24th April 2021
Saturday has rolled round again, I'm logged on to Meet on PC.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Location: Neon City
Nosily searching through the accumulated yellow-hued junk in my one-bed after I woke from last night's chemically fuelled excess got me nothing; no food, nothing. Time to hit Hikage Street, pulling on my Harbiefs and trench coat, I pocketed my .45 ACP Blockbusters before heading out.
Midmorning and the day was already too hot and it was only going to get worse, the climbing sun rose into a blue-white and cloudless sky, emitting uncaring waves of heat down on to Neon City, only compounded by the dense passing crowds of Hikage Street no-lifers that shuffled along the busy, grey concrete roads. Something was different on the street though, sure, unusual for me to be out this early but that wasn't it, couldn't put my finger on it.
Wasn't until I was coming back from the convenience store, having blown the last of this month's universal credit on Niaiwo Noodles, a six-pack of Huntudi Lager and a pocket stuffed full of Savka choco-sticks that I figured it out: The Poison Jam graffiti tags that had been ubiquitously sprayed throughout Hikage Street had been covered by another tag.
'Magical Girl is coming.'
Never heard of Magical Girl? Maybe they were another of Neon City's many street gangs I wondered as I sank my teeth into a bio-genetically-flavour-enhanced, endorphin-triggering choco-stick, feeling the chemically-driven slight electric tingle cascading down my spine.
Were they planning to move on to Poison Jam street turf or was it something else?
Whatever it was, someone had put their foot on Poison Jam's neck, things were going to get hotter still.
Last night a message had been dead-dropped into the pocket of Bill's exquisitely crafted Executive Excess coat, looked to be from someone called Viper Joe, told us to meet him at Freak Pit, a well known underground combat venue where augmented fighters fought it out, Freak Pit had big-time streaming viewership and even bigger gambling numbers involved, too big for authorities to shut down.
Freak Pit could be found in the Senkawa Aqueduct neighbourhood, it meant riding the crammed, noisy tram into Sunshine City, transferring on to the luxuriously exclusive and well maintained corporate monorail service to the Toshima-cho prefecture, then forgoing it's comfort to transfer again, this time another low grade tram to the Senkawa Aqueduct.
Disembarking at our destination, we were greeted by the sight of an expansive red glow from the setting sun silhouetting Toshima-cho's angular western skyline which cast long shadows that inexorably climbed up taller eastern buildings and consumed the day's red-orange dying light.
Senkawa Aqueduct was an unwelcoming grey and grotty neighbourhood of anonymous sprawling industrial asphalt, sporadically populated by strips of mostly featureless buildings of unknowable purpose. The view was dominated by the imposing concrete block which constituted the Black Dolphin Gulag, Neon City's supermax correctional facility which supposedly housed the most dangerous individuals in the city or in reality, people who had crossed the paths of the wealthy and powerful.
Street lights had begun flickering into buzzing life and shone down on the swathe of bobbing umbrellas raised against the oncoming and unrelenting nightly downpour. The crowds began to thin out and eventually melted away as we turned into a neglected and barely lit road that led to Freak Pit.
The fight venue looked to be situated in a dismal and mostly unlit building site, cadaverous remains of an unfinished commercial park, one of many that dotted Neon City, abandoned as a cost-cutting measure by some corporation or other no doubt.
Makeshift spotlights ringed Freak Pit, soaking it and the milling, cheering crowd in a glaring blaze of harsh light while music thumped out of a massive sound system, Senonable wall-slabs hung above it all, brightly displaying footage of the combat below.
We found Viper Joe somewhere in the crush, he was a large guy and a frequent spectator in the arena fights who favoured dark denim and carried a pair of Prosya Grosto magnum-load revolvers, he shivered and twitched as he greeted us, making a point of not shaking our hands, his nose also ran profusely. Noticing our stares, Viper Joe explained he suspected that his running nose was the result of a recent lung transplant that had gone awry.
Pepper checked Joe's implants and ran a diagnostic, shoddy components in the augmentations were causing Joe's problems, it was unavoidable. Pepper also told us that Joe's behaviour suggested he was a hypochondriac.
Joe was a middle-man, a street-trader who dabbled in weapons and made dollar by supplying the pit.
We got Joe to explain why he had called us. He was pretty blunt about what he wanted, he wanted us to kill someone!
He took us to a nearby building, told us to "keep to the shadows," and led us in. It was busy with numerous large open rooms given over to the medical gurneys, bio-slabs, med-techs and of course, jacked-up fighters
"Neon Suspect is his name," Joe explained, pointing into one room, at skinny man working at a desk who wore beige slacks, grey coat with a round face and a buzzcut, he was arched over a Preaavar Muanma model data-slab he was fiddling with.
"He's a hacker who works for Doctor Ishimura and codes the combat algorithms for her fighters," Joe went on. "He's my rival for her attentions and is trying to worm his way into her affections!".
Viper joe twitched as we looked at him.
"I've not told her how I feel," he abruptly blurted, almost apologetically!
He went on to explain that Neon Suspect was an expert at bio-interfacing software, coding algorithms that interacted with both higher and lower brain functions, managing behaviour and even conferring the recipient various skills. Joe was convinced that he was doing this illegally?
Despite the life we'd immersed ourselves in, we weren't the habit of just blindly rubbing out people for money, we agreed to look into it.
Dr Ishimura owned a stable of Freak Fighters that operated out the pit, she had a background in the med-industry and used old insider contacts to provide her fighters with augmentations required to stay competitive, she also supplied Joe with his replacement organs. Word was that the fighters' implants were as equally cheap as Joe's. She was also known for her garish fashion sense, germaphobia and chain-smoking.
Ishimura's fighters had suffered a long streak of losses recently and her rep was currently trash. Joe suspected that Neon Suspect was sabotaging her fighters in order to get close to her. We decided to speak with her.
Middle-aged, stocky and easily identifiable by the fluorescent canary yellow poly-blended leisure suit she wore. Dr Ishimura had just ended a conversation with Neon Suspect as we approached and was lighting up a Diria branded Mahawd.
Bio-engineering had made it possible to reverse the addictive changes that nicotine made to brain chemistry, but people just kept smoking regardless, living for the buzz and hoping that somehow they'd have the bank to fix or replace the damaged organs later.
Dr Ishimura's eyes flicked our way and she didn't seem particularly pleased to see us when we introduced ourselves, one of her fighters had just lost another fight and she wasn't taking it well or maybe it was just her general demeanour?
With a cigarette hanging from her mouth, she pulled a small, nanite, antibacterial gel applicator from a leisure suit pocket and dowsed her hands with it.
We told her that Viper Joe suspected that someone was sabotaging her fighters as she took a long draw and listened. Once we finished explaining the situation, she exhaled and no amount of cleanliness could disguise the stink of tobacco, she rolled the cigarette between yellowed fingers as she considered her response. After moment she agreed to grant us access to her gym.
It was a dismal sight; the sour, stale stench of body odour hung in a weakly lit room littered with substandard, decade-old and failing med-tech. Several morose fighters sat slouching on benches, bristling with combat augmentations and implanted muscle packs that glistened in the underpowered strip lighting. Dr Ishimura took the opportunity to shout insults at them, voice thick with unconcealed venomous contempt.
Neon Suspect gave us a lengthy sidelong glance from the desk as we walked over to one of Dr Ishimura's sullen fighters while she was lighting her next smoke and applying more gel.
Only way I'd be sure if he was the saboteur was in the scripting of his combat software, he'd know I knew too. If it all went south, it could kick off.
I checked the fighter over, there had to be a connector of some kind? Found it! A tiny, discrete Xideti dermal implant under a small fold of grafted skin that was equipped with a networking port. Connecting my Nonohiki; I jacked in.
Swirling vectors of gleaming data points seemingly orbited me before coalescing into a stable, constant shape, a basic workman-like, almost default cubic data-image. Beyond it, on the glowing info-vista, a pale, distant horizon pulsated rhythmically, was it some kind of non-indexed vault being updated? A check showed it was simply the fighter's biometrics being fed into a data-vault.
There was a directory on the data-image's vault that pointed at a implanted micro-slab and listed the series of algorithms housed on it which interacted with the subject's brain.
After navigating over to the slab's data-vault, going through Neon Suspect's algorithms, I launched an algorithm of my own, a search algorithm and began sifting through the stacks of data that rolled past.
Pain suppressors, reflex enhancers, situational assessment, threat prioritization and more, they were sophisticated algorithm's and all functioned nominally, no erroneous code in any of them. If Neon Suspect was the saboteur, he was sticking the knife in another way.
The info-vista faded as it spiralled away, taking the data-image with it and seemingly imploding as I jacked out, experiencing the usual infinite-moment of disorientation.
Koko and Pepper checked out the fighter's combat upgrades and weapon implants, they quickly discovered that not only were they the cheapest, lowest grade Rekhang knock-off weapons available, they'd been sabotaged!
Weapons were Viper Joe's responsibility, was someone targeting the weapons to get at Joe, or was it something else?
Neon Suspect strode over as we were discussing our next move, which was convenient because we wanted to talk to him. Pointing, the hacker explained that the fighter we'd examined was up next in the pit, he shuffled past and made for him. We watched as he networked the Muanma into the fighter's firmware, no doubt making adjustments and checks. Moments later, we saw the fighter's countenance change, his expression hardened and his back straightened, Neon Suspect's work was having its effect.
When Neon Suspect was done, we asked him about the weapons and he shrugged, telling us that they weren't his department and they should've already been fully functional.
It was nothing Koko couldn't handle though, soon she had them online and working, working as well as they could at least.
As the fighter headed off to the pit, Neon Suspect gave him a slap on his bio-sculpted butt cheek.
Neon Suspect turned back to us and explained that from now, no one would touch the fighter until just prior to the match, then the competitors would be scanned to ensure they didn't have any unsanctioned enhancements, it was all out of his hands now he added.
We had more questions and asked him about the nature of his relationship with Dr Ishimura, he looked at us quizzically and from his answer it was apparent that he had little interest in women.
He did take a shine to Bill though and made a point of calling him William, Bill showed no interest in reciprocation.
Trigger then stated that he had an interest into entering a match in the pit.
"I look forward to working with you," Neon Suspect purred coolly, sizing Trigger up.
Beyond the confines of the building we could hear the thundering clamour of the crowd at the pit, the collective gasping, shouting and baying for blood. It continued for a while, then there was a moment of silence followed a prolonged roar; the match was over.
A minute later, with blood and sweat, Dr Ishimura's fighter, slick with sweat, blood and numerous wounds came back victorious.
Taking the opportunity, I jacked back into his firmware, the algorithms used to alter his personality had increased aggression, spatial awareness, reflexes and so on, Neon Suspect had done his job well. No evidence that he was sabotaging fighters.
Only one variable could had changed between this fight and the previous ones; weapons, Joe was responsible for weapons. Had someone been targeting Joe? Was it someone else? Or maybe it was Joe? What would be his motive?
The Freak Pit proper was an actual pit, harsh, unremitting white light form spots above flooded the rectangular, earthy and concrete depression which was supported by a perimeter of steel reinforcement struts leftover from the abandoned construction here and bounded by a rim of barbed wire fence which was lined with hollering spectators, we went out to join them and watch the next fight.
It was Viper Joe we needed to talk to now and he was out there in the crowd watching the next match. No-hopers mingled with wage-monkeys, corporate execs and the occasional vid-celeb. Neon Suspect had also joined us, we noticed that he was staring intently at Joe with a faraway look, pretty sure now that he was actually more interested in Joe than Ishimura.
Time to check Viper Joe out.
I jacked in and the mindless roar of the crowd evaporated as the GLOWNET enveloped my consciousness, almost threatening to overload my awareness. To the uninformed observer, the localised info-vista and ensuing traffic would look normal for Neon City, but for me, the cascading flow of passing data-clusters couldn't mask the irregularity surrounding the Freak Pit's bogus data-image which seemingly led nowhere but to a dead construction company. However, beneath the dead company was something, the fight organisers had hidden data-vault of their own, those in-the-know could use it to access the fight's stream and bet on the outcomes.
Hacking the data-vault was straight forward and sifting through it's data logs, I found a record for Viper Joe. I could use it to trace and hack his credit activity. From there I saw frequent movements of bits in and out of the account, looked like payments for Joe's repeated cheap organ replacements, but nothing sizable enough to be something like a bribe.
Viper Joe was having a nose bleed and suspected he was on the verge of experiencing a major organ failure when Bill had shuffled through jostling spectators to reach him.
Bill went and told him what we'd found, told him how Neon Suspect's combat scripting was fine, how weapon's had been Dr Ishimura's problem and how we knew that he was involved. Only thing we didn't know was why?
Joe paused for a second before dabbing at his nose and taking a deep breath, he then admitted to sabotaging the weapons, he was hoping to discredit Neon Suspect to get him sacked and get closer to Ishimura.
Then Bill told him how it had all been unnecessary and how Neon Suspect was more interested in him that Ishimura! Joe's obsession had blinded him. Joe told Bill that the sabotaging would now stop and the matter could be considered closed.
Bill wished him good luck with managing his implants and left.
After greasing some wheels with the organisers, we managed to get Trigger a match despite being an unknown fighter.
Bookies were running long odds against Trigger, we bet heavily on him.
The Pit thrummed and we felt it through our feet, the distorted, raspy blaring of an old Iksaarp sound system announced Trigger's entry as he jumped into the Pit brandishing his gunblade.
His opponent came in from the other side, a bare-chested giant of a man dropped into the far side of the pit, bio-sculpted muscles squirmed beneath grafted and repeatedly reconstructed skin as he flexed, striding forward. Gone were the weaknesses of flesh, bone and muscle, replaced by the resilience of reinforced carbonate. Grimy and unclean, dull coloured metallic flails sprouted from the giant's wrists. He glared at Trigger with an unhinged, drug-fuelled expression!
"Ultimate Hobo," blasted the speakers and the giant raised his augmented arms, the crowd responded with a bellow.
The clamour reached a crescendo once the announcer started the fight.
For a moment, Trigger and Ultimate Hobo weighted each other up, slowly circulating one another; then the fight began. Ultimate Hobo was strong but Trigger was fast. Blows were exchanged and Trigger got the better of his opponent, one of Ultimate Hobo's augmented arms flopped to the dusty floor, the giant wasn't slowed, a mixture of bloodlust and pain management software kept him going, Trigger could see coagulants injected into his blood by an implant were already stemming the flow of blood.
With a howl that almost drowned out the screaming crowd, Ultimate Hobo pressed his attack with a series of wold swings, but Trigger saw it coming, easily sidestepping the telegraphed swipe and counterattacking.
Ultimate Hobo's other arm flopped to the floor, after that, Trigger easily cut him down and was victorious. Spectators roared their approval as Trigger glowered defiantly at them.
Senonable wall-slabs above the arena repeatedly replayed the killing blow, from a variety of angles and in slow-motion.
Ultimate Hobo's corpse was carted off, he was dead for now, the technology to revive him existed, it was the matter of dealing with brain damage would be an obstacle and for Ultimate Hobo that wasn't really an issue, he might well soon be back in The Pit!
But otherwise, some use would be found for his remains no doubt.
Trigger meanwhile, was hailed as victor when he exited The Pit, he was then gifted a aluminium badge that said: 'I beat U.H.!'.
The rest of us had made serious bank on his win.
The nightly deluge was waiting for us as we exited Freak Pit, nosily pattering on to the asphalt around us as we went into the gloomy rain, collars turned up against the downpour and the black sky above.
We had hardly begun the return journey when Pepper's media-slab pinged; he checked the message, illuminated by it's soft glow, his face showed surprise?
"It's a Yokai trainer!, he exclaimed, turning to us.
A script running on his media-slab had detected another trainer's media-slab and they'd communicated, setting up match. Pepper said he'd catch up with us and went off to find his opponent. Later that night, he would come back, telling us that he had won the match and captured a new yokai called Megura!
On the way back to Hikage Street, another call pinged in, this time for Koko. The modulated, disguised voice of Yennav Rybasei was on the other end.
"Hello my droogs,"!
A Russian mob owned distillery, The Glass Face Vodka Distillery on Hoppi Street had gone dark and Yennav wanted us to check it out.
It was getting late by the time the rumbling old tram had dropped us off in the centre of Hoppi Street and happy hour was in full swing! Or so it seemed, as every hour in Hoppi Street might have been happy hour.
Located within the Asakusa-cho prefecture, Hoppi Street crawled with the neon-lit bars and themed pubs, smoky watering holes and shady drinking dens it was known for. Its sidewalks teemed with unending dense, lively crowds; tourists, serious drinkers, wage-monkeys and down-and-outers, all drawn by lure of dozens of drinking establishments.
Navigating the staggering and sodden revellers, we arrived at The Glass Face Vodka Distillery.
We had smelt it before we saw it, that was a bad sign; an acrid and bitter odour that hung in the air, recognisable for what it was, not simply the smell of smoke, but the smell of a burnt building.
By the looks of it, an explosion had reduced the distillery to a heap of still heated slag that smouldered in the hammering rain, vapour mixing with smoke. Orange embers cheerfully twinkled in the ruinous piles of charred debris and small patches of spluttering, tenacious fire continued consuming whatever was left of the building.
Numerous blackened and contorted bodies littered the site. Drunken passerbys gawped incomprehensively at the wreckage as they shuffled past, too inebriated or too hardened to life in The City of Electric Dreams to care.
In true Neon City fashion, the municipal first-responders had taped off the collapsed building and done nothing else.
After climbing through the yellow and black tape to examine the rubble, I could feel that heat seeping up through the soles of my Harbief boots as we trod on the remains of the distillery and the acrid smell, now at its most intense, filled my nostrils. I was tempted to activate my internal rebreather.
Then, over the drumming rainfall we heard something, quiet, an indistinct voice, but still something. Following the voice led us to a shocking discovery.
Among the corpses was a Protobase Global zombie cyborg! Constituted of an assortment of cybernetic components and weapons held together by a cage of flesh that was once human and networked by their nervous system, it was designed with only one purpose: to mindlessly, unrelentingly kill.
Protobase Global routinely and clandestinely kidnapped those on the fringes of society or in the underclass; the poor, the dispossessed, the transient and then hollowed the humanity out of them until only a biological chassis for their polymer, steel and chromed up cyberware and weaponry remained.
Twice we'd encountered their secretive production facilities and twice we'd shut them down.
This cyborg though, seemed different, it twitched unpredictably, sparked violently in the rain and spoke? Zombie cyborgs never spoke, we'd encounter them several times and without fail, they were utterly silent.
Cautiously, we moved in.
Koko checked it over, there were clear signs of severe trauma to its head module. Zombie cyborgs could soak an enormous amount of punishment and only damage to its brain stem could put one down immediately and reliably. This one should have been dead, but somehow it clung to life by the thinnest of slivers.
Looking even closer, Koko noticed that the sparks were actually tiny but intensely bright and powerful arcs of crackling electricity jumping between capacitors and circuits. Damage that should have done for the zombie cyborg was being repaired and the biological components were being preserved. The short-circuiting firmware had bypassed the disconnected brain stem in some unpredictable manner and triggered an autonomous repair protocol.
When the zombie cyborg spoke, it was a faraway whisper.
"Brenda Callahan," she said her name was Brenda Callahan and she was asking about her family?
Did the zombie cyborgs retain their memories? Personality?
It didn't bear thinking about.
We asked Brenda what her last memory was? She told us that she had gone into Den's Den of Domestic Helpers, looking for a washing machine.
Den's Den had been located in Kibogaoka Hill, it had been a front for the second production facility. It didn't take any stretch of the imagination to figure out what had happened.
A quick search revealed that Brenda Callahan of Kibogaoka Hill was married to a Phillip, we tried pinging him but got nothing.
A further search revealed that Phillip and Brenda Callahan and their four children had been reported as missing by their neighbour in the Kibogaoka Hill shanty town. Rentacop would never have made any effort to investigate the report. Wasn't any point in looking further into this, grimly, we had to accept that they had met the same fate as Brenda.
Softly, in an almost trance-like way, Brenda kept asking about her family and where she was? We all looked at each other, her state was precarious, telling her might make matters worse.
Thanks to our experiences with RAM Rat, we also knew that eventually her biological components would begin to decay, Protobase Global zombie cyborgs weren't build to last. We had to try and find a solution to her predicament, but first, she had to be moved out of here.
None of us knew of anywhere that might off-the-books have the kind of facility needed to treat Brenda, none of us at least, until Pepper spoke up.
"I know a guy," Pepper piped in. "His name is Cheeky Bob and well, he's veterinarian! But he might be able to help.".
Nobody had any better alternative.
Pepper pinged a call to Bob, they seemed pleased to see each other, at least it was promising. Once the situation was explained, Bob agreed to see Pepper's unregistered patient.
Cheeky Bob's practice operated out of Rokkaku Dai Heights, Koko remotely bought in the flier and Brenda was carefully loaded in and ferried over, he instructed us to bring Brenda through the tradesmen entrance and was waiting for us as we slowly lowered her to street level.
Cheeky Bob was an unshaven, corpulent man with messy hair in a tatty and worn lab coat smeared with grease stains and other fluids, he looked surprised to see his patient was a giant cyborg. I could see from his expression that he was about to complain, but looking at us, thought the better of it.
Brenda was moved into one of the practice's examination rooms and put under a bright spot light, all the while asking about her family. Bob checked her over, humming as he did so. He hit her with a sedative and she slipped into voiceless sleep. He turned to us and explained that he could give Brenda a cocktail of injections that would inhibit necrosis, she would be stable for about six months, but after that, loss of biomass would be inevitable and irreversible.
Six months to solve the problem, better than the alternative. We agreed and Cheeky Bob did his work, he also gave us a stash of sedatives to help Brenda cope with her situation.
Brenda needed a chance to recuperate and had to be stashed somewhere safe. It was easy to find an anonymous, small no-questions-asked lockup on Hikage Street that was paid for through one of our ghost accounts.
It was the dead of night in the crashing rain when we moved Brenda again and Neon City was as quiet as it ever got. Ensuring that no one had eyes on us we took her through the downpour to a puddle-ridden side street at the edge of the residential quarter where the lockup could be found. The aluminium roller door opened with a metallic rattle, revealing a bare and undecorated concrete and corrugated steel cube; basic, but it would do, it would have to!
Brenda was made as comfortable and secure as possible before we left, the roller door came back down with another metallic rattle and clunked shut as the auto-lock engaged.
With our heads bent low against the relentless precipitation, we began the return to our apartments, The City of Electric Dreams had other ideas though and didn't let us go so easily.
Our media-slabs started pinging, Roboy was on the line.
Roboy was a trusted contact and robotic owner of a courier service staffed entirely by robots which confidentially boasted that their couriers could deliver almost anything, anywhere; a resource we'd made use of more than once.
Unsurprisingly, Roboy had a problem that needed dealing with.
Recently, several of Roboy's smaller employees had been targeted by unknown thieves in the Senkawa Aqueduct area, so he'd hired a couple of Muscle Gurlz to investigate and resolve the situation. Now they'd gone missing too and Roboy needed us to investigate and resolve the new issue! Find the thieves, find the gurlz.
Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz; a name we recognised, it belonged to some sort of bodybuilder's bar that we'd never visited. Roboy's description of the two Muscle Gurlz was of pair of cybered up, martial arts, bodybuilding, goth chicks.
It was into the small hours of night when we returned to Senkawa Aqueduct, a subdued time, gone were the drinkers and fun-seekers, only the lost, disparate and night-workers now rode Neon City's public transit network, I wondered which we were? Driving rain slammed against the elevated tram as it noisily laboured its way onwards while we watched the panoply of passing city lights become distorted, rippling smears of multicoloured light sprawled across rain-splashed windows.
The search to find one of the missing delivery drones was straightforward, Roboy had provided us with a code to trace it's tracker on our media-slabs, it was so straightforward, it made us wonder what the Muscle Gurlz had encountered?
It led us to some narrow, detritus littered, half-lit alleyway and a dented, scarred dumpster. Inside was the drone, the tracer on my Jaunkeu confirmed it. It had suffered serious damage, I watched as exposed actuators and servos twitched and buzzed, the drone hadn't given up trying to recover. Once the drone was out of the dumpster, Koko checked it over, the source of the damage was undiscernible.
Behind a panel was connector, I used it to network the drone with my data-slab and downloaded it's entire recent telemetry data. First thing I did was to pull down and review its archived camera feed.
We watched the footage.
At first it showed the drone navigating its way through Neon City's sky-lanes, then abruptly, it's view lurched sideways, the world rotating as the ground raced up to meet it. The drone bounced and skittered several times before skidding to a halt at an uneven angle, almost instantly, the seemingly frenzied, half silhouetted figure of woman with baleful, glowing red eyes lunged for the drone, leaving crimson trails of light on the footage as she moved! The video feed ended.
I tried to run facial recog on the silhouette, but the image was too blurred, too badly lit for the search algorithm to get a hit.
I was about to try another tack when Roderick interrupted me, the robotic bodyguard informed us that he was receiving some kind of transmission? It was a message and Roderick described it as an artificial but kindly woman's voice and repeated the message to us.
“New meat, my children, Mother is deciding when to serve it.”
The message went on further.
“Keep your eyes peeled my children, search the skies, one of the drones is carrying our prize.”
Our hackles were up, we took sidelong glances into the poorly lit alleyway as it stretched away, swallowed by distant night. Somehow the message related to the drones and maybe the Muscle Gurlz? Who was Mother and who were the children? Did this represent a danger for us?
We soon got an answer.
“More enemies are here my children, watch for them, kill them.”
"Another message," Roderick told us that a video feed was also being transmitted on a different channel, which he then relayed to my data-slab.
All of us watched it; it was grainy, slightly out of focus footage from a higher angle and poorly lit, but undeniably, it was us in the feed, standing there in the alleyway. Somebody waved an arm, a second later the arm waved onscreen; live footage from a street cam somewhere close to the alley.
Trouble was coming.
Out of the rainy haze materialised the attackers, ten of them frenziedly running at us and all ten had the same baleful glowing red eyes.
In seconds the red-eyes would be on us, the odds had to be evened. The eyes had to be some sort of implant. Koko frantically punched at her control-slab and Nermal sprang to life, servos hummed into action, rotors span, the drone rose into the air with a robotic purr. Koko instructed Nermal to trigger its targeted EMP pulse, if the attackers were wired up, it might give us an edge.
About of half their number stumbled to a halt, gawked about blinking and stumbled off. Looked like they were being controlled? The others though, kept coming, screaming and charging in with flailing arms.
We were hesitant to fight them, were they innocent victims of some kind of brain-jacking? It was enough to make us hold back.
They attacked with ferocious, unhinged strength, hitting hard.
Koko jabbed one with her puke-prodder; no effect.
Trigger landed a telling blow on one; no effect.
None of it was working, there was no choice but to use whatever force we could bring to bear. Even so, the fight was a hard one and we were left nursing our injuries, they unflinchingly soaked up massive injuries before they went down.
Quickly, Kevin scanned one. Results showed they had some kind of interconnected implants in their brain, spinal column and nervous system, it didn't reveal any enhancements or augmentations to physical performance or endurance, nothing to explain their strength.
No time to speculate either. Roderick interrupted us again, matter-of-factly informing us that more enemies were vectoring in on our position. We looked a each other, none of us wanted to continue this.
Koko remotely called in the flier.
No way to take one alive, nothing to be gained from fighting more of them. So time to bug out, we just had to wait for our ride to get here. Thirty seconds is a long time when you know an unrelentingly, seemingly psychotic mob is closing in on you.
The flier's turbines whipped the falling rain into a localised stinging hurricane as it dropped into a hover at street level. We dragged a body aboard for further investigation as we made good our escape, we weren't done with this.
I was flooded with relief as the flier pulled away, for once, the sensation of gravity tugging at my guts was a comfort as I watched the streets fall away.
It wasn't over though.
Roderick told us that he'd gotten another transmission.
“Our meat is escaping the larder my children, hurry now and recapture it.”
Did it mean us? Tactical showed nothing in the vicinity of the flier. Using external cameras, Koko swept the streets below, infrared picked up scores, maybe hundreds of the red-eyes storming through Senkawa Aqueduct like an swelling flood of bodies. Ahead of them; their prey, two sprinting individuals, straining to keep just ahead of the baying mob, the two ducked into an apartment block, the red-eyes close behind.
As we watched, even more red-eyes appeared from seemingly everywhere, converging on the apartment block and in streaming in like so much water emptying down the drain.
Koko circled with the flier and waited; the two individuals burst on to the rooftop. The horde would be seconds behind. We dropped a line down to them, without any delay, the two of them leapt for it and we pulled them to safety as the red-eyes came spilling on to the rooftop.
Once they were reeled in, they introduced themselves as Pixie Skull and Vanilla Goth. The pair of them were scantily dressed in almost matching black outfits, admirably showing off the low-percentage of their body fat and well defined, possibly surgically improved muscle definition. They also both possessed smooth porcelain skin, the result of either applying a lot of skin toner or some dermal, melanin alteration treatment, heavy and dark make-up completed the goth aesthetic.
Muscle Gurlz, had to be, they confirmed it.
We told them that we had been sent by Roboy to investigate their disappearance, in reply, they explained that had been tracking the missing courier drones when they were attacked and forced to flee into an abandoned office block, to hide amongst the discarded trash that had been left behind and littered the interior. For a time, they had avoided detection and carefully observed the red-eyes who wandered the rainy streets listlessly.
Then abruptly, the red-eyes had all run off in the same direction, attention drawn to something else, probably us! The pair then took the opportunity to make a break for it. It didn't work out and more red-eyes appeared! So they made for the apartment block and the roof.
They thanked us for our timely intervention and provided us with some cards that gave us free drinks at the Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz bar.
Once the Muscle Gurlz were dropped off well away from Senkawa Aqueduct, we contacted Roby, explained the situation to him and how it was too dangerous, even for hardened street samurai to wander the district.
It was apparent even over the voice call that Roboy's synthetic voice couldn't disguise his unhappiness. He would have to suspend deliveries into Senkawa Aqueduct for the time being.
For us, what was left of the night was over, time to hit Hikage Street and home.
Later, Koko and Pepper would thoroughly pore over the red-eye body that we'd brought back, their findings were not quite what we expected.
For the most part, the implants were designed to receive carrier waves, trans-process the data into sensory inputs and relay the results into neural pathways to the brain.
None of the implants were wired into higher brain functions at all.
It was likely that the transmissions which Roderick had intercepted were instructions meant for the red-eyes. Furthermore, it was clear that they hadn't been brain-jacked at all and were willingly following these instructions.
Further examination revealed the red-eye's blood contained an extraordinarily highly concentrated blend of performance enhancing designer poly-amphetamines, which explained their behaviour. Judging by the concentrations, Pepper estimated that these amphetamines were administered to the red-eyes on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, I'd been scouring the GLOWNET info-vista, even the most remote data-vaults for any information or chatter on the sinister activities in Senkawa Aqueduct and constantly running search-algorithms.
Every time a name a came up, it was always one name.
The name was associated with a nebulous cult that went by the name Children of Saika that had seen an increase of activity recently. The cult itself was linked with an equally nebulous organisation known as The Church of Redeemed Sinners.
It wasn't much to go on, but it was something we'd keep an eye on.
17th April 2021
Saturday evening and I'm logged into Meet on my PC.
This means it's time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
A Neon City morning; the unforgiving sun climbed over the city's angular eastern skyline into a cloudless blue-white sky, flooding the City of Electric Dreams with searing heat and light.
The mixture of a late night and a sleepless morning had left me cradling my head and shielding my head from the urine coloured hue tat glared through one wall in my one-bed.
Bill had been pinged by Nina Chinova, ever since we'd introduced her to D4-VID and she had gotten her own show; The Vigilante Chat and Cake Show, her star had been meteorically rising in the world of vid chat show hosts and she'd become a major Neon City celebrity.
Somehow she'd gotten wind that Antin Grova's Heroes of Hope sculpture in Rokkaku Dai Heights was actually a sculpture of us. She told Bill that she now wanted all of us as guests on the show to talk about our activities!
After some discussion, we decided to appear on the show. It took further negotiations with her producers to get assurances that our faces would be hidden and our voices distorted by a masking algorithm. Getting put in the spotlight wasn't on our bucket list.
Like all of Neon City's vid shows, Vigilante Chat and Cake was made to a budget, the studio was buried at the back of a half disused business estate in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
It was a relatively small setup, some upholstered neutrally pale blue chairs and a cake filled table on a linoleum floor against a digitally manipulated background, lighting rigs and media-feeds were managed by some robots. Other than Nina, the only other humans were a skinny, scruffy editor in a black truckers cap and a quick to anger producer clutching a Senonable Sobeito Touchboard info-slab who walked around stabbing at it and self-importantly shouting at disinterested robots.
We were on the show for about thirty minutes and let Bill do much the talking, it was his kind of thing. I didn't bother listening to most of what he told Nina either, but at least the cake was good.
As our interview came to its conclusion, Nina revealed that she'd arranged for a hotline to be set up; people in need of our services could ping us!
I was a little unsure about this and would later rig the line to bounce pings anonymously to our personal media-slabs, keeping us at a distance from the hotline.
Later that day, news vines began busily chiming our media-slabs and feeding them with all the latest newsworthy stories, most prominently how The Snot Robber had struck again.
Then Thaddeus Rackham had pinged us and explained that Astiek Ikov, his mortuary worker friend who we'd some dealings with was the latest victim. Nasal replacement surgery was currently a costly procedure, two million bits was the asking price, Thaddeus told us that he was busy robbing lots of people to raise cash for Astiek's treatment!
Trying our best to ignore that last part of his statement, we thought about what Thaddeus had said. Someone was making a lot of bank from The Snot Robber's attacks, told him we'd look into it.
Data-images incandescently streamed into my consciousness after I'd jacked into the GLOWNET, seemingly endless pulsating polygonal constructs emerged from data-flows and populated the info-vista, contracting into the vanishing point, merging into an orthogonally undulating line on a dark, distant horizon. I sifted through the colossal data movements that constantly reshaped the GLOWNET, seeking out what was needed, news-vines, info-vaults. secured servers and more, all the time logging the data on my Nonohiki.
Once I had what I hoped was enough, I started looking for leads, connections, coincidences, any links that might help.
The Snot Robber had struck twelve times in as many days, the attacks mostly seemed clustered around Golden Gai, a district that was an intricate warren of back alleys, side roads and switchbacks that hosted countless colourful themed bars and watering holes. They pulled in tourists and fun-seekers from all around; inebriated revellers staggering homing presented a target-rich environment to The Snot Robber, which was fully exploited.
I began scoping the victims out, watching information flow through the GLOWNET and looking for some sort of commonality between them. Only one mote of data stood out; medical records showed seven of the twelve victims had signed on to the service of Doctor Ivan Grippen.
It was a name we'd heard, a specialist that was also treating Silai Granskina. At two mill a pop, he stood to make good chunk of change on these operations, maybe there was something to it. Was it possible Doctor Grippen was instigating the attacks to drum up business? Pricing of bio-engineered nasal replacements seemed high too? Needed more information.
The worldwide hub of bio-engineering big-tech was mostly located in the heart of a region of India that had been hit hard by the Bangladeshi Leprosy Outbreak, production of medical components had lurched to a halt, prices of existing inventory had skyrocketed as a result.
While there was some chatter on MyFaceSpace and on GLOWNET chat-servers that questioned the origins of the outbreak, some claimed it was a clandestine bio-weapon, but nothing was concluded one way or the other.
I turned my attention to Doctor Grippen.
We pinged Sila Granskina and asked him how he'd heard of Doctor Grippen, he explained that during his stay in hospital after suffering the attack, he'd been given a business card by an orderly.
Doctor Grippen's data-vault was a publicly listed commercial venture on the GLOWNET, a hovering, rotating pair of partially translucent powder-blue giant operating scissors constituted the data-image of Grippen's vault, from there it was easy to trace banking activities, find Grippen's bank and hack security on his account. Skimming through rows and rows of numbers, northing untoward came up, no suspicious outgoing or incoming payments.
He looked clean, a dead end.
No time to look further though, our slabs were being pinged.
Online were the uplifted and genetically enhanced penguins we'd helped before. Now though, there was only three of them instead of four. Paisano had been abducted we were told and they didn't trust anyone else to help! We made the elaborate trip to the Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku-Cho at the unexpected behest of the remaining penguins.
Exiting the typically crowded transit system put us squarely in view of the vast Metropolitan Building, a dominating, unwelcoming and pseudo-brutalist structure; it represented the central seat of municipal government in Neon City in more ways than one.
Leaving the noise and the bustle behind, we climbed the entrance steps and passed the replica wood-trimmed, frosted-glass doors into a high ceiling reception hall. A large faux-oak counter filled the space along one wall and was lit by subdued and time-stained hanging florescent, off-white globes. Old and faded patterned wallpaper still clung to the walls, while beneath our boots, the carpet was flattened, becoming colourless and threadbare in the main thoroughfares, only in corners did surviving thick shag betray it's original quality.
After approaching the receptionist in her pinstriped slate-grey Fassus business suit, we discovered that we were expected, a uniformed member of the security team led us along the labyrinthine dimly lit corridors of Neon City's waning power and we eventually found ourselves at the Transport Authority's department.
Waiting for us were George, Jasper and Casper, the uplifted penguins, also with them was their boss, the Transport Authorities departmental head. The penguins led us into one of their old style offices, explaining that Paisano had been kidnapped on one of the city's transit services and the department considered it a personal affront, hence their endorsement of our involvement.
A desk-slab quietly hummed as it was flipped on, it's screen showed what obviously was grainy security footage of a tram carriage's interior crammed with commuters. We watched and re-watched it several times.
Off centre to the left and among the crush was Paisano, also among the passengers were four individuals in nondescript industrial blue boilersuits, they had to be pros; good enough to wear caps or keep their faces turned from cameras.
When the kidnapping went down, it went down quick, the four boilersuits pulled pistols, put some rounds in the tram driver and quickly black-bagged Paisano. The tram's auto-brakes then kicked-in and most commuters were sent staggering in unison, like in a weird dance as the tram screeched to a jarring halt halfway between Chuo and Hikage streets. The black-baggers disappeared out of shot as they forced their way through the tram doors and climbed down a service ladder on to the lower street. It was the last we saw of them on the tram's footage.
One dead and one kidnapped, I could see why the Transport Authority wanted vengeance.
The search for footage needed to be widened.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, into Neon City's vast data-vista as it unpacked, watching data-flows as they pulsed along iridescent avenues that spider-webbed throughout the info-scape.
Throughout Neon City there were innumerable security cameras that fed into various data-vaults which stored the footage, we had a good idea where the black-baggers had exited the tram and I launched an algorithm tailored to look in the surrounding GLOWNET locales for the tell-tale regular movements of data and clone the resulting encrypted footage on to my data-slab, soon the Nonohiki was stacking up with videos.
Protocols I'd coded were continually cracking the encryption on the stream of downloaded files and I sifted through the footage as it became available.
Nothing I saw showed anybody carrying a penguin, I ran facial recog for Paisano and got zero hits. After we spent more time manually scanning through the footage we managed to find a small sliver of a lead.
On some of the footage we noticed a dark-haired, middle-aged woman in matching off-white joggers and polo shirt, walking down Chuo Street and carrying a scooped up bundle of clothing, all of it industrial-blue coloured. Was the bundle large enough to constitute four boilersuits? Maybe. We froze the footage and digitally zoomed in. The woman's clothes were part of a service uniform, branding on the polo shirt had the name; Joo May's Shower & Soap Emporium.
Chuo Street: known for its hotels and a particularly narrow maze of surrounding back alleys and side roads which branched off from the titular road erratically.
At the lowest street level here, even Neon City's glaring sunlight failed to fully penetrate much of the neighbourhood, leaving it in a perennial dull, dusky gloom and other parts in constant darkness.
Among this shadowy half-lit concrete maze we found Joo May's Shower & Soap Emporium, a small family business with a bright and cheerful water themed frontage that provided showering facilities to Chou Street's visitors and tourists along with an express laundry service for them while they washed.
Inside, the reception was a small, cramped room decorated with shelves filled by promotional soaps, scrubs, bath salts, shampoos and so forth. Behind the counter was the middle aged woman from the footage. We asked her about the four individuals who had come in with boilersuits, a brief frown and expression of annoyance crossed her face.
She explained that the four men came in, given her the boilersuits and before she had returned with them fully laundered, had changed into other clothes and departed. She was happy to give us the boilersuits, having no use for them.
Searching through the clothes gave us one thing; a scrunched up printout of a photo or video capture. It had been through the wash and had partially become a smear of muddled shapeless colours, however, the shot clearly showed all four penguins in their pool at Sky Dinosaurian Square, Paisano had been ringed with a marker pen. Additionally Somewhat out of shot was a soft toy of a penguin in the hands of a child, was this significant? We looked closer at the photo, it wasn't simply a soft toy, it was a Creative Cuddles toy.
Creative Cuddles manufactured bespoke hi-tech, artificial intelligence driven interactive children's soft toys for Neon City's exclusive, wealthy clientele, usually as a substitute for actual parenting duties, providing children with companionship.
Xylona Adler was our contact at Creative Cuddles, could she get access to the information we needed? After pinging her and explaining the situation, she got back to us and explained that the penguin model was one of their less popular lines, only one Penguin had been sold for some time.
Lars Jackstadt had been the buyer, Xylona told us his account listed an address in the Fortified Residential Zone. A quick GLOWNET search on Lars Jackstadt showed that he worked for Oshin Amalgamated, their corporate logo included a penguin, coincidence? Maybe!
Unlike Neon City's tram network, the Secure Residential Metro Link could take us directly into The Zone, bypassing it's security checks, biometric scans and questioning stares from uniformed rentaguards. These checks would instead actually be performed at the entrance into the metro link network from The Skyscraper District and in this case, we had the credentials to access the metro link.
It was a smooth, noiseless ride over to The Zone on the polycarbonate and toughened-glass shelled, gleamingly clean and well maintained metro link, there was seating enough for all and we sank into the generously upholstered cabin chairs and enjoyed the comfort of a climate controlled environment, for once wishing the journey wouldn't be over so quick.
A wall of almost stale hot air drenched our senses as we disembarked into the Fortified Residential Zone, even in The Zone it wasn't possible to fully escape the city's unremittingly harsh climate.
A grid of smooth, asphalt roads spanned The Zone here and were wider than anywhere else, wide enough to permit two vehicles to pass even. The high quality houses they criss-crossed were uniformly detached classic looking structures, usually surrounded by a verdant square of grass and flora, diligently cultivated by some sort of gardening robot.
Keeping as low profile as possible, we went along a spotless sidewalk until we came close to the Jackstadt's address. It was a detached building and by the standards of The Zone was of modest proportions, that was to say it was five times larger than my one-bed and sat in the centre of a garden. The home displayed a replica façade designed to lend it the air of a classic American Foursquare styled residence.
Stopping short, we observed the house with telescopics and noticed that partially visible amongst the trash was a discarded soft toy penguin, had to be the Creative Cuddles toy.
Creative Cuddles toys were programmed to heuristically adapt from their environment and owner interactions, perhaps there was something we could learn from what it had learned?
Without drawing attention, we stole the toy and flipped its power switch. With a short hum, it booted. It's head abruptly turns from left to right and back as it's optical circuits try to take in the situation, it's algorithms seemed stymied, the humming resumed.
It spoke with a specifically engineered, cute and childish voice when it tried answering our question. The last thing it had seen was another penguin in Kylie's room, it told us. Before it could continue, a secondary harsher synth voice squawked out.
"Discardment detected. Security protocol activated, wiping system memory and initiating factory reset," The synth voice stated, the humming intensified for a few moments. The penguin rebooted and stared at us.
"Enter end user license agreement authorisation code, then select accept or reject terms and conditions,".
The penguin wasn't going to be any use to us now.
Switching to thermals and cased the house. Three signatures; an adult, a child and what must have been a penguin.
From the signatures we surmised the child was continually feeding the penguin while the adult was reclined in a sitting position. We needed a way in. Anywhere else in Neon City and the locks, mechanical or electronic wouldn't be a problem, but in The Zone with it's wealthy residents, any error risked summoning a rapid response.
I turned back to the penguin, maybe it could help. I searched the fluffy soft outer lining until I found a small fold of cloth, behind it was a network port, no doubt connected to the main processor board. I connected the toy to my Nonohiki and jacked in.
A simple static steel-white framework was the processor's info-scape, without any flows of new data it remained unchanged and easy to navigate. The toy's core protocols were incorporated into a single central Monaozko Technologies ROM board which in turn issued instructions to subsystems to manage all its functionality. I moved through sub-folder after folder until I found what I was looking for: The heuristic function-set that managed the toy's learning ability, which it did by issuing learning instructions to a dedicated partition.
This dedicated partition had however been wiped clean during the re-initialisation, there was a chance that the data would have been fragmented and removed from the index directory and not been subjected to a secondary protocol that fully wiped the data. I ran a search protocol, got lucky and found the disparate fragments. Using an algorithm I reconstructed the data.
We now had access to all the information that the penguin had learned, information about Kylie Jackstadt and her obsession with penguins, about Jovena, Kylie's mother. Most importantly for us, we gained access to the house security codes that the penguin had learned, hopefully they hadn't been updated since the toy had been disposed of.
Pepper crept up to the front door lock and keyed in the code, we held our breaths for a moment before the door clicked open a few centimetres, he peeked through, slowly opened the door and disappeared into the building. For a bulky, clamorous doctor of dubious ethics, Pepper could be quite stealthy.
Later he told me how he silently made his way into the living room, where the thermals had shown a woman, presumably Jovena. Unsurprisingly, in part due to his dubious ethics, Pepper was well versed in the art of gauging how much sedative to employ when tranqing someone quickly.
Using a Jiaylij Multi-injector, he painlessly hit the woman with a dose strong enough to put her out for a couple of hours, she'd wake up with a head and no recollection of anything other than falling asleep.
Adjusting the dosage for someone much smaller and younger, Pepper quietly made his way towards the child's signature. Finding Kylie's room, he cracked the door open a touch and saw a young girl entirely preoccupied by a penguin dressed in a old style sailor's white suit, even including a little seaman's cap, Paisano, had to be.
Kylie was giggling as she dangling sardines in front of Paisano who was trying catch them his beak. Pepper sneaked up, hit her with the tranq, caught her as she fell and put her in a sleeping position on her bed.
"I'm here to rescue you," Pepper explained.
"Thank god! I was sick of wearing this costume," Paisano stated in response and rapidly waddled out to the kitchen. "Here's where they keep all the sardines," he exclaimed. "I can't leave without them!".
"They bribed me to come with them," the penguin admitted. "I was too weak resist the sardines,"!
"So you weren't kidnapped?" Pepper asked.
Paisano shook his head.
Quick as he could, Pepper grabbed all the sardines he found in the kitchen and stuffed them into a bin liner and left, Paisano duly followed. Koko decided to take the toy penguin and we all made for the metro link
The return trip was uneventful, Rentaguard didn't bother us, sitting in their reinforced security booth, distracted by their media-slabs, probably used to the rich kooks that lived in The Zone and no one else in Neon City was fazed by seeing a uplifted penguin riding the metro link.
On the way back, I jacked into my data-slab, now that I had Lars Jackstadt's access codes it was simple to get into the secured Oshin Amalgamated terminal at his home. I scoured through the files on his system and I was drawn to some of Oshin's future plans.
They were pressing on with their strategy to flood sizable parts of Neon City's waterfront and following the orbital laser strike that had hit and significantly damaged the district, their plan was already partially underway.
I continued reading: They had won all the contracts to rebuild these damaged areas and had plans to use specially engineered water-soluble building materials in the construction.
It was baked-in, planned obsolescence on a colossal corporate scale that would negatively affect thousands of people and at the same time create a highly lucrative revenue stream for Oshin Amalgamated.
They couldn't be allowed to get away with it, I copied the data and anonymously released it on several of Neon City's chat-servers, we hoped soon the news would spread.
The end of the journey took us Sky Dinosaurian Square, Paisano was joyfully reunited with Casper, Jasper and George.
Later that day Koko got pinged on her media-slab, it was an unknown number she told us before answering. The caller was using a vocal distortion filter to mask their voice, even so, filters couldn't disguise vocal characteristics or speech patterns, Koko immediately knew who it was.
"Hello my droogs," Said the resampled voice of Yennav Rybasei.
Yennav Rybasei had been a serious player for the Russian mob until he'd gone into hiding after sustained corporate sponsored attacks on his organisation and its base-of-operations at the Trans Metropolitan Union Hotel. It was the first we'd heard of him since his powerbase had collapsed and he'd retreated into the shadows, but if there's one thing I know about Neon City, it's that you can't keep a good old psychopathic homicidal manic down for long!
Off-the-grid but still making moves, there was a problem he wanted us to solve.
Vasi Pina, Russian mob courier had gone missing while carrying a package and Yennav wanted him and the package found, he passed us an address that he had somehow acquired and told us to check it out. Finally he told us that he believed that the culprits were Protobase Global, they were still moving against his organisation, he surmised.
The address led us to Kibogaoka Hill, home to Neon City's most marginalised citizens and its poorest district. In the early days, the dispossessed began gathering on the hill at a rate that soon outpaced corporate and commercial developments, Kibogaoka Hill's notorious patchwork shanty town rapidly sprawled its way across the district, encroaching on burgeoning retail centre that sat on top of the hill. Shadowy corporate interests pushed back and mobs of anonymous enforcers and unmarked military contractors appeared on the shanty town's meandering streets, violently turfing people out of their makeshift homes before destroying them with impunity. The shanty town's inhabitants though, weren't willing to roll over so easily, they adapted, avoided direct conflict and rebuilt quicker than corporations could claim land, initiating a push back of their own. This protracted skirmish lasted for years until the corporations got sick of it, cut their losses and exited the situation, realising they couldn't stem the tide. Kibogaoka Hill's shanty town had quickly established itself as the most erratic neighbourhood in The City of Electric Dreams, where the Neon City's manufactured and orderly planned designs crumbled before the very poverty it had created.
After a ride on the trams we found ourselves on one of the many dirt roads that haphazardly threaded their way through the mishmash streets and from at a hidden vantage point in the shadow of a corrugated, hardened vinyl wall, watched the address. Thermals indicated five signatures, one seated; Vasi Pina, the others standing; from our encounters, four was the typical size of a Protobase Global snatch squad. No doubt the black baggers were carrying the standard Protobase loadout; Konseye K4 SMGs and multipurpose Setihci body armour.
Our approach was simple; distraction.
Trigger ran at the front door, yelling loudly and hacking it down.
At the same time, the rest of us went in through the back, it didn't matter if there was a back door or not. Walls of fibreboard, thin sheets of steel and tarp wouldn't slow us down.
While the snatch squad turned to deal with Trigger, we crashed in and hit them hard. It was over before they had time to react.
Vasi Pina was a skinny guy, with a dirty blonde buzzcut and a diamond shaped face, like so many foot soldiers in the Russian mob, he a favoured the polyester tracksuit and Sport Lyafibya was his brand of choice. After we freed him, he told us to search the black baggers for the package. It was a money chip; encased in a small white translucent polymer slab the size of a thumbnail was a tiny ROM board and connector that contained a heavily encrypted version of an algorithm used in the banking world, it allowed the user a once-only transfer of a specified amount of bits from pre-deposited funds in a nominated bank to an account of issuers choosing. It was totally anonymous and allowed the transfer of theoretically an unlimited amount of untraceable cash. This money chip contained sixty-eight million bits.
We let Yennav Rybasei know we had the package. Immediately, he pinged us back, told us to take the package to a Adkale Tvolenkyin in The Skyscraper District.
"Make sure you're not followed," he instructed with his synthesised Russian accent.
Peering through a water stained transparent acrylic sheet that functioned as a window, we looked outside at the shanty town framed by the blue-white sky, homes were densely packed together in irregular strips that wended their way up and down the hill, frequently stacked on top of each other with precarious ladders or ropes leading up.
The streets here were busy with the shanty town's squatter underclass, out and looking for some respite from Neon City life, easy to spot with the grungy style that was popular here and worn like a badge of honour.
Loosely affiliated gangs also roamed the neighbourhood, hard-eyed thugs on the lookout for trouble and in particular; outsiders to target.
Was there a second Protobase Global squad somewhere out there? With such a heavily populated area, it was impossible to tell.
We came up with a strategy.
Splitting up, we all headed in different directions, trying our best to lose any tails, if there was another team watching, it was very unlikely they would have enough assets to shadow all of us. Bill took the money chip and would deliver it to Adkale Tvolenkyin, using his nanite implants to alter his appearance at an opportune moment and making it harder for pursuers to follow.
For a time we persisted on our random forays into Neon City, daylight had vanished, replaced by an inky sky and the thundering nightly rains by the time Bill pinged all of us, the package had been successfully delivered. There was nothing left to do but head home.
Back at my one-bed, city lights were barely visible through the urine coloured tarp, I relaxed and stretched out on my futon, a brace of clinking and sweating, brown Dindanha beer bottles in one hand and a steaming carton of Niaiwo noodles in the other. Kicking back, I flicked on my wall-slab and watched our appearance on Nina's Vigilante Chat and Cake Show.
It was the next day when Bill's media-slab pinged, someone calling himself Mister Blank was online.
Mister Blank wanted to employ us to move on some squatters who had taken up residence in a property he owned in Akihabara, he told Bill that he wanted to meet up with us to explain the details in person.
Before heading out to Akihabara, we decided to check out Mister Blank, I jacked into the GLOWNET, dropped into it's swirling, iridescent churning info-vista and launched a hunter protocol.
Shining slivers of information were brought back, parcels of data on the man which I scanned through.
He was a personality trader and a successful one too, for the last year or so, personality chips had picked up popularity and become a big deal in Neon City.
Small, tailored and bio-acceptable microprocessors that were wired into the frontal-lobe, they could exaggerate or lessen certain types of behaviour or modify consciousness. Want to quit smoking or maintain a fitness regime, or perhaps enhance your sense of humour? In Neon City, personality chips were the easy answer, at least they were the answer if you had the bits.
Akihabara was primarily a retail district in the Asakusa-cho prefecture that was known for servicing two distinct but partially overlapping markets.
From soaring multi-storeyed department stores that seemingly occupied every corner of the district to crowded and colourful smaller independent stores that flourished in side streets to flea markets that sprawled out beneath the tram arches for shade; all sold a vast variety of technology, slabs, gadgets and retro-gear, much of it cut price or obscure products. Akihabara was widely considered the consumer electronics heart of The City of Electric Dreams.
The district also drew in crowds of shoppers for its other market; transmission media, devout collectors and fans came to scour the extensive archives and collections of film, television, music and games in their original packaging and on their original formats that were sold throughout shops and stalls that frequently also traded in the same locations that sold electronics.
Every square metre of spare building frontage was covered in bright neon-lit larger than life advertising for cartoons, comic books and video games, characters from these products appeared on huge poster boards in cheerful poses or giant animated form on colossal wall slabs. The streets were thick with passersby who were endlessly bombarded with blaring jingles and dazzling adverts.
Mister Blank had arranged to meet us in one of the slew of boutique and themed cafes that dotted the neighbourhood and matched the aesthetic of Akihabara, serving tourists and buyers.
We were led to a private booth where Mister Blank waiting for us.
He was a tall stocky guy in a well cut, if typical Gaongha business suit, but his most prominent feature was the swathe of blisters that seemed to almost cover every centimetre of his visible skin.
Standing, Mister Blank greeted us when we arrived and asked us to sit.
"It's caused by a serious allergy to latex," he explained when he saw us trying not to stare. "Mostly caused by the particular brand of low cost love doll that I prefer to utilise," he added matter-of-factly.
Deciding not to press the issue, we instead asked what exactly he wanted us to do?
He went on to explain that he owned several commercial properties across the city and squatters had taken up residence in one specific property that he was intending to gift to a Olivia Chain. Mister Blank pinged us the address of the the property he wanted vacated.
"I don't care how you do it," he told us. "just as long as it's done, I must have the gift for my Olivia".
Mister Blank admitted us that he was love with her, although he let us know that she had yet to reciprocate.
We told him that we'd look into the squatters.
After leaving, we checked out Olivia Chain on the GLOWNET and what connection with Mister Blank there might be, didn't pay to wander into a situation blind.
Wasn't much to find; Olivia Chain worked for a talent agency that operated out of Akihabara, that was it, no red flags and no link or history with Mister Blank.
It was afternoon by the time we got to the address, it had led us to an unremarkable and unused office block on the edge of the district, it was an empty shell, externally complete but apparently empty inside, rows of windows that ran along each floor were unlit and beyond the large glass doors that swung into the reception foyer, it was dark.
The glass doors weren't locked, so we walked in, stepping on a crumpling layer of refuse that coated the floor.
The foyer was dimly lit by filtered sunlight that streamed through the glass doors, even so, we could clearly make out the brightly coloured but incomprehensible graffiti that had been sprayed over the beige coloured wall panelling.
Thermals showed the ground floor was unoccupied and with no working elevators, there was no choice but to proceed upwards on foot.
Accumulated detritus was piled up in the corners of the unlit, windowless stairwell and we were forced to use night-vision. Graffiti scrawled across walls became more and more frequent, eventually we began to hear voices, a lot of them and music too.
Arriving on what clearly sounded like the right floor, we looked across the gloomy bare landing, litter and rubbish were strewn across it, most of it discard food cartons, drained Kaia Cola bottles or pizza boxes.
Following the escalating noise, we walked through a bright, doorless frame into what, in different circumstances might have been an office. In my mind's eye, I could almost see it; open plan with grey, upholstered free-standing dividers creating a grid of cubicles, populated with wage-monkeys whittling away their lives at desk-slabs, quietly distracted by the office-politics uttered in hushed tones that this environment would foster.
On reflection, maybe it was better this way
Neon City sunlight flooded through windows and afternoon shadows loomed across the floor, we could see the singularly large room was filled with not just refuse, but junk and old tech, rigged-up desk-slabs sat on makeshift tables built of polymer sheets and breeze blocks, reclaimed wall-slabs were hooked to with old-school Segtendo game-decks that ran off original data-slugs, while a salvaged old Iksaarp sound system thumped out music. Mounds of clothes were piled throughout the room, close to old, stained mattresses that had been dumped in remote spots. A grimy, squalid living area.
The occupants - mostly teenagers, shabbily dressed in well-worn, low cost urban clothes had seen us enter and stopped dead, trying to scope the situation out, staring with calculating eyes.
They were part of the underclass that refused to buy into the cycle of futile consumerism that inevitably came with a Universal Credit account. They knew too, that they were squatting here on borrowed time, eventually they'd be turfed out. Only question was by whom and how?
Was that us, they must have wondered?
Were we going to do this the easy or hard way, they must have thought?
Luckily for them, we weren't the unquestioning thuggish trigger-jockeys that Mister Blank might have hired.
Clearly they were not threatening us, once the music had been lowered to an acceptable level, we approached and spoke with them, explaining that they had to leave, they then refused.
They lived here, as they told us because it was close to the heart of Akihabara. Close to the cutting edge of music, fashion and entertainment that the district offered. They weren't impressed when we said that whoever came here after us, would not be quite so accommodating, they were prepared to take the risks.
Bill spoke with the squatters and managed to get them to admit that if we found another good or better spot for their digs, they'd leave.
At any one time in Neon City, corporate players would always have at least a property or two that was either unoccupied or forgotten about on an asset list somewhere. Time to get to work.
Traffic on the GLOWNET was typically saturated with data-flows, the accumulated shining particles of information clustered into their millions, vividly pulsating along the skeletal polygonal substructure of Neon City's info-vista, constantly destroying and renewing the geometric landscape.
Trying to hack individual corporate data-vaults was futile and would take too long, there had to be another way? Then it came to me, the municipal authorities would keep records of unoccupied properties earmarked for commercial usage, it would probably be public records. I launched a search protocol on my Nonohiki and recoded its algorithmic boundaries on the fly with the desired parameters before unleashing it into the City Hall's data-vault.
The protocol quickly returned with results, as expected, there were numerous disused location in Akihabara, scanning through the results I found a suitable candidate, an unoccupied loft close to our current location, it had been neglected for some time. It was a good location.
After speaking with the squatters they agreed to move out and into their new digs, it didn't hurt that we provided them with an enormous box of Savka chocolate and a crate of Baishan cider for doing so.
We stayed to watch them pack up, it didn't take long, they only took what they considered irreplaceable and left the office mostly strewn with their junk, easier to just dumpster dive whatever they needed when they got to the loft.
Once the building had been vacated, an almost uncomfortable silence settled on the office, Trigger ran one last thermal scan to check the floor was empty, he got a hit, there was still a heat signature here.
It was a single unusual, small and faint heat signature located in the far side of the other wing? Our footsteps sounded unusually loud on the uncarpeted floor, almost echoing as we walked through the neglected, bare and empty wing, when we reached the heat source, what we found was surprising.
Wrapped in a slightly crumpled blanket and sitting there was a creature that resembled small white bear, it turned its head to regard us coolly as it drank from a cup of gently steaming tea!
Maybe it was an uplifted animal? We tried speaking to it, but it didn't answer or respond, either it was unwilling or unable to do so.
There was some strange marking on one of its feet, I zoomed in with my telescopics, it was writing. 'The Yokai Corporation, find us in Ikebukuro.'.
It made sense now: The Yokai Corporation was a videogame developer and competitor to Segtendo's Pouchebeast game. The Yokai Corporation produced a unique and elaborate videogame that was actually played throughout Neon City, it required the use of extensively genetically altered creatures such as this white bear that loosely resembled creatures of Japanese folklore called yokai, these yokai would be released into the wilds of the city to roam its districts and neighbourhoods. Hardwired and networked implants in their brains dictated their behaviour towards human trainers and other yokai.
In order to participate in the game, players had to become Yokai Trainers which involved purchasing Yokai Licences from the corporation. With a license, trainers now had the privileges to capture wild yokai, train them and use them to battle the yokai of other trainers.
This was achieved through GLOWNET connections and the elaborately coded actions of the yokai.
Pepper found all of this quite compelling, pulling out his media-slab, he quickly paid for an account, downloaded the necessary protocols and immediately gained his license!
This allowed him to capture his first yokai, in this case the yokai in front of him. It was a level one Shirokuma. The yokai immediately got to its feet and joined Pepper, who'd now part of the world of yokai battling.
When we left office block, the yokai followed along behind Pepper, the block was empty now and we let Mister Blank know.
The end of the day was fast approaching as I got back to my one-bed, cheap takeout in hand. Soon the gathering clouds above would erupt raging torrents crashing down on Neon City.
As I closed my door withc a click, I heard a rustling movement in the apartment, the easily recognisable footsteps of Lucy. In the peripheral of my vision I saw her heading my way. I avoided eye-contact, having no desire to hear what she had to say and made straight for my futon. Too late! She'd sprung in front of me, hands on hip, demanding to know why I hadn't taken her out for ages!
Trapped, I knew what was coming.
"Well honey," I had to say. "What do you want to do?".
Here it came.
"Uterus!" Lucy replied without hesitation, flashing a cheap printed flyer in my face.
Located in the southern half of the Shibuya Terminal district, Uterus was a big nightclub and a bigger deal, an infamous venue with a massive capacity and one of the most exclusive and trendy nightspots in Neon City that lured a celebrity clientele from all over, Uterus also pulled in thousands of clubbers nightly. People would figuratively kill to get in.
Wouldn't be cheap getting tickets this late in the day either, worse than that! Tickets were scarcer to come by than normal. Turned out that a popular annual event known as Uterus Gestation was scheduled for tonight and prices had been run up to a hundred grand each! As well as Lucy and I, I knew the others would want in, it was going to cost a lot of scratch to get through those doors and we resented being gouged, there must have been a way to get cheaper tickets?
Maybe D4-VID could help? The botcaster normally covered the Neon City current affairs beat, maybe it was time he had a change, there would be a lot of celebrity photo opportunities at Uterus Gestation, maybe he could get us in.
We pinged D4-VID and explained the situation and he pinged his publisher with it. They agreed to front half the cost of tickets for D4-VID and his entourage.
Once we'd gotten some tickets from a tout, Lucy was jumping for joy and went got ready for the night out.
An hour later and she reappeared in a short-hemmed pale yellow Fassus party frock with matching Poratier earrings and Oltrante stilettos.
I thought back to all the social events that I'd attended with Lucy and thrust a couple of extra clips for my Xiuzhol Arms .45 into a pocket of my armoured, black leather Verskeit trench coat.
Lucy had also booked a stretched, pink sky-limo and with D4-VID in tow, we headed into the rainy night and to the Shibuya Terminal. Finding Uterus wasn't hard, just headed towards the thumping bassline that permeated throughout the entire neighbourhood.
Approaching the venue, we saw that it was announced by massive blazing neon signage ten metres above street level. Searchlights were bolted to the flat exterior of what appeared to be steel clad walls, sweeping the night sky, with lancing beams of light, gleaming when caught in falling raindrops.
If it was possible, the crush of people intensified after we exited the limo and got close to the nightclub, the clamouring crowd threatened to even drown out the music pumping from within Uterus. Must've been a thousand people trying to get past the roped-off red carpet or straining a neck to get a glance at the arriving Neon City luminaries. Other news-droids were among the crowd, filming and snapping away.
Elbowing our way through the assembled people to the tanked up doormen bulging with grafted muscle packs and cheap Evoda tuxedos who convinced no one of anything other than their thuggish nature, we held out our tickets.
Then we hit a problem, the tickets were fake, we weren't getting in, Lucy was crestfallen, I didn't want to deal with the fallout, so this wasn't going to stop me, I slipped the bouncers a small stack of bits and Lucy and I were in! The others followed suit.
Even so they demanded that we handed over our weapons before granting us entry, we capitulated, grudgingly so as they were deposited into a secure locker.
I suspected this might all go south at some point. Fortunately, it was impossible to disarm Roderick, Bill's bodyguard!
Uterus was a massive converted, stripped down shell of a warehouse with multicoloured spotlights, that in time to the music played over the flat, garishly decorated interior wall and ceiling panels as well as the exposed skeletal steel frame that supported it, creating outlandish blended patterns of colour in the otherwise dimly lit venue. Through the press of silhouetted, churning bodies we could make out several bars, a stage with the DJ and his decks set out, two seating areas - one of which was in a raised area. There was also a dance floor, Lucy headed straight for it.
Once inside, the music had become louder as it blared out of a custom and pricey Oherut speaker setup and sound system that the DJ was controlling, conversing normally was an impossibility, then a little later, Gestation got underway and the music really became deafening!
The usual assortment of techno dancefloor songs had been replaced by something different. A procedurally generated almost pneumatic electronica sound originating from multiple sources within the warehouse that reverbed off the walls to create a cacophony of clashing chords that somehow harmonised into an all-enveloping body of sound.
It was beyond loud and was accompanied by a low humming as the old warehouse began vibrating, I could feel a nauseating tremor tightening my chest, it was beginning to affect others too, some began to collapse whilst others cheered and continued dancing. The sound continued to intensify, parts of the warehouse began to buckle, more people collapsed and then, the panic ensued, almost silent screams swallowed by the sound emanated from faces strangely lit by the kaleidoscopic hues and contorted by fear as people stampeded for the exits. Somewhere in that crowd was Lucy?
My vision grew blacker, as if someone had lowered the dimmer switch to reality and then I blacked out.
I was told what happened afterwards.
As the warehouse shook itself apart, dropping heavy steel panels on the hapless clubbers below, in the gloom a massive tangle of people had got caught up at the exits, unable to get out, fighting had broken out as a result.
Koko had reached the DJ's decks, found the lighting controls and managed put the normal lights back on, it didn't help much. Everyone still needed to get out so Bill had ordered Roderick to clear the way. Roderick's algorithms had assessed the risks and calculated the teeming people represented a clear threat, he opened up with his guns, firing clusters of explosive fletchette rounds into the crowd! It wasn't what Bill had asked for, but it was effective, if brutally so and there was no point crying over spilt milk so dragging Lucy and I, they managed to escape Uterus. Moments later the warehouse collapsed in on itself with a tremendous crash and billowing cloud of dust, killing everyone still left inside.
That wasn't all that had happened.
When I'd regained consciousness, something strange had happened. I could still hear the music, it's beat pumping away deep in in my brain like an echo, everyone had experienced a song that became stuck in their head but this was something else, different. I swear that somewhere in that electronica I could hear a voice, a voice that spoke to me? It called itself Koto? To say it conversed with me was inaccurate, but conversed it did.
Whenever Koto spoke to me, in the moment that followed, for a instant I could feel my senses become heightened; colours, light and shapes became more vivid, sounds were clearer and hearing became acuter, it caused my response times to external stimuli to rapidly decrease.
I would discover at a later time I was not the only survivor from Uterus who had experienced this. In a few people the music in the nightclub had caused some sort of shift in the electro-chemical balances in the brain, inexplicably creating what was named a Living Electronic Dance Music Entity or Living EDM Entity. An actual sentient individual that now resided in my brain. There appeared to be no way to reverse this. It seemed that Koto was here to stay.
I also expected the constant music that played in my head to drive me insane, instead the song and Koto managed to coexist in my consciousness without issue.
Lucy, at some point had vomited on her new frock and now wanted to go home to bed, I was also sore but uninjured. As first responders arrived to treated survivors, we managed to retrieve our secured weapons and made a hasty exit, not wanting to answer any awkward questions that might come up.
Later still, Bill told us, he'd found a crumpled up empty pack of Lunglife Cigarettes in one of his coat pockets, considering he didn't smoke - that was curious.
He turned it over in his fingers and found some scribbled writing. It was a number - and a name; Viper Joe. There was a short message too, From Viper Joe? Urging us to save his girlfriend from some sort of hacker? Wanted us to meet him at some place called the Freak Pit.
The next morning, stories came down the news-vines of the destruction of Uterus, the nightclub had been packed to capacity when it had happened, which was estimated at ten thousand people, of them there had been only about five hundred survivors!
Despite this, Uterus Gestation was generally considered a great success and declared the best Uterus event yet, particularly by the survivors! To much fanfare and excitement, it was announced that in the future, to mark the rebuilding of the nightclub there would be an even greater event called Uterus Reopening.
Tickets had already gone on sale were expected to soon sell out.
10th April 2021
Saturday night again, I'm logged into Meet on PC and ready to game.
Time for session 18 of Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Doctor Pepper Mashup: Played by Karl.
A doctor of internal medicine and surgery - or so he said; his best friend was a vet? Pepper was a cynical opportunist always with one eye watching for an easy score. He was also incredible irregular and appeared only according to whatever whim he fancied.
Location: Neon City.
Thankfully, morning had come and gone before I woke to a hangover. Bumbling to the kitchen area, I labouredly rummaged through the piled trash until I came across a suitable breakfast; Savka chunky milk chocolate sticks and a couple of cans of Huntudi. After a few minutes, the mixture of flavour enhancers, additives and sugar had washed away the remains of last night's excesses.
I could've done with some more sleep, trying my best to ignore the flapping polymer tarp that covered the exposed side of my one-bed, I slumped back on my futon, dragging the sheet over my head and closing my eyes. It couldn't last though, it never did.
Silai Granskina pinged us a call: On the line, his voice was distorted, sounded strange, maybe coming down with a cold?
Told us he needed our help, had been coming out of a meeting in The Shibuya District when he'd been attacked! His nose had been chopped off and stolen! Well, that explained it.
He wasn't alone! We'd been hearing stories on the news-vines for a little while now, an unknown assailant had been targeting people in The Shibuya District and taking their noses! Media had dubbed them The Snot Robber!
It had been the beginning of Silai's problems, he needed reconstructive surgery which would require purchasing in a new and expensive vat-grown nose, his medical insurance typically refused to cover the cost, claiming that The Snot Robber was a terrorist and excluded from their coverage. As a consequence Silai needed two million bits. He'd been taken to The Shinjuku Prefecture and the Okkubo Hospital located within The Metropolitan Building District.
The Metropolitan Building District could only be reached one way; The Tochomae Electric Train. It was a transfer we had to make at The Shinjuku Station, a concrete, glass and steel colossus where four transit systems and an array of platforms intersected. Rippling swathes of people swept through the station's halls at every hour. The clamour was immense, a mixture of voices, footfalls and harshly electric public announcements that reverbed into the airy, vaulted, high-ceilinged roof filled with swooping mercenary pigeons.
The Tochomae Electric Railway was a small network that serviced The Metropolitan Building District, the trains were plain but well maintained and smoothly delivered us to our destination.
The district got its name from the behemothic Metropolitan Building that dominated the skyline like a silent watchful sentinel. An uncaring midday sun beat down on the bustling main thoroughfare that thronged with crowds as we threaded our way towards Okkubo Hospital. Despite its size, the hospital paled in the shadow its monstrous neighbour.
Concrete steps went up to automated glass doors that swished open into a neutral grey interior where staff and visitors shuffled through a eerily subdued reception hall. Following instructions to find Silai Granskina immediately got us lost in the multi-storied warren of annexes, wings and wards, boots squeaked on the polished linoleum floor as we wondered plain corridors decorated with hospital signs and a variety of health promotion posters that everyone in Neon City would ignore.
After a while something caught our eye, down one corridor we saw a doctor purposely striding away, face obscured, he wore a bright red and yellow floppy hat, even in a conurbation with Neon City's population, only one man wore a bright red and yellow floppy hat of that particular style; Thaddeus Rackham.
What had bought the vaudevillian transvestite street worker and assassin to Okkubo Hospital? What was he doing wearing a doctor's coat? After catching up with Thaddeus, he informed us that he was here to see a friend about a body!
Like us, Thaddeus knew The Accountant, a disembodied brain in a jar that resided in a suitcase that had belonged to Russian mobster Yennav Rybasei. He had promised to find a body for The Accountant and he had just been pinged by Astiek Steva, his friend and mortuary worker who had encountered a suitable candidate. We went with Thaddeus to the morgue, like the assassin, we were also on the hunt for a body for The Accountant.
The temperature noticeably dropped at a rapid pace as we descended into the hospital's basement levels, rooms and corridors here were lit by humming dim strip lights. The exposed walls and concrete floor lacked even the plain painting of the hospital above. Gone too, was the hubbub of people, only hospital staff in scrubs quietly walked the corridors here.
Astiek Steva seemed friendly enough when Thaddeus introduced us, he spoke with a measured quiet voice. He was a skinny, small guy with a triangular face, sunken eyes, sharp cheek bones and thing scraggly beard, on his slight frame he wore olive coloured scrubs and white Pohaden Xyrrig designer trainers.
He led us into a secluded examination room which was dominated by a sheet-covered body on a gurney, he went over to a table and scrutinised a desk-slab.
"Hayden Weyer, thirty years old, no underlying health issues, single, looks like he was a salaryman," Astiek read off the slab. "Aneurism was listed as cause of death. A perfect candidate for a brain transplant," he concluded.
The plastic sheet rustled as it was pulled back. Before us was the pale corpse of Hayden Weyer, preserved by the morgue. As expected, it lacked any obvious sign of injury or trauma, even so we decided to take a closer look.
Matters weren't so clear once we'd examined the remains of Hayden Weyer. We'd found a tiny mark behind one ear, it was unmistakably a puncture wound from a needle, no doubt directly into the brain? The kind of technique used by slick assassins who wanted a quick and unfussy death.
It was too much of a coincidence.
We turned to Thaddeus, he was shifting something around in the pocket of his lab coat nervously. After we demanded it, he pulled out whatever was in there; a needle gun!
"Well, I am an assassin!" He said, shrugging. trying hard to look innocent.
Thaddeus' victim was already long dead, too late to do anything now. Nothing to be gained from stopping the transplant, so we decided not to interfere.
"You're going to need a surgeon," Astiek told us. "And probably some sort of engineer to manage the bio-microelectronic components that keep the brain alive,".
Koko could cover the electronics but none of us had the skills to handle the transplant. Thaddeus piped in and told us that he knew a guy.
Doctor Pepper Mashup was a surly-eyed, jowl-faced man with a suspicious expression, deep rumbling voice and most definitely the haunted, twitchy look of a hypersucrose junkie? Pepper wore a dishevelled lab coat and carried a bulging faux-leather black bag. Pepper agreed to help us if we gave him a taste of money, there was little time to disagree.
Jacking into my data-slab, I watched as the GLOWNET emerged, surrounding me in the constantly churning plethora of brilliantly lit data-images and knowledge-vaults that constituted Neon City's info-vista.
Getting into Okkubo Hospital's systems was easy, I arrived at its gleaming, green translucent, Greek square cross data-image, launched a bypass protocol and was in. Hospital data flowed past me, finances, med-records, e-mails and more, I saw an unoccupied and available operating theatre, a couple of inputs and it was now reserved for Doctor Pepper Mashup.
I contacted Ashaglaya, told her to bring The Accountant's suitcase to us and Thaddeus quickly wheeled Hayden Weyer's body out of the morgue and into the theatre. Once everyone had converged, Koko and Pepper got to work.
It would be some time before the transplant was completed and the rest of us took the opportunity to go back into the maze that was Okkubo Hospital and found Silai Granskina, we had been delayed enough.
The centre of his unhappy face was covered by a thick white cotton wool pad held in place by numerous strips of surgical taping. Silai told us that a Doctor Ivan Grippen, specialist in rhino-constructive surgery had come highly recommended. Unfortunately The Snot Robber's exploits had increased the demand and thus driven up the costs of both Doctor Grippen's services and vat-grown noses from Saengdal Genetics to a total of two million bits. Well it looked like Doctor Grippen would be raking it in thanks to The Snot Robber.
Bill sighed and I'm pretty certain I could hear him grumble under his breath as he parted with the two million bits Silai required.
A while after we returned to the operating theatre, the procedure had been completed and was a total success! The Accountant's brain now resided in Hayden Weyer's body, despite the transplant's success, there would need to be a length convalescence. Ashaglaya, who had also befriended The Accountant was happy to provide care for him once we arranged for transport to our ghost apartment in The Skyscraper District.
There was one last thing that needed doing; I jacked back into the hospital's data-systems and began searching. It didn't take long to find; Hayden Weyer's death certificate. I wiped it off the system, wiped the backup record, wiped the emergency callout log and anything in between. It wasn't a perfect clean-up job by any stretch but it didn't need to be, why would anyone want to go looking for a deleted death certificate of man who was still alive? Inconsistencies would be put down to erroneous system code errors.
The Accountant was in Hayden Weyer's body, finally he had wanted and would now be free to live the life left behind by Hayden Weyer.
First though, he was transported to our ghost apartment in The Skyscraper District, a brain transfer was no small thing and he would need recovery time
Heavy Neon City rain nosily lashed violently against the tarp as it endlessly billowed in and out. What woke me in the small hours though, was the pinging from my Jaunkeu 6. I stretched for the media-slab and answered: Ashaglaya was on the line, the pitch and tempo of her voice were too high, something was wrong? Had something happened to Hayden Weyer?
Turns out she'd gotten a call from Cammy Sabine, owner of Coke & Whores, the previous business Ashaglaya had worked for, someone had been targeting the company's party favours and killing them. Cammy told Ashaglaya; she might be next, even the Coke & Whores office had been attacked! Cammy knew that Ashaglaya was tight with the Russian Mob and had asked her if she could get help from the gangsters? Instead, Ashaglaya had called us.
Ashaglaya calmed down and regained her composure once we assured her that the ghost apartment was off-the-grid and she was safe, it would be next to impossible for anyone to find her there, not to leave and we would look into it.
Our attention was turned to Coke & Whores, why had someone moved against them? Valaya Dova, one of their party favours had been murdered by the weird Rokkaku creatures, was it related?
I pinged the others and gave them the low-down, then I pinged the number Ashaglaya had given and told Cammy Sabine we were on the way. We pulled trench coats tight, turned up collars, unpacked umbrellas and hit the street: Undaunted graveyard-shift workers and shaky late-night revellers still filled the rain-swept, streetlight-lit thoroughfares of Rokkaku Expo Stadium as we made our way to the Coke & Whores office.
Cammy Sabine, a slim, slight, middle aged woman was waiting for us outside, she wore a rumpled slate-grey Sarochba business suit and was huddled beneath the protective dome of a nylon micro-umbrella. She looked pale and unsettled as she greeted us, explaining that the office had been hit a couple of hours after closing and she was too scared to go inside.
It was a mess, the street-level door had been struck a hard blow, torn off its hinges and hurled inside, only a curtain of raindrops dripping off the head jamb separated the building from the street.
Out of the rain and inside; we were immediately met with the smell of vomit. Much of the lighting had been broken and in the pale half-glow, it was clear the place had been turned over, floors were strewn with glittering, broken glass, smashed crockery and more, nothing was left standing, tables had been flung over, contents scattered everywhere, wall-slabs ripped from fittings and cables left dangling, even part of the flooring had been pulled up.
Worse still, mostly it seemed to be coated in thin oily film, the Rokkaku creatures had been here.
With caution, we scoured the office, scoping it out under the scrutiny of our flashlights. Nearly everything had been wrecked, except one desk-slab which had somehow survived the destruction, it appeared to be covered in an inordinate amount of nauseating slime.
Cammy gave us a password, so, trying my best to avoid the vile substance, I powered the desk-slab and logged in. Scrolling through system-logs, I saw that the slab had last been powered on less than two hours ago, after Coke & Whores had closed for the night. Only one file had been accessed, a list of Coke & Whores party favours, Ashaglaya's name was on it. I pinged it to my media-slab and we returned outside to the rainy street.
After showing the list to Cammy, we could visibly see the fear grow in her eyes. Trembling, she told us that several names at the top of the the list were dead.
Someone was working down through the list, killing everyone on it; except for Hiki Suko, who was the first to die, killed in a traffic accident supposedly, she was further down the list. Why had she been targeted first?
When posed with the question, Cammy didn't have an answer, then she remembered! Hiki had given Cammy a media-slab the last time she had seen her?
I grabbed the media-slab, it was a Gohotocang, a Dahure model, same model that Ashaglaya had. I networked it into my data-slab, launched a incursion protocol that bypassed the media-slab's password and was in.
It had belonged to Valaya Dova. I began searching the slab's memory partition and instantly found something, the first file I encountered was the last thing recorded, a video, its timestamp's date was identical to the time of Valaya's murder. I hit playback.
Watching the video whilst being jacked into my Nonohiki made it fill my virtual vision.
This video was shot from a unusually low, off-kilter angle, part of the picture was out of focus, seemingly obscured by something, it must have been Valaya, hidden behind something. The remaining visible part of the picture showed a tall and thin, almost spindly man with Goji Rokkaku, that wasn't all though. A Rokkaku creature came into shot, moving unnaturally, it rolled its strange head around as if it was looking for something. Suddenly it flicked its head with its strange stalk-like eyes in the direction of Valaya, I heard a gasp behind the video and the picture lurched abruptly and become shaky as Valaya began running, a moment later the video ended.
After this was another video with a slightly earlier timestamp, again I hit playback. It showed the same tall, thin man, this time being serviced by a party favour.
Was that what this was all about? Was this what Valaya had seen at the party that had gotten her killed? Somehow the media-slab had gone from Valaya to Hiki Suko and now Hika Suko was dead.
We asked Cammy if any of the people on the list had been at the Goji Tower party a little while ago.
"All of them," replied Cammy Sabine.
Everyone on that list was at risk, Rokkaku was cleaning up shop, bumping off anyone associated with that party, we had to get to the targets first. Koko bought the flier in as quickly as she could and we began searching.
Several people on the list were already dead; Ashaglaya was safe where she was and well hidden. Racing though the rain filled blackness of night, guided through the aerial landscape and congestion by city lights and night vision, we managed to reach other five party favours, that was about half of the list, they piled them into the flier as we found them.
By the time we'd got them all, the rain had been reduced to a drizzle and the eastern skyline was lightening, evidence of the oncoming dawn.
We decided to stash them on the autonomous RV that circled Neon City's road network, they would safe there and they could amuse themselves while they waited for things to cool down.
During this time, as Koko was flying through the night, I took the opportunity to run the tall man through facial recognition and got a hit; Barnabus Haywood.
Resident of The Glitterband, the vast orbital residential station that ringed the Earth, more than that, he was The Controller of one of The Glitterband's numerous habitats, namely The Messenger Habitat.
A little more digging and found records of him coming down The Skytree, the monumental undertaking that had created a space-elevator which physically linked Neon City to the vast geosynchronous Glitterband above.
Whatever was going on, looked like this was starting to grow bigger than just The Rokkaku Group. How big did it get? It was too late to try and figure out the significance, instead we returned to Hikage Street and bed.
Once again, we'd interfered with the machinations of The Rokkaku Group. It was only a matter of time before we surfaced on their radar and they might sic those creatures on to us.
We'd fought the creatures once and they proved to be dangerous enemies with bio-enhancements that gave them a serious tactical edge in combat, we needed a way to even that edge.
On every occasion that we'd seen of them, they exhibited exceptional hearing and had moved in total silence, maybe it was something that could be used against them?
Koko and I discussed creating a sonic drone that could pump out soundwaves on a multitude of frequencies and intensities, hopefully it would overpower the creature's hyper sensitive hearing or interfere with it.
Koko contacted Alex Chinsko, owner of Bric-a-Brac Shac, he had a knack of creating bespoke, modded tech, maybe there was something he could do.
Too few short hours later and with little rest, our media-slabs pinged again, with a sigh I rolled out of my futon. Shadows were shortening as a blazing midday sun was rising over Neon City, drenching it in punishing heat. From my one-bed, the usually stark, blue-white sky was now strange when viewed through the filter of the urine coloured transparent tarp.
Alex Chinsko had pinged us, only not about drones! someone had come into his shop looking for help, he'd come looking for a street-doc and ratchet-jockey and was willing to pay. Alex had immediately thought of us and said we should come down to and meet the guy.
Much of Hikage Street was primarily Neon City's residential, social-housing district and Bric-a-Brac Shac one of many strips of shops that nestled at street level beneath the collective of grey, concrete high-rises and serviced their inhabitants.
The street was always busy, most people here collected universal credit and lived a life stripped of aspiration, had little purpose other than you absorb mostly vapid wall-slab vid-shows or wander the city looking for some kind of meaningful gratification. Subsiding only on this municipal fiscal arrangement that allowed them acquire funds to continue consuming corporate products and ultimately line the pockets of said corporations.
It's where we lived too, only we weren't planning on making it a permanent deal.
Bric-a-Brac Shac was like a mini electronic supermarket, shop window brimming with it's eclectic array of consumer electronics. A tiny analogue bell chimed as we came in, the noise of the outside world fell away as we gazed on walls, shelves and aisles: All choked with second hand consumer electronics, slabs of every kind, lights, AC systems, electrical components, power blocks, recovered implants, as well torn-down circuit boards and components, actuators, servos and other robot parts, along with the tools to use them. Alex also had stock in code-black tech, but kept it out of sight. We strode down the narrow aisles, burgeoning piles of gear hung over us foliage born of metal, plastic and wiring.
At the cluttered, tech-covered counter, Alex introduced us to Urus Konicek, a tall man with a mohawk and goatee, a distinctive vertical scar ran down the left side of his face and his left eye was gone, in its place; a green orb that pulsated gently. Urus wore a large almost oversized olive green Evoda overcoat, he also had a distinct, peculiar, inexplicable bitter odour and spoke a slight accent that we couldn't nail down?
Urus told us he had come from The Enclave, we all looked at each other, it was a place none of us had heard of? Continuing on, he told us that at The Enclave there was an exowomb baby that needed delivering. Finally, Urus added that the whole job would take a few days?
Designed to allow pregnancy to continue outside the biological womb, exowombs were pretty rare pieces of tech, too expensive for nearly all Neon City inhabitants, I'd never seen one.
Despite Urus being evasive about the specifics, we agreed to help, he was paying well. He seemed pleased and added that we needed to pick his travelling companion before heading out to The Enclave.
Exiting Bric-a-Brac, Urus took us south and into Hikage Street's commercial quarter, dismal high-rises fell away as the almost anonymously identical factory and warehouse estates sprang up ahead. It was also here that vast amounts of Neon City's massive piping network converged, too massive in fact to fully fit underground. Huge pipes could be seen to rise and fall out of the street like giant arching sea-snakes in an asphalt ocean. Where pipes did breach the surface of Hikage Street, they were secured to the ground with enormous concrete blocks.
Urus led us to one such block, he had a way through the secured door and took us in. It wasn't our first time in The Pipes, the dank place was an accumulation of incomprehensible mazes and labyrinths, a nightmare to navigate. Urus however, seemed to know his way round the place. So as we followed, he took us through steel and concrete entrails that led deep into the city's bowels. Deep enough that our connections to Neon City were gone, no data-feeds, no GLOWNET, nothing. It was like missing an appendage.
For a while this continued until Urus gestured for us to halt, he activated some sort of wrist-comm and spoke with somebody, giving them a warning them that we were approaching before resuming. Whatever Urus' tech was, it allowed him converse with with other people using a connectivity protocol that didn't require access to the city's networks?
Eventually we were led into a room of sorts and waiting there was Urus' companion: A huge man, well over two metres tall and dressed entirely in black, no part of him showed. He must've had some kind of implants or bio-augmentation to make his torso so massive and his arms to so thick, by comparison, his legs looked short, almost stunted.
He was introduced as Neidzwiedz, he wore a black hood that covered his face and over it a full face mask. Muffled as his voice was, we noticed a definite East European accent to the rumbling bass of his voice when he greeted us. Neidzwiedz also exuded the same bitter odour as Urus?
Urus then told us we would be heading north but in here, it might as well have been Goji Rokkaku's apartment by our understanding of The Pipes! So we walked and eventually up and out of The Pipes, it was early afternoon and we found ourselves in the Itabashi-Cho Prefecture and north of central Neon City. Urus proceeded to take us away from the heaving main streets through grimy back alleys and shady side roads on an apparently meandering route. We realised though, that he was going to great lengths to avoid all the security cameras we encountered; it was an impressive feat.
As he led us on, he would habitually stop to scrutinise some pile of rubbish or discarded trash, rummaging through and pocketing various broken-looking circuit boards, components and whatever else he found he found into his overcoat. As Koko and I curiously observed, occasionally he would stop and while Neidzwiedz would go on lookout; he'd take several back out and after rolling them over in his hands, somehow assemble them together to make a piece of kit or component; Urus definitely had a talent as a scavenger.
We kept heading north, further north than we'd ever been. Soon the city wall began looming over the horizon behind the urban clutter. The concrete and steel wall marked the absolute limits of Neon City, it was dozens of metres thick and rose dozens of storeys above, taller than any close building. From street level we couldn't see them, but the wall was armed with extensive aerial defences to prevent transgressors from crossing in from uninhabitable wastes outside Neon City.
Still Urus took us north, past the easy recognisable and intricately built Jorenji Temple with the largest Buddha statue in the city and after that we arrived at the city wall. It was quiet, unsettlingly so, the city sprawl almost reached the wall but no one ever came this far out and the grey rough-surfaced wall was an imposing sight when it was close enough to touch, Urus continued, following the perimeter as it curved behind the windowless rears of city structures
He stopped at a sturdy, heavy looking steel panelled gate, it was covered in licks of rust and had the look of an unused thing.
"Few people in Neon City know about this, maybe nobody," Urus told us with a smile as he unlocked and opened the gate.
It was something we'd all seen, maybe in a park, definitely in photos and vids, on the GLOWNET or in VR; but going through that gate and tunnel, leaving behind the narrow, crowded streets of Neon City, the soaring skyline, concrete vistas and having it in front of us; that was something else.
An expanse of varied, seemingly unending greenery stretched out, impossibly disappearing into a distant, hazy and wavering horizon that could never exist in The City of Electric Dreams. Not even the wide spaces of Neon City's Bay could come close to matching the sparse openness here. Urus noticed our stunned expressions.
"Welcome to The Wilderness," he said with a chuckle. "Not what you were expecting?".
Wild grasses rippled under a breeze and we sensed a strange smell, it was the same bitter earthy smell that we had got from Urus and Neidzwiedz.
As we gawped at our surroundings, Neidzwiedz pulled off his black hood with a low bassy grunt. What we saw surprised us even more.
Neidzwiedz turned to look at us with a bear's head! He gave a laugh that rumbled when he saw our expressions. He explained that he was an grizzly bear that had been uplifted by the Russian Army and had been recruited into their special operation branch. He had stayed awhile before escaping into the wilderness here and encountering The Enclave, he spread his arms wide to indicate our surroundings.
Urus led us to an old style, wheeled flatbed truck, the kind that would never fit on Neon City streets, having been replaced by sky-freighters. I didn't recognise the model, but the badge said it was a Tulytt. Flecks of rust were erupting underneath the old paint, causing it to bubble and peel, looked weird; would never happen to a modern flier, old steel frames and bodies had been superseded by blended polymers and ultra-light composites. A row of glassy, gridded black panels were laid out along the flatbed trailer, they had to be solar panels, looked like someone had replaced the old internal combustion engine with a power cell.
I looked up, it was as hot as Neon City here but somehow, the sky was a softer, deeper shade of azure and cotton-white puffy clouds effortlessly hung there, nothing that could ever be seen in the harsh blue-white sky of Neon City. It made all of us wonder; how much of the planet was the uninhabitable eco-disaster that we had all been taught about as children and how much of it was like this wilderness?
The cab was sized generously enough to allow all of us - even Neidzwiedz to squeeze in. Powering up the flatbed, Urus turned to us and said we would be stopping at somewhere called Rabbit Town before he pulled away.
For a while the truck rolled on, slowly creaking and rocking its way along a faint, uneven and rocky track that had been trampled into the grass. To the rear, through the dusty trail kicked up the truck, Neon City's skyscraper-topped city-wall shrank away, swallowed by into a vanishing point where sky met earth.
On a whim, I powered my data-slab up; zero access to the GLOWNET, well and truly off-the-grid.
For an hour or so we travelled until we crested some low, gentle hills and on the far side, Rabbit Town came into view; a smallish settlement that seemingly existed within the confines of an old-world industrial facility.
There were a couple of large, time-and-weather stained, functional looking cuboid concrete structures set on a asphalt courtyard, one of which was surrounded by half a dozen dormant looking cooling towers and smokestacks that soared skyward. Faded and barely legible signage confirmed it was an obsolete old powerplant and clearly non-operational: The town's power came from an nearby, adjacent array of solar panels that had been constructed. Also close to the settlement was an iron latticework tower dotted with a handful of satellite dishes, a quick check indicated that out network connections had been re-established.
People could be seen moving about and rudimentary handmade decorations plastered walls throughout Rabbit Town, indicating signs of inhabitation.
As the flatbed bounced closer, we could see that large numbers of the titular rabbits freely roamed the entire settlement and its locales. Urus told us that the community here was a bit strange; they believed the rabbits were the personification of their ancestors and considered them to be sacred. Urus advised us to not harm them and leave them well alone as we came to halt.
The population of Rabbit Town observed us neutrally with mild curiosity as we exited the flatbed and made the last stretch on foot, once they recognised Urus and Neidzwiedz, they warmed to us and we were invited to join them for an evening meal.
The people here did not look or behaviour like the citizens of Neon City, they were content to converse with us and we could feel the sense of community they enjoyed, unlike the inward-looking media obsessed consumerists of our world. Additionally, they disconcertingly lacked the general nihilistic cynicism that imbued Neon City. Their unbranded clothes were clearly homespun, a strange and colourful, haphazard mix of wool, cotton and animal skins.
The food they offered us was strange too, a meal consisting mostly of real vegetables and real fruits, the textures were strange; firm and crisp in contrast to the processed, reconstituted, reshaped, soft and easily consumed corporate foodstuffs we were used to. The flavours too were strange, somehow more intense yet lacking the monosodium glutamate driven endorphin zing that Neon City food provided?
Urus told us it was naturally grown in fields that surrounded Rabbit Town, real fruit and vegetables went for a hefty price tag if sold to the right people in the right parts of Neon City.
After thanking our hosts we set off back to the flatbed. At the cab, Captain Noodles had remained behind with the vehicle, expressing no desire to visit Rabbit Town. Arriving back, we discovered that Noodles had killed and eaten several rabbits, he was smug and pleased with himself, completely oblivious to what he had done!
Quietly, we loaded up into the truck and set off northwards again.
In the west, an enormous wavering sun was slipping behind the unnerving, uneven and undulating wilderness horizon in a red-orange hue that blazed across half the sky, casting the longest of shadows. Soon it would be night.
As we went on, Urus flicked on the headlights and I peered up at the darkening sky as the failing light was consumed by inky blackness, something was different, some was wrong?
Rain, there was no rain and no black boiling clouds had gathered above to unleash torrents. As night bled into the clear sky, the cosmos in all its light and colour was revealed.
I had no memory of there being a night with no rain in Neon City, all of us stared above at the starry roof as high as the universe.
Soon it was entirely dark, dark in a way that The City of Electric Dreams could never be, no city lights or humming streetlamps could be found here, or lit-up fliers buzzing above either. As the truck trundled along, beyond the flatbed's lights; the world had been swallowed by night, only the creaking of the truck and our own restlessness were heard.
Later, a spark of pulsating light appeared in the void ahead; it's distance impossible to calculate. The light's intensity grew as we continued, until it split into two and split again into five lights? Soon, shapes materialised out of the night, rectangles - a row of them; grey-white and mostly washed out under the radiance of the stark white lights which seemingly hovered above. As the truck closed in, details swam into focus, rectangles morphed into polycarbonate-reinforced concrete panels anchored to each other by steel posts, forming a colossal wall. Hovering lights coalesced into floodlights bolted to shadowed watchtowers barely visible behind the unrelenting glare. This wall surrounded a compound of sorts, inside its perimeter taller buildings were indistinctly silhouetted against the night sky.
Urus drove around the wall and up to some gates, on a watchtower, a spotlight buzzed into life and swivelled towards us, its beam playing across the cab.
"Welcome to The Enclave," Urus announced.
While our identities were confirmed and the heavy gates slid open, Urus went on to explain that the compound had once been a military base, abandoned before the days of Neon City and now home to The Enclave.
Past the gates the lighting was kept to a minimum and from within we could make out that the watchtowers were manned. Urus eased the truck on to the small asphalt road network that spread throughout the compound, ahead of us was a courtyard and beyond it was a largish boxy building. Just to the west was a low wide structure with a dimly lit open front, to the east we also spotted a row of what looked to be single story cabins, several windows were lit. In the compound's north-east corner was a tall, angular tower and directly opposite the tower was the tallest structure here by far; a soaring latticework array housing a large white satellite dish. A quick check told us that it was networked into Neon City. A long strip of solar panels had been constructed in The Enclave, similarly to Rabbit Town.
Urus took the west road, turning the truck towards the low structure which we discovered was a garage constructed of ceramic corrugated sheets and parked up.
Now that we were at The Enclave, Urus explained that some sort of flier had come down hard in the wilderness reasonably close by; a security team was sent to investigate. At the crash site they discovered two occupants, both had survived the impact, but barely. The woman was unconscious, possibly comatose and Urus had no idea about the state of the exowomb.
Urus led us to the boxy building, telling us that it was The Enclave's hospital. It was apparent that the building had served some other function in the long-gone past and had been crudely repurposed as a med-facility, there were no dedicated medical wards or wings, no operating theatre or treatment rooms, the hospital was lacking both facilities and equipment.
We were taken to the two survivors.
The exowomb was a Kuihsih branded piece of med-tech, didn't know much about it, wasn't the kind of thing we dealt in. It had clearly taken a beating though but had undoubtedly saved the life of the infant within. Pepper checked its readouts, it wasn't good news; resources and power were nearly depleted and several sub-systems had also been damaged by the crash. The bio-monitor also indicated that the infant was male, had come to term and needed to be born. Without the password, there was no way to access the exowomb's control system. It was a problem.
Pepper then turned his attention to the woman, un moving in her rudimentary bed. didn't long to realise she was in big trouble, she had serious internal injuries causing a multitude of secondary medical problems. Circling the drain Pepper told us, he also said that he didn't have the equipment to treat her and after searching around, there was nothing in The Enclave that could help either. Worse still, she was too weak to move.
After some discussion, we formulated a plan!
If the woman couldn't be brought to a hospital, then the hospital would have to be brought to her!
The equipment required to treat the woman was fantastically expensive, luckily Pepper knew how to get it rented. He pinged his contact and set it up, then we Pinged Roboy, he could have it delivered to the city wall at Itabashi-Cho and Urus and Neidzwiedz would pick up early tomorrow morning and bring it here. It would take over twelve hours, but there was no other option. Pepper gave the woman some injections, it would stabilise her blood pressure and heart rate, it would also stave off the effects of infection and protect her vital organs - if only for a while, We had to hope it was enough.
The exowomb presented use with several problems.
First I networked my data-slab with it's system and jacked in. Streams of data imprinted themselves on to my consciousness, a constant flow of information in all its minutiae. I probed the encrypted defences, it was a fairly standard setup, I launched a bypass protocol and unlocked it.
Next; Koko had to open it, the servos that operated the exowomb's access panel had been knocked out of alignment by the crash impact, this required detaching the panel extender arms from the servo mechanism without causing further damage to other more critical systems, or harming the child.
Once that was done, it was down to Pepper to make sure the infant was safely extracted from the systems that had been providing nutrients and life support for him and ensure he was healthy. The birth went without a hitch, the boy was safe.
It would be hours until Urus and Neidzwiedz returned with the gear, so we decided to check out the shuttle. The crash site was located just within boundaries of a large forest to the west and might contain dangerous wild animals, a small security detail was assigned to us and we hiked the three kilometres to the site.
Ahead, silent rows of pine sentinels marked the forest's edge, we continued on.
It felt unnatural to be surrounded by so much greenery and vegetation that stretched out beyond the scope of our vision. It felt a quiet and secluded place, yet contrasted by distant, irregular but constant noises that we were told was birdsong. Unfamiliar and heady smells filled our nostrils, underfoot the ground somehow felt soft and frequently gave way with quiet crumpling noises?
About an hour after leaving The Enclave, we arrived at the crash site.
The shuttle was a wreck and situated in the centre of a shallow crater of exposed dirt and fallen trees, there was no ploughed ditch or line of damaged trees, it indicated that the vehicle had most likely plummeted down at a relatively steep angle and not glided or tried to land. This in turned implied that it had encountered a catastrophic event or failure that had immediately brought it down.
The shuttle wasn't a typical Neon City flier either, it was a Interstad Gruppe Sky-skimmer capable of surface-to-orbit flight. There was almost no way that it could have come down on its own or due to error, too many redundancies, too many fail-safes.
We searched the wreckage but got nothing, the ferocity of the impact had taken care of anything that might have resembled evidence. A portion of the hull was still intact and part of some corporate logo or livery was still visible, so we took a photo of it.
An hour later and we were back at The Enclave. Now that I was networked again, I ran the shuttle's livery through a GLOWNET search and got a hit. The shuttle belonged to some corporate public transport contractor that operated out of The Glitterband.
Had the shuttle been coming out of The Glitterband when it had gone down? Was it possible that the shuttle had sent out a distress call? Did someone on The Glitterband need to be contacted?
We had some discussion and in the end, decided to keep quiet about it. There was no idea what we might've have been getting ourselves into.
It was a few hours later that Urus and Neidzwiedz rode back to The Enclave with the gear Pepper needed, we took it to the hospital, set it up and let Pepper do his thing.
A little later and he was done, Pepper told us that the woman was in a serious but stable condition. Stable enough, he said, to take back to Neon City, she still needed extensive medical attention and rest. Pepper made a few calls and arranged to place her in a private med-facility under an alias.
I ran the woman's face through recognition before we left and I got a result I'd never seen; Access Denied? On a few rare occasions I got zero hits, I'd never seen something like this though. Something had to be blocking the search, it was likely that someone had coded some sort of autonomous predatory algorithm which was prowling the GLOWNET, killing any data-transmissions which matched whatever criteria had been inputted into the algorithm's parameters; in this case the identity of the woman. It would take a lot more effort to get past this, something for later.
As a parting gift, we were given a small crate of fresh fruit and vegetables by The Enclave. Urus and Neidzwiedz took us back to The City of Electric Dreams and the return journey was uneventful, by midnight we were back in the comfortable, recognisable asphalt canyons of Neon City, where concrete and glass trees replaced wooden ones and familiar sheets of heavy night rain came crashing down.
Urus and Neidzwiedz helped us bring the woman into the city, we said our goodbyes to the pair as Pepper called a private sky-ambulance to take her to the prearranged facility.
After that, Bill told us that he knew a buyer that served a very exclusive clientele who would pay good money for the opportunity to brag about how they'd eaten fresh fruit and vegetables.
Bill ended up getting seventeen million bits for the fruit and vegetables!
It was the morning after our return to Neon City when Ram Rat pinged me. Jacking into my Nonohiki, I spoke with the digitised consciousness who had been residing in a partition on the data-slab since the bio-components of his previous cyborg body had decayed into unviability.
Even though I was not connected to the GLOWNET, its sensory interface interpreted Ram Rat's consciousness as billions of clustered, swirling neon motes, iridescent and pulsating constellations of bio-data that expanded, contracted and cascaded into each other over digital aeons. An indecipherably and constantly changing, infinitely intricate geometry. A cosmic displayer of the hacker's entire mental process.
Ram Rat told me that his new robot body was ready: As his cyborg body had been failing, he'd managed to get into Robot Factory, hack its systems and insert a robot specification file into its construction database, then he had instructed the factory to produce it, now it had been completed. There was just the small matter of getting a hold of it!
Our last incursion into Robot Factory had nearly gone south, internal defence systems were pretty lethal. We decided that instead, perhaps the robot body should come to us. There was also the matter of cost.
Plugging into the GLOWNET, I navigated well-travelled lanes of Neon City's info-streams until I reached the steel-blue coloured, slowly rotating seemingly riveted polyhedral shape that was Robot Factory's data-image. Ignoring the colourful, friendly and public-facing info-vault, I looked for a node that might take me to the data-vault behind it, Robot Factory's real vault, I quickly found it and was of course immediately hit security protocols. Responding, I launched a protocol of my own, allowing me to bypass the security measures, granting full access to their system.
Even though I was riding the GLOWNET, Ram Rat's presence on my data-slab still registered with me and through this awareness he had the ability to connect with the GLOWNET himself.
Ram Rat probed the system quickly found and displayed for me records associated with his new robot body. I had expected the spec file to be assigned to one of the many product lines that Robot Factory manufactured. Instead, Ram Rat had prudently given it the status of; Unclassified Prototype, this meant the spec file had been assigned its own folder on their system, hidden in plain sight. Unknown unless it was specifically searched for, and why would they do that? Even better, as a prototype it had no manufacturing or delivery cost associated with the order! All that remained was giving it a delivery address.
Wasn't a good idea to deliver it to any of our apartments, instead we contacted Silai Granskina; his voice was clear as a bell now, the op must've been a success and he was happy to help us. Once the robot body was delivered we got it picked up by a courier from Get That For You?, Roboy, the robotic proprietor could be trusted to be discreet.
The robot body arrived without a hitch. It was a sleek design of multipolymers, steel alloys and chrome plated skin in humanoid proportions. The latest servo motors and cutting edge sensor banks gave it enhanced performance characteristics. Mnemonic fluidic joints gave the impression that the body had been seamlessly carved from a single chunk of polished steel with a face of perfectly chiselled features.
With some searching I found the concealed data interface and jacked my Nonohiki into it. A diagnostic protocol confirmed that its power cell was at peak efficiency, so I booted its systems, readouts on my data-slab went all green, Ram Rat began the transfer, it would take some time until his consciousness full occupied what was the robot's blank slate.
Some time later and the transfer was done. Ram Rat was up and about, he seemed pleased; his new configuration would outlast all of us - at least in our current bodies!
He began checking how the new body felt, crouching, jumping, punching the air, even running around the apartment. When his weapon ports opened, I told him it would probably be a good idea to test them out somewhere else and sent him out whilst eyeing the urine coloured tarp that gently wafted along one side of my one-bed.
Ram Rat told me he would finish his tests and fly back to the roaming RV.
The day of Yaroh Uron's trial had come around and we headed to the courthouse in the glaring low morning sunlight, found the relevant courtroom and took up seats in the gallery along with Yaroh's wife, Tohi.
It was a small but open room, lavishly decorated in replica wood panelling and furniture, designed to lend it an air of tradition and authority, something the Neon City legal system sorely lacked. Decidedly non-traditional globe-lights hung from the ceiling and lit the room in a unfavourably cold white hue. An overworked grinding air-con unit did it's best to keep the temperature tolerable.
There was a little wait before a shackled and orange jump-suited Yaroh was shuffled in, his face was long and he looked unhappy. Immediately we noticed that he was not accompanied by the lawyer we had hired for him - Finn Kinton, instead he was with the public defender.
Soon Magistrate Wyatt Lavanchy, presiding judge swept into the room, dressed in a archaic and voluminous black robe, he sat at the bench and pronounced that the trial was underway.
It didn't last long, seventeen minutes to be precise, Yaroh was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Black Dolphin Gulag and marched off.
The evidence against Yaroh Uron was weak, but the key witness in Yaroh's defence - Jinny Stoyer had not presented herself at the courtroom.
Someone was pulling strings behind the scenes? Had to be Benedict Twistom. Time for us to make a move.
We tried our best to console Tohi and said that we'd look into the matter, she told us that she would be making preparations to lodge an appeal.
A quick inquiry revealed that Finn Kinton had just recently died at home of a heart attack?
I consumed myself within the undulating data-scapeof Neon City's GLOWNET info-vista, travelled along the incandescent veins of information that ceaselessly flowed through its infinitely intricate collective construct, racing from one data-vault to another; looking for information on Wyatt Lavanchy. Had Benedict Twistom gotten to him? It didn't look like it. He was a long serving judge and had a rep as a hardliner, but he seemed legit clean as he looked, nothing for Twistom to latch on to.
Wyatt Lavanchy had a wife; Deliah, checked her out too, this time I got something. Deliah had no skeletons in her past either but municipal records indicated a home in the Fortified Residential District had been bought in her name recently. Judges earned good money but there was no way that they could bankroll a place in The Zone, too exclusive, too expensive. It was a lead we could follow, only there was no way we would easily get access to the Fortified Residential Zone, we had to work it sideways.
We were on good terms with Porter Sladek and Vlegei Kreshoma, both residents of The Zone: We pinged them and explained what we needed, they sent out some personnel to scope out the address we gave them. Both men pinged us back with the same result: The Levanchy residence was well guarded by a number of heavily armed retainers.
Next was Jinny Stoyer. We pinged D4-VID; the robot vid-corder had been covering the trial and we asked him if he knew anything about her? Stoyer had gone missing he confirmed but he had no idea how to find her.
Jinny Stoyer was a working girl who operated out of Ninety Ninth Street using the street-tag Juicy J. Under the early-afternoon heat, we took a crowded, sweltering tram ride out to The Neon Mile.
It was characteristically hot, noisy and busy, the blare of street hawkers, arcades and pachinko parlours mingled with heaving, clamorous crowds to create consciousness-numbing, cacophonic white noise that reverbed seemingly along the entire length of the street.
It was easy to find a number of Juicy J's contemporaries working Ninety Ninth, Bill did some talking and spread some bits about. Juicy J no longer tricked on Ninety Ninth, she'd got wind that some nasty men were on the hunt for her and had bugged out. No proof but it was likely that this was muscle on Benedict Twistom's payroll.
Word was that she was now working for Let All Your Rage Out under a different tag. Jinny had apparently told one of her former associates after a year at Let All Your Rage Out, she'd have enough money to get to the moon and be reunited with her boyfriend, OK Daddy.
Let All Your Rage Out was a fairly niche business that - for a price supplied human mannequins to its clientele to use and abuse as they desired. Even if Jinny had provided them her real name, it was unlikely that they'd give it up without some hefty persuasion. So, while perusing their corporate public facing data-vault on the GLOWNET, we came up with a plan.
Bill booked into one of the many cheap, anonymous and drab hotels somewhere on Chuo Street, created a bogus account with Let All Your Rage Out and logged on. He put in an order for a human mannequin, to be sent the hotel's address, on his order he requested a mannequin with physical characteristics that matched those of Jinny; height, build, hair and eye colour, fruit themed tattoos and so on. The mannequin would be delivered within two hours. Then we waited.
The ruse worked, less than two hours later and Jinny Stoyer was knocking on the hotel room door, so we let her in. She wore a miniskirt, boob tube, PVC micro jacket and knee-high boots. Once she realised who had made the order, she futilely tried to flee, we were ready that move though.
We assured her that we meant her no harm, she wasn't entirely convinced and continued shiftily looking around the tatty, barely maintained room for a way out. She was clearly scared and refused to testify on behalf of Yaroh. News that she was being hunted must've shook her pretty hard and we didn't blame her. We needed a different approach, we knew that she was trying to save money to finance a trip to The Moon, so we made a proposal; if Jinny agreed to testify, we'd front the money for her trip. Jinny hesitated before speaking and was still concerned about whoever was looking for her. We told Jinny that we could put her somewhere safe, somewhere she'd never been found. After some consideration, Jinny agreed.
We called the flier and stashed Jinny in the RV, she'd be safe there until the appeal. I'm sure she'd get on well with the party favours we'd also stashed there!
Later and Pepper got pinged. Came from the med-facility where Pepper had placed the unconscious woman from the shuttle crash. She had now regained consciousness.
Without delay, we headed to the facility.
Pepper knew his stuff, the woman's room bristled with medical apparatus and tools, scanners, monitors and at the centre of it, the woman, sitting up and eating.
Pepper checked her bio-readouts, vitals were strong, no sign of permanent or long term injury, she'd make a full recovery.
The first thing the woman did was to press us about her son, she demanded to know where he was, what had happened to him? We assured her that he was safe, at a place that no one in Neon City could hope to find. We also told her that they would be reunited now that she was safe to travel.
It was our turn to ask questions, we had plenty.
She told us her name was Avril Haywood, that made her the daughter of Barnabus Haywood: We'd stumbled on something that looked like it involved Barnabus Haywood just a few days ago, coincidence? Never a safe assumption in Neon City.
Next we asked about the shuttle. Avril told us it had beenshot down, we asked who would want to kill her.
"My father!" she said, matter-of-factly.
It was incredulous, why would he want to kill his daughter and grandson?
Avril went on to explain why, her son's father was Michael Leander, who sat on the ruling council of the Emptiness Habitat.
Barnabus Haywood, according to his daughter was a believer, a believer that he rules over the Messenger Habitat by divine right and is the literal word of god. To him The Messenger Habitat represents the domain of Barnabus and his descendants by birthright. This child was the result of the mingling of the Haywood and Leander bloodlines, giving him and potentially the Leanders and the Emptiness Habitat's ruling council a claim on the Messenger Habitat's throne. This was intolerable to Barnabus, who considered it a threat to his family's seat of power. When Avril realised what her father was prepared to do in order to eliminate this threat, she chose to immediately flee the Glitterband with her unborn son, come to Earth in a shuttle and hoped to find safe haven somewhere. She hadn't been quite quick enough though. Maybe her father would think they had died in the crash, she hoped.
We contacted Urus and he agreed to help, we arranged for Avril Haywood to be picked up at the north gate in Itabashi-Cho and taken her to The Enclave and her son.
Later, Koko received Pippy, a modified Suayo MKVI gun-drone. Alex Chinsko had removed the gun housings and ammo pods and replaced them with a pair of adapted Senonable Oktuto omni-speakers and additional power cells.
Alex had also coded an algorithm that allowed Pippy to use the internal rangefinders to harmonically modulate the audio output at the designated target with near pinpoint accuracy.
Maybe it was something we could use?
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.