5th June 2021
It's a Saturday night and we're logged into video chat for some Saturday RPG action and it's time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign
Location: Neon City.
The grinding clamour of the City of Electric Dreams had mingled into an expansive dulling background static, a numbing, urban white noise that scrambled the brain.
The day’s heat unrelentingly rose to intolerable levels before the sun had even half-finished its march into Neon City’s bleached blue-white sky as shafts of morning light blazed through the tarp that protected the blasted wall of my one-bed while lighting it up the colour of urine.
I coped by mixing Kaia Cola with Shiaikan whiskey; light on the Kaia and heavy on the Shiaikan did the trick; morning receded into a distant undefinable haze.
It couldn’t last and didn’t; the ping from my media-slab cut through the blur like a precision sword stroke, killing my euphoria and flooding my senses with material reality.
Neon City’s unluckiest man, Yaroh Uron was online and it wasn’t about to get better for him: His voice was laboured, erratic, I could almost see the furtive look and sheen of sweat on his face.
It wasn’t enough that he’d been wrongly convicted for murder, now he told us he was on the run and rentacop were after him for another!
We couldn’t leave him twisting in the wind and had to get to Rokkaku Dai Heights.
Koko had the flier prepped and airborne in minutes, remotely bringing it down on one of Hikage Street’s highrise pads while we hustled up to meet it in a shroud of jetwash.
Gravity pawed at me during lift off, I watched the grey tower that housed my one-bed fall away, swallowed by Neon City’s sprawling concrete maw while the urine coloured polymer tarp that marked out my destroyed wall shrank into an indistinguishable dot on the flier’s screens.
A tiny tremble vibrated out of the turbines, transmitted through the toughened poly-blended gum soles of my Habiefs while I scoped the newsvines. The sharp abrupt tugs on my guts told me Koko was pushing the flier hard as she sliced through Neon City’s sky traffic.
The news on Yaroh Uron was plentiful, so was the footage.
A few days ago, while locked up, Tohi, his wife, had been killed in a freak accident involving a delivery droid. Inexplicably, its powercell had somehow crashed all safety protocols, catastrophically overloading.
Unusually, The Black Dolphin gulag had granted Yaroh compassionate leave to attend Tohi’s funeral. That was the start of his troubles.
Footage on the vines from the outskirts of the funeral had shown an armed band of masked individuals decked in form-fitting black Steutz armour and riding a grimy, white, angular and square bodied Benlato Hochall sky-van descend on the ceremony and pounce:
With practised precision, they’d netted a hood over Yaroh’s head while firing indiscriminately into the mourners, dragged him into the Hochall and bugged out.
In and out in seconds; the work of professional black-baggers.
Further footage, grainy, badly lit and half out of focus, showed Yaroh Uron and the black-baggers hitting the tram network after dumping the Hochall. I watched the security feed of commuters awkwardly shrinking away while the black-baggers boarded and peeled the hood off of Yaroh’s head, moments later they induced him to vomit with a puke-prodder! A newsvine would later explain that they were flushing a tracker out Yaroh’s system that he’d been made to swallow by the screws at the Black Dolphin.
I continued to watch while between stations, the black-baggers punched the tram’s emergency stop. They dragged Yaroh with them as they evacuated the tram, disappearing out of shot.
Finally, an unconnected piece of footage showed Yaroh Uron killing Avery Kiani, emptying a full magazine at full auto from a grey-steel Koudeila submachine pistol into the corrupt rentacop’s chest, muzzle flash lighting up a furiously contorted, murderous visage while Kiani convulsed and collapsed into a bloody, dying heap.
Following that, the newsvines announced that Yaroh had been abandoned by his black-bagging so called ‘accomplices’.
I wasn’t so sure they were accomplices, the black-baggers had pretty forcibly pushed him around during his escape while he struggled and stumbled.
Tohi Uron was dead.
Avery Kiani was dead.
Averi kiani had been about as corrupt as rentacop got in Neon City, which is to say; very corrupt, deep in Benedict Twistom’s pocket.
Our dives into his past had pulled no dirt, instead, we’d pushed his button as hard as we could. Which meant hitting him in the bank balance; zeroing the bankroll delivered from Benedict Twistom’s slush fund then siccing D4VID on him, hoping the botcaster would score some usable leverage on the rentacop as he reacted to losing all his dollar.
Somehow he’d given D4VID the slip, soon after that, Annabel Twistom - Benedict’s wife had come up dead; victim of a bloody street execution. Looked likely we’d pushed Kiani pretty hard.
Annabel Twistom, Tohi Uron and now, Avery Kiani, was there a commonality, a thread that ran between all of them, linked one to another?
I kept replaying the clues, looking for anything in the footage that I’d missed. When I went back through the tram feed as the black-baggers and Yaroh fled, I saw something, there, in the background, unidentified and strange?
Scrubbing back and rewatching several times, I saw what seemed like a pair of red cylindrical robots? They were dragging some unidentifiable individual through some neglected, disused old brownfield the perimetered Zoshigaya Park, searching the GLOWNET told me the only notable feature close to the brownfield was ‘The Tower’, an exclusive ‘celebrity’ restaurant owned by McChef, real name Halifax Machesky.
Didn’t get the chance to dive deeper, Koko had piped up, The Heights had come into view.
Densely clustered in one neighbourhood of Rokkakau Dai Heights, the alabaster white residential high-rises reached into the overbright sky, looming above the urbanised horizon, welcoming our closing flier.
Yaroh Uron was there, he’d told us as much, somewhere among the undocumented population who inhabited the sprawling makeshift shanty town precariously anchored to the aerial arrays, sat-dishes, transmission antennae and water towers that dotted the off-white rooftops and were connected by a web of haphazardly swaying makeshift bridges and skywalks.
Circling the high-rises, we saw the large number of rentacop swarming the sidewalks on street level, trying to cordon off the entire neighbourhood while on the rooftop settlement, more uniforms brandishing their cheap Rekhang 9mm Ngaohun sidearms cautiously prowled the walkways. It would take them a while to flush out Yaroh, neither the locals nor the squatters here had any love for rentacop and would have them chasing shadows.
Beyond the edge of the housing district we spotted a column of black smoke billowing out of another high-rise, the lower plumes intermittently underlit orange by licking flames that extruded from a gouged, bloody wound of an opening in the side of the tower. That kind of shape was recognisable, something explosive had hit the high-rise hard.
Koko found an alley wide enough to rapidly put our feet on the ground somewhere inside the cordon, we managed to slip into one of the towers before rentacop could get eyes on us.
Apartments in The Heights were slightly more upmarket than the one-and-two-beds that we were used to on Hikage Street, even so, they were tightly packed and stacked on each floor. Rumours and news spread through these kinds of crammed communities faster than newsvines, someone would know something.
Bill took the lead here, he was in his element, a winning smile and silky patter got numerous residents talking and soon we had a good idea where Yaroh Uron was holed up.
The rooftop shantytown’s population was always transient and untrackable, it meant that a few of the makeshift shacks were always unoccupied. It was in one of these that Yaroh Uron had - at least so far, hidden from rentacop. Moving cautiously, we headed for the roof, the info led to a smallish squat; a clinging corner building, held up by misshaped wooden props and walled by a mixture of corrugated plastic sheeting and pallets wrapped in tarp, topped a thin, dented alloy sheet roof.
Trigger ran thermals and got a single hit, an individual male heat profile was inside, pacing the small room in short, swift movements, a firearm grasped in one hand. Yaroh would be on edge, it needed a measured approach.
Koko bought Pippy online, the custom Suayo MKVI drone had been outfitted with a voice function and could deliver Yaroh a message. Trigger approached one of the shack walls that faced towards the roof with Pippy quietly buzzing in tow and gave the wall a kick!
His Shiaosha leg implants activated, lending his strike extra momentum and the flimsy wall split in two, Pippy’s buzzing servos noticeably increased in pitch as the drone accelerated through the gap. From our position we just about saw Yaroh level his pistol at Pippy and pull the trigger.
Pippy was met with a spent magazine’s audible click, if Yaroh did have a reload, we got in the shack and had him calmed down before he had any chance to think about it. The wall, now in two pieces was hastily propped up, rentacop were nowhere to be found right now.
Turning to Yaroh Uron, we got his story out of him.
He’d never known the black-baggers who’d snatched him from the funeral, after exiting the tram, they dragged him aboard another sky van and made good their escape. Eventually they’d ended up at one of the many failed or abandoned urban renewal projects that littered Neon City’s sprawl, this particular example was a half finished high-rise and they were on one of the skeletal higher levels.
Benedict Twistom had been waiting, materialising out of an unlit corner with an offer.
Kill Avery Kiani and in return, Twistom would furnish him with a new identity and a way to evade rentacop.
Yaroh had nothing left in The City of Electric Dreams now, so he took the offer, Twistom even provided the gun and sent the black-baggers to help.
In hindsight though, Yaroh admitted it was obvious that Twistom would betray him and once he’d rubbed out Kiani, the black-baggers had evaporated into the sprawl and Benedict Twistom had ghosted him.
Now he was here, waiting for the inevitable.
I couldn’t help but try to put the dots together.
Avery Kiani had likely murdered Annabel Twistom and Benedict had gotten Yaroh to kill Kiani, that was one thread, what was the link between Yaroh and Benedict, the black-baggers had been bankrolled by Twistom, but how did he know to lean on Yaroh.
Tohi had been killed in unusual circumstances, it could have been arranged. The wife of an out-of-work, down-on-his-luck, former exec would have been an easy mark for the kind of spooks and street-ninja that someone like Twistom had in his pocket.
Avery Kiani had executed Annabel Twistom.
Benedict Twistom got Tohi Uron killed.
Yaroh Uron murdered Avery Kiani.
No solid proof, but the thread that ran from one to another was as clear as a set of bloody footprints.
What to do with Yaroh Uron now?
We couldn’t leave him to his fate and had two options: Enrol him in the Planetary Global Defence Force or get him out of Neon City.
Yaroh Uron chose the former. The closest PGDF recruitment office was located on Ninety Ninth Street. Getting him there would’ve been easy but Rentacop had tightened the noose.
Koko tols rentacop had escalated their cordon, now restricting all air-traffic; it meant we couldn’t call in the flier without triggering alarms, same was true of all the city’s sky-cabs, their piloting-systems would automatically divert them away from any airspace limitations introduced by rentacop. Another solution was needed.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, the shanty’s patchwork substance of material reality shrank away while polygonal neon veins expanded around me, incandescent growing crystalline settled into Neon City’s wavering and ever changing angular info-vista.
Here, even the shanty town had its own data-image; a giant, pulsating, colour-shifting, tangled mess of data movements that loosely resembled some monstrously chaotic spider’s web, as undesigned and unplanned as its material reality counterpart.
I could also see rentacop bio-images prowling the vicinity or lingering close by, the expanding cordon had now reached into the GLOWNET, glow-cops launching hunter algorithms on standard issue cheap Muanma slabs.
This was my jungle gym though, not theirs; I launched a spoofer that masked my own bio-image and was immediately past them without a hitch.
The city’s vista twisted and rotated as I navigated towards the closest rentacop precinct. It was a squat, concrete-grey, flat-coloured cubic data-image, looking as much of a bunker as the real thing. It looked like a lazy design but I knew better, it had been researched, focus grouped and designed to be as uninviting and intimidating as anything could be in the GLOWNET.
Not because they wanted to menace the population but because they didn't want to incur the fiscal expense of dealing with the public.
Getting through the public-facing data-image would be trickier, security wouldn’t be so lax in this department. I launched a hacking algorithm and watched as it worked through the rentacop’s encryption key, revealing each digit, one-by-one, calculations told me I’d crack it before rentatcop’s counter-hack system tagged a trace on me. Once all the numbers were revealed, it was done, I was past their security and into their core system.
It listed several subdirectories, one showed a constant gleaming flow of data to-and-fro between precincts but it didn’t interest me
Another subdirectory logged this precinct’s communications between patrols and street units. The records showed only intermittent contact between them, a length of chatter, followed by a length of silence, followed by another length of chatter and so on, this limited comms was another budget consideration and something that could be exploited.
I waited for a period of chatter to end and then got to work. I picked a rentacop sky-wagon outside of the cordon but close by and then, on the directory, I flicked it from green to red - the system would flag the unit as ‘in danger’. The closest rentacop units - those around us would have to prioritise the incident, respond and redirect to that location.
It was a rough hack and rentacop would figure out it was a phantom threat soon enough but it gave us the window we needed to get through the cordon.
It was going to have to be by foot, fast and to a public transit network, the metro would have sharper security, so the tram network it was.
Bill had taken the opportunity to give Yaroh a rudimentary disguise, wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny but it would slow facial recog.
I’d also sourced some new ID docs for Yaroh, the encryption algorithm utilised by the city to generate social security numbers, tracking numbers, case numbers and more had been cracked years ago, the city defences had been weak and to keep costs down, they relied on a single algorithm to drive everything.
From there, generating a new ID for Yaroh Uron had been child’s play.
Now we just had to get to Ninety Ninth Street.
Even out of rush hour, the crumbling tram infrastructure was unendingly clogged with commuters; wage-monkeys may have come and gone for the morning but It was a tense ride to Ninety Ninth crammed aboard its dirty, declining, unserviced carriages filled with consumers, no-hopers, inebriants, street gangs, and transients who all had places to be.
An unknowable time passed before Ninety Ninth Street came into view through dirt stained windows, faded old brakes squealed while they dragged the tram to a stop, then we were off and on our way.
Undulating crowds were ahead and had to be navigated, the mixture of onlookers and pachinko players didn’t let up when nows we were back on foot: The Neon Mile, with its long strip of fluorescent tube painted, jingle-playing pachinko rooms, bingo halls, gambling dens and karaoke setups pulled in an immense number of rollers looking to score big or die trying.
The pressing crush on the street only exacerbated the sweltering heat as we laboured through the tumultuous crowds and closed in on the PGDF recruitment office. It was a place we knew, having provided them with recruits in the past.
From behind came the abrupt, harsh staccato of small calibre automatic gunfire, probably a nine millimetre urbanised holdout spitting the lead. Keeping our heads down and without looking back, we reached the office.
Despite their immense budget, the PGDF constantly faced a recruitment crisis. The slim and well turned out uniformed recruiter didn’t spend much time scrutinising Yaroh’s fake ID before they allowed him to fill out an application in the small, street facing office.
After that, he was off, recruits were rapidly whisked to a flight into orbit before they could change their minds.
We left after saying our goodbyes to Yaroh Uron.
It didn’t take long before something came up, never did. Trigger’s slab pinged and Viper Joe was online. The synthesised voice box in his full body replacement frame spouted digitised low half-growls, distorting his words. Joe’s speech was too fast and changing tack too often for it to cope well. Something had him excited.
I could see Trigger wince as Joe’s voice changed pitch, dropped fidelity, squawked with feedback and hissed into Trigger’s ear. Joe was ranting about The Red King and a dead woman?
For days now, someone called The Red King had been anonymously posting messages on the newsvines and chat-streams. Looked like the boasting of another low rent serial killer who haunted the dimly-lit narrow streets and murky nil-spots of Neon City. Some trash about chess moves and ‘taking pieces’ which was just code for killing people. Truth was; nobody in Neon City cared about chess.
However, whatever the situation was, The Red King’s schtick had been good enough to attract the attention of the newsvines which meant rentacop, who had to at least look like they cared, had made a show of offering a reward for information.
Joe told us that he’d eyeballed the body of The Red King’s latest victim getting dumped, a woman called Avril Van Laere, a gardener who’d been found dead at the Mejiro Allotments and who lived in the Mejiro Housing Complex.
Joe told us he’d gotten a vid of the body being dumped and was going to claim that reward. It showed a pair of red, cylindrical robots unceremoniously hurling her ragdolling body out of a sky-van. Avril Van Laere’s body crumpled to the ground as the sky-van powered skywards.
Joe was on the money; had to be the Red King. What kind of game was he playing, well, other than chess?
Galvanised, Joe decided to head to the Ikebukuro precinct and pocket his reward.
Like a strange answer to my question; Koko’s media-slab pinged, someone was initiating an unlisted connection to her: The Red King was calling; told Koko she was next and quoted some kind of poem.
The flier easily allowed us to intercept Viper Joe and give him a ride the rest of the way and escort him into the concrete bunker rentacop called a precinct. Once through the steel and reinforced acrylic doors then past the hardened facade, we arrived at an almost equally protected front desk. Joe told his story to the rentacop behind the toughened glass screen
Over a rasping microphone that just compounded his own unnatural voice, he was crestfallen to discover that footage of Avril’s body had already found its way to rentacop.
It wasn’t over though, we went our separate way from Viper Joe and decided to keep digging on the Red King. His call to Koko told us he was planning to move against us someway?
The Tower was the first lead we decided to follow, we’d seen the footage of his red robots.
Zoshigaya Park contained one of the few open and wooded areas that flourished in the conurbation, a blossom of greenery bursting against the city’s asphalt grey, The Tower sat on the very lip of the verdant boundary, set in a grassy band that ringed the forest.
The restaurant was figuratively a tower with a faux stone facade that rose several storeys high and was complemented by parapets and blustery flags. It had just come into sight when Koko’s media-slab pinged; a message from the Red King.
‘King takes rook, check.’
We had no time to even process the message: A sudden wave of heat engulfed us as we were lifted off our feet. Almost instantaneously and before we’d even hit the ground, an enveloping roar reached our ears, threatening to overwhelm us as we landed with a crash.
For a moment, an expanding yellow-white spherical flare had bloomed from within The Tower, an intense glow visible through gaps in the stone work rendering it a skeletal shape before coalescing into a rippling orange ball of flame as the restaurant was torn apart.
Hurled by the explosion, scorched chunks of replica stone work and masonry thudded back to earth in a full quarter-kilometre smoking radius around the devastation, followed by a swarm of flittering, rectangular white shapes that danced and wheeled their way to the ground amongst the ruin.
I picked one up and turned it over in my fingers, old-school business cards. It was ivory white, plain on one side with a black and white checkerboard across the other. Over the checkerboard was a single image, an embossed red foil shape of a king’s crown icon
The Red king; I took a moment to register that he was up to his trick of using chess gimmicks. Rook had meant castle, the explosion was the Red King’s doing.
First responders got to Zoshigaya park quickly but Firestreaker was there quicker and was happily doing his streaming thing while they arrived.
Later, the newsvines would report that thirty seven customers and staff had been killed in the blast, including McChef.
There wasn’t much left of The Tower amongst the smoking ruin, at least in material reality. Amongst the cooling rubble we spotted the mostly flattened shape of a boxed security camera. The GLOWNET beckoned and who was I to deny it?
An incandescent multi-coloured, boiling swirl of data compiled around me, up-rezzing into the recognisable local info-vista after jacking in.
Here, The Tower was intact, as unchanged as its gaudy neon-delineated data-image. Somewhere behind it would be a data-vault with links to remote storage that archived security footage. A cracking algorithm quickly had me past The Tower’s lax security and into the vault’s directory, from there I saw several data-lines that went out into the GLOWNET, system records showed one line routinely sent out data to a location I knew belonged to a security provider.
I followed the data-line to the gleaming, angular, steel grey image of an actual old style safe, with a hinged door, lock and handle. Someone had a sense of humour at least; shame about their defences, especially considering their line of work. The safe was surrounded by a thin, silvery nimbus and hovered while rotating.
I launched the algorithm again, it got me in almost as quickly as The Tower. I had the ID string from the restaurant and quickly isolated its archived footage. Jumping to a close by timestamp, I scrubbed through the footage from all the cams until I got a hit. The restaurant’s faux glass windows were dim, the clientele absent when two red cylindrical robots came into the feed.
It was starting to fit together, the robots were under the Red King’s control, either via protocol or remotely. They weren’t just bespoke robots, they were his pawns. Carrying a package as they forcibly opened the restaurant doors and entered. Less than sixty seconds later they exited without the package, now effortlessly carrying a struggling individual, this time the identification was easy; McChef. The pawns had kidnapped the owner, he wasn’t dead.
It was a convulsing McChef that we’d seen the pawns dragging through the brownfield adjacent to The Tower in the other footage earlier. Koko sent Kevin up into the air to scan the landscape, I pulled Kevin’s aerial feed into an algorithm and it looked for breaks in the brownfields geo-data and it got a hit, tracks leading away from The Tower.
Kevin led and we followed, eventually the trail ended in the remotest part of the brownfield where Neon City’s skyline had shrunk away, distantly looming through a hazy low-level smog over the surrounding greenery and the oppressive, urban background noise had become a almost indistinct hum.
The algorithm showed that a standard sized sky-van had landed and taken-off: Dead end.
Koko left Kevin buzzing above, patrolling the area in a surveillance pattern and we went on to our next lead.
Avril Van Laere’s body had been discovered in the Mejiro garden allotments, a gridded spread of earth and greenery, decorated with an eclectic combination of vegetation, multicoloured flowers and assorted plantlife.
Even though Neon City was a behemothic, mostly uncontrolled nightmarish asphalt sprawl, there were still a few who lived in the concrete wilderness that retained a green thumb and an urge to plant and grow. Somehow, in the past, someone had managed to pressure the Mejiro municipal authority to set aside some open ground, exposed to the sky for gardening. Residents could apply for an allotment plot for personal domestic use.
Avril’s plot had been taped off in a bright yellow square by rentacop and her remains removed, it was easy to see they’d trampled most of the area, eradicating most evidence. They hadn’t even seen the crushed scenery stretched across several other close-by plots. More sky-van tracks, maybe the same one that had taken McChef had pulled its trick here.
There was nothing for us to work with here, maybe Rentacop gotten something? Bill pinged Captain Okano, the Shinjuku precinct captain we were tight with and asked if he could get us anything. I could hear Okano’s overloud response through the microspeaker on Bill’s media-slab.
He would call us back.
Unexpectedly, Viper Joe came into sight out of a door in the close-by apartment block which ran along one edge of the allotment perimeter and was - by Neon City standards a fairly low residential building.The machine-whine of Joe’s frame’s servo-motors were barely discernible as he strolled over.
Joe explained that Avril Van Laere was local, living close to her allotment and pointed out her apartment for us.
It was too good an opportunity to miss.
Rentacop weren’t about and everyone out the street was mostly preoccupied with their media-slab, lifting the yellow and black striped tape, we slipped through the door of Avril Van Laere’s apartment unseen.
Outside, Avril Van Laere’s home had been pretty plain, external walls were clad in neutral grey, furnished with polymer framed reinforced acrylic windows, indistinguishable from its neighbouring apartments.
It was a different story inside and the interior couldn’t contrast more. Avril’s greenthumb was evident everywhere, an assortment of plants sat on every shelf and available horizontal space in every room, filling pots and vases, obscuring wall decorations
Without attention, they’d soon be as dead as she was.
Even so, stacked cut bunches of peonies dominated the apartment, piled up throughout its few rooms, enveloping them with a strong citrusy scent and splashes of colour that popped against the off-white walls and grey carpeting.
Where had the peonies come from?
A trashcan check found the answer; a small printed receipt showed a batch of peonies had been sold off cheap - took a moment to realise it had to be excess stock from the Jorenji peony festival.
Didn’t explain why she was taking a dirt nap though, we kept searching.
A hardcopy printout from a newsvine dedicated to Neon City gardening was found on a little, circular faux pine kitchen table, a column of classified ads dated four days ago, one was circled.
Someone had been looking for a gardener, a no questions job that paid bits-in-hand, Avril must’ve bitten. Fianchetto Recruitment Facilitation, some low level job market player we didn’t recognise had posted it.
It wasn’t hard getting into Fianchetto’s system; quick joyride through the GLOWNET, blurring through sectors of multichrome constructs and running a hack past the security on their bio-image - a red, orange and white corporate logo and we were in vaut beneath it.
A directory record showed someone called Roy Rouge had listed the job, I pulled all the related data and jacked out, nauseously lurching back into material reality.
The records confirmed that Avril had accepted Roy Rouge’s job offer; her number was in the records, as was Roy Rouge’s.
Both numbers got us nothing and no way to ping their locations either.
City records showed at least a dozen Roy Rouges lived throughout the city municipalities. Tracking down all of them would take time, a way of getting through the data quickly was needed. I launched a hunter/seeker algorithm and set its parameters to find anything in the GLOWNET that would link with the term Roy Rouge, didn’t take more than a few seconds to get a hit.
The algorithm had generated an association between Roy Rouge and the phrase roi rouge phonetically, in French, roi rouge meant red king. The Red King had killed Avril Van Laere
Until there was a solid lead on The Red King, we’d hit a dead end.
Captain Noodles had pressed some theatre passes on us, they were to A Song For Neon City, the annual city-wide competitive music contest that dominated the social landscape and obsessed the public for exactly one week a year before immediately slipping into the foggy recesses of obscurity for the remaining fifty-one.
Each district had its own representative and Noodles was representing Hikage Street. We decided to attend and provide Noodles with moral support; the others seemed to like this sort of thing while I agreed with the sentiment that it was culturally bankrupt.
Like all big ticket events in Neon City, there was some bank to be made from it and in Neon City that meant an inevitably rising body count. I made sure to pack the full complement of ammo for my ACP .45s before we left.
Pharoah Park was one of the few usable open air venues in Neon City, having survived the municipal neglect and environmental ravages that had erased much of the city’s spaces. Built to an Egyptian motif it was frequently used to host popular events and drew large crowds from surrounding districts.
A sinking sun hung in the lateish afternoon blue-white sky as we arrived, drenching the venue in hazy orange light while throwing out immense shadows across the length of the park.
Large automated parasols provided shade from the day’s unflinching sunlight while altering function to become rain shelters when night came and with it, the thundering torrential downpours
It wasn’t long before the competition got under way. A massive row of Senonable wall-slab slab had been set up, painting the competitors larger-than-life and giving the audience better views of the acts.
First up, representing Highway Zero were the Joi Bois, male street walkers who roamed ground level Neon City region, cruising for trade amongst the constant flow of commuters and traffic. In what would be the first of several cover songs from back in the twentieth, they performed YMCA along with a series of simulated acts and interactions between them. Although the giant screen made it look quite realistic?
The Shaolin Rippers were representing Shibuya terminal. We’d had more than one run-in with the violent street gang who were bankrolled by the elusive Prophet Wei and had never realised they had their won.choir.
Their short set consisted of Mongolian throat-singing and chiming Tibetian bells.
Next was Ninety Ninth Street; represented by Milky’s Girls, a trio of working girls who plied their trade on The Neon Mile. They were joined on stage by their pimp, the albino Milky Smooth himself and performed an acapella cover of Uptown Girl while Milky Smooth accompanied them with obscene rap lyrics, it went down well with the crowd.
Delia Lavanchy was someone we knew well having investigated her finances recently. Delia was representing the Fortified Residential Zone. She performed a song called Korobeiniki, it was some kind of old, old Russian song. It was about peddling goods or something, at least that’s what the GLOWNET told me.
Delia also sang the song while constructing a wall consisting of brightly coloured acrylic tetriminos blocks.
Dogenzaka Hill was being represented by Rooster and the Doomriders, We’d also encountered Rooster before and the band was also named after their biker gang. Dressed in their synth-leathers and denims they performed another song I’d never heard of called La Colère de Ramsès?
At last! Captain Noodles came on stage, representing our home district, Hikage Street. Noodles performed his own spoken word interpretation of another song from the Twentieth - Rocketman; he appeared as a black and white image on the giant screen against a backdrop of photos of his time on Mars.
Somehow, the vaudevillian street performer, sex worker and assassin - Thaddeus Rackham had gotten himself made the representative of Rokkaku Dai Heights.
Thaddeus had chosen what sounded like an old showtune from the twentieth called They All Had a Finger in the Pie.
He was decked out in his full vaudevillian getup and sang it while riding a unicycle and juggling flaming clubs.
Finally, the last act was Franky & Joey. We only just realised they were Franky Frazackerly and Joey Peshwari; a pair of out-of-shape uniformed cut-rate rentaguard we’d run across and who patrolled the verdant perimeter of the monolithic, Sunshine City shopping mall.
Their blue-and-grey faux-cop uniforms had been replaced with washing-powder-white sailor boy outfits and they sang some song the slightly camp compare had announced as A Glass of Champagne while labouredly performing some dance called A Hornpipe.
Following this, the lines were opened and voters could ping their scores over the GLOWNET. The winner of a Song for Neon City was always decided by public vote from each district as delivered by some local celebrity. Districts generally voted along some kind of allegiance or other. Hikage Street always got twelve points from Dogenzaka Hill!
The massive slabs now showed a pair announcers, vid-celebs, larger-than-life in the latest Hika Taki fashion lines with sculpted features and surgically smoothed and purified skin who displayed rows of ivory-white porcelain as they grinned inanely and repeated text crawl displayed on the cheaply produced scoring graphics overlay.
It had started OK but soon, unexpected error stacks were getting thrown up on the slabs and the scoring failed to add up! Nervous looking floor managers, producers and stage crew were heatedly arguing and pointing, occasionally throwing up their arms in exasperation as they skittishly traversed the stage with sweeping eyes, looking for answers.
The situation needed a dive, so I jacked in the GLOWNET; the noise and sight of the hollering crush of congregated fans at Pharoah Park melted into the background while Neon City’s colour-shifting, iridescent info-vista materialised in its place.
Pharoah Park was busy, thousands of bio-images clashed, creating chaotic, chromic constructs and interactions, resulting in unpredictable reactions and outcomes.
The park’s info-image was a stylised and curved rectangular cuboid dominated by a trio of arches. A fat stream of content surged from the info-image along one of the venue’s many fixed data-routes, it would be the event’s media streams pushed out to the various content providers covering the event.
There should also have been a vast quantity of data packs sliding into the park but there were virtually zero.
I refocused outside the park and waited. Data packs were inexplicably vanishing? I ran an algorithmic code sweep that went to metal, it would log all activity in this corner of the GLOWNET and provide vast reams of data, the result was surprising.
Someone had written a code cluster that was completely unregistered, it meant that the GLOWNET’s sensory interpreters would miss its existence, rendering it essentially invisible. This kind of work was bespoke, done by someone with the right skills.
Once I knew what I was looking for, it got easier. I instructed my Nonohiki to log unregistered code and then I saw it.
A weird black, shapeless form that lacked substance somehow and endlessly folded in on itself while reforming, an infinite cycle and the wraith revealed.
It seemingly flitted around Pharoah Park erratically without purpose but there was order in that chaos and It followed an elaborate routine.
Data packs tagged with A Song for Neon City were its prey, hunted and deleted by the wraith code without mercy, preventing votes from getting to the show.
I grabbed an image of the wraith and got looking. Code was like handwriting or a fingerprint and if I knew them or they were some part of the hacker circles, the code would tell me, and it did.
Quantum Brandy was a hacker, an anarcho-pessimist feminist hacker with a colossal chip on her shoulder who liked to let everyone know it.
The name had triggered a memory, I’d heard it recently, related to a Song for Neon City?
Then, I had it. Flicking back to Pharoah Park’s info-image and scanning through the show’s vid-recordings. it showed that Quantum Brandy had washed out of the quarter finals with her Primal Scream Feminist Diatribe poetry reading. I watched the feed, a bad act and the voters knew it.
In response she‘d taken on the typical Neon City attitude; get smacked down and look to score some payback. I dug deeper into her code and there was more.
The code that powered the algorithm was logging each data pack that was deleted, the wraith also logged its path from origin. Reversing the code’s directions got me to where it was launched from.
Get Smile Amusement, an old-school slug-op arcade which hosted row after row of old style gaming cabinets was in Ikebukuro, that’s where Quantum Brandy was holded up.
Neon City’s fluorescent, angular geometry undulated and wavered in multi-coloured blurs as they flew past and I eventually ended up watching Get Smile Amusement arcade’s garish and overbright info-image: A neon-outlined, rotating two-player standup cab with no players, only an ancient colourful looking sprite-driven game flickering across the screen.
Data flows pulsed in and out of the info-image, connecting to the data-vault beneath the decorated shell. All normal traffic, or so it seemed.
Observing carefully, I saw one of the streams flicker for a couple of frames every few seconds, a small graphical conflict generally caused when two constructs occupied the same space and fought for draw-priority. It was a sign of piggy-backing, a classic hack used to hide data-movements, I looked closer.
Inside the data-packs on the stream were other, smaller packs, moving at almost the same time. I sent a hunter/search algorithm to investigate. It showed the extraneous data was delivering something to a hidden node, had to be Quantum Brandy’s de-registered data-slab.
Time to do some piggy-backing myself, I waited for the next data pack to leave Get Smile and head towards her slab and cloned its encrypted keycode.
Then I ran an algorithmic breaker on the keycode and generated one of my own. It got me inside Brandy’s slab after following the hidden data packs, the security protocols thought I was just another data-pack.
I wouldn’t have much time before Brandy figured out there was extra activity running on her system - but I wouldn’t need it.
Sifting through her records, I quickly found two points of interest, first; messaging from Prophet Wei, the elusive mob-boss who ran the Shaolin Rippers and the Noise Tank and operated out of Highway Zero.
For some reason he was backing Brandy’s attack on A Song for Neon City, something to do with his great prophecy I guess?
No time to waste though, I scanned the protocols in her hack, it had trace records of all the voting data that had been deleted, I coded a counter-hack and killed her algorithm, it also re-registered all the missing votes. Then before leaving Brandy’s system, I put it into a repeating diagnostic loop, by the time she straightened it out, the recovered votes would have flooded into Pharoah Park voting system.
Last thing I did before jacking out was checking out Brandy's timeline on her MyFaceSpace and she was raging!
When all the votes were finally compiled for A Song for Neon City, Franky and Joey emerged as clear winners.
I guess it did pay to go last.
Rippling swathes of umbrellas sprouted open on Hikage Street, gleaming slickly in silvery-white street lights as the nightly downpours got underway.
Back at my one-bed, raindrops splattered against the tarpaulin sheet and a wind driven irregular drumming played out.
Half dozing and slouched on my futon, I was roused by my media-slab pinging, an automated message, pushed by the algorithm I’d trojaned on to Falcon Lockley’s personal data-slab with instructions to notify me when it encountered certain keywords..
Lockley and his cohorts were planning another foray into The Wilderness; the vast tract of nature beyond the limits of Neon City.
I contacted the others and we contacted Urus at The Enclave who told us that Neidzweidz and himself had encountered Lockley and his retinue, convincing them to give up their hunting ways and not return to the wilderness. Uruas explained that Falcon Lockley would no longer be a problem.
Urus then told us he was glad we had contacted him, scavengers from The Enclave had made a strange discovery that was outside their fields of expertise.
A little later we were back in the flier, making the trip out to The Enclave, access codes which had been provided by Oni Tokugawa were still recognised and we flew over the fortified city walls and defence grids without hindrance.
Very soon, the heavy rain of Neon City’s macroclimate thinned out before dwindling away to nothing altogether and in the flier’s rear screens, a million city lights shrank into a single gleaming dot of light that hued the clouded sky above a dirty crimson shade until it was eventually swallowed by the horizon
Koko kept the flier low and night-vision screens displayed an unnaturally coloured grassy landscape that undulated in our turbulence and stretched into the vanishing point. Without the spook-tech night optics though, ahead would only be the unlit and unknowable inky landscape of The Wilderness, an unnerving sight for us without Hikage Street’s familiar and brightly delineated skyline or Ninety Ninth’s cacophonous glittering neon mile.
The Enclave seemingly emerged out of the night, the former military installation’s walled perimeter populated with humming, watchful giant spotlights cutting into the night sky. Koko put the flier down on the pad with a blast of displaced air, Urus and some of his scavengers were waiting, their flapping, homespun, earthy coloured overalls and outfits curiously accessorised with hunters hats and other hunting paraphernalia, Urus himself had a large sheathed knife tucked into his belt like some kind of trophy…
Once pleasantries were out of the way, Urus led us out of the floodlight lit Enclave and into the night, along the faintest of wilderness paths that only his scavengers and he could ever discern. Dirt and grass felt uneven and unpredictable, seemingly giving way beneath my heavy, thick-soled foot falls as Urus took us halfway up a hill, it’s peak silhouetted against the constellations, a lustrous, starry night that would never be visible through Neon City’s
Sunk deep into the grass, something glinted in our wavering flashlights as Urus called for a halt. An oblong, warped plate of incredibly thick carbon blended steel reflected our trained flashlights and we saw twisted, half-detached, heavy looking hinges along one edge and a row of massive buckled iron rods protruding from the opposite side. It took a moment to register that it was some kind of security door of immense strength and then a further moment to register that some kind of greater force had ripped the door out of its frame.
Alongside the door was a lightless void of identical size and shape that led into darkness, our flashlights revealed a cubic tunnel of manufactured origins that ran into the hillside. Our eyes darted from one to another and when our gazes met, an understanding passed between us: We had to go inside.
Thin eddies of unsettled motes swirled lazily in our lights as we crept into the unlit, quiet tunnel, across the floor we could see undecipherable dusty markings and maybe footprints. Something had disturbed the detritus recently.
Training our flashlights across the reinforced, plated walls revealed numerous button panels, all unlit, jabbing them got nothing, no power.
Further in and the tunnel opened up into a squarish room, darkness receding from us into distant corners as we entered, our footsteps reverbing in the silence.
Grimy, empty poly-fibre, beige desks, disconnected wall terminals and small, dull steel-topped tables littered the room, while apparatus lined one wall, some of it med-tech, much of it unfamiliar.
Except to Pepper Mashup, the doctor recognised the gear which was mostly used during autopsies, as would’ve been the small steel tables.
Closer scrutiny of those tables uncovered fragments of a strange metallic alloy and soil coloured an unearthly red - with good reason; soil from Mars! We grabbed samples for later research and continued our investigation.
Apart from the odd piece of stationary, the desks and terminals had been mostly cleaned out. Alongside one desk though, we found a small pile of stacked computer systems, ancient, beige coloured old-school towers, screens and manual input devices labelled JCO Corporate Technologies. A brand none of us recognised.
Powering on the systems got nowhere, they lacked any onboard power banks and the entire facility had no juice.
Instead we hauled it back to The Enclave. The return trip was uneventful and we soon found ourselves within the settlement’s well-lit boundaries. Even there, with the computer-savvy, skilled jury-rigging scavengers gathered around the tech, they couldn’t get the system going.
In the end, we’d agreed to take the old tech back with us and find a solution.
It was well past midnight by the time we hit Neon City airspace, met by punishing downpours that drummed noisily on the flier’s polycarbonate shell, the change from The Wilderness was palpable. A silhouetted cityscape delineated by countless grids of urban lights grew to fill our rain streaked viewports as narrow, fluorescent-lit, bustling streets teemed with umbrella wielding nocturnals.
Koko put the flier down on our secured pad and we went our separate ways for the night.
Morning came in seemingly minutes, minutes haunted by incomprehensible dreams, glimpses of daylit Neon City collapsing into bio-images, a twisted skyline morphing into an info-vista, curves straightening into polygons.
I woke with a start, temples pulsing, heart racing, vision blurry and breathing heavily. I could count the beats in my ears. Too much Shiaikan whiskey in its fancifully curved, faux-glass, elaborately labelled bottle had been knocked back last night and without undressing I’d stumbled to my futon.
Lurching to my feet, my head swayed and my eyes dimmed for a second, thankful I was dressed, I lurched out to meet the others.
Our last option for the old tech was Alex Chinsko, mechanic and guerilla technologist from our neighbourhood with a talent for tearing down and rebuilding tech, most of which he sold in his streetlevel shopfront.
Bric-a-Brac Shack was an almost old fashioned looking shop, its toughened acrylic shop window display was framed by replica wood and decorated with an assortment of whitebox consumer appliances. A little bell chimed tunefully as we swung the door open, shelves the height of the ceiling that ran the length of the room were stacked precariously with even more appliances, old tech and unrecognisable gear.
Flex cables dangling from the stuffed shelves swayed rhythmically as we had no choice but to brush past them in the narrow aisles.
Alex Chinsko had a glint in his eye, he was definitely happy to see us, we’d come in with something he rarely got to play with. As he got to grips with the system, he explained that it predated the existence of Neon City and JCO had folded before it had even been in its planning phase.
Soon, he had the beige shell stripped off the system, exposing innards of wiring and circuitry. Alex was immediately in there, the thin, cylindrical soldering iron, a scalpel in his hands. The problem, he told us, was the system’s power block; a design incompatible with modern power supplies. He was confident it would work once he’d transplanted a new block in.
Once the work was done, the system was hooked into its manual inputs and an old-style screen Alex had lying about. He jabbed the power stud and we waited.
There was a short, single tone beep and a tiny dot of green light gleamed on the system’s frame, it hummed into life while the screen clicked on, crackling after decades of disuse.
A logo popped on the screen, barely recognisable; an old iteration of the Planetary Global Defence Force badge. Below was a single command line in plain text, cursor winking. The system’s security protocols were beyond primitive, Alex was past its defences and into the file structure without delay. It looked empty, wiped no doubt, but he did a total image copy onto a data-slab and ran an algorithm on the image. Numerous files and documents were recovered.
The video files were our first choice, we watched a few badly lit, grainy security feeds and they all showed the same thing: At the facility, which must have been an early PGDF station, PGDF staffers in thin disposable translucent aprons and surgeons masks were craned over autopsy tables, cutting up something on those tables. The forms were somehow adjacent to humanoid but with bloated torsos, seemingly stunted limbs and overdeveloped craniums, in the feeds’ weak light, their skin had a pallid, pasty white-grey complexions.
We’d all seen the fakes, was this different? Had someone gone to immense lengths to dupe the scavengers or was it something else?
Next were the files, reams of archived data, much of it documenting information about the founding of the PGDF, other files listed technical data, hierarchical structure, roadmaps and budgets listed in old-world dollars. At its founding, the PGDF had been given inordinate funding - at least on paper.
Captain Noodles had spent time in the PGDF, we turned to him for answers. The uplifted cat chose that moment to lick his unmentionables clean, conveniently not acknowledging our questions.
Alex was intrigued but we decided to leave it alone. For now.
It looked like the Yaroh Uron case was over and he was out of the fingers of the city’s malevolent, plutocratic overlords, even though it hadn’t gone down the way we wanted.
Juicy J was the Neon City streetwalker who we’d agreed to help get back together with her boyfriend OK Daddy - someone else we’d helped join the PGDF once her part in Yaroh’s case was done and it was shut now.
We pinged her enough Dollar to catch a ride to the moon and the PGDF base.
Bill’s media-slab pinged later that morning. Porter Sladek wanted us over to his waterfront warehouse.
An entire stretch of the district was given over to sprawling clusters of identikit, high-windowed and plain corporate warehouses, which suited Porter Sladek just fine. He’d taken the opportunity to stash his off-the-grid assets here, hidden in plain sight.
Porter Sladek was waiting for us. The transplants, nanite dermal-grafts and implants had done their trick and the former exec was back on his feet after barely surviving an explosion in his boardroom. The ever so slightly mis-coloured patchwork of differing surgical work done on his recognisably bald head was only noticeable if you knew what to look for and the rest of him was hidden by his classy old style tailored obsidian black Gaongha suit.
Also waiting was Binary Johnny, easily recognised in his fur lined, faux leather flying cap and goggles, a small satisfied grin spread across his thin face.
Powered, corrugated warehouse doors opened with a metallic tortious murmur and we were led inside to a small, well protected office space. Footsteps on bare concrete echoed across the unoccupied building while automated fluorescent strips detected our presence and clicked into lifw.
Porter Sladek had been busy after we’d dumped a zero beast corpse on him to research; he’d recruited Johnny and they’d got to digging - and had hit paydirt.
They gave us the lowdown, something was going down. Something big.
Zero beasts were vat-grown by Rokkaku, engineered killing machines genetically programmed to be unswervingly loyal only to Goji Rokkaku himself. Goji’s own DNA had been spliced into their genetic code according to Johnny: His GLOWNET incursions into the Rokkaku data-vaults had revealed several internal memos in which Goji referred to zero beasts as ‘his sons’. They were designed to endure vacuums, to operate and fight in the hostile voids of space and bio-implanted internal thrusters allowed them zero-G manoeuvrability, giving them unopposable advantages in orbital combat.
Further memos indicated that Goji Rokkaku was part of something called the Akuni Accord and they were allied with a faction situated on The Glitterband. The accord was planning to destroy the opposing Emptiness habitat on the gigantic station.
Their attack plan had two fronts.
Firstly, zero beasts would be delivered on to the station via an enormous railgun hidden in a ride in Sky Dinosaurian Square’s roller coaster park.
While the zero beasts attacked the habitat, a missile strike launching from a facility in Kibogaoka Hill would hit the Sky Tree, it’s destruction would sever contact between Neon City and The Glitterband, leaving Leander’s Earthbound allies unable to provide him rapid assistance.
The Sky Tree was a vast megastructure, a space-elevator which had been hardened against terrorist attacks and conventional assaults, disabling or destroying it would require significant force.
The data on Kibogaoka Hill had chimed a bell with us. We’d previously seen a radioactive hotzone originating from one of the high-rises scattered across the slowly crumbling commercial quarter nestled over the district’s titular hill. We’d it left alone, now looked like we were going back.
None of the data Johnny had ripped from Rokkaku data-vaults overtly listed a timetable or schedule for this assault.
For now, we’d have to sit and wait.
Even though the sun had begun its crawl towards the western skyline, the heat never let up in Neon City afternoons as we found ourselves sweltering amongst the overwarm, overly dense, vaguely milling crowds at Sky Dinosaurian Square.
Clusters of massive Senonable wall-slabs erected high above the crush throughout the square served the viewers.
Lucy and Ashaglaya had dragged us to one of the city’s favourite spectator sports - greens bowling!
Like anything media-cast, it attracted corporate sponsorship and had top dollar payouts for the best. Where money went in Neon City, corruption and violence soon followed hand-in-hand. We’d all packed hardware in preparation for the inevitable slide into bloodshed.
Sky Dinosaurian Square had won the bid to host the annual city finals and had constructed an artificial grass bowling green for the competition which pulled in people from all across The City of Electric Dreams. Onlookers lucky enough to be closest to the event strained their necks, jostled and almost swayed strangely to get an actual view of the event.
D4-VID was here too, the botcaster was getting an on-the-ground report on the competition while the face of popular vid-presenter Nina Chinova loomed large on the wall-slabs as she cheerfully chatted to guests about the day’s matches. We also spotted Thaddeus Rackham; fresh from his appearance on the Song for Neon city contest,the vaudevillian assassin was back in a familiar haunt and had set up his market stall, he was busy hawking merchandise to curious bypassers among a sea of other sellers.
The games got off to a brisk start and competition between the Senkawa Aqueduct Aardvarks and the Skyscraper District Skylarks was fierce. Among the Skylarks was Xylona Adler, a programmer we’d encountered, obviously she had a talent for bowling but no so much as her partner.
Carrydat U was a Meshakotto class Shiaosha Robotics luggage porter-bot from the International Rail Link Hub, it was obvious he outclassed everyone. At some time, a kind of algorithm must have been introduced into his base code, granting him a profound understanding of greens bowling with skill at handling balls that was unmatched.
Soon the game swung in favour of the Skylarks and their victory grew imminent, then we felt more than saw a trembling murmur in the watching crowd, in that liminal moment, a wave of dissatisfaction seemed to wash over them as harsh edged whispers and hard eyed glares became apparent throughout the audience. Quiet accusations became loud threats and escalated into violence. Pro and anti Carrydat U spectators clashed, small arms and melee weapons were brandished as the aggression intensified.
Then, things only got worse.
Unseen by us while we’d been watching the bowling; a contingent of The Church of The Redeemed Sinner, with their extensive implants, augmentations and body replacement frames who had inserted themselves into the audience, now emerged and having taken umbrage at the anti-robot elements in the crowd, began laying into them.
Things had gotten hot on the Neon City streets between The Church of The Redeemed Sinner and their rivals, The Children of Saika for a while now, recently escalating into open warfare, so it was inevitable that when one appeared, so would the other.
The clash between them was brutal as they cut through the crush to get at each other.
Ignoring their protests, I grabbed Lucy and Ashaglaya by the wrists tightly and pulled them away before they could resist. Looking at the others, they were also shouldering their way through the crowds while Koko was remotely powering up the flier.
We knew what was coming.
A couple of minutes later and the flier was darting its way through aerial traffic and powering along the city’s sky lanes: Behind us, as the district shrank away, the Redeemed Sinners had begun triggering their final weapon The Children of Saika, series of limited-expansion micro-nukes were detonated across Sky Dinosaurian Square, blossoming balls of orange flame cascaded across the park, levelling a sizable chunk of it in a dead but it has to daid - spectacular light show.
Without employing decon protocols, the park would remain a radioactive hotzone for centuries to come.
Later that day, the Red King was back on the newsvines.
Another old chess reference to the destruction of The Tower restaurant.
King takes castle. Check.
29th May 2021
It's a Saturday night and we're logged into chat for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Location: Neon City
Like for the last few days, I spent the morning avoiding the newsvines, my media slab was in the corner of my one-bed, where I’d hurled it a while ago, it sat next to the edge of the urine-coloured, flapping polymer tarp which stretched across one demolished wall and all the while intermittently issued cheerful little chirps whenever it synched with some news-server and pulled the latest bulletins.
Didn’t matter though, news was all the same, only three stories were running.
Someone had made a move against Porter Sladek, it was big news. Somehow his security had been ninja’d and during a board meeting he’d gotten taken out by an explosion. Sources stated that he was alive but in critical condition and wired-in to some exec-level med-facility; he certainly hadn’t shown his face since.
For Thetatec, the incapacitation of its totemic chief exec proved a disaster, triggering loss of confidence in the multinational and a run on it’s shares, market value tumbled and Protobase Global swept in like some sharp-eyed scavenger, using its deep pockets to suck those plummeting shares up.
Soon, with most of the board rubbed out, Protobase Global had a controlling interest in Thetatec.
It was about as bad as it could get.
In another story; war had broken out between two Neon City’s numerous bands of religious nutjobs.
Open conflict between The Church of Redeemed Sinners and a new player called the Children of Saika was playing out on the wreckage-littered, bloody streets of Senkawa. As gangs of the warring factions clashed, spontaneous explosions would toast them and anyone close by out.
Finally; The Magical Girls concert had been announced, turned out they weren’t some new street gang looking to muscle in on existing turf, just another manufactured Chi-synth band. GLOWNET wraith-algorithms infested Neon City’s info-vista, hitting up every verified bio-image they could trace, pumping hype out with targeted sublims and nudgers.
It’d worked too, keeping the event fresh on the vine and on people’s lips, it had definitely done a trick on Lucy, having her call me, demanding I take her to the concert tomorrow. I muttered my acquiescence, it was a mistake I’d regret.
The day finally kicked off when we got a call from Viper Joe, shady grey-market weapons dealer from the Freak Pit, one of the city’s best known thug-grinders for juiced up fighters. Joe was a known hypochondriac who’d slowly been replacing all his organs with bio-engineered alternatives. He’d done this on a budget though and it had been a bad move, those cheap unendorsed implants had a failure rate far beyond Joe’s original organs.
Last time we’d spoken with Joe, he was treading water, burning through all his bank to barely keep his body in a functional state, living from hand-to-implant and, hoping his next score would stave off multi-organ failure.
Something must’ve gone south, he wouldn't have contacted us otherwise.
Joe was at the Freak Pit when we caught up with him, he’d come up with a drastic solution to his implant dilemma. The old Viper Joe that had bristled with augments and implants was nowhere to be seen, who stood before us was a newly rebuilt man. Joe’s full body replacement began with a smooth and chrome-trimmed Quaozh Kahe torso chassis which contained critical life-support systems, a Shiaosha Robotics leg pak and Ashirada Atbu arm module rounded out the package.
The only remaining biological component was Joe’s head and it wasn’t a very happy head.
This kind of total body chop job cost a stack and if Joe didn’t have the bank to replace implants, how the hell did he have the bits for this?
Joe explained that he’d joined the faithful at the The Church of Redeemed Sinners and they’d settled the balance but he soon found there was still a serious cost to pay.
The chassis had been rigged with a bomb: Anytime they wanted to, The Church could spread him over a twenty metre radius as a chunky chrome iridescent and red mist.
Joe wanted it dealt with.
Koko checked out Joe’s new body-frame, got nothing, couldn’t scope any trace or sign of any bomb, thermals and infrared didn’t help either. Koko turned to us and said that the bomb was probably integrated somewhere directly into the frame, it would require a complete rebuild of the chassis to even find.
“It’s a big job,” Koko said, shaking her head and sharply sucking air through her teeth dramatically.
We’d tried the hard approach, now it was time for the soft one.
A quick search found the chassis’ diagnostic connector, I networked my Nonohiki to it and jacked in, finding myself floating in a static, rudimentary, green and black data-vault isolated from the GLOWNET. System menus were unprotected and open to perusal, so I listed all of them.
Protocols managed the chassis’s powercell while subcommands operated additional systems such as the limbs; there were also algorithms that regulated Joe’s vestigial biological functions and requirements.
None of it was what I was looking for, I had to get closer to the metal, go deeper, past the blunt function shell. The code had been written by someone who wasn’t ever expecting a hacker. A simple cracking algorithm got me deeper into the system, the shell faded, giving way to a simpler interface prompt, only the dim sparseness of vault’s default environmental lighting remained.
There it was; an isolated directory which had a couple of protocols running.
The first had an instruction set connected to a soft-timer which launched when the timer hit zero, it pushed a command to some sort of hard-wired micro device. Reading the instruction told me that micro device was listed as ‘bomb’, the’ device would ‘activate when it received it’s input from the instruction set. Detonation protocol, had to be.
The second protocol had a pair of instruction sets; the first set connected to a GLOWCHIP, passively waiting for some sort of input from the GLOWNET which it would relay to the second instruction set.
That second instruction then linked directly to the timer. Reading this second instruction told me that when it received an input from the first it would operate some sort of decoding algorithm, if the result matched a randomised parameter, it outputted a command to the timer which would be set back to its default time. A sub-command looked like it would set the timer to zero if something tampered with the algorithm. Had to leave it alone, too risky.
I opened the timer and watched, when it reached fifty nine seconds, it abruptly reset to six minutes.
Viper Joe, it turned out, was now living under a virtual Sword of Damocles thanks to The Church of Redeemed Sinners. That timer on the explosive would never stop counting down, only a reset code pushed out to the GLOWCHIP every five minutes, presumably by The Church was keeping him in one piece.
I had a plan though, I accessed the GLOWCHIP and waited, a few minutes later and a reset code downloaded, resetting Joe’s timer, six minutes of breathing time. Immediately, I cloned the code to my data-slab and got to work.
The reset code was encrypted, luckily its data-string was short; it needed to be in order to be reliably transmitted to bomb carriers and whoever created it probably weren’t expecting hackers to come in this way.
By analysing the encrypted string against the decrypter, I created a new algorithm that would generate strings to match the randomised parameter.
Then I dropped the protocol into another part of the hidden directory and connected it to the soft-timer. Finally I added an instruction to generate and push the reset code to the second instruction in the second protocol.
It wasn’t elegant but it would do for now. The decryptor wouldn’t differentiate between the real reset code and my spoof code, each one would reset the timer. If the Church of The Redeemed Sinner cut their code now, mine would continue to work. Joe had the time needed to get some to remove the bomb safely.
Luckily, despite the clusters of outdated, failing and decrepit bio-tech that inhabited it, The Pit was a good place for Joe to be, its gladiatorial stables were populated with chop-jockeys and shady street docs who plied their trade in body mechanics during fight nights.
Neon Suspect was someone that Joe knew, a combat-algorithm programmer and expert on bio-engineering, good choice to permanently shut down all the protocols introduced by The Church.
Joe had considered Neon Suspect a love-rival at one time, although that hadn’t panned out the way Joe had expected and instead, it was revealed that Neon Suspect was sweet on Joe.
Neon Suspect was, unsurprisingly, happy to work on Joe’s Frame and his Maiulava microtools buzzed quietly as he uncoupled Joe’s outer polycarbonate skin. Then Neon Suspect got to work peeling away a nervous system constructed of uncountable, impossibly fine fibre optic cabling, followed by a circulatory system consisting of power lines connected to all manner of servo and sensor arrays.
Eventually, after he’d gotten deep into the frame he gave a grunt of surprise, he’d found something unexpected.
Spherical and about the size of a fist, it could only be the bomb.
With a surgeon’s precision, Neon Suspect circumvented the anti-tamper system and soon the bomb was extracted from Joe’s frame, Neon Suspect pointed out that there was a small label on the globe that read: Warning - plutonium as he rolled it around in his hands and grabbed a handly geiger-counter, it’s harsh crackle intensified as he swung it towards the bomb.
“Well, I can definitely find a use for this,” Neon Suspect gleefully remarked, grinning as he lobbed the bomb from one hand to another before pocketing it.
Judge Wyatt Lavanchy was on our menu today, the judge had just sent Yaroh Uron, a down on his luck acquaintance of ours to prison for a murder he hadn’t committed and also denied his appeal. Lavanchy was the target of my deep dive.
The dullness of material reality drained away, replaced by compiling polygons of neon and the angular light-struts of the GLOWNET. Streams of data dominated the city’s info-vista and surged between the gleaming horizon of data-nodes, pulsating in slow rhythmic patterns like the leviathan's heartbeat.
I launched a hunter/searcher algorithm programmed with a specific instruction set and watched it merge into Neon city’s churning data swarms then waited while it harvested information.
Lavanchy looked so clean, he sparkled in sunlight, no inexplicable increases in his bank accounts, no unexplained wealthy assets registered in his name, no change in his spending habits, nothing.
I went sideways and targeted Delia, his wife. I got some quick hits, she was a contestant in A Song For Neon City finals a few days away and was representing The Fortified Residential Zone.
Some further exploration told us that Captain Noodles was also entering the contest, representing Sunshine City with his rendition of Rocketman.
Again nothing that would help.
Next, I went further sideways: I put Avery Kiani in my sights, a rentacop from the precinct in The Heights who, along with Delia he’d testified against Yaroh.
Didn’t take long to uncover the two hundred large that had been deposited into one of his accounts, it was a sizable chunk of change and no way did some law-and-order chump like this get that much dollar in a single hit.
Records showed that the bits were transferred from some small limited company registered in Dogenzaka Hill. I hit up its GLOWNET profile, zero profits, zero losses and zero expenses. A phantom construct, a shell company to hide who was really moving the bits around, probably an exec using corporate funds to bankroll and create the shell company. It had gone midnight by the time I’d finished digging.
The climate’s routine transition from searing, overbright day to thunderous, rainy night was lost on me. Deep in the GLOWNET, I’d found the shell had been financed by a ‘former’ Protobase Global employee. The strings were invisible, but Benedict Twistom was definitely pulling them, just needed to connect the dots.
Time for us to tug on those strings and see what happened.
I logged back into Averi Kiani’s account and disappeared the mystery two hundred kay, when the rentacop realised what had happened, it would provoke a reaction and there had to be eyes on him when he did, so I contacted D4-VID and gave the journo, botcaster droid the exclusive on the Avery Kiani and told him to keep the rentacop under surveillance.
Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
Lucy’s pretty face filled my blurry vision like a leering giant while peroxide blonde bunches dangled from her cat’s ears, swaying and brushing my face?
Squirming on my futon, Lucy gave me a firm shake while I fumbled for my media-slab.
Three in the morning! I’d barely slept, in a sunless sky, washed out street lighting barely penetrated the translucent tarp which protected a side of my one-bed from the constant stream of night rain that splattered noisily against the polymer sheet.
Lucy practically pulled me into a sitting position.
“Come on, come on,” Her voice was laced with urgency. “We’ve got to get to the concert!”
The concert? The concert! The Magical Girl concert, that was tomorrow. No, that was wrong, I realised it was now, in fact, tonight.
Even so, it was still over twelve hours away, Lucy kept yanking my sleeve, inwardly, I groaned.
“We got to go, we got to go,” Lucy insisted.
Swivelling out of my futon and standing, I could feel the blood coarse through my temples in one second pulses of agony and drumming in my ears.
With as much concentration as I could muster I got dressed and pulled my boots on. Lucy was dressed in an elaborate, frilly, Baisnimi pink maid’s outfit, along with a cat’s ears headpiece and a pair of fluorescent glow sticks.
Date nights with Lucy always ended in enormous amounts of carnage, wasn’t expecting anything different at the concert later, checked the kevlar plates in my Verskeit trenchcoat and packed both my .45 ACPs, took full reloads too. Before leaving I stuffed some cans of Kaia cola and Savka choco-sticks in a pocket.
Predawn was still a couple of hours away when we set off for Rokkaku Expo Stadium, I watched Neon City’s canyons of gleaming night lights convulse and undulate their way through the streaming rain-splashed water droplets which crawled across the tram’s windows. The carriage’s dismal, inadequate lighting drained the colour from its contingent of commuters: A subdued, strange intersection of last night’s dying dregs of over-inebriated revellers perilously saundering their way back to wherever they lived and this morning’s earliest rising wage-monkeys, decked in their cheap Kuabha suits and slouching their way into whatever corp-owned cubicle filled hellhole they called a workplace.
As we walked the final rainy leg to the stadium the muted beat of a distant rhythmic bassline thumped across the ground and electrically vibrated through the air. Neon City’s claustrophobic sprawl thinned out and gave way to the almost open airiness of the expansive steel and concrete oval which marked the perimeter of the stadium. Rokkaku Expo Stadium has been designed with an eye towards a multitude of events and inside, its centre was a multi-blended fabricated flat open space grassy-like green sports pitch. It was ringed by seating which could host hundreds of thousands of visitors. Within it was the dull, shapeless but expansive roar of thousands of urgent voices.
Despite the hour, Ashaglaya and Koko were waiting for us among the press of fans at the stadium. Ashaglaya was dressed in matching PVC canary yellow Desullo-styled boob-tube and mini skirt, finished off with her favourite Prantodi whitel stilettos. Like Lucy, she brandished a pair of fluorescent glow sticks.
I settled in for the long slog as Lucy, Ashaglaya and Koko got to excitedly chatting about The Magical Girls and all the while, the party atmosphere grew in intensity as did the clamour, more and more people were congregating inside the stadium.
Magical Princess Kinky Komi and Milky Angel Creamy Momo were The Magical Girls I learned from the conversation, and their backing dancers were The Punishment Posse.
Eventually Bill, Trigger and the others arrived as the stadium was packing out and the concert was beginning to ramp up.
Even D4VID had found his way into the concert, An on-the-ground, as-it-happens Magical Girls story was too ripe for him to pass up. He barely paid us any attention, eagerly filming the pre-show activity and hype
A little later and a grating rumble filled the stadium as the reinforced polymer retractable panelled roof slid open. Night had melted away and so had the rain, an orange band swam across the eastern skyline, announcing dawn. Soon, it too gave way to the Neon City blue-white skies while the temperature rocketed.
One-by-one, support acts materialised on the multi-tiered raised stage in the centre of the pitch, outfitted in garish outfits and gimmicks they blasted out their sets, above them, an enormous Senonable wall-slab mounted on the stage’s superstructure replayed a larger-than-life feed of each act’s performance.
Energy was reaching fever pitch, hyping the crowd, raising tension and expectation. Once the final support act had been shuffled off stage, the giant Rotefleck soundsystem blared out The Magical Girls’ signature tune, rows of fireworks inexplicably erupted, suddenly the wall-slabs were displaying slickly produced montages of them performing in various situations.
Then, The Punishment Posse decked out in shocking pink onesies came bounding on stage and began their dance routine, the crowd frenzied, hollering for the girls. A deafening roar that shook the ground.
Then in a perfectly timed moment of showmanship, The Magical Girls appeared on the stage’s highest tier, briefly silhouetted against a backdrop of dazzling fireworks, posing and gazing down on the crowd from their perch. One of the numerous vid-caster drones had pushed a zoomed in view of girls to the wall-slab, larger than life faces with delicately sculpted features and exquisite make-up filled the screen.
Magical Princess Kinky Komi wore a colourfully repainted form-fitting stylised Ulkang armoured combat-shell, these things came equipped with micro-missile launchers and a harness mount minigun as standard. She also wore matching faux-leather knee-high pixie boots and a giant pair of intricately detailed, iridescent butterfly wings.
Milky Angel Creamy Momo meanwhile wore a cream-white chiffon Kunoichi outfit trimmed in light-shifting orange and gold LEDs, the layers of flowery clothing couldn’t hide that she also wore Ulkang armours, finally a massive bow of matching colours was attached to her hair. These were all the kind of costumes seen on old style anivids where heroic girls battled transgressing hyperdimensional demons or something.
While The Magical Girls belted out some favourite tunes to the delight of the crowd, Trigger had been suspiciously scanning the sky, his thermals found an unrecognisable heat signature lingering above the stadium. Over the din, Koko leaned close to Trigger and explained it was probably The Strawberry Shake Shatter Show; The Magical Girls’ personal attack chopper! It looked like the chopper was the source of the aerial fireworks show.
The set continued for twenty minutes or so until the music dropped tempo and switched to instrumental tracks as the vid-montage made a reappearance on the giant slab, The Magical Girls had disappeared; for a costume change Lucy told me.
A few seconds later though and they had reappeared. Abruptly, the music ended and the wall-slab went black, a moment later and the number one hundred million had flashed up on screen along with a twenty minute timer.
Abruptly, Kinky Komi’s artificially modulated squeaky girlish voice thundered out of the sound system, her announcement informing everyone that they collectively had to pay one hundred million bits into The Magical Girls BitBuddy account in twenty minutes or… everyone dies! The timer began counting down.
I knew it!
The effect was immediate and profound! The once ecstatic hollering and cheering went up an octave as it morphed into screaming and yelling. Panic churned through the audience that seethed like boiling water as most people began blindly thrashing around, it was followed a few seconds later by a concerted effort to reach the exits but it just made matters worse.
The harsh staccato of automatic gunfire cut through the clamour as a swathe of fans crumpled to the ground, injured and dying. The Punishment Posse was now living up to its hyperbolic name and bristled with firearms, indiscriminately cutting down anyone they thought were trying to escape.
Direct confrontation had to be avoided, The Posse was too well tooled up and too numerous to have a chance of winning a straight up gunfight, we needed options.
The Magical Girls had resumed singing, encouraging their fans to pay the ransom, while the dancers waved their guns at the audience rhythmically, it may have been working, the hundred million figure was dropping. Members of the audience who were packing took potshots of the girls, it did nothing. Transparent polymatic acrylic barriers had risen between the performers and the audience.
Meanwhile a pair of massive balloons shaped to represent The Magical Girls in their distinctive outfits floated and swayed their way above the stadium, gigantic and strangely roundish faces staring at the audience.
Very soon, the numbers had dropped halfway, then the countdown sped up into blurs of rapidly changing shapes until they instantly stopped when the timer hit zero. The giant wall-slab switched to a feed of the two balloons, green gas was visibly billowing out of the balloons, expanding into voluminous clouds and gently descending on the stadium.
Ripples of fear shock-waved their way through the audience as The punishment Posse continued sporadically firing into the crowds.
Smoke, screams, flurried panicking, gunfire and more; all of it shrank away. I was trusting the others to protect my material body as I jacked into the GLOWNET; as one reality retreated, another expanded to fill the dataless void left behind and then, I was in.
Neon City’s dynamic info-vista, with its haphazard mix of morphically shaped data outputs inundating my senses.
Stealth tech made the chopper invisible in material reality, In the GLOWNET it might not be the same story.
The iridescently edged, cubic landscape blurred beneath me and I found myself staring at Rokkaku Expo Stadium’s data-image. A fluorescent landscape of seething, everchanging, kaleidoscopic imagery, animation and sound, the nebulous result of so many bio-images unpredictably interacting with each other.
A tidal wave of dataflows surged in an out of the stadium as people paid money to The Magical Girls or posted vids of their impending doom on MyFaceSpace
None of that interested me, there was a needle in the haystack here and I had to find it. Luckily I had a top-specced heuristic hunter/seeker algorithm at my disposal, one-by-one and at blistering speed it eliminated data-flows outside the parameters I’d given it until it got a hit.
A data-flow that led to an anonymous data-image situated in the space above the stadium, whatever was being transferred between the two was heavily encrypted, cracking it would take time.
If it was the chopper, it was likely chatter between the crew and whoever they were coordinating with on the ground.
It was what I needed, didn’t care about the encrypted data, just needed a ride into the chopper’s systems. Cloning the authenticator, I mingled my bio-image into the flow and found myself staring at a rudimentary set of menus.
Flight systems were locked, no easy way in there.
Maintenance systems; there were submenus inside, scrolling through the list, I found something that might help.
I put the engines into diagnostic mode, that would shut the chopper down, but it wasn’t enough. The chopper’s safety protocol responded, it knew the chopper was in flight and immediately sent a cancel-command to the diagnostic system, but I killed the cancel-command before it got there.
The engines died along with the stealth-tech.
Lurching through the GLOWNET, I piggy-backed the stadium’s media feed and watched the chopper’s spiralling descent, it plummeted down on to the stage and on to Magical Princess Kinky Komi who was frozen in shock. As it was struck, the multi-tiered structure instantly buckled inwards, collapsing on itself a moment before it was engulfed by a blossoming fireball.
Magical Princess Kinky Komi and The Punishment Posse were gone, consumed by the explosion which also licked the front few rows of the audience.
Green gas continued to vent out of the balloons and lazily fall on the stadium.
The chopper’s systems had vanished, as devastated as the stage the chopper had crashed into and I found myself hanging in the GLOWNET. Beneath was the stadium’s default data-image, a cheerful fluorescent amalgamation of roided up sportsmen and stylised imagery of the venue. Behind it would be the data-vault, quickly I launched a cracking algorithm, it allowed me to peel away the corporate facade.
Inside the data-vault, I searched the directories for whatever protocol managed the roof panels. The safety protocols were easy to hack and I executed the roof command string. Out there in material reality, the panels groaned into back life as massive servo motors began extending the retractable roof and soon, the last sliver of overbright sky folded away as it finished closing, automated emergency lighting then activated. The descent into dim twilight had not done much to help the panicking audience.
The green gas was now rolling off the stadium roof and settling in the surrounding neighbourhood, it would become diluted but still inflict casualties, but it would be less than
what would have occurred to the audience.
With a nauseating jolt I was out of the GLOWNET and back in the cage, a few moments passed before I could resync with material reality.
Milky Angel Creamy Momo, the remaining Magical Girl had survived the conflagration and was currently exchanging sword-strokes with Trigger, he was too strong for her though and she fell to his unrelenting strikes.
Trigger was grimacing after the fight, breathing heavily and slouching while leaning on his sword, his skin was taking on clammy pallorous white quality. They were symptoms we’d seen before; Trigger had been poisoned, Milky Angel Creamy Momo’s weapons must’ve been laced with something.
Koko didn’t hesitate, grabbed her control-slab and activated Tonkatsu, instructing the med-drone to diagnose Trigger. It smoothly buzzed up to him and did her work, soon he was stabilised and we were ready to move.
Underlit by the orange flames, voluminous black smoke billowed upwards from the burning stage and choked the emergency lighting, throwing a hellish red tint across much of the stadium as we advanced on the closest exit and navigated the panicking crowds.
More gunfire broke out, this time coming our way and we were forced to hit the stadium’s synth-turf. Some of The Punishment Posse, surrounded by dead fans had spotted us and were determined to stop us leaving.
The exchange of fire didn’t last long, Despite the poison they employed, The Posses’ numbers had been diminished and they couldn’t match us. Before exiting the stadium we saw that beneath their pink onesies, The Punishment Posse wore Poison Jam colours. It started to make sense, The Magical Girls had hired them as muscle.
With nothing to hurl an obstacle our way, we joined the fleeing audience and managed to exit the darkened stadium into the safety of the day’s dying light. The girls were unhappy and unimpressed with The Magical Girls concert, Koko called it ‘a disgrace’!
However, they were all happy to be alive and took some cheerful selfies against the glowing orange backdrop of the burning Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
D4VID went off, explaining that he had to post his story.
The rest of us decided to hit up a burger joint.
There was almost always a liminal instant that occurred daily in Neon City just as the last blue-white stretches of sky receded into night. A momentary lull when the palpable change in air pressure summoned energetic twilight winds that blustered and whistled through the city’s concrete landscape while a small dip in temperature heralded the oncoming nightly torrential downpour.
The rain was seconds away when we’d wandered into a Hazhiwa Burgers fast-food franchise joint and ordered our burgers from a small booth decked out in plastic fittings; decorated in gaudy colours unable to disguise the grime and neglect.
What had served as parasols above the outside seating and had sheltered customers from a punishing sun during the day now shielded them from the nightly deluge.
I listened to the rhythmic, soporific drumming over my head until our food arrived. Vat-grown syntheef Zhedenzho Brute Burgers always tasted so good, pressed into a vaguely burger-shaped form, the manufactured protein mass was laced with bioengineered flavour enhancers that stimulated all the right brain receptors and was packaged in a bread-substitute which always sloshed with modified spices and sauces.
There was barely time to enjoy the meal when our media-slabs pinged. Thaddeus Rackham, vaudevillian transvestite sex worker, assassin and street entertainer was contacting us.
He’d been working his usual pitch at Sky Dinosaurian Square and decided to explore the unfinished Rokkaku rollercoaster construction site which had intrigued him. He was exploring the half finished structure when he discovered it stunk of vomit. We sat up when he said that. Thaddeus had continued exploring and spotted a strange grey-skinned creature.
Somehow Thaddeus had managed to creep up on the thing and kill it.
This somehow tied in with Protobase Global and Rokkaku and the problems Thetatec were having. We knew that Porter Sladek would be interested in the creature.
After speaking with Thaddeus we agreed to broker a deal with Sladek.
Porter Sladek was convalescing in a secured, private med-facility in the Ohkubo Hospital and there were now several layers of private security between him and us. We recognised the sort; high level corporate ronin, decked-out Gaongha branded black-suited silhouettes with bulging implanted muscle packs and expressionless faces hidden behind Maoshi data-shades, no doubt they also sported other tactical enhancements as well as internal comms.
It took some time and effort to get a face-to-face despite personally knowing him.
He was fully conscious when we reached him, albeit laid up and wired to a small row of slim med-slabs, an organ-management system and a nanite regenerator, in a undecorated, white and glass walled, faux marble-floored cube smelling of antiseptic. Hardware kept him alive while sinew, bone and skin were being knitted back together. What couldn’t be repaired was replaced, it wouldn’t be too long before even the scars faded. Benefits of being a billionaire.
A wall-slab was blaring out the inane content that Neon City was so well known for and he looked visibly relieved when a distraction came walking in - us!
After some quick negotiations, ten mill is what he was willing to pay for the creature, a sizable amount but he was smart enough to know that it was from Rokkaku and might prove useful.
He told us to deliver the creature to an address in Kibogaoka Hill, a man like Porter Sladek didn’t keep all his eggs in the Thetatec basket, he had to have off-the-grid resources and facilities dotted all over Neon City and this was one of them.
Thaddeus squealed with delight when he learned we’d scored him a cool ten mill, we took the flier to Sky Dinosaurian Square to meet him and landed on the far side of the rollercoaster. The creature, with its grey skin and stalks-for-eyes was definitely the same kind of thing we’d encountered roaming the Rokkaku tower.
It was wrapped in a semi-opaque polyurethane sheet, didn’t help much though, the gag-inducing stench of vomit lingered. I triggered my internal air recycler, pretty certain the others did the same. We dragged it back to the flier, Koko grumbled all the way, she’d be scrubbing the smell of puke out for hours.
The delivery went smoothly, Porter Sladek’s address took us to the edge of downtown Kibogaoka Hill, the shanty town's strings and clusters of myriad lights were faint and distant in the pummelling downpour as they rolled past and we arrived at an anonymous warehouse manufactured of grey corrugated steel plating in an anonymous little industrial park. Koko delicately put down on the unlit roof pad as I watched the downdraft blast the accumulated rainwater into a hazy mist on one of the flier’s screens.
The darkness split open into oblong yellow light as a door swung wide while we were unloading the creature, Porter Sladek’s muscle was waiting. Wordlessly they took the creature and hefted it the way they had come without a backward glance, disappearing from sight as the yellow light folded in on itself. We didn’t hang about either and in seconds the flier was powering through the rain.
It didn’t take long for our slabs to begin pinging again, before we’d gotten back to Hikage, Pixie Skull and Vanilla Goth, the Muscle Gurlz we’d encountered a couple of times before were in trouble. Now they were laid up after restorative surgery at the Kyukyoko No Hospital. The night wasn’t done with us, Koko banked the flier round and headed over.
It was getting late or maybe early when we arrived at Sugamo Jizo Dori Street, there were still hours of rain left and this was as subdued as it got. The district was quieter than most, being the centre of Neon City’s senior citizen housing; fewer people roamed the neon-lit, drenched streets here.
The hospital was a maze of weakly lit, mostly deserted beige-walled, linoleum-floored corridors filled with quietly ticking striplights that eventually led us to the small ward occupied by the two Muscle Gurlz, the familiar smell of antiseptic hit as we went in. They were hooked into the med-slabs and were sporting several bandage-packs and dermal sealants each.
The last few gigs the pair of Muscle Gurlz had taken had all gone south or fallen through and their bottom line was looking light on the bits. They’d needed bank and so had taken jobs as organ surrogates.
The demand for naturally-sourced bio-inventory and organs was always high amongst the rich and powerful and Neon City always found a way to fulfil those kinds of demands. Numerous med-tech facilities had sprung up to cash in on this exclusive market.
For a price, organ surrogates allowed cloned bio-data to be attached to spare spaces in their bodies and being thin and muscular, the Muscle Gurlz had plenty of space.
Coupled with some sequence code re-writing allowed the data to quickly grow into actual organs. Once they had reached maturity, the organs would be transplanted into the clients.
Except, for the Muscle Gurlz; this simple transaction had gone south. They’d been organ mugged, spleens they’d been contracted to grow were gone, they were down a kidney and eye each into the bargain to boot.
The Gurlz told us they’d gone for a routine check up with their employer, Doctor Xavier Zephyr, they had no memory of what followed and had then woken up having been organ mugged; now they were in in recovery It got worse; they were liable for the loss of spleens and the fee for defaulting would leave them seriously out of pocket..
It didn’t add up, why would The Gurz get marked in a hospital? I could think of a thousand easier locations in Neon City to organ mug someone. Why had the spleens been targeted? Why had it occurred after their visit to Doctor Zephyr?
The hospital’s security systems were second rate, there was little profit in it for the shareholders. It didn’t cover much of the hospital and the Kyukyoko No Hospital’s secured server-vault couldn’t hold out against my cracking algorithms and I quickly found myself sifting through their file-structure until I came across their archived security footage, from there I ran it through my recog protocols and got a hit.
Doctor Xavier Zephyr was a tall, slight and sallow faced individual, we tracked him as he exited the hospital, the timestamp told us that he’d left a little after his meeting with the Muscle Gurlz and we watched as he took the Harajuku High Road, heading for the south terminal
The Harajuku High Road was a suspension monorail built to accommodate the district’s older citizens and the service primarily ran from the central residential hub on Sugamo Jizo Dori Street to the Kyukyoko No Hospital at the north terminal.
Designed to avoid the heavier traffic experienced on the tram network and its crumbling infrastructure, the monorail operated at an even greater altitude than the trams. At this height the grimy, usually crowded and noisy streets shrank away to a safely distant hive of thoroughfares delineated by Neon City’s erratic and dim street-lighting.
It was time to follow Zephyr’s route so we rode the Harajuku High Road. Inside it was relatively clean, seating was plusher than expected and mostly free of soiling, the interior was furbished in dull, neutral shades of cream and brown. The monorail moved at a sluggish pace compared to the trams below as it ponderously navigated its way through the array of colossal Senonable wall-slabs that decorated the city’s sky rises and which flashed various types of media, current affairs and product placement. It allowed an increased proportion of targeted adverts to hit the senior citizens. My media-slab began spontaneously singing out jingles while displaying logos and artificially cheerful faces. I watched a couple of them while waiting for the dedicated ad-killer I’d launched to kick in; the ads were all aimed at the elderly demographic.
Eventually the train reached the southern terminal, we disembarked into the residential hub, the few people we saw wandering here were the district’s senior citizens, on whatever business drove them or enamoured by the advertising. There was no respite from it here, Fluorescent stalks creeped across building fronts and ad boards, supporting a swathe of advertising wall-slabs and incandescent signs. It was impossible to miss the promotions for the Zephyr Clinic.
Tacky ad copy boasted the Zephyr Clinic was a new ultra-modern clinic that serviced the elderly, promising the highest quality replacement organs at cut prices, the address was plastered or transmitted everywhere and led us down twisting, puddle fiddled back streets until we encountered a neon-signed retail corner unit with shimmering signage that announcing the clinic.
Someone was working late, yellowish light bled out of frosted windows, caught in the raindrops and undulating in the downpour.
Bill sent Roderick to cover the clinic’s back door and we entered, its decor was the familiar bland grey and off-white we’d been seeing all night.
Unsurprisingly, even the receptionist was a centenarian. She wore powder blue scrubs and looked at us from behind her eggshell coloured desk, the deep lines and wrinkles on her face shifted while her sparkling, implanted heterochromic eyes closed a touch when she smiled thinly,
The colours of those mismatched eyes seemed familiar to us.
Behind her were some doors. They were locked, we could see the keycard panels and numberpads attached to the walls next to each one.
Asking to see Doctor Zephyr got us nowhere.
“He’s in surgery,” she informed us, making a show of consulting her Karfseakk desk-slab.
There was nothing to do but wait.
Suspicious looking certificates and the doctor’s shady qualifications in cheap frames hung from the otherwise plain walls, as well as photos of who were presented as supposedly satisfied elderly patients, grinning inanely while posed in curiously unauthentic situations.
It took a small amount of patience until an opportunity presented itself. The receptionist left the room for a moment and we pounced, she had gone through one door, we went for the other.
The numberpad was a standard Noskurit secupad, the cheapest kind of security tech generally available, employed by companies who didn’t care or need to worry about security. I wondered which one Doctor Zephyr was?
This was a cakewalk for Koko, the numberpad’s cover was off in seconds, exposing intestinal wiring and circuit boards within, there was a flurry of microtools and the authorisation code-string was made to bypass the security protocol.
The magnetic lock disengaged and the door clicked open a centimetre; we were in.
Beyond the door was an empty corridor in the familiar grey and off-white colours, the temperature was noticeably lower. Four plain white, windowed doors lined the corridor here, including one that led into a cold storage room which was stacked with shelves of subzero boxes and containers. Opposite were the consultancy and pre-op room, adjacent was the operating theatre.
Through the window, in the centre of the starkly lit white room were two masked figures in wrinkled mint-green scrubs. Under intense spotlights, they hunched over an unmoving third in a white robe who was reclined on a surgical table and hooked into a busy looking med-slab and life-support tech, concentrating on the bloody slash in the patient’s abdomen.
Leaving them undisturbed, we watched as they worked: Algorithmically-driven prehensile microtools meant surgery was rapidly completed and soon, a crimson drenched fleshy mass was extracted and dropped in a subzero box, it was then soaked in some sort of chemical fluid and rinsed free of blood.
While the surgeon who must’ve been Doctor Zephyr got on with inserting a new organ into their patient, the other organ in the subzero box was taken through a side door into the cold storage room and filed away.
None of us had med-skills but we knew something off? Waiting for the patient to be wheeled off once the surgery was done, we moved in. With the mask peeled away, Doctor Zephyr, with his sallow features and thin frame was easy to recognise.
He was caught flat-footed and immediately cornered; we wanted answers.
With some defiance, Doctor Zephyr wasn’t very compliant at first. However, after observing Trigger not-so-subtly run an index finger along the length of his Wanametosu’s textured hilt, he, like many of his patients; had a change of heart.
It was a typical Neon City story he told us, sordid and full of corruption, criminality and immoral behaviour.
Turns out Zephyr wasn’t giving most of his patients new organs, just cycling through their aged organs time after time. Taking a kidney out of one patient and storing it, then putting it into another, then storing their kidney to put into yet another patient and so on.
It was a neat scam, getting bank for nothing and keeping his clientele coming back for more work. It had a flaw though, all these decrepit organs still had expiration dates and could only be recycled so many times before exhibiting total failure. Zephyr occasionally needed to source fresher organs, that’s where the organ surrogacy came in.
He’d sucker a couple of easy or desperate marks into being organ surrogates and as part of the suitability and compatibility tests, he had the opportunity to check out the health of their other organs. Then during a routine examination he’d take what he needed, like it was a all-you-could-eat salad bar.
Zephyr was smart enough to know the gig was up, his furtive, sweaty glances told us as much. It didn’t take much persuasion to get The Muscle Gurlz organs back and after some screaming from the reception room, Zephyr’s assistant returned all the stolen goods back to us in one of their subzero boxes.
On the flight back to the Kyukyoko No Hospital through the rain, we pinged D4-VID and gave him the lowdown. His expose would kill Zephyr’s scam stone cold.
The late rain, ephemeral and fading, seemingly evaporated before a band of growing light in the east, even then, Neon City wasn’t cutting us a break, We were practically in sight of Hikage Street when our media-slabs pinged, it may as well have been a million kilometres away.
Katsuko Nakamura, a Chou-Nata mid-level suit we knew was calling, Turned out that a buddy of his had bitten the dirt, Katsuko told us that the ‘authorities’ - that would be rentacop were investigating but were ‘stumped’, he wanted our eyes on it.
Koko had wheeled the flier round and headed north towards Itabashi-cho and the Jorengi Temple.
It was located at the far northern edge of both the district and the city, within sight of the monstrous, towering, polycarbon reinforced concrete city-wall which either kept outsiders out, or kept us in. Pretty sure I knew which was which.
Jorengi Temple was a squat, pagoda-roofed and seemingly real-wood structure painted in red and black, ringed by a band of greenery and populated by a giant gold buddha. A tiny pinprick of colour surrounded and dwarfed by anonymous, grey, soaring concrete and glass multi-floored edifices to corporate hegemony, A fleeting moment of calm within the unrelenting background roar of the City of Electric Dreams.
Koko circled until we found a roof-pad.
Katukso Nakamura had pinged the temple ahead of our arrival; we had immediate access. I'd never have taken a soulless exec for faceless corp having a spiritual side, but his dead friend was the temple’s abbot, Abbot Kannushi Chiro. We were taken to the murder site.
A strange smell; sweet, earthy, heady and vaguely familiar waited for us as we arrived at the location of the killing. It was taped off and inattentively patrolled by a couple of rentacops who hardly checked out our credentials before letting us past.
The body had been located in one of the gardens, by the looks of it, someone had actually imported swathes of real dirt and deposited it around the temple, then planted real grass on it somehow, This island of greenery in an ocean of asphalt and concrete was lined by a perimeter of varied, colourful flowers, no wonder it had seemed familiar, it was a scent we’d encountered before, but only in the wilderness.
It was a strange sensation, grass quietly crumpling underfoot while the earth beneath gave way to our heavy boots as we looked around the garden. There was little to find here, the remains of Abbot Chiro had already been removed and I ended up staring at the bright, flowery petals.
Neon City had more than its fair share of cockroaches and bugs, but nothing quite like the bees that unerringly floated and flitted from flower-to-flower. It was something I’d only ever seen on the GLOWNET.
The monks at the temple, flapping about in their voluminous, simple, sackcloth coloured robes and plain sandals seemed more agitated than we would have expected, heatedly discussing some thing or other.
The death had put some annual event called the Flower Festival that celebrated The Spring Goddess into disarray, without the abbot to preside over the celebration, it could not proceed, this would mean cancelling the Petal Market, a seasonal street market that ran for a limited time and attracted local traders, mom ‘n’ pop stores and other small businesses that hadn’t yet been swallowed up or hegemonized by franchises or corporations. For many of them, it was the highlight of the year, without the Petal Market, many of them risked going bust. The monks explained that electing a new Abbot would take a month, too long for the Petal Market to wait.
Bill took the opportunity to chime in, he smoothly recommended that they have candidates anonymously write poems and place them on a wall. Then they should decide on the new abbot by judging the poems. The monks seemed satisfied by this.
The rentacops here told us that the Abbot had died from a single blow to the back of the head, to us it sounded like the handiwork of a pro. They’d also spoken with the monks who resided here who had provided little help, they did not know the exact time Abbot Chiro had last been seen, nor could they think of why anyone would do this
Finally, they told us that the killer had left a figurative calling card at the scene, the evidence was currently in the possession of Captain Ocano at the Shinjuku precinct. Time to pay him a visit.
It was close to mid-morning by the time we landed at the Shinjuku precinct, descending out of the stark blue-white sky and setting down on to one the bunker-like structure’s myriad roof-pads. Security was easy to clear, we were tight with Ocano and it got us through their protocols with no trouble.
The precinct was filled with its usual bustle, mostly rentacops hanging out in their beige cubicles and pulling busywork out of their case files, anything to avoid hitting the broiling streets of Neon City - unless it involved personal gain of course.
Captain Ocano could be heard before seen, a booming voice transmitted out of his glass-walled corner office which overlooked an intersection of the city’s concrete canyons and into the central office as he roared into his Preaavar desk-slab.
He stood as he saw us approach, unconsciously trying to smooth the wrinkles in his mismatched suit while opening the door, the clamour of the precinct faded into a distant burble as it clicked closed behind us.
Ocano handed us a small, transparent polyurethane bag which contained the calling card. It showed a stylised red chess piece - a King against a traditional black-and-white chequerboard.
Turning it over revealed some text
King takes Bishop - check.
Bishop must have been a reference to the Abbot at the Jorengi Temple, whoever this was, they were boasting about killing the Abbot. No idea what it meant though?
There was nothing to go on right now, the onset of morning marked the end of the day for us and without self-medicating some stims it would be hard to go on. Finally, the city was giving us a chance to hit the sack.
Later, we saw on the newsvines that the Jorengi Temple had appointed Shima Kenaoya as their new Abbot by using the time-honoured ancient method of writing poems on The Wall of the Gateless Gate.
The Flower Festival and the Petal Market would go ahead as planned.
Later still and something else caught our attention appeared on the newsvine feeds, it read:
A pawn promoted to bishop but the Peony pawn has been taken, signalling the endgame. THE RED KING advances on the Queen unhindered. Mate in five.
Whatever this was, it wasn’t over.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.