busy stripping it down.
Big Ounce was adjusting the The Icarus' velocity and trajectory, putting the ship into a synchronous orbit with the station.
There still had not been any answering call from the station, it was worrying the crew. The corporate handbook had no regulations for this, the crew were on their own.
As the station loomed large, Cyrox ran a thermal scan, heat signatures were showing up and there was a definite heat-bloom that was the profile of an active power generator. Cyrox knew that it would be enough for life support.
Ounce was closing in and making the final imperceptibly delicate adjustments, a few minutes later and The Icarus and the station were aligned.
It was a simple matter to extend The Icarus' umbilical to the station's airlock, then the two were connected.
The decision was made to send Doris and Ounce over to the station. Doris was the ship's medical officer and Ounce had received security training.
They went out of The Icarus' airlock, the span between The Icarus and the station had no artificial gravity, so Doris and Ounce had to float over. When they got into the airlock, the station's gravity tugged them back down to the floor.
Once the outer door was closed, they punched in the commands to open the inner door. There was a hiss as the airlock equalised with the station and the doors slid open into the gloom.
The room ahead was unlit other than a small winking light, a minimal amount of starlight was streaming through the station's view ports.
Doris and Ounce flicked their flashlights on.
They found themselves looking at a grotty looking squarish steel-walled room, there were three ways out, but two of them had been wielded shut.
This was standard procedure for engineers when they stripped a station down. The sealed doors would only lead out into space now. Eventually the engineers would have stripped as much as they could and were now down to a minimal amount of inhabitable space.
Doris and Ounce shouted out their arrival, no answer came. It was quiet and when they went in and played their flashlights over the room, they could hear their boots creak. There were three messy looking cots and the winking light was coming from a food dispenser.
In one corner was a grimy looking makeshift shower unit had been set up, upon closer inspection, it also doubled as a toilet!
A number of storage crates had been stacked up to the ceiling in another corner. Several had been tipped over and possibly looked damaged?
It was starting to look like there were signs of a struggle. They spotted a dark spot on the steel floor. Looking closer they realised it was some sort of stain, further inspection revealed that it was dried blood. Shining their flashlights, Doris and Ounce spotted several stands of hair mingled in with the blood.
Doris looked at the blood, it seemed at least one week old, there was a large amount too, possibly from more than one person
They shouted out again and waited, still no answer.
Cautiously, they continued their search. The damaged crates had been violently ripped open, it looked like they once contained food supplies.
The other undamaged crates appeared to contain equipment or engineering gear.
Next to one of the cots was notebook - a journal to be precise.
Doris skimmed the journal; it belonged to Batiste and mostly ambled on about their work, the writings indicated that he was the ranking officer here, the other two were Manuela and Williams.
Back aboard The Icarus, a proximity alarm began ringing? Cyrox had been slumped in a chair listening to the chatter from the others on the station, he wheeled over to the navigation console.
Long range detectors had picked up something new several thousand kilometres away. A computer calculation determined it was orbiting Viduus III and had just come round into detection range.
The orbit was at a slightly faster velocity than the station and in about twenty hours; whatever it was, it would catch up with the station.
Cyrox activated manual camera controls and swivelled one in the direction of the object. Pushing the camera to higher and higher magnifications, he sat up in surprise when he found what he was looking for!
The object was a spaceship of some sort, with careful application of the controls, Cyrox managed to get the ship's name.
He had to search the database to find anything about it.
The ship was Argent III. It had been part of the Argent Class, a fleet of 4 large ships with a crew compliment of over one hundred each that were designed for long term deep space exploration.
The fleet had been launched over a century ago. They had returned from their mission decades late,r having been recalled. All returned except Argent III, which had gone missing, its fate unknown.
As regulations required, Cyrox messaged the Argent III, no reply came. Another one he thought.
It was likely that all the crew would be dead after this time and the Argent III probably represented a significant value to whoever owned it, they might pay a big reward if correctly salvaged.
Aboard the station, Doris and Ounce went into the only exit. It was another unlit squarish steel room. This one was filled with rows and rows of more stacked crates.
They searched the room with their flashlights, they was no other exit, nor were there any bodies.
None of the crates here looked damaged or opened, but an inspection of the steel floor showed numerous long scuff marks, crates had been dragged out of the room.
There was nothing particularly different about these crates.
There was nothing more to be learned here.
Doris and Ounce returned to The Icarus, the crew discussed their next move.
It had to be the Argent III, the station was a dead end.
The umbilical was detached and retracted.
Ounce then adjusted the ship's velocity and orbital altitude, slowing The Icarus and allowing the Argent III make ground.
The crew again sent out messages and again no reply came.
For a few hours they watched out a viewport as the Argent III grew in size, speculating on what they would find.
It was a vast ship, perhaps a kilometre long and it easily dwarfed The Icarus - almost menacingly as the distance between the two lessened. Argent III was a museum piece and it obvious that it's design as well as it antennae and exterior arrays were all outdated.
Sweeping Argent III with cameras revealed that it had taken a quite a battering. It's hull was pock-marked with numerous dents and there was visible damage. The decades had left Argent III worse for the wear.
Argent III was also dark, a further inspection of the hull showed the ship's view ports were all sealed from the inside with steel plates?
It also showed a small shuttle docked with an airlock, they saw the shuttle was a much more modern design. The crew surmised that it came from the station
Cyrox ran another thermal scan, heat signatures were faint and fluctuating, there was no steady heat-bloom of a nominally functional power source. It was impossible to say what condition life-support was in.
As Argent III drew closer, Ounce began changing trajectory again, gently putting The Icarus into synchronous orbit with the Argent III.
Once this was done, the crew realised they had a problem, the shuttle was docked with the airlock, they couldn't use the umbilical to get aboard.
Cyrox pulled up Argent III's schematics from the the database. On the far side of Argent III was a ancillary airlock, the crew could probably gain access that way.
This meant going on an untethered extravehicular action excursion.
Ounce wasn't too fond of this and volunteered to remain aboard The Icarus.
Doris and Cyrox suited up and ran safety checks each other's EVA kit, the gear that would propel them on their kit. Everything was good to go.
They lumbered into the airlock and entered the black, empty silence of space. The only noise was their on breath and squawk of comms chatter.
It was a short journey to the other airlock but each metre that took them further from The Icarus was a metre further into potential danger and the unknown.
Argent III and Viduus III filled their view, the ship was below them and behind loomed the planet.
During training, they had been taught to focus on the task at hand, to remain clam and not look at the millions of kilometres of nothing above them but the urge to stare into oblivion could be irresistible.
Doris and Cyrox spent couple of minutes skimming over the Argent III's uneven hull until they reached the other side and manoeuvred to the airlock.
The external controls looked old but there was still some familiarity about them and luckily it was easy to decipher what-was-what whilst hanging there. Soon enough the door slid open they were were inside and Argent III's gravity asserted itself.
They checked the intermediate controls, these were more complex, there were various environmental readouts - even the font used on the screen was an outdated one!
Eventually though, they managed to close the out door and pressurise the airlock. Then they opened the inner door.
The suit readouts indicated that the air was safe, with a click and hiss, they removed their helmets.
It was time to go into Argent III.
23rd January 2021
Saturday night is here again and I'm logged on to Teams on my PC in the living room.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign
Location: Neon City.
It was too early in the morning when Koko had pinged all of us; Yennav Rybasei had been in contact. He wanted us over to some sort of meat processing plant in Rokkaku-Dai Heights immediately.
Pocketing my media-slab, I wondering just where Koko's relationship with a Russian Mob operator was going to eventually lead us. Every combination of the words; meeting, mobster and meat processing plant sounded like it would lead to a bad ending.
I checked my .45 ACPs, pulled on my boots and trench coat then went and met the others in the morning heat, unaccustomed to blinding low morning sun.
This meat processing plant was on the edge of The Heights' old warehouse district in a small business park that backed on to a row of retail units.
Unusually for a warehouse, this was a was grey-and-brown bricked building with a few small second story windows, some doors and a couple of bays. at the front it's original old sign had long since faded away.
Situated at regular intervals on the rusting corrugated gable roof were a large number of ventilation shafts.
Would have been a fairly anonymous place except for the handful of clearly tooled-up and generally easily spotted mob goons with their buzz cuts and cheap polyester Russian Osolitki tracksuits they liked so much who were kicking their heels outside and failing to look respectable.
They watched us intently with unblinking gazes as we walked over, obviously gripping weapons in pockets.
Once we told them that we were expected, they relaxed and breathed.
One of the thugs bought us into a partially sun-lit hallway with a dusty threadbare carpet that led to a short row of offices, Yennav was waiting in one.
It must have been an admin office, shelves were stacked with old vinyl document boxes and office supplies, a couple men sat working at desk-slabs and the room was filled with beige or brown plastic furniture.
The exception was a plush looking shiny faux-leather exec chair in which a reclining Yennav sat. His relaxed posture couldn't quite hide the nervous expression on his face.
He stood up and greeted us with a forced cheerfulness and after some small talk took us through another door into a small high-ceilinged bare corridor.
Dust motes floated lazily in sunlight that poured through the small windows and shone on the plain concrete floor.
At the other end were a unusual set of heavily looking steel double doors.
"Leads to cold storage," Yennav offered.
Yennav jabbed a panel on the wall; the insulated doors popped a few centimetres out of the wall with a short hiss and automatically slid open. A small cloud of accumulating mist rolled out into the corridor where warm air mingled with cold.
Beyond; a mixture of weak LED strips and sunlight bleakly lit the stark brick and concrete room. Skinned animal carcases hung from rows of cruelly curved steel hooks and barbs, gently swaying in the almost indiscernible flow of cold air being pumped in by the low rumbling fans in ventilation shafts.
"There," pointed Yennav.
We followed his finger and I sucked in my breath, it lead to a cyborg, hanging from one of the hooks.
It was the kind we had encountered before: Protobase Global cyborgs, monstrous braindead hybrids that were built to kill.
Except not this one, it hung there moving in rhythm with the carcasses.
"Non-active, but still functional. No danger." Added Yennav.
He went on to explain that during a conference at a mob-owned restaurant a group of the cyborgs had appeared and attacked. Yennav shook his head, explaining that during the ensuing firefight he had lost many colleagues before the cyborgs were destroyed. Though his men had managed to disable the one here in the storage.
Yennav wanted us to find out who had done this to them.
The first thing we checked was the cyborg. As Koko worked at opening a small service hatch I could feel a chilly invisible grip wrapping around me like an icy boa constrictor. None of us were used to this kind of temperature, not in Neon City.
Once Koko was done, I worked quickly; behind the hatch was a port that allowed Protobase Global to program their mindless murder-machines, it was also my way in. I networked my data-slab to it and jacked in.
Ram Rat was still occupying a sizeable chunk of my data-slab's storage partition.
A constantly shifting and rotating innumerable swarm of glowing data-insects, each an algorithmic subroutine that contributed to Ram Rat's brain-image wheeled over and greeted me as I appeared. Ram Rat wanted to know what we were doing?
We accessed the cyborg's programming, it had been executing a complex set of hunter/killer instructions, nothing unexpected considering what it had just been used for.
We dug deeper but came up with no further data that could help us, whoever had created the programming had also been very careful to hide their footprints.
There was one small piece of data though.
The cyborg's base operating code was probably written by somebody different to who had programmed the instruction set and they had left something, something that was missed by whoever had wiped the data
The base operating code still contained a timestamp, this was when the code had been compiled; this was a week ago.
The Protobase Global robot manufacturing facility had been destroyed by us long before then.
There was another facility somewhere in Neon City.
The cyborg was a dead end.
Next Yennav showed us the front security camera footage from the restaurant.
We watched the grainy silent low angled footage; it showed a platoon of cyborgs rapidly charging along the street, coming into the footage from out of the camera angle. They were directed to attack the restaurant by a familiar looking rotund Asian man, once again he managed to keep his features hidden from us.
It kept us from learning anything about the attack.
For several minutes we re-watched the footage again and again, nothing new each time. Until we spotted something, we hit freeze frame and there: A ghostly, insubstantial spectral shape lurking in the shop window across the street from the restaurant.
A faint, transparent phantasmal half-reflection that showed cyborgs leaping out of a sky-freighter to one side of the restaurant but too transparent, too faint to reveal any detail. There was however, a strange smear of bright green that we were naturally drawn to
Taking a screen grab, we fed it into my data-slab, Ram Rat and I checked it out.
The image was already low-rez and when we expanded it, it only got worse.
I ran a protocol to enhance the image, an predictive algorithm would reconstruct the image, cleaning and sharpening it. Hopefully it would clean and sharpen it in the right way and we'd get something.
A toy, it turned out to be a child's plastic toy stuck to the top of the sky freighter's dashboard, a distinctive colourful green troll mascot of some kind? I ran it through image recognition, it was produced by Lekorrem Toys and wasn't associated with any businesses or corporations, it had no meaning, it was just a damned child's toy.
Another dead end.
We were grasping now, but perhaps it had some kind of significance to truckers? We only knew one trucker, Aisha Laverone - Lady Zero.
We pinged the image to her and asked if she knew about it. she got back to us pretty quick.
The toy could be found on the dashboard of a freighter that belonged to a Ivan Wykw. How could we find Ivan, we asked? Lady Zero didn't know, Ivan shunned The Brotherhood of the Road, whatever the hell that was and was happy to take any cargo no questions asked.
One last thing Lady Zero told us; he was a serious pachinko player and liked to play at the Isseki Nityou Pachinko Parlour in Highway Zero.
It was a start.
Twelve lanes of unending blurring traffic moving at four hundred kilometres per hour on street level made Highway Zero the noisiest, hottest district in Neon City. with an all encompassing background rumble that filled the air like a low hiss of static.
A midday sun was baking the streets as we rolled into Highway Zero. It didn't take long to get to the Pachinko Parlour.
The parlour's name was brashly announced by a large, elaborate set of neon signs and shapes flashed on and off in a rolling animated sequence.
The sound of bells, sirens, electric jingles, sporadic song samples could be heard from outside.
Inside, it rose into a blended cacophony of electronic noise that numbed the mind
The brightly lit room was entirely filled by rows of zombie gamblers of every variety sat in front of gaudily coloured flashing and winking Ozoyanan pachinko terminals, almost mindlessly pumping ball after ball into the machines and watching entranced, as they bounced their way down, clinging on to the hope that a dopamine hit would be triggered by a win.
A battery farm of steel ball laying zoned-out gamblers.
It was packed, every seat, every row occupied and we didn't even know what Ivan Wykw looked like or if he was even here? Finding him was going to be a slog,
A different approach was needed and that approach was his sky-freighter.
Back outside, we looked around, across the road was an asphalt surfaced parking lot. A quick search and we found the colourful green troll; Ivan's truck, a dirt smeared Tulytt Arboret sky-hauler.
It was empty and had been sitting here a while, the bodywork had been cooked by the Neon City heat and was painful to touch.
We provided cover to Koko as she delicately worked the truck's door lock.
With a click, it was done. As we opened the door, a wave of sun-heated hot stale air escaped the truck along with the rancid smell of rot, crap and sickly sweetness. For a moment everybody stood back, we all knew that smell.
Taking deep breaths we looked inside. There was a plastic coated bench that ran the width of the cabin in front, its colourful patterns worn away by use. The truck was parked up so all the dashboard systems were all turned off. Most corners of the cab and the windscreen contained caked deposits of dust and grime, accumulated from years of travel and some other small pieces of trash littered the interior.
Behind the bench, the cab extended to the rear and the shaded, unlit sleeper area.
Touching the sleeper area's panel light bought it to life and its soft glow revealed an unmoving figure laying covered by a duvet. We checked closer, Ivan Wykw was there, under the duvet; dead.
Someone had been serious about tying up loose ends.
Another dead end.
Powering up the sky-freighter systems triggered a sequence of dials and instrumentation activating in a flurry of winking red-and-then-green lights.
The auto-router would contain a log of the freighter's movements, we checked it, the log had been deleted.
Very serious about tying up loose ends.
It was time to see how good they were at this though.
Under the dashboard was a central dash-slab, it's role was to manage all the sky-freighter's systems; power management, propulsion, aerial stability, fuel usage, data readouts and of course, the auto-router.
When the logs were deleted, they weren't deleted from the auto-router but the slab instead. The auto-router was in essence nothing more than a dumb terminal, an interface linking to the slab which did all the actual work.
Like all slabs, when data was deleted from the dash-slab. it would be fragmented and transferred to a specific hidden partition, none of this would ever actually show up on the auto-router.
Networking my own data-slab and jacking in, Ram Rat and I searched the dash-slab, finding the deleted data was easy.
I copied it to my own slab and ran it through a reconstruction protocol.
It took a little while and we had left the sky-freighter by the time it was done but it got the result we needed, we had the auto-router logs.
Ivan Wykw's last journey but one had been to the restaurant and less than two hours before that the sky-freighter had gone to an address in Kibogaoka Hill. There was our lead.
Waves of midday heat and over-bright sunlight pummelled the tram on our clackety ride down to Kibogaoka Hill. No surprise, aircon wasn't up to the job and tightly packed passengers sat or stood, silently enduring the discomfort and shielding their eyes. Nothing new in Neon City.
Kibogaoka Hill was the poorest, most neglected and underfunded district in the city and that was saying something. The city planners must have forgotten about this place when it came to the building of Neon City.
The tram had dropped us off at the foot of Kibogaoka's titular hill.
As the main thoroughfare wound its way uphill, narrow unpredictable side streets branched off in random directions. Other than this, every visible square centimetre of the hill face was seemingly covered by an haphazard sprawl.
A blanket of favela styled shanties were draped down the steep incline. Corrugated sheeting, wooden panels and pallets, plastic coverings and tarpaulin, held together by a mix of nails, rope, wire or cable all contributed to the patchwork district of densely packed makeshift homes and shops. A tangled mess of daisy-chaining black cabling ran from rooftop to rooftop providing power.
There was nothing here for tourists and the streets were quieter for it.
It was obvious we were the outsiders here, our clothes marked us as foreign and suspicious looks were thrown our way as we walked up the hill.
Disaffected youth roameded the favela in bands or gangs, wearing threadbare clothes, hand-me-down boots and defiant, glowering expressions.
Throughout the shanty town the ankh image had been sprayed over many of the ramshackle walls, the tag for Kibogaoka's biggest gang, The Immortals.
Pushers dressed baggy jackets had staked every street and sat on their corners with one eye on the street and one hand on their pistols thrust deep into their pockets. A drip-drab of customers always coming and going.
Meanwhile strung out, underdressed street walkers prowled the hillside for clients.
Stray dogs had the run of the shanty town and feral cats ruled the uneven, mismatched roofs.
On the way up we passed The Launchpad. Designed to deploy multi-stage rockets into orbit, the strange and empty imposing structure had never been used. An enormous tapering steel skeletal launch tower rose out of an open concrete platform and stretched up above the favela, dominating the view from anywhere in the district.
It was hard to imagine how and why it got built in Neon City in the first place and what would happen to the shanty town around it if it were used?
The shanty town climbed most of the way up the hill where it reached the commercial centre of Kibogaoka Hill and mingled with actual buildings of brick, concrete, steel and glass. A strange melting pot of hodge-podge shanty businesses side-by-side with commerical buildings and retail units
The address led to Den's Den Of Domestic Doers. It took a while wandering through the meandering, claustrophobic, random street-maze to find. It was easy to become lost in the narrow, shady back alleys and as we navigated our way we were constantly under the scrutiny of some resident of the favela or other so we kept our wits about us.
Eventually we found Den's Den but we chose to stay back and observe from a distance
Den's Den Of Domestic Doers was a manufacturer of domestic white box appliances.
A largish, square. innocuous brick building that backed right on to an extensively expanded part of the shanty town, it seemed to have been a retailer that directly served the public.
A quick search showed that the business had been bought out by a subsidiary of Protobase Global.
Now it was out-of-business, doors had been barricaded and shop front windows boarded up.
Or so it seemed: For a disused business, we counted a large number of security cameras pointed at all the ways in. There was something strange about the shanty town behind it as well, it was in someway too large and the shape was too uniform, too predictable, as if it was something else?
During our surveillance we had drawn the attention of an old woman who was watching from the doorway of her wood and plastic shanty home.
Bill approached and introduced himself, she was fairly evasive, untrusting and immediately warned him off, telling him it wasn't safe here. Bill smoothly moved the conversation on and she continued. All the original staff from Den's Den had gone missing as as well a number of locals, no one knew why.
If this was a new cyborg manufacturing facility for Protobase Global, then we knew why.
As Bill was talking, the rest of us had noticed rough-looking locals beginning to congregate close by, armed with makeshift clubs they were giving us frequent surly glances, talking heatedly amongst themselves and shifting about as their numbers increased
Maybe they thought we had something to do with the disappearances? Maybe they just didn't like the look of us?
Whatever the reasoning, this wasn't the time to correct those views, so we moved on.
After relocating to a back alley more out of the way, we decided to scout the shuttered retail unit out.
Koko sent Kevin to investigate, the spy-drone zipped over and began scanning the target. As expected, the doors and windows were heavily barred and protected, we needed another way in.
Kevin increased altitude and breezed over the flat roof.
The search revealed several pieces of information, no cameras watched the roof and there was at least one unprotected skylight up there, finally, Kevin pinged us a warning alarm? Her on-board Geiger-counter was picking up an unusually higher than normal radiation count, a radiation leak was somewhere out there!
We gave each other questioning glances?
Koko instructed Kevin to perform a sweep of the area and used the different Geiger readings to triangulate the source. It was narrowed down to an plain, unbranded office block not far from Den's Den.
Nothing could be seen through the windows and it seemed too quiet to be in normal usage.
Trigger took a look with his thermals.
About a third of the way up the tower he started seeing hot spots and then some sort of thermal image of a grid pattern?
Roderick volunteered to take a look, none of us felt particularly confident enough to approach.
He ran over with his distinct robotic gait and disappeared around the back of the building, came back a couple of minutes later and reported his findings.
From the outside, it looked like a typical office block but inside it was a single vast room the size of the whole interior. Inside Roderick had found a cluster of small sized missiles? They were all labelled The Rokkaku Group.
Roderick showed a video he'd recorded of the missiles
The missiles were definitely too small to carry payloads into space; which is what the Rokkaku Group were known for. They must be something else, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles? With the radiation they were pumping out, it had to be.
There seemed to be no link between Den's Den and the missile base, they had to be unrelated we reasoned.
It was time to infiltrate Den's Den. We got to the roof unseen and forced the skylight open without any trouble.
In went Kevin, she saw a large room, perhaps the size of the entire ground floor. It lacked any furniture and contained only one thing. Protobase Global zombie cyborgs: standing there inert, a good twenty of them! There was room for a lot more.
We'd seen them like this before, this was just the end of the manufacturing process. Elsewhere was the manufacturing plant, where Protobase Global thugs had dragged hapless innocent people to their brain-deaths by cybernetic-lobotomy.
Amazingly, Koko had bought a rope with her, it was a Angolan Pruiticos cord, constructed of weaved long-strand polymers, it was thin enough to easy fold and carry but thick enough to grip by hand. It was also incredibly strong for its thickness.
The cord was tied off somewhere secure and we descended, Trigger was first, eager as ever.
Our breathing and rustling clothes seemed loud in this quiet mostly empty room and our footsteps slapped on the vinyl coated floor. Other than the barricaded doors and windows, there was only one way out.
Looking at the cyborgs, I asked Ram Rat what he thought of inhabiting one? They were mindless and he wouldn't encounter any A.I. conflict. He didn't seem too keen on it, on the other hand his choices were limited right now, so he decided to try it out.
I knew where the cyborg networking sockets were and easily connected my data-slab. I jacked in watched the thousands of expanding and contracting, swirling, gleaming data-motes that represented Ram Rat's consciousness funnel off out of my slab like digital water sloshing down a plughole.
for a few minutes Ram Rat walked around, flexed his arms, adapting to the two-and-half metre tall construct with its four arms loaded with weapons. He didn't seem too unhappy with the results.
It was time to move on, there was only one way out.
Koko opened the door and immediately closed it. She had seen a security camera attached to a wall opposite the door and pointing right at it.
Time to be cautious. Koko opened the door a few centimetres and left it ajar, enough to allow Kevin through. She floated into the corridor and zipped up close to the ceiling, out of camera shot
Kevin's video feed showed us that the door led into a plain corridor running left-right with grey vinyl flooring, off-white walls and lit by strip lighting.
To the right, along the opposite wall was a door and beyond that at the corridor's end, another door.
By our calculations, something was up. Those doors would be leading into the shanty buildings? The buildings had to be a disguise for something else?
As we were discussing this, we saw the far door open, from her vantage point Kevin watched as a Protobase Global rentaguard strolled down the corridor.
He turned his head as he passed our door and stopped, he'd seen it was open and was reaching for the handle.
We threw ourselves to either side of the door, except for Ram Rat who was still learning how to move.
The door swung open and the rentaguard was taken aback with a look of shock by one of the cyborg's standing at the door.
Before the rentaguard could react, Trigger reached out and yanked him into the room, closing the door and hitting him with a stun-baton. He crumpled to the floor.
We had an in now! Stripping the rentaguard of his grey and black uniform, Bill used his implants to disguise himself as the man and returned to the corridor.
Koko tagged Kevin on to Bill and the drone quietly followed him, sticking close to the ceiling.
The first door led to an office of some kind, Bill could hear voices on the other side, he continued to the far door, returning the way the rentaguard had come.
Passing through, Bill was greeted by the hum and motor-whine of automated machinery at work.
He was in a production factory of some sort. A large high vaulted room of exposed support girders with corrugated steel walls and a concrete floor, lit by a mixture of spot lighting and elevated windows. Hidden by the false shanty town outside.
Two rows of elaborate orange and grey industrial robots with custom appendages were studiously working on a small assembly line, building cybernetic microelectronics on the conveyor belt with their unnaturally swift and precise movements.
Bill spotted a door marked Security Office. Inside was a solitary rentaguard sitting at a desk-slab and a bank of screens.
"Take a coffee break," said Bill. "I'll man the fort here till you get back.".
Rentaguard didn't need to be told twice and was out the door.
We had ten minutes, maybe fifteen.
The desk-slab needed to be hacked, Bill contacted us and over comms I directed him through the system. It was the standard Karseakk security setup that we'd seen on Protobase Global slabs before.
Before long, Bill had shut the camera feeds down and we were in.
Now we had a chance to find out more about the rotund Asian man. Did he work for Protobase?
The security slab wasn't linked to the corporate servers. We needed a terminal with higher security privileges.
So we came up with a plan.
Bill went back into the corridor and through the office door between the factory and us. Inside was a cluster of replica wood desks, four wage monkeys with their tired, stressed faces and cheap off the rack neutral grey Turkish Radicuz suits looked up from their terminals and at Bill.
"Security drill," Bill explained. "Please exit the area in an order fashion,".
They glanced at each other questioningly.
"NOW," Bill shouted and they quickly made their way out.
With them out of the way, I jacked my Nonohiki into one of their desk-slabs and began my search.
When the material world faded into the background only code remained, a domain governed by the unfeeling embrace of inevitable mathematics and unflinching logic, where everything made sense.
The Protobase Global servers were a massive data-image, a cubic construct that spanned kilometres of virtual space. Unlike the constantly evolving data-spheres of the GLOWNET, these isolated monolithic data-vaults rarely changed and only in relatively small ways when they did.
Protobase retained vast quantities of data at any time and employed tens of thousands of people worldwide. Information here was stored within cuboid structures, there were cubes-within-cubes and data-vault led to data-vault in convoluted pathways. A direct search would be futile.
I programmed some bio-parameters into a search protocol and let it do its thing. It came back with twenty or so hits, a lot more manageable.
It didn't take long to find something.
All of the results bar one were dead ends and gave us nothing. Someone had cleaned out the Protobase databases but this one thing had eluded them.
A record of an old security card that had expired years ago. It contained a slightly out-of-focus typical head-and-shoulders photo, it was the rotund Asian man and the card had a name; Nozi Kinko.
It was time to go, we had what we needed for Yennav. Before leaving, we decided that the remaining cyborgs here needed to be destroyed.
It was a opportunity for Ram Rat to learn about his combat systems after we left! Then afterwards take the back alleys out and be picked up by our roaming RV.
Which worked out well, Ram Rat couldn't come with us, his massive body was too conspicuous.
As we were making our way out of Kibogaoka Hill, Trigger's media-slab pinged, a package had been delivered to his apartment?
Then, on route to Trigger's, Bill got a call from Katsuo Nakamura, he wanted a meet at his place in Rokkaku-Dai Heights immediately.
Once we were safely inside Nakamura's well-to-do high-rise, we sat on his plush sofas as he gave us tea and explained what he wanted.
Binary Johnny was making another run tonight, this time into Diver City at midnight and wanted us as muscle again.
Johnny had the low-down on Oshin Amalgamated; they were expecting delivery of massive excavator robots at the desalination plant. These would help with the installation of the underwater nuclear heaters that would be used to disastrously raise the water level in the bay. Johnny was planning to sabotage the robots with a virus.
Nakamura told us to meet Johnny at the pier in Highway Zero.
There were still hours to burn and plenty of time to get to Trigger's apartment. It was a small plain package that had been delivered, inside were a couple of tubs of White Lotus Liniment and a name; Orin Kichi.
The package was from Prophet Wei and he wanted to rub this chump out.
A search revealed that Orin Kichi went by the handle OK Daddy and was a pimp that rolled in the back alleys of 99th Street. A report stated that he was suspected of murdering two working girls but there was no evidence.
99th was always crowded, even during the afternoon's lowering glare of the sun, the noisy, neon-lit allure of quick-fix entertainment was too much for the moths of the City of Electric Dreams looking for a good time.
Amongst the restaurants, gambling dens, game parlours, karaoke bars and bars of 99th were the working girls - and boys, as much as part of 99th as anything was.
We asked around, rumour on the street was that OK Daddy was nasty piece of work, vicious and thuggish but nothing confirming that he's committed murder. After finding one of his girls, she gave us the address of a hotel in the back streets where could find him and that he could be recognised by his tattoos.
I had no inclination to do what Prophet Wei demanded, on the other hand OK Daddy was not what you'd call a nice person and getting rid of him seemed like a good idea.
We had not seen any solid proof that he had killed the prostitutes so we decided that running him out of town was they way to go.
The din of 99th was somewhat lessened in the back alleys, most of the amusements and hospitality didn't reach this far and the twisting, shady narrow ways were mostly given over to densely built multi-storey brick-built residential units.
The hotel that the address went to was small and looked like a converted old townhouse. Inside, the unlit tatty entrance hall led to a living room converted to reception.
There was a miserable looking girl sitting at a desk, distracted by a media-slab and there was someone else....
He was tall and wiry, with a thin, almost gaunt face, spikey black hair and looked Japanese. He wore a well cut pair of silvery-grey trousers from a two piece Oltrante suit and a tight fitting white vest. His exposed arms were covered in two sleeves of elaborately designed tattoos, displaying his Yakuza affiliation.
He was leaning against a wall, eying us and polishing a pistol. It was a nice piece, a nickel plated Pouegnu Arms FK4 9mm automatic with a black grip.
We confronted him.
He refused to admit to having anything to do with the murders, we told him we didn't care and we wanted him out of Neon City.
Kichi, shifting his weight to his feet, he began gesticulating angrily, looking from us to the girl
We pushed the matter, he needed to leave. He became more stressed, waving the pistol in our direction, his a face a desperate mixture of fear and anger. The girl scrabbled out of the room, screaming
The situation looked like it was going south.
It was obvious that Orin Kichi didn't want to lose face to us and wasn't going to back down but the odds were seriously stacked against him if he kicked off.
In the end, we didn't give him a choice.
One swift move from Trigger with a stun-baton put him on the ground.
Discussing the matter, we came up with a solution.
Dragging an unconscious person into the street and then stuffing them into the trunk of a sky-taxi may not have been commonplace in Neon City but neither did it turn heads. Which is what we did with Orin Kichi after sky-taxi we had booked arrived.
We jumped into the cab and the lights and noises of bustling 99th dropped away as the cab gained altitude.
Putting Orin Kichi on to a train to somewhere far away had been an option but there was a risk he might come back. Our answer was a lot better.
The sky-taxi dropped us off at the closest Planetary Guardian Defence Force recruitment office. It was a cramped space, the walls were lined with photos and video screens of square-jawed, attractive young people in various photo-opportunistic poses in their uniforms and peaked caps. Opposite the door was a plain desk containing a desk-slab, against one wall hung a rack of pamphlets and leaflets about the benefits of joining the PGDF.
Behind the desk, at the desk-slab sat a recruiting officer in his own uniform and peaked camp, he looked at us wryly as we dragged the unconscious Orin Kichi in.
We explained that the unconscious man was here to join the PGDF, the recruiter didn't question our motives and instead began filling out paperwork on his slab. No doubt he'd get a nice recruitment bonus for this.
A few minutes later and the recruiter looked at Orin Kichi and pointed at his desk-slab as he told us he needed authorisation from the candidate before he could finish the paperwork.
Whilst looking the recruiter in the eye, I dragged the unconscious man to his desk, yanked his arm up and pressed a thumb against the desk-slabs bio-reader.
Signature Recognised flashed a message on the desk-slab. Orin Kichi was now the newest recruit of the PGDF, he would be going off planet on his ten year term without delay and wouldn't be coming back anytime soon.
Moments before we left, the recruitment officer stopped us and gave us a complimentary gift for recommending a friend to the PGDF.
An action figure; one of the Ace Space Captain of the Fourth Dimension range - a Chuck Comet one!
16th January 2020
It's Saturday evening and I'm in logged into Teams on my PC in the living room.
This means it's time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
It had been a late one last night but then, they always were. Night was beginning to rain itself out as I crashed hard on my futon, so hard that I'd barely managed to pull my boots off before I slipped into what would hopefully have been the blissful oblivion of dreamless sleep.
By the time I woke, the sun had already crawled more than halfway up the pale sky, the blinds kept most of the blinding sunlight out but none of the pounding heat. Rousing myself, I slouched over to the kitchen area
I'd managed to score some genuine Hechunai genetically modified spider-goat milk and it was time for a treat. It wasn't until I was going through my media-slab over a lunchtime bowl of Paheheu Pops cereal that I read the targeted news had come down the GLOWNET while I'd been sleeping.
Noise Tank, the metal worshippers nihilistic gangers that menaced street-level Highway Zero had taken a ride out to Sunshine City and struck a high-end fashion boutique called Clothenjoy. The gangers had stolen their entire Neon Noir clothing line, Noise Tank had even kidnapped customers wearing Neon Noir clothes.
There had to be a link, we had stopped Sky Juice, a Noise Tank foot soldier from stealing info at Neon Noir launch party not so long ago. Now they were stealing the clothes?
I imagined that when he heard, Hika Taki would be jumping up and down with indignation, more stressed than ever.
Over spoonfuls of soggy, heavily processed and flavoured rice I let curiosity get the better of me and continued reading. Somehow Noise Tank had managed to get past Sunshine City's heavy security, rip off Clothenjoy and give the rentaguards the slip.
No wonder the feed was reporting rumours that it was an inside job.
The onsite security was handled by some outfit called Mall Cops. Who knew how legit they were?
None of this meant anything to me of course, until I got the call.
Lucy had gone missing. Alison was on the line and told me that she had gone to Sunshine City to check out the new Neon Noir line....
Maybe Lucy hadn't been kidnapped? Maybe sometimes, Neon City could give you a run of good luck. Who was I kidding? I knew the answer before I'd finished thinking the question.
I met up with the others and we took the tram to Sunshine City.
From our elevated ride we had a good view of our destination through the tram's grime-caked, neglected windows as we rattled nosily along.
Sunshine city was a steel and glass temple to corporate self-indulgence and excess, its upper levels a home to the more affluent corporate employees. It's chromic façade caught the sunlight and blazed like a fiery column of white flame, rising so high it evaporated into the blooming haze of the stark blue-white sky. No mere monolithic mega-structure, Sunshine City was nothing less than a city-within-a-city.
Architects had discovered many years ago there was a practical limit to how tall a skyscraper could get before the need to ferry so many people up and down made it become more elevator than anything else.
Sunshine City had solved this puzzle by removing the need for that many elevators. The upper levels housed entirely self-contained communities that were served by their own facilities and amenities, schools, hospitals, cyber-clinics, restaurants, theatres, you name it.
The lower levels of Sunshine City were given over to a massive, brightly coloured multi-tiered, multi-storey shopping mall that contained every type of shopping experience and every imaginable product available to purchase.
More than that, outside were dedicated open green spaces and parks.
All wrapped up in a protective bubble of executive rentaguard.
It was possible to spend your life in that ivory tower without ever needing to hit street-level and if you could, why wouldn't you?
As we came into the Sunshine City station, the tram's worn brakes began to squeal their protest.
I pulled my vibrating media-slab from my coat pocket. A black-band message was flashing on the readout.
Legally speaking, few city municipal bodies had the authority to pump a transmission out on the black-band; a narrow slice of bandwidth on the GLOWNET reserved for emergencies.
A localised text message was coming from rentaguard, an officer-under-fire distress call, requesting help from any other local rentaguard and even civilians! This was going to be bad news?
We tore out of the station and down the rusting rivet-filled iron staircase, after inputting a few quick instructions, the media-slab led us to the message's source, we could hear gunfire coming that way.
The concrete, windowless smooth base of Sunshine City at street level was enormous and surrounded by a series of prestigious parks and open spaces, sprawling flat carpets of green dotted with clusters of trees, calm pools, lazy winding paths, leisure amenities and numerous concession stands.
They were well looked-after by robotic maintenance crews that ensured the grass was always trimmed, in good condition at all times, they pruned the bushes and flowerbeds, cleaned the litter and ensured there was no graffiti.
The rentaguard here who were euphemistically known The Park Patrol made sure that undesirables were persuaded to keep out of the parks.
What we saw was the opposite of all that. Following the signal led us into the closest park, into a play area; it was chaos.
Various once-cheerful small structures had collapsed in on themselves and were mostly billowing smoke and spewing fire. a numer of small, shallow craters scarred the grass and several awkwardly sprawled, motionless bodies littered the area, everyone who could move had fled.
Only a pair of Park Patrol rentaguard remained huddled behind a colourful dinosaur themed slide pitted with bullet holes, sporadic gunfire was gouging further chunks out of the slide.
The source of the gunfire was a humanoid robot, a Thetatech 4-20 Emergency Response
Pacifier. We could see it inexplicably dangling by one arm from a horizontal power cable that spanned over the park. The other was brandishing a Thetatech Explosive Flechette Hurler. Immediately as we came on to the scene, it began splitting it's gunfire between The Park Patrol and us. Every round fired unleashed a clustered volley of microscopically slender explosive flechettes, able to inflict injury through all but the toughest combat armour.
Trigger took a bad hit from one volley and we dived for cover.
"Help me, I cannot execute stand-down orders," The robot cried metallically as it opened fire.
The 4-20 was a high-spec bodyguard model that could operate in two modes, butler and combat, it was of course in combat mode right now. EMP hardened and deliberately unconnected to the GLOWNET. There was no way I could hack it or get at it with a soft attack. Taking it down in one piece would be tricky.
"Die! Shooting is too good for you," it announced, continuing to fire.
Trigger was methodically firing back up at it, hoping to hit the cable.
"Please accept my apologies," Went the 4-20 as it kept firing.
Koko and I positioned ourselves as close to the robot as we could.
Die you filth," it screamed electronically, resuming it's gunfire.
Trigger's shot snapped the cable, the robot loudly crashed down in a heap.
"Assisting you is not a priority," It informed us as it fired yet again.
Koko lunged the at the robot, it hadn't quite gained its feet and she tackled it to the grass. With her powered Maiulava micro tools she managed to get a panel open on the robot, exposing the digital guts within.
Peering in, I could see the usual array of circuit boards, wiring, servo motors, power regulators and reinforcing struts and, there it was, what I was looking for; a standard wired GLOWNET adapter, I networked my Nonohiki into it. Almost immediately the data-slab spat out a series of warning pings, something was filling the slab's storage partition at an enormous rate, redlining its transfer rate. It wasn't killware, it was a vast quantity of uncompressed raw data, something else?
At the same time, the 4-20 powered down for a second before humming back into life, it was rebooting.
I took the opportunity to jack into my data-slab to see what was up. There a moment of dizziness as I had to adjust to the additional sensory input.
It wasn't like connecting to the GLOWNET, with its unending digital vista displaying the constantly shifting and renewing user-inputted data.
Instead the data-image on a slab should've be static but it wasn't? This data that had transferred itself into the storage partition was endlessly overwriting itself with constantly recalculating parameters. I watched on dumbfounded, the data-image swirled and wheeled, simultaneously shrinking and expanding, rotating through a myriad selection of colours.
Then I heard it.
The voice, there was a resonance, a slight change in pitch that couldn't be digital? I was too shocked to do anything.
It thanked me for saving it, it explained that it could not have survived in the robot for much longer, there wasn't enough storage in the robot to maintain the robot's A.I. protocols and it's own brain-image!
Is that is what I was looking at?
He said his name was Ram Rat and described himself as a netrunner. He explained that he has been put on a run by Ghost Radical and he had been double-crossed.
Ghost Radical; every hacker and runner in Neon City had heard of Ghost Radical. An old school legend who back in the day was king of the hill. A shadowy enigma whose identity had never been revealed, if the term Ghost In The Machine had a picture, it would be missing, because no one knew what Ghost Radical looked like.
Ram Rat said that had been sent to assassinate Porter Sladek.
Sladek was the billionaire C.E.O of Thetatech Advanced Research, another faceless, amoral multinationals that had made its home in The City of Electric Dreams.
Thetatech specialised in weapons development and manufacture. The 4-20 robot we had just encountered was a Thetatech model.
Ram Rat continued; the assassination plan involved waiting until Sladek was travelling outside his fortified residence, then going into the GLOWNET and hacking into Sladek's robotic bodyguard, a 4-20 ERP and attacking him in transit.
It had gone wrong though, the autonomous sky-limousine's threat-detection protocols had somehow picked up the danger from the 4-20 and ejected it. The robot had plummeted down into the power line. The feedback had been massive - and critical!
Ram Rat could not exit the robot. He said that his body must be dead, killed by Ghost Radical. Ram Rat was trapped in the robot, it's erratic behaviour was a result of the conflict with its A.I. and his mind.
Disembodied bio-images of the dead roaming the GLOWNET was the stuff of Neon City myth.
It had to have happened before surely? Maybe this undulating, contorting chunk of code in my data-slab was what remained of a human being, maybe it was the proof?
I networked my data-slab to my media-slab, it would allow Ram Rat to stay in comms with me and the others - they were in for a surprise!
Ram Rat seemed to content to sit in my slab for now.
Jacking out was like pulling your head out of a bucket of water, as my senses of material reality came into focus and sharpened, I had to resist the urge to shake my head.
The 4-20 was still rebooting, the entire encounter with Ram Rat had taken milliseconds. Once it was done, it introduced itself as Roderick ERP and looked at us in what might be considered a quizzical manner?
Roderick explained that it's employment contract with Thetatech had been terminated fifteen minutes ago and it was at a loss for what to do.
Bill spoke to Roderick and agreed to take the robot on as a bodyguard.
Looking around, the fires were still burning and smoke was still rising, we could hear the distant two-tone wail of approaching first responders.
The two Park Patrol rentaguard had come out of cover, their drab grey faux-uniforms and faces were smudged with dirt. Holstering their cheap Rekhang 9mm Ngaohun sidearms, they came over and thanked us, eying Roderick with suspicion. After a prompt they gave us the low-down.
Their routine patrol had been interrupted by the sound of harsh crackling and buzzing. Bouncing like a child's doll with flaying limb was the 4-20 robot, hanging on a powerline, spraying a fountain of dazzling, fat golden sparks down on to the park below.
The robot had convulsed and twitched, occasionally lighting in small brief flames, its vocal system was humming and stuttering, distorted half words spouting out.
Then it's arm had reconfigured into a weapon and the attacks began. Park goers ran scream, unable to avoid the blasts, hiding behind the concession stand only delayed the inevitable for seconds, flimsy buildings easily cut apart by the flechette attacks.
The Park Patrol had opened fire on it, but it just focused on them, it's firepower was too much. We came along a minute later and pacified the situation.
We asked them what they knew about the attack on Clothenjoy but it wasn't their jurisdiction and they couldn't help us.
As the sirens grew louder we made our way to the mall.
The Sunshine City mall was an impressive sight, its construction a mixture of polished white stone walls and glass panels, gleaming vinyl floors, all decorated with brushed chrome fittings and lit with huge LED strips. As the name Sunshine City suggested, it was an insultingly bright and clean contrast to the grime of Neon City outside.
It contained cinemas, music venues swimming pools, sports arenas and hundreds of shops to name a few. Its crowning achievement though, was the main promenade.
More vertical than horizontal, it spanned over two dozen storeys, each floor ringed the vast central open space that soared the entire height of the promenade.
A score of walkways and escalators criss-crossed the divide and if viewed from directly above or below gave them the combined appearance of a colossal spider's web.
After navigating the milling crowds that wandered the busy multicoloured shopfronts we found Clothenjoy.
There was little to see from the outside, cordoned off as it was by black and yellow taping.
A handful of clustered and uniformed Mall Cop rentaguard with cheap obvious augmentations were lingering here, chatting amongst themselves.
Approaching them, we asked what had happened to the women?
They gave each other sidelong glances before an answer came - and didn't give us much. Only that the Noise Tank gangers had used smoke bombs to cause confusion before escaping down a fire escape.
They didn't say how the Noise Tank gangers had managed to get away entirely unmolested.
Rumours that they'd taken backhanders to look the other way may have had some weight. It was pointless trying to press them for info, instead we decided to take a look around.
The fire escape led to a dull grey industrial-looking concrete stairwell that wound its way downwards. It led outside to a cat park.
This was a paved square courtyard surrounded by grass and lined with small trees and inhabited by a variety of cats studiously relaxing or sleeping, the courtyards was dotted with stone bowls that people could use to feed the cats and benches that allowed them to sit and watch.
A gravelly path led off through the trees that eventually connected to the park at the entrance.
Taking the opportunity to scratch some feline ears and look round, we spotted several security cameras bolted to the exterior of Sunshine City, however since the gangers had exited here, it would likely only show the backs of their heads.
One of the cats came and looked at us and spoke!
I’ve seen things you weren’t here to witness.
The cat explained that he had been a mission specialist for off-world operations, his designation; Noodles, his rank; Captain.
We'd heard of this. Genetically re-sequenced cats bred to have enhanced physical characteristics and performance, as well as at least human level intellect, augmented with implants that allowed them to speak and interface with instrumentation and equipment. They would be placed on off-world stations to make best use of their small size and improved agility and balance.
These cats were mostly known by the misnomer replicats.
Captain Noodles went on.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Koko was clearly taken with noodles, she crouched down and said, "You seem very wise,"?
I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see,
With the information given to us by Noodles we found a security camera pointing the direction he had pointed out.
Like most security camera footage, it was uploaded to a remote server located somewhere in GLOWNET and was protected by mundane security.
When I jacked into the GLOWNET, Ram Rat was there, he asked if he could help? I didn't see the harm in it.
Turned out that Ram Rat could manage the programs on my slab and navigate the obstacles of the GLOWNET quicker than I ever could. This wasn't second nature to Ram Rat, it was his nature, at least for a disembodied data-spectre it was
It took minutes to retrieve the footage.
I’ve been where you’ll never go.
We watched as the Noise Tank gangers, piled high with clothing clambered aboard the angular, roughly half-cylindrical shape of a Altaeyr Armerdt model sky-freighter that had dropped down to a spot close to the cat park. Then they dragged half a dozen women aboard, cheap security equipment meant the footage was a bit grainy, but Lucy was definitely one of the victims.
Finally a bunch of Shaolin Rippers in their distinct orange went aboard.
The freighter's plates and been obscured and fresh streaks of paint had been splashed over all the logos and any identifying marks.
Upon scrutinizing the footage a second time, we noticed that whoever had been disguising the vehicle had missed a spot.
The spot was a business logo; Lady Load Freight.
A quick search revealed that it was an independent hauler that operated out of Highway Zero that specialised in female-only employees.
It was owned by a Aisha Lavarone, we tried the business number but got no answer.
It was time head over to Highway Zero. Captain Noodles had decided to accompany us.
We’ll see things we can’t imagine, an electric city of dreams alight with the hopes of millions, rain-slick streets thronging with the crowds of the dispossessed, towers that touch the sky.
There was time to mull things over on the way to Highway Zero.
It wasn't unheard of but neither was it common for different gangs to work together. Noise Tank and Shaolin Rippers had just done that to steal the Neon Noir fashion line.
Threads were beginning to come together, events were somehow being linked.
White Lotus Liniment was the only link we had between the two street gangs, who was supplying this extremely addictive substance? Was there only one supplier? Were they using it to keep the two gangs under control?
Prophet Wei was behind the attempted theft of Neon Noir, was Prophet Wei the supplier and behind it all?
Eventually the tram ground to a halt at Highway Zero's elevated tram stop. We could hear the dull background roar of a million accumulated tyres rumbling. Disembarking, there was a brief view of the blurred torrent of metal that thundered along twelve lanes of highway.
Aisha Lavarone had geo-tagged herself on her MyFaceSpace page.
Chuck's Truck 'N' Tuck Stop was a slice of old-time Americana style. A classic roadside diner; a brash flashing and humming neon sign was fixed to the roof of a colourful oblong windowed box planted down next to an expansive flat and grey asphalt parking lot populated with sky-freighters and road drone haulers.
The diner clearly provided food mostly to the haulage trade.
A little bell rang cheerfully as we strolled through the door, the smell of coffee and frying food immediately wafted over us, old tunes played on a tinny sound system, mixing with the hiss and crackle of cooking. Shafts of hazy sunlight streamed through half shut blinds.
Inside, a long replica wooden counter ran along one wall and white-tabled red booths stretched along the other.
Behind the counter was a kitchen bench and a cooking station, it's orange open flames heating several shallow pans.
Chuck was an oldish tall guy who looked the part in a white forage hat, apron and chequered pants. We took seats at the counter and wiping his hands down his apron, he turned from his cooking and poured us black steaming coffee into plastic mugs. "Take your time," he said handing us some laminated menus that listed classic diner food.
"Eggs, over easy with grits," I ordered.
There had to be close to twenty people here, propping up the counter or slouched in booths in small groups or alone, chatting quietly or lost in their food. Mostly they wore work clothes, none looked like gangers.
When Chuck came back around with the coffee pot for refills, Bill asked him if he knew Aisha Laverone?
"You mean Lady Zero? She's over there," he nodded to a woman seated in a booth.
A stocky woman with a green Mohawk and hot pink wrapped shutter shades, she wore a sleeveless denim jacket, olive cargo pants and Harbief work boots. Lady zero seemed distracted by a half finished plate of food.
Lady Zero didn't seem pleased to see us walk over and less pleased when we asked about her sky-freighter?
Stolen by Noise Tank this morning, she told us, from the parking lot as she watched! Too quick to stop.
Chuck was happy to let us review the security footage from his front camera that overlooked the parking lot.
The footage was good enough to get a look at the theft and allow us to get some hits from facial recognition.
Four Noise Tank gangers had from what we saw on the footage easily broken into the sky-freighter.
Armerdt trucks came with biometric security as standard which the thieves had to work around.
Any hacker worth their salt could crash a biometric lock, with these Noise Tank gangers, it was the speed with which they did it that was impressive. Someone knew their stuff.
Facial Recognition had put names to faces and a quick search revealed they all had a litany of minor criminal offences to their names.
Their criminal records confirmed their gang allegiance to Noise Tank, each set of records also listed the same known hangout, a joint called Cybartek. We had a lead.
Cybartek was located at the end of a strip of mostly abandoned, dismal looking brick buildings that sat in the gloomy shadow of a noisy flyover. A half working neon sign that seemed to be the street's only colour flashed the bar's name in a garish red hue.
At street level the bar's window was barred with a rusting iron grid, on the upper level all the windows were boarded up.
The steel panelled front door squealed incessantly whenever opened and slammed shut with a loud rattling bang.
Finding a spot to watch the bar was easy. Foot traffic here was a little quieter than typical for Neon City so we had reasonable visibility from further away through the shuffling crowds, Kevin was also patrolling the front as well.
It didn't take too long to see that the bar was a busy place and Noise Tank gangers were easy to spot; heavily augmented, mostly Jamaican cyborgs in porkpie hats. They were coming and going constantly, to and from a variety of directions and always in pairs. Something was up.
More information was needed. We waited until a pair of gangers left the bar and followed as discreetly as possible, patiently until they turned a suitable corner into a quieter street, then we raced in.
Roderick stated that he could reconfigure into combat mode and deal with them.
Bill said it was probably a good idea if Roderick stayed in butler mode.
With our stun-batons we easily took the two gangers down, they convulsed briefly before toppling over. After dragging them into some sort of derelict building, we revived them and Bill gave them a talking to.
The ladies who were kidnapped had been taken to the warehouse. The gangers reassured us that they had not been harmed.
"Take us there," Bill ordered.
We kept a tight reign on the gangers as they led us along tall, narrow back alleys that zig-zagged through the tightly packed buildings of a retail area and opened into a under-utilised commercial park. Sunlight didn't reach this deep into the alleyways and it was a shady respite from the brutal heat.
The park was a relatively quiet place with minimal outward activity, there were numerous grey, anonymous warehouses here, constructed of large cubic steel frames coated in high density polymer cladding, roofed with sloped corrugated PVC and sporting unremarkable logos of corporate subsidiaries on the doors.
It wasn't hard to spot the pertinent warehouse, it has massive hangar-style doors and was around two hundred metres away, it was the only one with gangers kicking around outside as well as coming and going! When they left, they were carrying packages.
Koko sent Kevin to scope it out but she lost contact once the spy-drone had slipped inside the warehouse, it had to be shielded. Kevin had sent a few seconds of footage to Koko's control slab, it showed Lady Zero's vandalised sky-freighter along with Noise Tank and Shaolin Ripper gangers distributing the Neon Noir clothing.
Maybe we could get the freighter of there remotely, a direct approach could be risky with so many gangers coming and going.
We contacted Lady Zero and asked her for the remote access codes, she explained that she had tried to recall the sky-freighter but it hadn't worked. After giving us the codes she told us that it was likely that the master-control that governed remote access had been shut down. It would need to be manually activated by someone.
That someone would be Bill. His implants conferred him the ability to alter his appearance and modulate his voice, allowing him to spook in and out of places.
He flicked an internal bio-switch and his face seemed bubble and stretch before settling into the appearance of one of our prisoners. He grabbed some gang colours and was ready.
A constant flow of members of two gangs moved in and out through a couple of side doors, wasps in gang colours flitting in and out of their nest.
Bill waited and picked his moment, then unassumingly walked into the warehouse.
For a few minutes we were out of comms with him until we heard his modulated foreign voice crackle metallically.
He had managed to open unblock a small window, breaching the shielding. He'd also had a quick scout.
The warehouse interior was airy and open but poorly lit. It's scarred and scratched concrete floor was caked in a layer of dust and hadn't seen real work in a while.
Against the north-west corner was an admin office constructed of nailed up drywall and chipboard with a pair of transparent acrylic window panes. Inside were some cheap plastic foldout tables and chairs. Whatever terminals were once used in this room before had been ripped out and junked, all that remained were some damaged sockets and ports. Network cabling had been torn out the walls and hung there like fibreoptic entrails.
Bill had found the missing women her, six of them; wrapped in grimy rags and old blankets. The Neon Noir outfits they'd been trying on during the raid, taken.
A couple of gangers watched the door.
Next Bill had to activate the remote access on the freighter. He briskly walked past the long side and hopped into the cab and ducked into the footwell below the dash, it was a bold move but no one was paying attention.
Bill pressed on the master-control and it depressed with a click. Outside, the readout on Koko's control-slab came to life as a number command functions went from red to green.
From in the cab, Bill cautiously peered out of the windscreen, no one seemed to be looking, so he hopped out and walked away.
Time for Koko to do her stuff.
From a distance Bill watched as the sky-freighter's systems came online, lights sprang to life and the turbines began to spin up with an increasingly loud whine.
The roar became deafening as the gangers stood dumbfounded for a moment, the engines whipped up the dusty floor and loose debris into a blinding gale, forcing them to retreat.
The sky-freighter lifted off and hovered for a second before accelerating upward through the flimsy roofing which was no obstacle and collapsed, folding in on itself and crashing down into the gangers in the main warehouse.
Bill took advantage of the chaos to slip into the office, he checked on the prisoners and cut their bonds. Then he sent us a message; he needed a way out.
Outside, at the north-west corner with his microscopically sharpened blade, Trigger slashed twice at the cladding and gave it a hefty kick, a triangular opening appeared which Bill used to lead the women to safety.
Koko instructed the sky-freighter to return to Lady Zero and it shrank away towards the horizon. As we made our escape with the freed women, all of the readouts and screens on our slabs inexplicably activated.
It was a message, from Great Prophet Wei: Why do you fight for the corporations? I look forward to working with you and will contact you in the future.
Hours later, whilst at a open-fronted bar on Dogenzaka, sitting on little chrome-plated stools and drinking brown bottles of Dindanha beer. We were watching the rainwater streaming down the plastic awning into puddles and the hurrying silhouetted crowds, sharply backlit against the stark streetlights when Koko's media-slab pinged.
Yennav Rybasei, mid-level organiser for one of Neon City's Russian mobs and seemingly friend of Koko was on the other end. He told her that he needed us to find a suitcase and to meet him at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Rain loudly pummelled the tram's roof on the short tram ride over to The Union. The streets of Dogenzaka rolled by, neon-lit blood veins carrying the umbrella wielding, coating wearing lifeblood of the city.
Once past the hotel's security we met Yennav in a room.
Kadi Serova was an associate, Yennav told us. He had been tasked with delivering a suitcase to the Fortified Residential Zone via the only route there; the Secure Residential Metro Link and had been given a ticket. Kadi had never made it there though, instead he - along with four others were found dead in a Shibuya brothel by rentacop.
Yennav handed us some grisly photos of their fully-clothed dismembered remains.
The suitcase was nowhere to be found he told us, it was a silver Mahakam Ambassador suitcase. Yennav said we should not look in the suitcase if we found it.
Finally, Yennav gave us our own tickets for the secured metro link.
The Secure Residential Metro Link was a prestigious elevated monorail ran exclusively from The Skyscraper District to only the Fortified Residential Zone, with no stops between.
It seemed like a good place to start.
We took the Sunshine City Metro Link to The Skyscraper District. It was one of the few times that the subway was more direct than the tram. The metro was originally envisaged as Neon City's high quality, high speed rapid public transit system but had fallen fowl of the city's blight of mismanagement and corruption, never becoming as widespread as originally planned.
This ambition showed in the well lit, graffiti free, tiled tunnel infrastructure and noise free, smooth trains with their air conditioning and deep comfortable seating. A stark contrast to the underfunded tram network.
Among the reaching towers of The Skyscraper district was the secured metro terminal. A long cubic and clean looking building front that slotted anonymously amongst the taller grey structures. A simple chrome embossed sign marked its entrance, a dozen glass and steel doors led to the lobby and to check-in desks.
Even getting into the terminal required a ticket, the uniformed terminal staff gave us professionally neutral glances - as did the other commuters when we strode into the cool, climate-controlled room. The secured metro only serviced the affluent corporate execs that lived in the fortified zone, each commuter here lived very well when compared to the typical street level citizen. It was obvious that we didn't belong but our tickets did the talking.
We were waved through into the terminal proper. The far side of the hall opened away to became the terminal's four platforms stretching away into the distance.
The luxury here was unashamedly obvious. Polished stone floors of cream mixed with wisps of orange, clay walls painted a gentle beige and inlaid extensive fixtures detailed with gold and chrome foil. Sheet lighting gently lit all of it with the palest warm yellow light.
Above, the high-vaulted ceiling was constructed of panels of arched glass stretched away over the platforms. Despite the dark skies beyond, we could see rivulets of water lazily trickling down the curved exterior.
The terminal was well insulated the hubbub of Neon City outside, there was a comfortable quietness here.
Uniformed staff and robots presented us with complimentary food and drinks.
We sat on some of the many gleaming steel and faux leather seats that dotted the hall. I jacked into the GLOWNET, with Ram Rat's bio-image flitting around me like an attentive dragonfly and began my search.
Finding my way into the terminal's data vault was straightforward. There was a vast quantity of passenger records stored on their system but with Ram Rat's assistance we able to find information on Kadi Serova's ticket.
We found the exact time and date that Kadi had checked in but that ticket had never checked out. It appeared that something had happened to him between the two stations. It was impossible to guess what?
Next we hacked the security camera feeds, there were multiple feeds but we had the exact time we needed to search.
There was no sign of Kadi on any of the footage? It required further investigation and after more scrutiny we noticed that someone else was checking using Kadi's ticket.
A rotund Asian man, it wasn't possible to run facial on him, whoever he was, he knew what hewas doing and was smart enough to keep his face hidden from the cameras.
This man must have used another ticket when exiting the secured metro.
Kadi had never boarded the secured metro, we had to go further back.
It was likely that like us, Kadi had used the Sunshine City metro to get the The Skyscraper District.
Sunshine City was a vast corporation, and its GLOWNET presence was equally imposing: A slowly growing and towering, strangely luminescent square brick column that was emitting dim light. With Ram Rat to help it was easy bypassing their defences, each brick in the column represented a large repository of information, we just had to search them.
Ram Rat was able to process the data at a rate I couldn't imagine and soon he had a result; Kadi had not alighted at The Skyscraper District?
The previous station was Rokkaku Expo Stadium, where Kadi would have boarded the metro.
Ram Rat dived back into Sunshine's data-vault and soon came back with some footage. We had found Kadi and he still had the case but instead of boarding the metro to The Skyscraper District, he had gone to a different metro station?
We had Kadi's digital trail now, it had a strange white incandescent quality and was easy to follow through the GLOWNET's morphing knowledge-scape. As much as the trial twisted and distorted as it went along, we were always able to track it.
The Shibuya Terminal metro booking hall was a busy place, scurrying commuters hurried over the polished floor to make their connections, filling camera footage with tidal waves of rushing people moments before a scheduled departure.
In the middle of this rhythmic movement was a small beachrock holding a silver suitcase; Kadi.
This had been his destination. He was here with a tall woman, a wide brimmed yellow and red hat hid her face. Then the rotund Asian man came into shot and joined them, still he kept his face turned from the camera. Still, it was starting to come together.
The woman took something from Kadi and passed it to the other man; Kadi's ticket!
They then went their separate ways, Kadi and the woman one way and the rotund man the another.
The rotund man would be heading for The Skyscraper district to lay down the false trail we had initially followed, we continued following Kadi's trail and the woman.
Further footage showed them travelling to Shibuya Terminal where they exited the metro system. Kadi still had the suitcase.
We knew that Kadi had been found dead at a brothel, it was time to go to Shibuya.
It was getting late when we arrived at Shibuya Terminal, a short walk through the rainy, crowded street to the brothel's address.
Space around the brothel's front was unusually open, a couple of unoccupied rentacop cruisers dripping with rain were parked here, people gave them a wide berth.
It was an old run-down brick building, a tall and narrow knock-off brownstone. The exterior was stained with age and the build up of grime had turned the windows a orange-brown, cracked flakes of old paint dangled half peeled off the door.
Inside, the narrow old corridors and stairs were dimly lit with aging, yellowed lightbulbs that cast a gloomy hue on the intricately patterned but faded wallpaper. It was quiet too, none of the staff were working and the flooring creaked under our footsteps.
The room with with Kadi's remains had been taped off and rentacop were resentfully actually having to interview potential witnesses here, five gruesome deaths in one room was too big to ignore.
In Yennav's photos there had been no sign of any woman in the room, much less one in a colourful hat. It was likely that rentacop didn't know about her involvement. We had a line of questioning they didn't know about.
Bill spoke with some of the staff at the brothel about what had happened and the woman the red and yellow hat.
The woman in red and yellow had was actually a man called Thaddeus Rackham, he was male streetwalker in the vaudevillian tradition of cross dressing.
They told Bill that Thaddeus had come in here with a drunk man, they confirmed he carried a silver suitcase. The two of them had gone into a room with four other men. Soon there was screaming and shouting and Thaddeus raced out of the room with the suitcase.
The staff gave Bill one of Thaddeus' business cards; it contained his contact details but not his address. Bill pressed them for the address but they were either unwilling or unable to provide it.
We went back out into the rain before rentacop took notice of what we were doing.
The silver suitcase was in the possession of Thaddeus Rackham now and we had to find him, so we came up with an idea.
I jacked into my data-slab while Bill contacted Thaddeus and made a group booking for his services at the brothel. Ram Rat and I had been observing the flows of information through the GLOWNET, monitoring the call, we followed the data-thread and traced it to a spot on Chuo Street.
Midnight had long come and gone by the time the tram had rattled and rocked through the downpour to Chuo Street. Only the discontented or the driven rode at this time of night, even so, the tram was packed.
Passengers sat with soaked coats and umbrellas, either stone-drunk or stoney-faced, staring blankly at rainy, blurred lights outside or the worn, colourless floor, dragged down by the spiral of alcohol or the simply the nature of Neon City life.
Chuo Street's lower level was amongst the most ravine-like in Neon City, deeper and dimmer than pretty much anywhere else, tightly packed buildings were populated with love hotels, small restaurant, eateries, bars and narrow water logged back alleys; it was a good place to lose yourself.
The trace had bought us to one of Chou Street's gloomiest corners and a small nearly indistinguishable no-name hotel in a row of equally anonymous hotels. Only a small dirt covered sign screwed to a wall betrayed its purpose.
Bill spoke with the receptionist, she knew nothing about a Thaddeus Rackham but did admit that there was a Thaddeus Smith in room seventeen. We took the stairs.
Bill hammered on the door of room seventeen, shouting that it was our room, hopefully the lie would disarm Thaddeus.
Bill was about to knock a second time but Trigger lost patience. It was an old door and easy splintered under Trigger's booted foot.
"Threat detected," exclaimed Roderick! The robot began reconfiguring for combat mode.
Covered in clown make-up and dressed in oversized, colour and baggy children's clothing was a man who burst through another door in room at a run. Caked in dried blood and brandishing a knife, he lunged for us.
Trigger tagged him with a stun-baton, the clown's legs buckled and he dropped.
We roused Thaddeus and asked him about the silver suitcase, he looked at us for a moment, then began! He insisted that he had to take it! He had to rescue someone in the suitcase! Someone was living in it!
He was shouting and seemed crazed, he couldn't explain it clearly and we didn't push him for any further info.
The suitcase was found easily enough in the messy hotel room, its bio-numeric lock was still intact. Whatever was inside was still there, Thaddeus had never gotten a look at it.
The lock didn't look too hard to crack, perhaps we could...
The others decided that we should return it to Yennav and the Russian mob at the Union hotel.
Who was I to disagree?
9th January 2021
Saturday evening is here, I'm logged onto Skype on my laptop and sitting in the living room.
Time for the next session of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: 99th Street.
Midnight was fast approaching and rain was falling.
On 99th that meant very little, night was kept at bay by two kilometres of flashing, garishly-coloured neon and watery pale street lights. Herds of chrome-tipped umbrellas created an almost street wide shield from the never ending deluge.
99th Street never slowed down, of all Neon City, 99th slept the least. It fed the city's insatiable hunger for sleazy entertainment. Gambling, gaming, drinking, wining and dining, nightclubbing, hooking up, street fighting and of course more than anything else.... karaoke.
A few hours ago, Binary Johnny had pinged us about a gig and now we were on course for another little incursion into The Benten Tower. We met up with Johnny at the edge of 99th's panoply of light, noise and bustle, he was waiting for us in his familiar flying cap and goggles.
Since our last visit, tower security had tightened, smashing through a window wasn't an option any more.
More cameras, more rentaguard and now camera-drones, a murmurating flock of them watching, orbiting and wheeling round the tower.
Watching the tower, we discussed our approach, there was no route into the Protobase Global stronghold.
"Strictly speaking," Johnny explained. "It's Oshin Amalgamated we're doing a run on.".
We had seen the Oshin office on the forty-third floor with its model of a flooded Neon City. Maybe there was a soft approach we could follow?
The only Oshin employee we had sort of encountered was Vissi Goneva, a low-level exec at their London branch. His ex-wife, Xue Mi-Wu lived in Neon City, maybe she could give us an in on Vissi.
Xue lived above her authentic old-style window fronted small store in Dogenzaka Hill, we took a ride over.
Nearly one in the morning and Xue's Antiques was closed, the window only showed empty green velvet covered shelves. Wasn't much call for family run antique stores at this time - even in Neon City.
Fluorescents flickered into life in a window above the store after we'd rattled the front door with our knocking. More fluorescents, then a minute later the door opened.
Xue was surprised but not unhappy to see us, although she didn't know Johnny, we were invited inside, she gave us tea, rice and dumplings while we explained our situation.
While we took advantage of this home-cooked midnight feast, Xue went up into her attic and returned with a cardboard box filled with stuff Vissi had left behind after the break-up.
Johnny grabbed the box and began rummaging, hoping to find a nugget of gold in a trove of junk, after digging for a minute he pulled out a keycard. He turned it over in his fingers, it clearly displayed the Oshin Amalgamated penguin on one side.
"This could be it," He stated, slowly nodding his head.
We thanked Xue and headed off, Johnny explained that it was likely that the keycard had expired but if he was able to reverse-engineer the card's key code he might able to unlock the source encryption algorithm on the Protobase Global servers. Then he could simply generate a new key code and get what he needed remotely.
For this, Johnny would need to set up somewhere and network a card reader with his slab. He fancied going to Let's Bet, You Betcha!, it was a joint we all knew and was in the neighbourhood.
A short, brisk walk through the still-busy, rain-filled hazy night took us to Let's Bet, You Betcha!, the slightly run-down gambling den was still as low-cost, grimy and unkempt as ever. Filled with the cheapest, plainest, wipe clean plastic tables and chairs, it was stacked with gamblers engrossed by desk-terminals. At one-thirty in the morning these were the kind of gamblers banking on that one big score to set things right.
The staff smiled at us weakly as we strolled in. The last visit hadn't gone so well for the place; there was a new door now and the tacky furniture had been fixed or replaced but the filler put into the bullet holes hadn't quite colour-matched with the dirty beige colour of the cheap paint used to decorate the room.
We put ourselves down at a corner table and Johnny had jacked in, his vacant, slouched form a sign he had got to work. Koko had Kevin running scans on a patrol pattern outside and beneath the worktop, I was gently thumbing the safeties on my .45 ACPs.
It didn't take Kevin long to get a proximity hit, we watched on Koko's control-slab as four massive individuals, at least two metres tall and wearing matching khaki brown trench coats that did nothing to conceal suspicious bulges approached, materializing out of a veil of murky rainfall and heading straight for us!
Johnny was definitely pulling heat.
Patrons started yelling and stampeding for the back door as soon as we had gotten to our feet, gripping our weapons!
With a brutal snap, Let's Bet, You Betcha!'s new front door split apart, almost hanging in the air momentarily before fragments and splinters of cheap wood were flung across the room as the attackers stormed in.
A tearing sound followed as trench coats were ripped apart by unfolding armoured combat-appendages that bristled with weaponry. That was the least of it, with the trench coats gone, we could see cyborg limbs and reinforced joints, the enhanced reflexes and augmented senses as well as the dermal armour.
We recognised the work, they were Protobase Global cyber-zombies, each one brought four weapons to bear.
The firefight was short and savage, the air was filled with spent cartridges, the deafening roar of exchanged gunfire and the flash of Trigger's katana.
Before long the cyborgs had been destroyed and a empty silence then settled on the gambling den. A new swathe of bullet holes now riddled the walls and most of the furniture had been destroyed by indiscriminate cyborg fire.
It took Johnny a couple of more minutes to finish the hack, he jacked out and we left, crunching over the wrecked tables and chairs as we made our hasty exit into Neon City's drenched night.
After we got a good distance we ducked out of the rain into brightly lit little cafe.
Over some drinks Johnny explained what he had found.
The bay had been cut off from the sea for the last sixty years, now Oshin were planning to artificially raise the water level. This would be done by using nuclear radiators to expand the volume of water in the bay, flooding the waterfront with contaminants. All from a facility on Diver City Island,
The clean up and reconstruction would be a massive undertaking. Oshin had prepared to underbid any competitors in order to score those lucrative contracts.
Finally, Johnny told us that Oshin had begun a campaign to initiate widespread surveillance through bugging.
They had manufactured a large amounting of merchandising in form of cute plushies which they gave away as free promotional materials. Each plushy however, was filled with an array of micro-sized bugs that monitored whatever room they were placed in.
Our glances all turned towards Koko, who swore quietly under her breath.
After that we split and went our separate ways. It was past three by the time I rolled into my apartment and gone four by the time I crawled on to my futon.
Midday heat was baking into my apartment, I hadn't slept for the last couple of hours, instead I'd been sprawled motionless on my futon. Lacking any enthusiasm I was laid back, watching diffused sunlight glimmer across the ceiling and listening to Neon City. Listening to muffled arguments, or the scraping and banging of furniture, or that damned distorted music playing with its bass heavy beats. Listening to the distant rumble of an elevated road or the discordant voices on the street below.
The next noise I heard was the ping on my media-slab, Koko had picked up a job.
Someone called Xylona Alder was looking to hire us, no details on the gig though. We tried the return number; no answer.
Tracking her on MyFaceSpace was easy enough, she worked for Creative Cuddles, a toy manufacturer based in Highway Zero that made bespoke augmented Artificial Intelligence driven babysitting toys for children. According to her profile, she worked as a poetry algorithm programmer.
Wage-monkeys normally finished work at around six, so that's when we called again. This time we got an answer; Xylona told us that Toby had been kidnapped and she was had received a ransom note, it was instructing her to kill someone. We agreed to meet at the park in Dogenzaka Hill.
Making our way through the rare greenery, we watched our distorted, lengthened shadows dancing strangely as they stretched over one of the city's few open spaces. The temperature had dropped to nearly tolerable levels and sun had been reduced to a bright reddish smudge behind Neon City's western skyline, above us crimson tinged heavy clouds offered us the promise of rain.
Xylona Alder was a youngish, blonde haired woman, unusually she wore steel-rimmed glasses and had something of the nerd about her, exacerbated by last season's well cut but now deeply unfashionable navy blue Ovnaso trouser-suit and pale, light-green shirt combination she wore underneath a beige polyester jacket branded with the Creative Cuddles logo. Sitting on a bench, she also seemed clueless and had failed to notice our approach.
The day's dying light lit her surprised face in orange as we introduced ourselves.
She went on to tell us her predicament. The ransom note had told her if she wanted to see Toby again, she was to use the accompanying brainchip, it was an unassuming fingernail-sized square of cream coloured plastic. When pressed against someone's skin it released a nanoscopically tiny mote of nanite material that burrowed into the users head and spliced itself into the brain's synaptic pathways.
A brainchip provides the user with whatever skill or knowledge it was programmed with.
In Xylona's case, she discovered the brainchip had granted her the ability to construct tiny transmitters.
The brainchip also contained instructions ordering her to build a transmitter and place it inside a particular Creative Cuddles toy; a Pongo the Poetic Panda toy in this case.
The transmitter would be used to guide a missile strike on to that location.
Additionally, this was all on a strict timetable, it had to be done before the brainchip deactivated itself in seventy two hours.
Xylona had never expected that she would have to kill someone, she couldn't go ahead with it but she also wanted Toby returned.
That's where we came in. Kill the target and have Toby returned or rescue Toby, Xylona didn't care which as long asq we got Toby back.
Xylona did not know the target's identity, she only had the serial number for the toy she was meant to put the transmitter into. We decided to check who the target was.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, travelling the constantly morphing information landscape, navigating the relentless myriad flows of data-packages until I found the Creative Cuddles GLOWNET image, a colossal teddy-bear-like construct with fur composed of a million strands of multi-coloured glowing filaments.
The bear sat there with wide eyes and a too-wide grin on it's face, its posture suggested it wanted to hug someone. and its massive head would turn to in the direction of any bio-presence it could detect and laugh in a cheerful-but-creepy way.
My date-weaponry had no trouble puncturing Creative Cuddle's defence armour. I was soon looking through its customer and manufacturing records. The serial number provided by Xylona was for a typically customised toy from the Pongo the Poetic Panda line. It was linked to customer order from a Jovena Kantos, the invoice stated the order was for her daughter Raven.
A MyFaceSpace search showed Jovena worked for Margorba-Golina Global.
We definitely couldn't allow a missile strike on Jovena and her daughter.
Instead we asked Xylona about a description of Toby, he was about fifty centimetres tall, four years old wand identified with his white and chocolate coloured fur: Toby was an uplifted beagle!
We started with Toby, did he have a GPS tracker?
"Toby's collar had one," Xylona said. "But the kidnappers left it behind,".
That was a dead end.
Xylona lived in The Skyscraper District, a grey bamboo forest of vast concrete and glass towers soaring upwards, they were home to many of Neon City's workers and low-level professionals.
The Skyscraper district was a carefully designated segment of the city's hierarchy and designed to fill a specific role. Apartments here were lacking when compared to Rokkaku-Dai Heights, but not so basic and cramped as the social housing in Dogenzaka Hill.
A reason to work hard and get out of doldrums, or so Neon City's planners had thought. In reality, The Skyscraper District was almost as dismal as Hikage Street. It lacked the gangers, transients, graffiti and disaffected youth of Hikage but look hard enough and the accumulated detritus, grime and decay could be seen.
The camera feeds on Xylona's block were easily found and traced, no surprise; the server security was a joke. Jacked into the GLOWNET, I unravelled their system defences like a badly wrapped cheap birthday present, free then to roam the stored data.
Sifting through the low-res footage on the day Toby went missing I saw there was a lot of foot traffic in and out of the tower. However, in the GLOWNET I could at once comprehend hundreds of thousands of frames from the video-footage, filling my consciousness with an endless wall of frozen time as the data-slab ran its algorithmic protocols.
There was no direct footage of Xylona's apartment but the algorithm had identified a discrepancy that might be a lead. Two unidentifiable individuals had walked into the block with an empty Pohaden branded sports holdall, when they came out a few minutes later, the holdall was bulging.
It was about the same size as a beagle.
Fortunately one of the two wore a distinct and tacky purple and white Sport Lyafibya tracksuit. We could easily track it when we switched to other cameras. The two individuals led us to another skyscraper in the district and then to the sixty-second floor. As with Xylona's block, there were no direct camera feeds watching the apartments here, we were on our own now.
There were precisely one-hundred-and-sixty-one apartments on the sixty-second floor. Searching them would've been a big task, however with his thermal optics, Trigger managed to narrow it down. Only one apartment had a heat signature for what might be a small dog.
Koko sent in Kevin to scout the apartment out and it looked like we had found Toby, otherwise it was empty - we were in luck.
Getting through the front door was not a problem.
Inside was a fairly plain apartment, it felt quiet and lived-in. Dusty old light fittings hung from the walls and the wallpaper looked somehow drained of colour. The carpet was faded and in parts threadbare, in the living room the furniture had seen better days and light-damaged old photographs sat on shelves. In many of the photos we saw a man in the grey and black PGDF uniform. An ancient Iksaarp room-slab sat against one wall.
The living room is where we found Toby, he greeted us but seemed surprised and a little confused.
Toby refused to leave with us when we told him we were here to rescue him.
"The man told me he would kill Xylona if I leave and I can't allow that," Toby explained.
"He isn't here right now, he went shopping," Toby added.
We could have simply taken Toby and left, instead we decided to wait for the man.
In the meantime we had a quick search. There were drawers stuffed with correspondence, paper documentation and even handwritten letters, much of it browning in the corners with age, it wasn't something you saw often today. We skimmed the paperwork; Ikan Ichin was his name and he had seen military service as a munitions technician, now ten years retired. Much of his communication had been with Tatsuya Nikon, his sister - now deceased. Ikan did not appear to have any other family.
There wasn't much of a wait before we heard the door swing open with paced precise footsteps entering. They went into the kitchen where something was placed on a worktop. Footsteps then came to and stopped at the living room.
In the door was an unremarkable senior citizen dressed in a old brown and grey suit, his age-lined face slack with shock.
"Sit down," went the order.
His eyes scanned the room, he was calculating. Four of us, one of him. The maths was simple so he sat down.
We told him who were were, who we represented and what we knew.
He seemed both deflated and angry by the time we finished our piece.
"You might as well kill me now," Ikan blurted, flinging his arms into the air with obvious exasperation.
It wasn't the response we expected, there had to be something behind it.
Ikan became subdued, slouching in the chair when we explained that the gig was up, we pressed him for the truth and he relented.
For years he had watched as Tatsuya - his sister suffered: She had found herself hooked on pain killers and to try and kick the habit she had taken out a Pharmaceutical Protection Plan with Margorba-Golina Global. They promised that it would help her get out of this abusive spiral.
Of course Margorba-Golina Global were the biggest pushers of all.
As the years passed, he had watched as the yellow heroin had drained her life and the protection plan had drained her finances.
In her dying days, she had to move in with Ikan, a husk of a person with nothing left - except her three hits a day.
After she died, Ikan vowed that he would make Margorba-Golina Global pay.
From the peripheral of my vision, I could see Trigger shifting his weight several times.
Ikan continued; when he had seen Xylona wearing her Creative Cuddles branded jacket and walking Toby, he had gotten the idea to use a missile strike against a Margorba-Golina Global exec, after all, Ikan explained, he was an expert in explosives.
There was no reason he had chosen Jovena Kantos, she had made an order when he had searched, wrong place at the wrong time.
"Why didn't you just do a suicide bomb attack," Koko asked?
"Now that's a good idea," Ikan cried, perking up in his chair!
Koko tried not to squirm under the withering glances the rest of us sent her way.
We were in a quandary now. Toby was safe and Xylona was off the hook but Ikan was the problem. He wasn't going to stop gunning for Margorba-Golina Global, nothing was going to convince him otherwise. Only offing him would do it.
If we left him to his own devices, someone was going to die.
On the other hand, who were we to deny him revenge? Margorba-Golina Global were just another stinking, faceless, uncaring exploitive multinational, only one with a supposedly legit way to drag people down when they were most vulnerable.
In the end, before we left, we told Ikan that we weren't going to stop him doing anything but Margorba-Golina Global were going to be warned that he was coming for them.
Ikan seemed satisfied, so we made our way out.
It left a bad taste in my mouth, but we used a burner-phone to make the call to Margorba-Golina Global.
By the time we were back out on the street, dense sheets of rain were coming down with an almost deafening strength, so hard it threw up a grimy spray. In the rippling puddles, we could see skyscraper lights descending into the bowels of infinity.
It was a short march through the misty night to Xylona's apartment, both Toby and her were thankful for his return.
Perhaps an hour later we got the message from Lachlan/Bruno, yesterday Adil Buckova had booked a Joi Boi for today and Lachlan had volunteered.
Adil would be coming to the Yellow Cap car park for the pick up. That's where we'd make our move on him there.
We met up with Lachlan in Highway Zero out at the car park.
We could feel a slight vibration through the soles of our boots, the ground-drones on The Highway never stopped coming past and never slowed down, the fast passing traffic blurred into one long streak of smeared shapeless colour. There was deep rumble was a constant low background whine that came from The Highway and subtly drilled into the skull.
After discussing matters with Lachlan, we came up with a simple plan to catch Adil.
At the agreed time, Adil's massive Aladrau motorhome came rolling into the car park and Bruno Sweetbriar in his trendy outfit and well oiled body was there to meet him, the rest of us were close by, waiting to pounce.
The motorhome's air brakes hissed sharply as it came to a squealing stop, Adil opened the driver's cabin side-window and waved a yellow cap out of it at Lachlan. Lachlan in turn, with deliberate slowness walked towards the motorhome, we sprang into action.
Trigger ran out and stood in front of the towering motorhome. The Aladrau model's auto-drive had a safety protocol that would prevent it from running Trigger over - unless Adil had somehow reprogrammed or bypassed it. At the same time Bill ran and stood at the rear of the motorhome.
Then I ran for the door.
I reached it before Lachlan did, hopefully Adil had left it unlocked to allow Lachlan entry. Gripping one my .45's I tugged the door, it was open! I lunged about and made straight for the cabin.
Adil Buckova was a skinny oldish-looking man casually dressed in jeans and shirt, even if he had wanted to try and escape, he looked too shocked to react when I appeared brandishing a pistol at him.
With Adil secured, I told the others to come aboard.
The first thing I noticed was a sort of plastic-like smell to the motorhome, it's door seemed to lead into a kitchen area that ran to the cabin at the front. Lit with dim fluorescents, it was plain and functional, containing a series of flat beige plastic panels that were stowage points or unfolded to become worktops or reveal cubby holes, shelves as well as hidden kitchen appliances.
Further towards the back we could see into some sort of living room with a pair of integrated modular vinyl-trimmed foam seating benches and adjustable plastic tables along the sides. A cheap Sulgeon wall-slab was screwed into a wall and even more stowage points were here. A door led further back into the motorhome.
"What happened to the other Joi Bois," we demanded of Adil?
Adil looked nervously at us and said that other than the hook up, nothing happened, he would drop them off here again. He looked worried and briefly glanced into the living room.
Trigger immediately picked up on it and flicked on his thermal optics, he picked up two human heat sources, accomplices for whatever Adil was doing? Adil continued denying having anything to do with the disappearances as Trigger rushed through the living room and opened the door.
Trigger was stopped in his tracks.
He was in the motorhome's bedroom, thick red carpeting covered the floor and red silk sheets were draped over a double bed. However what Trigger found himself staring at were two naked men! They were tied to the bed and gagged, they also showed signs of serious injury, likely from torture. It was a hellish scene.
Trigger called back loudly and Lachlan came running, he identified them as two of the missing Joi Bois.
As our attention was drawn to the discovery at the rear of the motorhome, Adil took the opportunity to desperately lunge for the door. It wasn't fast enough, despite the distraction, I'd never taken taken a hand off the metallic grip of my stun-baton. One jab and Adil gave a short grunt before his momentum caused him to faceplant into a heap.
Med-tech was not a strong suite for any of us and Lachlan's colleagues were in a bad way.
Adil's motorhome was locked to his bio-signature, even punching an medical emergency request into it's dash-slab made no difference. I dragged the unconscious Adil back into cabin and pressed his thumb against a bio-reader and the cabin's dashboard lit up with a short distinct chime, the glowing light blue instrumentation provided real-time vehicle diagnostics as well as weather and traffic reports.
Next, the emergency mode was activated and the Aladrau's auto-drive came to life and took over, it was out of our hands now. The dash-slab immediately mapped the quickest course to a critical care centre and with a lurch, the motorhome accelerated out of the car park towards its destination. It then messaged the care centre and gave the staff our estimated time of arrival and instructed them when to have a trauma team waiting for us.
Auto-drive took the motorhome on to the congested elevated road network, quickly reaching top speed, threading the eye of the needle as it weaved its immense bulk between lanes of endlessly stretching vehicles, all the time constantly calculating the balance between speed with risk.
During the journey we discussed what to do with Adil? We told Lachlan and the two survivors that the decision was up to them. Lachlan was just glad they were alive and the other two didn't care what happened to Adil
Soon enough we arrived at dropping-off point at the front of a grey workmanlike looking medical facility and handed them over to the waiting med-team, Lachlan accompanied them.
We put the motorhome into it's programmed orbital route and let auto-drive do it's thing.
We dragged Adil into the bedroom and roused him, he looked from person to person and realisation came to him that he been caught dead-to-rights. It was like a switch had been flicked in his brain, no longer did he have to hide., finally he had the audience he so richly deserved and began belligerently boasting.
Adil eagerly admitted to torturing and murdering the other missing Joi Bois. He told us how he had watched them, watched how they thought they were so superior to him, so much better than he was. He had taught them though and in the end shown them who he truly was.
Once Adil's tirade had ended, we asked him what he had done with the other victim's? Adil told us that his motorhome's auto-drive orbital route would take it over the bay, that's when he dumped the bodies.
When the motorhome was in transit. a security protocol prevented any door from being opened. We searched it and found a hidden hatchway that Adil had added to the motorhome.
The next time that the motorhome went over the bay, we pushed Adil out of the hatch and watched as his flailing, spinning form shrank away, descending towards the water. If he survived the impact, maybe he could swim to shore.
It was a better chance than he ever gave his victims.
Now that we had the motorhome, we took it to Alex Chinsko and he reset the bio-lock to recognise Koko and Trigger.
We left it registered to Adil Buckova, it might be useful having an off-the-grid mobile base as a back up.
Later, news came down the GLOWNET newsfeeds that an explosion had occurred at the Margorba-Golina Global headquarters in Shibuya Terminal due to a technical error.
It was reported as an accident and there were no casualties other than the unidentified man who was at the centre of the blast. It was ruled as accidental death.
I guess that Ikan had made his choice.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.