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.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.