27th March 2021
Saturday night again and I'm logged into my PC on Meet.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wire Neon Cities Campaign.
Location: Neon City.
Morning had come and with it a hue of urine-coloured sunlight! Filling my one-bed as the blazing early sun filtered through the yellowish thick polythene tarp used to cover the missing wall that had been blown out by Protobase Global black baggers.
The municipal authority responsible for managing universal credit housing had informed me that the request for sanctioned repairs had been inputted into their system but it was estimated that work wasn't expected to begin for one to twelve months.
Late last night, Neon City celebrity fashion guru Hika Taki had pinged us, explaining that he was presenting yet another of his fashion previews to buyers and media-reporters for his latest clothing line; Colours of Chrome, Own the Chrome. Like last time, he wanted us running security.
This time it would be different though, at Ikebukuro Hika Taki had his own boutique, Hysteric Mini Seibu and it would be the show's venue instead of some hidden location.
Somehow, Lucy had overheard me talking about the show and insisted upon accompanying us, she wouldn't take no for an answer. For her it was a dream to be at an exclusive Hika Taki fashion show, she would have bragging rights amongst her peer-circle for years!
Fortunately, as part of the compensation package from Thetatec for apprehending Ghost Radical, Porter Sladek had sponsored our access to the high-soaring exclusive Corporate Monorail System that rode above The City of Electric Dreams. Fortunate because without it, there was no way of getting from Sunshine City and Neon City proper to Ikebukuro.
The monorail was a different world from the tram or the metro. Commuting execs in their designer neutral grey Shaguaifu suits gave us the sideways stink-eye as from one of the elevated stations we boarded a gleaming rounded cuboid cylinders in our trench coats, hoodies and grimy combat boots. Let them stare.
Inside, the coach seating we were used to had been replaced by individual cabins with climate control, reactive tinted windows and plush interiors upholstered in faux cream-coloured leather.
A glass sliding door opened into our cabin and we sank into our soft seats before the train noiselessly accelerated away from Sunshine City. It was a smooth ride to Ikebukuro, isolated from the crowded narrow streets far below, we watched the city roll past as we enjoyed the complimentary sushi.
It was busy in Ikubukuro: The workday had ended and the wage monkeys were out in force, nosily spilling out on to the streets and either commuting home or on the hunt for cheap thrills.
Threading these crowds, we arrived at our destination and it was no surprise that Hysteric Mini Seibu was a brilliantly presented and stylish boutique nestled in the middle of Ikebukuro's fashion row with an elaborate large window display of Neon Noir; Hika Taki's previous fashion range. The boutique exuded flurries of activity as people came and went.
Inside, at the centre of the churning squall of people busily working away was Hika Taki and it was no surprise that he was stressed to verge of hysteria. The thick-framed old school spectacles he wore served to magnified his eyes and only added to his overemotional appearance. He was a tall, thin man and of course impeccably dressed, he was also pleased to see us.
Momentarily pausing from screaming and shouting at the work crew he waved us closer. Over the hammering and drilling he explained that in two hours he was expecting thirty buyers along with their plus ones as well as their staff, there would also be catering staff on site and of course the models. Breathlessly he told us we would be responsible for ensuring no uninvited guests appeared or unwanted recording devices were used.
It was time to get to work and we checked out the venue.
Floor space displays in the boutique had been cleared away to make room for the show. A work crew were hastily putting the finishing touches on the runway that ran from the edge of the room to the centre and seating was being set out for guests. The front entrance was the only way directly into the floor space.
Hika Taki's office had been turned into an impromptu dressing room, stuffed with racks of incomprehensively garish clothing and tall, skinny bio-sculpted models getting their outlandish make-up applied and excitedly chatting amongst themselves.
A storage room had been converted into a kitchen, catering staff were laying out spreads of typical Neon City fare for visitors later. A service door led into a dimly lit back alley from the catering room. It would need to be secured. Gratify You Tongue was the name of the company catering the show, we checked them out; a small local outfit that looked legit.
Our setup was going to be similar to the last event we ran security for Hika Taki. Koko would use Kevin to scan anyone coming into the show, she should pick up implants and augmentations. Trigger would man the entrance into catering area and the rest of us would be ready to provide back up.
By the start of the show, darkness had spread over the city, awakening buzzing streetlights and stirring the exuberant nightlife. With it came the rain; a seething ocean of umbrellas bobbing past Hysteric Mini Seibu rippled nosily under the weight of the downpour.
Guests began arriving, exec buyers with staff, social influencers and select journalists granted exclusive access, mostly they came with hulking stern-faced bodyguards who typically wore faux-leather Tremeita urban armour who were flagged up by Kevin as displaying extensive body-rigging and implants. Roderick was also monitoring them and didn't detect any immediate threats or anomalies. There was little we could do to exclude them, just keep an eye on them. Trigger was watching the catering staff, all normal so far.
After a short speech from Hika Taki, lights dimmed and the show got underway, sweeping coloured lights swam across walls and ceiling, music pounded out of a Senonable sound system, spotlights were focused on runway as models began appearing, swaying along and doing their thing while Hika Taki's commentary blared over the speaker system, drowning even the music with his slightly high pitched and stressed voice.
Lucy was having the time of her life, squealing and hopping up and down at every new outfit revealed, the rest of us just found it a loud, colourful headache.
The show ran its course and was reaching its conclusions, the last few items of Hika Taki's latest range were being displayed, the catering staff were quickly beginning to clear up their equipment having laid out all their food.
Back at the show, one of the guests convulsed, stood, doubled over and puked! They were followed by another and another!
Koko punched at her control-slab and bought in Tonkatsu, a modified Suayo MKVI gun-drone, armaments and payload had been replaced with bio-scanners, a customised and automated micro-pharma production med-tech and various medical tools and implements. I had even re-written it's coding, Tonkatsu now had an autonomous diagnostic algorithm that meant that she could recognise an ailment and immediately create bespoke meds as required for the situation, Koko instructed Tonkatsu to administer emergency aid to guests.
"Never trust the catering," commented Bill. "It was the salmon mousse!".
He had to be right.
Trigger checked on the catering staff, a moment ago they'd gone out to load gear into their catering sky-van, he strode out to the Gratify You Tongue branded Benlato Hochall sky-van, no one was there?
Back at the show, more people were succumbing to what was in the food, it was too much for us to deal with and too much puke! Hika Taki was a mixture of livid, manic and frantic! We put the call out for emergency medical aid. In the chaos I lost sight of Lucy, the last I'd seen of her, she had her back to me and was bent double, heaving. There was no time to try and find her, I'm sure she'd make a full recovery! I could also see Captain Noodles looking like he was about to bring up the world's largest fur ball, guess he must have had the food too?
After Trigger had told me the catering staff had disappeared, I went and scoped it out. The sky-van was parked in a designated landing spot, looking round, I spotted some external security cameras that were pointed in this direction.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, entering the maelstrom of ceaselessly swirling clustered data-images and vaults that constituted Neon City's info-vista.
I'd hacked camera servers so many times that it'd become child's play. I quickly found and cracked the server holding the footage from this camera and scrubbed through it to the pertinent timestamp.
It showed the catering staff exit into the badly-lit back alley behind Hysteric Mini Seibu and immediately dump whatever they were carrying, then they rushed to the edge of the camera's view, I could just about make out that they had boarded some sort of white sky-van before fleeing, no way of identifying it, there were a million of them in Neon City. We needed a deeper check out the caterers.
The GLOWNET opened into a endless plane of pulsating star-fields that quickly led me to a glowing pair of gigantic red lips frozen in a moment of ecstasy; Gratify Your Tongue's data-image. Somewhere behind it was the company's data-vault, no doubt stored on a standard security server somewhere in Neon City, wouldn't hold vital data so they'd have no need for heavier security.
As expected, circumventing the security was easy, their records confirmed that someone from Hysteric Mini Seibu had booked catering service with four staff from Gratify Your Tongue for the show tonight. Digital memories haunted my consciousness as I kept searching the data, barely distinguishable from real memories, creating identical chemical pulses that travelled my brain.
Gratify Your Tongue had a smallish staff roster but typically kept records on its employees, along with ID photos for security passes, I cross referenced the photos with documentation on the booking; photos of the staff didn't match the faces of the staff who had been at the show: They hadn't been the staff from Gratify Your Tongue.
I told the others, our only lead right now was the caterers, we agreed to head over since it was quite close. We left Hika Taki to deal with the people, sure that he could manage! As we made our exit, several Perayu Spasba sky-ambulances with their emergency LEDS flashing were dropping out of the night's miasmic precipitation down to the boutique, making an uncharacteristically rapid response.
Gratify Your Tongue was situated in a commercial zone along a narrow rainy and busy Ikubukuro street, amongst a strip of retailers and service providers, unlike most of the neighbouring commercial units, it was entirely unlit?
We scouted the rear of the premises, it had a fenced off yard with spaces allotted to their small fleet of branded sky-vans, one space was empty. Approaching the rear entrance, Koko made short work of the lock and we were in. Inside was a kitchen area used to prepare foods by the looks of it, we continued on into a short corridor with several doors. One led to a aluminium shelved storage room filled with cooking appliances, cutlery, kitchenware and kitchen clothing, it was here that we found the staff.
They'd been knocked about, gagged, tied up and dumped here, after being freed they told us that some seriously juiced and chromed Yardies had burst in through the kitchen a few hours ago and taken them prisoner, after that they had stolen some uniforms and one of the sky-vans.
The premises had been equipped with numerous security camera but they'd clearly been disabled, hacking them would be a waste of time, no way of getting images of the attackers.
However, juiced and chromed Yardies was a description that matched Noise Tank, the Highway Zero street gang that frequently ran as muscle for the cryptic anarchist Prophet Wei. Last time Hika Taki had put on a show, Noise Tank and Wei had hit it, then they'd hit a store selling Hika Taki's Neon Noir range. Looked like Noise Tank and Wei had moved against Hika Taki again. Was looking like we'd have to move against Noise Tank again.
Before we could discuss our next step, Hika Taki pinged us. He told us that the models had gone missing? They'd been taken away in ambulances for observation, he'd called the hospital but the ambulances carrying them had never turned up.
Hika Taki said that twelve of his models had gone, he was sure they'd been kidnapped. Now we had a new problem but also a new angle to work.
Trackers were used as standard on sky-ambulances, we could use them to zero-in on the ones used to pick up the models.
Returning to the gleaming neon architecture of the GLOWNET, I launched a hunter/searcher algorithm and it got a hit the local hospital's data-vault; an anonymous and featureless slab by GLOWNET standards. After circumventing the vault's security protocols I searched for ambulance records.
The records had data on all the ambulances' movements and activity, the system had logged the call we'd put in and several ambulances had been dispatched to Hysteric Mini Seibu to deal with suspected poisoning.
I continued searching.
Further records showed that the sky-ambulances returned to the hospital, none of the patients admitted matched the models? They hadn't picked up the models?
It didn't match what Hika Taki had told us.
Running through the security camera feeds at Hysteric Mini Seibu again showed four ambulances picking up the models but something was off, something was wrong?
Seemed strange that the paramedics were attending to no one but the models but then I realised: They were putting three models into each of the four ambulances, no paramedics or trauma-docs would cram three people into a single ambulance. We needed more info.
It was a short tram ride to the hospital, a concrete, behemothic, cuboid high-rise that, save for row upon row of lit windows above us that gleamed in the falling rain would be swallowed by the inky night.
A large pair of automated glass doors marked then entrance, beyond, an abundance of humming strips lights over-lit the interior lobby with its polished linoleum floors and beige walls. Numerous signs pointed the ways to various departments and wards. A network coloured guide lines crisscrossed the floor .
A grid of plastic seats were bolted to the floor and positioned close to the doors, they were mostly filled with dejectedly silent people. A colourful vending machine filled with overpriced snacks was placed next to the chairs.
In one corner was the reception, its curved semi-circular counter was topped by reinforced transparent polymer screens, behind it said a disinterested looking woman in some sort of medical get-up who was jabbing at her media-slab.
Her eyes flicked up as we approached.
"Can I help?" She asked putting the slab aside.
We asked her if we could speak to the hospital's sky-ambulance staff.
"Out of the question," Came her reply.
Luckily Bill could be persuasive, especially when a few bits passed hands through an opening in the screen. Follow the orange line we were told.
Spreading a few more bits around us found the hospital wing and the staff room with the ambulance crews we were looking for.
We convinced them to speak to us: They all confirmed pretty much the same story.
They had been dispatched to Hysteric Mini Seibu to pick up poisoned patients but when they arrived, several ambulances had already landed and were picking up patients. These ambulances took off and headed towards the hospital but halfway there they peeled off and went along a different heading.
None of the ambulance crews knew where the other ambulances had gone. We asked if this seemed out of the place, we were told that sometimes, if there was a high of demand, the system might divert extra ambulances assigned to other hospitals to an particular incident.
The van and the ambulances had probably returned to Noise Tank turf in Highway Zero. Koko remotely brought in the flier and we put it up in the sky to run a high-altitude sweep of the district but got nothing.
Traffic tracking systems were positioned throughout Neon City, theoretically I could search through footage or analyse data-points, it was an enormous task and would take an age though, coding an algorithm to do it would take just as long, we needed someone to do the heavy lifting.
One person we knew might've be able help; Silai Granskina, low-level exec who for the Neon City Transport Authority, maybe he had the juice to pull in some manpower and get a result.
Half an hour after pinging him, he got back to us. He'd gotten hits on all five vehicles in the same area; south-western Highway Zero, known for its now mostly unused commercial and business parks. Silai pinged us some aerial photos of the area.
There was something we recognised; Prophet Wei's warehouse, where Noise Tanks had previously bought the stolen clothing and boutique customers. Thanking Silai, we set out for Highway Zero in the flier.
The commercial park was as dismal and empty as the last time we had been here. Large pools of rainwater had formed, flooding the neglected empty yards and parking lots, their dark rippling surfaces providing distorted reflections of Neon City nightlights far above.
We knew what we were looking for and sent Kevin to scout out the Noise Tank warehouse. The PVC corrugated roof had mostly collapsed in on itself after the sky-trucker Lady Zero had launched her sky-freighter through it, exposing the warehouse to Neon City's harsh natural elements. Even though the shroud of night and the downpour, Kevin's optics gave Koko a good image of the interior.
Four ambulances and a white sky-van were all parked inside. Kevin continued scanning, we saw a number of gangers in Noise Tank colours scattered throughout the warehouse, we also spotted some medical gear piled up in one dry corner.
Then, close to the gear, we saw the models; from Kevin's feed, none of them looked ill, no puking or convulsions. Must've gotten treated with the gear, wouldn't be Wei's style to harm them. We also noticed that they weren't wearing any of Hika Taki's fashion range?
In a deluge of jet wash driven lashing rain, Koko put the flier down in an empty parking lot and span the turbines down. Noise Tank gangers had congregated at the warehouse's open hangar doors to stare at the flier, impatiently shifting guns around and watching us approach with stony faces.
Walking up, we saw that they recognised us - and so they should have, considering how many times our paths had crossed. A particularly massive Yardie loaded up with muscle enhancements, visible facial replacements and chrome limb augmentations stepped forward; must've been in charge.
"Your too late," he said with a thick Jamaican accent. "The dresses have already been redistributed,".
It was probably true, Hika Taki's originals were no doubt already on route to knock-off sweatshops throughout Neon City.
We told the Yardie that we were here for the models, he laughed and his facial implants animated, he told us they were free to go. There was no point in taking things any further with Noise Tank, none of us had anything to gain.
Hika Taki was pleased that we'd found the models and sent rides to pick them up. Unexpectedly, he wasn't too emotional when we told him his clothing was gone and didn't blame us, commenting that our job was to prevent secret filming of the show - which we'd done.
Walking through the rain and the shining puddles, we returned to the flier and headed for the neon lights of Ninety Ninth, it was late but not too late to knock back some drinks.
Later, back home and Lucy pinged me, she'd just been discharged from observation at the Ikubukuro hospital and excitedly told me it had been a great night out and she now had a story to tell her girlfriends, even with the projectile vomiting, she said, it had been totally worth it!
Another urine-coloured dawn had rolled around, the morning was spent languishing on my futon, a thin cotton sheet pulled over my head to keep the light away. Eventually I had to get up, rolling to my feet, I sifted through the junk in my one-bed for some food. A can of self-cooling Huntudi and a carton of Niaiwo noodles did the trick, got to love that sweet and sour flavour!
For a while it looked like it the day was going to be a quiet one but a pinging media-slab ended that. Antin Grover, urban trash-art kinetic sculptor and resident of Rokkaku Dai Heights, whose work was growing in popularity was in trouble and we were the people to call!
For an extended stretch of time Antin had been separated from his wife and children, during this time he'd entered into a fleeting and meaningless relationship with Lina Arkov. He had ended it before his family came to Neon City.
We knew of Lina Arkov, she'd been girlfriend of the now deceased hackerrist Ringo Chrome.
Now however, Antin was telling us that Lina was blackmailing him, supposedly she had intimate photos of the pair of them and was presumably after something? Antin excitedly explained that he had a cunning plan in mind! He told us that he had contacted Lina and arranged a date at Itadakemasu in Sibuya Terminal, while he distracted her, we should break into her apartment and locate the safe containing the photos, hopefully it would contain the master copies.
It was a straightforward plan, we already knew where she lived, our hunt for Ringo Chrome had concluded at her Rokkaku Dai Heights apartment.
Antin told us that he would ping us again at the start of the date, that wouldn't be until the end of the day.
Our media-slabs pinged again later in the day: Lady Zero, sky-trucker who worked out of Highway Zero was in trouble, she spoke rapidly and there was panicked edge to her voice as she told that while making a routine delivery to The Skyscraper District a sky-car had begun following her, then the car's pilot had begun leaning out and shooting at her!
No time to waste! Koko called the flier and we piled in, Lady Zero had fed our media-slabs with her location when she'd pinged us and we headed directly there. The narrow streets city and tall high-rises rolled by as we raced to our destination.
It was exactly has she had described, against the diffused blue-white cloudless sky an individual riding a sky-car with a missing door was leaning out, submachinegun in one hand and shooting the cargo on her sky-freighter with incredible accuracy. Lady zero's freighter couldn't out distance the sky-car, but neither vehicle had the performance to match our flier. Koko easily caught them and put us between the two of them, we heard shots bounce of the armour, it was unlikely that small-arms fire could damage the flier.
Then the situation changed; as we were assessing the sky-car's threat from a rear-pointing camera, a needle thin lance of red-yellow light had flickered out from it.
Having looked at her readouts, Koko turned to us and said we'd taken a hit from a laser. On screen we saw that the sky-car's reinforced transparent multipolymer windscreen collapsing into steaming, heaped goop, liquified by the laser's heat and leaving a hole.
It meant the kind gloves were off. A few well placed shots from our turret into the car caused it plummet. trailing smoke. It veered wildly and crashed into a busy street, sending screaming pedestrians flying! The car grinded along on it's side and crumpled against a wall, it's power cell exploded and a font of smoking orange flame splashed the street. Banking the flier, Koko circled back round to the crash site.
The remaining door was flung clean off the car and a tall man dressed in a bomber jacket, black cargo pants and tellingly, a pair of black Harbief boots pulled himself out of the fiery wreckage seemingly unharmed. As we lost altitude, we zoomed in and got a hit on facial recog: Joe Montero; former mercenary and wanted war-criminal. We'd encountered him before but never in person.
Even before the flier had touched down, Trigger was out, leaping to the ground and closing to melee.
Joe Montero was no easy mark though. As Trigger and he traded savage blows, Trigger watched Joe's code-black military spec implants in action, watched as nanite-rich blood flowed back into wounds as they began to knit themselves closed, as bruising simply evaporated off Joe's skin. The kind of tech we could only dream about. Even a heavy strike from Trigger took Joe's arm off, he wasn't slowed down. Koko ran in and struck Joe with her Waukgasuki puke-prodder, he immediately recovered as his nanites and bio-regulators adapted to and compensated for threats in real time.
Enhanced strength, speed and stamina, pain suppression, predictive reflexes, improved cognitive function, Joe probably had the lot. Koko retreated and went with a different tack, snapping up her control slab and stabbing at it, she quickly brought Nermal into play and hit Joe Montero with a tight beam EMP pulse.
He went down hard but we could see that he wasn't going to stay down long, his implants would quickly reboot. Without delay we pounced, immobilising him before he resist.
Lady Zero pinged us and we told her the situation was under control, as she thanked us we could hear the stress in her voice. We got her to explain what was going on?
She had been hired to deliver two sets of data-cells to a Octavia Croyle at The Skyscraper District Library when the attack had occurred during the first delivery. She had no clue why?
The result of the attack wasn't good. Checking the management protocol that monitored her cargo told her that those data-cells had been critically damaged by the gunfire.
She'd also just received a report that her second consignment had exploded at its current storage facility at the waterfront. Both data-cells were now lost. Her job was a bust now.
Both consignments of data-cells destroyed? Lady Zero wasn't some random victim, Joe Montero had targeted her because of the cargo.
Joe Montero had recovered enough that we could talk to him.
The merc was talkative enough but didn't give us anything, sneering at whatever we said, only thing he admitted was he wanted some records on the data-cells to go away?
We asked him what had happened to Daron Zavaleta, whom he had kidnapped. Joe laughed and said, "Daron's no longer around,".
He wasn't going to give us anything, time for a different approach.
The data-cells were intended for Octavia Croyle, she was a historian and archivist employed by DIA Media Global and specialist in military history, when Joe Montero had referred to records, did he mean his own military records, ones that marked him out as a war criminal? Looked like there was only one person to talk to. Loading Joe Montero into our flier, we took off and headed to The Skyscraper District.
The exterior of The Skyscraper District Library was clad in imitation limestone and fronted by a row of faux Greek columns, a set of wide steps led up to the entrance. It represented an attempt to give some gravitas to the facility which was entirely lost on most of Neon City's populace.
Without a doubt, the library was the biggest repository of paper still left in the city. Inside the library proper, rows of unused books ran from floor to ceiling, diligently catalogued and organised in fake wooden shelving. Our footsteps seemed to echo in the quiet as we walked along a polished granite floor to a neutrally coloured counter and asked for Octavia Croyle.
She was a tall woman, with grey-shot dark hair and getting on in her middle years, her clothes were deeply unfashionable and clearly timeworn. She took us into a discreet meeting room and provided us with some refreshments and we told her about the loss of the data-cells, she was disappointed to hear it.
Octavia explained that the data-cells were considered to be highly valuable historical documentation that had been lost some time ago, but they had been found in a storage block during repairs following a flood. When they had been discovered, it was immediately decided that the data-cells should be archived in the library.
It would be improper to inquire after the data-cells contained but that had never stopped us in the past! Octavia revealed that they were the only known remaining source of information on events that occurred during the Kashmir Emergency. It was all lost now.
Not all of it, we explained. We told Octavia that Joe Montero was responsible for destroying the data-cells, Octavia knew his name and was of the opinion that it was to hide his atrocities. We also explained that we had the war criminal as a prisoner in our flier.
Octavia had a passion for her specialisation, you could tell, most people - even Neon City people would have questioned why we had him prisoner, but she was just interested in speaking to him! She also told us that we would be paid a finder's fee for him.
We asked Octavia if she had known Daron Zavaleta? He was a passing acquaintance, she told us and fellow employee at the library but not one she knew personally. We told her he had also been present at the Kashmir Emergency and also a wanted war criminal! Octavia was particularly disappointed at having missed the opportunity to speak to him.
Ensuring he was still securely bound, we brought him into the library and put him into Octavia's custody, no doubt she would get a DIA Media Global security team to guard him. She was pleased to see him, commentating that she half-expected him to be wearing his notorious Necklace Of Ears!
After that we bid Octavia good luck with her research and went back to our flier.
Two-and-a-half hours passed, day shrank had before the onset of night, an over-bright sky gave way to a cloudy moonless darkness as vast volumes of rainwater cascaded on to Neon City's crowded streets.
We were at The Copper Kettle when Antin Grova pinged us: Go Go Go had been his message.
Lina Arkov lived in the alabaster white high-rises that were ubiquitous throughout the residential quarter of The Heights. They tended to be higher quality and more exclusive than typical Neon City homing, they were only marred by the presence of the unmanageable sprawling rooftop shanty town that had developed above.
It was no trouble for Koko to get through the lock into Lina's apartment.
Since we had caught up with Ringo Chrome little had changed inside, only the carpet had been replaced, stains of the past removed but not forgotten. The remainder of the apartment with it's furniture, decoration and fixtures were pretty average.
Antin Grova had told us to look for a safe somewhere in the apartment, Trigger's thermals, but got nothing. We continued eyeballing the apartment until we came to a painting in the bedroom, an out of place looking, fairly cheap replica of an old master?
Behind it we found the door to a multi-layered, polycarbonate Rialydr wall safe, luckily Koko was able to get through the locks easily.
Upon opening it we found only a small faux black-stained cherry wooden box tied up in a shiny pink ribbon, Trigger unwrapped the bow and opened the box. Inside was a single sheet of folded paper, it was a handwritten and signed note from Lina Arkov to Antin Grova, it taunted him and his attempt to acquire the incriminating evidence. That wasn't the end, she boasted that our break-in was being filmed and the footage would soon find itself in the hands of the local rentacop franchise.
It was a set-up. Lina Arkov had out-played Antin Grova and we were in trouble, we had to work fast!
Furiously, we turned the room over, dresser searched, wardrobe emptied, bed flipped, nothing. We continued looking, then we spotted it: Opposite the door and in the corner, the almost invisible pinhole lens of a tiny camera, it was too small to hold the data locally and had to lead to storage somewhere else.
I jacked into my Nonohiki, then into The GLOWNET. I didn't have the luxury of admiring the shining, pulsating and holistic data-streams that flowed in and out of Neon City's data-graphical info-vista with its ever reconfiguring data-structure. Instead I interfaced with the camera, it allowed me to follow an incandescent trail that was its GLOWNET connection to a destination, a Preaavar Atyadham server.
Atyadhams were top-of-line Malaysian secured servers, a challenge for many hackers, but for someone like me, it was my bread and butter. After launching a couple of bespoke coded incursion algorithms, I was in.
A large number of files populated the server-drive, searching by timestamp I found the file that was compiling a record of our break-in real-time and killed the feed, then deleted the file. Next I searched for videos of Antin Grova; it appeared that Lina Arkov undertook encounters with many people and had recorded videos of all these interactions, including with Antin Grova and Ringo Chrome.
I downloaded all the files to my data-slab's storage partition and deleted every file off the drive, finally I ran a shredder protocol on it to ensure the data could not be recovered.
Jacking out integrated me back to physical reality and with it came a moment of disorientation and surge of nausea, no time to recover though, we were out of Lina's apartment and away into the night.
Back at the flier, Koko took us up through the beating rain and set a heading back to Hikage Street.
We didn't get far, breaking news came through the GLOWNET news-vine and on to our media-slabs: A gun-wielding woman had shot several people and taken hostages at a restaurant in Shibuya Terminal. We all glanced at each other, even without looking at the story we all knew The City of Electric Dreams wasn't letting us off easy that night!
I stabbed at my media-slab to watch the accompanying footage, it was blurry security camera footage but even so, it clearly showed Lina Arkov shooting several customers and training the gun on Antin Grova.
Koko changed heading for restaurant.
Itadakemasu was located in one of the narrow busy streets of Shibuya Terminal, mostly surrounded by tall anonymous glass-fronted office blocks. I'd taken Lucy on a date there a while back, like most our social outings it had ended in an unrestrained spree of violence and gunfire that almost wrecked the restaurant. Word was that it had only just recently been renovated and repaired after that gunfight.
The restaurant had been surrounded by rentacop, isolated and cordoned off by barriers and parked cop Korazna sky-cruisers. The heavy rain hadn't deterred crowds of Shibuya Terminal workers from pressing up against the barriers and staring, it never did.
From the looks of it, rentacop was more concerned with maintaining a grip on on the gawking crowd than dealing with the hostage situation inside, which is were we came in.
The chief rentacop flat-out refused to let us into Itadakemasu, citing safety concerns. Bill stepped forward, with confidence and authority ringing in his voice as he explained that we were civilian negotiation contractors assigned to manage the hostage situation. You could see the little self-serving cogs whirring in the chief rentacop's brain, if we took ownership of the crisis, then he was off the hook! We saw him smile.
Entering the restaurant took most of us past the shattered glass door and windows, it was quiet inside except for the quiet moans of injured people slumped up against overturned blood-smeared furniture or lying on the food-littered floor.
Chief rentacop told us that the perp had retreated into the kitchen area, out of range of his officers, it looked like he was on the money, the interior had been riddled with bullet holes but there was no Lina or Antin.
After we took defensive positions behind some cover, Koko called in Tonkatsu to begin administering first aid to the victims while we assessed the situation.
A muffled voice could be heard coming from beyond a set of double swinging doors near the restaurant's reception. Kitchen? Had to be. Bill pursed his lips for a moment before getting to his feet. He knew the score, he was the face. No one would be better at talking Lina down.
Save for Lina and Antin, the kitchen was empty. Stainless steel utensils and appliances had been scattered across the floor by the staff in their evacuation. Amongst this mess was Lina, looking stressed with bloodshot eyes, dishevelled and holding a 9mm Ngaohun pistol to Antin's sweating neck, barrel just touching the skin. Her voice was becoming coarse from all the shouting but it didn't stop her.
Bill tried to calm her down and explain that he was here to help and how he was her only friend right now. It was both a lie and the profound truth. Lina wasn't buying though.
"If I can't have him," she yelled. "No one can!".
I guess Antin had made quite the impression.
Bill remained as neutral and unthreatening as possible, trying to keep Lina's attention on him, trying to think of an angle to work.
"If I'm going to die today, then we'll die together!" she promised.
During this time, Trigger had circled round, finding the waterlogged dim back alley that led to Itadakemasu's rear entrance, it had been left unlocked by fleeing staff. Pushing the door open a centimetre and shifting position, he got eyes on Lina, she had her back to him, fully focused on Bill.
Slowly he widened the gap in the door until it was wide enough to admit him. As Lina continued her rant directed at a passive Bill, Trigger slipped in and patiently crept closer.
When Lina had said, "then we'll die together," Trigger jabbed her with a stun-baton.
It didn't go quite to plan, the sudden jolt made Lina convulse and her trigger finger contracted. A single round hit Antin in the neck at point blank, somehow it must have missed his vocal chords as he let out a short scream when blood fountained out of his neck and collapsed.
Outside, rentacop had taken the retort as sign that matters had deteriorated and indiscriminately opened fire on the restaurant, wrecking even more of the bullet-scarred business. Our low positions in the dining area meant the bullets flew overhead before slamming into the wall and fixtures, the others in the kitchen were relatively safe from gunfire.
Once rentacop had emptied their clips, relative silence once more descended on Itadakemasu.
Bill kicked the pistol away from the semi-conscious Lina and Koko sent Tonkatsu straight towards Antin to assess the injury. We gave the word to Rentacop and now they came running in with paramedics on their heels.
Antin Grova's injury was serious and would require intensive reconstructive bio-surgery, all the customers were still alive, Lina was unharmed and taken into custody.
It was a good result and was time to leave. Like ghosts lost to the ether, we made our exit into rainy night before anyone could ask awkward questions.
Later a news-vine story came in on the GLOWNET. It had reported that Antin Grova had been taken to hospital and was stable, he was expected to make a full recovery.
Rentacop had then presented themselves at the hospital and arrested him.
20th March 2021
It's a Saturday night and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC.
It's time for the 1st session in season 2 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
It had been quiet since Ghost Radical's takedown and we were making the most of the downtime, burning through days in a haze of intoxicants and euphoriants Neon City style. It never lasted though and The City of Electric Dreams had a way of crashing you back down to earth, pulling those electric dreams further away and trapping you in the this life.
News had reached us from the GLOWNET feeds that Yaroh Uron, a perennially down-on-his luck wage-monkey who we'd made an acquaintance of after he'd got caught in the crossfire between Protobase Global and us had been arrested by rentacop. He'd been marched to the Ninety Ninth Street precinct and charged with murder?
We had no choice but to check it out, he would need the help.
It was a hot afternoon tram ride to the Neon Mile, unrelenting sunlight glared through the dirt-smeared tram windows and shielding my eyes, I wondered what could have happened to Yaroh Uron.
Even at this time of day, Ninety Ninth was busy, raucous crowds of fun-seekers roamed the street. navigating gambling dens that blared out electronic jingles, bar and restaurant touts hawking for customers, street performers and street workers plying their trade.
Unsurprisingly, the rentacop precinct was a lifeless grey steel-reinforced bunker at one end of the Neon Mile, utterly in contrast to the garish, loud vibrancy that defined Ninety Ninth.
Initially rentacop refused us access to Yaroh; no visitors allowed they had resolutely stated. Made me think about Yaroh's wife, had they also denied her access? What was their game plan? What trouble was Yaroh Uron in?
Bill was having none of it, without dropping a beat he got in rentacop's face and told him that we were Yaroh's legal team, he threatened have their plastic faux police badges for desk ornaments if they got in our way. I had no idea if that was truthful or not but it did the trick, despite the fact everyone else mostly looked akin to miscreant street brawlers; we got in to see Yaroh.
Rentacop took us to a interview room deep in their bunker, a single door led inside the square windowless space furnished with plastic chairs, a table and little else. The floor was coated with dulled and stained beige coloured linoleum, walls had once been painted blue-grey.
Then they led Yaroh Uron in, he was dressed in prison-orange and there was a faraway resignation on his thin long face with its shock of blonde hair. He dejectedly slumped down in a chair on the far side of the table and eyed us through his polymer Khcapi goggle-specs, for a moment there was silence and humming from bleak strip lights grew to fill the air.
The room looked clean, hopefully nobody was monitoring us: There was little doubt he was innocent but we got Yaroh Uron to tell us his accounting.
Yesterday at around five in the afternoon, a woman had approached him on Ninety Ninth Street and without provocation scratched his face before fleeing. Yaroh described her as tall with a strawberry tattoo on her hand.
Then today, he was arrested by rentacop, bought here and charged with the murder of Dr Hsu Rou-Taib.
Had he upset anyone recently? No. Any enemies? No.
It wasn't much to go on.
Once our meeting was over, Bill spoke with the rentacop heading up the case and got some info out of him.
The victim: Dr Hsu Rou-Taib, a proponent of controversial life-extending theories and specialist in longevity treatments. She had been bankrolled by Protobase Global, The name seemed familiar, something to check out.
Dr Hsu had been brutally murdered on Ninety Ninth close to Eat With Joy, footage had been provided that showed her exiting Eat With Joy, heading off then rounding a corner into an alley, then slipping out of camera shot.
An unidentified witness had called it in on the Ninety Ninth Street scratch-card snitch-line. Four hours later the body had been found in that alley. Bill got rentacop to ping him a recording of the call.
On a hunch we got Yaroh to listen to the recording. He recognised it, knew who it belonged to! Benedict Twistom; his old manager.
It was a name known to us, he was husband of Annabel Twistom, participant in this year's Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake-off competition and was Vice Chairman of the Ethics Committee at Protobase Global.
I ran a couple of quick searches and some business insider info-publication on the GLOWNET news-vine had an article announcing that he had recently been promoted to Chief Executive Officer of the Protobase Global; Neon City branch.
The article came with one of those corporate headshot photos against a neutral blue-grey background with perfectly combed hair, flawless surgically sculpted skin and teeth, vapid expression and shit-eating grin. Beneath, the quote was 'I'm looking forward to overseeing Protobase Global's expansion into Neon City.'.
Somehow Benedict Twistom was involved in all this? Yaroh had worked for Protobase Global, how was it connected?
An initial forensics report of Hsu Rou-Taib's remains had found foreign DNA on her body which matched Yaroh, there was little else in the way of evidence.
Bill then got rentacop to let Yaroh out on bail, for now he was free, although when he checked his media-slab, he'd been pinged by his employers, former employers to be exact, he'd been let go from the job Alison had gotten him. Yaroh's streak of bad luck kept stretching on.
Yaroh went on his way after we assured him we'd look into it.
First thing I did was run Dr Hsu Rou-Taib through the memory-logs on my Nonohiki and that got me two hits.
The name got a mentioned as a project manager in files we'd copied from the hidden Protobase Global lab here on Ninety Ninth, where smooth talking conmen had been pulling old folk into some sort fake karaoke bar, taking them prisoner and extracting bio-data from them, looking for some sort of secret in the swirling spirals of bio-information.
My files also had the name listed as a project manager for the Chinese medicine shop in Highway Zero which had been a front for another secret Protobase Global clinic involved in using Galapagos tortoises to extend lifespans.
We'd interfered with both clandestine undertakings, which had also somehow both involved Dr Hsu. Too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence, especially regarding Protobase Global, especially in Neon City.
Our main lead was the woman with the strawberry tattoo; out on the Ninety Ninth Street it was hot, body heat of a thousand crammed passer bys only intensified the cruel afternoon heat. we approached street performers, touts, bar staff, stall owners and hawkers, asking questions.
Seems there was a working girl on Ninety Ninth with a liking of fruit themed tattoos, went by the name Juicy J and turned tricks locally, Bill did some more questioning, learnt that she operated out of a nearby hotel.
The walkways of Ninety Ninth were wider than Chuo Street and the buildings not so cramped and encroaching, so the hotel was easy to find since there were less of them. We camped out on a suitable corner and watched people come and go. Except for the neon hotel sign it was a bland, featureless, grime smeared concrete building that went up for several storeys and was nestled at the end of a strip of neon-lit bars and noisy pachinko joints.
We saw a tall slender woman, mid-twenties with heavy make up and dyed blonde hair in a skirt that went very high, a top that went very low and clicking heels striding towards the hotel, with my Chaonon telescopics I could distinctively see several fruit-themed tattoos on her arms and neck; looking at her hand; a strawberry. We'd found Juicy J.
Surreptitiously we followed as she went through the smoky glass door in the concrete façade and led us upstairs and along a dusty, unmaintained hall to her hotel room, she had not been accompanied. A quick thermal sweep from Trigger found no other heat signatures in the room.
After knocking on the door, she opened it a crack with a suspicious, half-curious expression. Bill asked her if she would be willing answer some questions, she wasn't interested.
We invited ourselves in, along with the door, her objections were quickly pushed aside. Stepping back, she looked nervously from one to another of us.
Bill explained that nothing bad was going to happen, we just needed some answers.
Still nervous a little, she silently nodded her compliance.
Juicy J admitted that she had scratched Yaroh Uron's face yesterday, an anonymous man had paid her to do it over a call, he'd also paid for a sky-taxi to pick her up and drop her back off.
We pressed her about the DNA, she knew nothing, no one had collected the DNA from her nails. Wherever Yaroh's DNA had been taken, it was wasn't from Juicy J.
After some general questioning we learnt her real name was Jinny Stoyer. She told us that her boyfriend was OK Daddy and that she was saving up to leave Neon City and go to the Moon to be with him.
OK Daddy was another name we knew; once he'd been a pimp running working girls out of Ninety Ninth and reputation of being heavy-handed with them. Now he was on a ten year term being all he could be with the Planetary Global Defence Force after some encouragement to join up from us.
I guess he was stationed on the moon; that's where Juicy J wanted to go.
Maybe there was a way we could help each other. We told Juicy J that we could help her get to the moon, if she could help us with the Yaroh Uron case, it would mean testifying.
Juicy J's guard dropped and she warmed to the deal when she heard it and quickly agreed to help us.
Before we left, we played Juicy J the recording of Benedict Twistom's voice on the snitch-line.
The voice was identical to the man that had hired her, she was sure of it.
Benedict Twistom had slipped up, he had arranged the murder of Dr Hsu and framed Yaroh for it. Now we just had to prove it.
It wasn't too hard to acquire the residential address of the next lead; victim Dr Hsu Rou-Taib. She had lived aloft the grey forest that constituted the cluster of concrete high- rises that was The Skyscraper District which typically homed corporate execs.
Koko got us into the anonymous apartment without trouble. Despite entering quietly, our footsteps distinctly reverbed on the laminated plastic replica hardwood floor in the entry hall, echoing into nothingness, the sound of an empty home. Searching confirmed it; the apartment had been vacated and cleaned, all personal possessions stripped away, only the generic fixtures and fittings remained, plain faux wood tables and chairs, a desk, a bed, fibrewood shelves and so on.
A Karseakk desk-slab had been left behind. I networked it with my Nonohiki and jacked in, found nothing, accounts unlogged, emails and data erased, now a clean system. I ran an algorithm to recover fragmented data but there were none. The slab had been cleaned by a pro.
The apartment had been a bust.
As we left, we got pinged by the coroner's office, an autopsy report had been delivered to our media-slabs. We scanned the results, it changed everything.
Dr Hsu Rou-Taib's time of death was three hours after she had been seen in Eat With Joy, it directly contradicted the snitch-line call which had called in the murder almost immediately after she'd gone down the alley. She was still alive when the call was made.
Furthermore the autopsy showed that Dr Hsu had died from toxic poisoning, injected with a lethal cocktail of chemicals, also directly contradicting the report that she had been brutally murdered.
Matters had taken a turn for the complicated, Yaroh needed proper representation now and we searched for something we knew nothing about; a lawyer. Found a guy on the GLOWNET called Finn Kinton who took on the case
By the time we found someone for Yaroh, it was the end of the day. Nothing to do now but wait for the preliminary hearing.
Boiling clouds, pregnant and black were accumulating above, lined in gold from a yellow-red giant sun as it sank behind the silhouetted western skyline by the time I had returned to my one-bed in Hikage Street.
It was pretty crowded now, with Lucy and Ashaglaya waiting for me but it didn't matter, I didn't care, I lugged my boots off and threw my trench coat into a corner, grabbed a tall cooled can of Huntudi and kicked back.
It didn't last for long.
Halfway through the can and the exterior wall imploded! For an infinitesimal moment I watched as cracks in the cheap paint sprang into existence on the wall, running along the lines of the brickwork just before the concussion wave hit, filling the room with flying bricks, masonry and dust. Hurled to the floor, my eyes stung , ears rang and throat choked.
A dozen ghostlike silhouettes materialised, corporate soldiers garbed in fully enclosed matt black Haanut armour, wrapped in the enveloping cloud which had billowed inward and backlit by a search-beam that flooded the room with diffused light. They silently glided at us through the settling haze.
Two of them stared through tinted, mirrored visors and wordlessly levelled 7.62 Kirzaks assault rifles at me while a third tied my wrists behind my back with a zip tie lock. Helplessly I watched with blurred vision as they secured Lucy and Ashaglaya, the girls appeared to be unconscious as they were carried off, others seemed to be hastily rummaging through my one-bed?
Lines had dropped from a flier outside and they retreated, pulled into the darkening sky above. All of it had taken less than thirty seconds.
I was freed by the others once I'd managed to use voice-command on my media-slab to contact them.
The corporate enforcers has been hunting for something but I had nothing of importance or value here. We surveyed my apartment, everything had been knocked to the ground or tipped over and was now coated in a layer of dust.
We continued searching and found something out of place; slipped underneath the spare folding bed was a silver Mahakam Ambassador suitcase. I didn't own a Mahakam suitcase! Looking at each other, we all knew someone who did though.
It had been the possession of Yennav Rybasei, contents a mystery, we'd seen the Russian mobster execute two men over it.
Vaudeville street walker and assassin Thaddeus Rackham had killed a roomful of gangsters for it. Why and how was it here? What was it? If we knew the contents, maybe it would answer questions.
Koko was unwilling to look inside the argent polycarbonate suitcase though, it had been forbidden by Yennav on pain of death that we'd personally witnessed. The rest of us were too curious to care. The suitcase was opened. It wasn't what we expected inside.
Our attention was immediately drawn to the glass case in the centre, inside that glass case we could see that floating in a liquid was a brain! A human brain.
The glass case was surrounded by wiring, circuitry, some Sainohon processors, a small readout and a miniscule power cell, it was also networked to a small speaker and microphone as well as a tiny Senonable camera, servo motors hummed quietly as the camera panned to face us.
"Hello?" said a digitised voice from the speaker!
The brain introduced itself as The Accountant. It had no memory or knowledge of its past or origins. The Accountant only knew that Yennav Rybasei used it as a kind of biological data-vault, a library or repository of Russian mob information. The Accountant had contained sensitive records on mob finances and holdings, laundering operations and more, sensitive enough for Yennav to kill to protect.
The situation had changed now explained The Accountant, Yennav had shut down all his assets in Neon City and gone into hiding. The Accountant hypothesised that Yennav would regroup, consolidate his powerbase and finances, then resume activities within six to eighteen months.
The Accountant also told us how it had met Thaddeus Rackham who had promised to get him a body. The Accountant was still waiting.
Finally The Accountant told us that he had been having extensive conversations with Ashaglaya Lova. She had told it that Yennav had entrusted the suitcase to her, instructing her not to open it, driven by curiosity Ashaglaya had of course ignored those instructions.
She must have brought the suitcase here. That's what the corporate goons had come here looking for, they didn't find it, so they took her. We knew that Protobase Global wanted the suitcase, must've been their goons.
We couldn't let this stand. Protobase Global had moved against us, now we had to move against them, time to play some hardball.
Like all the top execs that lived in Neon City, the Twistoms resided behind the opulent Fortified Residential Zone's thick heavily protected toughened polymer walls and well out of reach but we had another angle to work. Annabel Twistom had twice been a competitor in the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake-off, rules of the contest stipulated that only Rokkaku Dai Heights residents were eligible to enter, she had to live somewhere in The Heights.
If we found her, it meant we could take Annabel Twistom.
Finding her address in the GLOWNET was straightforward, unsurprisingly she lived in the penthouse at one of the districts many alabaster high-rises.
Early the next morning, we took the flier to our destination and cased out the penthouse. Trigger's thermals showed two heat signatures on the top floor, one male profile and the other female, they were almost always at opposite ends of the penthouse. Using the flier's external camera's we continued scoping it out.
The male individual seemed to be lingering by the balcony, he had the glass door open and was outside, leaning on the rail and distracted from boredom by the hustle from the district below his vantage point. He wore a black Evoda two-piece suit with white shirt and black tie. The suit looked a little tight on him, he was stocky, possibly the result of strength or bulk enhancement. He also wore some Ozykus data-shades, no doubt feeding him situational data: A bodyguard, had to be.
The female was at the other end of the penthouse; Annabel relaxing in a lounge by the looks of her heat signature.
We couldn't linger above the high-rise too long without the risk of drawing attention, our plan was a simple one and relied on speed.
After Koko repositioned the flier directly above the penthouse, Trigger was carefully lowered on a line until he was adjacent to one of the windows. Fortuitously he had become quite adept at quickly getting through windows and was no obstacle.
Voices could be heard by Trigger as he entered, staged and unnatural they must have come out of a sound system and grew louder as he cautiously stalked through the well furnished apartment with its thick shagpile cream coloured carpeting, exquisite expensive looking gold trimmed fixtures and lavish Alasjaqi furniture. No slumming it here, the Twistoms had spent a small fortune on making Annabel feel comfortable.
Trigger reached the lounge without stirring anybody, Annabel was relaxing on the sofa, dressed in a cotton pink Fassus tracksuit and cradling a glass of wine, entirely distracted by some overdramatised realty vid playing out on the large Senonable wall-slab. One hit with a stun-baton and she went out soundlessly. Trigger hefted the unconscious woman into a fireman's lift and quietly returned to the window, got out and we were away.
The bodyguard had noticed nothing, we'd just black-bagged the wife of major corporate C.E.O. and now we had some leverage to trade for Lucy and Ashaglaya.
We ran some scans on Annabel, there were no trackers on her person and we took away her media-slab.
Koko took the flier up, weaving through the busy sky-lanes, as we headed to our RV we hit Annabel Twistom with a mild stimulant that immediately roused her. She looked around the flier's cool blue interior, taking stock of her situation then set her jaw and instantly began complaining!
She demanded that we set her free, we refused.
She demanded that she be allowed to speak with her husband. we refused.
She demanded her media-slab back, we refused.
She demanded that we allow her to get some appropriate clothes to wear, we refused.
She demanded that we increase the heating in the flier, we refused.
She demanded that we give her a more comfortable seat, "take your pick," we said.
All of us were contemplating giving her a second jolt with a stun-baton but we convened with the RV in a parking lot before it came to that. We took our prisoner over, she didn't seem any less unhappy at being pushed into the RV.
Inside, it was quiet, Ram Rat was gone, the RV was empty, it'd been running on autopilot.
A cold half eaten meal had been left on one of the little foldout plastic tables that dotted the RV. Ram Rat needed to maintain his biological components, what had made him leave in a hurry? Pinging him got us no response.
Ram Rat would have to wait, we contacted Protobase Global and got through to Benedict Twistom, Bill ran the negotiation for us.
After Bill explained that we had his wife and wanted to swap her for the girls, Benedict Twistom also demanded the suitcase. We had been correct, it confirmed that Protobase Global was behind the attack on my apartment. Bill convinced him that we didn't have the suitcase, it be a trade; Annabel for Lucy and Ashaglaya.
There was a pause, silence from Benedict, we knew what he was thinking: Was it worth it, did he want her back? She probably complained to him as much as she did to us, more even! On the other hand, losing his wife to some low-life operators such as us would make him look weak in the eyes of his enemies and competitors, make him a target, blood in the water.
The pause ended, silence was broken and he agreed to the terms.
A exchange was arranged near the Benten Tower on Ninety Ninth at lunchtime, it wasn't exactly neutral ground but it would have to do.
With Annabel back in the flier and complaining, we rode over to Ninety Ninth, the midday sun blazing down on the Neon City sprawl as it rolled by beneath us, the flier's adaptive screens and climate control divorcing us from the glare and the heat.
The Benten Tower was a monolithic concrete and glass temple to Protobase Global's power and influence, soaring above the teeming crowds and colourful attractions of the Neon Mile like an unavoidable looming threat.
As Koko bought us in to touchdown at an open space next to the tower we swept the area with the flier's external cameras, no threats were detected. Benedict was waiting accompanied by a Protobase Global security team in their matt black Haanut armour along with Lucy and Ashaglaya. Disembarking with Annabel, we slowly headed towards them under the pitiless sunlight.
Twenty metres from Benedict and we stopped, despite their tinted mirrored visors we could make out his security team sizing us up, gauging how much of a threat we were, could they take us? We were ready if they tried.
There were no pleasantries before the exchange took place. We sent Annabel over and they sent Lucy and Ashaglaya, the girls sluggishly shuffled their way to us, no doubt the result of being sedated. Maybe Protobase Global were on to something, we could have done with shutting Annabel up!
Once we safely had Lucy and Ashaglaya with us, we warily retreated to the flier, eyes shifting, watching for their move, it was the riskiest moment but nothing happened, no trouble. Koko took us up and away.
Ashaglaya was delighted to be reunited with The Accountant, they got on like a house on fire and she kept the brain entertained with her inane conversations. Protobase Global would still be searching for the suitcase though and that put both of them at risk.
Our solution was to take the pair of them to The Skyscraper District and put them into Ghost Radical's now vacated, sparsely decorated but spacious off-the-grid two-bed apartment. Protobase Global would have trouble finding them there.
Before we left, we spoke with The Accountant, and said we'd check in with Thaddeus Rackham and get an update.
Thaddeus Rackham could usually be found working the Sky Dinosaurian Square, it was getting dark as we arrived, temperature had dropped a couple of points and street lights were buzzing into life. Crowds never let up in the square, drawn by the amusements and distractions, jingle-blaring garishly lit attractions, concessions and rides that seemed even brighter and more enticing against the incursion of night.
We headed for The Circus and found Thaddeus, typically resplendent in his vaudeville outfit and pale make-up, working at his stall. The sign read 'Sweets, services, gambling and assassinations available'.
Thaddeus was happy to talk to us about The Accountant, he turned his stall over to his equally vaudevillian assistant and walked with us.
He admitted that he had encountered some obstacles in acquiring a body for The Accountant. Initially he planned to get one from the hospital crematorium next to the Soy Green food manufacturing plant but they were always too far gone to be useful.
His plan now was to use a contact, Astiek Steva at the Ohkubo Hospital to get a fresher cadaver but this might take some time.
The conversation was interrupted when Trigger's media-slab pinged, retrieving it from his pocket, he looked at the message, one word: Help.
It had come from Ram Rat?
I networked with Trigger's slab and jacked into the GLOWNET. As it unpacked before me, I watched as the digital landscape's attributes were constantly rewritten by the endless flows of commuting data and migrating information. Eventually it settled into a cohesive vista, Ram Rat's brief message was a drop of water in a rushing white-water but at least I had the message's identifiers so I could track records of its server reroutes. The initial transmission had been automatically resent several times from experiencing significant packet-loss, a weak connection caused by heavy interference or shielding.
A cluster of resends led me to Robot Factory in The Bay.
We had gotten what we could from Thaddeus, we told him we'd speak with him again, said our goodbyes and headed for Robot Factory.
There was a clandestine route we knew of that would lead into the heavily protected Robot Factory. Rain was falling in its nightly deluge on Hikage Street and the crowds thinned the further south we went on Hikage into the drab commercial district.
Beyond business parks and warehouses, this part of the district was dominated by the massive grey pipes that rose through the asphalt and wound around each other like a tangle of massive ferro-concrete snakes before plunging back down. In one of the pipes' sloped supporting blocks was a security door we had found that led to an unnamed and unused underground metro-station.
Something had changed though, the door had been wielded shut, the security system removed, rendering the security cards useless. Even so, the door was open, something had torn the wielding off, something strong.
Past the door, stairs led downwards into darkness. More changes, last time the station's inadequate dim strip lights inexplicably functioned, now the station was unlit.
Under our flashlights it was uniformly grey with unpainted concrete surfaces everywhere, it lacked any ticket booths or any other amenities. When the financial backing for the metro-line expansion had collapsed this station must have been half finished and hooked to the power-grid, it had since become a ghost, a forgotten terminus with a single line that only led where nobody wanted to go, nobody but us.
The workman's carriage that we rode to Robot Factory was gone and the live monorail, now dead, it's incessant electric hum replaced by subterranean silence. Since our last incursion through here someone had been here, making changes to prevent its use again.
Without the carriage it would be long trek through the inky black tunnel to Robot Factory. Luckily, there was an alternative, the tunnel was big enough to fit our flier!
We began searching, there had to be some sort of service access point here that allowed large objects such as the carriage to be brought in. Then we found it.
A large vertical ventilation shaft exited to the surface amongst the glut of tunnels above, clearly designed to double as an access point. We then found the controls to open the venting at the top of the shaft. Fortunately it's power supply was unconnected to the station's and ran directly off the city grid, soon we could get underway.
Crashing rain thundered down and echoed the length of the exposed shaft as it fell, quickly forming gleaming puddles on the station floor that that reflected our flashlights. Koko bought the flier down, battering the rest of us with engine wash that whipped raindrops against the grey walls. Reclosing the vent, we set off for Robot Factory.
With spotlights fully focused forward, Koko engaged whisper mode and took the flier into the tunnel. A slow, strange, silent journey into darkness began. Beyond the flier, only the tunnel ahead in existed in its lights, oblivion consumed all else.
Soon the tunnel walls began to gleam in the lights, we were now under The Bay and soon after that we arrived in the other unfinished metro-link station, from there on we would have to go on by foot. The door out of this station had also been wielded shut and also ferociously torn open.
Past this station was a security post and some prison cells, we approached it cautiously but it was empty, unmanned, unused. From here a security door would lead into the actual production facility, it too had been brutally torn open. We continued along the grey featureless corridor
The previous iinfiltration into Robot Factory had taken us into an isolated research and development wing which was being used to secretly produce Protobase Global's killer cyborgs. Following this trail of destruction instead led us on to the main industrial manufacturing floor.
It was enormous with a high ceilinged roof that disappeared into the gloom, there were numerous busy and constantly rolling conveyor lines here, the noise was immense, a blend of whining servo motors, grinding tools and rumbling conveyor belts completely enveloping us. An army of fast moving Nasuran Kaarlalth robot arms were busily constructing and assembling a wide variety of components into robots. The place was devoid of people and dimly lit, these robots had little need of vision or in fact visual receptors.
The unending blur of mechanically precise robotic activity made it hard to spot anything, it was clear that this room wasn't designed for humans. Eventually we noticed something out of place, remains of a Protobase Global cyborg slumped on the ground on the far side of the manufacturing floor next to some machinery. Crossing over was too hazardous and out of the question, instead we had to skirt the walls until we reached the remains in a roundabout manner and saw that the cyborg body was missing all of its bio-components?
That wasn't all, some sort of nearly metre long strange robotic woodlouse was unnervingly feeling over the robotic remains, pumping it's angular metallic legs up and down as it moved and waving several silvery probing antennae? Had it been responsible for removal of the bio-components? Why was there a killer cyborg here anyway?
We looked for anything different or out of place. Most of the plant utilised prefabricated supplies that were being put together but this corner of the room was different, it housed a cutting edge Mannikten nano-replicator, we could see it was steadily constructing some sort of bipedal or humanoid body.
Koko gave a yell, the robotic woodlouse had shifted and jabbed at her foot, she had kicked it away reflexively and flipped it on to its domed segmented back, appendages pointed upwards and waggled uselessly in the air for a few seconds before a recovery protocol kicked in.
Moments after this a new distinct buzzing sound joined the noise, a trio of Aliraiyo Patrolmen gun drones came flying into sight, they weaved through the busy room and headed our way. Somewhere, an alarm must've started ringing.
Trigger grasped his gunblade and readied himself for trouble Roderick switched to combat mode, I turned to the remains and checked them out, these components seemed familiar?
The three drones opened fire on us, Trigger and Roderirck intercepted and quickly destroyed them. Abruptly the silvery woodlouse robot scuttled over to where the drone had crashed to the floor and began repairing one. Worse still, we saw another trio of gun drones on approach.
I quickly sifted amongst the components, it was the tiny Mesbuh hard drive I recognised. It was Ram Rat's hard drive! I had transferred his persona from my data-slab into it, these disarrayed robotic parts were what remained of Ram Rat!
The hard drive was a bespoke design which had been meant to work in conjunction with a human brain's bio-chemical signals, integrating everything to create a single cohesive and stable neural net. Without the bio-component, the hard drive couldn't maintain the incredibly intricate data-pattern that was Ram Rat's consciousness for long. There was no other choice, I networked the hard drive with my Nonohiki and began transferring Ram Rat back into my data-slab
The transfer rate was agonisingly slow though, in a combat situation and without an external power source for the hard drive it would take forever to get him back on my data-slab.
Meanwhile the others were battling a growing swarm gun drones, considering we were in the middle of a robotic manufacturing plant, it was always going to be a losing proposition, we had to retreat.
Under fire we ran for it, persistent gun drones harried us as we dodged the robot limbs working away and left the flurry and rumbling factory behind and headed for the security post, it was a precarious dash as I was left holding my data-slab and Ram Rats hard drive as we fled.
At the security post we closed the damaged security door as best we could, it was a bottle neck and might delay the drones for a while. It seemed however, that they had been instructed not to leave the vicinity of the factory though, as none pursued us this far out.
Back at the flier, I connected Ram Rat's hard drive to a power outlet in the cabin as Koko took the flier out of Robot Factory and back to Hikage Street.
The transfer was then sooon completed and I jacked into the Nonohiki, Ram Rat was waiting for me there with the swirling multi-layered data-image of his consciousness.
He explained that back at the RV, his internal systems were beginning to break down and without addressing it, his neural net would soon collapse. The problem Ram Rat told me was that the bio-components of the body had begun rapidly degrading, it was unlikely that these killer cyborgs had been created for any long-term usage.
Ram Rat said he couldn't think of any other solution other than to try and acquire another robotic body from Robot Factory. He hacked their systems and initiated a unique prototype black-book project, then he created a tailored body for his needs and instructed a nano-replicator to construct it and headed over to transfer into it but the Robot Factory security drones caught up with him and attacked, it was at this point that his remaining bio-components began to degrade and he became non-functional, no longer a threat the factory systems considered him junk had been in the process of stripping Ram Rat's old body down for recycling when we arrived on the scene.
When we were out and flying over the surface of Hikage Street in the rainy night, we headed for The Skyscraper District. I transferred Ram Rat into another mostly unused data-slab and networked him with The Accountant, the two of them could entertain each other until we figured out how to get them bodies.
I was back at my one-bed, the municipal housing authorities had already been busy, sending a robotic repair crew to fix my apartment's wall. It resulted in a large translucent and urine-coloured polymer tarp being stapled over the hole! The tarp flapped loudly in the wind and the constant rain nosily splattered against it.
Then late that night we were all pinged, I looked at my media-slabs screen; Hika Taki was calling, told us he wanted us as door-muscle again, at another one of his secret fashion shows tomorrow.
Hika Taki explained that his new line was called Colours of Chrome, Own the Chrome.
We couldn't wait!
13th March 2021
Saturday night at home in the living room and logged into Meet on my PC
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Location: Neon City.
I woke to my my media-slab was pinging somewhere out of reach in the shady half-light filling my one-bed. Static hissed in my brain, light stabbed in my eyes and muscles ached as I dropped out of my futon and worked my limbs, scrabbling around I found the damned thing. Sitting back and rubbing my face, I squinted and waited for my eyes to focus, checking the readout before answering.
Eight AM. Yennav Rybasei? He had pinged all us? Eight AM! What the hell did he want?
Yennav spoke, his voice half yelling and urgent, we'd never heard him quite like this before. Muffled, distorted staccato of gunfire played from somewhere at his end as he told us that at three AM, the Irma's two shops on Ninety-Ninth Street had exploded, killing all the foot soldiers he's stationed there on stakeout. We asked Yennav if the unconscious subject in Irma's Implant's basement had survived, he had no idea.
Again more gunfire?
Yennav went on; Potato Palace and Beetroot Palace had also been destroyed and every one killed. He'd also gotten word that the meat processing plant in the Heights had been hit and wanted us to check them out. Finally he pinged us links to security camera footage to all three.
Gunfire seemed to be getting louder. We asked what the hell was going on?
Astiek Ikov, we were told was a captain in the Russian mob, currently he was leading a revolt against Yennav, who was now fighting for his life!
“I knew I couldn’t trust him, he’s a Cossack!" Was the last thing we heard Yennav say before the line went dead.
We'd been counting on Yennav getting his hands Nozi Kinmo, now we had lost him and possibly the subject? It was all bad news. No time for food, had to meet up with the others.
Sunrise had been a couple of hours ago and the morning was relatively cool, the blinding sun was still low in the sky and long shadows stretched across Neon City as we made our way to Chuo Street. Smack bang in the middle of the morning rush hour, the overcrowded trams were stuffy, the noisy tram contrasted with commuters silently contemplating their day ahead.
Crushed up against wage-monkeys in their bland suits the ride to Chuo Street was almost intolerable. I spent the journey engrossed in my media-slab, drowning out the world, watching Yennav's footage, we all did.
All the footage was similar, displaying catastrophic structural damage occurring to the buildings followed by shocked survivors seemingly falling over dead but there was something else.
At first I thought it might have been some sort of video artifacting distortion due to errors in recording or compression? The distortion however, flickered across the picture in a methodical almost predictable manner? I paused it, the artifacting was too ordered and too clean to be encoding errors, it was actually a blur. Something was moving in the footage, moving so fast that it was too quick to get full exposure on the footage even at thirty frames per second. Something was moving and killing people too fast to be caught on camera.
Whatever it was, it was deadly.
Potato Palace had been reduced to nothing more than a burnt-out hole in the row of retail units that faced the narrow alleyway, a blackened gaping wound in the old brick building, putting this whole segment of the block at risk of collapse? Unconcerned throngs of people paid no attention as they walked around the cordoned off soot covered detritus which had spilled out on to the walkway.
Trigger's thermal sweep revealed nothing alive in the rubble. The inside was utterly destroyed, furniture, counters, fixtures appliances had all become barely recognisable scorched, twisted and mangled wreckage, the explosion and ensuing fire had done their job. The was nothing of use here.
Rentacop had come and gone and first-responders had taken the bodies.
We went on to Beetroot Palace and it had endured the same destruction as Potato Palace. Again there was nothing to be found here but a dismal mess.
Next was Rokkaku Dai Heights and the meat processing plant. Mercifully, the rush hour crush was beginning to subside and we only had to deal with the normal overcrowding on the trams.
The meat processing plant was located in a half disused, fairly open business park that skirted the edge of one of Rokkaku Dai Heights' retail spots. It had not fared the attack well.
Debris had been flung across the business park's open lot, scattered by the force of the blast. The warehouse itself, which had been an old-style building was now nothing more than piles of scarred bricks and rubble dotted with the crushed remains of the interior. Again a thermal sweep showed no one alive here, if their had been survivors, emergency services would have taken them.
Looking around the park, we spotted some external security cameras bolted to the exterior of one of the other buildings in use here. Tracing it's feed to a holding server and bypassing the security looks was simple and soon I had access to this other building's cameras. I flicked through all of them, found a camera over a side door that was partially facing towards the meat processing plant and gave a partial wide-angle shot of the front.
I scrubbed through the footage until around three in the morning, looking until I found something. The silent and blurry desaturated night-time video showed a VTOL drop down, it was a Qiuonriji Yexingzhe SFS-70 Night-Flier. Identical to one we'd captured from black baggers who'd been hunting down ex-military cyborgs and taking them to Irma's Implants, we knew there had to be at least one other night-flier operating in Neon City. This must've been it.
As I watched, I saw the footage tremble then washout into white for a couple of seconds, overexposed by the off-screen explosion, when the picture returned I saw the blur moving off from the flier and come back a few seconds later before the flier took off.
The destruction of the mob holdings, attacks on Yennav and the Irma's businesses were all linked, Nozi Kinmo must've be behind it all and behind him, Protobase Global? They were moving on the Russian mob.
It wasn't much to go on but Koko pinged Yennav with our findings, time was critical and he would want to know immediately. Koko got no reply, her call was just directed to voice mail.
Midmorning and things were heating up, an unforgiving sun was climbing the blue-white sky, could almost feel the temperature rising minute-by-minute. We were about to find some shade and cool drinks when our media-slabs pinged again. Turning out be to be a busy day.
Ram Rat was calling, he'd been permanently camped out on Ghost Radical's hidden slush fund on Hikage Street, sitting on it and watching for Ghost Radical to make a move. That move had just happened. Told us that a sizable amount of money had moved to an branch based in Kibogaoka Hill, pinged us an address.
The clock was running.
Ghost Radical had hired someone, probably another hacker and once their work was done, Ghost Radical would have them rubbed out. We had to beat him to it.
Bill's media-slab then pinged, Porter Sladek was calling. He told Bill that Thetatec's funds were draining. A banking alert had warned him that his corporate account was logging unusual activity. Now all he could do was watch the money flow away, locked out of his system.
Ghost Radical had been gunning for Porter Sladek for a while, it couldn't be a coincidence that he's hired someone and the hack had happened at the same time. Kibogaoka Hill was our next target.
Luckily we had a new card of our own to play; our flier, the Yexingzhe SFS-70 we'd captured. Koko quickly began punching instructions into her control-slab.
Somewhere on a roof-pad in Hikage Street; a dashboard sprang to life, flight systems quickly activated one-by-one and ran through self-diagnosis routines, autonomous protocols launched themselves and turbines rapidly span up to speed.
"Give it a couple of minutes," Koko explained.
Two minutes could be a long time in Neon City.
I jacked into my data-slab, my surroundings dematerialised, replaced by a somehow distant neon-yellow erratically blurred and indistinct horizon in a sky of blue, the horizon grew in size and sky darkened into starless night. The erratic line came into focus, settling into the shapes of a thousand morphing data-images, at the centre was Thetatec's towering GLOWNET data-image; pyramidical smoked glass orbited by a dozen almost sun-like glowing orbs.
One of those orbs expanded to fill my view and gave me access to Thetatec accounts. The data-vault contained trillions of data-points organised in an unimaginably complex three dimensional array which were currently being swallowed in vast swathes by a enlarging polygonal circular void.
I ran a hunter/searcher algorithm on this abyssal hunger and watched as it fed stacks of data. I recognised the code structure, I'd seen the signature before; Steel Witch. Ghost Radical had hired Steel Witch to raid Thetatec.
I pinged her, sent her a message, she needed to stop, her life was in danger. Got nothing.
I jacked out of the GLOWNET, disorientation swam through my consciousness in the liminal moment between realities before the effects of gravity, light and heat reasserted themselves over me. The others dragged me to my feet and we ran for a clear spot.
Wind buffeted the entire area as the weirdly angular yet somehow sleek jet-black flier settled on the ground.
We climbed the small recessed handholds that ran up the flier's side and went through the roof's circular access hatch into the interior. It was a utilitarian space, angular and ordered, practical and uncomfortable, spacious enough yet cramped? We sat down and Koko settled into the pilot's seat.
Designed for stealth it was lit by a single dim blue strip light ran the length of the cabin casting a disconcerting blue-black hue over everything. The dashboard's various control panels were also backlit in the same dim blue lighting. Koko hummed quietly as she familiarised herself with the controls.
Seconds later the flier smoothly surged skywards as we felt the pull of vertical acceleration and watched the ground fall away, Koko banked round and set a heading for Kibogaoka Hill.
Being a stealth vehicle, the flier's quad-turbines were whisper silent and it was a surprisingly smooth ride, additionally we didn't have to obey the codes of Neon City's sky roads and Koko could punch in a ad-hoc course directly to our destination.
We were making good time when Koko said that she had seen a momentary, strange echo behind us on the tactical readout then nothing, she ran a visual sweep of the aft using the fliers' bank of micro-cameras.
We all watched the feed, at first there was nothing but then we spotted something behind us: A featureless black silhouetted profile was flying low, using the city's undulating skyline for camouflage against the stark blue-white sky and matching our heading. Zooming in and using video enhancement didn't help, if there were any details, they were indiscernible, no navigation lights, no markings, then we realised why.
It was the other SFS-70, the other night-flier and it's stealth-tech rendered it as invisible to our systems as any other. Someone was watching and now it was following us to Kibogaoka Hill, we needed to get rid of it.
Tactically, we were evenly matched in performance, firepower and armour, any exchange between us would likely result in near identical results, we need something to push the odds in our favour and that something would be Trigger.
Wrenching the hatch open exposed us to violent swirls of air flowing through the cabin, using his Ashirada climbing implants, Trigger climbed up so he was close to the flier's roof. Meanwhile, Koko had eased off the throttle, allowing our pursuers to make some ground on us, Trigger's trench coat flapped frantically as he climbed on the roof,
"Here we go," warned Koko, waiting for the right moment and hitting maximum airbrakes for a second, strapped up in our seats we involuntarily squirmed as we felt our guts swish sideways, Trigger resolutely gripped the roof with his implants. Almost instantaneously, we were level with the other flier.
Without wasting a moment Trigger made his move and leapt over from our flier to theirs, when he hit the bodywork he bounced, a stone skipping off the sea, then for a moment he slid over the roof but his augmentations found purchase and he hauled himself on to the roof.
Whoever was inside knew something was up, the flier's turret had slid up and was rotating round. Trigger knew the score, he'd been here before, again dismissing the turret's threat, he went for the hatch instead and putting his gunblade's tip under the hatch and giving it a forceful twist. It popped open and Trigger jumped through.
It was the same as first time Trigger had been in this situation, there were four soldiers in fully enclosed Haanut smart armour and armed with serious military firepower.
The fight more or less went down the same way, Trigger's nano-edged sword gave him an advantage in close quarters but their numbers gave them the edge, he was put on the retreat and was fighting hard just to stay on his feet. Desperately, Trigger took out the pilot who then slumped on the dash, the flier unexpectedly veered sharply, everyone was flung off their feet as it was losing altitude. Trigger had some breathing room. One of the other soldiers dragged himself into the pilot's seat, pulled the unmoving pilot out and took control, trying to level off but he never got the chance.
Again Koko had sent in Sylvester and Felix into the other flier to turn the tide, in the ensuing chaos the new pilot caught a stray round and that was that.
Too late to regain control now, the other flier was already too low. Koko followed it's descent as closely as she could, pulling up as it came down into a busy street at the edge of Rokkaku Dai Heights, it had crashed nose-up, scraping and skidding along, ploughing through scattering crowds and street fixtures until it crashed through a shop front, finally rocking to a stop at an angle.
Koko landed our flier close as possible, we had to navigate pandemonium, panicking and screaming people swarmed everywhere, some fleeing, others rubber-necking the disaster. Scores of people had been left unconscious or dead in the flier's wake as it had scraped along flattening streetlights. An alarm was ringing above the clamouring
As we reached the downed flier Trigger flopped out of the roof hatch and slid down, landing in a heap, smeared in blood. It took him visible effort to haul himself to his feet, blinking, swaying and looking round; concussion and probably worse. No time to check though and it was nothing that couldn't be taken care of by a short walk - and an extremely powerful med-stim!
Unbelievably, one of the soldiers was still alive, we secured him in our flier for questioning later.
Back in our flier we lifted off before any first-responders arrived and continued on to Kibogaoka Hill. I pinged Steel Witch again, this time she answered but I couldn't convince her to reverse her algorithms.
From above the sprawling hotchpotch shanty town was a mismatched colourful patchworked quilt draped over a hill and covered in little dots going about their business.
The address given by Ram Rat led to a densely packed neighbourhood that lacked any landing space. Bathed in downwash and with flapping clothes, locals gathered to watch the flier hover above as we had to drop down a line to street level.
Somewhat reluctantly Steel Witch let us into the squat after we had continually banged on the stringed up acrylic panel that passed as a door, the interior was a cluster of rooms constructed of various sheets of material and fabric with an uneven ceiling and a makeshift floor. Thick power cabling had been fed through a hole in a wall and was hung like bunting that daisy-chained from room to room allowing numerous other thinner cables to lead off to various appliances and items.
Steel witch went into a room with some low tubular foam cushions in front of an equally low table built out of a fibreboard pallet, resting on it was her data-slab, a glassy smooth flat cuboid; a Monaozko Technologies PDTTb model. She dropped down on to the cushions at the table, crossing her skinny legs in their tight black denims, she also wore a loose black t-shirt but lacked her trademark pale makeup today. Looking at us, she explained how she preferred to work from her home.
None of us, not even Bill could convince the hacker to return the money, she had been paid to do a job and that was to stick it to man. We knew what was coming, maybe that would change her mind, only thing was; we didn't know how it was coming!
Koko had put the flier into some sort of surveillance mode and it was monitoring local traffic, everything seemed normal, threat assessment; zero threat detected. We readied ourselves, gripped our guns, steeled ourselves and took up defensive positions in the shanty, then we waited with eyes peeled.
What happened next was too fast to entirely comprehend and there was no chance to respond. Checking the flier's scan logs later would reveal what occurred: A white van drone in one of Neon City's many higher sky lanes above had sharply veered out of lane and dived, picking up speed, fractions of a second before crashing into the shanty town it had levelled off, back doors springing open.
Consequently; there was no warning when a crashing thud boomed above, shaking the entire structure, instantly the ceiling disintegrated, showering us in debris and dust and exposing the blue-white sky. Whatever landed on the roof had effortlessly torn through the makeshift building, flinging chunks aside as they dropped down to ground level. Immediately they were on us.
Before we could react or even mentally process the situation, we smelt them. Forcing us to gag and burning our eyes was an unimaginably intense smell of vomit, it sent us reeling. Those of us lucky to have a Mesbuh Nafalm Internal Recycler System implanted triggered them, allowing us to turn off our breathing! It helped but it came too late to help enough.
There were four of the things; obviously bipedal with elongated forelimbs, they easily moved on either two or four appendages and as they did so, large muscles shifted beneath strangely smooth shining grey skin that dripped some sort of oily secretion? Their bleak visages were a parody of the human face with twisted and haunted features and where eyes might be, strange multi-strand stalks projected out of gaunt eye sockets.
Their bio-chem enhancements had put us on the back foot and it was a hard battle. Fortunately, Roderick was unaffected and bought his firepower to bear on them, turning the tide.
Steel Witch had been knocked unconscious during the battle, we found her slumped over her data-slab, she looked unharmed, probably just the damned smell. We revived her and she looked at the devastation of her home, crumpled weird corpses and the lingering smell. I could see the fury in her eyes as they flickered left to right.
She turned to us and said that when Ghost Radical had initially contacted her, she'd quietly ran a tracer algorithm on the message, it led to an address in Rokkaku Dai Heights. Then she added that she was going to reverse the flow of money out of the Thetatec accounts.
Ghost Radical; if we were lucky, we would get him.
One hour past midday in Rokkaku Dai heights and it was as hot as it gets, an unforgiving sun saturated Neon City from its zenith with a punishing glare.
Even so, The Heights were still busy, the district's wage-monkeys had filed out, crowding the streets for lunch as the unemployed shuffled along meaninglessly and gangers took a respite from fighting each other.
We had gone from one shanty town to another. This time though, the shanty town sprawled interconnectedly across rooftops of the district's densely packed cluster of alabaster white high-rises. Looking up through the wavering heat revealed an industrialized spider's web that hung from the high-rises, colossal and silhouetted against the pitiless blue-white sky.
Ghost Radical was too dangerous to just take down head on, we needed an approach. Safely watching from a distance we scoped the address. The shanty home had been built around the base of one of the multitude of satellite dishes that dotted the rooftops.
That couldn't be a coincidence.
Otherwise it was nondescript in every way, a typical makeshift shanty home. No defences, no drones, thermals showed no heat signatures, nothing. Koko sent in Kevin to take a look, the drone flew up to the shanty and quietly moved around the exterior, buzzing at a makeshift windows, again nothing.
Koko took the flier down and dropped Bill off, he climbed the high-rise and cased the neighbours. They knew very little, only that someone lived up there and that he minded his own business but nothing else, although one small detail they did provide; they noticed he ate a lot of pizza, frequently ordered from Hamza's Pizza and Gritz Emporium on Ninety-Ninth.
Maybe we could get at him through the pizza delivery? Bill pinged Hamza's and gave Ghost Radical's address. The emporium recognised the address.
"The usual sir? Medium sized liver and sprout pizza with a side of melon balls?" Inquired a voice.
Bill paused only for a moment, possibly contemplating who would want a damn liver and sprout pizza? "That would be perfect,". Maybe this would draw him out of the woodwork.
"Usual payment method?" Inquired the voice.
Eighteen minutes later and pizza arrived, set down by the delivery driver who knocked on the door and immediately left. We waited, nothing. There was nothing else for it; we had to go in.
Koko got us through the lock without a hitch.
The door opened to a single room, an undecorated collage of exposed materials, musty, dim and shaded against bright Neon City days. Our attention was drawn to the thick steel grey tube that ran from floor through ceiling; the base of the satellite dish above. Otherwise the room was mostly empty, a grubby cot in one corner and a irregular stack of Hamza's pizza boxes alongside it. It didn't look like Ghost Radical lived here, perhaps spent some time here though?
There had to be a reason why Ghost Radical had chosen this location and the dish must've been it. There was nothing unusual about the tube but we saw that the screws on a maintenance panel were clean of the general dirt streaked over the rest of it. Opening it up, we looked inside.
There it was, the reason.
A steel box, smaller than a pack of smokes had been taped to the inside of the tube. Several copper and fibreoptic wires ran out from it and had been spliced into the dish's transmitter/receiver wiring as well as the its power supply. Ghost Radical was piggybacking off the dish, using its massive volume of digital traffic to disguise the data packages he was pushing out or receiving. Since he was at least one step removed from the dish, without monitoring more data movement through the box, it would be impossible to track down Ghost Radical.
We had to wait.
Our media-slabs pinged again, Yennav Rybasel, still alive but sounding more desperate than the last time.
The Russian starting shouting down the line over the sounds of gunplay and told us that he had to escape and needed help now, he was in room fifty-seven sixty-eight at the Union Trans Metropolitan.
Ghost Radical would have to wait.
Fastest way to Rokkau Expo Stadium was on the flier. I watched narrow teeming streets and cuboid concrete structures rolling by below as we navigated through endlessly flowing sky-lanes of traffic and discussed our next move. Yennav was on the fifty-seventh floor and appeared to be in the middle of firefight, just getting to him would be dangerous.
The Union Trans Metropolitan was not an easy hotel to get into, a bunker designed to resist assault from even the heaviest weapons, our flier's firepower wouldn't dent its reinforced exterior and there was no way in from an aerial route. We would have to go in at ground level, through the front door and probably through whoever was mounting the attack and work our way up to the fifty-seventh.
The Union Trans Metropolitan Hotel was a vast rising cylindrical structure that dominated the skyline for kilometres around, we saw it growing over the deepening afternoon horizon, looming up as we approached.
Before Koko landed, the flier's external cameras showed us a number of sprawled bloody bodies littering the empty walkway outside the hotel's long set of chrome and gold, smoked glass doors, it was almost strange to see Neon City's famously dense crowds missing. Rentacop had cordoned the area off but hadn't bothered intervening, they weren't about to put themselves at risk for some corporate bloodletting unless ordered differently, instead they kicked back, sucking down Dengken' Doughnuts and watching. At least it made it easy for us to get in.
When the flier had touched down, we tooled up before carefully disembarking, this could go south quick!
Quickly, we examined the bodies, they looked like Russian mob foot-soldiers or enforcers, all of them had clearly died from some kind of slashing wounds. None of us had forgotten Yennav's footage from this morning, the blur, the killing.
Whatever the blur was, it had to be here and following the destruction of Irma's Implants, we had no confirmation that the unknown subject had perished in the explosion. We only knew that he was being fitted with an extraordinary amount of implants. Was this Subject X the blur?
It was too risky going in this blind, we didn't know what we would encounter, we needed an edge. Fortunately, Koko had been working on something.
Nermal was a heavily modified Suayo MKVI gun drone, weapon mounts had been replaced with an EMP generator, auxiliary power cell and a directional emitter. Typically EMP generators created a spherical area of disruption, Nermal however, generated a tightly focussed beam that could strike a single target, it meant that crucially, we would be left unaffected by his attack. The attack depleted a significant amount of energy from the power cell and beyond the first shot, further attacks could be unreliable.
Koko instructed Nermal to autonomously target any very fast moving and threatening object it detected, if we did encounter Subject X with all his augmentations, Nermal might give us the edge we needed.
Above the entrance, the hotel's name was carved out of the faux stone is large letters and as we approached, it was impossible to see through the tinted glass panes. We halted when automated doors slid open and peered through, even from outside we could see bodies, otherwise it looked clear. Cautiously, with guns in hand, we entered.
Scattered throughout the lobby were more bodies, mostly Russian mob guys but a few staff and clients, crumpled in their own drying blood that had pooled on the once shiny replica marble floor. It was a grisly site. Thermals showed no signs of life, the lobby locked secure, so we headed for the elevators.
We walked in eerie silence, the Metropolitan was usually a busy twenty-four hour hotel in a busy twenty-four hour city, with celebrities, conference crowds, execs, street workers, travellers and of course gangsters coming and going. Now, nothing. The hotel was the base of Russian mob power in Neon City, at least it was until now. There was a crisp ping when the gold-foil trimmed elevator button was jabbed and doors opened with a swish, someone had disabled the security protocols, at least it still worked.
Inside, three walls of the elevator were decorated with high quality intricately designed and classically styled replica gold fixtures and the forth contained a mirror, we rode it up, weapons in hand, watching the red light jump from floor to floor until it settled on to the diode for the fifty-seventh floor.
There was a ping and the doors slid open.
For a moment, we stood still, from within the elevator we could see blood smeared across the elaborate fancy wallpaper opposite from us. Stepping out; it was even worse. A charnel house.
A layer of torturously contorted and blood soaked bodies filled the long straight hallway, the once luxuriously thick carpet was soaked in gore, arterial sprays and bloody stains marred the walls and doors.
As we were taking stock of our surroundings, we felt a slight breeze ripple along the corridor?
Before we could assess the situation, Nermal had rotated without warning and fired his EMP shot? At that instant the blur was there, somehow directly in front of us and only a metre away. The exchange between Nermal and the blur had taken milliseconds.
He was no longer a blur though, he was standing there looking shocked as his all implant systems and augmentations were trying to reboot themselves. We recognised him from Irma's Implants, it was Subject X. He was burly, dressed in non-descript black clothing and armed with knives.
Luckily we recovered quicker then he did and unloaded on him, pouring it on, we couldn't allow Subject X any chance to recover, he was to dangerous. Between all of us we managed to put him down before he could attack us. Lucky!
Pressing on; we avoided thinking about the squelching carpet underfoot and kept on cautiously searching for room sixty-eight until we found it. It took some banging and shouting to get Yennav to open the door, the relief was clear to see although he looked worse for the wear, his Duuna suit was dishevelled, dirt-stained and split at numerous seams, in his thick fingers he held a Russian made Boucushki pistol, a .50 Yandeb finished in gunmetal black with a pearl grip, a real hand cannon with it's distinctive octagonal shaped barrel.
"I am impressed you got here my droogs," He exclaimed. "Now we need to deal with Astiek,".
Yennav told us that Astiek was holed-up in one of the secured ground floor rooms, he explained was a essentially staff quarters and similar to a guestroom, when it was locked down, it was almost impenetrable.
Returning along the corpse littered hallway, we rode the elevator back down to the ground floor and Yennav led us to Astiek's hiding place somewhere in the back rooms of the hotel, a plain black door in a concrete wall. Yennav explained that the walls, the doors, they were all lined with embedded toughened steel plates and reinforced with polycarbonate rods.
Force was out of the question, somehow we had to find another way to get the door open?
Whilst the rest of us stood back, Bill approached and spoke loudly to the door, hopefully Astiek was listening on the other side. It was all over Bill told him, he'd lost, no way out, surrender was the only option.
"What do you want?" Came a voice, maybe Bill was getting through.
"Not the case!" Said a second voice, Astiek wasn't alone?
A while back, we'd recovered a suitcase for Yennav, he was very protective of it, was that what all of this death and destruction about? The suitcase?
"Asti, give the case to my droogs and you will not be harmed, I will let you leave alive. I promise," Offered Yennav.
There was some more negotiation and eventually Bill coaxed Astiek into handing over the suitcase.
With an audible, solid metallic click the door opened a fraction, Astiek was a tallish man with a long face, darkened eyes and short well trimmed thick black beard, he wore navy blue Evoda trousers and a white shirt. Stepping out he looked from Yennav to Bill who was standing next to him, pausing a moment before handing the familiar Mahakam Ambassador suitcase.
Bill didn't even have time to flinch; the bullet from Yennav's Yandeb struck Astiek's head before we knew what was going on, he was dead before he crashed to the ground. Such are the promises of a Russian mobster.
Blood pooled around the unnaturally splayed remains of Astiek when we noticed who was also in the room behind him.
A short rotund Asian man; Nozi Kinmo, we had him.
Nozi Kinmo looked agog, speechless, eyes flicked from one of us to another, trying to assess the shift in dynamics, how he'd gone from relative safety to immediate danger, searching a way out, an angle to play, maybe he didn't realize it but there was none.
Before he could move, we pounced and he was restrained, questions needed answering. Yennav came over and retrieved the case from Bill, still gripping his hand cannon.
No matter how much we pushed him, Nozi Kinmo was resolute and refused to give us any information or answers, professional enough to hold on to his cards. We had theories about Protobase Global but nothing concrete and Nozi Kinmo wasn't helping any.
Eventually questioning got round to the assault on the Metropolitan: Was it only the suitcase he was after? What was in it? Astiek and he must have looked in it?
For the second time, the deafening report from Yennav's pistol filled the room as he shot Nozi Kinmo.
"The suitcase is not anybody's business," Yennav said coldly, lowering his pistol.
The rotund man had crumpled to the floor and our answers died with him. What was it about that damned suitcase? For a moment we considered getting it out of the Russian, ultimately though, it wasn't worth it.
After a couple of seconds, Yennav seemed to cheer up and holstered his pistol.
"Good work my droogs," he said, tapping away at his media-slab as he made payment to us. "Now I must call in Russian Cleaning Contractors, they have much work to do,".
Finally he turned to us and said. "Goodbye my friends, now I must disappear for a while until all accounts are settled,".
It was late in the afternoon when we exited the carnage of the Metropolitan and as we walked back to the flier, my media-slab pinged; Lucy was calling.
"Your dinner guest has arrived," she announced. "Why didn't you tell me you were going out?".
I turned to the others. "There's a problem at my apartment," I told the others. "We better head back,".
During the flight back to Hikage Street I gave the others the low-down, none of us had any idea who this could be? What they wanted?
After landing I rushed up to my one-bed with the others on my heels and only slowed to a walk when I reached my floor, there was no one suspicious in the corridor, only the usual wandering drunks slouched against the walls or sat on the stairs. Reaching my door, I took a breath, swiped my key card and entered.
Inside were Lucy and Ashaglaya, there was also one other person. He stood and gave me a quick bow. Couldn't put my finger on it but I'd seen him before?
Japanese, tall and athletic, his smooth motions betrayed a man who knew how to handle himself. Unflinching eyes observed us from a triangular face topped with thick black hair cut short, he wore a three-piece perfectly cut slate-black Gaongha suit.
He introduced himself as Woody Invincible, explaining that he was a Travelling Storm, a contract killer in the employ of the Ikebukuro Gumi yakuza. He then told us that he wished the pleasure of our company for dinner tonight, he had taken the liberty of reserving a table for all of us at House of Bamboo.
House of Bamboo was one of the most exclusive restaurants in Neon City, we'd all heard of it, Lucy interjected.
"Can we come as well?" She asked.
"Everyone is invited," Woody Invincible replied with the slightest of nods.
Lucy and Ashaglaya ran off to their rooms squeakily giggling.
I invited Woody Invincible to sit down, we might be in for a long wait.
Lucy had eventually settled on a Fassus white cocktail dress with matching Oltrante shoes and Ashaglaya was in a Simaz & Jaccno combination of flared red trousers and a halter top with a plunging neckline.
Woody Invincible had also taken the opportunity to provide us with a smoothly curved glossy black Benlato Kauru stretch sky-limo, once we had all settled into the lush faux cream leather interior it surged skywards and on to The Fortified Residential Zone.
House of Bamboo was located within the tall walls that divided the district's wealthiest citizens from everyone else. Home to Neon City's most affluent sons and daughters and a prime piece of real estate. All of which made the restaurant even more impressive, a two storey detached building set in small surrounding grounds decorated with a Japanese styled garden, complete with what looked like real conifers, bamboo, stone lanterns and a winding stone path.
An equally opulent interior awaited us inside with authentic wood panelled walls, furniture and lighting, elaborate and traditionally dressed staff led us to our seating at dark stained actual wooden table.
During the meal, Woody Invincible revealed that he was aware that we did not attack The Crazy Bees when asked to do so, that's where I'd seen him; with The Crazy Bees.
Finally he admitted that he was aware of who had sent us, there was a pause as he let the comment trail off before changing the subject.
The meal went well and concluded when Woody Invincible gave us a small porcelain lucky cat statuette.
"This is a Maneki-Neko," he explained. “It will bring you luck, just once if you smash it. Decide carefully,”. With that he rose from the table, bowed and made his exit.
The rain was falling by the time we left, staff escorted us out with umbrellas to the sky-limo which had been left at our disposal for the remainder of the evening.
We heard the downpour tattooing loudly on the limo's roof when it silently rose into the sky. As it banked round for the return trip to Hikage Street, out of the window and through the oddly gleaming raindrops we saw a peculiar dull and hazy distant glow emanating somewhere from the south-west.
The only place we knew there was the Fuku Bakuchi Casino run by Lucky Suko who had ordered the attack on The Crazy Bees....
On the return journey I could see that both Lucy and Ashaglaya couldn't hide how impressed they were that I had such a high ranking contact in Woody Invincible and moved in influential circles.
"It's nothing really," I said as nonchalantly as possible and leaning back into the plush seating.
The night still wasn't over though, by now Ghost Radical would have learned that his attack on Steel Witch had failed, we were getting closer to the hacker, now was not the time to let up.
Our only remaining possible lead was the pizza restaurant.
After jacking into the GLOWNET, I navigated through the collective digital-topography to Hamza's data-image; a large segmented glowing red circle topped with a flashing sign that red Hamza. Running a few incursion protocols got me through their data-vault's defences and into their system.
Hamza's was a small family run Moroccan business, I searched through their records, they didn't maintain a GLOWNET database of names and addresses, not that Ghost Radical would use that name. Switching tact I looked at their order records, the records showed that liver and sprout pizzas were only ordered by two customers on a regular basis.
Even in Neon City it didn't seem plausible that two different people could exist who both liked liver and sprout pizza. Was this Ghost Radical getting pizza delivered to a second address? Time to pay a visit to Hamza's emporium.
The lights of Ninety Ninth twinkled merrily in the falling rain, it was as busy as ever and we had to work our way through the densely packed shining streets to the pizza emporium.
It was a fairly average establishment, a large brightly lit window looked in to a plain open interior decorated in off-white walls and flooring, behind a glass screen a chef was flipping pizza bases and a neatly dressed receptionist watched us from behind a counter. There were several customers on the plastic tables and chairs.
When we asked about liver and sprout pizzas, the receptionist raised her eyebrows. Once we explained that we were interested in where they delivered liver and sprout pizzas to, she refused to help, customer's privacy was too important.
Bill leaned forward and smiled, putting a hand on the smooth white counter and sliding it forward.
"I'll think you find this customer is always right!"
Some bits exchanged hands and we left with some addresses.
There were two addresses, one was Rokkaku Dai Heights but the other, the other was for The Skyscraper District. Was this it?
I ran a profile algorithm on the address and got back some strange results? The address seemed to exist but it wasn't registered as part of its skyscraper, had no owner and no tenant was listed for it, nor did anyone provide power or water to it or GLOWNET access either. Off the grid and perfect for a ghost!
At the address, Trigger ran thermals, they showed a solitary individual hunched over something: Time to go in.
We knocked on the door.
It was answered by a skinny man with a pale complexion and long thin face, he wore a nervous expression, for a second he was taken aback and shook strangely, obviously not what he was expecting.
In that moment of hesitation we pushed our way in and he reeled back, shocked.
The shocked expression became a callous sneer as he recognised us.
"It's inconceivable that you found me," he spat contemptuously, his arm noticeably trembling."
Perhaps that word didn't mean what he thought it meant; because we had found him.
"You don't understand what's going on here!" He continued, still shaking. "My brain is stronger than your brawn!".
Bill struck Ghost Radical with a stun-baton, he spasmed briefly before keeling over with a thud. That was it, we'd gotten him, now what to do with him?
There was a short discussion; in the end we pinged Porter Sladek and explained the situation to him. He told us to hang tight, he would send a security team over. We also called Ram Rat who whooped with joy and rushed to join us. Ram Rat's body had been destroyed by Ghost Radical's betrayal and he wanted to be here to see him taken away
As we were waiting we checked the apartment out; fairly spacious with two bedrooms, a separate kitchen and living space, it was certainly a step up from our one-bed. It was also sparsely decorated with little furniture, there was a minimalistic quality with plain white walls, light grey carpets and simple spot lights. An impressive view out of the balcony windows displayed the arrays of city lights that delineated the outlines of the district's many skyscrapers through the night rain.
We made sure to to collect the key cards, other than Ghost Radical no one knew of its existence, it had served Ghost Radical, now it might be useful for us.
Ram Rat had already arrived by the time the Thetatec team reached us and was gloating as they took Ghost Radical into custody, his fate was in the whim of Porter Sladek now.
The campaign against Porter Sladek and Thetaec by The Rokkaku Group had been stopped, at least for now and the threat of Ghost Radica eliminated.
We'd also dealt with the threat of Nozi Kinmo and put an end Protobase Global's plans for the Russian mob, although that was a dubious benefit! Protobase Global still had other deeper plans though and while Yennav Rybasei was out of the picture but he was sure to return after rebuilding his powerbase.
All in all, a reasonable result.
There was still time enough to hit a bar on the neon mile, kick back and enjoy a cool bottle of Dindanha beer, it had been a long day in Neon City.
End of Season One
6th March 2021
Saturday night is here again, I'm in the living room, logged on to Meet on my PC.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City
Another hot stuffy day in Neon City, aircon down again and the apartment's shade did nothing to prevent waves of midday heat pounding down. I half-sat, half-sprawled on my futon, movements kept to a minimum, sipping away at cans of Kaia Cola, praying my supply would hold out until the rain came and listening to the growing arguments in the high rise. Rising temperatures meant rising tempers.
Then my Jinonghua began pinging, calling was Ashaglaya Lova, working girl and former puppet of the Russian mob. Her boyfriend/pimp Rostii Biniva had turned up dead recently and she'd been cut loose. Since then she'd managed to find gainful employment in the role of a Party Favour at a business promisingly called Coke & Whores.
Listening to Ashaglaya's voice, it was an octave too high and she was speaking a touch too fast, clear indicators of stress, something was worrying her. She told me that a friend, Valaya Dova had turned up dead, supposedly fallen to her death after getting drunk. Ashaglaya didn't believe a word of it, convinced it was murder and that she was next! I got her to calm down and tell me more.
Valaya had also been employed as a Party Favour for Coke & Whores, last night the two of them had been working the Goji Tower. It was a big party on the hundredth-and-fifty-sixth floor. Ashaglaya told me, a lot of important people - including Goji Rokkaku himself had shown his face.
During the night Valaya had dragged Ashaglaya into the women's toilets to tell her something; she thought it was some kind of gossip but Valaya said had seen something strange in one of the side-rooms attached to a bedroom she was working that didn't make sense, Valaya said she was going back to have another look.
It was the last time that Ashaglaya would see her friend, the next morning Valaya had turned up dead three districts over from the Goji Tower.
Ashaglaya didn't feel safe, so I told her come over to my one-bed in Hikage Street while we went and checked things out.
Two strange encounters in Goji Tower in a short time, not a coincidence, not in Neon City?
Time to investigate the remains of Valaya Dova.
Unless you were a member of the ultra-rich set, Neon City had no space and in fact no time for burials, Valaya's remains would soon be off for the recycler, plenty of demand for healthy body parts and the City of Electric Dreams always got its pound of flesh or liver or pancreas or whatever in the end.
Finding the morgue with Valaya's body in Hikage Street was relatively easy, it was equally easy for Bill to talk us in to seeing it, despite the ineffectual protestations of the administrative staff.
Located on a basement level below a grotty, small and underfunded municipal community med-centre was the morgue, a modest complex of dull grey polished faux stone-floored rooms and corridors. Isolated from the bustle of Neon City, a cold and quiet place, unflatteringly lit by weak LED strips.
Other than us, only staff could be found shuffling around the corridors here, mostly in scrubs and going about their depressing work. We were led into the room containing Valaya's remains, like some kind of morbid wallpaper, a grid of square doors entirely filled one wall of the room.
We were left to our own devices: The door to Valaya's tray opened with a low hiss, almost immediately the smell of vomit washed over us. It was not a good sign, a sign we knew, it meant something bad was going down at Goji Tower.
The tray holding Valaya slid out of the wall smoothly. She had been a good looking girl in life, now another almost forgotten pale and mangled icicle on a shelf in Neon City, it's what waited all of us. A reminder of where our choices inevitably took us, either the high road into rarefied heights of Neon City or the low road into some crappy morgue.
Her death certificate indicated that she had fallen to her death at a back alley close to somewhere walled Clean Convenience Hotel on Chuo Street in the small hours of last night. We searched her remains for any evidence that suggested otherwise but came up with zero. Returning Valaya back into her temporary resting place, we headed off.
It was a short clattering tram ride to Chuo Street, we disembarked under the afternoon sun and into the crowded maze of narrow alleys that stretched throughout the neighbourhood.
The oldest and lowest parts of Neon City tended to have been constructed of old-style brick, buildings here typically rose no more then about ten stories, dwarfed by their younger concrete cousins. Chuo street, being lower than most districts, was no different. One such building was the hotel; the site of Valaya's plunge, found on the corner of a under-lit back alley.
Clean Convenience Hotel was six storeys high, entirely unremarkable and indistinguishable from half-a-dozen competitors that lined the alley, its brown-red brickwork barely discernible beneath an accumulated lifetime of dirt, grime and general pollution.
Straining my neck I looked up, squinting and shielding my eyes against the strangely angled shape of a cloudless blue-white sky masked by the encroaching silhouette of Neon City's soaring skyline.
It seemed to us that with our layman's understanding that Valaya's injuries were not consistent with the distance it was alleged she had fallen; six storeys was not high enough.
Valaya's body had been found near to the hotel's service entrance next to a fire escape, any physical evidence that could have lingered had now been obliterated by Chuo Street's passing traffic. Rentacop didn't care enough to cordon it off, in fact they just didn't care.
The death certificate had also claimed that Valaya had struck a part of the fire escape during her fall; something to investigate.
The fire escape stairs were a steel construction of a series of rails, bars and slats bolted to the hotel's exterior wall. We managed to pull down the ladder to ground level and went up. The steel framed clanged and creaked threateningly as we climbed.
We checked the railings, black paint was sporadically bubbling and flaking away, revealing naked stains of rust but there were no recent signs of any impact, nor was there any evidence of blood to be found on the fire escape. We kept climbing and checking, still nothing. Eventually we reached the top floor without any result.
Using his Ashirada climbing augments Trigger got on to the roof and hauled us up.
It was a typical drab flat rooftop, dotted with some ancient straining aircon units and some old half-filled water tower, half-filled because they all were nowadays.
Six storeys down and the back alley had a become a distant thin erratically shadowed line that lost its way into the urbanised maze that was Chuo Street. Evidence of Valaya's demise had been reduced to memory as an unending procession of pedestrians obliviously walked by.
Up on the roof it was different though, quickly we had found something: Close to the top of the fire escape and directly above the site of Valaya's death the smell of vomit was faint but distinct, exposure had lessened but not eradicated it.
Looking further we found a thin oily film coating the rooftop and parapet too, same stuff from Hida Masu's apartment. Somehow Neon City's heat hadn't evaporated it nor had the rain washed it away. What was it?
Finally a significant amount of blood had congealed into a caked and dried brown stain on the rooftop here.
Searching more of the roof revealed nothing more.
In the hotel lobby half functional panel lights only provided dim lighting, it was as grubby and unkept as the exterior, decorated with threadbare carpets, peeling faded wallpaper and dusty fixtures. A receptionist lounged behind a faux stained-oak counter and some questioning revealed that he had found Valaya's body at the end of his graveyard shift.
Holding one hand outstretched, the receptionist told us that he had found the event very traumatising, too traumatising to talk about in fact. Luckily over the years Neon City had developed several cures for managing traumatic memories, in this particular case a handful of bits.
It was effective, the receptionist seemed to happy to talk now.
He told us that when he had found Valaya, she had been naked with a smell of vomit coming off her, he told us there was nothing else strange. Finally he said that he had taken some photos for personal reference. After some quick convincing he pinged us copies. We checked them out, they showed the twisted and crumpled body of Valaya, we noticed that there was practically no blood on the street around her.
The evidence was looking clear. Valaya had been murdered by those creatures and it had taken place on the roof. after she had been killed her remains callously tossed off. Ashaglaya had been right to be suspicious.
The creatures likely originated from Goji Tower, it would need further investigation.
Before we had a chance to discuss our next move, my media-slab pinged again; Ashaglaya.
She had absconded to my one-bed but something was up; I answered, Ashaglaya told me that a woman called Lucy had come in and was glaring at her, Ashaglaya said it made her nervous.
I should never have given Lucy a key-card to my one-bed!
She also told me that a dog from Dog & Bone Messaging had arrived and was waiting for me? I told Ashaglaya that we would be over soon.
It was a short tram ride over to Hikage Street and soon we were at my apartment. Ashaglaya was looking nervous, Lucy was looking furious and a dog was looking expectantly!
The dog messenger delivered their message to me, it had a name; Xylona Alder, someone we'd helped before and her number?.
Next I cooled Lucy down, I told her "It's not what it looked like!".
I could see her eyes move from Ashaglaya to me and back as she internally calculated whether to believe me or not. Having Ashaglaya in my apartment did look pretty bad on the hand it's not like we been caught red handed in a tryst.
After a few moments Lucy looked at me and hesitatingly said. "I suppose so...".
"Good!" I said quickly, putting my hand on her back. "You go home babe, this is all a work related thing I need to sort out. I'll speak to you later," with that I nudged her out of the door and shut it quick!
I pinged Xylona's number, it was answered by Toby, her bio-engineered and uplifted pet dog.
Toby told us that Xylona had gone to Sky Dinosaurian Square on a date with her new boyfriend and hadn't returned, He was worried. He had good reason to be, this new boyfriend was an unknown quantity and could represent a serious risk.
Daron was the boyfriend's name Toby informed us, he worked in the library at The Skyscraper District which is where Xylona had met him. Realising that we were calling in an archaic old landline, we got Toby to give us her media-slab's number, got no answer from it.
We had an idea on how to trace the slab though and I jacked into the GLOWNET.
Sensory telemetry streamed in, overriding material chemical receptors and flooding my consciousness with a multitude of data-rushes, I watched info-vistas cohere into polyhedral struts of multicoloured light as Neon City's unstable endlessly mutating data-topography filled my view.
I ran a hunter/search algorithm, arming it with whatever information we had on Xylona's media-slab and got some of hits back. Sifting through the results I found the encoded data-feed her slab routinely pushed out to the GLOWNET. I put the data through a decrypter protocol and checked the results: It showed the media-slab was currently located close to the Sky Dinosaurian Square tram stop.
Sky Dinosaurian Square was a short trip away but lacked a direct tram route from the Skyscraper District, instead we had to ride the Sunshine City Metro Link. Originally conceived as Neon City's main form of public transit, the elevated train network had its scope was seriously pared back by a funding scandal, as a result significant portions of the city did not join the city metro link.
Metro link trains were one of the few public services adequately maintained and still rode quietly and smoothly despite their age, they even remained hermetically sealed against Neon City's inhospitable climate. It would have made our trip a pleasant one but nothing be could be done about the overcrowding, end of the day was approaching, wage-monkeys and commuters were cramming on.
Eventually though and with a hiss the doors slid open, we escaped the crush of the metro link and right into the crush of Sky Dinosaurian Square Station.
The theme park was busy, only blaring inane attraction jingles drowned out the rumbling crowds of people emptying into the park and being drawn almost moth-like to the brightly decorated rides, we allowed ourselves to be pulled out of the station with them. My data-slab was still tracking Xylona's media-slab and it led us the short distance to a first-aid station beneath the steel latticework of an elevated tram stop.
Staff in cheerful theme park uniforms manning the station hadn't seen Xylona, double checked the signal, definitely coming from inside.
Bill spoke with one of the first-aiders, explaining that we were part of the municipal safety committee, here for a spot check. It was convincing enough.
Inside the station it was the antithesis of the exterior with an exposed grey concrete floor and unpainted walls. A couple of small cramped rooms were here, one was a supply room for the first-aid station, the other contained an assortment random items and personal effects, clothes, media-slabs, bags and the like.
That's where we uncovered Xylona's phone.
A staff member told us the second room was a lost and found room,.
"Nina bought it in," said the staff member when we showed them Xylona's media-slab.
Nina Chinova; a cleaner who worked the attraction; Dawn of the Day of the Zombie Apocalypse Fright Night Jamboree. First-aiders told us that she had come in with the media-slab and injuries to treat, notably some burns?
Wending through the drifting visitors we eventually got to the zombie attraction, its exterior decoration an eclectic mix of grimdark imagery and happy colours schemes. After asking some staff we found Nina Chinova; a heavy woman approaching middle years, we also noticed that she had been treated for burns and a wrist support was wrapped around one forearm.
Nina told us that she had witnessed a very tall man kidnapping two people. She had spotted him exiting the zombie attraction through the western service access door carrying them.
The tall man turned to face Nina when he realised she had seen him, his eyes grew red and beams shot out of them, Nina was burnt by the blast and felt terrified but instead of fleeing, Nina ignored the pain and charged in, tackling him! He was incredibly strong though, shrugging her off like Neon City water droplets from a raincoat and sent her flying then escaping. Finally Nina told us that during the brief tussle he had dropped a key card! She brandished it proudly like the gold medal for a hundred metre dash, we convinced her to hand it over to us and reluctantly, she did so.
Nina didn't mentioned it but seemed disappointed at the loss of the key card, her proof of her attack, we said we could get it on the record and called D4-VID, he was happy to interview her.
The key card was branded with Warm With Love Hotel, which turned out to be a hotel situated on Hikage Street.
It was back on the trams for a familiar shaky, crammed and creaking ride. Rush hour was in full swung now and even though few people in The City of Electric Dreams had anything like full-time employment, they still managed to pack out the trams.
Back on Hikage Street it was always busy; most populated district in Neon City and it showed. Wage-monkeys were beginning to slouch back home, the dissuaded and unemployed wandered thoughtlessly looking for cheap thrills and the loitering youth got ready to hit the neon mile on Ninety-Ninth, all lit by a gold-orange nimbus of sunsetting light.
Warm With Love Hotel could be found at the southern end of Hikage Street, where the grey high-rises met The Pipes and the crowds actually thinned out as residential space began to give way to commercial usage. In the day's lengthening shadows the hotel looked low rent - even by Neon City standards. inside was no different, the key card told us which room it unlocked so we headed straight up.
The door we were looking for was as drab and anonymous as every other door here.
Swiping the card, the door magnetically unlocked with a click.
Pushing it open, we looked in with caution. The carpet was a fading brown and the walls painted in a cheap beige colour, we could see some sort of electronics on a dressed, then, as the door swung further we could see three unmoving children sprawled ungainly across a drab hotel bed.
Trigger's thermals indicated that only the children were in the rooms. a physical sweep ensured the room was all clear.
Street kids in their tattered dirty badly fitting clothes, not even teenagers, they looked unharmed and a quick check confirmed that they were unconscious.
Koko checked the gear, it was a hotchpotch of elaborate micro-electronic repair kits, she told us it looked like they had come from some sophisticated cybernetics. Crumpled by the dresser was a Bric-a-Brac Shac bag, someone had been shopping and close by too, Bric-a-Brac Shac was short walk away from here.
We were able to rouse the kids with some basic stims, they came to with confused fearful looks, street-rat eyes darting for possible ways out.
We calmed them down, they seemed less agitated and composed enough to question.
All of them were homeless orphans living on Hikage Street, an anonymous part of its transient population, those who slipped though the social net and were forgotten or more likely ignored.
None of them had any recollection of how they got to the hotel room, their last memory's before blacking out were of being alone.
What did this tall man want with Xylona, why was he targeting street rats on Hikage. what did he need them for?
A long shot but we checked who the room was registered to: Joe Smith, not much to go on if it was even real.
Koko had an idea; contact Alex Chinsko - owner of Bric-a-Brac Shac. She pinged him at his shop and gave him a description of the gear she had in front of her. We got lucky, Alex recognised the tech, told us he'd sold it to a tall man yesterday. Alex didn't have any firm info on the man but he did ping us some camera footage. The tall man was tall, well over two metres tall, was it implants?
Before ending the call, Alex told us that the work on the Qiuonriji Yexingzhe SFS-70 night-flier we'd acquired was done, ready for pick up.
Facial recog got a hit on the tall man: Joe Montero, a chromed-up mercenary with high spec military implants, some of which looked code-black. A stone killer with a lot of history under his belt, wanted for war crimes and atrocities committed during the Kashmir Emergency of Forty-Seven.
Most of his company had been killed during that infamous incident, only one known living associate remained: Daron Zavaleta.
I guess Daron hadn't always been a librarian. A check on him revealed that he was also a wanted war criminal, somehow he'd gone from from a bloody warzone to a library.
Was it possible that Joe was searching out Daron, not Xylona?
After we had let the street rats go, we decided to stake the room out and took up position, if Joe came back, hopefully we'd get the drop on him. Several hours passed, the remaining day faded away into a black-red night, we could hear the near-torrential rainfall battering the room's dirt crusted window as we waited.
Our media-slabs pinged, Toby was on the line, Xylona had returned and he told us it was OK! The ambush looked like a bust, Joe was smart enough to realise he needed to burn this hideout once he'd lost the key card. So we headed into the rainy night and back to The Skyscraper District to speak with Xylona.
Xylona explained that she had groggily woken up in an alley close to the International Rail Link Hub, without her media-slab she had no way of contacting anyone, so she walked her way back home.
Now Xylona was worried about Daron, during the zombie jamboree it seemed that he was having some sort of episode.
"He's a timid soul struggling to deal with issues from his past," Xylona elaborated.
She told us as they went to leave the jamboree everything went black, we knew that's when Joe had struck.
As Xylona had woken up close to the rail hub. it looked like Joe Montero was skipping town fast.
Jacking into the GLOWNET, it was simple to hack into the security cameras servers at the international rail hub. I instructed the Nonohiki to sift the recent recordings for anyone who had a height of two hundred and ten centimetres.
Joe Montero was easily and quickly found on the footage, the cameras caught him catching a train out of Neon City carrying a massive holdall, big enough to carry a body. It looked like he had been hunting for Daron Zavelata....
Xylona was extremely upset at the fate of Daron, we decided to leave her in peace and head for home for the night.
Daron might have been looking to get a fresh start to escape a past he regretted or maybe just looking for a place to hide from his crimes. In the end it never mattered, in Neon City your past had a habit of catching up with you.
Another sweltering day rolled around in Neon City with a blazing sun and big heat. Our next step we had decided, was to get into Goji Tower, investigate whatever was happening there.
We had an angle to get into the tower too; Rokkaku employee Hida Masu who had encountered strange creatures and feared for his life had turned to us for help. Now he could help us. He agreed to lend us his security pass, he worked on the thirty-ninth floor and his card would get us there.
At sixteen hundred hours we made our move, it had given us time to formulate a strategy. Using his disguise implants Bill infiltrated into Goji Tower, once past the security door, the lobby had an air of almost subdued silence, Bill saw no rentaguards or corportate footsoldiers, seemed to be zero security presence and no visible camera setup either? His designer Oltrante shoes clicked as he crossed the impeccably polished faux marble floor and headed for the rows of elevators embedded in the beige coloured wall trimmed with chrome fixtures.
As expected, the elevators were set up in banks according to which floors they were restricted to, Bill could only go to the thirty-ninth story with the security pass but it was good enough. The ride up to was smooth and quick, the elevator was unoccupied apart from Bill and Hida Masu's reflection in the mirror.
With a swish the elevator doors slid open on the thirty-ninth to a mostly open plan office, diffused panel lights gave the office a soft light and low partitions separated workers into semi-isolated cubicles, the working day was drawing to a close, only about one-third filled of the cubicles were filled with suited staff mostly hunched over desk-slabs.
It was relatively quiet with a low background murmur, no staff paid any attention to Bill crossing the room with instructions to head for a certain cubicle and sit down then log on to the Rokkaku system with Hida Masu's credentials.
Our original plan had called for Bill to call in some external facilities support for floor thirty-nine and we would come in as the support staff. This was a problem as all facilities were fully automated and Hida Masu lacked the privileges to override them, so we had improvise.
Security had looked surprisingly lax when Bill had come in so after we had hastily discarded our anonymous grey boiler suits and donned an approximation of business suits, he was able to just swipe us in with Hida Masu's card.
Our search was limited to the thirty-ninth floor, we soon realised during our search that the floor was very much self-contained, there were breakout rooms with cushioned chairs, meeting rooms with smooth reflective tables, corner offices for execs, cafeterias, even a dormitory! Nowhere was off limits or seemed hidden and there was no evidence of anything strange or out-of-place.
A different approach was needed, physical searching had turned up nothing, I sat down in an empty corner cubicle and jacked into my Nonohiki and connected to their intranet system. It lacked the sensory interface of the GLOWNET, feeding only a static hierarchical structure overlay into my cognitive flow. I began by using a hacking protocol to probe the system's security settings, hoping to find the protocols that would get us off floor thirty-nine. Rokkaku's internal security wasn't so strong and I started seeing a filename I recognised; Akumu Accord, Hira Masu had mentioned it.
I noticed something else, the directory change log stack had abruptly begun flowing at twice the rate from a second ago. Other activity this deep in the intranet was causing it, some other independent process was active, another user?
I checked what this activity, without the GLOWNET's sensory input or its data-image algorithm, it looked just like code, still it was code I recognised: Black ICE, I'd encountered identical ICE at Executive Excess, designed to trace and attack any unlisted user it found in whatever system it was defending. I had no idea how it would with interact with me in this intranet and what the consequences would be. Luckily I managed to exit the system before the ICE could affect my connection.
It was from the same coder, had to be Ghost Radical's code.
Something was happening? A moment of disorientation followed after I jacked out of my data-slab. I had barely recovered as seconds later we felt an intensifying rumble and then a grinding screech. The ceiling above split apart along multiple lines, flinging out clouds of fragmented debris and folding in on itself. Crashing through came a number of massive thick steel panels, slamming down and crushing anything and anyone beneath, several Rokkaku staff were caught unware and killed.
By the time the rumbling had ceased we were surrounded by an assortment of steel panels, they ran from ceiling to floor with no way over them. A voice then sprang out of a speaker system, harsh and electronic yet mocking, taunting us to escape the maze. A faint almost unnoticeable smell of vomit hung in the air - and was growing stronger, irritating music began blaring out of the speaker system. To the voice it was a game but to us a trap, a steel labyrinth haunted by oily, vomiting, eyeless minotaurs.
Dancing to another piper's tune is always a bad idea, particularly in this situation. We couldn't risk being mice in the maze, we had to swing the odds in our favour.
We had to take it sideways or in this instance, downwards.
Standing back, Bill instructed Roderick to blast the floor with his explosive fletchette rounds. The robot worked through an entire magazine breaking through layers of the floor until a portion of it collapsed in on itself downwards. Like the entrails of some artificial beast, exposed networking and power cabling dangled and swung gently in the hole as aircon chutes spilled out from the underfloor cavity.
The hole was big enough for us to slip through to floor thirty-eight. As we made our escape we heard the voice on the speaker complaining, hearing its indignation. It was normal on the thirty-eighth, we didn't know if the labyrinth would extend down here, no time to delay, we didn't want to find out and needed an exit strategy.
Looking around, like the the floor above, this floor was about a third full of staff. They had been perturbed by the rumbling and thundering noise. We found the closest Rokkaku employee and snatched his security card, it would be needed to get into the elevators.
We ran for it, successfully getting into an elevator and reaching the ground floor. With a chirpy ding the doors opened, from there we dashed for the main entrance, Hida Masu's card still worked and we were out.
Another risky incursion into a corporate tower successfully escaped! We had left with more questions than answers unfortunately and at some point we would probably need to return.
Although it was also probably a good idea to advise Hida Masu not to.
Wage-monkeys were pouring out of the corporate towers in Rokkaku Dai heights, the work-day was ending and steady ant-like streams of suits headed for the trams, going home or hitting the bars. With Goji Tower behind us we were looking forward to kicking it back for the night ourselves but Neon City never lets go that easy.
Trigger's media-slab began pinging, it was an unknown ID, on the other end was Tsuka 'Lucky' Suko.
Lucky Suko; head of The Golden Rhinos, a yakuza outfit that operated out a gambling joint in The Fortified Residential Zone.
We'd crossed paths with him just once before when a client of ours had burnt Suko to the ground at mah-jong so hard that he cleaned out Suko twice!
To say Suko hadn't taken it well was putting it mildly, he ordered a bunch of goons to rub out our client, which we put a stop to.
We'd just been doing our job, did Suko take it personally? We were going to find out.
Suko told us that he had been impressed with our skills and had a proposal for us, a job?
"State your business," we replied neutrally with hesitant caution.
Lucky Suko explained that a violent street gang called The Crazy Bees was making trouble, in particular targeting Japanese people and businesses in a part of The Skyscraper District. One of their Japanese victims was an insurance business owned by his wife's cousin and called Shou Ga Nai Insurance. Suko told us that he had offered to deal with the situation but his cousin-in-law refused wanting nothing to do with any part of the yakuza.
Suko continued, telling us that he would pay us well to persuade The Crazy Bees to lay off the insurance business. He offered us six hundred thousand bits to get rid of the gang plus two hundred thousand per Crazy Bee gang member killed.
Finally Suko said that his cousin-in-law was to never find out that we were being paid to look into the matter.
As neutrally as possible we told Suko. "We'll look in it,".
Ethan's Eats was a sushi bar located in The Skyscraper District, it was here that we would find The Crazy Bees Suko had told us. Even though most of the district was dedicated to housing much of the city's workforce, ground level still contained large clusters and strips of retail units. This included Ethan's Eats; pretty unremarkable and much like a thousand other sushi bars in The City of Electric Dreams. The once-bright plastic signage at the front had faded, its primary colours drained by ultraviolet damage during the day and corrosive rain at night, a large subtly tinted window gave passing pedestrians a glimpse of the customers within and conveyor belts of food that enticingly circled round. Ethan's Eats described itself as selling Authentic Kosher Cockney Sushi and Jellied Eels.
Night had come and with it the rains, city lights awoke, appearing to cascade into existence throughout the district and delineating high-rises against the darkness. Finding a suitable dry vantage point, we waited and watched.
Despite the murky rain, gleaming interior lights bled out on to the slickly reflective street making it easy to view.
Many people came and went, including a good number in distinctively black-and-yellow clothing, had to be street colours for The Crazy Bees. We kept watching.
The Crazy Bees congregated in and around Ethan's Eats. They were young, a lot appeared to be skinny teenagers and many looked Japanese? We continued watching, they were rowdy and rude, jostling and bantering amongst themselves until their leader, an older looking man came on to the scene. Tall, lean and better dressed, he moved with a measured, calculated pace and they clearly all deferred to him.
This wasn't what we were expecting from the description given us by Suko. It was time to dig deeper. Information about them was readily available on the GLOWNET, rentacop reports, public forums, local newsfeeds and so on: General consensus was that The Crazy Bees were a pest more than a menace, they were considered juvenile delinquents more than gangers.
More than one than one report claimed that they bred giant North Korean genetically altered killer bees which they employed in scuffles with other street gangs!
For a while they hung out, grabbing takeout from Ethan's Eats in little cardboard boxes with disposable chopsticks and shooting the breeze. Eventually they split up, leaving a mess of empty discarded cartons behind. We followed a group of some twenty Crazy Bees as they went on their way, they exhibited signs of anti-social behaviour, minor acts of vandalism and external property damage, noisily spraying graffiti and gang tags on any free surface they could find and so on. They didn't seem to be targeting anyone, Japanese of otherwise, same with businesses.
This area included multiple Japanese or Japanese-themed retailers amongst the shops, among them were an anime-styled model-kit shop, clothing stores, gaming stores, even a Pouchebeast shop!
Entering the model kit shop, we spoke with the staff and asked them if they had experienced any trouble with The Crazy Bees, threats, extortion, assault?
They told us they never had trouble with The Crazy Bees, otherwise they'd be banned from buying the latest imported kits!
It didn't add up. The Crazy Bees weren't some hardened gang of criminal thugs in need of some Neon City street justice. Something was wrong so we took a chance.
Shou Ga Nai Insurance was our next destination, a large blind masked the front window of a dull looking shopfront. Inside it was inoffensively decorated in beige and eggshell white with a grey carpet. There was an occupied desk and several upholstered faux wooden chairs. The man at the desk looked up at us as we entered.
Luckily the owner was in when we asked to speak to him. An average looking guy, he looked at us with confusion when we asked about his cousin's husband, he told us his cousin wasn't married, we elaborated, he'd never heard of Tsuka Suko! Apologising for the confusion, we beat a hasty exit.
A set up, it was clear that Lucky Suko had set us up. Maybe he wanted rid of The Crazy Bees, maybe he wanted to make trouble for us, maybe both?
We thought about pinging him and calling him out but we didn't bother. Eventually he'd find out his ruse had failed. Let him stew.
Time to hit the bars, Neon City never slows down and we could do with some Dindanha beer.
Later we got a message from D4-VID, the interview with Nina Chinova had been a success, D4-VID told us that Nina scored well with focus groups and test audiences. Looked like she might be getting something on a network.
20th February 2021
Saturday evening and I'm the living room, logged into Meet on my PC.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
The day had been a quiet one, without the hassles of work, I'd spent most of it languishing on my futon sleeping in, lingering on the lip of consciousness, slipping in and out, allowing the noise and the heat of The City of Electric Dreams to just flow on by.
That came to an end when the Jaunkeu pinged; Lucy, she was complaining about how I was ignoring her or something? Wanted to go out for a meal somewhere.
I cooled her down and said I'd sort something out. A quick GLOWNET search got a hit on some new opening in Shibuya Terminal called Itadakemasu!, it's data-image a towering stylised and colourful human upper body that turned its cheerful face to track users and hand out iridescent photonic fortune cookies that when opened produced a data-node of their menu. I booked us a table; knowing the others wouldn't want to miss out on meal, I also booked one for them.
The others made their own way to the restaurant, meanwhile on the way over to pick up Lucy I bought some synthetically grown blue orchids, I knew she'd appreciate them.
Lucy was in a white Evoda short skirt and jacket combo with a black halter top, her hair up in an elaborate bun. She was very pleased with the flowers.
Rain had begun to patter on the streets, daylight was giving way to night-light and Neon City slowly flickered into its true life, one LED, fluorescent or neon tube at a time.
We got out of the crowds and into Itadakemasu!. Inside it was rammed, nearly every white plastic table and chair occupied with noisy excitable customers.
We were seated, Lucy didn't notice the others arriving separately to be seated at an adjacent table.
The staff handed us brightly coloured laminated menus. Traditional Japanese Food like Grandma Made announced the top of the menu proudly. We perused the variety of burgers, fries, pizzas and deep-fried chicken available, Lucy seemed quite happy with the choices.
A little while into the meal and front door swung open, a dozen-or-so small-time thugs swaggered in, easy to spot with their tattered denims and leathers, tell-tale bulging pockets, sneering expressions and cheap cosmetic implants.
They spread across the room like a wave of sewage, instantly souring the atmosphere as they pushed customers about, swiped food off tables, swore and shouted.
From the way some of them moved through the room and their eyes swept left and right, they were looking for something?
From the other table, Koko was having none of it. She stood and began loudly berating them, I could almost see the index finger wagging accusingly in their faces.
The thugs had found their excuse and everything kicked off. Tables were flipped and customers scattered as thugs reached for Qucoruba CP-2 machine pistols. As gunfire opened up, screaming and panicking of people fleeing filled the room, the start of a full blown firefight.
For a moment I heard Lucy squeal with terror as she dived for cover but almost immediately lost track of her in the chaos.
The attackers who had been searching the room lunged for one scrambling skinny man in particular, luckily Trigger and I were quicker. between my stun-baton and his gunblade, the assailants went down.
Koko, meanwhile had called in Felix and Sylvester, the two gun drones came crashing through Itadakemasu!'s front window, shattering it into a thousand shards to join the fight.
Soon it was over, a relative quiet calmness had descended and other than us, the restaurant was empty of staff and patrons, the thugs had either fled or were sprawled across the linoleum floor.
One of the attackers was conscious, Bill questioned him but got nothing, the killers had been hired by an anonymous fixer and the skinny man had been their target.
Before he could make good his escape, we had grabbed this skinny man.
He wore cheap counterfeit jeans and a dishevelled black t-shirt and with a pale complexion because he didn't get out under the Neon City sun so much. I could tell his type and what he was. I didn't know the face but I would know the handle when he told us; Crash Override, a member of the hackerati and crusading hacktivist.
When asked why he had been targeted, he let us know that they were muscle paid for by Oshin Amalgamated: After snooping on their servers he had found proof that they had their fingers deep into the city's zoning committee and threatened to release it. This carnage had been Oshin's response.
What was the dirt Crash Override had on Oshin?
Yaran Kitchie had been chairperson of the committee and openly blocked Oshin's plans for their water purification plant. A while ago he had been found dead and his successor, Lindsay Berrett had promptly approved Oshin's plans.
Crash Override had proof that Lindsay Berrett was on the Oshin payroll.
With a shrug and a sharp intake, he nodded and said he was going to publish the info on the GLOWNET now anyway. We offered to provide protection but he said he didn't need it. Crash Override then slipped away, disappearing through the gawking crowds now gathering under the rain outside.
Lucy came stamping back into the wreckage of Itadakemasu!, broken glass crunched under the quick, short steps of her wobbling designer Oltrante white high heels, aggravation clear on her face, upset that the others had also come to the date.
I cooled her down, she seemed to accept that yes they had also been at the restaurant but they had been at a completely separate table; so it had still been a proper date, at least until the bullets began flying.
Date night had ended early.
Things moved fast in Neon City, by the time the next morning came around, news of the firefight and high-level corruption in the zoning committee had been side-lined by more recent events. Literally yesterday's new.
Over my bowl of Paheheu Pops I watched with faint disappointment as GLOWNET news-vines were pushing out a scandal and corruption story about the election of the next Overseer of the Women’s Liaison and Consultation Executive, some sort of public consulting department in for what passed as Neon City's municipal authority.
Inane pundits and talking heads had been discussing the situation, discussing the two rival candidates, Ms Tatsuya Niko and Aglayata Banova. Then in the early hours a video file had begun circulating on the GLOWNET. It showed Ms Tatsuya Niko in a revealing and compromising situation with a trio of hirsute individuals.
Powering down my wall-slab, I realised I didn't care.
That was about to change.
My media-slab was being pinged again. Sniffing out the story behind the story of Tatsuya Niko was robotic vid-journalist; D4-VID. He told us that he was suspicious of the footage's authenticity, believing it had been shot at an establishment named The Lusty Thrust on Chuo Street and instructed us to meet him there.
The lowest alleys and walkways of Chuo Street were some of the narrowest and deepest, even by Neon City standards. High-sided rows of buildings almost claustrophobically encroached in on each other, resulting in thin, frequently shadowed towering canyons of glass fronted concrete.
Flitting in and out of the uncaring sunlight were throngs of people navigating past each other without breaking stride, conditioned to ignore the lack of personal space.
Chuo Street was densely populated with scores of small typically neon-signed hotels of every type as well as numerous brothels, The Lusty Thrust was of the second variety and a humming red neon sign with self-explanatory flicking two-frame animation brightly announced its status.
D4-VID had almost finished shooting background footage outside The Lusty Thrust when we came on scene. Midday was fast approaching and the sun was almost directly overhead, Chuo Street was providing no respite from the rippling noon heat.
Madame Ma Zhui-Bao was a short middle-aged Chinese woman dressed in something akin an exotic belly dance outfit and appeared to manage The Lusty Thrust. When she saw us stroll into the lobby, she began shouting and frenetically waving.
"No press," Madame Ma Zhui-Bao shouted. "No press," pointing at D4-VID. She absolutely refused to talk to us until D4-VID had dejectedly slouched off.
A curiously heady incense clung to the air as cliched generic Arabian-Eastern flavoured music of suspect origin played out of wall speakers.
The room was decorated with faux exposed and painted stonework, filled with colourful replica Turkish sofas and rugs, further decoration included eastern looking ornaments and fittings set in small alcoves or on shelves.
A number of mostly young men and women dressed in revealing Arabic themed clothing and were draped over the furniture, eyeing us suggestively but it was all business today.
"What you want?" Madame Ma Zhui-Bao demanded curtly now that D4-VID had gone.
Questioning Madame Ma Zhui-Bao, she told us that she had never seen and did not know Tatsuya Niko, when shown the footage, she recognised the three others; regulars, Tomac Khan, Moroccan Tom and Big Man Arthur Ardley, they had come here with a blonde Russian woman, not Tatsuya Niko. As far as she knew, they were construction workers currently employed at Sunshine City.
Madame Ma Zhui-Bao allowed us to see the room the footage was shot in; fairly small with same faux exposed stone work and Turkish/Arabic decorations.
We searched around, there was no evidence of anything here, then we extrapolated that the camera must have been placed on the small replica pine wood side table flush against a wall. No evidence of anything there either.
Looking around the room further we spotted hidden cameras belonging to Madame Ma Zhui-Bao, she allowed us to review her own footage, to no one's surprise, it had somehow been corrupted.
Our only lead took us to Sunshine City. During the characteristically uncomfortable, hot, cramped and noisy tram ride D4-VID explained how he though the footage had been doctored, showing us what he believed was digital manipulation on the face of Tatsuya Niko.
From a vantage point at the tram stop it was easy to spot the construction work taking place at Sunshine City. Significant remodelling of the children's playground in the park that ringed the monolithic titular tower of Sunshine City in greenery was underway after it had been mostly levelled by Roderick 4-20 a while ago....
On the way down we encountered Frank and Joey, the two uniformed park patrol rentaguards we had dealt with before. Making small talk, they cheerfully told us that that they had been called out to deal with someone who had defecated in the sandbox at the playground!
At the worksite it took a bribe to the foreman to find Tomac Khan, Moroccan Tom and Big Man Arthur Ardley; they were happy to talk with us about their encounter at The Lusty Thrust.
The footage had been altered, it was a different woman in the video; all three confirmed it.
At the end of a shift, after payday they had been approached by a young blonde Russian working girl who asked if they were looking for a good time. They were flush.... so why not?
They also gave us a name: Ashaglaya Lova.
It was something to go on.
Jacking into my Nonohiki, I sank out of material reality and descended into the mutating multicoloured light-emitting geometry of the GLOWNET and ran a hunter/searcher. I was unmoving, motionless as trillions of data-points orbited round me, seemingly merging into a incomprehensible storm of sensory outputs until a single shining mote of silvery data emerged and became a fixed point ahead of me, a north star.
I moved towards it and it entirely enveloped my view. Light faded and rows of data came into focus. The name Ashaglaya Lova was in the data, Ashaglaya Lova was at The Catnap Hotel back on Chuo Street.
It was possible Yennav Rybasei would have some info, so Koko contacted him. He told us he was too busy helping his sister-in-law win an election? Who was his sister-in-law? He told us it was Aglayata Banova, the second candidate in the electoral race. Koko asked if he knew anything about the fake video that had been released smearing Tatsuya Niko.
"Yes," said Yennav. "It was me!" He admitted.
Koko thanked him and closed the line a pensive look on her face. It meant we were moving against Yennav now.
Meanwhile; D4-VID had been filming it all.
The contrast between the narrow chiaroscuro of Chuo Street and the unfettered verdant openness that surrounded Sunshine City couldn't have been starker.
A cool-blue curled neon cat marked out The Catnap Hotel, buried deep the back alleys it was a small fairly narrow establishment in a row of grubby brock buildings that ran up several storeys and was surrounded by more grubby buildings.
A timeworn entranceway opened to a decaying colourless carpet that led us to a half-lit lobby. Tinny music played out of a speaker behind the counter, the clerk's eyes flicked our way for a few milliseconds before returning to his media-slab. A dishevelled old man sat precariously on one seat of a row of upholstered black plastic chairs placed along a wall, loaded up on something and blazing away, talking incessantly to his imagination.
The clerk stopped chewing his gum, tore himself away from his slab and stared at us approaching. We didn't seem like the hotel's usual clientele and he was right.
He was hesitant to give us anything on Ashaglaya Lova but a few words and a handful of bits from Bill changed that. Leaning forward he punched some instructions into his desk-slab, scanning the results.
With the room number in hand we headed up to Ashaglaya's door, from the other side we could faintly make out several Russian voices, they were slightly distorted, it sounded like a Russian language daytime soap opera, probably Dni zhizni nashikh gangsterov, the most popular Russian language show in Neon City.
We knocked on the scratched and scuffed old door, an attractive and slim blonde woman in a short skirt and very low cut crop top opened it. The easy smile on her face melted away and eyes widened in surprise.
"You're not from Beetroot Palace?" exclaimed Ashaglaya.
Before she could react we had pushed our way into the room. Like the rest of the hotel it had all the hallmarks of a decline from former glory, faded old wallpaper peeling off walls, scratched up old furniture and fixtures and stained windows.
"Get out or I'll call my boyfriend Rostii," Ashaglaya threatened. "He's a gangster," she added with unconvincing menace.
Unfazed, we told her to go ahead and she pinged someone on her media-slab.
Whilst we waited, we told Ashaglaya that we knew she was the original woman in the video, shrugging she said that Rostii had asked her to do it and had told her who to approach and when. She was happy to do it for Rostii, he loved her.
Fifteen or so minutes later and there's a knock, Koko answered
Rostii Biniva was fairly stocky with spikey blonde-tipped hair and several days' stubble. He wore a red and black polyester Osolilitki tracksuit with a tasteless amount of fake gold around his fingers and neck. There was of course the tell-tale bulge of a pistol under his zipped-up jacket and tucked into his waistband.
His eyes flittered around the hotel room, taking in the situation. He was pro enough to take it in his stride and change tack.
"You are friends of Yennav? How can I help?" He said smiling and shaking Koko's hand. "If the girl is a problem, I can kill her. She means nothing to me," he added.
Ashaglaya, shocked, visibly trembled.
"That's not what we're here for," Bill replied. "Just tell about your involvement with filming the footage with Ashaglaya,".
Rostii freely admitted that he had arranged the setup for filming Ashaglaya with the other three, once the footage had been acquired it was passed on to Yennav who he guesses then doctored it.
D4-VID asked Rostii to repeat it all for an interview and Rostii didn't see the harm in it, we were of course, friends of Yennav Rybasei.
Once the interview was completed, D4-VID went off to file his report, happy with the results, he agreed to leave us out of it.
There was no reason for us to remain either. Ashaglaya was struggling to maintain composure so before we left, I turned to her, squeezing her hand with just the right amount of pressure and looking into a reflection of a cloudless azure sky in a field of smooth ice that were her pale blue eyes which were of course a set of Uluoyelo replacement irises and daid.
"If you feel in danger at all...." Handing her my business card.
Back out into churn of Chuo Street as we sought out some respite the afternoon heat, our media-slabs pinged.
Ram Rat was on the line, he had been sitting on Ghost Radical's slush fund watching for signs of financial activity, now he had one.
Five hundred thousand bits had been transferred back into the slush fund account not so long ago, Ram Rat couldn't trace the source.
We understood the significance: Ghost Radical's modus operandi meant that he had likely just killed someone he'd previously employed and reversed the payment. If we found his victim, it might give us a lead on Ghost Radical.
Using my data-slab I ran a hunter/searcher algorithm for unexplained deaths on the GLOWNET with a cross-referencing filter for time-of-death close to the time of the money transfer.
There were no hits, closest result came from Firestreaker, a YourTube broadcaster who reported on fire-based incidents throughout Neon City. His latest video had just gone up on the GLOWNET, its timestamp only a few minutes after the transfer.
Jacking into my slab, I was able to watch his report with full clarity, he had managed to film an apartment engulfed in flames and very quickly become entirely gutted. Narrating to the camera Firestreaker explained that it was believed that the fire had been caused by a faulty microwave unit and luckily the tenant, known locally as Case Mod was out at the time.
Case Mod was a familiar name, rung a bell; another hacker.
Were we missing something? We had to join the dots.
Was it possible Case Mod had been hired by Ghost Radical? Was Case Mod the victim? That would have meant that the fire was no accident, the times matched.
Ghost Radical may have slipped up, not realising Case Mod was still alive?
We had to get to him before Ghost Radical did.
Staying in the GLOWNET I ran another hunter/searcher, this time for Case Mod: There was a hit, he had been picked up for public defecation in Sunshine City at the children's park! We'd been there a couple of hours ago, Frank and Joey had him, we had to get back.
While heading for the closest Chuo Street tram stop, Alison pinged Bill on his media-slab. There was concern in her voice, she had a friend who needed our help now, it couldn't wait. We had to get to Aisle 10 now.
There was no other way; we had to split up. Koko and Bill headed to Dogenzaka Hill, Trigger and I went for Case Mod.
It was a tense journey to Sunshine City, stakes were high and we felt on edge, I was tapping my toes on the filth coated tram floor and Trigger bit his nails. Seconds must have lasted hours and minutes seemed to morph into infinite length.
After an age, the tram grinded to a halt at Sunshine City and we ran, a short sprint over the grass and we arrived at the Park Patrol Headquarters. It was a functional dull grey concrete cuboid bunker, with small barred windows and a couple of doors, clearly designed for purely functional purposes.
Quietly humming fluorescent strips lit the sparsely decorated interior in an equally dull hue, inside was a front desk, some offices and even a knock-off Dengken' Doughnuts booth! A slightly paunchy and scruffy looking uniformed Park Patrol officer manned the front desk, his faux police badge indicated his rank was sergeant. We asked about Case Mod and for a brief moment he was confused.
"You mean Goth Shitter?" He laughed! "That's what we call him!".
Exposed concrete steps led down to a long row of cells with toughened polymer barred doors.
Sitting dejectedly on the plain cot in a dismal cell was a young triangle-faced man, skinny, almost weedy, with a pale complexion and dyed messy long black hair, he wore black denim jeans and a food stained white t-shirt. I could see the small disc shaped magnetic connecter of his Konketak head jack in his neck. Typical hacker.
His head tilted a touch, rippling a few locks of hair as we walked up to his cell and introduced ourselves. There was no response when we told him that we were here to get him out got, for a moment he stared at us through the black locks that tumbled over his face, then looked at the cell wall.
Questioning the sergeant; he confirmed that Case Mod's/Goth Shitter's offence had been a minor transgression and he was free to leave at anytime but was unwilling to do so.
The sergeant opened the door to allow us to converse.
Turning to Case Mod, he refused to explain why he wanted to stay, even when we pressed him about it. Then it clicked.
Case Mod knew that Ghost Radical or someone was out to kill him.
Somehow the microwave fire hadn't done its job and by taking a dump in the sandbox, he knew he'd get arrested and put into the cell. His way of getting protection from Ghost Radical. I was sure of it.
We told Case Mod that these cells wouldn't protect him for long. Once Ghost Radical realised that he had missed the mark, he'd come gunning for Case Mod. If we could find him, then so could Ghost Radical, we were his only chance. I just about saw his eyes move behind the curtain of hair.
Case Mod looked at us, then the sergeant and lunged!
He landed a fairly ineffectual blow on the sergeant but it was enough to enrage the man.
"That's assault!" The sergeant exploded, furiously storming off, no doubt to file more paperwork Case Mod.
"There's nothing you can do," the hacker stated matter-of-factly before dropping back on to the bed.
We were wasting time here, I pinged Bill to see what their situation was?
Bill told us that they had encountered a problem on the way to Aisle 10.
Koko and Bill had been navigating the usual teeming afternoon shoppers on Dogenzaka Hill when a commotion had broken out ahead. There was an uproar and screaming, Koko and Bill strained to see over the milling people, moments later shoppers spilling forward crashed into other shoppers, like a human wave they parted before a gang of bikers.
The paved streets of Neon City were never designed for personal vehicles, but that didn't stop cyclists and the occasional biker weaving through the crowds, unlike this gang though, they didn't ride directly at pedestrians.
Bill said it was an almost surreal experience, rampaging bikers threatening the crowds on almost silent Bidaga or Grosenge E-bikes, only the gentle whine of their electric motors and their voices could be heard as they knocked over people. Autonomous anti-collision detection obviously deactivated, stability systems preventing them from falling themselves. The bikers were yelling, hollering and blazing their horns, shouting incomprehensibly about 'what they deserved', 'risk for nothing' or 'their money'.
The bikers mostly wore denim and leathers with open faced helmets and shades, partly for protection and partly a fashion statement echoing a mostly forgotten look from long ago. Of course modern synthetic multi-weaved polymer and nylon clothing was lighter, more durable and more comfortable than any protective clothing from the past but I guess that wasn't the point. They accessorised with lengths of chain and showy katana, Bill also noticed the give-away bulge of small sidearms.
The disruption they were causing was preventing Koko and Bill getting to Aisle 10. Eventually Bill lost his rag, identifying what seemed to be their leader he managed to pull him up with an intimidating stare and a steely grasp.
After being given a stiff shakedown by Bill, the leader offered up his name: Rooster, president of the Doomriders. Middle-aged, bearded and fairly stocky, he wore a black faux reinforced leather jacket over a scruffy t-shirt with a skull motif and a faded tatty pair of jeans over some well polished black Nochreb boots, Bill had told me that they remined him of something, but the in heat of the moment he couldn't remember what?
He was clearly tense or aggravated, skin a shade of red, voice strained and in response to Bill's demands, he spoke through gritted teeth.
Rooster and his companions were veterans of the Planetary Guard Defence Force. They'd recently retired after completed their last induction of the latest cohort recruits - including some sort of pimp he exclaimed!
Now they had time to spare they'd formed the motorcycle club Doomriders to spend their free time roaming Neon City's highways. Their military pensions and discharge bonuses had however never materialised. Rooster told Bill that this had all been handled by a contractor called Mabana Multinational.
Mabana Multinational had just been conglomerated into Thetatec Advanced Research, during this transition, all of their financial records had vanished, supposedly lost.
Mabana and Thetatec were of no help getting their pensions back, so angrily they'd taken to the streets in protest.
To placate them, Bill took a deep breath and agreed to look into the matter of their finances if they'd just stopped rioting. Rooster hesitated, fingers waggling in a ripple as he gave it thought and finally agreed.
"Now that my grievances have been vented I somehow feel deflated?" Rooster stated.
Rooster gave his card to Bill who couldn't help but notice that Rooster's name was actually Nigel Cheal.
Back at the Park Patrol Headquarters Trigger and I finally gotten Case Mod to talk. While we were talking to Bill, he'd overheard us talking about Thetatec and pensions.
"I know what that's about," he said swinging forward on his cot.
Case Mod went on to admit that Ghost Radical had hired him to hack into Thetatec's systems and delete all the Mabana merger files on pensions for the space people but data could be recovered - if you knew how it had been deleted.
"Why would Ghost Radical go after the Defence Force's pensions?" We asked.
Leaning back again, Case Mod shrugged. "It's all about the bits man and the stock markets,".
Checking newsfeeds, rumours had begun circulating rapidly; supposedly Thetatec was trying to undermine the Planetary Global Defence Force in an attempt to get their military contracts. Rumours were worth as much as the truth wasn't in Neon City, Thetatec's Rep had taken a hit and so had its share price. Trillions had been wiped off their market cap.
Ghost Radical had it in for Porter Sladek, was this some new avenue of attack?
Case Mod then told us how to recover the deleted data.
Bill pinged us an update.
With the Doomriders at least temporarily dealt with, Koko and Bill rushed on to Aisle 10, the trendy fashion boudoir within the exclusive Chou-Nata Corporate Mall and like every other designer shop in the high class shopping complex, served a selective affluent clientele.
Arriving at the glass walled entrance, Koko and Bill slowed to a nonchalant stroll as they went in, navigating browsing customers and corridors of racked colourful garments until they got to the counter.
Alison waved them out back to a small out-of-the-way office.
Waiting for them was Hida Masu, a thin man in a nondescript two-piece grey Evoda suit.
He politely introduced himself as a employee of the Rokkaku Group who worked in payload insurance at Goji Tower and lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
It wasn't clear to Koko and Bill what this was about.
He continued: Last night he had been working into the late hours at the tower alone when he saw something incredible.
Strange creatures sloping through the semi-lit office, he was dumbfounded and stared at them. Hida Masu told Koko and Bill that they became aware of him and turned and stared back with stalks of wire for eyes. Moments later, before he could react they turned and left, vanishing, all of this in total silence.
Hida Masu could not tell if he had fallen asleep and hallucinated the encounter or it was real? He admitted that it had left him rattled regardless. So he called it a night and decided to have a few drinks to settle his nerves, this took him to Braindance. Koko and Bill had heard of Braindance, an up-and-coming bar on Chuo Street that specialised in serving a potent blend of tequila and peyote.
Hida Masu had drunken himself into a stupor on that potent blend and realising the trip back Rokkaku Dai Heights might land him in trouble during the small hours, staggered to a local capsule hotel called Otsukaresamadesu and spent the right.
Morning came and so did a throbbing headache explained Hida Masu. After splashing his face with the meagre supply of water available, he headed back to the rooftop shanty that was his home in the Heights and was dismayed to discover that his apartment had been turned over, someone had broken in and wrecked the place. Then he went on to say that a peculiar smell like vomit hung in the air and a strange thin coat of oily substance seemed to be covering everything.
Maybe his night at Otsukaresamadesu had saved him in an unexpected way.
Finally he admitted that he was worried that someone at Rokkaku had it in for him. A little earlier he had been included on an email that mentioned Akumu Accord and Rokkaku Project. Maybe this wasn't a coincidence.
Bill said that we'd check it out for him.
Time to go, Koko and Bill were heading straight to Rokkaku Dai Heights to check out something serious and we had to meet them.
We called the desk sergeant to lock up Case Mod's cell again, said goodbye to the hacker and got up to leave.
"Wait!" He blurted. "Take me with you."
After smoothing things over with the irate desk sergeant he allowed Case Mod to go with a fine to pay. On the way out to the tram stop we passed Frank and Joey.
"Goth Shitter!" they laughed and pointed.
Case Mod shifted around staring at the ground.
The afternoon crush was underway and it was a short squalid tram ride to the heights. Through stained windows I watched the cluster of alabaster-white high rises grow from beyond Neon City's crowded skyline to loom overhead as we rolled into our destination.
Now with Koko and Bill, we headed up to Hida Masu's apartment. Like most shanty dwellings in the Heights, it was a part of the dizzying high-rise community that haphazardly sprawled from rooftop to rooftop of apartment blocks, interconnected by rope-bridges and makeshift walkways.
Breaking into Hida Masu's apartment would have been easy, constructed as it was out of whatever materials the occupants could scavenge and lug up the high-rises. In this case an oblong sheet of planking that had been screwed on to hinges. Now it hung on only one hinge and swung freely.
Immediately we became aware of the vomit-like smell as we entered, even hours later it clung to the air. Stifling our gag reflexes we investigated the shanty.
Unpredictably shaped, the apartment was a composite of mostly sturdy polymer sheets and reclaimed two-by-four wooden supports. Makeshift tables, chairs and other furniture had been tipped over or outright smashed during the incursion. Knick knacks and ornaments had been swept off the homemade shelves, lying scattered or smashed across the piecemeal flooring, it was the same everywhere.
As Hida Masu had told us, a thin film of some kind of viscous substance or slime seemed to coat everything.
Searching the shanty found nothing incriminating, if it had been the strange creatures hunting Hida Masu, then they were capable enough to leave no clues. We took a sample of the slime, maybe get it tested in a lab?
On the way out. Koko got pinged; Yennav Rybasei.
Koko answered and from the looks on her face, it wasn't a pleasant conversation. Once the call was over she explained that D4-VID's report about Tatsuya Niko's faked footage had been released and she had been exonerated, her popularity was rising in the polls again.
It wasn't going Yennav's way and he was not happy. He told Koko that he was sure that someone in his organisation had flipped on him.
Yennav wanted Koko to investigate the leak. Considering that we were the leak, it looked like things were going to get messy, for Koko in particular and she did not look happy.
Next we contacted Porter Sladek's direct line and explained that the Mabana accounts had been hacked. On the end of the call, Porter sounded surprised, he hadn't heard anything about anyone losing their pension, his organisation was too big for him to oversee everything.
We explained the situation with the Doomriders to Porter, how the attack had been directed at him by Ghost Radical and also how to resolve it. Without delay he said he'd sort the pensions out and give them a bonus as compensation.
Street-lit silvery sheets of water began hitting the streets of Rokkaku Dai heights just as we did, falling rain marked the beginning of night and only just the beginning for us.
The night's ecology surfaced; a forest of gently swaying umbrellas sprang up, allowing Neon City's population to venture out under the pattering deluges of darkness.
Our media-slabs pinged, calling was conductor Hideki Naganuma, last spoken to during the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition in which he had been runner up. We had rescued his sister back then, looked like she was in trouble again.
Hideki Naganuma told us that we must immediately head to the Choose To Be Happy Hotel on Chuo Street, that's where Okan Ikomi could be found. From there we were to escort her to the Fortified Residential Zone.
Again, we got pinged on the way back to Chuo Street, a message from an unrecognised ID this time. It read: 'Where I have failed, you may succeed. Free the captives.', the message was signed off by Prophet Wei. He had also provided us an address for somewhere called Shou Shop in Highway Zero and told us a package had been delivered to Trigger's home which left him quietly pleased!
It didn't make much sense, who were the captives? It would have to wait, we continued on.
It felt like the morning we had just spent in Chuo Street was long ago but now here we were; for the third timek in the inadequately lit alleys, darker even thanks to the shroud of night. It was a small anonymous hotel, that didn't seem to want to be found. Working through the unabating crowds we eventually found it in an out-of-the-way back alley. Neon signage long since broken, the entrance unlit and unwelcoming.
Except for a capsule hotel, Choose To Be Happy was considered small even by Neon City standards. Inside it was unremarkable and quiet.
"We're expected," the desk clerk told us when we asked.
Okan Ikomi wasn't alone in her room, with her was a massive chromed up Jamaican Rude Boy in Noise Tank colours? With suspicion he grimly stared at us, I could see him become unsettled and reaching, we were about to do the same when Okan Ikomi pleaded with all of us to be calm.
The small woman went on to explain that Street was her boyfriend, that was quite a relationship for the mousey, quiet woman.
We asked them to explain what was going on.
Street was fleeing from gigantic cyborg killers, now that sounded familiar.
Charles 'Street' Spangler went on to explain that pretty much the entire Noise Tank gang had been instructed to attack a Protobase Global lab in Highway Zero and rescue some Galapagos tortoises.
"Instructed by who?" we asked.
"Great Prophet Wei," came the answer.
We had always suspected it, but this was the confirmation, Wei controlled Noise Tank and it answered the question about the captives from his message. Now it looked like we were going to be cleaning up the dirty work his gang couldn't finish. Worse still, it didn't shed any light on Wei's endgame.
Street continued; Noise Tank turned up at the lab in force but security was much heavier than anticipated and after an exchange of fire, the gang were driven off.
A few hours later, the retaliation came. A gang of giant cyborgs hit Noise Tank's most well known and popular hangout; cyBARtek and hit it hard too. Street couldn't tell us how many gangers were killed but he suspected it was a lot.
He was sharp enough to know when things were going south fast! Diving over the bar, avoiding fire and dashing for the back door, he barged it open, and ran for the back alleys, not slowing down, not looking back. The gunfire began to fade as he lost himself in the crowds and noise of Highway Zero.
After being contacted by Street, Okan Itomi came to Choose To Be Happy where he was hiding out. She then contacted her brother who had finished arranging an apartment for them in the Fortified Residential Zone and provided them with tickets for the Secure Residential Metro Link to get there.
It meant getting to the Skyscraper District, which is where we came in.
Exiting Choose To Be Happy took us back into the rainy, gloomy night of Chuo Street with its constant movement of workers, revellers and drunks, Closest tram stop wasn't far but it meant going through the badly lit and uncertain misty alleys. I tightened my Verskeit, pulled the collar up against the rain and sank my hands into its pockets, feeling the pistol grips within. I watched as Koko sent Kevin up above and ahead, melting into the night, despite the rain the drone might give us a decisive edge.
Concentrating on the risks ahead, we barely spoke as we went through unlit stretches, round blind corners and past unknown gaggles of people, the drumbeat of a million raindrops probably would have drowned most of the words out anyway.
Our slow caution eventually took us into one of Chuo Street's busy main thoroughfares, that's when everything changed. Soon Koko's control-slab began pinging, Kevin had picked up incoming hostiles, contact in a few seconds.
We ducked behind a nearby thriving food cart, drawing strange stares from diners sitting sheltered under a fluttering nylon canopy. Then we realised that with the crowds here, it might turn into a bloodbath.
The proprietor was about to lay into us when we repeatedly fired into the air, then he, his customers and everybody else fled, screaming and panicking. The cart's canopy was upended, tables were toppled and plastic chairs scattered into the rain. In moments this part of the thoroughfare was empty save for the hastily discarded umbrellas.
Still hidden behind the food cart, we waited for what might have been hours, blinking and wiping rainwater out of our eyes, gripping our weapons, taking controlled breaths and occasionally cautiously peeking at the way we knew the cyborgs must be coming.
Hopefully the cyborgs' tactical algorithms wouldn't pick up on the fleeing people and recognise an ambush.
Then they arrived; hulking four-limbed killing machines moving with robotic precision materialised out of the gloom, we broke cover and lit them up with everything we had. Protobase Global killer-cyborgs packed an immense amount of firepower, pressing our advantage was our best chance of destroying them before they turned that firepower on us.
Luckily we knew their design weakness, all critical functionality was managed by cranially implanted processors which were vulnerable to impact trauma; a solid head and down they went, like a sack of outdated and unwanted memory chips.
A short fierce firefight ensued. Soon it was over and only we remained standing with our guns out and soaked by the downpour, the ambush had swung it our way.
No time to congratulate ourselves, still had to get to a tram stop and no idea if more cyborgs were on the way.
Leaving the gunfight site in our wake we eventually merged into normal crowds, Koko kept Kevin flying until we reached a tram stop. Our eyes were peeled as we waited in the bustle of commuters, another tense wait that seemed to last hours except this time no cyborgs appeared as the tram came squealing into the stop.
We boarded, the trip to the Skyscraper District was uninterrupted and we arrived without a hitch, from there it was a short walk to the secured metro link. Koko kept Kevin in the air, scouting ahead for hostiles, nothing was detected so we pushed on.
It was fast approaching midnight when we arrived the elongated cubic concrete frontage of the metro link terminal with it's rows of steel and glass doors. They led into the bustling central lobby, even at this hour flocks of commuters came and went from the Fortified Residential District. Then we watched as Okan Itomi and Steel checked-in, Itomi turned and waved a thank-you as they were led into the terminal proper. That was the last we saw of them, they would be safe for the remainder of their journey, the entire line was called secure for a reason.
Despite time marching on, night wasn't over, we still had one loose end to tie up and some tortoises to find!
The address provided by Prophet Wei led to Shou Shop, small, discrete and some type of Chinese medicine shop, a deliberately old-style plain looking painted sign hung above the shop, designed to give it a traditional appeal. Signs of the Noise Tank attack were apparent, the window's safety glass had shattered into a spider's web of bullets holes which continued across the shop's façade and door.
It was still open for business, pushing the bullet-riddled door, we went inside. Replica wooden shelving lined with exotic packets and bottles filled the shop and behind the counter a middle-aged woman in a Chinese style high-collared tunic and loose cotton trousers looked at us. Just looking we told her, she smiled and nodded, handing us each some leaflets about healthy living and a fortune cookie.
I cracked mine open: 'Serious trouble will bypass you'.
Things were looking up!
An old man emerged from a back door labelled Treatment Rooms and exited the shop, giving the woman a goodbye wave.
Flicking on his thermals, Trigger swept the establishment. There were thermals for several people behind the walls beyond the door, nearly all of them laying down?
The shop looked clean, we browsed long enough to not raise any suspicion and left. We needed a way into the treatment rooms. Thanks to Street, we knew the potential risk that security posed.
Finding some shelter from the endless crashing downpour we waited and watched. Several more old people left one-by-one, using optics we managed to make out that they all seemed to be wearing identical bracelets on their left wrists? It wasn't too long before the middle-aged woman came out, locked the door behind her and went on her way. Shou Shop was closed for the night.
Another thermal sweep from Trigger showed that more people were still inside, mostly lying down, some moving around.
It was time for a hard infiltration and we now had our way in, using his implants Bill disguised himself as the middle-aged woman, in the dark it might be convincing enough....
Next, Koko worked on the door lock but the it eluded her. Roderick offered to try and open it.
"Be my guest," Koko replied.
Roderick grabbed the door and pulled, wrenching the lock out of its housing with the crunching noise of buckling and breaking plastic....
Still, we were in.
Bill led with Trigger following close by. Speed was of the essence, we were heading into the unknown, quicker this went, the better. Ignoring the shopfront, Bill went for the back door, it led into a featureless clinically white corridor brightly lit by strips lights, doors ran down the corridor at regular intervals until they reached a last door at the far end.
Bill checked a door, popping only his head through and it opened into what must have been one of the treatment rooms. It was a small room, equally white as the corridor, along one wall an old person was lying on a aluminium cot, under a surgical sheet. A cannula line was drip-feeding a colourless fluid into their arm from a bag hanging above. When the patient saw the disguised Bill, they waved, assuming he was the woman. Bill waved back and remarked that he was just checking in on them, then he closed the door.
Bill checked another door and it led into an empty office. A couple desk-slabs sat on a couple of vinyl coated tables. The terminals could have led to some useful info but there was no time.
It was probable that the other doors led to more treatment rooms, we went on to the last door.
Another clinically white room, this one larger though with a single door out on the opposite wall.
At the centre was a huge messy deposit of straw and placed on this straw were the two Galapagos tortoises. We had seen images and maybe videos of the creatures before but that didn't prepare us for the sheer size of these strangely limbed, long necked reptiles. They sat there, eating staring at us with their reptilian eyes. Each one had a cannula line coming out, extracting and pumping some fluid from the them through Saengdal Genetics med-slabs and into liquid bags. The med-slabs kits were clearly active, their readouts displayed fluctuating numbers, oscillating waveform graphs and constantly resizing bar charts. It was heavily customised software and the readings were beyond any of us. Is this what they were putting into people?
We carefully checked through the other door and saw a pair of pretty lax Protobase Global private security goons who didn't notice us, they were obviously weren't expecting any trouble after the pushback against Noise Tank. We were also keeping an eye on the corridor to our backs, at one point we saw someone in Protobase Global branded scrubs move from room to room. Definitely someone working here.
With their enhanced strength, it would take both Trigger and Roderick to carry one of these tortoises out, the rest of us had little chance. A GLOWNET search told us they would weight about four hundred kilograms each! We needed a solution. There wasn't much choice in our next move.
Quietly we contacted cyBARtek, there had to be some Noise Tank gangers still alive?
A voice answered at the other end, we told them that we needed to speak to someone in Noise Tank.
"Who is this?" the voice was bitter and questioning.
"Just tell them that Wei needs to contact Trigger now,".
Trigger's media-slab pinged and with a heavily modulated voice filter, Wei told Trigger that he was sending a sky-freighter to pick the tortoises up, we demanded to know what he was going to do with them? Wei assured us that he planned to return them to their natural habitat in the Galapagos Islands. It seemed fair to us. As the conversation concluded we could hear the low bass rumble of a heavy flier already landing outside.
We had to move, time had run out for subtlety.
Bill lured the two unsuspecting Protobase Base guards into the tortoise room where we got the drop on them, outgunned, they immediately surrendered, they were disarmed and stripped of their comms. Any Protobase Global staff were rounded up and also taken prisoner. Then they were all put into one of the treatment rooms, Roderick sealed the door by breaking the handle and lock. It would hold them long enough for us to do what was needed.
Getting the tortoises out was even harder than we expected. They were too big to get through the doorways! Perhaps they had been bought in another way, a way we had missed? It didn't matter, no time to search. It was relatively easy for Roderick to smash the interior walls down, none of them were load bearing. Out of the gleaming corridor and back in the shop, he kicked a shattered window out and one-by-one we could lug the tortoises into the waiting Armerdt sky-freighter. Fortunately, Highway Zero was the one district in Neon City where a sky-freighter could land at street level.
As the freighter's electric turbines spun up, they whipped the falling rain into a furious tornado of stinging droplets, a bulky backlit silhouette rose up against diffused streetlights, climbing higher, carrying the tortoises into the night and vanishing from our shielded eyes.
Next morning and results of the election of the next Overseer of the Women’s Liaison and Consultation Executive came in, Ms Tatsuya Niko had won a landslide victory despite the lewd video or because this is Neon City because of it.
Porter Sladek, dressed in grey Shaguaifu trousers and a black Avorukhclu shirt personally appeared in an impromptu news conference that was on all the GLOWNET's news vines. He announced that all Mabana Multinational records had been restored, including financial records regarding Planetary Global Defence Force pensions. He went on to give a personal assurance that all affected pensioners would receive a generous fiscal compensation for their troubles.
It resulted in a dramatic turnabout in Thetatec's share price and soon it was to skyrocketing to its earlier levels.
One thing you could not criticise Porter Sladek for was a lack of understanding of public relations.
Later that day; reports of a tragedy at Pharoah Park came in. A small unexplained fire, possibly from a small toy had caused a faulty power cell on an amusement ride to catastrophically explode. Among the victims was Ms Tatsuya Niko, winner of a recent local election.
The Neon City Oversight and Ethics Committee decided that running another election would unacceptably costly and timely. The committee's ruling decided it would be fair in reassigning the role to the first runner-up; Aglayata Banova.
It looked like luck had swung it Yennav's sister-in-laws way!
Even later; another news item came along on the GLOWNET news vines that caught my eye: A report stated that a waiter employed by the Union Trans Metropolitan Hotel had been found dead, accidental death by drowning was the verdict, although with unexplained puncture wounds.
He was identified as Rostii Biniva. It seemed as far as Yennav Rybasei was concerned, his leak had been found.
Koko was off the hook....
13th February 2021
It's Saturday night at home on my PC in the living room.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Fortified Residential Zone.
Rainwater crawled sideways across the condensed tram window as it sped its path over Neon City's crowded neon-lit rainy streets, rattling into the Fortified Residential Zone.
Getting late but our night was only beginning.
A large proportion of the district was exclusively reserved and walled off for the city's wealthy citizens, this mostly meant high level execs and their families. Homes were suitability luxurious, ranging from family-sized detached housing to faux Neo-Georgian mansions.
None of the racked and stacked apartments of the Skyscraper District or the boxy, cramped social housing of Hikage Street.
The riffraff that represented the general population of Neon City were also absent. The Fortified Zone was a gated district, access was by appointment only.
One does not simply walk into The Fortified Residential Zone.
Also outside the fortified was the Fuku Bakuchi Casino, prestigious gambling den run by The Golden Rhinos, a Yakuza gang who dominated criminal behaviour in The Fortified Zone with a polycarbonate grip.
Grinding to a halt at the elevated stop; we disembarked the tram within view of the featureless opaque monolith that was the tall steel-reinforced concrete wall ringing the Fortified Zone, silhouetted against the red-black sky.
Trigger's Yioujishi optical implants could see the walls were topped with an array of long-range detection and early warning systems as well as Kaxnan deployable defensive measures. Aliraiyo Patrolman class gun-drones circled the perimeter, sweeping for intruders.
From the tram stop it was a relatively short march meet to our contact, itinerant gambler; Vlegei Kreshoma
Even through the murky heavy downpour, the clamour and gleaming lights of the Fuku Bakuchi Casino were noticeable and it only grew louder and brighter as we closed in.
Someone had gone to great effort to give the casino's architectural exterior a traditional Japanese slant with a replica upward curving gable roofs, walls, windows and faux wooden supporting beams, decorated with authentic looking fixtures and lighting.
Unfortunately, someone else had gone to a equally great effort to ruin the effect by adding a trim of flashing and humming red and yellow neon piping to the beam and roof, as well as adding a flashing, rotating sign.
Where the ancient met the modern - Neon City style!
A churning tidal wave of flash-photographing paparazzi photojournalists, hopeful bloggers and craning gawkers were pressing up against the temporary steel barriers that cordoned off the casino's front. Jostling and shouting; desperate to get a look or a shot of anyone, anyone special or attract their attention
An intermittent flow of black, shining executive class sky-limos were descending out of the soaked sky, battering the unflinching sea of watching faces with jet-wash driven rainwater and disgorging their tuxedo and evening dress wearing passengers on to a red carpet. A high stakes game needed high rolling whales.
Vlegei Kreshoma was already here, his endlessly optimistic face with its receding hairline and cheerful expression sat on a stocky frame dressed in a Ralodet overcoat and expensive Duuner tuxedo with diamond tipped cufflinks. say whatever about the man but Vlegei could turn on the class when he wanted.
He greeted us with characteristic happiness when we approached, there was a twang of excitement in his voice, he was looking forward to this.
As a group we were ushered through the smoky glass and aluminium doors into the casino, soft apricot coloured panel lighting lit a minimalist lobby that belied the elaborate faux-trad exterior, thick typically red carpeting covered the sparse beige walled lobby and led down some gold-trimmed steps to the main hall.
Whatever accoutrements and gaming machines that had packed the high ceilinged main hall before had been swept away to create a large open floor lit with more rows of soft panel lighting and hanging replica Japanese lanterns that glowed red-gold. The hum of high quality air conditioning working hard to keep the room cool was barely discernible.
About twenty circular mah-jong tables with finely upholstered tub-chairs had been set out across the carpeted floor.
Smartly uniformed staff hurried to provide the arriving gamblers with drinks and other requests.
Seemingly lounging around the hall were also a number largely shirtless men with spiked or slicked-back hair, brandishing hatchets: Golden Rhino muscle.
A mixture of hitting the weights at the gym and bio-nylon-fibre Otoruy muscle implants gave them well-toned and extensively tattooed upper bodies; proudly displaying their Yakuza loyalties and affiliation.
With sidelong half-sneering glances they watched the whales take their seats.
Vlegei gave us a toothy grin and took his allotted spot.
Along with all the other bodyguards we were sat to one side of the hall at what could only be described as a glorified children's table at a family get-together. Except children mostly didn't bristle with code-black implants and firearms.
While we were sitting and watching, the last player appeared and went to his table.
Impeccably dressed, tall and lean, he wore the waistcoat and trousers of a well cut silver-grey Gaongha three piece suit with a eggshell white Avorukhclu shirt and silk Kokenzua tie, he cut a confident stride across the room.
Barely visible beneath shirt sleeves were the tell tail tattoos of a Yakuza man: Tsuka Suko also known as Red Tongued Suko and leader of the Golden Rhinos, so-called because he supposedly drank the blood of his enemies.
Games would be played over several rounds of elimination until only four players remained for the final game.
A quiet babbling murmur fuelled by hunched concentration spilled across the hall as the games got underway. Waitresses darted in and out, swapping filled glasses for empties.
Over time, one-by-one players would fling their remaining tiles away, push their chairs back from the table, get up and walk off.
Vlegei was doing well, perhaps mah-jong was his game or it was just going his way tonight. Lucky Suko was also progressing through the rounds.
Hours passed; sixteen tables became four then became one and Vlegei kept winning.
One player dropped out, then another. Now it was down to Vlegei and Suko.
Many of the other gamblers had stuck around, professionally fascinated to the see the outcome.
If, like Vlegei, you were a gambler, Lady Luck could be fickle. She could be a harsh mistress or gentle caressing lover - in which case you gripped on with all your strength. Which is what Vlegei was doing, too busy drinking in his good fortune to see the risk.
"I thought they called you Lucky Suko?" Vlegei remarked innocently as he won another hand off Suko.
Suko's jaw muscles rippled and tightened, veins bulged as he gripped the table's edge with whitening fingers and just about visible beneath the table was a rapidly tapping imitation Italian leather Leoojt shoe.
Tension was rising but the aircon kept it cool.
Carefully, we shifted in our seats and scoped the casino out, there was only one obvious way out - they way we came. The windows, despite their decorative nature were made of strengthened glass and reinforced with steel bars. There was of course also the matter of the twenty-plus Golden Rhino Yakuza thugs.
It things went sour, it would be hard getting out.
Soon enough Vlegei had cleaned out Suko.
The Yakuza boss curtly spoke to a member of staff and called in cash reserves to bankroll another buy in.
"I've won back four times what I lost last year," Vlegei exclaimed happily.
Pursing my lips, I ran my index fingers along the textured grips of my .45ACPs for comfort.
Play continued, Vlegei was unbeatable, every hand went his way and he was one away from cleaning Suko out again when he sat back like a satisfied diner with a full belly.
"There you go," Vlegei conceded the final small pot.
Suko snapped to his feet, grabbing the tiny winnings that Vlegei had magnanimously gifted him, hurling them on the floor with disgust in one swift move. A moment later he took a deep breath and a long look at the way out.
"Great game," Suko said precisely and slowly through a firmly set mouth with a dangerously neutral expression.
"Great for me!" Quipped Vlegei, obliviously raising his eyebrows.
It was time to leave.
With his winnings gathered, we had to drag Vlegei out and make our hurried way to the Fortified Zone.
Vlegei was ecstatic with his win, gamblers lived for these rare moments that validated their losses and downs.
The experience would be burned into his memory as no doubt right now, endorphins were flooding his brain, heightening the euphoria.
He was too carried away by the rush to recognise the danger.
That was our job though. It was the small hours of the night as we strolled through the rain drenched streets, navigating the anonymously lit crowds. Eyes sweeping every shadowy alley for a threat, every unknown corner an ambush and every low rooftop an assassin's perch.
We knew it was coming, just not where and how.
The where turned out to be a park north of Buku Bakuchi, one of the rare green spaces in Neon City and the who were about thirty Golden Rhino Yakuza foot soldiers, charging towards us over the waterlogged grass, waving their hatchets.
They no doubt thought that their numbers would give them the advantage and in most circumstances that would be correct.
Without hesitation, we reached for weapons, Trigger grabbed his gunblade and counter-charged, yelling, closing and splashing through the soaked ground; melee was his forte.
Fighting continued for a few moments, several of the foot soldiers fell to our attacks and others waivered. Sensing a small swing in momentum, we pressed and the other Golden Rhinos crumbled and fled into the night.
We immediately moved on, who knew if they'd have reinforcements? We weren't hanging round to find out.
From there we manged to escort Vlegei to The Fortified Residential Zone's security walls and safety. After he thanked us, he was granted entrance though the layered steel security doors, authorised by the attendant rentaguards.
It had been a long day and felt like a longer night, still a couple hours to sunup. We turned back and headed for the tram stop, setting off back home.
The noisy ride back to Hikage seemed to take an age, muscles ached and I was restless, looking forward to a good lie-in at my one-bed.
Looking forward to something in Neon City was just an invitation for disappointment, never a good idea.
Only a couple of hours of sleep went past before it was cruelly ended by the shrill pinging from my media-slab.
One arm reached out from my futon, tapping and searching for the slab somewhere close. When I found it I flipped it to speaker-mode from muscle-memory and answered.
We'd all received invitations to the Phineous' Phish Phestival, whatever the hell that was and had to be at The Ferry Terminal soon.
My temples pounded and I could hear the beat in my ears, my eyes didn't want to focus no matter how much I rubbed them with the ball-joints of my thumbs. A diagnostic on the optics showed no faults, must've been run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation.
Swinging my legs over the edge of the futon I pushed myself to my feet, still feeling the vague sting of lingering muscle fatigue.
I shambled over to the cluttered kitchenette, somewhere amongst the piled detritus was a half empty can of Huntudi. I used the stale lager to wash down some Woanqie Xingfa stims, it would have to do, no time for any breakfast.
Late morning had arrived and the day's heat was starting to kick in as we rolled into Highway Zero and walked the final stretch to The Ferry Terminal.
Foot traffic seemed busier than usual, an increased volume of people were briskly striding their way to and from The Terminal, dull roaring of the ground level highway intermingled with screaming and whooping children?
The Bay was in sight and reaching out from the east were its open, murky green-blue waters, it lacked the shade provided by the sprawling towers of the city and made the morning sun, still rising in the blue-white sky even more intolerably brighter than usual.
Fish shop owner Phineous had persuaded someone in authority somewhere to allow a stretch of beach along The Bay to be fenced off and reserved. He had arranged some sort of event or publicity stunt.
This stretch hosted rows of village-fair styled covered stalls selling processed junk food and tacky souvenirs, unusual delicacies in Styrofoam cups or white paper napkins were sold from aromatic steamy street vendors, a huge Senonable speaker system had been set up and had been playing some thumping beatwave synth until Phineous grabbed a mic and used it to address the massive and lively crowd that had congregated.
Phineous' slightly distorted voice was blaring over the vibrating loudspeakers, explaining that the Phineous' Phish Phestival was a ritual to invoke the local Water Yokai and pay them respect.
Children in colourful cosplay costumes noisily tore along the beach, playing games launching paper boats into The bay, kicking up sand and making nuisances of themselves.
Even the four uplifted penguins George, Jasper, Casper and Paisano had joined the festivities.
we stumbled upon an industrious beach vendor selling brown bottled Dindanha beer at a slightly inflated price from a brimming icebox.
We drank and waited.
After a while, Phineous got on the mic again and called for a pause and then a prayer to the Water Yokai.
Caught in the moment, most of the people on the beach felt compelled to mumble their intelligible contribution. We on the other hand, felt no such compulsion and slowly shuffled to the edge of the crowd, keeping quiet and making no eye contact.
A minute later in an ephemeral almost otherworldly moment, Water Yokai began emerging from the bay to confer their blessings?
It was of course actors, kitted out in some SCUBA gear, dressed in curiously elaborate costume in a variety of strange animalistic design and rising through the lows waves. Labouredly in the soaked heavy costumes, they began wading ashore.
The moment didn't last, in Neon City it never does.
The air shook with the deafening boom of an explosion, before it had to time to register the gathered crowd swayed and rippled from the shockwave.
About half a kilometre from the shoreline, heavy chunks of something had crashed loudly into The Bay throwing up huge founts of water, the more air resistant debris was burning as it flittered and spiralled downwards. The remains of a sky-limo?
The vaguely box shaped multipolymer armoured passenger ejection module appeared to have survived whatever caused the explosion. The limo's auto-systems would have immediately isolated and shuttered the passenger compartment before detaching it when the catastrophic failure was detected.
Nylon parachutes had opened as small directional thrusters auto-guided the pod in the direction of the beach.
It splashed down about one hundred metres from the beach, sinking for a second then bobbing to the surface like a piece of cork.
There was disquiet on the beach, no one knew what was going on, people didn't how to react, Phineous was calling for calm over the sound system.
We elbowed through the chattering, rubbernecking crowd gathering at the water's edge.
The module's directional thrusters continued to propel it to the shore.
I felt the hairs on my arms and neck rising, a strange metallic sensation filled my mouth, something was ionising the air?
The module beached itself and the top hatch opened, a 4-20 robot bodyguard popped it's head out and rotated it in a full circle, it was identical to Roderick and would be assessing any potential threats. Moments later the robot leapt out the hatch and took up a guard position, The 4-20 was followed by a middle-aged man in an expensive looking neutral grey two piece Shaguaifu suit and a Nightshade Overduster, bald headed with an creased oval shaped face, he was someone we all recognised.
Perhaps Neon City's richest inhabitant; Porter Sladek.
My eye was drawn to a bizarre wide circle of sunlight playing on the undulating water behind Porter.
Without warning, the water erupted into a massive boiling geyser of heat and steam, the 4-20 and Porter were sent desperately running to avoid a scalding downpour.
Milliseconds prior to the eruption, the circle of light's radius had abruptly shrank, exponentially intensifying to became a super-luminous needle of red neon stretching from beyond the sky, briefly flickering on the water's surface before vanishing.
None of us had ever seen one in action but it could only be one thing; an orbital laser strike.
A networked grid of orbital lasers commanded by The Global Planetary Defence Force blanketed the Earth in geosynchronous orbit above, pointed outwards towards potential aggressors. Somehow one had been rotated to face Neon City.
In that moment it all started to make sense, the pieces began to fit together in my mind's eye, dot joined to dot by bolt of lightning.
Who might have the juice and the skills to override a military satellite? Who was gunning for Porter Sladek?
Another circle of light had appeared where Porter had stood by the module a few seconds ago, it was beginning to shrink.
There was no time, no one understood the threat, there was nothing we could - a second lancing flash of red neon licked the beach. The ensuing explosion instantly killed several onlookers, injuring many more and showering countless others in super heated sand.
The 4-20 and Porter continued sprinting over the beach, we pursued.
It was pandemonium, fear and chaos rippled through the crowd like tall synth-grass caught by a breeze, they broke in a stampeding screaming mob.
"Sorry, there're no refunds due to extenuating circumstances," was the last thing Phineous very quickly managed to utter before dropping the mic and running!
Another circle appeared where Porter had just been and another explosive strike followed, shaking the ground. Porter was some how being tracked in very close to real-time, data on his position was being provided to whoever controlled the satellite?
Roderick had detected an anomalous encrypted data-flow being transmitted locally, he interfaced with the other 4-20 and it confirmed the findings.
Through near-instantaneous communication they managed to triangulate the source of the transmission; Porter Sladek.
The 4-20 scanned Porter as it ran with him. It narrowed the transmission down to his Overduster. The 4-20 instructed him to remove it.
Porter was confused but complied and flung it away, a few seconds later the coat was struck by the laser strike and completely vaporised.
For a minute we all stood still, breathing heavily and staring at the ground, waiting for the tell-tale circle of light, none came. It was over.
Porter spoke briefly to his robot bodyguard, he then came to us and thanked us for our assistance.
"Why have you got one of my four-twenty robots?" he asked, looking at Roderick.
We explained that he had fired Roderick as the result of a botched assassination attempt and he was now employed by Bill. We also explained that Ghost Radical was trying to kill him.
"So the sky-taxi that crashed into my high-rise apartment wasn't an accident?" Porter pondered.
We explained that it was likely another attempt on his life, maybe we could help, We knew Ram Rat was eager for payback.
Porter Sladek seemed impressed with our information and offered us a very generous compensation package along with expenses if we could find and stop Ghost Radical, would've been stupid to turn it down.
The Overduster had been our only lead, Porter told us that he'd only had it two days, it had come from Executive Excess but his personal valet-bot had swept it for security breaches when the delivery had arrived. It would have picked up any tracker.
We told Porter that we needed to see his valet-bot.
Back at the half demolished festival site, emergency services were beginning to crowd the location. There had been significant casualties, too many to sweep entirely under the rug, questions would be asked, better to not be here when they were.
His 4-20 had already ordered a new sky-limo and soon it arrived, typically it was a prestigious German executive sky-vehicle, a boxy yet sleek glossy black Tolitag-Bricna B Class with smoked screens.
Inside there was room enough for all of us, we sank into the extremely comfortable adaptive and climate controlled seating before the T-Class silently lifted off and powered upwards
As the crow flies, the journey to the Fortified Residential Zone was short. No doubt as we descended, the piloting system was responding the zone's defence systems with Porter Sladek's personal authorisation code.
He told us we were going to his personal residence.
Through the tinted screens we observed below a tiny, elaborate looking structure that reminded me of a model kit.
The sky-limo continued along its flight plan downwards and the mansion expanded before us. By the time the limo had touched down it had become massive and completely dominated our view.
The sky-limo put down on the mansion's personal landing pad and upon exiting, we saw the mansion was a sprawling example of corporate wealth. Almost nowhere in Neon City had grounds, lawns or gardens, not even fake ones.
Porter's mansion was surrounded by them.
Some sort of gardening robots were plodding round, diligently maintaining the lush grass radiating a shade of green I'd never seen, pruning and tending the vibrantly coloured rows of flowers or whatever it was actual gardeners used to do in the old world.
Statues of the even ancienter world punctuated this small haven of the natural world.
A paved path led from the pad through a vaulted arch to one of the mansion's doors.
The mansion was decorated in cream, elaborate stone features and windows. Deep blue-grey slate covered a roof of gablets, dormers and cupolas.
The opulence continued unabated inside, shining gold leaf trimmed fixtures reflected in the polished stone hallway floor as did the wall mounted lamplights.
We were led into a waiting room where it felt like our boots were sinking into the thick carpets and invited to sit on finely detailed chairs and served drinks on an actual wooden coffee table.
For a few minutes we waited, distracted by the framed pictures and painted vases that lined the walls until Porter took us to the valet-bot in his personal rooms.
In the tastefully decorated massive bedroom there was a walk-in closet that was bigger than my one-bed. Inside was the smoking ruin of Porter's valet-bot.
Koko had a look, the robot must have bypassed its own safety protocols. It had used its ironing attachment to melt its central circuit board, frying all its processors and circuitry.
The core memory bank looked undamaged, I hooked it up to my data-slab and checked the files out.
Few records existed for GLOWNET access or activity but there appeared to be a significant amount of interaction and chatter with Executive Excess, the valet-bot had the privileges to order clothing for the Sladek account .
The last entry was only two days ago, the valet-bot had taken delivery of Porter's Nightshade Overduster, there were no records of it finding anything suspicious in it's security sweeps.
Someone had gotten to the valet-bot, interfered with the sweep, instructed it to self-destruct and left no visible footprint while doing it.
Ghost Radical? Was he that good?
Nothing else could be gained from the ruined robot, time to move on to Executive Excess.
I jacked into the GLOWNET.
The representation of data that constantly updated within the GLOWNET that primarily moved around Neon City and then the world beyond saturated my consciousness, material reality receded into a fuggy background, sensory models expanded with unnatural evenness, enveloping my bio-image, drawing me into the GLOWNET.
Executive Excess had a massive bright neon data-image, a series of interlinked circles and triangles representing their public-facing data-vaults. Those were of no interest, beneath the polygonal façade was a code-wall and beneath that; was what we needed.
I launched a security-hack protocol, something was wrong though, data being fed back to me wasn't adding up? Progress getting through the code-wall was taking much too long, no retail business had security encryption this strong?
As I was reacting, something changed, fast, barely perceptible. A flat, uncoloured, untextured stygian shape slid from behind the data-image, some part of it had extruded almost shapeless flapping extremities and it soundlessly sped at me!
More a lunge than flight and too fast to evade, it made contact with my bio-image, I felt distant, numbed, slowly throbbing pain. Something was happening.
Customised code, black code; by design unrecognisable to the GLOWNET's bounding protocols and and therefore not required to adhere to the GLOWNET's functionality. So called in part because no one who wrote black code would bother giving it an image-mesh and because of what it was typically used for.
More than that, this was black ICE. designed to trace a bio-image back to the user's interface - usually a data-slab and trigger a massive but vacant data spike through that interface.
The energy carried by that surge was inconsequentially small by normal standards but when delivered into the brain chemical pathways, it induced significant pain and risk of trauma, a prolonged spike or repeated spikes had been known to be lethal.
Back in material reality, that's what was happening to me but in the GLOWNET, the distorted perception of time and congested flow of neural data was keeping me from fully experiencing it. When I jacked out, it would be a different matter....
Since I wasn't in a position to deal with the ICE and it was going to attack again, that was going to be now and I expected it would hurt.
It did hurt, a lot.
A migraine of nuclear explosive proportions wracked by body When I jacked out, as the magnetic interface unlocked itself I could feel thin lines of napalm spreading out from my spinal column into my veins. Slumping back in a chair I rubbed my eyes, I could've done with a cold Huntudi.
Instead I made do with a Likyal med-kit, meds kicked in quickly, pushing the pain away.
That ICE must've been the handiwork of Ghost Radical, now I knew what to look for next time.
The soft approach wasn't going to get us what we needed, it would require a hard approach.
Executive Excess was a boutique that served an exclusive clientele and was located in Sunshine City, the part-mall, part residential city-block which was a vast, soaring concrete structure that completely dominated the district and seemingly faded away into the hazy blue-white sky.
Sunshine City was always busy, they couldn't keep the people away.
Specially chosen inane music filled the walkways and escalators, the food courts and the atriums as dense crowds of every kind of person wandered their way throughout the mall. Browsing from shop to shop along the polished amber-coloured vinyl flooring and past wall mounted soft strip lighting, finding ways to justify the pointless consumerism that drove them here.
Executive Excess was entirely glass and silver-trim fronted with warmly-lit floor-to-ceiling shop windows that displayed numerous examples of the boutique's luxury bespoke products.
Our entry was abruptly halted as the automated doors refused to open? Staff were flitting about inside and lights were on? Peering through the windows, beyond the tastefully outfitted and posed mannequins I could see scores of branded designer clothes hanging off every rack or folded and piled up into large cubby holes that entirely filled one wall.
A camera, high angled and watching the door made me suspect that we had been singled out for exclusion!
The faux black leather trench coats that stank of smoke and grease with barely concealed armoured plates that we tended to favour along with our Harbief workman's' boots meant pretty much meant that we'd never shop there and they were keeping us out.
Bill seemed taken aback and briskly strode off only to come back a few minutes later in a smart Duuner ash-grey two-piece with a pair black Peidi Oxfords. His hair combed but slightly tousled hair.
As Bill walked up, the doors swished open, without breaking stride he loped in and we followed.
As expected a well dressed sales assistant floated up to Bill, he was slim with surgically sculpted delicate features and well sculpted peroxide hair, he introduced himself as Mister Sebastian and asked "How can I help?".
Bill went into a overlong entirely bogus explanation about the promotion he'd received at his job and how he needed a new overcoat to display his new status.
While Mister Sebastian was distracted we quietly began looking round.
Quickly we found a workstation, it wasn't locked and I began combing the records. Soon we found the Sladek account and according to the records, his account was managed by a Mister Julian.
I let Bill know over comms that we needed to find Mister Julian.
Bill name dropped Porter Sladek and explained that Porter had recommended Mister Julian. Mister Sebastian called over Mister Robbins and sent him to find Mister Julian - who seemed to be working in the stockroom.
Mister Robbins came quickly running back, arms flapping and obviously in a panic.
Mister Julian was sprawled across the stockroom floor, contorted into an unnatural deathly pose, empty eyes staring at some corner, mouth hanging slack and fingers clenched.
Wisps of thin grey-white smoke slowly curling up from his ears, his once shiny plastic coated Minomasa smart headphones scorched black.
Mister Julian must have been responsible for putting the tracker in Porter's overcoat, now he had paid the price of Ghost Radical's betrayal.
Neon City was a down and dirty kind of town, where the inhabitants got to see the ugly side of The City of Electric Dreams on a routine basis but Mister Sebastian and Mister Robbins spent most of their lives working in the rarefied executive attire industry and lived in Sunshine City. This had left them unsettled, we told them to go and call the emergency services.
While they were preoccupied, I took Mister Julian's headphones and searched through his pockets and found his ID, I scanned it's information and returned it.
Then I opened the phones and looked inside, most of the circuitry had been fried, but it's tiny firmware chip was still intact. I networked the chip with my data-slab and copied it's data.
I pinged all of that data to Ram Rat, he had a better handle on Ghost Radical than anyone else we knew.
After the remains of Mister Julian were carted off the remaining staff settled back to some sense of normality.
Bill took the opportunity to order a bespoke overcoat, it would come loaded with urban armour, reactive defences, bio-monitors, the works.
Mister Sebastian totted up the cost. "Thirteen million bits," he said looking at Bill with a smile.
It was an inordinate amount of money for us!
Without blinking, Bill told him to put it on his expenses tab with Porter Sladek.
In the meanwhile, Ram Rat had gotten back.
The firmware on the headphones had be re-flashed with new code, it had triggered the power spike that killed Mister Julian. It was Ghost Radical's work, Ram Rat was sure of it.
Ram Rat had found very little on Mister Julian, there was only one event that looked out of place. Two days ago someone had deposited half-a-million bits into his account.
Then, as we watched, the money started being withdrawn! Vanishing bit-by-bit, it went out in smaller packets, too small to be picked up by regulators and soon all five hundred thousand had been syphoned off.
They weren't too small for Ram Rat to trace though! All the transfers led to the same account - a credit card account in the name of John Smith and situated at the Rokkaku Bank on Hikage Street. .
Ghost Radical had been busy tying up loose ends; no witnesses and now, no money.
We'd gotten lucky, he'd been too slow.
It looked like we'd found Ghost Radical's slush fund but not his address.
If we wanted more info, it would require hacking into the bank's secure severs and that would be hard for either Ram Rat or I to do, risky too, as it could traced back to us.
So instead, Ram Rat would sit on the bank and watch.
If Ghost Radical moved any of the money, Ram Rat would be on it.
Once Bill had finalised his order, we left. It would take a little while to get his coat.
Soon after leaving Sunshine City, Koko was pinged a message from Yennav Rybasei, her Russian mob contact.
Yennav wanted us to meet him at an establishment in Highway Zero, Yennav was at Empty Is Run About Freely. He explained it was a colonic-irrigation clinic and he was currently undergoing a course of treatment.
Yennav's treatment was still under way when we arrived at Empty Is Run About Freely, from his padded table he looked up at us, inviting us to join him and offered to pay.
Politely we refused, unfazed Yennav chatted on, calling us his "Favourite deniable droog assets,".
He told us that his men had picked up a lead on Nozi Kinko From Irma's Funeral Home on Ninety Ninth Street and wanted us to investigate.
Nozi Kinko was a former Protobase Global employee and perhaps still worked for them off the books. He had crossed swords with Yennav and the two had history, it was likely that Nozi would move on Yennav's organisation again sooner or later. Yennav wanted us to investigate Nozi before this happened.
It was a short trip over to the bustling, noisy and colourful avenues of Ninety Ninth; Neon City's entertainment and hospitality centre.
Neon City's populace was always on the look out for a good time and Ninety Ninth's lure was irresistible, particularly as the work day was drawing to a close - for those who had work anyway. It was easy to find a safe spot to case the funeral home out unseen.
Amongst Ninety Ninth's constant churn of activity was Irma's Funeral Home, sitting in a row of old-style brick buildings from Neon City's earlier years, it was small and anonymous looking, low budget operation with a discrete front. Thick lacy white curtains blocked off the front windows and hid what might lie beyond and a single door led in.
Right next door was Irma's Implants, another low budget enterprise - except that is was some sort of cyber-clinic instead, advertising its low budget implants as reconditioned and refurbished augmentations.
It couldn't be a coincidence that these two businesses were side-by-side.
As we observed, detaching itself from the congested sky-lanes above came some sort of sky-flier.
Sleek and dart-like, the flier smoothly executed a near-silent vertical descent. Low-profile yet possessed of strangely angular contours, it was coloured a dark and dull neutral grey, no navigational or cockpit lights were showing and it sort of blended into Neon City's gleaming but nondescript background with its measured movements.
It was just about possible to make out weapons panels and a recessed turret on the exterior.
Military-spec stealth vehicles were understandably a rare occurrence in Neon City and most inhabitants who saw one would think the flier was just some sort of weird vehicle funded by corporate eccentricity but we understood what we were looking at.
It was a Qiuonriji night-flier, a Yexingzhe SFS-70 model, its contouring was a multipurpose durable polymer armour designed to deflect direct attacks and also diffuse all kinds of radar wave. it was currently in running-black mode to enhance stealth.
A serious piece of hardware, stealthy, armoured and packing a heavy punch. It was also shielded against electromagnetic pulses and any kind of hacking.
The Yexingzhe dropped behind some buildings and out of sight.
A few seconds later we saw four burley individuals exiting Irma's Implants. They were in street clothes but to our eye it was clear that they were mercenary contractors, black-baggers, assassin's or some other kind of corporate muscle or assets.
It wasn't the penchant for bland, practical Evoda or Tremeita clothing that gave them away nor the crew cuts and surely expressions, the way they marched as a group or the implanted synthetic muscles.
It was the highly polished Nochreb black army boots that did it.
These fat-necks would have started their careers in a boot camp somewhere, most-likely East Europe and polishing their boots would have been endlessly drummed into them. Now they probably polished their boots each morning without questioning it.
The four of them strode purposely until they ducked into an alleyway they had encountered and then the Yaxingzhe lifted off a minute later, effortlessly eating the sky and shrinking away as it did so.
Before we had the opportunity to discuss our next action, our media-slabs pinged; it was Binary Johnny.
"Someone needs to get out of Neon City immediately," explained Johnny.
He wanted us to do the babysitting and now.
Johnny went on to tell us that the package was a former operator of some kind or other, had worked in covert operations or hard-infiltration.
He gave us the address where she was currently holed up in Kibogaoka Hill.
We had to drop the job at Ninety Ninth and get moving.
By the time we got to Kibogaoka Hill, night had rolled around, and so had the unabated rain. The erratic badly constructed narrow roads were beginning to flood.
Kibogaoka's shanty town could be a curious place at night, it lacked any conventional streetlighting and was only intermittently lit, relying on the arrays and strings of eclectic lamps, LEDs and spotlights gathered by its population.
As we pushed up the hill towards Johnny's address, through the downpour Koko had managed to spot the Yaxingzhe night-flier hovering above and slowly moving over the streets, grey against black, barely visible.
A stealth-flier here, when we were looking for a vet of covert ops, no way was it coincidence? How did this link to Irma and Nozi?
The address took us along a narrowing, unlit and twisting back alley of corrugated sheeting, plywood panels and tarps.
It led to a PVC door designed to look like stained oak, small cracks ran along the vinyl surface, its lustrousness long faded,
We knocked and she answered, average height but muscular with an almost gaunt face and glinting mirrored eye-implants surrounded by crows feet. Once we explained who had sent us, she gave us entry, before shutting the door eyes scanned the inky cloud-filled skies above for a moment.
The Operator told us that several of her former colleagues had vanished in the last forty-eight hours and suspected she was next. She had no idea why this was happening?
She was planning to get out of Neon City by train from The International Rail Link Hub in The Skyscraper District but doubted she could get there alive.
The longer she stayed here, the greater the risk of discovery, we needed a plan and we needed quick.
We came up with and idea, fairly basic but hopefully effective.
As a group we all went out into the rain and darkened alleyways, found a main thoroughfare and attempted to mingle in with the milling crowds.
We didn't get far before the Yaxingzhe spotted us and came banking round in the rainy sky above us. It was something we were counting on it, so we picked up the pace.
What we didn't anticipate was their willingness to open fire on a crowded streets. Staccato machine-gun fire mixed with screaming as pedestrians were murderously cut down.
We sprinted down the street until we reached a junction, then we split up into two groups.
Bill, Koko and I went one way and Trigger, Roderick and The Operative went another; or so it seemed.
Prior to leaving the hiding place, Bill and The Operative switched clothes!
Bill then activated his Mannikten implant, using the cluster of nanites that permanently inhabited his head to reshape his features to match hers. Of course Bill couldn't match the height and build and the effect wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny, but at a distance, at night and in the rain it might work.
It did work! The Yaxingzhe swept round to follow the other group with the disguised Bill. We kept on running for the tram stop, there was always the chance the ruse might be discovered. Hopefully Bill and Trigger could keep them occupied for long enough.
Utterly drenched and out of breath, we raced up the steps to the elevated tram stop. A few agonising minutes until the next tram; we watched the night sky, standing amongst the commuters under the rain-lashed drumming shelter, gulping down air and waiting.
During this time, Bill and Trigger started shouting at us over comms, something about a cockpit and needing drones? Koko pulled out her control-slab and activated Felix and Sylvester, The Operative and I watched as she punched some commands into the slab and the two gun drones flew off humming.
Koko was watching the screen on her slab and told us that they were fighting aboard the flier as our ride rolled in.
We rode it all they way to The Skyscraper District without incident. Koko was on her slab most of they way, continually directing her drones. When we were about halfway there she powered off the slab, telling us it had been dealt with?
Meanwhile I ran a sweep of The operative, there were no tracers or bugs that I could find but I had no idea if there was military spec kit that could avoid my scans?
From the tram stop it was a short transfer to the rail hub.
The massive off-white concrete domed building sported a curved tinted glass and steel-meshed roof with high semi-circular windows. It housed a major terminus as part of the international rail network.
Passing through aluminium and glass automated doors took us into a voluminous vaulted and high-ceilinged room, creating a feeling of airy open space. Its acoustics somehow softened the clamouring racket of Neon City to a tolerable background babble.
During the day sunlight would filter down through tinted glass panels, giving the hub a deceptively hazy and welcoming warmth, at night the dome would be dominated by thick meandering rivulets of water.
Pigeons fluttered amongst the exposed high beams, occasionally swooping down to raid for scraps.
A long strip of small shops, concession booths and eateries lined the interior walls of the central hall, attracting a captive audience of waiting passengers looking for food or diversions.
Information on all arrivals and departures were displayed on a massive row of screens and occasionally a synthesised, automated voice would spout an announcement over the speaker system.
After finding the platform of The Operative's train we walked across the polished cream coloured stone floor and through the milling people to get departures.
Soon The Operative was through the security gate and boarded the heavily protected, border-crossing Kiogo Engineering train, that was the last we saw of her.
Then Koko and I went back to Kibogaoka Hill to learn what had happened with the others.
The Yaxingzhe had chased them as we hoped. Bill, Trigger and Roderick returned fire but the flier wasn't even scratched by small arms fire and Roderick's explosive fletchette rounds were having minimal effect, being designed primarily for use against soft targets.
Trigger was cursing; if only he get at it with his sword!
Roderick turned to him and said that he could throw Trigger on to the flier!
Trigger was never one to waste time worrying about the shortcomings of a plan, so he agreed.
Trigger shouted at everyone else to get close to the buildings as possible, forcing the Yaxingzhe to get a lower angle.
In turn the flier was firing almost indiscriminately, its raking machine-gun fire tearing apart the fragile makeshift shanties on the hill, blowing them apart and collapsing the flimsy buildings.
Adjusting for heading, wind resistance and calculating distance, Roderick thrust his arms upwards with exactly the required force.
Trigger felt his guts tighten and slosh as he accelerated sickeningly towards the flier, it filled his view as he thumped down and almost slid off the smooth grey bodywork.
Regaining his balance on the swaying flier, Trigger looked around. The turret, no longer recessed was rotating, trying to acquire a lock on him and next to it was a disc, flush with the flier's shell; an access hatch.
Dismissing the threat of the turret, Trigger went for the hatch, grunting with effort he managed to prise it open with his gunblade, then he dropped into a dim blue tinted cockpit.
There were four soldiers, Trigger charged.
In the cramped space, Trigger was at an advantage but there were four of them and they wore top tier, costly Verskeit Haanut fully enclosed smart combat armour, the kind given to expensively trained expert soldiers to keep them alive. They were also equipped with military grade firearms.
Trigger's was on the back foot until Felix and Sylvester buzzed through the open hatch, deftly controlled by Koko.
Even with the two gun drones, it wasn't going Trigger's way, back aboard the Tram, Koko took a risk and targeted the Yaxingzhe's pilot.
Despite the raging fight going on, the pilot hadn't put the flier on to auto-controls, while concentrating on the dashboard he was caught totally unaware by Koko's attack.
After the pilot went down, the Yaxingzhe lurched sharply to one side, rotating by nearly forty-five degrees, everyone was caught off balance.
One of the soldiers staggeringly lurched for the dashboard to try and regain control but Trigger pounced at him and a rolling tussle in the unsteady cockpit ensued.
Seconds later the flier stacked into the ground, aquaplaning along the waterlogged street, sliding through the scattering crowds before coming to a crashing halt halfway through the plastic coated plywood wall of a shanty home.
No one inside the flier would be getting to their feet for a while, Bill and Rodrick ran to the downed flier and scrambled in through the hatch, they managed to take the couple of surviving soldiers prisoner.
Crowds were beginning to gather to rubberneck, soon Neon City's first responders arrived. Bill and Trigger handed over the bodies of the two dead soldiers.
Bill explained that there had been no one else aboard, he was a crisis-evaluator for Neon City's Municipal Safety Regulatory Body and this gave him authority to take ownership of crash and it's ensuing investigation. The emergency services were relieved of their obligation explained Bill.
I don't know how much of it was utter crap, but it convinced the emergency services who left the flier with Bill.
It was about this time that Koko and I returned, after some discussion, we decided what to do with the flier.
It was time to call in a couple of small favours
We pinged a call to Lady Zero and asked her to come and pick the flier up, she was the only person we knew with the rig to carry it. Then we called Alex Chinsko and asked if we could put the flier into one of his lockups so he could fix it; both agreed.
In the time it took Lady Zero to arrive, there was an opportunity to question the soldiers.
Bill got them to talk easily enough.
They were working for Nozi Kinko, he had provided them a list of targets, all ex-military with extensive top quality military implants. The soldiers had been instructed to kill the targets and take them to Irma's Funeral Home. The soldiers weren't sure what happened to the targets next, they heard rumours that the implants would be extracted from the corpses to be put into someone else in the basement.
They didn't know anything else so we cut them loose and sent the packing.
Meanwhile I had been going through the disarrayed clutter that filled the cockpit as a consequence of the battle and the crash: I found a matte black Rekhang Dohoeunqgu 9mm, a short barrelled room clearing submachinegun and basically a knock off of the more pricey Russian Konseye K4 that I decided to hang on to.
Once Lady Zero had carted the flier off, it was time to get back to Irma's Funeral Home, somehow all of this was linked.
Midnight was fast approaching and neither the rain nor the noisy revellers on Ninety Ninth had let up. The funeral home and the clinic were spots of muted darkness that interrupted the ribbon of colourful neon shop signs and flashing lights that stretched out of sight in both directions.
Trigger swept the clinic with his thermals, there was only one heat signature. We knew that implants were being brought here and they were killing people for those implants, so we decided to go in.
A buzzer rang as we pushed the door open, it led into a dingy looking reception with a plain white counter, behind it a door went elsewhere. Plastic seating was located close to the counter and walls were adorned with posters and ads for various cybernetic applications or gene enhancing and resequencing treatments. A small screen screwed high-up on a wall was playing a looping promo video for Xideti branded implants.
Behind the counter was a stocky man in his early thirties with unkept hair and an unruly beard, shabbily dressed in a cheap white button-down shirt and leaning on the counter, he was engrossed with his media-slab.
Which meant he didn't see it coming when we pulled handguns on him, he immediately surrendered. Questioning him, he denied all knowledge of the basement's existence.
Through the door behind the counter were some gloomy corridors and a couple of scruffy unhygienic looking treatment rooms used to apply implants. Searching on; we found a couple of unremarkable doors, behind the first were stairs going down.
They were old stairs, constructed when wood was still considered an abundant building material and creaked slightly underfoot as we made of our descent.
The clinic's cold whitish lighting seemed to fade into darkness as we continued down. Inky blackness fled before the LED glare of our flashlights.
The stairs became a corridor and the corridor became a room.
Fluorescents ticked and flickered into life after we had hit the switch next to the way in. The walls were exposed brickwork and the floor and ceiling were plain concrete.
The centre of the room was dominated by a large metal table. Strapped to it was a burly unconscious man, heavily built and clearly bristling with implants. Lines led from the body to a med console, its screen displayed life signs along with other puzzling metrics.
Deciding not to tamper with whatever was going on, we returned to the shop.
Pushing our prisoner for more info, he admitted that it had something to do with Mister Honda, prompting him for more, he gave us a description of Mister Honda, it matched the profile of Nozi Kinko.
Nozi was illicitly acquiring cybernetic implants and adding them on the man in the basement, obviously to strengthen the man but to what end?
There was the one remaining door, the other unremarkable door to check out, from its position, it was likely to lead into the funeral home. Indistinct voices were coming from the other side of the that door's thin material as we approached, so we listened.
The voices of three people could be heard, a woman and two men: there was talk about implants for the subject, the other team going missing and no one being unable to find the last person on the list, a woman.
After a couple of minutes, the conversation ended.
Triggers thermals showed a woman alone on the other side and a little way off, we bustled through.
The funeral home's reception area was decorated in browns and greys and filled with replica wooden furniture, a customer service desk in one corner was empty, quickly we moved into the other parts of the property
The woman, Irma we presumed, was located in a backroom mortuary, she was disrobing a corpse, using a thick-tipped black marker to circle implants when we burst in.
She was short, middle-aged and dressed plainly if neatly in a dark grey business suit. Hesitation struck her for a moment before she quickly reached for an alarm button. Not quick enough though, a hit with a stun baton put her down.
When Irma came to her senses, she found herself tied up, with the four of us staring at her.
Bill got to work and managed to pull some info out of her.
She admitted to working for Mister Honda buts he didn't know his plans and had no contact details for him, he would come here of his volition once a week to review progress on the subject. Mister Honda was next due at the funeral home in five days.
Maybe we now had the advantage on Nozi Kinko, maybe we could get the drop on him. Five days were all we had to wait.
There were there two prisoners though, no doubt they would contact Nozi at the first opportunity if we let them go and give us away. The two businesses also needed to be operated normally to allay suspicions, we couldn't do this alone.
Koko pinged a call to Yennav and explained everything, he seemed pleased with the turn of events, he told us that he would have some guys run the business for five days until Nozi Kinko returned.
Then we'd all be ready for 'Mister Honda'.
6th February 2021
It's a Saturday, I'm in the living and logged on to Meet on my PC.
This means it's time for the next session of Matakishi's Wired Neon City's campaign.
Location: Neon City.
A week had passed since our last job, I'd spent the free time in a gluttonously indulgent blend of narcotics, intoxicants, euphoriants, depressants and stimulants.
Why not? The City of Electric Dreams didn't have anything much better to do.
During daylight the apartment was relatively cool and blinds kept the harshest effects of the sun out but even so, hazy and filtered bright sunlight filled the one-bed.
Daytime found me slumped on my futon, sprawled out while drifting in and out of sleep. Hours were spent watching dust motes swirl in the light crawling across the walls, listening to the neighbours alternately playing music that rhythmically thumped through the wall and screaming and shouting at each other.
Night brought rain, constant, heavy and droning. Outside the window, a million city-lights gleamed in the nocturnal precipitation. Hitting the streets with the others, we made a nightly ritual of our sodden journeys, rolling from bar to drunken bar, hours of darkness vanishing into a foggy blurred black-hole of excess.
Inevitably, the call for work came and I rolled off the futon to reach for my media-slab, head full of broken rattling glass, mouthful of sawdust.
Martha Woldt, our last client had reached out and pinged us?
She had ambitions that we'd never have guessed, baking ambitions to be precise.
Martha was a finalist in the annual Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition. One of the many inane reality shows that bombarded Neon City viewers, albeit the most popular.
It's format was simple, contestants competed in weekly baking challenges and every week one baker would be eliminated until only five contestants remained, then the show would hold a week long grand final to determine the overall winner.
Winning a season offered myriad lucrative opportunities, including but not limited to product deals, licensing, authorship deals, sponsorships and even video show hosting roles.
Stakes were high and competition was stiff to say the least, eliminations came thick and fast, often not in the way expected!
Last year's competition had resulted in fourteen murders.
How could we help?
Martha explained that she had ordered ingredients for the first challenge; a birthday cake over the GLOWNET several times but the delivery drones kept getting shot down by sniper fire!
Martha wanted us to deliver ingredients to her at Rokkaku Dai Heights
A simple task except for the sniper: It meant that one of the other competitors was making an off-the-camera play at winning.
Finding basic information on the vid show was easy.
The show had three judges:
Chiara Tameron: owner of Cheeze Dreemz, maker of exotic cheese.
Armand Philipe: owner of Lorenzo's Cuisine Français, a well known establishment in Shibuya Terminal.
Hideki Naganuma; famous composer.
As well as Martha, there were four other contestants:
Rahool Mandal; a scientific researcher, early favourite to win.
Jeffery Cake; owner of the Copper Kettle café in Dogenzaka Hill.
Annabel Twistom; winner of last year's Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition.
Sushi-Go Matto; robotic chef who ran a bakery stall at Kibogaoka Hill.
In theory, any of them could've been fixing the competition.
Dogenzaka Hill was busy and hot, heated even further by the endless churn of humanity crowding the streets, looking for an escape by indulging in mindless consumerism.
Working our way through the ever changing maze of bodies and under the midday sun, we made our way to a couple of colourful street-marts and picked up what Martha needed, then headed over on the tram.
As the packed tram came into Rokkaku Dai Heights, we expected that the delivery would be tricky and we weren't disappointed.
Brakes protested with a skull-piercing shriek, dragging the tram to a halt at the tram stop.
If you knew what to look for, you could spot them, loitering on the low platform; half a dozen stern-faced, shaven-headed foot soldiers for hire, bulky nylon Tremeita jackets or suspiciously voluminous faux-leather Gosiyi trench coats concealing their weapons of choice.
As commuters poured out and on to the stop's sheltered platform, they were aggressively stopped and searched by the foot soldiers. Someone had been thinking ahead.
We lingered back for as much as we could but eventually we had to disembark. They turned to us and tried pushing us about but it didn't go as they expected.
The firefight was short and one-sided, by the time it was over the platform had emptied of screaming, fleeing passengers but was littered with dead or unconscious guns-for-hire.
Moving into Rokkaku Dai Heights was a risk, Martha's address took us into a dense cluster of the district's tall alabaster-white apartment blocks.
Worse still was the shanty town that had built across those rooftops, the erratic and unpredictable buildings that filled provided any number of good vantage points for an opportunistic sniper.
Rokkaku Dai Height's angular skyline was profiled against the stark over-bright blue-white sky as we squinted at it, hoping to find evidence of a sniper. There was something maybe, we had spotted a twinkle of reflected sunlight, perhaps caught by a rifle scope? Hard to be sure.
Koko sent Felix up to investigate while we watched on the control-slab. His journey was cut short as he abruptly jolted to one side, followed a fraction of a second by a short thundercrack, a supersonic boom.
A high powered round had struck the drone. For a couple of seconds Felix spiralled in a uncontrollable freefall, destroyed in a shower of spinning debris after hitting the ground.
There wasn't the luxury of delaying under cover of the platform shelter, we had to move. So we did, quickly and hugging the towers blocks, hoping to minimalize exposure.
Either it worked, or the sniper was looking watching for aerial targets. Irrespective, we made it to Martha's block.
The stairwell up to her apartment stank, but the cool concrete kept the interminable temperature at bay as we climbed the dirty, worn steps
As we turned the final corner to Martha's home we were caught on the back foot.
Six more hired thugs had been watching her apartment and waiting. Their eyes met with ours. A moment passed, imperceptibly brief where we all looked at each other motionlessly.
Then the moment was over; amongst the yelling and shouting, augmentations were triggered, people dove for cover and hands grasped for weapons.
The loud, enclosed firefight was again short and one sided. It left six more unmoving crumpled figures in the corridor.
We were taking stock of the situation when movement caught our attention.
Popping out from another corner came a smallish, short bipedal robot. An Otocha Botcaster class vid-corder robot from Shiaosha Robotics.
It introduced its designation as D4-VID.
On his head was mounted the distinctive Kuaijing telescopic lens used for all visual recordings. The Otocha's were more than just fully autonomous video recording robots. D4-VID contained the ability, software and processing power to fully edit footage in virtual real-time. He was able to create news reports and upload them to news streams in minutes.
His head turned to stare at each of us one at a time with mechanical preciseness, if robots could express excitement, D4-VID was doing it. He knew he's stumbled on a potential story.
Martha got to baking once we handed over the ingredients. We were at a loose end until the next challenge.
A couple of blocks away we found ourselves sitting in the front space of a local dive bar, shaded by large threadbare cloth umbrellas, imbuing a liquid lunch of Etiptka beer from frosted glasses.
D4-VID had followed, he knew he had a story here.
News had reached us that Rahool had taken an early lead in the first round's scoring.
It was likely that Martha would remain a target for whoever was trying to fix the competition.
There was some time until the next challenge, an opportunity for us to look into matters.
I jacked into the GLOWNET.
In the GLOWNET, arteries of data pumped through the news-feeds and chat-streams, endlessly changing twenty-four hour data trends. I flowed from vault to vault, hunting for information.
Annabel Twistom was last year's winner, it was unusual for anyone, let alone a previous winner to enter the competition a second time.
Public records showed that Annabel was married to Benedict Twistom, he was Vice Chairman of the Ethics Committee at Protobase Global, a fulfilling role no doubt.
Strictly speaking Annabel lived in the Fortified Residential District along with all the high level exec families.
She maintained a second residence in Rokkaku Dai Heights which made her eligible for entry into the competition.
Annabel took it very seriously and obviously had a lot invested in it personally. We watched a number of her vid-interviews. A forgone conclusion she thought and seemed very confident that she would win. It revealed a nasty little streak of entitlement and superiority in her.
Of course maybe she expected to win because behind the scenes, it was Protobase Global stacking the deck?
It was not an entirely convincing argument. Underhand and exploitive as Protobase Global were, making a move into the world of bakery didn't seem like the kind of thing the makers of killer zombie cyborgs would do?
Moving on to Rahool we saw he was an early favourite with the bookies, it was possible that someone was trying to push him as the winner.
He was the target of our next search.
There were files on his past, employment records, MyFaceSpace history and the rest. It all looked uniformly regular.
Which meant it was fake, had to be.
A person's GLOWNET presence might overall leave normal footprints, but dig deep, look closely at individual footprints and something, somewhere will be always be off-kilter or swing to left-field, something hidden? Something unusual?
It wasn't weird, it was normal, that was people.
When it's all normal - it's weird.
When I ran a search with heavily specified parameters on Rahool Mandal's footprints, they all looked very normal.
Unsatisfied, I went down through layers of foundational code for the data and until I reached the metal. I could see inconsistencies, irregular timestamps and inexplicable code alterations.
Stories about this sort of thing were rife on the GLOWNET, the stuff of legen but the theory was sound enough.
Someone had seeded the GLOWNET with a algorithmic acorn.
A piece of coding that grew and spread and branched off, generating and falsifying all the requisite data and information required to create a person, at least a person that might exist digitally.
The algorithm's creative ability had its limits though, limits beyond which the nature of the falsified information could be unravelled.
Up until two weeks ago Rahool had been less than a ghost, not even a figment of imagination. His existence was the product of the union between a programmer and a mathematician somewhere.
All the data created by the acorn had by necessity contained shared lines of code, if only a few but it was enough. Step-by-step it could all be led back to where it had all started. The search had uncovered who was responsible the seeding: The Soy Green Corporation.
One of Neon City's biggest manufacturers of processed foods - and they were potentially involved in rigging a baking competition? Too much of a coincidence.
Staying in the GLOWNET, I travelled digital avenues of data, followed the right-angled, swerving pulsating lines of radiance until they led me to Soy Green's colourful and friendly public-facing data-image. Behind this glowing façade was their vault.
Their security measures were easily bypassed by the protocols on my slab, then I was in.
It was a pretty standard setup for a corporation. Various partitions of memory stored information on hiring, security, payroll, financial performance, fiscal projections and so on. I put Rahool's name through a search protocol and got hits from publicity and manufacturing.
The publicity partition had the proofs and mock-ups on a range of bakery products that had been branded with Rahool's name and image as winner of the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off.
Records in the manufacturing partition showed that manufacturing time had already been allotted in Soy Green factories to producing the Rahool bakery product line.
Soy Green were making the cakes before the competition was even over.
So we now understood who had skin in the game and were rigging the competition but how, was another matter.
It was time to turn our attention in the judges.
Chiara Tameron was the owner of Cheez Dreemz, an independent business that produced and sold exotic types of cheese throughout Neon City's high streets.
Cheeze Dreemz GLOWNET data-image was a translucent orange triangular prism filled with modules of customer facing data, a constant movement of consumer bio-images came and went from the image.
What we needed would be stored in a vault deeper within the data-images memory modules.
Hacking through their pretty standard defences proved no problem and soon I was sifting through their records. Latest Financial report showed on their balance sheet that Cheeze Dreemz had received an influx of sixteen million bits in operating capital two weeks ago. No source for this influx was shown on the records.
I would need to get into their banks accounts to begin getting more info on this. That would be a serious hack that would take time.
For now, what we had would have to be enough to work with.
While I was in the GLOWNET, Trigger had been pinged on his media-slab with a message. A package from Prophet Wei had been dropped off at his apartment.
Next we turned to Armand Phillipe; he was a well known celebrity chef in Neon City and the owner of Lorenzo's Cuisine Français, originally an Italian establishment that he had bought from the titular Lorenzo.
Hacking Lorenzo's systems were easier than Cheez Dreemz, they had a smaller GLOWNET presence and lower security. Their data-vault was equally small, barely containing any information other than menus, inventory etc.
There was one block of data that was out of place, a relatively small video file.
Opening it revealed that it was slightly grainy and washed out short clip of footage recorded from internal security cameras, it was the only piece of security footage in the vault.
Watching through the footage, nothing happened for a few seconds, then it showed an argument between two men, it quickly escalated and one attacked the other, resulting in his murder. Even though the footage low quality, it was still very clear.
Putting both faces through facial recognition showed the attacker was Armand Phillipe and the victim, Lorenzo.
I guess Armand's take over of Lorenzo's had been more hostile than expected.
There was no way that Armand would simply leave evidence like this sitting on the server, particularly since there was no other footage.
Someone else must have put it there after editing it from the original, someone had been sitting on this for a while. maybe I could find proof of that?
Deep in the memory partition were the data movement logs, they showed that the video clip simply appeared on the system two weeks ago, no user was logged as dropping it in, nor was a source location listed. A dead end?
Someone had been altering the logs, someone who knew what they were doing. Another hacker.
The only reason to send the video to Armand was to blackmail him.
Two of the judges had been gotten at, one was left to investigate.
Hideki Naganuma was the last judge. Going back into the GLOWNET, I journeyed the ever-variating data-vistas, navigating the obfuscating, randomized constructs and hazards, looking for data on Hideki.
A search with directed protocols instructed to focus on unusual events and inconsistent behaviour surrounding Hideki for the past four weeks got zero hits, nothing was flagged up as unexplainable or erratic.
Hideki Naganuma seemed to be exactly what he seemed to be; a popular and well known composer who lived in Neon City.
Without more time, investigating Hideki would also have to wait.
We took the short trip to Trigger's cramped apartment and D4-VID stuck with us.
Unsurprisingly, his package contained a couple of jars of White Lotus liniment; also an address that led to Kibogaoka Hill.
Guessing Prophet Wei's angle was always hard, he floated in a grey-space somewhere between gang-leading pusher and cryptic anarchist.
Why had he given us this address? What was his deal?
For now we were content to let Wie pull the strings.
Kibogaoka Hill was home to Neon City's poorest people and biggest shanty town; the crowded makeshift settlement that dominated the hill was constructed so densely that it was figuratively built on top of itself.
Most homes were erratically sized cuboids put together from whatever materials were to hand.
Wei's address led us to something that looked altogether different.
Fenced off in a large open yard and away from the rest of the shanty town was a single isolated building. Larger by far than anything else close by, it had the mosaic look of a shanty with metal sheets, plastic panels, wooden planking and more. All the mis-fitted windows had been boarded up.
Something was off though.
A small steel-framed chicken-wire covered gate was the only way in and it had been secured by some kind of cut-price rentaguard that also patrolled the perimeter.
Before deciding to go in, Koko sent Kevin to scout around. She also patched D4-VID into Kevin's feed.
Kevin went high, circling from a distance, giving us a high angle view. Unlike the gravelly unpaved paths that meandered through the shantytown, much of the the yard was covered with suspicious dark mud that had been baked dry and scarred with cracks by the fierce sun. One side of the main building that faced into the yard was furnished with a pair of loading bays.
Parked up were a couple of Cheeze Dreemz branded sky-freighters, a pair of workers with augmented muscle-frames were busy loading them up with shiny stainless steel two hundred litre milk vats?
Along one side of the fence ran a number of smaller boxy grimy looking sheds and something akin to a stable.
Several penned off squares of land containing animals dotted the yard.
It was looking a lot like Kibogaoka Hill's idea of a farm yard. A milk production plant for Chiara Tameron and Cheeze Dreemz.
Whey then, were there women here....?
As instructed, Kevin dipped to a lower altitude and we got a better look at those outbuildings. The pens did indeed contain animals, as did the stable. Horses, cows, pigs, goats, cats and dogs, even exotics like camels and llamas?
Was milk being farmed from all these animals?
There wasn't much we could see in the outbuildings, glimpses of glass, plastic and steel apparatus through the patchy walls.
Trigger gave the entire place a once-over with his thermals, the results were surprising.
He counted about sixty people, mostly women judging by the profiles of their heat signatures, grouped together in threes and fours throughout the building, seemingly in different rooms.
How was Wei involved with the bake off competition? Is that why he had sent us to this place?
They was a way we could possibly get info on the occupants. Quick as I could I went into the GLOWNET and hunted down the deliberately anonymous Universal Credit data-vault, a low profile blank granite brick of a data-image, unfriendly and unwelcoming.
Despite this, bio-image traffic was typically heavy as users bitterly fought the faceless behemoth for their rights.
I avoided the traffic, looking to go deep into the system. The hacking protocols on my data-slab circumvented their security cycles easily and I was into their memory-modules .
Their data-modules existed in a fairly well organised structure and I quickly found that about forty women had their Universal Credit addresses registered here. Time to find these women.
Rentaguard didn't try and stop us going through the steel-framed gate into the yard, they weren't paid enough to tangle with us. We went across the yard to the building.
The dried out and cracked mud snapped and broke under our steps like the crisp chocolate coating on a cake under a spoon, except underneath was nothing sweet. The disgusting stink of crap vented into the air as our boots sank into the mire beneath.
Inside the main house it was as dilapidated as it appeared outside. Wooden planked flooring filled gloomy, windowless corridors that connected to locked rooms, within which were dim lit by thin streams of dazzling sunshine that poured through irregular wall gaps.
It felt somehow strangely empty, wood creaked under loud echoing footsteps, yet nearly every room was occupied by incarcerated women in shabby loose clothing?
They seemed happy to talk to us.
These women were mostly being kept here against their will, whoever was running this place - and it looked Cheeze Dreemz was; they were collecting the women's universal credit payments and leaving them imprisoned without access to their accounts.
They explained why they were held captive here, turns out it wasn't just the animals that were providing milk to Cheeze Dreemz....!
We told them that we could find temporary housing for them if they wanted to leave and once out of here, they could then regain control of their Universal Credit accounts.
About half refused.
I returned to the Universal Credit data-vault and found the data on the twenty women who were currently unwilling to leave the milk farm and after some alteration of the records, control of the accounts returned to their rightful owners.
Jacking out, we turned to the women and showed them they had control of their accounts now. Ten more were convinced to leave.
That left another ten or so women still unwilling to leave, no amount of convincing or talking would persuade them to leave. Time to cut our losses.
Koko pinged Yennav Rybasei, her Russian mob contact, in his day job, Yennav ran The Grand Union Tran Metropolitan hotel, he would have more than enough spare room to put them up for a while.
Koko got Yennav to send a bunch of his guys to collect the women up and ferry them to safety.
D4-VID had been diligently recording all of it, he seemed very happy with the results.
It was also ammunition we were going to have to use against Chiara Tameron.
We had leverage on both Armand Phillipe and Chiara Tameron, only Hideki Naganuma was left.
The investigation into Hideki needed to be continued. Was he also getting squeezed by Soy Green? How?
We widened the search to include family. His only family in Neon City was a sister.
Okan Ikomi lived in a pretty unremarkable life The Skyscraper District, somewhere among the dull, concrete forest of characterless tall grey corporate towers.
Finding her address was easy.
Knocking on her cream coloured UPVC door got no answer.
Security camera coverage in The Skyscraper District was generally good - and we'd hacked their storage servers before. Getting into their system was easy.
I downloaded all the relevant footage I could and jacked in, got a search algorithm running through the footage at intervals in high speed while I observed.
It worked, there was a hit.
Fine detail was lost in the dimly lit, typically grainy, slightly out of focus footage with washed out colours. It didn't matter though, we saw enough.
Earlier on, a pair of individuals in yellow two-tone corporate-styled windbreakers with matching caps had gone to Okan's apartment.
I watched with virtual eyes flicking over the silent footage; the door was opened by who must have been Okan, dressed in joggers and a sweater, the two men then rushed forward, shoving her back into her apartment and out of camera shot.
A minute later they walked back out looking left and right, carrying an unmoving person-sized package.
We had a timestamp for the black-bagging and now knew when to look.
We managed to track them back to a nearby asphalt delivery pad and a small, yellow two-tone Nguayng Oianong class sky freighter branded with Eggybread.
Eggybread; The Snack Food Of Champions was a line of processed snacks produced by The Soy Green Corporation.
So they had been putting their foot on Hideki's neck.
They lugged their bundle into the back of the Oianong, climbed in and powered up.
Once the small freighter had lifted off in a cloud of kicked-up dust, it banked round and headed up for the sky-lanes and despite our best efforts, we couldn't keep track of it for long with.
The black-baggers - or their bosses had gotten sloppy though, there was a lead to follow.
Okan was safe at least until the bake off was over, they would have her stashed somewhere safe but it had to be off the books, somewhere that didn't leave a paper trail back to Soy Green so easily.
Jacking into the GLOWNET again, I returned to The Soy Green Corporation data-vaults and began sifting through their documentation and finances
Running a search algorithm got us the info we needed.
Recently Soy Green had taken out a very short term lease on a small property, I looked at the address; we were going back to Kibogaoka Hill.
The day had nearly passed and thanks to Neon City's weird microclimate, coffee-black clouds, thick with moisture had been menacingly accumulating in the darkening sky for the last couple of hours.
Avoiding the last dregs of rush hour we took the tram into Kibogaoka Hill. Night was stretching out, blanketing Neon City as rows and banks of city-lights buzzed and flickered into life.
By the time we arrived the nightly deluge was underway.
Nowhere else in Neon City was the rainfall louder than in Kibogaoka Hill, it thrashed down into the makeshift steel and plastic roofs with the drone of a thousand mistiming drummers.
The back alleys of Kibgoaka Hill spread out unreliably across the hill. Narrow, tall and unlit, at night they turned into a network of black water channels, fed by endless rivulets of rainwater streaming off every rooftop in every overpacked alley.
Halfway up the hill in one of these encroaching back alleys is where we found the address, an unremarkable shanty house wedged in a row of unremarkable shanty houses.
This close to the address had left us with no place to hide and observe. No time for subtly; Trigger ran his thermals over the address; seven signatures.
One prisoner, six guards, had to be.
These hired goons seemed to operate in sixes.
Trigger was happy to prove the theory right: Splashing through the puddles he took the door down with a flying kick and stormed in, we waded in behind.
Under a roof the thundering rain was even louder! In comparison, the screaming and shouting seemed somehow subdued, giving the fight a otherworldly quality as it spilled into the different rooms.
Soon all six thugs had been dealt with and we freed Okan, the slight Japanese woman with glossy black hair and dressed in the same joggers and sweater gave us a fearful look with wide eyes.
Bill smoothly calmed Okan down, she was persuaded that we were here to help her and was genuinely grateful. She asked to be taken to her brother.
Hideki was also grateful to see his sister and thanked us profoundly for rescuing her. Then Hideki gave us a note that had been delivered to him, telling him to vote for Rahool. Now that his sister was free, he would vote for who he thought should win.
One judge down, two to go.
We had dirt on Armand but we needed to know it was legit.
I contacted Binary Johnny, he was more plugged in than most hackers and might have the low-down on who had hacked Lorenzo's.
He did and gave me a name: Steel Witch. I told Johnny to get her to contact me
Soon I was pinged by Steel Witch and asked her for on the footage she had planted on Armand Phillipe's system. She was only willing to talk at a face-to-face, we arranged a meet at The Copper Kettle.
Located in the bustling retailer quarter of Dogenzaka Hill, The Copper Kettle was a throwback to a bygone era, a time past imagined to be elegant and tasteful. Inside it looked like a piece of history with chintzy themed fixtures and fittings, round tables covered in lacey tablecloths and decorated with fake silverware and fine replica China crockery sitting on elaborate doilies were surrounded by faux wooden upholstered Windsor chairs.
A counter stacked with trays, cups and kettle pots ran along one wall.
By a peculiar turn of coincidence, Jeffery Cake, competitor in the bake off was the proprietor of The Copper Kettle.
Chairs scraped on the replica tiled floor as they were pulled out and we sat, ordering some genuine replica snacks. Outside, raindrops trickled their weaving paths down the large front windows as crowds hustled passed in the streetlight-lit downpour.
A few minutes later Steel Witch came in.
Steel Witch was young and skinny, to the point of malnutrition. She had purple hair, wore a black and white top with voluminous mash sleeves, tight black leggings, heavy boots and a black choker. A lighter shade of foundation gave her face a paler complexion contrasted by thick eyeliner, black lipstick, various facial piercings and tattoos.
Every hacker that ever lived sat somewhere on a sliding scale, at one end was cause, the other, cash.
I reckoned she slanted towards the cause end of the scale.
She knew who we were, joined our table and ordered some tea.
We spoke over drinks about the footage of Lorenzo's murder that she had acquired and Steel Witch admitted that she had kept copies for herself and her employer whom she did not divulge.
Then we explained that D4-VID was going to release the footage on to the news streams, she and her employer would lose their hold on Armand.
Steel Witch shrugged, sipping her tea, she told us she had been payed and was okay with it, too bad for her employer she added.
D4-VID put the footage of Lorenzo's murder on to the GLOWNET news streams then released his expose on the Cheeze Dreemz human milk farm, ensuring that Chiara Tameron was correctly implicated in it as the owner.
Rentacop couldn't ignore Armand's murder of Lorenzo, it was too high profile. He was promptly arrested and charged.
In the ensuing trial, it was revealed that he had murdered Lorenzo over a mayonnaise recipe.
After news of the human milk farm had begun to circulate, a few hours later producers of The Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off had no choice but to remove Chiara from the show's panel.
We couldn't prove that she had been bribed but proving she was involved in forced human milking was enough.
We had sabotaged The Soy Green Corporation's attempt to sabotage the show. There was no reason for them to be involved anymore. The roving gangs in Rokkaku Dai Heights disappeared, as did the snipers.
Rahool did not make any further appearances in the competition, it was explained that his absence was due to visiting India to see his sick grandmother.
Rahool was not seen in Neon City again.
The show proceeded with Hideki left as the only judge and ran it's full course.
A week later the results were announced.
First prize went to Sushi-Go Matto.
Second was Jeffery Cake.
Third was Martha Woldt
Annabel Twistom took to MyFaceSpace to unironically complain that the competition had been rigged!
The night wasn't over for us though.
Vlegei Kreshoma, itinerant Neon City gambler we'd first met as he was being mugged pinged us a little later.
Last time we saw Vlegei, he'd been cleaned out so hard in a game that he couldn't pay us for the bodyguarding gig we'd just done for him!
He was pinging us to pay us our dues - and to hire us as bodyguards again.
A high stakes game had rolled into the Fuku Bakuchi Casino in the Fortified Residential District, the casino was run by Yakuza gang; The Golden Rhinos, it was said that their boss Red Tongue Suko would be playing.
"It's an opportunity to make a lot of money," Vlegei informed us cheerfully.
Or, it was an opportunity to get himself killed....
Later that night we had one last call.
Antin Grova, trash-art sculptor who lived in the Rokkaku Dai Heights was pinging us to make an announcement.
His latest work, a kinetic statue had been completed and was currently on display to the public at a park in The Heights.
Antin told us that the sculpture was of us! Anyone who knew us would readily recognise the subject matter.
He had called it; Heroes For Hope.
Maybe it would've been more accurate to call it Heroes For Hope - and a big payday.
31st January 2021
It's a Sunday and I'm logged into Meet on PC.
Time for the 2nd and concluding part of Those Dark Places' introductory adventure run by Matt.
Location: Argent III.
Doris and Cyrox were standing just on the inside of one of Argent III's ancillary airlocks. They had removed their helmets after confirming the air was breathable.
They were staring down an arrow-straight fairly long corridor that soon melted into the gloom. Argent class ships were big.
They called out, no reply came.
The extremely dim lighting was tinted with a slight green hue; non-critical emergency lighting.
After stripping out of their cumbersome EVA suits and stowing them away in an alcove, Doris and Cyrox cautiously proceeded down the unpainted metal-grey corridor.
In the silence their suit's underboots seemed to clank against the steel decking thunderously no matter how lightly they walked.
It took them a minute to realise that as well as silence, there was no subtle vibration to be felt through the floor.
They looked at each other.
"Perhaps the powerplant is offline," offered Doris?
Continuing on, they spotted mould growing in the top corners of the corridor, they knew it was a sign of moisture rising and accumulating along the ceiling and probably indicated prolonged faults of some type in life-support.
Things were not looking promising.
The corridor ended at a closed steel door in a wall, it was the only way on. Cyrox took a deep breath and opened the door.
As the door cracked open the pair of them were immediately flooded with horrific smell; a mix of rot, urine and crap, it gave them the urge to retch, they gagged for a few moments, their faces screwed in shock but they held on to the contents of their stomachs.
It took a few moments for them to get their breathing under control and proceed.
There was no light coming through the narrow opening they had left open.
Opening the door wider, they shone flashlights through. It was dark and the lights showed years of smeared results of years of neglect on the walls, the room was filled with filthy old looking barrels, of every shape and size?
Doris and Cyrox had no idea what the room's original use was for?
No one was in the room, there was one other door out. Safe to enter.
Entering and sweeping their flashlights over the room, at the all the barrels, they saw the original colours had long faded, stained now with thickly caked layers of dripped filth and grime, some were empty, others contained brownish water. Pipes and tubes ran from barrel to barrel, moving material from one to another.
Cyrox had a cursory examination and it looked like a rudimentary waste recycling system. Water reclamation to be precise.
It looked still in use, Cyrox wondered what had happened to the original systems? Was this in use? Were their survivors? Why hadn't they seem someone yet?
One other item caught Cyrox's eye, something was plugged into the system, something new that was not brown or caked in crap and looked relatively clean and well maintained.
He found and checked it's serial number, it matched codes from the decommissioned station?
Something had definitely happened there and somehow continued here.
There was only one way onward, Doris and Cyrox took it.
A featureless steel panelled corridor took them into a large and lengthy room, again unlit except this time, for some small strangely shaped bright spots of golden light near the floor. The room was filled with rows of large rounded, flattened cylindrical shapes.
This room seemed also empty, but Doris and Cyrox could hear a sound akin to a gently simmering pan on a hob?
Once inside, it took Doris and Cyrox a moment to realize that the cylinders were century old long-sleep pods. Over a hundred of them, enough here for the entire crew. They were mostly dark and looked inactive, except for a few, in a cluster together that were emitting the spots of light.
Doris and Cyrox searched the pods. None of them contained any people, alive or otherwise. The pods themselves looked completely inactive, jabbing some of the controls got no response, dead, no power was coming to the pods.
They carefully went over and investigated the lit pods. These pods were open and the light was coming from a series of what looked like some sort of portable heat lamps that had been set up inside the the open pods and were connected to wall sockets. There was at least some power in the Argent III.
The pods' sleeping areas had been filled with plants - fruit mostly, heat lamps were being used to grow them.
Along one of the long walls was a recessed alcove draped in shadow, it likely would have contained some sort of control panels for managing the pods and was definitely the source of the faint simmering.
Doris and Cyrox moved round to it, flashlights banishing shadows, as they got closer, they were inundated with a sickly sweet smell.
The alcove contained a vat, thin wisps of steam were curling upwards from the simmering and bubbling yellow liquid within.
Looking closer, Doris and Cyrox would see some dark, undulating, curving shapes just beneath the seething surface. They went closer.
They reeled back in revulsion. The vat was packed with layers of limbs and body parts, not dismembered or amputated but whole and undamaged.
After a cautious examination, it looked like this was the part of an outdated cloning process, one that hadn't been used for decades and was now outlawed.
Doris and Cyrox had a brief discussion, why were they growing clone limbs? Why were they needed? Had these limbs been grown to eat? What had happened here?
It had gone from not promising to outright horrific.
There was one other door out of the long-sleep chamber.
They followed the dark corridor and it went to another door. Beyond the door led into another unlit room, Doris and Cyrox swept their flashlights across the darkness, it was fairly open, seemed semi-circular and almost domed.
The room looked like it may have been the bridge, at least it may have been at some time in the past. Command consoles, wall panels, seating, all stripped away and seemingly random random junk had now replaced it, littering the barely recognisable room.
What once were the viewports had been wielded shut with the salvaged panelling. The room's now exposed reinforcing struts rose up from the floor and up along what would have been cavities in the walls to curve and congregate in the centre of the ceiling like the vaulted arches of some metallic cathedral. A place of bizarre holy sanctity.
Further investigation revealed half cleared and uncleaned crockery was scattered across a number of old crates looking like they were used as makeshift tables.
There were makeshift sleeping cots here too, at least fifteen of them and with the requisite filthily stained bedding.
People had lived here and looking at the evidence, still did.
Doris and Cyrox began discussing how to proceed when they both jumped at the sound of gasping breath.
Instinctively, the pair of them shone their flashlights in the same direction, at a box pressed up against one of the support struts.
The box was small, about one metre across, open fronted but barred. The lights lit up a woman's face inside, pale and distraught.
An equally pale and thin, scarred and scabbed arm came through the bar, reaching out.
"Please be real," a raspy, quiet voice. "Please be real.".
"We have to get out.".
It wasn't too hard to remove the bars. The woman crawled out tentatively, swaying as she stood. Slowly she stretched, joints distinctly clicking as she did so.
She introduced herself as Manuela: One of the missing crew from the station.
"We were wrapping up our decommissioning job when they came aboard through the airlock, they were thin and strangely white-skinned," said Manuela, continuing. "They attacked us, Killed Williams and took Batiste and me prisoner. After that they started searching through our gear, looking for food I think. Then they took us, what they wanted and used our shuttle to get here, I've been locked up ever since.".
The crew questioned Manuela and asked if she knew what was going on?
Manuela said she thought the skinny white people were very strange, when they looked worried they would have good vibes and stand still humming with their eyes closed hoping things would get better.
They seemed to have no language and communicated in grunts. Manuela believed that they must've been descendants of the original crew, several generations removed.
They knew nothing about the engines or powerplant and were using Batiste to try and repair them. The ship's powerplant had developed a fault sometime ago and now had a radiation leak. This had led to widespread mutations among them.
When they sent Batiste back to rest, he said that he's probably already dead from exposure.
When asked about her injured arm, Manuela visibly shook and took a deep breath. She explained that they took chunks of flesh out of her to clone, which was something they understood. The cloned body parts were used as food. Manuela had to breathe deeply for a moment
Manuela then urged the crew to leave, they had been here too long, they needed to leave. Doris and Cyrox agreed, but there was a problem.
There were now three people, but only two EVA suits. If there were any suits aboard the Argent III, they would have to go hunting for them and hope they were still usable
The crew asked if they could reach the shuttle. Manuela was doubtful, it was on the far side of the ship and would probably mean encountering the inhabitants.
The crew did come up with another plan.
Along with Manuela, the crew followed their footsteps back to the airlock. They advanced every step of the way warily through the darkness. With only flashlights to show the route.
They listened carefully along the way too, they shouldn't encounter anyone, unless they had missed a door?
After what seemed like hours, they were back at the airlock, they contacted Big Ounce who was back on The Icarus. They told him that he needed to get some weapons out of the secured locker, suit up, grab a spare suit and get over.
Luckily Ounce was The Icarus' security officer and had access to the secured locker, hastily he grabbed some taser pistols, a spare suit and his own suit.
Suiting up alone was a cumbersome process but eventually Ounce was done.
The walk to the Argent III's airlock wasn't too long but it was intense and made Ounce sweat.
At the airlock it was a long fifteen minutes for Doris, Manuela and Cyrox to wait. One then the other suited up again.
As time passed they could hear periodic, distant faint grunts and cries echoing down through the silent chambers.
Something was up?
Eventually Ounce arrived at the airlock, both doors were sealed and he got aboard the Argent III.
Once out, he handed the suit to Manuela and taser pistols to Doris and Cyrox.
Ounce and Cyrox stood guard, tightly gripping their tasers as Doris spent the time required to help Manuela into a suit.
As they kept lookout, Ounce and Cyrox saw something materialise out of the gloom. Slender and pale with thin wispy hair and riddled with sores, tumours and growths, it was one of the inhabitants.
He stopped dead when he spotted the crew, his grotesque, barely human face went slack with shock, he then began to scream, turning to run.
In that moment of hesitation, he had allowed Ounce and Cyrox to get a bead on him and open fire. Ounce managed to land a shot and he crashed to the ground instantly unconscious.
The two of them kept their pistols raised at the corridor, their eyes peeled and their breathing steady.
No one else came.
The wait was agonising, eventually Manuela was safely in her suit and they all backed into the airlock, closing the inner doors.
A minute and all the air had been evacuated, the outer door silently slid open and they were out.
The crew carried Manuela across the hull of the mute giant ship back to The Icarus over EVA and arrived without mishap.
Once inside, Ounce and Cyrox hurried to the bridge, stripping and discarding their suits like so much trash off along the way. They waisted no time powering up all systems and began a burn at the earliest opportunity.
No one wanted to hang around.
Having plotted the return course to Titan, The Icarus burned as hard as safety tolerances permitted for the next three days.
All the time the crew kept an eye out on the rear cameras and view ports, watching as Argent III and Viduus III silently shrank away, merging into a single white dot in the blackness.
They knew Argent III didn't have propulsion and couldn't follow.... even so....
During the three days, they also tended to Manuela's health and wrote their reports to Cambridge Wallace, they wouldn't get a salvage bonus but it was someone else's headache now.
Then it was time for the long-sleep back to Titan.
30th January 2021
Saturday evening is here again and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC in the living room.
It's time for session 10 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Highway Zero.
Midnight had come; Neon City was dematerialising into night's distant blur, consumed by the hazy spray of violently crashing rainfall.
It felt a strangely secluded march through the downpour, collars up and heads down. Navigating the endless crush of pedestrians and ever increasing puddles.
The Ferry Terminal was at the far eastern end of Highway Zero and Binary Johnny was waiting there for us.
He was making another covert run into Oshin Amalgamated territory to sabotage some excavator robots and foil their plan to flood part of Neon City. We'd worked with Johnny before and he wanted us to back him up as muscle.
The terminal stood apart from the urbanised glut that ruled much of Neon City, it was a matter of necessity since the structure straddled the lip of the waterfront.
A three storey high setback with a steel girder skeleton under a skin of polymer walls and doors, windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. The terminal's harsh white lighting blazed out into the rainy night like an artificially lit greenhouse.
Inside were several rooms linked by short corridors, a safety-glass fronted ticket office, a steamy concession cubicle selling coffee and snacks and waiting rooms where the subdued murmur of hushed talk hung in the air.
People stood or sat, most waiting to catch the ferry, some to escape the rain. The over-bright strip lighting highlighted the peeling beige paint and worn grey flooring, lines of chocolate brown curving plastic seats were bolted to the floor along the walls.
On the far side of the terminal, nearest to the bay exit was Johnny, he was sitting and staring out through the huge windows.
At night the bay was an vast, unlit and impenetrable inky body of fluid, only discernible thanks to the reflected city lights that bobbed along on undulating waters.
The exit went to a covered walkway that led to the plain concrete wharf that served the ferry service. We exchanged pleasantries with Johnny, there was still a little time to wait.
The service was the only way to reach Diver City Island and it was the only reason the ferries still existed.
They were a trio of old Ysekoe electrically powered, moderately sized, steel tubs fitted exclusively for passengers. We watched as one of the them sailed in and docked at the wharf, in the rain and under the weak spotlights it looked particularly dingy. Its once crisp white and blue livery had faded, dulled now, by time, layers of grime and stained with long smears of rust dripped from the bolts that held the ferry's steel plating together.
Even this late at night there was a demand for the ferry, a few minutes later and we were among the passengers had streamed aboard, then the ferry was underway Diver City Island.
A lump of rock located at the eastern side of the bay and mostly known for housing the Diver City Neon Plaza, yet another of Neon City's vast and excessive shopping malls that lured in consumers from across all the districts.
An ad blurb famously pronounced that Diver City Island had a zero crime rate due to the diligence of the Diver City Zaibatsu, an elite all volunteer police force. Of course we knew that was rubbish, because no one was stopping us from going there!
Other than the mall, there were only two other features of note on the island.
The Last Guardian. a giant mech-like robot construct that stood a motionless watchful guard over the island and the Oshin Amalgamated Saline Plant, ostensibly an ecological reclamation centre. We knew better though.
That's why it was the Saline plant that we were interested in, specifically the Robot Maintenance Facility.
Our arrival at Diver City Island was without event, we disembarked and waited. All the other passengers were of course making the short walk to the mall, a rising monolithic shape underlit by a hundred spotlights and blazing multi-coloured neon signs, silhouetted against Neon City's light polluted blood orange-red skyline.
Once the crowd had thinned out, we skirted the enormous building, heading west towards our target.
From a vantage point we had found and through the late night deluge, we could observe the plant.
Work on the Saline Plant was clearly in the early stages, an open and largely flat, earthen construction zone, dotted with several clusters of small prefabricated portable offices, sandy mounds, piles of building materials and work machinery, surrounded by a four metre high razor wire-topped wall that ran the entire perimeter.
Towards the centre was a large hangar-like building. This was where we'd find the excavator robots informed Johnny.
We continued casing the site: Euyrailad motion detectors were present, searchlights, alarms as well. There were roving gun drones and uniformed rentaguards patrolling with dogs.
As the patrols and drones went round, we saw that they weren't triggering any alarms, the on-site security system must have somehow tagged them as friendlies. Possibly they were carrying actual tags?
I jacked into the GLOWNET. The mundane blandness of the construction site was wiped from my brain. replaced by metamorphosing digital geometry decorated in vivid mainlined colours.
The construction site had a small data-vault, its image; a hexagonal pyramid branded with the Oshin Amalgamated penguin logo and colours.
An almost invisible data-flow bled out from the vault and disappeared into the pulsating horizon, impossible to spot unless you know what you're looking for. No doubt it connected to a main Oshin server-vault.
Oshin weren't expecting trouble here, getting through the security was easy.
There wasn't any data to speak of here, just a stack of protocols.
I checked them out, they were here to manage the security systems, it was the soft spot we were looking for, our way in.
I went further into the system and found what I was looking for, a fairly simple set of protocols managing the motion detectors.
If the motion detectors picked up anything that it was not recognised by its system, a response protocol was instructed immediately trigger the alarm protocols, which in turn would set off a series of alerts and alarms, both locally and off-site.
I got into the response protocol code and simply deactivated the instruction to trigger alarms. From a one to a zero.
This meant if and when the motion detectors spotted us, they would do nothing about it.
This just left the guards, dogs and spotlights to avoid.
Timing it carefully, Trigger picked his moment to climbed the chain link fence and at the top cut a length of the razor-wiring away, his Ashirada arm augmentation made it easy. After this we all managed to clamber over the wall.
Kicking up dirt, we ran for cover. Inside the walls much of the ground was open and sweeping searchlights were a risk, as were roaming patrols.
Patiently we went from cover to cover until we reached a side door in the hangar. It towered over us, we hadn't appreciated its size at a distance.
Inside the space felt vast, the furthest reaches swallowed by darkness.
Industrial sized pendant lights hung from exposed rafters and dim spots of weak light draped over rows of gigantic construction robots.
Still by the entrance, Johnny pointed at one robot in particular.
It was a Paakutoda class Nasuran Industries construction robot. It resembled a giant armoured, dull-steel coloured octopus, seventeen metres across and high. Covered in an array of sensors and equipped with segmented robotic tentacles that provided underwater motion, incredibly strong but equally precise in their movements and actions.
As we quietly moved, the Paakutoda's motors growled and it rotated it's position a few degrees, thumping loudly as it settled again.
"It's been locked into guard mode," whispered Johnny. "Without the remote access controls, the only way to disarm it is to get into the cabin near the top."
Captain Noodles volunteered to do this, he was small, fast and might avoid detection. He lithely jumped and soundlessly ran his way to the cabin without triggering a response. His paws however, couldn't get at the cabin's lock. Denied, he came back down dejectedly.
Koko knew locks better than any of us and her Ashirada implants allowed her to easily scale the interior wall. Koko then cautious shuffled along a rafter and lowered herself by rope on to the robot and began working on the lock.
A couple of minutes later, we heard her cursing under her breath over comms, she couldn't open the locks.
By now Trigger had had enough.
"Distract the robot," he said over comms.
Koko had pulled herself back up to the rafter, so she made some noise. The robot rotated again, stopping and starting several times in quick succession, unable to triangulate Koko's position directly above.
Trigger sprinted, bound up the robots central body and arriving at the cabin. With a thrust of his street-katana and a hefty pull, he jimmied the lock, springing it open. The internal sensors detected Trigger when he jumped into the pilot's seat and the robot powered down.
We were in.
I scrambled up to the cab and with my slab and jacked in. My vision blurred for a moment as I acclimatised to the system. Unlike the GLOWNET, this was a simple static code structure, I instinctively flicked through files like flicking through pages of an old style glossy paper catalogue and eventually accessed the lowest code level, the closest to the metal.
Then I fed it a Trojan, a little discrete slice of code disguised as an instruction interpreter that gave us full remote access to the octopus.
It was time to leave, we exited the hangar, avoided the patrol patterns and circling spotlights. Returned to our insertion point and then, out!
Outside of the saline plant, Johnny was free to push his sabotage virus on to the Paakutoda in safety. At some point the virus would exploit the robot's networking function to spread to the other robots and hit them all.
Hopefully, even when they cleared the virus out, they wouldn't catch the Trojan and Johnny could simply push the next iteration of the virus back on to the Paakutoda.
It was time to get back to the ferry, heavy rain was pelting , drenching us in darkness. Ahead was the shoreline, we followed the wharf lights as they danced madly through the curtain of falling raindrops
It was still a couple of hours until dawn when our return ferry docked with a shunt at Highway Zero. The rain hadn't let up and neither had Neon City's unsleeping population.
We were about to make our way back towards the tramline when Captain Noodles picked up something, his curious nature had made him stretch and sniff the air then stalk off?
We followed and he led us a fishmongers on the eastern edge of Highway Zero, close to the bay.
Fish were one one the few truly fresh foods that could be acquired easily in Neon City. The advantage of a major conurbation that sprawled on to the edge of coastal waters. Although, it being the Neon City Bay, it didn't pay to look too closely at the catch of the day.
A small crowd had gathered, drawn by the commotion. Phineous Phish was a fishmonger's shop right in the middle of a row of independent retailer units, it's logo read The Phreshest Phish You Can Phind!
Agonising alliteration aside; it had a fairly old fashioned, almost quaint frontage of brick and painted replica wood, with a large shop window that displayed white boxes filled with fish sitting on blankets of ice.
Inside was a glass counter displaying more fish.
Outside though, was a middle-aged man, presumably the proprietor and dressed in an Phineous Phish apron, he was waving his arms and shouting angrily about thieves, he was also covered in what we surmised were fish guts that had been dunked in some sort of slime?
Bill managed to calm him down, he was Phineous, the shop owner. He told Bill about the penguins!
Four penguins had come into his shop, the largest had distracted him by regurgitating on him! Meanwhile the other three had stolen fish, the four of them had then fled.
It had all happened a few minutes ago.
We didn't know anything about penguins but were pretty sure that their usual behaviour didn't involve thievery.
They must have been uplifted penguins, genetically altered and bio-enhanced to increase cognitive function, physical application and communication ability.
Even amongst the early-morning suited wage monkeys, late-night gangers, all-day street walkers and stoned revellers on the overcrowded streets of Neon City, penguins would be easy to track.
Hacking various security cameras showed four penguins waddling their way to the tram line. Footage showed that they swiped in with their Ostrea Transit Cards and then take the tram for Sky Dinosaurian Square, we knew that was where the tramline terminated. The only way out of there was Sunshine Metro or a sky-taxi.
I had hacked the transit system so many times I practically had my own login. Accessing their system was easy now and I looked for travel data on the four penguins, there were too many cards swiping into the system simultaneously to narrow it down.
Sky Dinosaurian Square was our next destination.
It was still an hour before dawn and sheets of rain kept on noisy pouring on the packed tram as it rumbled its way into the centre of Sky Dinosaurian Square.
A sprawling dinosaur-themed amusement park that dominated the district, Sky Dinosaurian Square was the biggest tourist and consumer pull in Neon City after Ninety Ninth Street and it's distractions, hospitalities and attractions were more family friendly.
Getting off the tram, we found ourselves in an open puddle filled circular paved area lit by floodlights.
Nauseatingly cheery music looped out of streets speakers and a colourful LED sign announced: Dinosaur Square.
Stalls and stands decorated in primary colours and selling sugary drinks, candy floss, ice cream, souvenirs, tourist tat and more lined the square.
Even at this time, people would be dragging their children here, crowds and the queues as heavy as any time.
Staff in dinosaur costumes patrolled the square, protected from spiteful, screaming sugar-fuelled children by rentaguard.
In the night sky flew autonomous anamorphic pterodactyls, screeching their digital screeches as they swooped over the square, dipping in and out of the light.
To the east against the faintest streaks of dawn light we could see a small silhouetted train speedily twisting and undulating its way along the still-lit skeletal shape of an enormous roller-coaster.
Unless the penguins had taken the Sunshine Metro, they had to be somewhere here?
Koko sent Kevin up to do a high altitude sweep and she found something.
To the south east were some ponds.
The ponds were a series of sealed and self-contained ecological water habitats. When the amusement park had received approval, it had stipulated that a percentage of the park had to be given over to educational attractions. The ponds were that percentage.
The crowds thinned out considerably as we got closer to the ponds, no one came to a place called Sky Dinosaurian Square for the ponds.
We watched for a while, until we spotted penguins!
When asked, the staff told us that they thought it was some sort of public relations stunt?
Once the staff had gone about their business, we went down to the ponds, their rocky banks turned out to fabricated from durable grey polymer. The penguins were there, eating fish, caught red-handed so to speak.
We spoke with the penguins, it was hard to tell but they seemed happy to talk with us.
Up until recently they had been employed in Rokkaku Expo Stadium at the Sea Life Attraction but events had taken a turn for the worse.
They had recently been laid off and to compound matters, because they were not classified as human, they did not qualify for Universal Credit.
Theft was only way to get food.
Koko piped up with a suggestion, perhaps they could work as brand ambassadors for the transport authority?
They seemed amenable to the suggestion and we knew someone who might be able to help: Silai Granskina, we were tight with him so we contacted him and put him in contact with the penguins.
By now the rain had stopped and a band of rosy colour was seeping into the cloudless eastern sky. Soon, along with the sun, the temperature would begin to soar.
It had been a long day, soon we would be hitting a straight twenty four hours awake, so we headed home, I could hear the raspy buzz of fatigue in my ears.
I was knocking down twice the recommended Toaizou painkillers; lunchtime had come too soon and sleep had been too short. There was a sharp stinging sensation in my ocular implants and the edge needed to be taken off.
Five minutes ago we'd been pinged on a call from Antin Grova, the up-and-coming urban sculptor who lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
He needed our help. More precisely he told us; a customer or associate of his did.
The son of this associate had gone missing, Antin described him as simple and was concerned about his wellbeing. He would pay us for our trouble since it was unlikely that the young man's mother could afford it.
We took the job, Antin gave us contact details for Martha Woldt, the boy's mother - she also lived in The Heights.
We arrived at her apartment block without much delay, the plain interior providing a cool respite from the heat outside.
Martha Woldt was middle-aged and fairly non-descript. She looked quite surprised to see us - Antin must not have told her that about us?
Martha told us that her son - Jericho had been looking for work, but his learning difficulties made it hard to find any.
Surprisingly, he eventually had found work and began his job yesterday, that was the last she had seen of him. Martha provided us a photo of Jericho, she didn't know where he'd gone to work, but she did know that name of the agency that had placed him; Office Plankton, located in The Heights.
It was reaching midday by the time we arrived at the agency office, despite the punishing heat and near-painful brightness, Neon City's people were undeterred and crowded the streets. Just another obstacle to navigate in a day in the life.
The Office Plankton office was an anonymous and easily-missed high street unit. It's narrow frontage bore the Office Plankton logo along with it's motto; Easy jobs that require no skills.
The window's blind had been pulled down, concealing any view of the interior.
Office Plankton was a job agency and a rare sight in Neon City with it's burgeoning unemployment rates and even rarer was Office Plankton with it's niche market!
Office Plankton specialised in filling vacancies for low-skilled jobs and finding work for people who lacked qualifications, people like Jericho.
It was surprising that these kinds of vacancies even existed in Neon City considering the amount of robots and level of automation available.
Inside was a rectangular room, the mostly bare walls were painted off-white and a thin, light-grey carpet covered the floor. It was obvious that little time had been given to considering the décor and overall the room said very little about its function.
Opposite the entrance was a faux-oak desk and sitting behind it was a stocky, flabby looking man who was preoccupied with a desk-slab. He wore a slightly off fitting white shirt and blue tie. Pinned to shirt was a name badge; Call Me Bob.
Behind Bob was a shelf filled with what seemed to be random office supplies and a door to the back.
As the front door swung open he looked up, smiled and asked how he could help?
Bill explained that we had an important message for Jericho Woldt and had been unable to contact him. Perhaps Bob could tell us his place of work?
As Bill was talking to Bob, I scoped the room. It felt remarkably empty. Only one thing of interest caught my eye; a framed photo sitting on the shelf.
Bob was sitting with several other equally stocky people at a fully stocked up dinner table, they were family maybe? Gripping their cutlery and grinning at the camera just before digging into a heavy looking meal.
It was unusual to see they kind of family meal at street level in Neon City?
Bob shrugged and turned away from the slab to face us, he'd never heard of Jericho Woldt? He told us that there were four other branches of Office Plankton in Neon City, perhaps we should try them?
He also informed us that none of the branches had direct phone lines, the jobseekers they dealt with could become easily confused and this kept matters simpler.
There was nothing else to be gained here, we had four other sites to check out.
I accessed the transit systems records again. They showed Jericho Woldt getting off the tram at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Next we hacked the servers that remotely logged camera footage from the tramline and used it to track Jericho's movements. Coverage was spotty though, we intermittently saw him going around the district, at one point we saw him looking intently at something out of picture at the Expo Stadium, after that we lost him. We saw nothing of him going to a Office Plankton branch.
There was one last play we could make. One of the few centralised databases in Neon City was the employment status database. It tracked who was eligible for Universal Credit and who had employment. Details about Jericho should show up on the Social Insurance Network.
Only in Neon City was working a S.I.N.!
We didn't get any hits. Either Jericho wasn't working or he was working off the books?
It meant we had to investigate the other Office Plankton branches. Time was critical, so we split into four to cover more ground, Noodles went with Koko and of course Roderick went with Bill.
Two hours later we met up to compare notes.
Bill had gone to the branch on Ninety Ninth. It was another small anonymous and strangely featureless office manned by a single rep. A friendly, large, doughy guy wearing a name badge saying; Call Me Dan.
Dan gave Bill the same thing he'd heard from Bob, nothing about Jericho.
While Bill had been chatting to Dan, his eye recognised a photo on Dan's desk, it was identical to Bob's photo but now Bill also recognised Dan as one of the other people. There was definitely something of a family resemblance.
At Dogenzaka Hill, the office I went to was equally small and bland as at The Heights.
Again, only one company rep worked here. Call Me Tom stated his name badge, he provided me with no information about Jericho and again; there it was, the same photo with Bob and also Tom at the dinner table?
The Office Plankton branch at Highway Zero had been Koko's destination. It was the same as the Rokkaku Dai Heights branch. A small office operated by a single staff member. A corpulent man wearing a badge saying; Call Me Dick. Koko didn't learn anything about Jericho from him but she did see that same photo with Bob and Dick.
Lastly, Trigger had gone to the branch at The Skyscraper District. He had spoken with the chubby woman who ran the small office there and saw the badge she wore named her as Call Me Madge. She did not recognise the name Jericho Woldt and gave Trigger no information. Before Trigger left, he spotted the photo identical to one on Bob's shelf, the one that contained Bob and also Madge.
More and more it looked like thing weren't adding up.
All five branches had no information on Jericho despite what his mother had said, nor was there any evidence that Jericho was even employed?
Office Plankton's chosen market seemed strange and all the branches seemed empty?
Finally since all five staff members appeared in the same photo, it must have been a family run business?
Time to take it up a notch. It was approaching the end of the day and we needed to dig deeper into Office Plankton. We headed over to the Highway Zero branch and found some shade from the glaring sun in a back alley.
Through the constant flow of people and rumbling traffic we watched the office.
At six Dick locked up and made his way to the closest tram stop, we followed. Only Koko had to keep distant, so she sent Kevin up to keep an eye on him. The rest of could safely take the same tram he did.
We'd hit rush hour, the tram was stuffier and more packed than usual, the smell of cheap antiperspirants mingled unpleasantly with actual perspiration as we squeezed aboard.
Heavy with crushed wage monkeys, the tram laboriously pulled away and they mindlessly swayed in unison to the acceleration, diligently scrolling through on their media-slabs, needing to forget where they were and most importantly who they were.
The tram creaked as it's worn breaks squealed their protest at bringing the tram to a halt in Kibogaoka Hill.
Dick disembarked and we followed suite. He went through the shanty town, up the hill towards what passed as the district's retail centre. His route took him through the treacherously winding side roads, narrow and high sided ravines of brick, wood and plastic with a multitude of blind corners and turn offs.
Bill was on point, it was tricky staying out of sight and shadowing Dick but he managed it.
Eventually Dick ended up going through the front door of shop with a fabricated crimson coloured frontage called Mother's Meaty Morsels?
A shop that currently looked shut for the day and from outside appeared to be some sort of small independent pie-shop? It's motto proclaimed; A MEAT pie is a NEAT pie. It also boasted of the naturally sourced ingredients?
Additionally, the shop seemed to serve both retail and commercial customers?
Real meat was hard to come by in Neon City and was generally the reserve of the wealthy, how was it that a small shop in the neo-shanty town of Kibogaoka Hill was able to get real meat?
We waited and watched, soon Koko joined us and after that we looked on as one-by-one Bob, Dan, Tom and Madge appeared and went into Mother's Meaty Morsels.
Things still didn't add up?
What happened to the people they supposedly found work for?
What was Office Plankton's link to Mother's Meaty Morsels?
How was the pie-shop getting its meat?
Neon City was always home to casual unpleasantness, indifference and crime but joining the dots here was taking us into one of the city's darker avenues....
Trigger was getting impatient, he flicked on his thermals and took a look.
Seven heat signatures were visible, they seemed to be congregating and taking up seats round a table. Nothing suspicious....
Trigger swept the building's rear, he saw the heat signature of a slumped figure with their arms in the air, it was the profile of someone hung up by their arms! Trigger also saw various cooler, dimmer amorphous blobs of heat?
It was enough for Trigger, he was up and running at the front door before he told us what was going on, we hurried to back him up.
Kicking open the door sent a now-broken lock skittering across the chequered black-and-white linoleum floor. It was unlit and unoccupied, the glass serving counter empty.
Scraping chairs could be be heard from a back door behind the counter. It flew open and several corpulent individuals came charging out, their faces were bestially contorted with anger and screaming, they closed in. We could see Bob and the others among the pack running at us.
Their aggression and desire for violence could not hope to match our skills, honed as they were by our lives The City of Electric Dreams.
The fight didn't last too long and there was little doubt how it would go. Soon they were lying on the floor, unconscious or dead - we didn't care which.
The room they had come from contained a dinner table lavished with an assortment of pies, we avoided it.
Another door seemed to lead into their processing facility, we steeled ourselves and entered.
It was a grim sight, the dirty, dimly lit room was populated with bloody, grisly detached human remains at various stages of being processed into pies!
As we suspected; cannibals!
We continued searching and found Jericho Woldt, he was chained to all steel ring that had been secured to a concrete wall. He was alive and breathing and in one piece. We took him and left that damned place and returned him home to his thankful mother safe and sound.
Later on Antin Grova pinged us with a call, thanking us for finding Jericho Woldt. He asked us what payment we wanted for the job?
"Nothing," we said, "consider it a favour.".
Even later, I got a call from Ram Rat.
He had been following the news: A sky-taxi had malfunctioned, crashing into Porter Sladek's high rise with a tremendous explosion. Sladek's apartment had suffered massive damage and was almost entirely destroyed. Fortunately the Thetatech executive had out at the time and was unharmed.
Ram Rat told me he was sure that Ghost Radical had made another move on Porter Sladek, he wasn't giving up.
24th January 2021
It's Sunday and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC, in the living room.
Matt is running the introductory adventure for Those Dark Places.
Those Dark Places
From what I've seen about Those Dark Places, it's a fairly rules-lite Industrial sci-fi RPG, which means it's default setting is sort where activities in space are everyday and commonplace but also impractical and possibly downright dangerous. Not a utopian paradise nor a dystopian nightmare.
The rules are pretty straightforward, each character has four attributes, something I've seen a lot of in recent games. A value of 1,2 3 or 4 is assigned to each attribute.
Additionally, each character has a primary and secondary crew position, these things like Helm, Medical Officer, Engineer, Science Officer, strangely it makes the game feel a bit like Star Trek?
Each character has a Pressure Bonus and a Pressure Level.
Tasks are attempted by rolling a single six sided die and adding a pertinent attribute to the roll, if a characters primary crew position is also pertinent, add a further +2, if there secondary crew position is relevant add +1 instead.
Target numbers range from 6-8.
Players will be called upon to make pressure rolls, these are done by rolling a die and adding their Pressure Bonus, if the result is 10 or higher, it's all good.
Less than 10 and they fill in a box on the Pressure Level track. Bad thing can happen when these boxes are filled.
There are some other rules, for combat and whatever, but that's the gist of it.
The default setting has the PCs signing with a vast impersonal space-faring corporation looking to make a fortune from mining or exploiting the resources on other planets.
The pay is lucrative but PCs start by having signed on for a 25 year contract, they'll only be paid at the end - once all expenses have been deducted. It's not as long as it seems; there is no faster-than-light travel here and all long distance travel is done via hibernation or long sleep as the game calls it.
Time passed in long sleep counts has time worked, thus a 6 month long sleep is 6 months off the contract.
I guess characters either make it to their 25th year or they don't!
Big Ounce: Played by Josh
Doris Sine: Played by Vicky.
Cyrox Calwin: Played by Giro.
Location : Icarus
The Icarus was a clumsy inelegant but effective workhorse of a spacecraft and so were the new three-person crew. All freshly signed up with Cambridge Wallace Incorporated for twenty five years.
The crew had been putting The Icarus and themselves through their paces after the latest refit when orders came through from Cambridge Wallace.
The Icarus was to proceed to planet Viduus III, upon arrival the ship was to pick up three passengers and their cargo from the decommissioned space station which was scheduled for demolition and then return them here.
The crew would earn performance based bonus if the orders were completed in one hundred and seventy days.
Cambridge Wallace had wrapped up their mining operation at Viduus III, the three remaining engineers had spent the last few months dismantling the station and now needed a ride home.
Cyrox plotted a course to Viduus III on the nav-systems, the computer calculated that the trip would eighty-one days to get there, a roundtrip would give the crew a margin of error of eight days.
Seventy eight days later and the automated long-sleep capsules started to bring the crew back to consciousness, warning lights were flashing and wake-up alarms chirping. With much effort the crew dragged themselves out of their pods.
Recovery from long-sleep was quick but tended to be disorientating and nauseating.
A couple of hours later and the crew were on the bridge.
A lot of green lights were winking away on the dashboard, all systems looked nominal.
The Icarus was less than seventy-two hours out from the station and deceleration was well underway. Everything was on schedule.
The Icarus was also now close enough to communicate with the station. A message was transmitted, but even taking into account the delay, there was no answer.
A check of the on-board systems showed no errors, the station must have received the message.
Even aboard a large ship, life was cramped and it was hard for the crew to not get in each other's faces over the next few days. Little consideration and space were given over to crew needs. Other than Ship Operations, there was a communal eating area and each crewmate had some personal storage and space, that was it.
Outside of Ops and personal spaces, the entire ship only ever seemed half lit, it was also fairly dark and dismal,
For the crew, it was nothing new.
During the remaining three days the crew put out regular transmissions directed at the station but on every occasion; there was no reply.
Three days passed and what was a bright speck in an endless sea of specks had grown until it dominated the scene out of a view port.
The station looked like a colossal skeleton, silently hanging in the sky against the backdrop of Viduus III.
The engineers had been busy stripping it down.
Big Ounce was adjusting the The Icarus' velocity and trajectory, putting the ship into a synchronous orbit with the station.
There still had not been any answering call from the station, it was worrying the crew. The corporate handbook had no regulations for this, the crew were on their own.
As the station loomed large, Cyrox ran a thermal scan, heat signatures were showing up and there was a definite heat-bloom that was the profile of an active power generator. Cyrox knew that it would be enough for life support.
Ounce was closing in and making the final imperceptibly delicate adjustments, a few minutes later and The Icarus and the station were aligned.
It was a simple matter to extend The Icarus' umbilical to the station's airlock, then the two were connected.
The decision was made to send Doris and Ounce over to the station. Doris was the ship's medical officer and Ounce had received security training.
They went out of The Icarus' airlock, the span between The Icarus and the station had no artificial gravity, so Doris and Ounce had to float over. When they got into the airlock, the station's gravity tugged them back down to the floor.
Once the outer door was closed, they punched in the commands to open the inner door. There was a hiss as the airlock equalised with the station and the doors slid open into the gloom.
The room ahead was unlit other than a small winking light, a minimal amount of starlight was streaming through the station's view ports.
Doris and Ounce flicked their flashlights on.
They found themselves looking at a grotty looking squarish steel-walled room, there were three ways out, but two of them had been wielded shut.
This was standard procedure for engineers when they stripped a station down. The sealed doors would only lead out into space now. Eventually the engineers would have stripped as much as they could and were now down to a minimal amount of inhabitable space.
Doris and Ounce shouted out their arrival, no answer came. It was quiet and when they went in and played their flashlights over the room, they could hear their boots creak. There were three messy looking cots and the winking light was coming from a food dispenser.
In one corner was a grimy looking makeshift shower unit had been set up, upon closer inspection, it also doubled as a toilet!
A number of storage crates had been stacked up to the ceiling in another corner. Several had been tipped over and possibly looked damaged?
It was starting to look like there were signs of a struggle. They spotted a dark spot on the steel floor. Looking closer they realised it was some sort of stain, further inspection revealed that it was dried blood. Shining their flashlights, Doris and Ounce spotted several stands of hair mingled in with the blood.
Doris looked at the blood, it seemed at least one week old, there was a large amount too, possibly from more than one person
They shouted out again and waited, still no answer.
Cautiously, they continued their search. The damaged crates had been violently ripped open, it looked like they once contained food supplies.
The other undamaged crates appeared to contain equipment or engineering gear.
Next to one of the cots was notebook - a journal to be precise.
Doris skimmed the journal; it belonged to Batiste and mostly ambled on about their work, the writings indicated that he was the ranking officer here, the other two were Manuela and Williams.
Back aboard The Icarus, a proximity alarm began ringing? Cyrox had been slumped in a chair listening to the chatter from the others on the station, he wheeled over to the navigation console.
Long range detectors had picked up something new several thousand kilometres away. A computer calculation determined it was orbiting Viduus III and had just come round into detection range.
The orbit was at a slightly faster velocity than the station and in about twenty hours; whatever it was, it would catch up with the station.
Cyrox activated manual camera controls and swivelled one in the direction of the object. Pushing the camera to higher and higher magnifications, he sat up in surprise when he found what he was looking for!
The object was a spaceship of some sort, with careful application of the controls, Cyrox managed to get the ship's name.
He had to search the database to find anything about it.
The ship was Argent III. It had been part of the Argent Class, a fleet of 4 large ships with a crew compliment of over one hundred each that were designed for long term deep space exploration.
The fleet had been launched over a century ago. They had returned from their mission decades late,r having been recalled. All returned except Argent III, which had gone missing, its fate unknown.
As regulations required, Cyrox messaged the Argent III, no reply came. Another one he thought.
It was likely that all the crew would be dead after this time and the Argent III probably represented a significant value to whoever owned it, they might pay a big reward if correctly salvaged.
Aboard the station, Doris and Ounce went into the only exit. It was another unlit squarish steel room. This one was filled with rows and rows of more stacked crates.
They searched the room with their flashlights, they was no other exit, nor were there any bodies.
None of the crates here looked damaged or opened, but an inspection of the steel floor showed numerous long scuff marks, crates had been dragged out of the room.
There was nothing particularly different about these crates.
There was nothing more to be learned here.
Doris and Ounce returned to The Icarus, the crew discussed their next move.
It had to be the Argent III, the station was a dead end.
The umbilical was detached and retracted.
Ounce then adjusted the ship's velocity and orbital altitude, slowing The Icarus and allowing the Argent III make ground.
The crew again sent out messages and again no reply came.
For a few hours they watched out a viewport as the Argent III grew in size, speculating on what they would find.
It was a vast ship, perhaps a kilometre long and it easily dwarfed The Icarus - almost menacingly as the distance between the two lessened. Argent III was a museum piece and it obvious that it's design as well as it antennae and exterior arrays were all outdated.
Sweeping Argent III with cameras revealed that it had taken a quite a battering. It's hull was pock-marked with numerous dents and there was visible damage. The decades had left Argent III worse for the wear.
Argent III was also dark, a further inspection of the hull showed the ship's view ports were all sealed from the inside with steel plates?
It also showed a small shuttle docked with an airlock, they saw the shuttle was a much more modern design. The crew surmised that it came from the station
Cyrox ran another thermal scan, heat signatures were faint and fluctuating, there was no steady heat-bloom of a nominally functional power source. It was impossible to say what condition life-support was in.
As Argent III drew closer, Ounce began changing trajectory again, gently putting The Icarus into synchronous orbit with the Argent III.
Once this was done, the crew realised they had a problem, the shuttle was docked with the airlock, they couldn't use the umbilical to get aboard.
Cyrox pulled up Argent III's schematics from the the database. On the far side of Argent III was a ancillary airlock, the crew could probably gain access that way.
This meant going on an untethered extravehicular action excursion.
Ounce wasn't too fond of this and volunteered to remain aboard The Icarus.
Doris and Cyrox suited up and ran safety checks each other's EVA kit, the gear that would propel them on their kit. Everything was good to go.
They lumbered into the airlock and entered the black, empty silence of space. The only noise was their on breath and squawk of comms chatter.
It was a short journey to the other airlock but each metre that took them further from The Icarus was a metre further into potential danger and the unknown.
Argent III and Viduus III filled their view, the ship was below them and behind loomed the planet.
During training, they had been taught to focus on the task at hand, to remain clam and not look at the millions of kilometres of nothing above them but the urge to stare into oblivion could be irresistible.
Doris and Cyrox spent couple of minutes skimming over the Argent III's uneven hull until they reached the other side and manoeuvred to the airlock.
The external controls looked old but there was still some familiarity about them and luckily it was easy to decipher what-was-what whilst hanging there. Soon enough the door slid open they were were inside and Argent III's gravity asserted itself.
They checked the intermediate controls, these were more complex, there were various environmental readouts - even the font used on the screen was an outdated one!
Eventually though, they managed to close the out door and pressurise the airlock. Then they opened the inner door.
The suit readouts indicated that the air was safe, with a click and hiss, they removed their helmets.
It was time to go into Argent III.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.