19th June 2021
It's a Saturday evening and we're logged into video chat for some online TTRPG goodness with episode 25 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Neon City’s morning heat had risen to stifling levels, an underpowered Metoma branded wall-con unit strained to cope with the cruel climate.
Slouched on my futon with a can of Huntudi self-cooling beer hanging from one hand, I was watching a rerun of last night’s Nina Chinova’s Vigilante Chat and Cake Show on my wall-slab, audio was maxed and the slab trembled almost imperceptibly on its bracket; a futile attempt to smother the high-rises’ thousand railing, disillusioned voices outside my door.
The wall-slab displayed Nina interviewing Brenda Callahan on a cheap studio set of plain Mayari branded furniture against an equally cheap digital background. Brenda had become an overnight sensation.
We’d encountered her before, snatched by corporate black-baggers and indoctrinated into Protobase Global’s illicit enforced combat cyborg program. A process that used flesh as the anchor for an array of combat modifications, enhancements and weapons, she’d become one of their mindless killers - or so it had seemed.
The procedure that trashed a victim’s memories hadn’t quite taken hold on Brenda and her mind clung to neurochemical pathways of her modified brain and so she persisted but she was on borrowed time.
We’d given her as much help as we could but eventually necrosis, the side effect of the cyborg conversion would decay her remaining fleshly components.
Brenda had needed a solution and it looked like she’d gone on the Vigilante Chat and Cake show to make an appeal.
It had worked.
Something about her story had resonated with more than just Neon City viewers, the inevitable decline of the personality, the individual subsumed by the anonymous, unfeeling corporation was something viewers connected with.
Newsvines reported that the effect had been immediate with profound consequences.
Hours after the first transmission, mobs from across the planet had materialised at Protobase Global offices and facilities. Loaded with bricks, stones and whatever heavy detritus they could grab, they loudly let their anger be known. Millions of Protobase Global windows were shattered, buildings were stormed and wrecked, fires gutted a number of locations while employees found themselves nervously sprinting to or from their places of work, praying they avoided the ire of protestors. Some in the crowds had even made the effort to create banners demanding ‘Justice for Brenda’. This was serious!
Unsurprisingly, Protobase Global’s stock had dived, billions wiped off their market value in an instant and then, like the patient, silent predator it was, The Rokkaku Group had pounced!, Quickly acquiring a sizable amount of Protobase Global stock.
Goji Rokkaku was consolidating his power, taking no chances with Protobase Global and getting ready to move.
We knew something of his plans, it was going to get ugly.
An hour later and Koko got pinged a message.
Knight sacrifice - check.
The Red King again. Another chess term; searching the newsvines for horses or knights got us a result.
Shinjuku Station had gotten hit hard, some kind of horse-headed robot, specced out with serious ordinance had rocked in at rush hour and lit the station up. The station would have been heaving with bustling commuters, an undulating carpet of humanity striding across the faux marble station halls concerned only with getting places on time. In other words a target-rich environment for a spree killer.
Situation became too big to ignore, Rentacop had to turn up and a firefight broke out between them and the horse-head robot. Eventually they had taken down the robot, hailing it a victory for law and order, and it was - provided you didn’t look too hard at the swathe of bodies littering Shinjuku station.
Something was off though, the horse-headed robot was obviously one of The Red King’s knights but what was The Red King pulingl here, what had he achieved, what was his agenda?
Turned out the answer was in his clue.
The Red King hadn’t lost the robot, he’d sacrificed it. In chess sacrificing meant giving up a piece to get an advantage somewhere else.
The knight had just been a distraction for something else.
We hit up the newsvines again, results got nothing we could nail to The Red King.
Some parameters needed to be added to the search so I generated an algorithm targeting the pawn styled robots that The Red King seemed to favour. The criteria was also narrowed down to exclusively search the Shinjuku district; maximum disruption would be most effective closest to the distraction.
After running the targeted search, we got a hit.
A rando had pushed feeds from some street cams to the newsvines. A pair of cylindrical red robots were shown rapidly descending from a nondescript sky-van on to some backstreet on the periphery of the Shinjuku Station massacre, snatching up a flailing woman with their machine efficiency and bugging out in the sky-van.
Gone in seconds. Trying to follow up the sky-van would go nowhere, The Red King was too good at covering his footprints.
Luckily we got a good screengrab of the woman’s face; the recog algorithm ID’d her as Runa Golova and a quick data-search revealed Runa Golova was a photojournalist who worked out of Shinjuku.
Later we would discover she had gone to Shinjuku Station to document the killings and rentacop would find The Red King’s business card. On the back it said “Knight sacrifice. Check.”
Runa Golova’s reports about women getting chess related messages had gotten a lot of traction lately, getting her high circulation. Looks like she’d also attracted the wrong kind of attention.
Without a lead, we’d have to wait for The Red King’s next move.
Later, our media-slabs pinged.
“Hello my droogs,” crackled the familiar thick Armenian voice out of my J6 media-slab’s speaker.
Yennav Rybasei had been a mid level operator for the Russian mob until Protobase Global had moved against them, their brief bloody street war had ended in a stalemate but even so, the mob had been weakened, losing its grip in Neon City and Yennav slipped between the cracks, dropping off the grid.
There had been radio silence until today, now Yennav was looking to arrange a face-to-face.
The Orpust Hotel was somewhere we’d never heard of. A search on the GLOWNET came back with zero hits.
Had to dig deeper, took me into the shady reaches of the unregistered, unlisted reflection of the GLOWNET. On the surface, the DARKGLOW didn’t look too dissimilar, the same incandescent, pulsating, polygonal struts compiling across the angular, silhouetted horizon bleeding into gradient coloured skies. Looking closer though, the info-flows were disjointed, neon clusters carrying information could not easily move through node boundaries and search algorithms were next to worthless here. Bio-images were obscured and often hidden, their users probably loaded with blackware.
I knew I was.
Interactions were kept at a minimum,
Cred was everything and no rep got you nothing from anyone. I was tight with several hack-monkeys who prowled the shadow contract market for dollar, I hit one up and they set me up into some referral-only chat-vault.
I scrolled the directories, scoping whatever bio-images I could track. Few people knew and even fewer voiced it, but these kinds of non-indexed server-nodes were usually bankrolled by one corporation or another while their code-ninjas silently ran logging software. A way to get dirt on dumb loudmouths who never realised they were only off-the-grid and not actually off-the off-the-grid!
Treading carefully, I ran a low-cycle hack protocol. Had to be quick, didn't want anyone thinking I was zeroing in on them and didn’t want any ninja on overwatch to eyeball me. I pulled the chat-logs quick as I could then jacked out.
With the DARKGLOW flushed out of my cerebrum, the lurching mundanity of material reality clumsily expanded to fill the vacuum.
Searching the logs was easy. The Orpust Hotel was an upmarket off-the-books getaway favoured by wealthy execs or successful mobsters and was located on The Beach.
Early in the building of Neon City, the vast seawall had been constructed, radically altering the extent of the conurbation’s natural bay and vastly increasing its size.
One of the old-world corporations had seen an opportunity to earn a wad of profit by creating some real estate. It had led to the manufacturing of The Beach, an artificial island located out in the bay, close to Diver City Island, a couple of kilometres from the seawall perimeter and well away from the city proper.
At its centre sat the The Orpust hotel, an edifice of concrete and glass to the exclusive clientele it attracted.
Only one legitimate way existed to get to The Beach - a discrete branch from the corporate monorail. Otherwise, the Beach was shielded by a comprehensive array of defence systems that made approach by air or sea without authorisation a dicey proposition and they never gave out that authorisation.
It was no problem for us though, some months back Yennav Rybasei had provided us with access to the monorail.
The tram from Hikage Street to Highway Zero heaved with commuters, seating was nonexistent as late-running cheap-suited wage-monkeys vacantly stood elbow-to-elbow with rucksack wearing consumers, no-hopers and tagged-up gangers, all strangely swaying in unison as we clattered along the neglected, warped and uneven old rails. Failing climate control circulated hot fetid air throughout the grimy, aged interior, exacerbating the mid-morning heat.
From the tram it was a short street level walk to the ferry terminal and our boat ride to Diver City Island.
Urban heights gave way to unfettered overbright sky and the lapping sea at the bay’s edge. The smell of saltwater mingled with the engine odours of Highway Zero’s road traffic against a thumping background soundtrack of a million rushing autos.
Boarding, we found ourselves among tourists and daytrippers who’d packed out the old ferry’s short trip, leaning on railings as the ferry powered out of its mooring and filming Neon City’s profile dwindle away on their media-slabs.
At Diver City Island we transferred to the Corporate Monorail, a far cry from the tram. Our urban wear got us a lot of side-eye from execs and those wealthy enough to not even worry about the pretence of having to work as they powered along in the latest Shaguaifu, Gaongha or Hika Taki fashion lines. We swiped through the station’s security gates and strode over the highly polished replica marble floor into the high ceilinged hall.
A perimeter of boutique booths and outlets ringed the area and served the affluent travellers who enjoyed the luxury transit system.
Swiping through a second set of security turnstiles and boarding the gleaming, waxed missile-like monorail, we found ourselves in a spotless, subtly decorated interior and took our seats. Upholstered in faux Alasijaqi cream leather, they were so soft and deep, there was a danger we would be swallowed, each seat also came with ample leg room and individualised aircon.
On the dot, the monorail effortlessly glided out of the station, soundproofing lowered any noise to less than a whisper while the multi-photochromic toughened acrylic windows reduced the baleful glare of Neon City’s harsh blue-white sky to a comfortable hue.
Diver City Island slid away smoothly into the blue and while we journeyed onward, a dot emerged out of the hazy east and grew to fill our view.
Ringed by an expansive beach of real sand imported at great expense, The Orpust Hotel commanded attention and the eye was irresistibly drawn to the dominating semi-circular pastel yellow and white structure. Swathes of glinting balcony windows caught the sun as we drew closer.
The monorail terminated at The Beach, disembarking, a palpable wave of heat washed our us as we made brief trip to the Orpust Hotel
Despite our invitation, no reservation had been for us. Jacking into the GLOWNET, I found the hotel’s data-image, a stratospherically tall hotel tower constructed in brilliant golden yellow and white set in the centre stylised beach of glorious golden sand that dominated a tiny island set in a sky blue ocean. Miniature animated seagull models squawked, wheeled and arced around the tower while cheerful dolphins circled the island porpoising in and out of the elaborately undulating waves.
Didn’t take the cracker algorithm long to get me into the hotel systems.
Moments later, after Bill’s polite prompting, the receptionist was puzzled to find we did actually have reservations for a premium suite along with ancillary rooms.
Minutes after we had settled into our rooms, the landline in Bill’s suite pinged. Yennav was letting us know he was ready to meet and instructed us to come to one of the hotel’s myriad high-rise balconies.
Numerous Alasijaqi branded white sunlounger chairs, tables and colourful parasols dotted a deserted balcony; only Yennav was there to take advantage of them. Probably something he’d arranged.
Yennav Rybasei was a stocky, thick-limbed, squared-faced man with thinning hair, wide jaw and perennial five o’clock shadow.
Gone was the customary inoffensive slate grey two piece suit, replaced by beige coloured Duuner canvas shorts that hung a little too high above the knee and an unbuttoned, gaudy, orange and yellow tropically themed polyester Simaz & Jaccno shirt which revealed a chest, burly and matted that extended to a firm rotund belly. A man like Yennav could easily have afforded reductive surgery and biopolymer sculpted ab implants but there was too much of the old-school Armenian gangster about him to ever make that happen.
A pair of fancy Poviat sunglasses sat on a stubby nose under dense eyebrows while Dialso branded flip flops dangled off chunky toes. The look was finished by the customary heavy Agrapla gold chain wrapped around a bull neck.
A toothy grin split Yennav Rybasei’s face as he waved us over with one cocktail brandishing hand from the shade of a pink parasol with tassels that danced lazily in the pleasantly cooling sea breeze.
We walked over.
From the balcony’s vantage point, the waters in the bay stretched away impossibly, seemingly distant and still. Only glittering swathes of sunlight rushing along the undulating surface betrayed rhythmic oceanic movement.
The sea wall was visible here, a shimmering pencil-thin solid line in the east that emerged into the midday onslaught and spanned the entire horizon, while to the west, the receding boundary of Neon City’s reaching skyline was nothing more than a smear of shapeless dull colour behind layers of clinging smog.
Yennav waved a finger as we sat and unobtrusive staff made themselves apparent, soon we found ourselves clutching cheerfully fluorescent coloured drinks, which judging from the aroma, were laced with his favourite Ugteyr vodka.
Small talk didn’t last long, Yennav quickly got down to shop talk and it soon moved on to The Red King and Runa Golova. Turned out the kidnapped photographer was the cousin of his girlfriend, Berta.
“One of my girlfriends anyway,” he said, winking at me and adding. “We are dva sapaga para da?”
He handed us a hardcopy photo of Runa Golova, one of his crew had been following her closely.
“Unfortunately, not close enough to stop the abduction.” He added, turning to look out at the beach below.
Two of his goons with their signature polyester Sport Lyafibya tracksuits and Agrapla gold chains were walking away from a jetty having just dumped something heavy into the water and looking pleased with themselves.
A chef, a florist, a photographer and Koko had been targeted.
When asked if he knew any connection between The Red King’ and them, Yennav could not provide an answer.
“Perhaps The Red King is planning a wedding,” he remarked off the cuff.
We agreed to find and return Runa Golova.
I dived the GLOWNET during the return to Diver City Island, something about Yennav’s quip had got us thinking: What The Red King didn’t have was a wedding dress.
Hika Taki was a prominent fashion designer and leading trendsetter in Neon City, couldn’t think of anyone in a better position to give us help. I pinged him a call.
The answer was brief, his voice registered an octave higher than normal, usually that meant he was stressed about something; probably work related. In my mind’s eye I could see the skinny designer hopping from foot to foot and flapping his arms as he screamed his reply through gritted teeth.
Told us he was too busy to talk and was on the cusp of releasing his new product line themed on wedding gowns.
I guess we actually got the answer.
Day wasn’t over and it hadn’t let up. Back at Hikage, The Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz had pinged us.
They were in trouble, Vanilla Goth told us as much while coughing and sneezing over the call. They needed us to get over to Akihabara pronto.
The address that got pinged to us led to a grimy neon-lit narrow hotel in a canyon-like sunless, dingy backstreet.
Vanilla Goth was in a bad way, letting us into their cramped hotel rooms with pained movements. Under her black Fassus cami top, boils and sores were apparent on pallid and waxy skin stretched over shifting muscle implants which had been grafted on to her arms and shoulders.
The Gurlz had been working a gig for some client called Substrate Fairy which involved sourcing spent 3D printing recyclables, they had gone trash diving in some abandoned district in a corner of Akihabara, one of Neon City’s many null spots.
Searching one building, they’d found twined ropes of rubberised electrical cabling snaking along the squalid floor. Following, The Gurlz encountered a basement, down the stairs they saw soft light originating from a side room play across the corridor’s bare concrete wall. Vanilla Goth paused, then she told us they’d gone in and found something.
While telling her story, Vanilla Goth led us into the bathroom. It stank and streaks of faeces scarred the walls. Pixie Skull was there, looking just as rough. She was staring at a sheet covered box. Before we had time to even process this, the box shook violently and an inhuman shriek blasted out of it?
Pixie Skull pulled the sheet back, inside was a chimpanzee! He was struggling against his restraints and wore an extremely baggy pair of Khitts denim cargo shorts, a palm tree and sunset patterned Avorukhclu Hawaiian shirt with a red and white name tag that read Mister Peepers and a black beanie hat.
He gave off a gamer vibe - because he was a gamer: Mister Peepers was a name I recognised,, a famous top ranked player on Legion of Luminaries who anonymously ghost streamed his matches. Millions watched but no one knew anything about Mister Peepers, until now anyway.
The Muscle Gurlz had stumbled across Mister Peepers in that basement, bathed in an ever colour shifting digital glow was a room full of tech junk.
Networking cables, power cords, wired keyboards and more dangled vine-like from the ceiling, old exposed and stripped data-slabs along with discarded screens piled up haphazardly in corners, while in the centre, surrounded by a cutting-edge GLOWNET setup was the chimpanzee!
When he spotted them, his reaction had been immediate. Launching himself out of his seat, anything in his reach became a projectile hurled at The Gurlz who found themselves peppered with everything from peripherals and old circuit boards to cups, food containers, fruit rind and even faeces.
The Gurlz had panicked and attacked in response, Mister Peepers was agile but space was tight in the junk filled room and The Gurlz’ augmented strength and numbers gave them the advantage, they managed to put a beatdown on him, then they’d shoved him into one of their beige coloured salvage bins.
Not knowing what to do next, they’d booked a room in this hotel to get a read on the situation, then they’d started falling ill and pinged us.
Mister Peepers had to be uplifted, no other way about it, after some effort and reasoning, we’d managed to calm him down.
Told us that a while back, he’d been kept captive in some corporate bankrolled, windowless, experimental underground med-facility in Sensoji, an off-the-books deniable asset, something he’d heard while playing dumb and listening. He’d also learnt that during the uplift, even more of his genetics had gotten edited and he carried a designer communicable disease which he was apparently immune to.
We now knew what had hit The Muscle Gurlz and we’d be next if we didn’t take precautions.
Lulling his captors into a false sense of security, Mister Peepers had managed to escape the facility and had been on the run ever since. He used the dollar he got from sponsorships to live off-the-grid and play the games he loved.
Mister Peepers was certain the corporation still had spooks and street ashigaru hitting the sidealks, hunting for him. Then, when The Muscle Gurlz had compromised his hideout, he’d expected the worst and reacted accordingly.
All of this had gotten The Muscle Gurlz and Mister Peepers where they are now.
Sensoji was known as the temple district, it was also home to three warring Triad gangs who were busy rubbing each other out in a long term low level street war. Finding some clandestine biotech stronghold wouldn’t be an easy task. Needed to move sideways on this instead.
The Muscle Gurlz needed treatment, Mister Peepers needed a new safe house, along with power, GLOWNET access, water, fruit: The works.
Dctor Pepper had some juice with a medtech response outfit he knew, pinged them. told them to get to Akkihabara on the down low.
An hour and the responders inconspicuously rolled in, their fluorescent tabards removed and med-tech bagged up.
Doctor Pepper drew some blood from Mister Peepers while Koko powered up a med-drone then fed the sample to it with instructions to run a full diagnostic algorithm on the blood.
Didn’t take long for the results to ping on our media-slabs, Pepper checked them out.
He told us the results showed that some kind of altered cell that mimicked a nerve toxin was abundant in Mister Peepers blood cells, replicating itself into various excreta, it was transmissible to humans. Doctor Pepper went on to tell us that it would bind itself to the victim’s blood cells, he estimated that it would be fatal within seventy-two hours of initial exposure.
There was more, Pepper had found an undocumented aberration in Mister Peepers cell receptors which prevented the disease from attaching: a result of the genetic rewrite.
With the available data Pepper quickly managed to formulate a synthetic substitute. Minutes later and the med-drone’s onboard pharma processor had manufactured serum, which it popped out in vials with a ding. Minutes after that, we were all inoculated and The Muscle Gurlz on the road to recovery.
Mister Peepers was a different situation though, not something Pepper could deal with. Instead he brought in Cheeky Bob, a grungy, possibly unlicensed veterinarian we’d encountered, and pinged him the data.
Bob got back to us, a complete blood replacement procedure would flush the toxin out of the chimpanzee. The procedure had a three-to-four day timescale and Bob would have to discreetly source enough of the right kind of plasma.
Mister Peepers needed to get out of the hotel and lay low with a place to do it, somewhere secure enough for the transfusion and his streaming. There was some discussion about who was best placed to set this up.
Thaddeus Rackham, cross-dressing vaudevillian street performer, sex worker and assassin was our best bet. As an asset, he was a loose cannon, unpredictable and murderous but his network of murky underworld contacts were solid. He had the ins with who could get us what we needed quick but there would be a price. Luckily, Mister Peepers had filthily lucrative sponsorship and the dollar to spare.
It was starting to come together, Thaddeus hooked us up with a delisted apartment somewhere on his turf in Sky Dinosaurian Square. Power got piggybacked off the park’s mainline and water was quietly reconnected by maintenance staff with flexible payment options. Same with the GLOWNET
Cheeky Bob and his gear got transported to the apartment, the procedure got underway and we left them to it.
Later, was about to hit the Huntudi beer again when I got pinged by newsvines. Algorithms had been busy, updating themselves after our digging into the PGDF and Martian incidents while back, now more data and content was being piped to my media-slab. Most of it was trash, nutjob rants and conspiracy theories but there was one thing I hadn’t seen before: Get Set Radio.
Get Set Radio was a pirate Glowcast station that streamed music and content out of a hidden venue in Akihabara. A small delinquent of a channel that managed to operate under the radar and evaded shutdown, pumping a frenetic and eclectic mixes of chill-hop-acid-beat jams and fringe news-items to whoever would listen.
Finding the station was no problem, accessing its data-vault triggered a batch of bombastic preroll jingles alongside a montage of orange, yellow and green branding and images.
“Keep your feet on the street and your eye on the sky.”
“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million-to-one, but still they come.”
“They’re on their way, they’ll be here any day.”
Heavily filtered, streams from the station’s feed showed it was fronted by someone who went by the handle DJ Doctor A.
Self-titled as “A Doctor of Criticality”, “A Professor of the Profound” and “A Graduate of the University of Futility”.
A couple of the topical stories caught our attention.
“The Holden Crater station located near the dig site has gone dark. Authorities say micrometeorites striking the comms satellite are the cause but sources close to the PGDF alerted us that the troopship “‘Flavour of the Dawn’ was diverted to Mars on full burn immediately after the links went dead.”
“Unusual traffic of unidentified craft near the Moon today. Yueyliang Base reports a ‘swarm’ of small vehicles unresponsive to hails that dropped below radar height on the dark side. After they failed to reappear search drones were dispatched but failed to locate the intruders. Experts are speculating the craft may have entered the tunnels in the ‘right eye’ of Leibnitz crater that remain unexplored since the unexplained loss of the Von Hoff expedition in ‘63.”
Was any of it true, was there some kind of inside knowledge?
It had slipped our notice but Captain Noodles had been away. Now returned, he told us that he’d spoken with the Armenian footsoldier that was trailing us, - no doubt one of Yennav’s - and then produced a package, handing out some tiny Ngumatadi Electronics Maeodoho branded GPS trackers and Insisting we take them,.
He was evasive about why, something had him rattled and he refused to say.
We took the trackers.
Hika Taki was still too busy to take a call. Pinged him, got nothing but answermail.
Considered getting Yennav to put some eyes on him, definitely a target for The Red King. We passed in the end.
DJ Doctor A dropped another one of his alien-rants on Get Set Radio.
“Several dogs have been stolen from homes in the Hoppi Street District. Their owners report they were taken at night by naked children with big heads. Camera feeds from the area seem to corroborate this but the thieves are hard to make out clearly since they blend into the greyness of the surrounding buildings. One owner, Lincoln Voight, claims to have grabbed one of the thieves but was he was overpowered and remained unconscious until morning.”
Managing to miss the late rush hour, we rode the tram into Hoppi Street. Back in the day, the district had become a focal point of nightlife in early Neon City, the titular street taking its name from hops used in brewing and was still known as The Street of a Thousand bars. A name well earned.
As we came to a straining, noisy halt at our stop, day had been reduced to a thinning band of red light along the western skyline.
The first sporadic drops of the oncoming rain streaking dirty tram windows through which we watched a multitude of neon decorated bar fronts and gaudy glittering signs flickering to life in the gloaming.
The dull, grey miasma of asphalt and concrete transformed into a silvery twinkling vein that threaded into the vanishing point before our eyes, contrasted by an amorphous shadowy mass that ran along it and consisted of the undulating silhouettes of countless revellers hitting the street.
The nightly deluge was in full force as the tram pulled out of our stop, drumming incessantly on the thin aluminium roofing. Lashed by the glimmering streetlight lit downpour, we exited into the darkening night; Lincoln Voight our target.
Easy to get details on Lincoln Voight, most citizens never gave their GLOWNET bio-vault a second thought. He lived in some identikit looking apartment in an unremarkable block in the district’s outlying residential quarter where the spirituous volume of Hoppi Street had faded.
A middle-aged, somewhat out of shape Lincoln Voight answered our knocking, a white headband decorated with a black dragon was tied around his head and he wore a yellow and black polyester Osolilitki tracksuit.
He didn’t look too pleased to see us but Bill managed to assuage his concerns and we were invited inside.
He took us to a studio apartment furnished blandly with old worn and drab Mayari branded furniture, covered with a vinyl cloth was a tiny dining table situated close to a window shuttered by roller blinds while on the adjoining off-white wall a small integrated Ajuarat kitchen unit had been installed.
In front of a Sulgeon wall-slab was a square armed faux-leather upholstered two-seater couch along with a couple of matching one seaters.
Lincoln went to the kitchen unit and powered up the Heseoc branded tea-maker, with a razor like hiss, steam vented almost immediately from the superheating element as it instantly prepared tea, vibrating and bubbling cheerfully while it did so.
Returning with an aromatically laden tray Lincoln took a seat and insisted we join him. Captain Noodles immediately curled up on the remaining one-seater so the rest of us squeezed ourselves into the couch awkwardly. He then handed out some plastic cups styled to imitate delicate china pouring into them what he called ‘Chinese tea,’.
Spanning the remaining wall hung a collection of ‘exotic’ weapons, knock-off tanto, cheap nunchucks, low quality sai and more, poor grade replicas available from any bogus GLOWNET seller.
Trigger gave them a cursory contemptuous glance, I’m sure it was an affront to his swordsman’s sensibilities.
Lincoln picked up on Trigger’s glance.
“I’m a martial arts master, I’ve completed the Black Dragon Remote Learning ‘Become a killer in three easy steps and learn to defend yourself against cyber bullies’ course,” he boasted enthusiastically, plucking a framed certificate from the wall and brandishing it at us. It stated; ‘Confirmed master of secret fighting arts handed down from antiquity’.
Lincoln sat down and we got him to tell us his story.
Yesterday, he’d been out walking Barabus, his dog when they had attacked. He described them as child-sized, perhaps naked and with large heads.
“I tried to fight them off but they were masters of jiu-jitsu,” he claimed excitedly. Jumping to his feet energetically, he unsteadily took a crane stance, adding. “I know my stuff, but that little guy stopped me dead with a single touch. Probably scrambled my ganglia, jiu-jitsu masters can do that, I read about it.”
Unmoving, Captain Noodles had been watching the exchange through one almost imperceptibly open eye. Rousing himself and uncurling, he dropped off the seat effortlessly and gave Lincoln Voight a sniff.
The result was instantaneous. Despite being uplifted, Captain Noodles’ response was pure animal instinct, his hackles raised, back arched and tail puffed out.
“We got to get out of here,” Noodles said. “Now!” With that, he immediately left the apartment.
What had Noodles detected? Was it the Martian link he refused to talk about? My eyes darted from corner to corner and at the window. We all shifted uncomfortably, no sign of immediate threat though, we continued.
It took some cajoling but Lincoln was convinced to come out and show us where the attack occurred. Grumbling under his breath a little, he pulled the zipper on his tracksuit jacket right up to his ill defined chin and stepped out into the rainy night with us.
The attack took place a brief walk from Lincoln’s apartment block where a typically poorly lit narrow back alley that ran between two tightly packed blocks intersected the main thoroughfare.
Barely visible behind wavering sheets of rain I could make out the glimmering red light-diode of a security camera bolted high up and across the street. Its feed would stream directly into the GLOWNET, it would have what was needed.
Lincoln went on his way after we’d thanked him.
Incandescent blurs left disjointed afterimages in my cerebrum as I flurried through data.
Grown accustomed to cracking street-feeds with their cheap security contractor provided under-resourced anti-intrusion protocols and measures meant I could autopilot through the GLOWNET routine and was barely conscious as the archived, time-stamped data appeared on my Nonohiki.
The footage matched what DJ Doctor A was saying. It was poor quality, low res and washed out but it showed Lincoln walking past the alley with his dog before swaying and collapsing.
An individual, somehow colourless and hazily indistinct, inexplicably emerged into sight, they looked small but it was hard to tell with certainty, their movements looked confident, swift and in a second, Barabus was gone.
Wasn’t much else to get out of the footage.
Time to pay DJ Doctor A a visit, had to be a reason he was so on-the-ball.
Started with a dive on him. Back into the GLOWNET, immersing myself in Neon City’s parametrically shifting info-vistas, dropped a hunter/searcher algorithm into the nearest data-flow, watched the nebulously shaped silhouette bound away and let it get to work.
Didn’t take long to get a hit, results were unexpected.
For all of Get Set Radio’s anti-establishment posturing and DJ Doctor A’s rhetoric, the channel was fully licensed by the relevant municipal authorities. The data gathered by the algorithm also included contact details.
Pinged a message to DJ Doctor A, told him we had solid evidence on aliens, sent him a taster, told him we wanted a face-to-face. Text message came back quick enough, he was onboard and gave us an Akihabara address.
The meet was tonight.
Midnight in Akihabara; rain wasn’t letting up, never did. Strips of retail units fiercely lit streets with multicoloured storefronts that welcomed our arrival. Rows of exterior Senonable wall-slabs flashed painfully bright, ever changing product commercials at us with a near hypnotic cadence through the glittering filter of light bending raindrops.
The small hours had thinned out the crowds and shoppers somewhat but enough people doggedly braved the precipitous night, bustling over colour smeared reflective pools which had accumulated on the sidewalks to keep the heart of the city’s consumer electronics centre beating.
The address took us to a litter-strewn rain-soaked slender side alley that divided two soaring retail city blocks and was lined with a jumble of canopy-covered street sellers hawking data slugs for ageing game-slabs and vending machines selling various flavours of Kaia Cola.
To an easily missed dive bar with a narrow door beneath a stuttering neon bar sign that read Udon Drizzle.
Into a crimson tinged noisy front bar decorated with old posters of forgotten sports and a wall of older empty, branded liquor bottles.
Past slouching and sideways glancing patrons, through a black unlabelled backdoor, up uncomfortably tight and creaking exposed woodwork steps and into a small converted back room office and finally, to DJ Doctor A.
Lit by the buzzing filament of an old yellowing bulb, tendrils of lingering smoke sluggishly curled beneath a nicotine stained ceiling. On a desk hidden under the weight of countless box folders and precariously stacked hardcopy documents leant a man.
Tall, lean but shredded with wayward chunky dreads framing a long face while blue-tinted Jaserasu branded rectangular, plastic rimmed shades hung on a nose decorated with a gold ring. Doctor A wore a distinctive white retro-reflective Duuner tee that glittered an opulent shade of gold in the light and was badged with a lightning bolt logo.
DJ Doctor A had a distinct west coast accent, an incandescent subdermal implant shaped into a stylised ‘A was embedded in one cheek ’ and gleamed with a strange intensity whenever he spoke.
Our conversation didn’t last too long. Doctor A told us by his account that the dognapping was a recent occurrence, something he’s only confirmed in the last twenty-four hours. He didn’t think the incidents went back far. He didn’t have any leads on more missing dogs but he did drop some info about a contact of his; one Irelyn Koerner.
Irelyn Koemer was a certified psychiatrist and social worker who practised out of Hoppi Street, she’d told Doctor A one of her cases was a transient who been in the PGDF, now a street zero who haunted the district that she hadn’t seen for a few days and was concerned about his well being.
Did the dognappings and this weird Martian menace have anything to do with the PGDF? Might have been a stretch but it was a lead - of a sort.
As promised, we pinged a copy of the autopsy footage to DJ Doctor A, told us he’d pass it on to his contacts who’d try and pull something from it.
Hours to dawn and with time to burn, we left Doctor A’s office and hit up the Udon Drizzle bar below hard.
Huntudi, Dindanha and Baishan chasers followed neat Shiaikan shots as we slumped into an intoxicated fugue while the clamour of energetic voices and an overstrained and distorted jukebox playing old tunes washed over us as we relaxed in an unhygienic and neglected plastic and vinyl furnished booth.
The rain dried up before we did. A sliver of reddish light was colouring the eastern horizon blue while the downpours began to subside and the heat rose. Taking our cue, we exited the bar which was still in full swing and headed for the tram, hoping to preempt the morning rush hour.
Luckily, finding Irelyn Koemer’s address was easy, as a municipal employee her details were stored on their underprotected data vault which was an open door to me. Irelyn lived close to her work community in Hoppi Street.
The lustrous multicoloured excess of light and noise from last night seemed muted against the now cloudless blue-white sky. Wage-monkeys were still pulling on their cheap, neutral slate-grey two-piece Kuabha suits by the time we rode back into Hoppi Street.
Only the night workers and dedicated nihilists were slouching along the sidewalks here.
The address took us into one of Neon City’s many anonymous low-rent apartment blocks in the residential quarter and an equally anonymous, windowless door in a partially lit corridor of anonymous, windowless doors.
We buzzed and waited.
After the minute it took the occupant to check us out on their security feed, It was answered by a middle-aged woman; average height, average weight, she had tight curling whitish hair in a short cut style.
Initially, Irelyn Koemer was suspicious but Bill’s practised, measured tone combined with the name-dropping of Doctor A alleyed her concerns and she provided us with some information on her missing client.
Known only as Nursery Bob, formerly of the PGDF who lived on the sidewalks and doorways of Hoppi Street was known for making elaborate and theatrical old-school toys which he gave to the neighbourhood kids. He had an almost pathological need to see children happy and used what seemed like a gift for the mechanical to do this.
Irelyn had noticed Bob was becoming furtive and unsettled, something was making him worried, fearful even and then, five days ago he vanished.
Irelyn pinged us a photo of Bob, middle-aged with grey-streaked dark hair, brawny shoulders as well as the bulky forearms and hands of a grafter, he didn’t have the tattered, misfitting, mish-mashed and patchwork-repaired clothing that would typically mark him out as a sidestreet obake. Irelyn added that she was certain that he had money somehow, perhaps he sold some of his toys? He wasn’t homeless because of poverty and as far as Irelyn could discern, he just refused to go indoors, preferring to live outside?
It was a short walk to where Bob slept, Irelyn had visited him there several times and took us to an unfrequented narrow alley that slipped away from the bustle of the main thoroughfare and branched into a narrower, perpetually shaded cul-de-sac that finally led us to a high-walled corner spot adjacent to padlocked and clearly disused maintenance access panel.
A pile of flattened cardboard boxes sat next to some scavenged plastic panelling and woodworking tools. A quick search showed nothing significant here or evidence Bob had been back recently.
The location was put into a positioning algorithm on my data-slab, it executed a series of locationally relative arguments and came back with some potential correlations, one seemed pertinent; Bob’s makeshift shelter was half between the apartments of Irelyn Koemer and Lincoln Voight.
It meant that Bob might have been close to Lincoln when Barabus was taken. Bob needed to be found.
Thanking Irelyn for her help, we made our way back to Hikage Street.
Back at the one-bed, I kicked off my Harbiefs and Hiaki, dialled up the audio on the wall-slab, crashed on the futon and pulled a blanket over my face.
An hour later and I was washing down some stim pills with a self-heated pot of Niaiwo. Time to dive on Nursery Bob.
The merging movements of data-flow patterns exploded with primary colours as they compiled into unpredictably emergent constructs that populated the data-scape while I jacked into the GLOWNET.
Usage was high, Bio-images filled my view, as I navigated the info-vista. Best to start with the PGDF.
Their data-image was public knowledge and easy to find. The shell on the image was a brief animated sequence displaying a carefully balanced multicultural blend of the brave young men and women of the force with their flaxen hair, cerulean eyes and brown uniforms.
It would take minutes to get into the PGDF directories and I wasn’t looking to generate any autonomous location logs for the bio-image I was using, even a low-cycle hack would be risky here. Instead I kept a half a dozen server nodes away and launched a normal cracking algorithm, inputted some protocols into it to remotely approach the bio-image and let go on its way.
A little progress bar began ticking up on the info-vista.
While I was waiting I launched a hunter/searcher algorithm to look for anything else on Nursery Bob, it got zero hits, he had no GLOWNET presence.
Eventually, the progress bar filled and I was in the PGDF data-vault and their directories. Without Bob’s full name, too many people in the PGDF, searching would get too much data,too many hits. I needed a data point I could filter.
Irelyn Koemer had given us a photo of Bob.The PGDF system would have security profiles on all staff. I put the photo through facial recog and pulled the data it generated, then used it as the search criteria.
It worked, I got a hit.
Robert Silverford: An orphan who’d signed up to the PGDF at the earliest opportunity out of Neon City’s brutally underfunded social care system. During induction he scored in the top percentile for mechanical aptitude and was recruited into the engineering corps where he had a successful if unremarkable career up until six years ago whereupon he was abruptly pensioned off?
I kept scanning the file: There was no record of disciplinary actions against Silverford, I kept diving. Then, towards the end of Silverford’s military record, there was some: During routine shuttle transport between Earth and the Moon, Robert Silverford had been involved in a catastrophic accident. The event had killed everybody aboard except for Silverford
According to the incident report, the salvage crew tasked with recovering the wreckage had not expected to find any survivors from the explosion and were surprised to encounter Silverford who had managed to secure himself, an EVA suit and some compressed oxygen tanks inside a reinforced storage locker where, somehow he had managed to survive three days before the unexpected rescue.
Just before his records were closed, it stated he was discharged with full disability pension.
The report didn’t say much, felt evasive, so I tried accessing the incident report source file. Wherever the link went, it was restricted, I got denied, slammed and kicked out the directory. I scoped the nearby data-vista, there was no response; no alarm or counter-intrusion measures had been triggered.
I captured some data and ran it through a logger, didn’t look like internal security was so hot, whoever had coded the vault had expected the outer security to do the heavy work.
I launched another cracker algorithm targeting the report’s node, it pulled the encryption string which bypassed the internal security, granting full access to the report.
Turned out the initial report was a half-fabrication and cover for the actual report.
The report determined there was no accident, Robert Silverford had been aboard a shuttle called Lost Wisdom of the Ancients which had been destroyed.
The report listed the shuttle as: ‘Destroyed by alien interference, all hands lost.’
Following the rescue, Silverford had been given a debriefing and psych-eval.
Silverford had no recollection of events leading directly up to the incident and no understanding of how or why the shuttle had been destroyed.
The evaluation recorded several examples of Silverford suffering post stress traumatic disorder, including: Claustrophobia, nyctophobia and pedophobia - particularly fear of angry children. The evaluation also cited Silverford as stating that he had intense recurring nightmares of being hunted by angry children.
Finally, it had recommended that Robert Silverford be discharged with full pension.
The report wasn’t done, there was more, so I kept reading.
Three days after Silverford had been discovered, six days after the incident, a second survivor had been found. This time though, it was not in space.
Jacqueline Boxer had been found outside the boundaries of Neon City wandering in a dazed through a forested region in the bordering wilderness.
She was suffering short term memory loss and similarly to Silverford had no recollection of events that led to the attack or how she had arrived at the forest.
Boxer had been suffering from several injuries and contusions while also displaying early signs of malnutrition.
Boxer had been extremely agitated and was given a med-eval for her injuries under sedation, it was discovered that she had signs of having given birth recently. The report stated there were no records of Boxer ever having been pregnant, in PGDF archives or anywhere else. Boxer had no memory of this either.
Boxer was also evaluated as suffering several disorders, including nyctophobia, iatrophobia, tomophobia and pedophobia. Boxer's evaluation also recommended that she be pensioned off.
There was something about the shuttle incident that was wriggling through my brain, something more vaguely half-remembered from six years ago. It took a quick GLOWNET to make it click. About the time of the shuttle accident, the PGDF had gotten a massive boost to their funding.
Jacqueline Boxer was a new lead, I ran her through the GLOWNET on the hunter/searcher algorithm and got a partial hit.
Jacky Boxes was a registered employee at a warehousing business located on Highway Zero’s waterfront. Ran them through a business profiler algorithm on my Nonohiki, there were no flags, looked like a typical run-of-the-mill commercial enterprise.
Met up with the others, took a ride out to Highway Zero, headed to the waterfront. Warehouses here were pretty much identikit poly-ferrous prefabricated grey structures that were clustered into small anonymous business parks that ran alongside the docks, servicing sea traffic that came into the city.
Bill took the lead here, approaching the warehouse front office and speaking to staff at the warehouse. He was disarming and they were happy to speak with him.
Jacky Boxes was a supply manager and well liked. A couple of weeks ago, staff began to notice she was becoming erratic, agitated and fearful. About five days ago, Jacky vanished, the staff are now concerned for her safety.
The management were unable to provide us with an address for Jacky, telling us that they believed she had no fixed abode and Neon City’s lax labour laws meant they were not required to have a home address.
They did however, provide us with an up to date photo. Boxer was in her early-to-mid thirties with an oval-shaped face, high forehead and shoulder length mousy-blonde hair she wore straight.
Something was definitely going down with Silverford and Boxer, especially since both had gone missing about the same time. According to the PGDF report, both had potentially encountered aliens, did this tie in with Lincoln Voight’s encounter?
If extraterrestrials were prowling Neon City, we had to find a way of tracking them. Captain Noodles had implied he could sense them but he’d gone off-the-grid.
There was one option that could be pursued.
Bill contacted Xylona Adler and offered to take her dog for a walk.
Wasn’t as left-field as it sounded. Like Noodles, Toby was an alpha-class uplift with full cognitive and communicative functions, his senses would be as acute. Potentially, Toby could lead us to the aliens.
Xylona looked at us through the distorted lenses of her archaic thick-framed spectacles, her oversized eyes blinked curiously as we took Toby off her hands for a few hours.
Trigger got some sideways glances during the packed out tram ride to Hoppi Street. Pets were a rare sight on Neon City’s public transit system. Toby wisely decided to keep quiet during the trip.
Soon the sun would be at its zenith, shadows would shrink and there’d be no way to escape the day’s full heat unrelentingly beating down with almost pain inducing intensity on the city. Trigger was hoping that Toby would pick something up before then as they navigated the endless parade of revellers, hard-drinkers and tourists that thrummed past the rows of bars and pubs Hoppi Street was known for.
After some walking and random sniffing, Toby picked up something, he stopped and could not conceal an instinctive momentary bearing of his teeth. Toby then turned to Trigger and explained how he wanted to leave, he did not want to be in the crowds.
Toby had gotten as spooked as Noodles and as tight lipped, he refused to say why he was so nervous.
Although he did let slip that he’s encountered the smell before when serving as captain aboard ‘The Ganymede’?
It must have been a reference to the PGDF? Alpha class uplifts were routinely created to serve and crew aboard adapted spacecraft.
It was a dead end, Toby wasn’t going to get us any further information, Trigger took him for some walkies before returning Toby to Xylona.
After some discussion, it was decided to try the plan again and we took a ride to Kibogaoka Hill. There was a dog sanctuary that Trigger knew about.
Charities were far and few between in the City of Electric Dreams. Most of the municipal authorities were deeply in the pocket of the corporations and clandestinely dedicated to forwarding those agendas, either that or they looked the other way.
Charities weren’t high on corporate priorities.
But if anywhere in Neon City would have a dog sanctuary, it would be Kibgaoka Hill. The district was dominated by the shanty town with its undocumented population and uncontrolled growth over the titular hill. The establishment regarded it a leach on their society
The shanty town was home and refuge to no-hopers, transients, last-chancers, fugitives, the unwaged and more who struggled everyday to survive and in return viewed the establishment with equal vehemence.
A dog sanctuary was just an extension of Kibogaoka Hill’s rebel spirit.
On a corner in the erratic,unpredictable twisting backstreets was the dog sanctuary where there was some scant space given over to a yard outside the usual stacked, shabbily constructed cubic homes.
Trigger soon emerged with Rex, a frisky German Shepherd rescue who was eager to explore the world beyond as Trigger took to the streets of The Hill.
Rex sniffed and rummaged seemingly everywhere but it was clear that the dog was not knowingly tracking any extraterrestrial activity or scents.
Trigger didn’t return Rex to the sanctuary, deciding to adopt the dog instead.
While Trigger was busy I put Jacqueline Boxer’s latest photo through facial recog and ran the data through a hunter/searcher algorithm, it got a hit from some rando’s MyFaceSpace page. The rando had captured a photo of someone being arrested at Rokkaku Expo Stadium, that someone was Jacqueline Boxer.
It put an idea in my head, I jacked into the GLOWNET and sank into the local info-vista.
Neon City’s rentacop data-images and secured data-vaults were all essentially identical, created by the same GLOW-designer contractors who’d no doubt tended the contract as cheapest bidders. All the security provisions and protocols for all the rentacop precincts had been written under one umbrella by the same code-monkeys. The precinct at Rokkaku Expo Stadium was no different. It meant they all had the same vulnerabilities. It meant that once I had the means to crack any one precinct, I had the means to crack them all.
Soon I was inside their directories, sifting through their arrest records. Using the facial recog data I soon got matches. Both Robert Silverford and Jacqueline Boxer had been arrested multiple times in the last five days while loitering and protesting outside of the Rokkaku Tower.
Pushing the flier as hard as it could go span the turbines up to their operational maximums and they hummed with a disapprovingly high pitch while Koko took us to Rokkaku Expo Stadium. Sky-congestion didn’t hinder her and I watched aerial traffic flicker past the viewports in erratic blurs while behind it, the high-rise dominated cityscape slowly rolled past, lurched with every bobbing course correction.
From a dot on the skyline, the Rokkaku Tower inevitably expanded to its massive proportions, growing to fill the front facing screens.
Koko put the flier down on the lowest roofpad close by and we raced the rest of the way on foot.
Luck was with us, after reaching the perimeter of the tower plaza we spotted the pair of them. Rentacop hadn’t moved them on yet.
After finally reaching Bob and Jacky, they gave us their stories.
Both of them had been inexplicably drawn here five days ago without ever having contacted each other, compelled by something they couldn’t comprehend or resist. They were convinced that aliens were inside the Rokkaku Tower, both spoke of hearing the alien voices in their heads.
By this time, Rentacop had made us aware of their presence, a number of suited-up uniforms were slowly trying to surround us while failing to inconspicuously reach for side arms or puke-prodders. They had probably been expecting Bob and Jacky but not us.
We preempted their strategy, Bill convinced Bob and Jacky to leave with us - at least for now. Renatcop stood down and watched as we walked out the plaza.
Bob and Jack knew where they wanted to go, wasn't too far to the PGDF Vets Association. When they got there, they were provided with some warm food and drink.
As they ate, they told us the rest of their stories, their versions of events matched each other and the classified PGDF incident report.
During this, Bill and Koko had spotted something; we were under observation.
The watcher was stood at the corner of a nearby back alley. We got the briefest of glances at her, dark skinned with blue hair and a noticeably oversized head, she looked young, it was impossible to determine any more about her age other than ‘young’. Somehow, she’d realised that we’d made her and retreated out of sight into the alley.
Trigger dashed across the street, into the alleyway and found nothing, no evidence of her ever being there, running further in, there was also nothing. She had disappeared.
5th June 2021
It's a Saturday night and we're logged into video chat for some Saturday RPG action and it's time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign
Location: Neon City.
The grinding clamour of the City of Electric Dreams had mingled into an expansive dulling background static, a numbing, urban white noise that scrambled the brain.
The day’s heat unrelentingly rose to intolerable levels before the sun had even half-finished its march into Neon City’s bleached blue-white sky as shafts of morning light blazed through the tarp that protected the blasted wall of my one-bed while lighting it up the colour of urine.
I coped by mixing Kaia Cola with Shiaikan whiskey; light on the Kaia and heavy on the Shiaikan did the trick; morning receded into a distant undefinable haze.
It couldn’t last and didn’t; the ping from my media-slab cut through the blur like a precision sword stroke, killing my euphoria and flooding my senses with material reality.
Neon City’s unluckiest man, Yaroh Uron was online and it wasn’t about to get better for him: His voice was laboured, erratic, I could almost see the furtive look and sheen of sweat on his face.
It wasn’t enough that he’d been wrongly convicted for murder, now he told us he was on the run and rentacop were after him for another!
We couldn’t leave him twisting in the wind and had to get to Rokkaku Dai Heights.
Koko had the flier prepped and airborne in minutes, remotely bringing it down on one of Hikage Street’s highrise pads while we hustled up to meet it in a shroud of jetwash.
Gravity pawed at me during lift off, I watched the grey tower that housed my one-bed fall away, swallowed by Neon City’s sprawling concrete maw while the urine coloured polymer tarp that marked out my destroyed wall shrank into an indistinguishable dot on the flier’s screens.
A tiny tremble vibrated out of the turbines, transmitted through the toughened poly-blended gum soles of my Habiefs while I scoped the newsvines. The sharp abrupt tugs on my guts told me Koko was pushing the flier hard as she sliced through Neon City’s sky traffic.
The news on Yaroh Uron was plentiful, so was the footage.
A few days ago, while locked up, Tohi, his wife, had been killed in a freak accident involving a delivery droid. Inexplicably, its powercell had somehow crashed all safety protocols, catastrophically overloading.
Unusually, The Black Dolphin gulag had granted Yaroh compassionate leave to attend Tohi’s funeral. That was the start of his troubles.
Footage on the vines from the outskirts of the funeral had shown an armed band of masked individuals decked in form-fitting black Steutz armour and riding a grimy, white, angular and square bodied Benlato Hochall sky-van descend on the ceremony and pounce:
With practised precision, they’d netted a hood over Yaroh’s head while firing indiscriminately into the mourners, dragged him into the Hochall and bugged out.
In and out in seconds; the work of professional black-baggers.
Further footage, grainy, badly lit and half out of focus, showed Yaroh Uron and the black-baggers hitting the tram network after dumping the Hochall. I watched the security feed of commuters awkwardly shrinking away while the black-baggers boarded and peeled the hood off of Yaroh’s head, moments later they induced him to vomit with a puke-prodder! A newsvine would later explain that they were flushing a tracker out Yaroh’s system that he’d been made to swallow by the screws at the Black Dolphin.
I continued to watch while between stations, the black-baggers punched the tram’s emergency stop. They dragged Yaroh with them as they evacuated the tram, disappearing out of shot.
Finally, an unconnected piece of footage showed Yaroh Uron killing Avery Kiani, emptying a full magazine at full auto from a grey-steel Koudeila submachine pistol into the corrupt rentacop’s chest, muzzle flash lighting up a furiously contorted, murderous visage while Kiani convulsed and collapsed into a bloody, dying heap.
Following that, the newsvines announced that Yaroh had been abandoned by his black-bagging so called ‘accomplices’.
I wasn’t so sure they were accomplices, the black-baggers had pretty forcibly pushed him around during his escape while he struggled and stumbled.
Tohi Uron was dead.
Avery Kiani was dead.
Averi kiani had been about as corrupt as rentacop got in Neon City, which is to say; very corrupt, deep in Benedict Twistom’s pocket.
Our dives into his past had pulled no dirt, instead, we’d pushed his button as hard as we could. Which meant hitting him in the bank balance; zeroing the bankroll delivered from Benedict Twistom’s slush fund then siccing D4VID on him, hoping the botcaster would score some usable leverage on the rentacop as he reacted to losing all his dollar.
Somehow he’d given D4VID the slip, soon after that, Annabel Twistom - Benedict’s wife had come up dead; victim of a bloody street execution. Looked likely we’d pushed Kiani pretty hard.
Annabel Twistom, Tohi Uron and now, Avery Kiani, was there a commonality, a thread that ran between all of them, linked one to another?
I kept replaying the clues, looking for anything in the footage that I’d missed. When I went back through the tram feed as the black-baggers and Yaroh fled, I saw something, there, in the background, unidentified and strange?
Scrubbing back and rewatching several times, I saw what seemed like a pair of red cylindrical robots? They were dragging some unidentifiable individual through some neglected, disused old brownfield the perimetered Zoshigaya Park, searching the GLOWNET told me the only notable feature close to the brownfield was ‘The Tower’, an exclusive ‘celebrity’ restaurant owned by McChef, real name Halifax Machesky.
Didn’t get the chance to dive deeper, Koko had piped up, The Heights had come into view.
Densely clustered in one neighbourhood of Rokkakau Dai Heights, the alabaster white residential high-rises reached into the overbright sky, looming above the urbanised horizon, welcoming our closing flier.
Yaroh Uron was there, he’d told us as much, somewhere among the undocumented population who inhabited the sprawling makeshift shanty town precariously anchored to the aerial arrays, sat-dishes, transmission antennae and water towers that dotted the off-white rooftops and were connected by a web of haphazardly swaying makeshift bridges and skywalks.
Circling the high-rises, we saw the large number of rentacop swarming the sidewalks on street level, trying to cordon off the entire neighbourhood while on the rooftop settlement, more uniforms brandishing their cheap Rekhang 9mm Ngaohun sidearms cautiously prowled the walkways. It would take them a while to flush out Yaroh, neither the locals nor the squatters here had any love for rentacop and would have them chasing shadows.
Beyond the edge of the housing district we spotted a column of black smoke billowing out of another high-rise, the lower plumes intermittently underlit orange by licking flames that extruded from a gouged, bloody wound of an opening in the side of the tower. That kind of shape was recognisable, something explosive had hit the high-rise hard.
Koko found an alley wide enough to rapidly put our feet on the ground somewhere inside the cordon, we managed to slip into one of the towers before rentacop could get eyes on us.
Apartments in The Heights were slightly more upmarket than the one-and-two-beds that we were used to on Hikage Street, even so, they were tightly packed and stacked on each floor. Rumours and news spread through these kinds of crammed communities faster than newsvines, someone would know something.
Bill took the lead here, he was in his element, a winning smile and silky patter got numerous residents talking and soon we had a good idea where Yaroh Uron was holed up.
The rooftop shantytown’s population was always transient and untrackable, it meant that a few of the makeshift shacks were always unoccupied. It was in one of these that Yaroh Uron had - at least so far, hidden from rentacop. Moving cautiously, we headed for the roof, the info led to a smallish squat; a clinging corner building, held up by misshaped wooden props and walled by a mixture of corrugated plastic sheeting and pallets wrapped in tarp, topped a thin, dented alloy sheet roof.
Trigger ran thermals and got a single hit, an individual male heat profile was inside, pacing the small room in short, swift movements, a firearm grasped in one hand. Yaroh would be on edge, it needed a measured approach.
Koko bought Pippy online, the custom Suayo MKVI drone had been outfitted with a voice function and could deliver Yaroh a message. Trigger approached one of the shack walls that faced towards the roof with Pippy quietly buzzing in tow and gave the wall a kick!
His Shiaosha leg implants activated, lending his strike extra momentum and the flimsy wall split in two, Pippy’s buzzing servos noticeably increased in pitch as the drone accelerated through the gap. From our position we just about saw Yaroh level his pistol at Pippy and pull the trigger.
Pippy was met with a spent magazine’s audible click, if Yaroh did have a reload, we got in the shack and had him calmed down before he had any chance to think about it. The wall, now in two pieces was hastily propped up, rentacop were nowhere to be found right now.
Turning to Yaroh Uron, we got his story out of him.
He’d never known the black-baggers who’d snatched him from the funeral, after exiting the tram, they dragged him aboard another sky van and made good their escape. Eventually they’d ended up at one of the many failed or abandoned urban renewal projects that littered Neon City’s sprawl, this particular example was a half finished high-rise and they were on one of the skeletal higher levels.
Benedict Twistom had been waiting, materialising out of an unlit corner with an offer.
Kill Avery Kiani and in return, Twistom would furnish him with a new identity and a way to evade rentacop.
Yaroh had nothing left in The City of Electric Dreams now, so he took the offer, Twistom even provided the gun and sent the black-baggers to help.
In hindsight though, Yaroh admitted it was obvious that Twistom would betray him and once he’d rubbed out Kiani, the black-baggers had evaporated into the sprawl and Benedict Twistom had ghosted him.
Now he was here, waiting for the inevitable.
I couldn’t help but try to put the dots together.
Avery Kiani had likely murdered Annabel Twistom and Benedict had gotten Yaroh to kill Kiani, that was one thread, what was the link between Yaroh and Benedict, the black-baggers had been bankrolled by Twistom, but how did he know to lean on Yaroh.
Tohi had been killed in unusual circumstances, it could have been arranged. The wife of an out-of-work, down-on-his-luck, former exec would have been an easy mark for the kind of spooks and street-ninja that someone like Twistom had in his pocket.
Avery Kiani had executed Annabel Twistom.
Benedict Twistom got Tohi Uron killed.
Yaroh Uron murdered Avery Kiani.
No solid proof, but the thread that ran from one to another was as clear as a set of bloody footprints.
What to do with Yaroh Uron now?
We couldn’t leave him to his fate and had two options: Enrol him in the Planetary Global Defence Force or get him out of Neon City.
Yaroh Uron chose the former. The closest PGDF recruitment office was located on Ninety Ninth Street. Getting him there would’ve been easy but Rentacop had tightened the noose.
Koko tols rentacop had escalated their cordon, now restricting all air-traffic; it meant we couldn’t call in the flier without triggering alarms, same was true of all the city’s sky-cabs, their piloting-systems would automatically divert them away from any airspace limitations introduced by rentacop. Another solution was needed.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, the shanty’s patchwork substance of material reality shrank away while polygonal neon veins expanded around me, incandescent growing crystalline settled into Neon City’s wavering and ever changing angular info-vista.
Here, even the shanty town had its own data-image; a giant, pulsating, colour-shifting, tangled mess of data movements that loosely resembled some monstrously chaotic spider’s web, as undesigned and unplanned as its material reality counterpart.
I could also see rentacop bio-images prowling the vicinity or lingering close by, the expanding cordon had now reached into the GLOWNET, glow-cops launching hunter algorithms on standard issue cheap Muanma slabs.
This was my jungle gym though, not theirs; I launched a spoofer that masked my own bio-image and was immediately past them without a hitch.
The city’s vista twisted and rotated as I navigated towards the closest rentacop precinct. It was a squat, concrete-grey, flat-coloured cubic data-image, looking as much of a bunker as the real thing. It looked like a lazy design but I knew better, it had been researched, focus grouped and designed to be as uninviting and intimidating as anything could be in the GLOWNET.
Not because they wanted to menace the population but because they didn't want to incur the fiscal expense of dealing with the public.
Getting through the public-facing data-image would be trickier, security wouldn’t be so lax in this department. I launched a hacking algorithm and watched as it worked through the rentacop’s encryption key, revealing each digit, one-by-one, calculations told me I’d crack it before rentatcop’s counter-hack system tagged a trace on me. Once all the numbers were revealed, it was done, I was past their security and into their core system.
It listed several subdirectories, one showed a constant gleaming flow of data to-and-fro between precincts but it didn’t interest me
Another subdirectory logged this precinct’s communications between patrols and street units. The records showed only intermittent contact between them, a length of chatter, followed by a length of silence, followed by another length of chatter and so on, this limited comms was another budget consideration and something that could be exploited.
I waited for a period of chatter to end and then got to work. I picked a rentacop sky-wagon outside of the cordon but close by and then, on the directory, I flicked it from green to red - the system would flag the unit as ‘in danger’. The closest rentacop units - those around us would have to prioritise the incident, respond and redirect to that location.
It was a rough hack and rentacop would figure out it was a phantom threat soon enough but it gave us the window we needed to get through the cordon.
It was going to have to be by foot, fast and to a public transit network, the metro would have sharper security, so the tram network it was.
Bill had taken the opportunity to give Yaroh a rudimentary disguise, wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny but it would slow facial recog.
I’d also sourced some new ID docs for Yaroh, the encryption algorithm utilised by the city to generate social security numbers, tracking numbers, case numbers and more had been cracked years ago, the city defences had been weak and to keep costs down, they relied on a single algorithm to drive everything.
From there, generating a new ID for Yaroh Uron had been child’s play.
Now we just had to get to Ninety Ninth Street.
Even out of rush hour, the crumbling tram infrastructure was unendingly clogged with commuters; wage-monkeys may have come and gone for the morning but It was a tense ride to Ninety Ninth crammed aboard its dirty, declining, unserviced carriages filled with consumers, no-hopers, inebriants, street gangs, and transients who all had places to be.
An unknowable time passed before Ninety Ninth Street came into view through dirt stained windows, faded old brakes squealed while they dragged the tram to a stop, then we were off and on our way.
Undulating crowds were ahead and had to be navigated, the mixture of onlookers and pachinko players didn’t let up when nows we were back on foot: The Neon Mile, with its long strip of fluorescent tube painted, jingle-playing pachinko rooms, bingo halls, gambling dens and karaoke setups pulled in an immense number of rollers looking to score big or die trying.
The pressing crush on the street only exacerbated the sweltering heat as we laboured through the tumultuous crowds and closed in on the PGDF recruitment office. It was a place we knew, having provided them with recruits in the past.
From behind came the abrupt, harsh staccato of small calibre automatic gunfire, probably a nine millimetre urbanised holdout spitting the lead. Keeping our heads down and without looking back, we reached the office.
Despite their immense budget, the PGDF constantly faced a recruitment crisis. The slim and well turned out uniformed recruiter didn’t spend much time scrutinising Yaroh’s fake ID before they allowed him to fill out an application in the small, street facing office.
After that, he was off, recruits were rapidly whisked to a flight into orbit before they could change their minds.
We left after saying our goodbyes to Yaroh Uron.
It didn’t take long before something came up, never did. Trigger’s slab pinged and Viper Joe was online. The synthesised voice box in his full body replacement frame spouted digitised low half-growls, distorting his words. Joe’s speech was too fast and changing tack too often for it to cope well. Something had him excited.
I could see Trigger wince as Joe’s voice changed pitch, dropped fidelity, squawked with feedback and hissed into Trigger’s ear. Joe was ranting about The Red King and a dead woman?
For days now, someone called The Red King had been anonymously posting messages on the newsvines and chat-streams. Looked like the boasting of another low rent serial killer who haunted the dimly-lit narrow streets and murky nil-spots of Neon City. Some trash about chess moves and ‘taking pieces’ which was just code for killing people. Truth was; nobody in Neon City cared about chess.
However, whatever the situation was, The Red King’s schtick had been good enough to attract the attention of the newsvines which meant rentacop, who had to at least look like they cared, had made a show of offering a reward for information.
Joe told us that he’d eyeballed the body of The Red King’s latest victim getting dumped, a woman called Avril Van Laere, a gardener who’d been found dead at the Mejiro Allotments and who lived in the Mejiro Housing Complex.
Joe told us he’d gotten a vid of the body being dumped and was going to claim that reward. It showed a pair of red, cylindrical robots unceremoniously hurling her ragdolling body out of a sky-van. Avril Van Laere’s body crumpled to the ground as the sky-van powered skywards.
Joe was on the money; had to be the Red King. What kind of game was he playing, well, other than chess?
Galvanised, Joe decided to head to the Ikebukuro precinct and pocket his reward.
Like a strange answer to my question; Koko’s media-slab pinged, someone was initiating an unlisted connection to her: The Red King was calling; told Koko she was next and quoted some kind of poem.
The flier easily allowed us to intercept Viper Joe and give him a ride the rest of the way and escort him into the concrete bunker rentacop called a precinct. Once through the steel and reinforced acrylic doors then past the hardened facade, we arrived at an almost equally protected front desk. Joe told his story to the rentacop behind the toughened glass screen
Over a rasping microphone that just compounded his own unnatural voice, he was crestfallen to discover that footage of Avril’s body had already found its way to rentacop.
It wasn’t over though, we went our separate way from Viper Joe and decided to keep digging on the Red King. His call to Koko told us he was planning to move against us someway?
The Tower was the first lead we decided to follow, we’d seen the footage of his red robots.
Zoshigaya Park contained one of the few open and wooded areas that flourished in the conurbation, a blossom of greenery bursting against the city’s asphalt grey, The Tower sat on the very lip of the verdant boundary, set in a grassy band that ringed the forest.
The restaurant was figuratively a tower with a faux stone facade that rose several storeys high and was complemented by parapets and blustery flags. It had just come into sight when Koko’s media-slab pinged; a message from the Red King.
‘King takes rook, check.’
We had no time to even process the message: A sudden wave of heat engulfed us as we were lifted off our feet. Almost instantaneously and before we’d even hit the ground, an enveloping roar reached our ears, threatening to overwhelm us as we landed with a crash.
For a moment, an expanding yellow-white spherical flare had bloomed from within The Tower, an intense glow visible through gaps in the stone work rendering it a skeletal shape before coalescing into a rippling orange ball of flame as the restaurant was torn apart.
Hurled by the explosion, scorched chunks of replica stone work and masonry thudded back to earth in a full quarter-kilometre smoking radius around the devastation, followed by a swarm of flittering, rectangular white shapes that danced and wheeled their way to the ground amongst the ruin.
I picked one up and turned it over in my fingers, old-school business cards. It was ivory white, plain on one side with a black and white checkerboard across the other. Over the checkerboard was a single image, an embossed red foil shape of a king’s crown icon
The Red king; I took a moment to register that he was up to his trick of using chess gimmicks. Rook had meant castle, the explosion was the Red King’s doing.
First responders got to Zoshigaya park quickly but Firestreaker was there quicker and was happily doing his streaming thing while they arrived.
Later, the newsvines would report that thirty seven customers and staff had been killed in the blast, including McChef.
There wasn’t much left of The Tower amongst the smoking ruin, at least in material reality. Amongst the cooling rubble we spotted the mostly flattened shape of a boxed security camera. The GLOWNET beckoned and who was I to deny it?
An incandescent multi-coloured, boiling swirl of data compiled around me, up-rezzing into the recognisable local info-vista after jacking in.
Here, The Tower was intact, as unchanged as its gaudy neon-delineated data-image. Somewhere behind it would be a data-vault with links to remote storage that archived security footage. A cracking algorithm quickly had me past The Tower’s lax security and into the vault’s directory, from there I saw several data-lines that went out into the GLOWNET, system records showed one line routinely sent out data to a location I knew belonged to a security provider.
I followed the data-line to the gleaming, angular, steel grey image of an actual old style safe, with a hinged door, lock and handle. Someone had a sense of humour at least; shame about their defences, especially considering their line of work. The safe was surrounded by a thin, silvery nimbus and hovered while rotating.
I launched the algorithm again, it got me in almost as quickly as The Tower. I had the ID string from the restaurant and quickly isolated its archived footage. Jumping to a close by timestamp, I scrubbed through the footage from all the cams until I got a hit. The restaurant’s faux glass windows were dim, the clientele absent when two red cylindrical robots came into the feed.
It was starting to fit together, the robots were under the Red King’s control, either via protocol or remotely. They weren’t just bespoke robots, they were his pawns. Carrying a package as they forcibly opened the restaurant doors and entered. Less than sixty seconds later they exited without the package, now effortlessly carrying a struggling individual, this time the identification was easy; McChef. The pawns had kidnapped the owner, he wasn’t dead.
It was a convulsing McChef that we’d seen the pawns dragging through the brownfield adjacent to The Tower in the other footage earlier. Koko sent Kevin up into the air to scan the landscape, I pulled Kevin’s aerial feed into an algorithm and it looked for breaks in the brownfields geo-data and it got a hit, tracks leading away from The Tower.
Kevin led and we followed, eventually the trail ended in the remotest part of the brownfield where Neon City’s skyline had shrunk away, distantly looming through a hazy low-level smog over the surrounding greenery and the oppressive, urban background noise had become a almost indistinct hum.
The algorithm showed that a standard sized sky-van had landed and taken-off: Dead end.
Koko left Kevin buzzing above, patrolling the area in a surveillance pattern and we went on to our next lead.
Avril Van Laere’s body had been discovered in the Mejiro garden allotments, a gridded spread of earth and greenery, decorated with an eclectic combination of vegetation, multicoloured flowers and assorted plantlife.
Even though Neon City was a behemothic, mostly uncontrolled nightmarish asphalt sprawl, there were still a few who lived in the concrete wilderness that retained a green thumb and an urge to plant and grow. Somehow, in the past, someone had managed to pressure the Mejiro municipal authority to set aside some open ground, exposed to the sky for gardening. Residents could apply for an allotment plot for personal domestic use.
Avril’s plot had been taped off in a bright yellow square by rentacop and her remains removed, it was easy to see they’d trampled most of the area, eradicating most evidence. They hadn’t even seen the crushed scenery stretched across several other close-by plots. More sky-van tracks, maybe the same one that had taken McChef had pulled its trick here.
There was nothing for us to work with here, maybe Rentacop gotten something? Bill pinged Captain Okano, the Shinjuku precinct captain we were tight with and asked if he could get us anything. I could hear Okano’s overloud response through the microspeaker on Bill’s media-slab.
He would call us back.
Unexpectedly, Viper Joe came into sight out of a door in the close-by apartment block which ran along one edge of the allotment perimeter and was - by Neon City standards a fairly low residential building.The machine-whine of Joe’s frame’s servo-motors were barely discernible as he strolled over.
Joe explained that Avril Van Laere was local, living close to her allotment and pointed out her apartment for us.
It was too good an opportunity to miss.
Rentacop weren’t about and everyone out the street was mostly preoccupied with their media-slab, lifting the yellow and black striped tape, we slipped through the door of Avril Van Laere’s apartment unseen.
Outside, Avril Van Laere’s home had been pretty plain, external walls were clad in neutral grey, furnished with polymer framed reinforced acrylic windows, indistinguishable from its neighbouring apartments.
It was a different story inside and the interior couldn’t contrast more. Avril’s greenthumb was evident everywhere, an assortment of plants sat on every shelf and available horizontal space in every room, filling pots and vases, obscuring wall decorations
Without attention, they’d soon be as dead as she was.
Even so, stacked cut bunches of peonies dominated the apartment, piled up throughout its few rooms, enveloping them with a strong citrusy scent and splashes of colour that popped against the off-white walls and grey carpeting.
Where had the peonies come from?
A trashcan check found the answer; a small printed receipt showed a batch of peonies had been sold off cheap - took a moment to realise it had to be excess stock from the Jorenji peony festival.
Didn’t explain why she was taking a dirt nap though, we kept searching.
A hardcopy printout from a newsvine dedicated to Neon City gardening was found on a little, circular faux pine kitchen table, a column of classified ads dated four days ago, one was circled.
Someone had been looking for a gardener, a no questions job that paid bits-in-hand, Avril must’ve bitten. Fianchetto Recruitment Facilitation, some low level job market player we didn’t recognise had posted it.
It wasn’t hard getting into Fianchetto’s system; quick joyride through the GLOWNET, blurring through sectors of multichrome constructs and running a hack past the security on their bio-image - a red, orange and white corporate logo and we were in vaut beneath it.
A directory record showed someone called Roy Rouge had listed the job, I pulled all the related data and jacked out, nauseously lurching back into material reality.
The records confirmed that Avril had accepted Roy Rouge’s job offer; her number was in the records, as was Roy Rouge’s.
Both numbers got us nothing and no way to ping their locations either.
City records showed at least a dozen Roy Rouges lived throughout the city municipalities. Tracking down all of them would take time, a way of getting through the data quickly was needed. I launched a hunter/seeker algorithm and set its parameters to find anything in the GLOWNET that would link with the term Roy Rouge, didn’t take more than a few seconds to get a hit.
The algorithm had generated an association between Roy Rouge and the phrase roi rouge phonetically, in French, roi rouge meant red king. The Red King had killed Avril Van Laere
Until there was a solid lead on The Red King, we’d hit a dead end.
Captain Noodles had pressed some theatre passes on us, they were to A Song For Neon City, the annual city-wide competitive music contest that dominated the social landscape and obsessed the public for exactly one week a year before immediately slipping into the foggy recesses of obscurity for the remaining fifty-one.
Each district had its own representative and Noodles was representing Hikage Street. We decided to attend and provide Noodles with moral support; the others seemed to like this sort of thing while I agreed with the sentiment that it was culturally bankrupt.
Like all big ticket events in Neon City, there was some bank to be made from it and in Neon City that meant an inevitably rising body count. I made sure to pack the full complement of ammo for my ACP .45s before we left.
Pharoah Park was one of the few usable open air venues in Neon City, having survived the municipal neglect and environmental ravages that had erased much of the city’s spaces. Built to an Egyptian motif it was frequently used to host popular events and drew large crowds from surrounding districts.
A sinking sun hung in the lateish afternoon blue-white sky as we arrived, drenching the venue in hazy orange light while throwing out immense shadows across the length of the park.
Large automated parasols provided shade from the day’s unflinching sunlight while altering function to become rain shelters when night came and with it, the thundering torrential downpours
It wasn’t long before the competition got under way. A massive row of Senonable wall-slab slab had been set up, painting the competitors larger-than-life and giving the audience better views of the acts.
First up, representing Highway Zero were the Joi Bois, male street walkers who roamed ground level Neon City region, cruising for trade amongst the constant flow of commuters and traffic. In what would be the first of several cover songs from back in the twentieth, they performed YMCA along with a series of simulated acts and interactions between them. Although the giant screen made it look quite realistic?
The Shaolin Rippers were representing Shibuya terminal. We’d had more than one run-in with the violent street gang who were bankrolled by the elusive Prophet Wei and had never realised they had their won.choir.
Their short set consisted of Mongolian throat-singing and chiming Tibetian bells.
Next was Ninety Ninth Street; represented by Milky’s Girls, a trio of working girls who plied their trade on The Neon Mile. They were joined on stage by their pimp, the albino Milky Smooth himself and performed an acapella cover of Uptown Girl while Milky Smooth accompanied them with obscene rap lyrics, it went down well with the crowd.
Delia Lavanchy was someone we knew well having investigated her finances recently. Delia was representing the Fortified Residential Zone. She performed a song called Korobeiniki, it was some kind of old, old Russian song. It was about peddling goods or something, at least that’s what the GLOWNET told me.
Delia also sang the song while constructing a wall consisting of brightly coloured acrylic tetriminos blocks.
Dogenzaka Hill was being represented by Rooster and the Doomriders, We’d also encountered Rooster before and the band was also named after their biker gang. Dressed in their synth-leathers and denims they performed another song I’d never heard of called La Colère de Ramsès?
At last! Captain Noodles came on stage, representing our home district, Hikage Street. Noodles performed his own spoken word interpretation of another song from the Twentieth - Rocketman; he appeared as a black and white image on the giant screen against a backdrop of photos of his time on Mars.
Somehow, the vaudevillian street performer, sex worker and assassin - Thaddeus Rackham had gotten himself made the representative of Rokkaku Dai Heights.
Thaddeus had chosen what sounded like an old showtune from the twentieth called They All Had a Finger in the Pie.
He was decked out in his full vaudevillian getup and sang it while riding a unicycle and juggling flaming clubs.
Finally, the last act was Franky & Joey. We only just realised they were Franky Frazackerly and Joey Peshwari; a pair of out-of-shape uniformed cut-rate rentaguard we’d run across and who patrolled the verdant perimeter of the monolithic, Sunshine City shopping mall.
Their blue-and-grey faux-cop uniforms had been replaced with washing-powder-white sailor boy outfits and they sang some song the slightly camp compare had announced as A Glass of Champagne while labouredly performing some dance called A Hornpipe.
Following this, the lines were opened and voters could ping their scores over the GLOWNET. The winner of a Song for Neon City was always decided by public vote from each district as delivered by some local celebrity. Districts generally voted along some kind of allegiance or other. Hikage Street always got twelve points from Dogenzaka Hill!
The massive slabs now showed a pair announcers, vid-celebs, larger-than-life in the latest Hika Taki fashion lines with sculpted features and surgically smoothed and purified skin who displayed rows of ivory-white porcelain as they grinned inanely and repeated text crawl displayed on the cheaply produced scoring graphics overlay.
It had started OK but soon, unexpected error stacks were getting thrown up on the slabs and the scoring failed to add up! Nervous looking floor managers, producers and stage crew were heatedly arguing and pointing, occasionally throwing up their arms in exasperation as they skittishly traversed the stage with sweeping eyes, looking for answers.
The situation needed a dive, so I jacked in the GLOWNET; the noise and sight of the hollering crush of congregated fans at Pharoah Park melted into the background while Neon City’s colour-shifting, iridescent info-vista materialised in its place.
Pharoah Park was busy, thousands of bio-images clashed, creating chaotic, chromic constructs and interactions, resulting in unpredictable reactions and outcomes.
The park’s info-image was a stylised and curved rectangular cuboid dominated by a trio of arches. A fat stream of content surged from the info-image along one of the venue’s many fixed data-routes, it would be the event’s media streams pushed out to the various content providers covering the event.
There should also have been a vast quantity of data packs sliding into the park but there were virtually zero.
I refocused outside the park and waited. Data packs were inexplicably vanishing? I ran an algorithmic code sweep that went to metal, it would log all activity in this corner of the GLOWNET and provide vast reams of data, the result was surprising.
Someone had written a code cluster that was completely unregistered, it meant that the GLOWNET’s sensory interpreters would miss its existence, rendering it essentially invisible. This kind of work was bespoke, done by someone with the right skills.
Once I knew what I was looking for, it got easier. I instructed my Nonohiki to log unregistered code and then I saw it.
A weird black, shapeless form that lacked substance somehow and endlessly folded in on itself while reforming, an infinite cycle and the wraith revealed.
It seemingly flitted around Pharoah Park erratically without purpose but there was order in that chaos and It followed an elaborate routine.
Data packs tagged with A Song for Neon City were its prey, hunted and deleted by the wraith code without mercy, preventing votes from getting to the show.
I grabbed an image of the wraith and got looking. Code was like handwriting or a fingerprint and if I knew them or they were some part of the hacker circles, the code would tell me, and it did.
Quantum Brandy was a hacker, an anarcho-pessimist feminist hacker with a colossal chip on her shoulder who liked to let everyone know it.
The name had triggered a memory, I’d heard it recently, related to a Song for Neon City?
Then, I had it. Flicking back to Pharoah Park’s info-image and scanning through the show’s vid-recordings. it showed that Quantum Brandy had washed out of the quarter finals with her Primal Scream Feminist Diatribe poetry reading. I watched the feed, a bad act and the voters knew it.
In response she‘d taken on the typical Neon City attitude; get smacked down and look to score some payback. I dug deeper into her code and there was more.
The code that powered the algorithm was logging each data pack that was deleted, the wraith also logged its path from origin. Reversing the code’s directions got me to where it was launched from.
Get Smile Amusement, an old-school slug-op arcade which hosted row after row of old style gaming cabinets was in Ikebukuro, that’s where Quantum Brandy was holded up.
Neon City’s fluorescent, angular geometry undulated and wavered in multi-coloured blurs as they flew past and I eventually ended up watching Get Smile Amusement arcade’s garish and overbright info-image: A neon-outlined, rotating two-player standup cab with no players, only an ancient colourful looking sprite-driven game flickering across the screen.
Data flows pulsed in and out of the info-image, connecting to the data-vault beneath the decorated shell. All normal traffic, or so it seemed.
Observing carefully, I saw one of the streams flicker for a couple of frames every few seconds, a small graphical conflict generally caused when two constructs occupied the same space and fought for draw-priority. It was a sign of piggy-backing, a classic hack used to hide data-movements, I looked closer.
Inside the data-packs on the stream were other, smaller packs, moving at almost the same time. I sent a hunter/search algorithm to investigate. It showed the extraneous data was delivering something to a hidden node, had to be Quantum Brandy’s de-registered data-slab.
Time to do some piggy-backing myself, I waited for the next data pack to leave Get Smile and head towards her slab and cloned its encrypted keycode.
Then I ran an algorithmic breaker on the keycode and generated one of my own. It got me inside Brandy’s slab after following the hidden data packs, the security protocols thought I was just another data-pack.
I wouldn’t have much time before Brandy figured out there was extra activity running on her system - but I wouldn’t need it.
Sifting through her records, I quickly found two points of interest, first; messaging from Prophet Wei, the elusive mob-boss who ran the Shaolin Rippers and the Noise Tank and operated out of Highway Zero.
For some reason he was backing Brandy’s attack on A Song for Neon City, something to do with his great prophecy I guess?
No time to waste though, I scanned the protocols in her hack, it had trace records of all the voting data that had been deleted, I coded a counter-hack and killed her algorithm, it also re-registered all the missing votes. Then before leaving Brandy’s system, I put it into a repeating diagnostic loop, by the time she straightened it out, the recovered votes would have flooded into Pharoah Park voting system.
Last thing I did before jacking out was checking out Brandy's timeline on her MyFaceSpace and she was raging!
When all the votes were finally compiled for A Song for Neon City, Franky and Joey emerged as clear winners.
I guess it did pay to go last.
Rippling swathes of umbrellas sprouted open on Hikage Street, gleaming slickly in silvery-white street lights as the nightly downpours got underway.
Back at my one-bed, raindrops splattered against the tarpaulin sheet and a wind driven irregular drumming played out.
Half dozing and slouched on my futon, I was roused by my media-slab pinging, an automated message, pushed by the algorithm I’d trojaned on to Falcon Lockley’s personal data-slab with instructions to notify me when it encountered certain keywords..
Lockley and his cohorts were planning another foray into The Wilderness; the vast tract of nature beyond the limits of Neon City.
I contacted the others and we contacted Urus at The Enclave who told us that Neidzweidz and himself had encountered Lockley and his retinue, convincing them to give up their hunting ways and not return to the wilderness. Uruas explained that Falcon Lockley would no longer be a problem.
Urus then told us he was glad we had contacted him, scavengers from The Enclave had made a strange discovery that was outside their fields of expertise.
A little later we were back in the flier, making the trip out to The Enclave, access codes which had been provided by Oni Tokugawa were still recognised and we flew over the fortified city walls and defence grids without hindrance.
Very soon, the heavy rain of Neon City’s macroclimate thinned out before dwindling away to nothing altogether and in the flier’s rear screens, a million city lights shrank into a single gleaming dot of light that hued the clouded sky above a dirty crimson shade until it was eventually swallowed by the horizon
Koko kept the flier low and night-vision screens displayed an unnaturally coloured grassy landscape that undulated in our turbulence and stretched into the vanishing point. Without the spook-tech night optics though, ahead would only be the unlit and unknowable inky landscape of The Wilderness, an unnerving sight for us without Hikage Street’s familiar and brightly delineated skyline or Ninety Ninth’s cacophonous glittering neon mile.
The Enclave seemingly emerged out of the night, the former military installation’s walled perimeter populated with humming, watchful giant spotlights cutting into the night sky. Koko put the flier down on the pad with a blast of displaced air, Urus and some of his scavengers were waiting, their flapping, homespun, earthy coloured overalls and outfits curiously accessorised with hunters hats and other hunting paraphernalia, Urus himself had a large sheathed knife tucked into his belt like some kind of trophy…
Once pleasantries were out of the way, Urus led us out of the floodlight lit Enclave and into the night, along the faintest of wilderness paths that only his scavengers and he could ever discern. Dirt and grass felt uneven and unpredictable, seemingly giving way beneath my heavy, thick-soled foot falls as Urus took us halfway up a hill, it’s peak silhouetted against the constellations, a lustrous, starry night that would never be visible through Neon City’s
Sunk deep into the grass, something glinted in our wavering flashlights as Urus called for a halt. An oblong, warped plate of incredibly thick carbon blended steel reflected our trained flashlights and we saw twisted, half-detached, heavy looking hinges along one edge and a row of massive buckled iron rods protruding from the opposite side. It took a moment to register that it was some kind of security door of immense strength and then a further moment to register that some kind of greater force had ripped the door out of its frame.
Alongside the door was a lightless void of identical size and shape that led into darkness, our flashlights revealed a cubic tunnel of manufactured origins that ran into the hillside. Our eyes darted from one to another and when our gazes met, an understanding passed between us: We had to go inside.
Thin eddies of unsettled motes swirled lazily in our lights as we crept into the unlit, quiet tunnel, across the floor we could see undecipherable dusty markings and maybe footprints. Something had disturbed the detritus recently.
Training our flashlights across the reinforced, plated walls revealed numerous button panels, all unlit, jabbing them got nothing, no power.
Further in and the tunnel opened up into a squarish room, darkness receding from us into distant corners as we entered, our footsteps reverbing in the silence.
Grimy, empty poly-fibre, beige desks, disconnected wall terminals and small, dull steel-topped tables littered the room, while apparatus lined one wall, some of it med-tech, much of it unfamiliar.
Except to Pepper Mashup, the doctor recognised the gear which was mostly used during autopsies, as would’ve been the small steel tables.
Closer scrutiny of those tables uncovered fragments of a strange metallic alloy and soil coloured an unearthly red - with good reason; soil from Mars! We grabbed samples for later research and continued our investigation.
Apart from the odd piece of stationary, the desks and terminals had been mostly cleaned out. Alongside one desk though, we found a small pile of stacked computer systems, ancient, beige coloured old-school towers, screens and manual input devices labelled JCO Corporate Technologies. A brand none of us recognised.
Powering on the systems got nowhere, they lacked any onboard power banks and the entire facility had no juice.
Instead we hauled it back to The Enclave. The return trip was uneventful and we soon found ourselves within the settlement’s well-lit boundaries. Even there, with the computer-savvy, skilled jury-rigging scavengers gathered around the tech, they couldn’t get the system going.
In the end, we’d agreed to take the old tech back with us and find a solution.
It was well past midnight by the time we hit Neon City airspace, met by punishing downpours that drummed noisily on the flier’s polycarbonate shell, the change from The Wilderness was palpable. A silhouetted cityscape delineated by countless grids of urban lights grew to fill our rain streaked viewports as narrow, fluorescent-lit, bustling streets teemed with umbrella wielding nocturnals.
Koko put the flier down on our secured pad and we went our separate ways for the night.
Morning came in seemingly minutes, minutes haunted by incomprehensible dreams, glimpses of daylit Neon City collapsing into bio-images, a twisted skyline morphing into an info-vista, curves straightening into polygons.
I woke with a start, temples pulsing, heart racing, vision blurry and breathing heavily. I could count the beats in my ears. Too much Shiaikan whiskey in its fancifully curved, faux-glass, elaborately labelled bottle had been knocked back last night and without undressing I’d stumbled to my futon.
Lurching to my feet, my head swayed and my eyes dimmed for a second, thankful I was dressed, I lurched out to meet the others.
Our last option for the old tech was Alex Chinsko, mechanic and guerilla technologist from our neighbourhood with a talent for tearing down and rebuilding tech, most of which he sold in his streetlevel shopfront.
Bric-a-Brac Shack was an almost old fashioned looking shop, its toughened acrylic shop window display was framed by replica wood and decorated with an assortment of whitebox consumer appliances. A little bell chimed tunefully as we swung the door open, shelves the height of the ceiling that ran the length of the room were stacked precariously with even more appliances, old tech and unrecognisable gear.
Flex cables dangling from the stuffed shelves swayed rhythmically as we had no choice but to brush past them in the narrow aisles.
Alex Chinsko had a glint in his eye, he was definitely happy to see us, we’d come in with something he rarely got to play with. As he got to grips with the system, he explained that it predated the existence of Neon City and JCO had folded before it had even been in its planning phase.
Soon, he had the beige shell stripped off the system, exposing innards of wiring and circuitry. Alex was immediately in there, the thin, cylindrical soldering iron, a scalpel in his hands. The problem, he told us, was the system’s power block; a design incompatible with modern power supplies. He was confident it would work once he’d transplanted a new block in.
Once the work was done, the system was hooked into its manual inputs and an old-style screen Alex had lying about. He jabbed the power stud and we waited.
There was a short, single tone beep and a tiny dot of green light gleamed on the system’s frame, it hummed into life while the screen clicked on, crackling after decades of disuse.
A logo popped on the screen, barely recognisable; an old iteration of the Planetary Global Defence Force badge. Below was a single command line in plain text, cursor winking. The system’s security protocols were beyond primitive, Alex was past its defences and into the file structure without delay. It looked empty, wiped no doubt, but he did a total image copy onto a data-slab and ran an algorithm on the image. Numerous files and documents were recovered.
The video files were our first choice, we watched a few badly lit, grainy security feeds and they all showed the same thing: At the facility, which must have been an early PGDF station, PGDF staffers in thin disposable translucent aprons and surgeons masks were craned over autopsy tables, cutting up something on those tables. The forms were somehow adjacent to humanoid but with bloated torsos, seemingly stunted limbs and overdeveloped craniums, in the feeds’ weak light, their skin had a pallid, pasty white-grey complexions.
We’d all seen the fakes, was this different? Had someone gone to immense lengths to dupe the scavengers or was it something else?
Next were the files, reams of archived data, much of it documenting information about the founding of the PGDF, other files listed technical data, hierarchical structure, roadmaps and budgets listed in old-world dollars. At its founding, the PGDF had been given inordinate funding - at least on paper.
Captain Noodles had spent time in the PGDF, we turned to him for answers. The uplifted cat chose that moment to lick his unmentionables clean, conveniently not acknowledging our questions.
Alex was intrigued but we decided to leave it alone. For now.
It looked like the Yaroh Uron case was over and he was out of the fingers of the city’s malevolent, plutocratic overlords, even though it hadn’t gone down the way we wanted.
Juicy J was the Neon City streetwalker who we’d agreed to help get back together with her boyfriend OK Daddy - someone else we’d helped join the PGDF once her part in Yaroh’s case was done and it was shut now.
We pinged her enough Dollar to catch a ride to the moon and the PGDF base.
Bill’s media-slab pinged later that morning. Porter Sladek wanted us over to his waterfront warehouse.
An entire stretch of the district was given over to sprawling clusters of identikit, high-windowed and plain corporate warehouses, which suited Porter Sladek just fine. He’d taken the opportunity to stash his off-the-grid assets here, hidden in plain sight.
Porter Sladek was waiting for us. The transplants, nanite dermal-grafts and implants had done their trick and the former exec was back on his feet after barely surviving an explosion in his boardroom. The ever so slightly mis-coloured patchwork of differing surgical work done on his recognisably bald head was only noticeable if you knew what to look for and the rest of him was hidden by his classy old style tailored obsidian black Gaongha suit.
Also waiting was Binary Johnny, easily recognised in his fur lined, faux leather flying cap and goggles, a small satisfied grin spread across his thin face.
Powered, corrugated warehouse doors opened with a metallic tortious murmur and we were led inside to a small, well protected office space. Footsteps on bare concrete echoed across the unoccupied building while automated fluorescent strips detected our presence and clicked into lifw.
Porter Sladek had been busy after we’d dumped a zero beast corpse on him to research; he’d recruited Johnny and they’d got to digging - and had hit paydirt.
They gave us the lowdown, something was going down. Something big.
Zero beasts were vat-grown by Rokkaku, engineered killing machines genetically programmed to be unswervingly loyal only to Goji Rokkaku himself. Goji’s own DNA had been spliced into their genetic code according to Johnny: His GLOWNET incursions into the Rokkaku data-vaults had revealed several internal memos in which Goji referred to zero beasts as ‘his sons’. They were designed to endure vacuums, to operate and fight in the hostile voids of space and bio-implanted internal thrusters allowed them zero-G manoeuvrability, giving them unopposable advantages in orbital combat.
Further memos indicated that Goji Rokkaku was part of something called the Akuni Accord and they were allied with a faction situated on The Glitterband. The accord was planning to destroy the opposing Emptiness habitat on the gigantic station.
Their attack plan had two fronts.
Firstly, zero beasts would be delivered on to the station via an enormous railgun hidden in a ride in Sky Dinosaurian Square’s roller coaster park.
While the zero beasts attacked the habitat, a missile strike launching from a facility in Kibogaoka Hill would hit the Sky Tree, it’s destruction would sever contact between Neon City and The Glitterband, leaving Leander’s Earthbound allies unable to provide him rapid assistance.
The Sky Tree was a vast megastructure, a space-elevator which had been hardened against terrorist attacks and conventional assaults, disabling or destroying it would require significant force.
The data on Kibogaoka Hill had chimed a bell with us. We’d previously seen a radioactive hotzone originating from one of the high-rises scattered across the slowly crumbling commercial quarter nestled over the district’s titular hill. We’d it left alone, now looked like we were going back.
None of the data Johnny had ripped from Rokkaku data-vaults overtly listed a timetable or schedule for this assault.
For now, we’d have to sit and wait.
Even though the sun had begun its crawl towards the western skyline, the heat never let up in Neon City afternoons as we found ourselves sweltering amongst the overwarm, overly dense, vaguely milling crowds at Sky Dinosaurian Square.
Clusters of massive Senonable wall-slabs erected high above the crush throughout the square served the viewers.
Lucy and Ashaglaya had dragged us to one of the city’s favourite spectator sports - greens bowling!
Like anything media-cast, it attracted corporate sponsorship and had top dollar payouts for the best. Where money went in Neon City, corruption and violence soon followed hand-in-hand. We’d all packed hardware in preparation for the inevitable slide into bloodshed.
Sky Dinosaurian Square had won the bid to host the annual city finals and had constructed an artificial grass bowling green for the competition which pulled in people from all across The City of Electric Dreams. Onlookers lucky enough to be closest to the event strained their necks, jostled and almost swayed strangely to get an actual view of the event.
D4-VID was here too, the botcaster was getting an on-the-ground report on the competition while the face of popular vid-presenter Nina Chinova loomed large on the wall-slabs as she cheerfully chatted to guests about the day’s matches. We also spotted Thaddeus Rackham; fresh from his appearance on the Song for Neon city contest,the vaudevillian assassin was back in a familiar haunt and had set up his market stall, he was busy hawking merchandise to curious bypassers among a sea of other sellers.
The games got off to a brisk start and competition between the Senkawa Aqueduct Aardvarks and the Skyscraper District Skylarks was fierce. Among the Skylarks was Xylona Adler, a programmer we’d encountered, obviously she had a talent for bowling but no so much as her partner.
Carrydat U was a Meshakotto class Shiaosha Robotics luggage porter-bot from the International Rail Link Hub, it was obvious he outclassed everyone. At some time, a kind of algorithm must have been introduced into his base code, granting him a profound understanding of greens bowling with skill at handling balls that was unmatched.
Soon the game swung in favour of the Skylarks and their victory grew imminent, then we felt more than saw a trembling murmur in the watching crowd, in that liminal moment, a wave of dissatisfaction seemed to wash over them as harsh edged whispers and hard eyed glares became apparent throughout the audience. Quiet accusations became loud threats and escalated into violence. Pro and anti Carrydat U spectators clashed, small arms and melee weapons were brandished as the aggression intensified.
Then, things only got worse.
Unseen by us while we’d been watching the bowling; a contingent of The Church of The Redeemed Sinner, with their extensive implants, augmentations and body replacement frames who had inserted themselves into the audience, now emerged and having taken umbrage at the anti-robot elements in the crowd, began laying into them.
Things had gotten hot on the Neon City streets between The Church of The Redeemed Sinner and their rivals, The Children of Saika for a while now, recently escalating into open warfare, so it was inevitable that when one appeared, so would the other.
The clash between them was brutal as they cut through the crush to get at each other.
Ignoring their protests, I grabbed Lucy and Ashaglaya by the wrists tightly and pulled them away before they could resist. Looking at the others, they were also shouldering their way through the crowds while Koko was remotely powering up the flier.
We knew what was coming.
A couple of minutes later and the flier was darting its way through aerial traffic and powering along the city’s sky lanes: Behind us, as the district shrank away, the Redeemed Sinners had begun triggering their final weapon The Children of Saika, series of limited-expansion micro-nukes were detonated across Sky Dinosaurian Square, blossoming balls of orange flame cascaded across the park, levelling a sizable chunk of it in a dead but it has to daid - spectacular light show.
Without employing decon protocols, the park would remain a radioactive hotzone for centuries to come.
Later that day, the Red King was back on the newsvines.
Another old chess reference to the destruction of The Tower restaurant.
King takes castle. Check.
8th May 2021
Saturday night has rolled around again and I’m logged on to Meet.
Time for the next part of Matakishi’s Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
Another Neon City morning; I spent it flopped face-down on my futon from the night before, an acrylic blanket pulled over my head in a futile attempt to shield myself from the world at large.
Those few wage-monkeys lucky enough to have gainful employment had long gone for the day, leaving the listless no-hopers, jobless and nihilistic dead-enders still roaming the high-rise. As the day’s punishing heat rose, so did the city’s cacophony; frustrated and yelling neighbours were getting ready to murder each other while thumping distorted basslines pumped out of tortured, underpowered speakers, local gangers and street thugs came and went, stomping along the corridor outside, jostling, jeering and shouting at each other, jostling for a showdown.
Behind it all was a low buzzing whine in my head and a handful of dust in my mouth; fallout from last night’s binge.
I rolled out of bed at lunch time, pulled on my Harbiefs, grabbed my Verskeit duster and checked my .45s before heading out. The seemingly mindless crowds on Hikage Street somehow navigated each other on auto-pilot, shuffling along and preoccupied by whatever probably meaningless task drained their time. I hit up some no doubt unlicensed steamy street cart food-vendor hawking his wares for a waxy paper carton of indeterminate off-brand ramen, along with a can of self-cooling Kaia when I met with the others.
Between monosodium glutamate infused mouthfuls, it took all the effort I could muster to concentrate on Bill’s voice. I listened as he told us that Silai Granskina had abruptly dropped four hundred large into his account. Not so long ago Bill had lent Silai a couple of million bits to repair his hacked-up nose that Bill never expected to see again, but now, he was suspicious how Silai had managed to pay a sizable chunk so quickly?
Bill pinged a call to Silai and got voicemail.
We decided to dig deeper.
I jacked into the GLOWNET and slipped out of the material reality, sensing it shrink away as Neon City’s multicoloured radiant info-vista flew up to engulf me in gleaming angular motes of data that sped through the constantly recycling cubic landscape while seemingly millions of user bio-images flitted from data-image to info-vault to chat-stream on whatever business or diversion concerned them.
Undistracted, I launched a hunter/searcher algorithm, watched its sleek polygonal geometry follow my instructions as it accelerated into a nebulous blur that disappeared into the vanishing point, pursued only by its own ephemeral light-trail.
Once the algorithm had done its work, it delivered me what I needed; access protocols to Silai Granskina’s financials.
The info-vista became a series of undulating colours as moments later, I was in his accounts, quickly I saw that someone called Su Chuai had deposited half-a-mill into Silai’s account. Soon after Silai had forwarded four hundred grand to Bill.
Staying in the GLOWNET, I searched for Su Chuai and immediately got a hit; he was some sort of loan shark that operated out of Hikage, he even had his own data-vault on the GLOWNET. Whatever he was, it was probably bad news for Silai Granskina.
Bill put in another call to Silai, this time pinging his land line and got a hit, Bina, Silai’s wife answered.
She sounded worried, explaining to Bill that thieves had broken in and stolen all their furniture, when asked about Silai, Bina said he wasn’t around but some man was hanging at the apartment, looking for him!
Bill carefully steered the conversation towards money, Bina told him that Silai had recently gotten a promotion, his bonus had been delivered in cash and now as a consequence, he was hardly home, working too much, doing too much overtime.
It was clear that she had no idea about Silai’s debt.
The conversation had raised all the flags, Bill wanted a word with Silai and we agreed.
The Grankinas lived in what passed for a better part of Hikage Street, the high-rises were a slightly cleaner shade of drab depressing concrete grey and moping no-hoper street gangers gave you a slightly less threatening sneer when you passed their turf.
When we arrived at the apartment, camped outside was a young Chinese man casually leaning on a low wall, wiry framed with spiked, dark hair, he wore a well-cut beige Gaongha two-piece lounge suit complemented by a purple-black Shaguaifu dress shirt and gave us a thin, tight smile as we approached, subtly sizing us up as we went in.
The once over-furnished apartment was now bare, carpeting and chintzy decorations were gone, even the patterned wallpaper had been stripped. Our footsteps reverbed distinctly as we strode into the empty rooms.
Bina was jittery and obviously nervous, she was also upset that she had no way to serve us tea. She told us the man outside was intercepting anything that was being brought into the apartment.
Back outside, we confronted the young man and he seemed unfazed by our questioning. He explained that he worked for the Su Chuai Loan Facility and pulled a badge on us. As per Neon City regulation, he was a legally recognised debt collector and the Su Chuai Loan Facility was a licensed loan shark outfit.
We asked him what would happen if Silai Granskina defaulted on his loan. The young man smiled again and told us that Su Chuai’s policy was to not lend someone more money than the worth of the borrower’s internal organs.
He didn’t know much more, it was apparent he was street muscle and nothing more; it was time to hit up the source of the problem.
Wasn’t far to the Su Chuai Loan Facility, close by on Hikage in fact, predators never wanted to stay too far from their prey.
Hikage Street was predominantly a residential district and the loan facility was located on one of the sporadic retailer strips that dotted the neighbourhood and usually took up the ground floor space at the base of the many high-rises.
The loan facility’s shop front was adorned in a shaped polymer replica wood frame, an obvious attempt to confer an air of tradition and authority on the premises, when we entered a tinny ringing bell jingle played out of a tiny Senonable speaker screwed to the wall. The faux wooden theme continued inside with reproduction floorboards and imitation fittings and furniture.
In one corner was a shabbily dressed youth on a chair and table, slouched over a drawing slab, chewing gum and drawing manga. Eyes flicked up from the slab for milliseconds to register our presence.
Our attention was drawn to an older man though, with thin, grey, wispy hair, he sat at a central desk and was dressed in a traditional looking red and gold changshan. A widening smile deepened his wrinkles as he watched us stride up to his desk.
We introduced ourselves and asked for the manager, the elder man gave an acknowledging gesture, introduced himself as Su Chuai, reached for a data-slab, smiled and asked if we needed money?
Bill explained that we were not here to borrow money but on business and inquired after Silai Granskina’s account. Bill explained that Silai also owed Bill money and this account took priority.
Su Chuai scrutinised his slab, sifting through the stored information. He looked at us and coolly informed us that Silai’s account had acquired a significant amount of interest, admin fees and a sizable one million bit late payment fee. He added that he could not defer on the account.
Su Chuai and Bill entered into some sort of heated legal discourse that was just jargon to me. From the drawing table, the youth looked up again at them for a moment before returning to his attention to the slab and his gum. The discussion ended in an impasse, Bill couldn’t get Su Chuai to even freeze Silai’s account nevermind defer it. We left without any success.
Finally Bill got ahold of Silai Granskina, he told Bill that he was at his office, when Bill pressed him about his debt to the loan shark, he got flustered and quickly said that he’d have his next payment soon, it was the brush off and we knew it.
After Silai quit the call, we decided to give him a visit.
Silai Granskina worked in the Transport Authority, situated in Neon City’s vast, brutalistic edifice to governmental bureaucracy; the Metropolitan Building.
It was an oppressive ride over on the over-warm and stifling tram network, a cruel early afternoon sun hung in the blue-white sky, blazed through the tram windows, overwhelmed the inadequate aircon and multiplied the heat of crammed commuters within to a higher magnitude of discomfort.
We exited the transit stop in sight of the looming Metropolitan Building, a gigantic cubic shape distorted by a crown of wavering heat and overbright sun-haze, which might’ve described anywhere in the district and headed over.
Bill did the talking after we encountered the reception, we’d been in the Transport Authority’s offices previously and his smooth talking got us past both the reception and the uniformed rentaguard who shuffled along on their sedentary patrols through the slowly decaying, time-stained corridors of dwindling power.
The Transport Authority’s office was quiet, employees lingered in cubicles partitioned by two metre high neutral grey, transparent acrylic topped plastic partitions and stewed away at the futility of their efforts.
Silai was found lurking in his cubicle, shabbily dressed in a plain off the shelf wrinkled Kuabha suit and peering into a desk-slab, haggard and weary looking, lines ran their course over a tired face drained of colour and vigour as he turned to face us, he’d lost weight since the last time we’d seen him.
He didn’t look particularly pleased to see us and we didn’t care, Trigger promptly convinced Silai to join us for lunch; no one in the office cared to look up as he grabbed Silai with a steely grip, dragging him off, even Silai didn’t bother protesting.
Out on the busy street we’d found a nearby food vendor with shaded seating and ordered some Ahoumo noodles while an endless flow of lost humanity rolled past. The vendor fished the noodles from a discoloured, steamy aluminium pot and shoved them into cartons.
Silai was looking nervous as he stirred the food we’d given him and we explained that we were in no rush to get our cash back, advising him to deal with the loan shark he’d embroiled himself with. He shrugged and told us that we should get our second payment from his wife soon, he told us he preferred that we got the money instead of Su Chuai. There wasn’t any more we could get out of him, he kept tight about how he was getting the money to repay us.
“Best you didn’t know,” Silai told us and made his excuses to leave.
We weren’t done though, after Silai had slouched back to his office, Koko sent Kevin buzzing up to the windows of theTransport Authority’s office. The little drone sat on the ledge and watched through the grimy and water-spot stained window, pushing out a video feed to Koko’s control tab while we sat waiting and made our noodles last as long as possible.
A little time passed and Kevin showed us that Silai had gotten a personal call, it was over too quick for me to hack, but the lipreading algorithm on Koko’s slab had picked up some of Silai’s half of the conversation
“Another one will be at the waterfront terminal at eleven forty-five tonight,” he’d said.
It was a few hours until eleven forty-five tonight but we didn’t have to wait long for something to turn up.
Jordan Tian was a suit at Chou-Nata, over our media-slabs he told us that we’d come recommended and he needed us to get his daughter back and didn’t trust anyone in Chou-Nata. Turned out that corporate security contractors at Chou-Nata had been lax or paid to look the other way while Yasmin Tian had been kidnapped. It’d looked like a pretty standard exec ransoming squeeze-and-grease, the demand came and Jordan had paid, so far, so good.
However, Yasmin hadn’t been released, so Jordan had sicced a couple of private detectives on his daughter’s trail, only now they’d gone radio silent. A worried frown creased Jordan Tian’s face, marring the otherwise impeccable, surgically perfected features displayed on our slabs.
Naturally he offered us a big payday and we agreed to find Yasmin. Before we left he pinged us details on Yasmin and the address of Suchet & Sea, the agency he’d employed.
Suchet & Sea operated out of Shinjuku Station, a small rented corner office located in some drab, anonymous office complex on the fringes of the district. It was fronted by a hardened polymer door which had been painted to resemble an old wooden panel door, Suchet & Sea had been printed across the door’s top half In bold letters that crawled across the surface in a half circle.
Lights were off, looked like no one was in, Trigger’s thermals told a different story though, two heat signatures from inside were coming through clear as day.
After knocking on the door, we waited and got nothing, we knocked again, this time louder, more insistently, again nothing. Third time; we hammered on the door, rattling it in its frame, that got an answer.
The door opened and on the other side we found two nervous looking men in colourful but dishevelled suits, both wiry-framed with long faces, they shared similar features and could almost have been brothers! The pair introduced themselves as Barry Suchet and Paul Sea, they both clearly followed an old, obscure Shinjuku street fashion called Chuckleo-hito that demanded they sport enormous implanted spiked mullets and bushy, bristling moustaches.
We told them that we’d been sent by Jordan Tian to pick up the case of his missing daughter.
The look of nervousness evaporated from their pale complexions as they realised we weren’t a threat.
The smaller one, Barry, gave a wide, enthusiastic grin, explaining that they had deduced that The Flesh Cartel had kidnapped Yasmin.
“To me,” said the other, Paul.
“To you,” replied Barry.
Paul elaborated, went on and told us they’d subcontracted to some female investigators to infiltrate the cartel and locate Yasmin. Now those subcontractors had also gone radio silent.
Suchet & Sea had halted their investigation at that point. They didn’t admit it, but it was plain that they were well out of their depth dealing with these gangers and couldn’t hide their relief when we announced we were handling the case.
The Flesh Cartel theory was a solid one. They were a known violent criminal outfit who operated out of Kabukicho, a sex trafficking ring and sleaze merchants who peddled in prostitution, drugs and more. They were known to grab girls off the street and addict them to the most potent brain-jacking narcotics street-chems could cook.
There was little information that Suchet & Sea could provide us, however, they had managed to hook up a GLOWNET feed from the subcontractor’s optic circuits and showed us the footage they’d archived.
Erratic and silent with fluctuating resolution and washed out colour, the feed swayed and bobbed as showed the subcontractors at work, viewpoints darting from one person to another as they interacted with street ashigaru, night-walkers and dealers. Towards the end, the footage briefly flashed across a room, showing Yasmin, obviously being held prisoner, alone and tied up.
We grabbed a shot of the image and left.
The Flesh Cartel was an unknown factor, something we’d never crossed paths with. There was no easy in with them and there was only a single avenue we could think to follow.
Miguel Fernandez was a rentacop out of Shinjuku precinct.. He’s spent time working The Flesh Cartel undercover and had flirted with going native. His captain had paid us to extract him - and after some ups and downs we’d done it!
Right now Miguel was flying some desk-slab, filing parking violations or something in a cubicle in the precinct. We pinged him and he was happy to help.
It didn’t take him long to give us something. Yasmin was being held in a room that he recognised as part of The Flesh Fountain, one of the Cartel’s illicit holdings in Kabukicho.
The Flesh Fountain was an old style tower, constructed in elaborately patterned brown brick, it sported rows of under-lit, high arched, thin-framed, tall windows and had been a hotel with a carpark on its ground floor in the early days of Neon City at a time when personal ground transport had still been considered a thing.
One time it might have been a giant, dwarfed now, by steel and glass-fronted neighbours. With glory days that were gone and closed to the public, lower windows were boarded or bricked up and half the external lighting was gone. The gate into the carpark had been replaced by a clumsily indiscrete, steel-grey aluminium shutter-roller.
Koko worked the lock and soon had it open. The roller shutter was huge - and heavy, a rasping, rattling, metallic voice screamed its protest as we forced the roller shutter up enough to allow us to squeeze under.
Dim, regularly placed lighting dotted the carpark’s ceiling, revealing a windowless, dull, concrete, mostly empty interior to us. Rows of long unused parking bays were uniformly partitioned by fading yellow lines, looking around, there was little to be found in the carpark save some supplies that looked earmarked for the brothel here. Soon we encountered some elevators and a bare utilitarian stairwell.
Checking the stairwell, we saw it spiralling its way up and down, but like so much in The City of Electric Dreams, downwards is where we were headed.
With caution, we slowly proceeded in silence, the carpark’s surface level receded behind us as we descended, Koko sent Noodles to scout ahead and the diminutive drone darted speedily into the gloom, soon he encountered a landing on the second sub-basement and
Koko watched as Noodles navigated the corner and registered two threats ahead. The feed showed two armed guards outside a door; had to be what we were looking for.
Dressed casually in Dogenzaka Hill knockoffs, cheap bling and tats, they were packing cheap Rekhang Pophma machine pistols and stood about listlessly, distracted by media-slabs.
Koko manoeuvred Noodles to the far side of the door and had the drone make a noise.
The guards scrambled to face the distraction, dropping their slabs and putting their backs to us. It was a mistake, Trigger was round the corner in a silent blur and hit one and then the other with a stun-baton, they managed to get a few screams off before flopping helplessly to the ground. In a few hours, they’d regain consciousness, only their biggest headache wouldn’t be the stun-baton side-effects when they realised whatever they were guarding was gone.
Neither guard had a keycard to the door, so Koko made short work of the lock. Past the door was a weakly lit, undecorated and unused storage room, a dozen girls dressed in tiny cocktail dresses, mini-skirts and boob-tubes, hot pants and bikini-tops and so on were slouched on mattresses and blankets. Lethargic postures and restless, unfocused gazes betrayed how strung out they were.
Yasmin was there, pallid, apathetic, as zoned as the others and to our surprise, Pixie Skull and Vanilla Goth were also among them. The two Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz told us that they had been put on the case of missing girls by Suchet & Sea, when they’d been wrong-footed and woke up in this cell. Fortunately, their enhanced circulatory systems had rapidly metabolised the drugs they’d been fed, however, they hadn’t managed to find a means of escape.
The brief throwdown with the two guards risked bringing reinforcements, wasn’t time to hang around and swap stories. The quick escape didn’t go as hoped though, getting the girls out of the basement was a laborious task as they slowly tottered upstairs on the fifteen centimetre high white stilettos they’d been fitted with.
Caught a break though, no more Flesh Cartel thugs came on to the scene.
It was darkening by the time we all got topside and a blazing orange sliver was all that remained of a massive setting sun against the western skyline as day began to wane, the rain wouldn’t be far behind. Once they were out from under the weak lighting, most of the girls looked shocked, reeling from the gold-lined gigantic dome of nimbus clouds above.
Koko had called the flier, it was cramped with everyone inside and I could hear the turbines spinning to maximum thrust as I felt the tug that came with the defiance of gravity.
Once we were up, Koko banked us round and set a bearing to the closest precinct, she switched over to stealth and we hastily put the girls down on the roof pad and were gone before anyone realised.
Yasmin Tian, we returned to her father and then before we dropped off the Muscle Gurlz, I gave them my business card, looked them in the eyes and told them to look me up if they ever needed help with anything, anything at all.
Later; when Silai Granskina left the Transport Authority’s office at the end of his workday, we were there, in the rain, watching from the blackening sky above.
Swallowed by the pressing churn of wage-monkeys.as he strolled out into the busy, drenched streets that ran the perimeter of The Metropolitan Building, Silai might easily have slipped into anonymity hadn’t Koko tagged him in the flier’s spook-tech. The algorithm had no problem tracking him through the intermittently dark streets, gleaming streetlight-lit rain and fidgeting crowds.
Silai didn’t head straight home, instead he made for Chou Street and for the newly rebuilt Potato Palace. Switching to thermals on the flier’s external cams, we watched as he went in, watched as he exchanged bits for a bag of some kind and then left.
Koko instructed Kevin to trail Silai and the diminutive drone accelerated off with machine efficiency, the rest of us went into Potato Palace. Not so long ago it had been the target of a firebomb attack against the Russian Mob but renovations are swift when municipal code can be ignored. The interior was back to almost looking like an authentic rustic mom-and-pop eatery, filled with plastic replica furniture and decoration. The simple charms belied the deep pockets of Russian mob money behind it.
Inside, the staff recognised anyone associated with Yennav Rybasei and they quickly greeted Koko and then the rest of us. They were only too happy to accommodate us when we asked about Silai.
They told us that Silai had made use of their landline and made a quick call.
Something about a meeting at the waterfront, on schedule, delivery to Russia and a Neon City Train. It was only the one-sided bits and pieces of a conversation but it was starting to come together.
Koko’s control-slab pinged unexpectedly, she checked it out and swore. Looking up, she told us that the feed from Kevin had been interrupted and so had the control link.
Koko’s control-slab had been archiving Kevin’s feed, so she quickly reviewed the last few seconds the slab had received. Before the cutoff there had been a blur, she reviewed those last seconds again, slowing the feed until it hit single frames frames per second, until the feed became a picture book telling the story of a soaring, engulfing, urban sprawl-scape decorated in the glinting city lights reflected through a million, frozen, shining raindrops.
It was blurred and only half in-picture but one of those last frames showed some sort of micro-net small enough to snare a tiny spy-drone like Kevin.
Despite the link being lost, Kevin was still pinging out a satellite driven locator signal; Kevin was heading south.
Koko called the flier down and quickly, we boarded and strapped in. Lifting off, I felt the slight tempo change in the flier’s hull vibration as we surged skywards, I watched the city rock sideways and drop off as Koko banked south, punching maximum thrust.
The flier powered through Rokkaku-Dai Heights, rivulets of rainwater streamed left and right off the front viewports as Koko threaded through the swathe of residential towers that dotted the district.
Kevin’s signal kept moving south and Koko kept following.
As we made ground on Kevin, she entered the Fortified Residential Zone and so did we. A splattering of red lights flashed over Koko’s console, anti-air defences for the exclusive area had locked on to us. Koko veered, skirting the walled off neighbourhood with its high-end, gardened luxurious homes rolling past as we continued our chase.
As we exited the district and entered Asakusa-cho, we had gotten close enough to Kevin to get a zoomed-in visual fix using the fliers front viewers. Somebody had attached a small box to the drone’s underside and she appeared to be following a sky-taxi?
We started making ground, the sky-taxi couldn’t hope to match our speed, as we drew closer, the sky-taxi landed on a lower roof and a door swung, a Chinese man leaned out in a cheap two-piece Evoda lounge suit, a pistol gripped in one hand. He emptied it in a blazing staccato of gunfire, seemingly into the air before diving back into the sky taxi which took off in pursuit.
I followed his line of sight upwards, through the pouring rain, he’d been aiming for a rider in roller jet blades who was grinding some balconies as she powered along.
Almost immediately, a second sky-taxi swooped into view? I took a second to assess the situation, the second sky-taxi was pursuing the first, which in turn was pursuing the jet blader. Kevin was also in pursuit of the first taxi
Roller jet blades comprised a pair of tricked out knee-high boots that combined two technologies: A hyper-compressed fuel cell, that when vented, provided enormous amounts of forward thrust and a hybrid kineticizer blade that generated increasingly stronger magnetic grip the faster the blade went. Combined, they allowed riders to traverse large distances, leap wide spans and even scale vertical planes
Jet blades were a curious holdover from a couple of decades ago, a forgotten fad that had injured most users and had slipped into obscurity, except with the few riders that had persisted, for them, it had become something else entirely.
Experienced jet bladers were capable of gravity-defying manoeuvres, skyscraper walls and archaic power lines became arcing grind-lines, high altitude comms clusters provided launch points and the rooftops became their bounce pads as they roamed the sprawls. Neon City had become a playground to them and rolled past below as they unhesitatingly hurled themselves from building to building.
Beyond that though, some had found a way to earn a living; even in Neon City there was still an urge to transport hardcopies or physical items and that’s where jet blade couriers came in; capable of circumventing even aerial traffic, blazing through the tightest spots and easily getting in and out of buildings, they could navigate the city faster than almost any civilian vehicles.
That’s who this jet blader was, we could just about make out some artificially cheerful courier branding on her boots.
I jacked into the GLOWNET as we followed this aerial procession. The second taxi was an Abco sky-taxi and easy enough to hack.
Even as the flier soared after them, I soared further. Material reality tumbled away, rolling into physical oblivion, a void replaced by the garish primary colours of Neon City’s angular info-scape that expanded to meet me. Gleaming orthogonal data-lines flowed into the horizon, criss-crossing from data-vault to data-vault and pulsating with content and information.
A quick search found me the Abco cab’s franchise data-image, an exaggerated, cartoonish sky-taxi drenched in oversaturated iridescent yellow light. A nanosecond passed or so it seemed and then I was in its archive structure and before me; a stack of infinitely thin window-panes smeared with radials of statistics waiting to be sifted through.
A datafile told me that the sky-cab had picked up a passenger it recorded as Peanut not so long ago; I continued sifting. Next I found myself a partition that housed the sky-cab’s autonomous protocols, looked like the stack of call priorities had been re-coded about the same time that Peanut had got picked up, work of a hacker and they had control of the cab now.
Wasn’t the right time to tangle with another code-monkey, so the sky-taxi’s data-image was dumped as I quit the system, my senses were assailed by the info-scape’s vast quantity of data movement which flooded into my slab.
Switching focus, I moved my attention over to the other sky-taxi, bypassing the security was as easy as the Abco. It listed a sole passenger as a Chao He-Biao, as the name appeared on my system, it was flagged.
Quick search showed me Chao He-Biao was a con, out on parole from The Black Dolphin Gulag today. Didn’t get to go deeper, Koko pinged me in the GLOWNET.
We were close to Kevin and she was still getting a diagnostic stream from her, the drone’s power cell was critically low and flight systems were about to go offline. Once she lost flight, the tumble to street level would shatter Kevin into a hundred broken components, Koko wasn’t happy with the situation.
Kevin’s data-image was a dot of incandescent code in the swirling storm of flight-algorithms that connected Neon City’s autonomous sky traffic to the municipal travel information hubs through the GLOWNET.
Access codes didn’t get me into Kevin’s drives, they’d been changed, the hacker again.
I didn’t experience it, but later I was told that out in the mundanity of material reality, Koko had yelped when Kevin’s power cell finally gave out and I didn’t feel the lurch when she put the flier into a steep powered dive, chasing a plummeting Kevin to the narrow street below. Turbines had rattled, pushed beyond their performance envelope, threatening to break their housings as the flier matched altitude with the drone.
Then, it had taken Trigger swinging through an open hatch, gripping a line to catch Kevin, following that he’d got yanked hard, almost skimming the street and pulling a few Gs as Koko had levelled the flier before managing to pull himself back into the cabin.
In the Abco cab’s command logs, it showed the sky-taxi had landed, I jacked out and the overriding inputs of the GLOWNET evaporated as the reality of the flier’s starkly lit interior began solidifying, filling my awareness.
Koko took us up and I lurched to one of the consoles, gripping its sides. As we gained altitude, I punched instructions into the command pad and the screen showed that the chase had taken us to Ninety Ninth Street, the jet blade courier had taken a hit, she was slumped unevenly on a junk-ridden rooftop, surrounded by steamy aircon vents and routing pipes. Chao He-Biao was on the rooftop’s far side out of his sky-taxi and opening up at her, Trigger put a few rounds his way, bullets riddled the sky-taxi as he lunged for cover.
A savage blast of air whipped the rain sideways as the second cab came down, billowing in the steaming haze of heated raindrops.
A young woman flung the door open as the taxi settled down, dressed in drab olive work overalls, she’d had a full optic replacement by Kuaijing implants, her eyes glittered a soft blue through the raindrops and were Quanngh models, users were given some access to the GLOWNET without exiting material reality. In her hand she gripped a Preaavar Curnuka MQ-6 data-slab, a line ran from it to what must have been a subdermal connector in her neck; the hacker, had to be.
“Run Toy Li,” she’d shouted as she began sprinting across the puddle-ridden rooftop.
Trigger had meanwhile exited the flier and was also sprinting across the space, powered by his augmentation implants, he was a blur in the downpour as he closed on Chao He-Biao, he tagged the man senseless with a stun-baton and the fight was over, the rest of us went for the jet-blader.
For a moment, relative calm settled around us as rain drummed on to the now otherwise still rooftop.
Only for a moment though: Toy Li had caught a bullet, checking her over, a Jijuiuan trauma med-patch was applied to the point of the bloody bullet wound, activating a steady, regulated flow of painkillers, stimulants and anti-infectants into her system, triggering its diagnosis protocol which calculated her injury wasn’t critical. A few moments and the blader would regain consciousness, a few moments after that and she’d be able to stand.
The hacker introduced herself as Peanut and told us Toy Li was her friend. Peanut explained that she’d gotten pinged by Toy Li, who was being chased by a sky-taxi while she was on a routine delivery. Peanut had then hacked a sky-taxi and started heading for Toy Li, lacking a drone, she’d spotted and then jacked Kevin to track the other taxi, Peanut turned to Koko and apologised.
Peanut had no idea why Chao He-Biao why trying to get at Toy Li
By now Toy Li was sitting up, a Chinese woman with slender limbs in a two-coloured single-piece lycra outfit, pain was etched across her youngish face, meds had taken the edge, but the pain was still there.
Between slow, wincing breaths, Toy Li told us she had no idea why she’d been chased, maybe her package?
There was only Chao He-Biao left and Trigger had him, we slapped him back to his senses; he spluttered, blinking and shaking the rainwater off his face. As he was dragged to his feet by Trigger, his pistol slipped out of slack fingers, a single piece Rekhang pressed metal knock-off of a Chinese 9mm Ngaohun fitted with a suppressor that were favoured by Neon City’s triads; a low-cost imitation even by Rekhang standards and that was saying something!
At first Chao He-Biao was belligerent, glowering and swearing, refusing to give us any answers and futility trying to break free of Trigger’s grip, a firm shake from Trigger changed all that. He explained that after he’d gotten out of the Black Dolphin Gulag, he’d gone to the Big Circle Boys to join the gang.
Being some sort of triad gang, of course the Big Circle Boys had their initiation ceremony; to show his loyalty and worth, Chao He-Biao had to get blood on his hands and enter their conspiracy of guilt, a target was picked for him to kill and that target was Toy Li.
That was the Neon City way; it never needed a reason to indiscriminately target someone for death.
Chao He-Biao had failed his initiation, he’d never be accepted by the Big Circle Boys and he knew it too. He tried to worm his way into our graces, playing the victim, telling us he’d mend his ways, trying to convince that us that maybe he had some worth to us but it was unconvincing, less than a day back out after his stretch and he was looking to commit murder, we had no use for thuggish gang footsoldiers and left him for the local rentacops.
Toy Li was now gingerly back on her feet, with Peanut’s help, the delivery could be completed.
Before we left, Koko rushed over to the flier and rummaged through the storage lockers and came back with a couple of her older drones, she handed Hector and Fifi over to a gracious Peanut.
We hit midnight as we climbed aboard the flier.
Another day in the City of Electric Dreams had come round, all our media-slabs pinged. Yaroh Uron, who had been convicted of murdering Doctor Hsu Rou-Taib was getting his appeal was today. We’d be there in the morning.
Whatever was going on with Silai Granskina had happened fifteen minutes ago but still needed investigating and there were still hours of night and rainfall to navigate as we headed back to Hikage Street.
Outside the Granskina’s apartment we found another Chinese enforcer loitering close by the front door. The suit was a different cut and colour, but the thin, tight smile and attitude was the same.
Bina answered the door and let us in, she told us that Silai had gone to bed after returning with a Potato Palace doggy bag full of Rubles. Somehow, he had slipped the cash past the watcher outside.
Was he involved with the Russian mob, it could be bad news? We got Bina to wake her husband and bring him over, Silai came out in his faux silk Eilbon pyjamas and sat on the apartment’s bare floor, there was hesitation in his eyes when he looked at us.
We refused to buy what Silai was selling and after some questioning we got him to spill his guts.
Turned out that Silai had decided to offload city trams to the Russians for some serious bank, his position at the Transport Authority allowed access to the relevant databases where he could ghost the trams out of their system. Then he would supply overnight storage locations and security codes to the Russians, who in the rainy small hours would quietly get busy disappearing trams.
Silai theorised that the trams were being shipped from the waterfront out of Neon City.
It was a solid plan, who in Neon City would have any idea that trams were going missing? Even if they did and got someone to listen, the digital trail had been deleted. Looked like Silai would stay clean.
Silai got up from the floor, retrieved his Potato Palace doggy bag and thrust a bundle of rubles into Bill’s hands. Bill looked at the wad of poly-cotton weaved sheets in his hand, a brief look of irritation crossed his face. Sure, it would cover the loan to Silai, but I was pretty sure he had no idea what to do with actual cash money!
Then Silai headed outside to the Chinese man. He still had enough bank in the doggy to square with Su Chuai’s enforcer and clear that debt.
That night was spent sleeping in my streets, hopefully a dreamless evasion of the city rain pattering against the tarp that shielded one face of the one-bed. Wasn't bothered about changing, especially since I knew the next morning would come soon, rain clouds evaporating while the day’s heat would begin its inevitable march from too hot to intolerable, I had to drag myself out of the futon early, no time for breakfast.
Instead I headed for the roof and waited beneath the sickly blue-white morning sky to catch my ride with Koko, watching as the descending flier materialised out of the wavering overbright bloom, battering the rooftop with jet wash. One-by-one we were all collected and headed for the RV and Jinny Stoyer, who we’d stashed there a while ago. Jinny was a key witness in Yaroh’s appeal, she’d skipped the original court case and we weren’t about to let her skip the appeal.
She was waiting for us at the rendezvous, dressed respectably as possible, which meant thigh-high faux-leather Oltrantes, a tight pink strip of cloth that passed as Fassus miniskirt, half-unbuttoned, undersized and fairly transparent Dunner white blouse with layers of cheap makeup and displaying all her fruit-themed tattoos.
From there it was a quick flight through Neon City’s sky-congestion to the roof pad at the courthouse, our passenger gave us priority landing rights and soon we found ourselves walking through featureless, dully lit corridors to again be in Judge Wyatt Lavanchy’s familiar courtroom with its beige walls, replica wooden panelled fixtures and furniture, all coldly lit by the ceiling-hung globe-lights. D4-VID was already there waiting for us, the diminutive botcaster had evidence of his own to present at the appeal.
Yaroh Uron was brought out as the appeal commenced, shackled in his oranges, convicted of murdering Doctor Hsu Rou-Taib, the employee of monstrous multinational corporation Protobase Global, he looked sullen and broken.
We knew Hsu Rou-Taib had been rubbed out on the orders of Protobase Global’s head of ethics Benedict Twistom and knew it had been pinned on Yaroh Uron, the dot’s just weren’t connecting though.
Again Magistrate Wyatt Lavanchy was presiding over affairs, he’d convicted Yaroh of murdering Hsu Rou-Taibin seventeen minutes during the original case, it didn’t make us feel any better.
With good reason too.
First, Magistrate Lavanchy allowed Benedict Twistom’s wife, Annabel to give evidence against Yaroh.
Then he allowed Avery Kiani, a rentacop on the Protobase Global payroll to do the same.
Jinny J’s witness statement got discredited because she was a working girl. Character assassination pure and simple.
Following that, D4-VID’s statement was then dismissed as irrelevant.
Yaroh Uron’s appeal had collapsed and he was hauled back to jail. He wouldn’t be leaving Black Dolphin for a long time unless we did something else.
Had to be a link between Lavanchy and Twistom, we’d dug into Lavanchy and he looked clean, had to be something out of sight, something we’d missed, did Twistom have his foot on Lavanchy’s neck? Time to go deeper.
Later I ran automated hunter/seeker protocols on Wyatt Lavanchy with the widest parameters that were manageable and used an algorithm to cross reference all the hits it got. It came back with a single positive that we’d not encountered before and dumped a vid-file on my Nonohiki.
Long range security footage from a while ago displayed an open, green space, one of only a few in Neon City, showing Wyatt Lavanchy and Benedict Twistom together, the pair of them in pastel, cream, orange and salmon coloured pants, polo necks and cardigans. An image-match on the sprawling background skyline identified its location as somewhere in the Fortified Residential Zone; a golf course, where they were playing golf together. We’d have to check it out further.
That night my media-slab pinged, the little algorithm I’d left squatting on Falcon Lockley’s desk-slab system had just booted itself, woken by keywords I’d instructed it to track, it had pinged me cloned messages of Falcon and his hunting party’s plans to go back out into The Wilderness in a week with the intention of bagging another prize, he was determined to get his stuffed bear.
We made sure that Urus Konicek and Neidzwiedz would be waiting.
1st May 2021
Another Saturday night and I’m logged into Meet on my PC.
Time for the next part of Matakishi’s Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
Nursing a hangover, eating Paheheu Pops and watching vintage old-time vid-feeds on the wall-slab was the way to spend a morning. I was ignoring my media-slab while it continually flagged up the newsvines, eventually the little chiming jingle got the better of me and I reached for it, all the down-streams were reporting the same thing. I sat on my futon and crunched on the crisped synthetic rice cereal as I read on; The Snot Robber had been apprehended.
The feeds stated that rentacop had finally caught up with The Snot Robber, who was now incarcerated in the Highway Zero precinct.
We’d had encounters with some of the victims and had never gotten a handle on The Snot Robber, so that was that, or so I thought.
It didn’t take long for our media-slabs to ping. Baking champion Martha Woldt had called, she’d been a competitor on the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake off when we found someone was trying to stack the competition in favour of one of her rivals. We’d also recovered her son who’d almost become a dish on a cannibal menu.
Now she was telling us about her brother? Wilheim Woldt had been arrested under suspicion of being The Snot Robber, Martha believed differently, adamant that he was innocent. We didn’t believe anything, but agreed to look into it.
One hot, crammed tram ride took us into Highway Zero, where typically narrow streets gave way to asphalt roads wide enough to accommodate Neon City’s overpass network at street level, the only district in The City of Electric Dreams to do so, resulting in an unending, low, dull, background rumble that saturated the air.
Midday was getting dangerously close when we reached the rentacop precinct, a brick-fronted corner unit with a heavy glass and steel door situated in a block of businesse locations. Brutal waves of heat hadn’t deterred the scores of news-vultures from gathering outside, ten deep. The Snot Robber had been just weird enough to catch the public’s imagination and the press knew when they were on to a good story.
D4-VID’s diminutive, silver-grey, brushed poly-aluminium frame could be seen in the jostling, hollering mob, so we made ourselves known to him.
The bot-caster came over to us and explained that they were expecting rentacop to release a press statement within the hour.
We told D4-VId that there might be something else to this arrest and asked if he was in? He agreed instantly, if there was a different angle, he knew a big exclusive could be scored.
With some effort we worked our way round the gathered journos until we reached the way in flanked by two jacked-up rentacop uniforms, they regarded us through their standard issue mirrored Poviat shades.
Bill stepped up and spun them about us being Wilheim Woldt’s legal counsel, worked and to be fair, was probably as close to the truth that he could get, we pushed through the sturdy door.
Inside the precinct, it was quiet, insulated from the heat and noise outside the walls. Ggently humming aircon cooled the reception, while subtle, diffused wall lighting gave it an air of calm, as designed, no doubt by some committee of psychologists. We crossed the polished stone floor to a reception desk, more hardened polymer bunker than anything else, with a sheet of thick reinforced transparent acrylic separating us from the desk sergeant.
A stocky man in an ill-fitting rentacop mock uniform, he dragged his eyes away from the slab he was fixated with to watch us close in with a slack jawed, surprised expression.
“Legal counsel for Wilheim Woldt,” Bill stated, leaning into the acrylic.
The desk sergeant couldn’t conceal a scoff.
“That one’s going down,” he replied. “Open and shut, a waste of your time. He was caught with all the noses!”.
Bill didn’t skip a beat and leant into the screen again.
“Legal counsel for Wilheim Woldt.”
A uniform strode deeper into the precinct after being summoned by the out-of-sorts desk sergeant and we followed. Behind the corporate facade of the precinct’s front was a complex of plain and dull grey, workmanlike corridors that interconnected various different rooms and were lit by bleak, white striplights.
Wilheim was sitting on a shaped plastic chair, waiting for us in an interview room when we came in. He was a thin-faced man that appeared gaunt under an unflattering spotlight embedded in the ceiling and wore a miserable, almost shocked expression. After the uniform was gone, we got him to give us the low-down while D4-VID filmed.
Wilheim actually had a job, working as a landlord managing a number of properties throughout Rokkaku Dai Heights. Yesterday he was in a vacated apartment, prepping it for a new tenant when he came across a package that had recently been delivered and was addressed to the previous tenant.
It had split open, spilling its gruesome contents; a handful of bloody noses now scattered across the bare floorboards. Naturally, he had called rentacop, who, when they arrived, promptly arrested and charged him with being The Snot Robber!
Kuto Shiko had been the previous tenant, Wilheim told us. The name was somehow familiar to us….
Wilheim went on, explaining that Kuto Shiko had been his tenant for a year before she vacated the apartment about a month ago.
It had been about a month ago that The Snot Robber had first struck, two threads were now tying them together.
There wasn’t much more that we could get out of Wilheim, and as he was led back to his cell deeper within the precinct, we spoke with the lead investigating officers, they seemed very confident in the strength of their case.
As his legal counsel, we had to be given access to the evidence. Another uniform led us into a different part of the precinct and to a chilly, locked viewing room, it’s climate lowered to zero in order to preserve the evidence. The precinct had no morgue facilities.
Being residents of Neon City, we weren’t acclimatised to this cold, our breath billowed in steamy clouds ahead of us and we could feel the slight burn of cold air biting on exposed skin.
The cold room lacked furniture, save for a table with a box containing the evidence which was being kept in a transparent polythene zipper back.
Pulling it out, we examined it. It wasn’t the chilled noses we were interested in, it was the burlywood coloured packaging. Kuto Shiko’s name and the apartment address had been handwritten.
“That looks like a woman’s style of handwriting,” piped in D4-VID, staring at the package. It looked like he gave the robotic equivalent of a shrug and continued. “It matches parameters stored in my archives, I’ve seen this sort of thing before,”
Other than the handwriting, the packaging contained the post stamp of the delivering courier.
Something to work on at least and we were starting to feel the cold, time to leave. Returning the evidence to it’s box, we exited the room back into reasonable temperature and made our way out of the precinct.
With the clamour outside the precinct behind us, we got out of the unforgiving sky in a small greasy eatery that was the kind favoured by the transportation workers who rolled into Highway Zero and went about following up our leads.
Contacting the courier got us nothing, they had picked up the package from one of the multitude of anonymous self-service postal drop-lockers that dotted Rokkaku Dai Heights.
So next, we turned to Kuto Shiko and immediately got something. I’d been scouring her MyFaceSpace account and had gotten a hit.
We’d seen the name Kuto Shiko before, encountering it when we’d crossed paths with her ex-girlfriend, Royla Ovalev. A while back we’d found a maniacal Royla and stopped her trying to torture Yaroh Uron to death.
“I’ll get her!” Royla had feverishly screamed back then and struggled while Trigger had dragged her off Yaroh.
At the time, in that candle lit room, thick with heavy incense, it’d meant nothing.
But now, my mind went back to the creepy shrine adorned with a blood splashed photo of a young woman and in that dim, flickering yellow light, I remembered the photo had a name; Kuto Shiko. We’d even seen Kuto Shiko working as a waitress at Pie-in-the-Sky, a restaurant here in Highway Zero
How did I remember this? Kuto’s MyFaceSpace account had the answer. I’d been scrolling through her profile’s timeline and seen the last few posts from Royla.
There’d been a series of exchanges between the two: Kuto had dumped Royla and Royla had taken it badly, Kuto had mocked her about this and it only intensified Royla’s erratic emotional state.
The final two exchanges between them had read:
“Seriously Royla you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face,” Kuto had said.
“I H8 U!” was Royla’s reply.
“Srysly? You go gurl,”
“I’ll show you what nose cutting really is,”
Too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence, Kuto’s old address must have been getting the noses delivered from Royla, she had to be The Snot Robber.
Rolya Ovalev’s apartment was in The Heights, we’d been there before and rushed over on the overcrowded tramline. She had to be stopped before she struck again.
The apartment was situated in one of The Height’s social-housing graded, dull grey and under-maintained high-rises, Trigger’s thermal sweep showed no heat signatures inside.
No time for subtly, for a second time Trigger kicked the door open.
Inside, it was a mess, the apartment was in disarray, refuse had been strewn across the apartment floors, broken crockery was scattered everywhere,as well as utensils, clothes, upturned shelves and more. Long chunks had been repeatedly gouged out of the stud walls and broken furniture, most likely a large knife was the cause. It looked like the knife had been put through a wall-slab as well.
In the living room we found a large hardcopy poster-map of Golden Gai draped from a wall, Royla had drawn a pentagram on the map. It consisted of a number of spots that had also been marked on the map; she'd drawn lines between those spots and these lines had formed the shape of the pentagram. Abruptly, we realised that those spots were locations where The Snot Robber - where Royla had struck. Looking closer and crossing data, we realised there was a pattern; according to the dates, attacks were taking place around the pentagram in a clockwise pattern.
Not only that, on the map, next to the location where each attack took place, there were two smeared ticks in what looked like dried blood, except one, which had only a single tick. There was a lurch in my gut, the location of Royla’s next attack, that had to be it?
Time was tight, but before we left, we searched the rest of Royla’s apartment. There was nothing that would help us find her but amongst the carpet of trash in the kitchen area we found the same burlywood coloured packaging we’d seen back at the Highway Zero precinct, the final nail in the coffin.
Royla had to be stopped.
It was a quick ride and transfer to and from Shibuya Terminal to the Corporate Monorail, the comfortable, smooth ride into Shinjuku Station belied our uneasiness. The day was wearing on and in a couple of hours Golden Gai would be flooded by the evening crowds, meandering tourists, suited wage-monkeys and run-of-the-mill Neon City revellers, a plentiful hunting ground for The Snot Robber and a nightmare for us, Golden Gai’s topographical maze didn’t help
In the east, the cloudless blue-white sky was beginning to fail, inextricably consumed by the hungry rise of a darkening canopy as, on the final leg of our journey, the tram rumbled into Golden Gai.
As day acquiesced to night, the temperature would dip modestly and tumultuous soot-coloured rain clouds would gather, soon after the night-long downpours would begin.
An abundance of drinking venues populated the particularly narrow and unpredictably branching streets of Golden Gail which convolutedly crossed other thoroughfares like an erratically spun web spread throughout massive concrete canyons.
Looking around, we found some vantage points and settled in to observe, Koko grabbed her control-slab and instructed Kevin up high to sweep the area with advanced optics in a slow circular patrol.
Time passed, street lights ticked and hummed into flickering life as we watched wasted wage-monkeys mixing with surly street goths, no-hopers and flamboyant fashionistas in the latest Desullo, Shaguaifu and Hysteric Mini Seibu lines. Over comms, Koko told us that Kevin was tracking someone that met the drone’s search parameters, she fed visuals to the rest of us.
He was a burly man, decked out all in black; a voluminous high-necked black cape was layered over a black Tremeita Hiaki greatcoat which was in turn layered over a three-piece black Gaongha suit. The look was finished off with some sort of tall top hat and he carried a black walking stick tipped in a faux-silver heel and with a replica ivory handle and a imitation leather Mahakam suitcase fashioned in the style of a old-school doctor’s bag
We watched as he flitted somewhat unconvincingly from shadow to shadow? This didn’t look like Royla, was she in some kind of disguise?
Before we could assess the situation, Kevin’s motion detector picked up something, it was moving fast. An ephemeral distortion seemingly surrounded Top Hat man as somewhere from above, the featureless profile of a ninja had dropped down, no time to think or even react! With a single swing, the ninja’s Ninjato flashed over Top Hat’s face and he flopped to the sidewalk with a cry, holding his bloodied face.
The Snot Robber had struck again.
Trigger had left his spot and was running towards Top Hat now, but seemingly The Snot Robber had vanished in the moment it’d took Trigger to get there? Trigger immediately switched to thermals and spotted The Snot Robber slinking away, he lunged and hit out with his gunblade, landing a solid blow, the air rippled and ninja reappeared, a long split in the ninja-yoroi’s silhouetted profile exposed the paper-thin, elaborately complex microcircuitry beneath, stealth-tech - and it’d been compromised!
Koko sent in Sylvester and Felix to attack and Roderrick also unloaded the now visible Snot Robber, the explosive flechettes were too much and they went down.
Quickly, we checked Top Hat, he’d taken a serious injury the face, but wasn’t in a critical condition and to prove that Neon City never lost its sense of irony, we discovered that Top Hat, who would be The Snot Robber’s final victim, was actually Doctor Grippen, the cosmetic surgeon we’d heard about who’d been making so much bank from the attacks!
Next, our attention was turned to the ninja, the mask was peeled away and Royla was revealed, The Snot Robber had been stopped.
Rentacop at Highway Zero had announced the capture of The Snot Robber in the morning but hadn’t given the press a name, which was fortunate for Wilheim Woldt. Later, he was quietly released without fuss allowing rentacop to retain the mote of credibility they had before they issued a press statement identifying Royla Ovalev as The Snot Robber.
Before we had the chance to call it a day, Bill’s media-slab pinged, caller ID told him it was Mister Blank, which is why Bill was surprised when he found a Mexican woman on the other end.
She was unsettled, crying and on the verge of hysteria. Between gasping breaths, she explained with a shaking voice that she had been told to call Bill and he needed help right now?
Bill tried to make sense of it, asking the woman to elaborate, but there was only a moment of overloud, distorted clattering as something collided with the media-slab, followed by silence.
“No, don’t go,” Bill heard a voice, muffled and distant say.
Then, more silence.
The line to the other slab was still open. I quickly jacked into the GLOWNET, it’s vividly coloured, angular, pulsating info-scape replacing physical reality before my eyes, I searched the thousands of constantly updating data-flows closest to me, Bill’s media-slab connection was easy to find and I launched a tracing-protocol that allowed me follow his connection to Blank’s slab, got a fix on the location; western Akihabara.
The flier powered through the furious downpour and Neon City’s nighttime sky-traffic, Koko navigated high-rise cubic silhouettes, delineated only by grids of window lights and which formed the cityscape.
The fix on Blank’s slab had led us to a nondescript and inadequately lit Akihabra back alley, its sparsely placed street lights seemed to weakly illuminate nothing but gleaming raindrops caught in their hazy, semi-spherical light scatter.
In a flurry of turbine driven rain and wind, the flier set us down and then, with a deep engine-hum lifted off. The fix got stronger as we went into the thoroughfare, a few small shop fronts and businesses were dotted throughout the alley with customers backlit against the night as they came and went. Following the fix took us to the doorway of a shady looking back street surgery, lights were on but it looked closed for the night and that was unusual? These kinds of unlicensed street docs made most of their bank during the hours of darkness, plying their trade on clients who didn’t appreciate any questions.
I couldn’t help but notice that someone had broken and ripped up the corner of a paving stone close to the wall so they could piggy-back off of the city’s juice. A heavy-duty insulated and rubberised cable ran from the exposed junction box and had been squeezed under the surgery’s door, it wasn’t locked and inside was a reception.
Empty; nobody was in the meagrely furnished reception, nothing of note either and the desk-slab was cold. The rubberised cable snaked its way out of the room, so we followed.
It wound its way down some steps that led down into the basement, at the foot of the stairs there was some dim light.
As we crept down, the basement came into view, the steps opened up into what we’d come to recognise as a back street doc’s surgery; an undecorated and grubby out-of-the-way room, equipped with dated Saengdal medtech.
Our attention was drawn to the contraption that dominated the centre of the room, suspended in some sort of polythene and gel harness was a skinless man, he was still alive and several tubes had been inserted into various parts of his body, pumping various fluids around. It was then that we realised that he was missing multiple organs and the tubes were keeping him alive! The work of organ jackers. Eyes from an unrecognisable face stared at us through spectacles.
“Help me’” came the plea from a lipless mouth..
I felt my gut lurch when we caught on to who it was; Mister Blank!
His media-slab was on the floor here, next to an old fashioned mop and bucket, bubbly water still filled it.
A call was put into a trauma team, Mister Blank had good credit and it’d only be a few minutes before they got here.
Mister Blank’s speech was barely recognisable, but he informed us that he’d failed to win over Olivia, the love of his life and she still didn’t have any feelings for him. He thought it might’ve been his skin condition, so he came here to Doctor Zephyr’s surgery for a skin replacement. Zephyr took his skin off, but instead of supplying new skin, he helped himself to Blank’s organs, hooked him up to this ramshackle life support system and left!
When the cleaning lady had arrived, she’d shrieked in shock, Mister Blank had managed to convince her to call Bill before she fled in horror. He seemed regretful of his decision to have a skin transplant.
Soon after this, the trauma team arrived and carted Mister Blank off to a med-tech facility.
It didn’t take long to get some contact details on one Doctor Xavier Zephyr, time to check him out.
Bill pinged him but only got voicemail, looked like Zephyr had already skipped town on the bank for Blank’s organs and hadn’t given a return date, probably never.
Just in case though, Bill left a message saying he was looking for inexpensive organ upgrades.
It had gotten late into the night and in the thundering downpour, we headed home.
A new day brought old problems because the City of Electric Dreams never did know when to quit it. Bad news was the pulsating lifeblood of Neon City and the newsvines obligingly pumped it out and circulated it through every sprawling prefecture and crowded district.
Bigfoot had been spotted in the streets of Akihabara if the vines were to be believed! The story wasn’t what caught our attention though, it was the address: A few days ago, at the behest of Mister Blank, we’d relocated some retro-tech, off-the-grid squatters from his property to that same address.
The situation was unclear and we took a ride back out to the address in Akihabara, with the elevator still out of order, headed up to the loft by foot.
There was no indication of the music that the squatters liked to blare out loudly so much as we walked up to the loft, other than Neon City’s typical dull, background murmur, it was quiet.
Initially the loft, partially lit as it was by hazy, rectangular spots of sunlight that streamed through skylights, seemed empty, unoccupied. Then we saw dried patches of blood, accumulated in puddles on the old dusty carpet or smeared across walls, an unmistakable, pungent odour of wet fur hung in the air. There were no bodies here, they must have been carted off, were there any survivors, it looked unlikely? It was a harsh fate; putting them here had taken them out of Blank’s sights and the reach of any thugs he might hire. But the truth is; when Neon City wants to put you in the dirt, she’s going to put you down.
Carefully avoiding the bloodstains, we searched the loft and in the detritus we found torn, brown wrapping paper labelled in Mandarin as traditional Chinese medicine, it looked out of place amongst the personal belongings of the squatters who’d been here? The wrapping paper gave us an address; Doctor Wei Bao-Bi in Akihabara.
Looking further, we found the large bloody paw prints throughout the loft that must have belonged to some massive animal; maybe Bigfoot?
Almost subconsciously, I lightly brushed my fingertips reassuringly over the textured grip of one of my .45 ACPs.
The footprints led close to a wall and up to the loft’s roof access.
We clambered out of the loft and under the cloudless, glaring blue-white sky with it’s pummelling heat and scanned the undulating rooftops. In some shade we spotted a bear! It had been sleeping, but as we had gotten up, with a low growl, it had stirred and began rising.
Enormous muscles rippled under its fur as it manoeuvred to its feet, bared teeth and swore at us, another uplifted bear! Quickly Bill spoke to it and calmed it down.
‘Old Ben’ was his name, he told us.
Ben went on to explain that he was tired, just wanted to sleep and needed to get to a forest. He had no memories of his current predicament, just a vague recollection of being shot?
Then Ben had woken in a strangely smelling darkened room with a small man screaming at him, reflexively, he’d struck out at the man, grabbed some of the packaging from the room and fled.
He had wandered the streets of Akihabara in a disorientated fugue as the panicking crowds had peeled away from him. In this state of confusion he had gone into the loft and encountered a lot of angry, young people there, his memory wasn’t clear but he’d gone into a rage.
Ben didn’t seem a danger right now, leaving him here risked the authorities, or even worse, Rentacop finding him, that would spell trouble for him. We decided to move him to our RV. Koko remotely pulled the flier over and we took Ben and met up with the RV in one of Highway Zero’s vast asphalt parking lots.
It worked out well, the RV was currently empty, RAM Rat was nowhere to be found and the Party Favours that we’d stowed here were taking a break from their activities.
As we sent the RV off on its automated route, we knew that Ben couldn’t stay there long, he’d told us he needed to sleep and the only forests that could be found in Neon were constructed of concrete and glass.
We could only see one course of action and contacted Urus Konicek and Neidźwiedź from the outsider settlement; The Enclave. There would be space enough for Ben in the extended wilderness beyond the walled confines of Neon City. Urus told us that they would collect Ben late tonight.
An unforgiving sun had passed its zenith over Neon City and the day’s heat had begun to wane, though it was still at the limits of toleration. Thanks to what Ben had told us, there was a Chinese medicine shop in Akihabara we had an inclination to visit.
The Wei Bao-Bi shop had a small and traditionally styled, glass fronted faux-wood facade, the once brightly coloured signage that announced it sold traditional Chinese medicine had now faded, it was also shut and in Neon City, nothing was shut in the day, something was wrong.
Lights were off in the shop and nothing could be seen through the windows, Trigger’s thermals also gave him nothing. It was easy for him to jemmy the old lock open and unhesitatingly enter, he became immediately aware of a stink that he associated with the stench of death, the shopfront looked clear and the rest of us entered.
The shelves were packed with scores of jars, boxes, drawers and packets, practically from floor to ceiling and all labelled in Mandarin. Behind the glass counter, a door led to the backrooms, we searched a couple of them, a store room and an office before we came across the body of a small Chinese man slumped awkwardly in a pool of his own dried blood with a row of bloody scarlet wounds gouged across his face and throat, clearly the cause of his demise. Laying in the dried blood and clutched in one twisted hand was some sort of pumping apparatus.
Old Ben had definitely been here.
We looked around, it took us a moment to realise that this room was different to the others, it was mostly empty, no stock or supplies here. Rows of strange tools filled a rack along one wall and beneath it was a functional, plain steel table, along another wall was a small desk and behind the stink of the man’s death was a peculiar pickled smell?
The Jinonghua landline on the desk was winking a red LED at us, we went over and jabbed the ansaphone playback stud, a tinny speaker spouted out a crackling audio message from a man who called himself Falcon Lockely; something about going out on another hunting trip?
Usually, on the desk was also some actual ‘paper’ paperwork, an invoice from Doctor Wei Bao-Bi for taxidermy service to Falcon Lockley at the Margorba-Golina Global Corporation, for stuffing one bear! Looked like Old Ben had escaped a darker fate.
There wasn’t anything else to be found here, so we headed out.
Daylight was failing, the diffused globe of red light that was the sun began slipping behind Neon City's soaring western skyline and shadows lengthened as we rolled into Hikage Street.
We never got home though as our media-slabs pinged.
Neon City wasn’t done with us yet.
Captain Ocano was the name given by whoever was on the other side of the line, told us he had a job and to meet him at the Shinjuku Precinct for a briefing.
Another day, another precinct, Ocano had to be rentacop.
Going to Shinjuku meant going back to Shibuya Terminal and hitting the Corporate Monorail to the Shinjuku-Cho prefecture. The workday had ended, but you’d never have guessed from the monorail; a world away from the crowded, noisy, overheated tramlines. Adaptive climate control kept Neon City’s harsh temperatures at bay and the seats were comfortable and well spaced, even then, it was never more than partially full, only the top percenters and corporate execs had access to the monorail, and of course us, thanks to Porter Sladek. With our ripped denims, suspiciously bulging fatigue jackets or cracked and worn black leather dusters we kicked back and had our combat boots up on the deep, well upholstered seats while the other commuters with their designer Gaongha business suits gave us the sidelong stink-eye and kept their distance. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
The nightly downpour was well underway by the time we’d exited the monorail and navigated the narrow, busy footways to the precinct. Outside it was typically a rentacop bunker, the featureless brick-fronted facade had a single steel and glass door that led into a sparse reception. A quick conversation with the desk sergeant behind his screen got us through security and upstairs and into the precinct’s hub. Originally an open plan room with beige walls and worn, stained grey carpeting, it was now populated by acrylic-walled cubicles and dividers, occupied with uniforms, suited rentacops and numerous civilian contractors.
Justice didn’t only come here to die, it came for the long doughnut break too.
A uniform led us along one beige wall to a row of actual offices, one of which was emblazoned with the title; Captain Ocano.
He was a tall, burly and dark-skinned man with short, greying black hair and a moustache so out-of-fashion, it’d come back into fashion and gone out of it again decades ago. He wore a mismatched brown Kuabha jacket and grey Shaguaifu suit trousers, somehow neither of which fit, a creased, undersized eggshell coloured Jala shirt and a particularly drab Ecohio tie? There was an irritated scowl on his face when he rose from his desk to greet us and he spoke in what could only be described as an outside voice.
Halfway through explaining to us that we’d been recommended by Juicy J, he interrupted himself and took the opportunity to shout through the glass wall at some random rentacop.
Ocano went on to tell us about Miguel Fernandez, a rentacop from the precinct who’d gone undercover to infiltrate the Kibukicho Flesh Cartel.
Ocano had sent someone from the precinct to bring in Miguel from the organisation, during the extraction, Miguel had recognised the rentacop and fled, yelling something about rentacop trying to kill him.
Ocano was worried that Miguel had gone native during his time undercover and wanted outsiders to bring him in, Miguel wouldn’t see us coming. He then filled us in about the Flesh Cartel.
It operated out of Southern Kibukicho and was known for its involvement with pimps, the ‘skin-trade’ and other exploitation. The Flesh Cartel was headed by Usman ‘Emir’ Kasim, a canny leader who styled himself as ‘The King of Pimps’. Ocano also gave us some intel of their turf and hangouts, as well as photos of the gangers - including Miguel Fernandez.
We took the flier to Kibukicho, it effortlessly powered through the driving rain and soon we were in stealth-mode, hovering over one of Neon City’s few small open spaces and well known Flesh Cartel haunt
Pedestrians and passer-bys streamed through the area and several smallish groups loitered around, Koko flipped the external cameras to infrared and swept the square, almost immediately, the facial recog got a hit, Miguel was down there. Now we needed a strategy to get him out.
Jokingly, I told Trigger to use a bungee cord to drop down and grab Miguel.
I was in the flier’s washroom for only a couple of minutes but when I came out, the floor access hatch had been slid open and Trigger was in the process of securing a bungee cord he’d sourced from a storage locker around his ankle. Dumbstruck and before I could explain anything, he’d jumped! We stood by helplessly as the coiled and elasticated cord was speedily dragged through the hatch into the night.
On the flier’s screens we watched Trigger plummet, then rapidly decelerate as he closed in on the ground and Miguel; for an infinitesimal moment he seemed to have stopped moving altogether and simply hung in the air as the cord had reached its maximum elasticity. Trigger’s arms flailed awkwardly as he completely missed the mark and was yanked skyward by the contracting cord. The Flesh Cartel gangers collectively yelped when they saw Trigger bouncing back up, pulling pistols, they began shooting at him!
The bungee reached the top of its upward trajectory and Trigger was now headed back down again, only now through a hail of gunfire, this time he’d get Miguel, but no, it was another flailing miss and Miguel had decided to run for it. Trigger was yelling instructions through the comms and Koko eased the flier in the direction of the fleeing man.
“I’ll get him this time!” I heard Trigger doggedly shout over comms optimistically.
Now also swaying alarmingly, Trigger came diving back down to try and grab Miguel for a third time - and failed again!
The other gangers had continued firing on the moving target that was Trigger and he caught a round. It was all enough for him and he cut the bungee cord, dropped to the ground and chased Miguel on foot. Maybe multiple bungee jumps had left Trigger disorientated or it was the greasy rain-covered terrain, but, despite his augmented speed, he couldn’t keep up with Miguel, losing both his footing and sight of him.
The attempt to get Miguel had failed spectacularly, we picked Trigger up and retreated out of sight.
For the next few hours we lurked in the black, rainy skies above South Kibukicho, patrolling, watching, waiting. Eventually facial recog caught Miguel Fernandez showing his face again, he was alone and looking skittish. A vulnerable but tricky mark.
While we’d been waiting, we’d discussed our next move and had come up with a new strategy.
Bill was already down on street level, ready and waiting when we pinged him. Nanite implants and vocal augments allowed him to disguise himself as Usman Kasim and he moved to intercept his mark while Koko landed the flier close as possible. Approaching Miguel, Bill managed to convince him that he was Usman, then he convinced him to come into the flier.
Miguel was shocked to see the rest of us there as he came in, I could see he was thinking of running, but with four of us, no chance of getting away and he knew it..
Bill then tried calming him down, told him that Ocano had no bad intentions for him, he said that the Captain just wanted Miguel brought back in. Miguel seemed to relax, but we kept an eye on him.
The flight back to the Shinjuku precinct was uneventful and we escorted Miguel back to Captain Ocano.
As thanks, Captain Ocano gave us one of his business cards.
“Use this if you ever get in trouble with the cops,” he shouted.
It was the small hours, rain hadn’t let up, never did; we left Shinjuku and dodged through the graveyard traffic, rushing to pick Old Ben up from the RV in Highway Zero. At night, the sight of the unending flow of three hundred KPH grid-locked congestion blurred into seemingly unbroken gleaming lines of red and silver.
From Highway Zero we went to southern Hikage Street, the commercial end of the district was home to the massive steel and concrete pipe system that managed part of Neon City’s infrastructure. A tangle of above-and-below pipes and tunnels that was impenetrable to the unprepared, Urus was a master at moving through them, adept at avoiding any installed security measure. It gave him free access in and out of Neon City.
Under the shelter of a large arching pipe we found Urus and Neidźwiedź waiting for us out of the street lights.
It turned out that Neidźwiedź and Old Ben knew each other and Ben was happy to go with them.
Ben had no memory of what had occurred before waking up in Akihabara. Neidźwiedź explained that it was likely a hunting party composed of pampered execs led by professional huntsmen had come out to the wilderness looking to bag something, Old Ben had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We told them about Falcon Lockley and his intention to come out on another hunt, Neidźwiedź shrugged his massive sloped shoulders and said. “We’ll be waiting this time,”.
As a parting gift, Urus and Neidźwiedź gave us a couple of baskets filled with fresh food and took Old Ben into the maze of underground pipes and tunnels, eventually out of Neon City and into the wilderness, hopefully Ben would find what he needed there.
Last thing I did that night was to jack into the GLOWNET, finding Margorba-Golina Global’s brightly incandescent data-image, I had to go beyond the public facing and sanitised branding. A cracking algorithm got me through the security protocols, peeling the layer away, I journeyed into their data-vault, from there finding personal information on Falcon Lockley was easy, now I had his personal media-slab contact details and the server-vault they resided on.
Margorba-Golina Global fell away, reduced to a point of light as I travelled the pulsating data-flows of Neon City. The server-vault that managed the personal data-vault of Falcon’s media-slab was easier to crack than Margorba-Golina Global, I replicated a small parcel of data into the vault, it would monitor Falcon’s usage and when it got hits for hunt or wilderness, it would temporarily archive the data and ping it to me.
The next time he made a call about hunting, we would know.
Another day came, bringing with it a blaze or urine-coloured light that shone through my one-bed’s missing wall. I’d crashed on the futon still wearing my street clothes in the early hours and didn’t get up until my media-slab began its merciless pinging after lunch.
We’d gotten a call from The Accountant; the brain-in-a-suitcase we had discovered, then liberated from Yennav Rybasei and who had then assumed both the body and the identity of a cookie-cutter wage-monkey named Hayden Weyer. Last we heard of him, he was in convalescence and being cared for by Ashaglaya.
“We have a problem,” he said and pinged us his location; a warehouse in Akihabara.
Back to Akihabara, third time in as many days!
For a warehouse, it was a fairly nondescript building located in a small, anonymous and underutilized business park that was outside the retail centre of the district. The busy streets, bustle and colour of Akihabara fell away as we entered the drab business park and strode across to the warehouse.
The doors were unlocked and inside It was a surprise to find the warehouse was nothing more than a steel skeletal shell with a skin of polycarbonate cladding that lacked any interior features; no reception, visible office or stock, nothing. It was unlit save for a number of indistinct shafts of sunlight which weakly lanced through the stained and unmaintained skylights above onto the bare concrete floor.
There was a single person here, Hayden Weyers.
Hayden Weyes, The Accountant was sitting on the floor with a despondent expression on his face and gripping a media slab contemplatively in one hand.
He watched us approach and explained what was going on when we asked.
At lunch time, Hayden had gone out to get a protein shake when someone had approached him. She had the appearance of a ten year old girl and wore an enveloping shiny red vinyl coat and was chain-smoking Huhani cigarettes, it was a popular brand and Hayden had recognised its particular pungent aroma.
The girl told him that he had been activated and pressed a tiny screen-slab into his palm before briskly slipping away into the crowds. The readout was displaying a map, it showed the warehouse in Akihabara.
So Hayden had come here, found the warehouse unlocked and empty, came inside and found the data-slab.
“I don’t believe Hayden Weyer was ever a real person, I think it was a cover for someone else,” he said, looking from one of us to another. “And I think this slab has something to do with it?”
It was obvious that the media-slab was a dead-drop burner, a one way street for communication. We didn’t have to wait long for it to ping.
Hayden switched the slab to speaker and we all listened to the call. It was a male voice, curt and guttural.
“We are coming down now. Meet us at the terminal at sixteen-hundred hours. Don't be late.”
The call went dead, that was it.
When he had referred to coming down and terminal, it had to mean The Sky Tree, it couldn’t be anywhere else.
The City of Electric Dreams was connected to the Glitterband thousands of kilometres above via the engineering superstructure that was The Shinkansen Link, an enormous space-elevator which was anchored to Neon City at The Sky Tree. Whoever this was, he was coming down from the Glitterband.
The Sky Tree was located in Asakusa-cho prefecture, not far from Akihabara. Koko called in the flier and we headed over.
Constructed of steel, concrete and glass, with smooth, featureless, almost minimalist silver-grey exterior walls and dramatically angular edges, The Sky Tree was a monument to modernism and a colossal edifice, maybe the largest structure in Neon city. Even from kilometres away, it loomed over the horizon menacingly and dominated the skyline, dwarfing its surroundings.
The Shinkansen Link itself was a massive cord of thick, poly-carbon alloy, high tensile hexagonal cable that rose directly upwards, seemingly dematerialising into the haze of the blue-white sky and ultimately ending at the Glitterband. Each face of the hexagonal cable was wide enough to house a vertical railtrack which carried traffic and maintenance pods up and down the link. However, the behemothic luxury shuttle which served Neon City’s ultra wealthy citizens curled around the link entirely and was heavy enough to require all six vertical railway tracks to ascend or descend.
As Koko navigated the heavy aerial traffic around The Sky Tree, it expanded to fill the forward view ports, Koko circled round until we found a suitable landing pad, from there we took an elevator into arrivals.
The interior was also vast, a high vaulted ceiling rose up a score of metres, decorated in the same silver-grey colour as the exterior and janitorial robots smoothly moved around arrivals, diligently maintaining the highly polished porcelain coloured faux marble floor. Natural lighting and climate control lent it a calm, airy ambience.
There was only one reason this much bank was ever spent on anything - rich people. The Glitterband was the most exclusive location on or off Earth and The Shinkansen Link served this new aristocracy.
Because of this exclusivity, terminals were sparsely used and we watched the wealthy few coming and going, with their elite trend-setting fashions and perfectly bio-sculpted bodies, accompanied by their jacked-up personal security and bodyguards. We also noticed the high level of rentaguard that discreetly patrolled the perimeters. None of this told us who to expect.
At sixteen-hundred, on the dot, we were approached by two individuals, a well dressed, olive skinned man with an unreadable face who wore a ultra-tech blended alloy Uchike katana over a Evoda trench coat and was accompanied by a slim young woman with blue hair and almost elfin features, save emotionless, almost unblinking dark eyes.
Ignoring the rest of us. the pair made for Hayden Weyer, or so they thought! We’d told Hayden to go home and that we’d handle it, Bill was now disguised as Hayden and would have a better chance of dealing with this, hopefully they wouldn’t be suspicious enough to blow Bill’s cover.
The man spoke with the familiar guttural voice from the media-slab.
“I am Oni Tokugawa and this is my apprentice, Gemini Benedict,” he informed us. “You must immediately take us to the womb north of Neon City.”
Briefly, we all flicked suspicious glances at each other, this was no coincidence.
A while back, beyond the northern confines of Neon City and in the green expanse that was the wilderness, we’d encountered a shuttle crash, the survivors were a child in a exowomb and his mother. The woman was Avril Heywood, daughter of Barnabas Haywood and citizen of The Messenger hab on the Glitterband, Avril was adamant that her father had been behind the attack on the shuttle and them. Currently Avril and her son were cloistered away in The Enclave.
Oni Tokugawa had to be looking for the exowomb, we asked Oni who we were searching for and he confirmed our suspicions.
What did he want with it? If he represented Barnabus Haywood, that would pose a serious risk to the boy and Avril, if not, then why was he looking for them? Asking Oni who he worked for posed too great a risk of breaking Bill’s cover.
We brought the pair of them up to our flier, lifted off and set a bearing for the wilderness. Oni provided us coordinates of what he told us was the last place the exowomb’s signal had been detected; which led directly to The Enclave.
The flier’s rumbling engine-note changed pitch as Koko took it to full speed and Neon City’s varied cityscape rolled by like undulating waves of architecture. Soon we were approaching the limits of the city and beyond that, the wall.
Oni and Gemini rebuffed any attempts we made at chat or conversation as we flew north.
An alarm pinged on Koko’s console, she looked at Oni and told him that we had no authorisation to cross the wall and began to slow the flier. The wall’’s aerial defenses were supposedly to prevent intrusion from outside but they didn’t discriminate.
“What happened to the vehicle you were provided?” Oni asked, turning to Bill.
“In the shop,” Bill replied without hesitation.
Oni gave a small exhalation of breath, I saw his eyes rapidly flicker across the components of the co-pilot’s console, barely focussing and processing some internal calculation, something I’d seen before but only rarely and likely the result of an implant that in some way altered or enhanced his behaviour, most likely analytical skills or awareness. He then took the co-pilot’s seat and began punching commands into the console.
While Oni was distracted, I took the opportunity to quickly warn Urus that trouble might be coming the Enclave’s way.
A few moments later and the alarm on Koko’s console died, she scrutinised her console and saw the flier’s transponder code had altered, a small row of red readouts winked green, access to cross the city wall had been granted and Koko picked up speed.
With Neon City in the rear, the Wilderness’ verdant landscape unfolded ahead of us, our previous foray had been at ground level and we couldn’t appreciate its vast richness this vantage point now afforded us. Long rippling grasses extended across the rolling plains, wavering forests spread over hazy, distant and steep hills and in the lowering, afternoon sunlight glimmered off faraway lakes and rivers.
As the distance to The Enclave continued to diminish, our screens showed The Enclave’s defences coming online, wall mounted gun turrets swivelling to face us. Oni instructed us to prepare weapons. His attention wasn’t on The Enclave though, he’d angled one of the flier’s external cameras skywards, searching for something else? I saw his gaze go distant for a second, the implant was processing.
“They’re here!” He announced, looking up with a hint of finality.
Before we could respond, sudden turbulence rocked the flier, we had to brace ourselves to stay in our seats and Koko fought to retain control.
There was a tremendous roar as whatever had passed us landed close to The Enclave, throwing up immense quantities of dust and smoke. After training a camera on the object, it was switched through thermal, infrared, night vision and real time image enhancement until we saw what it was; something we’d only ever seen on screens.
The massive flat-bottomed teardrop shape was the profile of a Qiuonriji Tihu class dropship, designed to rapidly deploy ground troops from an orbital point of origin. It was a serious piece of military hardware and it hadn’t come from Neon City.
A split suddenly appeared in the side of the convex teardrop and a gangway dropped open, slamming into the ground.
Immediately; Shock Troopers in Tzedesp combat armour swiftly disembarked out of the dropship in combat formation, streaming directly for The Enclave. It was unlikely that The Enclave had the firepower to repel them, even so, gunfire erupted from both sides.
“They’ve come to kill the child, “ Oni said grimly. “Set us down close to their dropship and protect him.”
As Koko complied with the instruction, I ran a recog algorithm on a symbol on the dropship and got a hit. The symbol was attributed to The Messenger habitat, Barnabus Haywood had made his move.
We didn’t know anything about Oni and Gemini but it was a case of the enemy of my enemy, at least for now.
Before the flier had touched down, both Oni and Gemini jumped the final metre to the ground and strode purposely in the direction of the dropship.
Fighting was fierce and the Enclave’s walls had been quickly breached and that’s where we headed.
Our two pronged attack was effective and the Messenger shock troopers hadn’t expected an attack on their flank from outside the walls. Our assault put them on the back foot and drove rearward as we fought our way into the Enclave’s complex and towards the hospital. Oni and Gemini meanwhile, had struck hard at the rear files of soldiers, their enhanced melee combat abilities allowed them to drive a wedge through the enemy’s formation, causing chaos.
All discipline collapsed, the Messenger’s vanguard was forced to retreat into their own troops who were in a state of disarray and communication had broken down. Sensing victory, the Enclave defenders pressed their advantage.
The shock troopers then routed, fleeing into the wilderness, abandoning their dropship. A silence settled on the small battle site as the outsiders counted their casualties, fortunately we were unhurt, as were Oni and Gemini.
Oni demanded to be taken to the exowomb, so we did. It was of course empty, Avril and her son were safely hidden away from here. Oni looked at us implacably as we explained that the exowomb had already been found and the child had been safely extricated, now both mother and son were somewhere safe.
I could see Oni’s eyes unfocus for a moment again, calculating the situation, assessing variables, he knew they were unlikely to find the boy alone, he also realised that we’d interacted with his mother, he was aware of the questions to ask us but had probably also computed the answers. In the end he settled on a direct approach and turned to Bill.
“Contact Avril Haywood,” he said. “And tell her that Michael Leander wants to take his family to Emptiness,”
After we explained the situation to Avril, she was happy to return to the Glitterband with Oni, Gemini, Avril and the boy. It was probably the safest place for him.
We said our goodbyes to the outsiders and returned to Neon City. It was dark when we left and night had draped a starry sky over the wilderness, without the rain clouds, the empyrean was decorated with constellations and nebulae. Meanwhile, the landscape that rushed past below the flier had been consumed by the void, a darkness so encompassing that it would be unimaginable in Neon City with its seemingly endless lines and grids of lights.
Red gloaming light pollution rose over the horizon as we neared Neon City, light rain began splattering on the flier’s roof, intensifying as we closed in and by the time we passed the wall, it had become the familiar heavy torrent we knew so well.
Must’ve been past midnight by the time we’d reached the landing pads at the Sky Tree. After that we escorted everyone down to departures, it was another vast well maintained high vaulted terminal with a faux marble floor.
Before going their way, Avril turned to us and thanked us for what we’d done, then told us that should we ever be up in space, that we should meet up with her.
The four of them went through check-in and out of sight.
It was well past midnight now, enough time to hit happy hour on the bars at Dogenzaka Hill.
24th April 2021
Saturday has rolled round again, I'm logged on to Meet on PC.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Location: Neon City
Nosily searching through the accumulated yellow-hued junk in my one-bed after I woke from last night's chemically fuelled excess got me nothing; no food, nothing. Time to hit Hikage Street, pulling on my Harbiefs and trench coat, I pocketed my .45 ACP Blockbusters before heading out.
Midmorning and the day was already too hot and it was only going to get worse, the climbing sun rose into a blue-white and cloudless sky, emitting uncaring waves of heat down on to Neon City, only compounded by the dense passing crowds of Hikage Street no-lifers that shuffled along the busy, grey concrete roads. Something was different on the street though, sure, unusual for me to be out this early but that wasn't it, couldn't put my finger on it.
Wasn't until I was coming back from the convenience store, having blown the last of this month's universal credit on Niaiwo Noodles, a six-pack of Huntudi Lager and a pocket stuffed full of Savka choco-sticks that I figured it out: The Poison Jam graffiti tags that had been ubiquitously sprayed throughout Hikage Street had been covered by another tag.
'Magical Girl is coming.'
Never heard of Magical Girl? Maybe they were another of Neon City's many street gangs I wondered as I sank my teeth into a bio-genetically-flavour-enhanced, endorphin-triggering choco-stick, feeling the chemically-driven slight electric tingle cascading down my spine.
Were they planning to move on to Poison Jam street turf or was it something else?
Whatever it was, someone had put their foot on Poison Jam's neck, things were going to get hotter still.
Last night a message had been dead-dropped into the pocket of Bill's exquisitely crafted Executive Excess coat, looked to be from someone called Viper Joe, told us to meet him at Freak Pit, a well known underground combat venue where augmented fighters fought it out, Freak Pit had big-time streaming viewership and even bigger gambling numbers involved, too big for authorities to shut down.
Freak Pit could be found in the Senkawa Aqueduct neighbourhood, it meant riding the crammed, noisy tram into Sunshine City, transferring on to the luxuriously exclusive and well maintained corporate monorail service to the Toshima-cho prefecture, then forgoing it's comfort to transfer again, this time another low grade tram to the Senkawa Aqueduct.
Disembarking at our destination, we were greeted by the sight of an expansive red glow from the setting sun silhouetting Toshima-cho's angular western skyline which cast long shadows that inexorably climbed up taller eastern buildings and consumed the day's red-orange dying light.
Senkawa Aqueduct was an unwelcoming grey and grotty neighbourhood of anonymous sprawling industrial asphalt, sporadically populated by strips of mostly featureless buildings of unknowable purpose. The view was dominated by the imposing concrete block which constituted the Black Dolphin Gulag, Neon City's supermax correctional facility which supposedly housed the most dangerous individuals in the city or in reality, people who had crossed the paths of the wealthy and powerful.
Street lights had begun flickering into buzzing life and shone down on the swathe of bobbing umbrellas raised against the oncoming and unrelenting nightly downpour. The crowds began to thin out and eventually melted away as we turned into a neglected and barely lit road that led to Freak Pit.
The fight venue looked to be situated in a dismal and mostly unlit building site, cadaverous remains of an unfinished commercial park, one of many that dotted Neon City, abandoned as a cost-cutting measure by some corporation or other no doubt.
Makeshift spotlights ringed Freak Pit, soaking it and the milling, cheering crowd in a glaring blaze of harsh light while music thumped out of a massive sound system, Senonable wall-slabs hung above it all, brightly displaying footage of the combat below.
We found Viper Joe somewhere in the crush, he was a large guy and a frequent spectator in the arena fights who favoured dark denim and carried a pair of Prosya Grosto magnum-load revolvers, he shivered and twitched as he greeted us, making a point of not shaking our hands, his nose also ran profusely. Noticing our stares, Viper Joe explained he suspected that his running nose was the result of a recent lung transplant that had gone awry.
Pepper checked Joe's implants and ran a diagnostic, shoddy components in the augmentations were causing Joe's problems, it was unavoidable. Pepper also told us that Joe's behaviour suggested he was a hypochondriac.
Joe was a middle-man, a street-trader who dabbled in weapons and made dollar by supplying the pit.
We got Joe to explain why he had called us. He was pretty blunt about what he wanted, he wanted us to kill someone!
He took us to a nearby building, told us to "keep to the shadows," and led us in. It was busy with numerous large open rooms given over to the medical gurneys, bio-slabs, med-techs and of course, jacked-up fighters
"Neon Suspect is his name," Joe explained, pointing into one room, at skinny man working at a desk who wore beige slacks, grey coat with a round face and a buzzcut, he was arched over a Preaavar Muanma model data-slab he was fiddling with.
"He's a hacker who works for Doctor Ishimura and codes the combat algorithms for her fighters," Joe went on. "He's my rival for her attentions and is trying to worm his way into her affections!".
Viper joe twitched as we looked at him.
"I've not told her how I feel," he abruptly blurted, almost apologetically!
He went on to explain that Neon Suspect was an expert at bio-interfacing software, coding algorithms that interacted with both higher and lower brain functions, managing behaviour and even conferring the recipient various skills. Joe was convinced that he was doing this illegally?
Despite the life we'd immersed ourselves in, we weren't the habit of just blindly rubbing out people for money, we agreed to look into it.
Dr Ishimura owned a stable of Freak Fighters that operated out the pit, she had a background in the med-industry and used old insider contacts to provide her fighters with augmentations required to stay competitive, she also supplied Joe with his replacement organs. Word was that the fighters' implants were as equally cheap as Joe's. She was also known for her garish fashion sense, germaphobia and chain-smoking.
Ishimura's fighters had suffered a long streak of losses recently and her rep was currently trash. Joe suspected that Neon Suspect was sabotaging her fighters in order to get close to her. We decided to speak with her.
Middle-aged, stocky and easily identifiable by the fluorescent canary yellow poly-blended leisure suit she wore. Dr Ishimura had just ended a conversation with Neon Suspect as we approached and was lighting up a Diria branded Mahawd.
Bio-engineering had made it possible to reverse the addictive changes that nicotine made to brain chemistry, but people just kept smoking regardless, living for the buzz and hoping that somehow they'd have the bank to fix or replace the damaged organs later.
Dr Ishimura's eyes flicked our way and she didn't seem particularly pleased to see us when we introduced ourselves, one of her fighters had just lost another fight and she wasn't taking it well or maybe it was just her general demeanour?
With a cigarette hanging from her mouth, she pulled a small, nanite, antibacterial gel applicator from a leisure suit pocket and dowsed her hands with it.
We told her that Viper Joe suspected that someone was sabotaging her fighters as she took a long draw and listened. Once we finished explaining the situation, she exhaled and no amount of cleanliness could disguise the stink of tobacco, she rolled the cigarette between yellowed fingers as she considered her response. After moment she agreed to grant us access to her gym.
It was a dismal sight; the sour, stale stench of body odour hung in a weakly lit room littered with substandard, decade-old and failing med-tech. Several morose fighters sat slouching on benches, bristling with combat augmentations and implanted muscle packs that glistened in the underpowered strip lighting. Dr Ishimura took the opportunity to shout insults at them, voice thick with unconcealed venomous contempt.
Neon Suspect gave us a lengthy sidelong glance from the desk as we walked over to one of Dr Ishimura's sullen fighters while she was lighting her next smoke and applying more gel.
Only way I'd be sure if he was the saboteur was in the scripting of his combat software, he'd know I knew too. If it all went south, it could kick off.
I checked the fighter over, there had to be a connector of some kind? Found it! A tiny, discrete Xideti dermal implant under a small fold of grafted skin that was equipped with a networking port. Connecting my Nonohiki; I jacked in.
Swirling vectors of gleaming data points seemingly orbited me before coalescing into a stable, constant shape, a basic workman-like, almost default cubic data-image. Beyond it, on the glowing info-vista, a pale, distant horizon pulsated rhythmically, was it some kind of non-indexed vault being updated? A check showed it was simply the fighter's biometrics being fed into a data-vault.
There was a directory on the data-image's vault that pointed at a implanted micro-slab and listed the series of algorithms housed on it which interacted with the subject's brain.
After navigating over to the slab's data-vault, going through Neon Suspect's algorithms, I launched an algorithm of my own, a search algorithm and began sifting through the stacks of data that rolled past.
Pain suppressors, reflex enhancers, situational assessment, threat prioritization and more, they were sophisticated algorithm's and all functioned nominally, no erroneous code in any of them. If Neon Suspect was the saboteur, he was sticking the knife in another way.
The info-vista faded as it spiralled away, taking the data-image with it and seemingly imploding as I jacked out, experiencing the usual infinite-moment of disorientation.
Koko and Pepper checked out the fighter's combat upgrades and weapon implants, they quickly discovered that not only were they the cheapest, lowest grade Rekhang knock-off weapons available, they'd been sabotaged!
Weapons were Viper Joe's responsibility, was someone targeting the weapons to get at Joe, or was it something else?
Neon Suspect strode over as we were discussing our next move, which was convenient because we wanted to talk to him. Pointing, the hacker explained that the fighter we'd examined was up next in the pit, he shuffled past and made for him. We watched as he networked the Muanma into the fighter's firmware, no doubt making adjustments and checks. Moments later, we saw the fighter's countenance change, his expression hardened and his back straightened, Neon Suspect's work was having its effect.
When Neon Suspect was done, we asked him about the weapons and he shrugged, telling us that they weren't his department and they should've already been fully functional.
It was nothing Koko couldn't handle though, soon she had them online and working, working as well as they could at least.
As the fighter headed off to the pit, Neon Suspect gave him a slap on his bio-sculpted butt cheek.
Neon Suspect turned back to us and explained that from now, no one would touch the fighter until just prior to the match, then the competitors would be scanned to ensure they didn't have any unsanctioned enhancements, it was all out of his hands now he added.
We had more questions and asked him about the nature of his relationship with Dr Ishimura, he looked at us quizzically and from his answer it was apparent that he had little interest in women.
He did take a shine to Bill though and made a point of calling him William, Bill showed no interest in reciprocation.
Trigger then stated that he had an interest into entering a match in the pit.
"I look forward to working with you," Neon Suspect purred coolly, sizing Trigger up.
Beyond the confines of the building we could hear the thundering clamour of the crowd at the pit, the collective gasping, shouting and baying for blood. It continued for a while, then there was a moment of silence followed a prolonged roar; the match was over.
A minute later, with blood and sweat, Dr Ishimura's fighter, slick with sweat, blood and numerous wounds came back victorious.
Taking the opportunity, I jacked back into his firmware, the algorithms used to alter his personality had increased aggression, spatial awareness, reflexes and so on, Neon Suspect had done his job well. No evidence that he was sabotaging fighters.
Only one variable could had changed between this fight and the previous ones; weapons, Joe was responsible for weapons. Had someone been targeting Joe? Was it someone else? Or maybe it was Joe? What would be his motive?
The Freak Pit proper was an actual pit, harsh, unremitting white light form spots above flooded the rectangular, earthy and concrete depression which was supported by a perimeter of steel reinforcement struts leftover from the abandoned construction here and bounded by a rim of barbed wire fence which was lined with hollering spectators, we went out to join them and watch the next fight.
It was Viper Joe we needed to talk to now and he was out there in the crowd watching the next match. No-hopers mingled with wage-monkeys, corporate execs and the occasional vid-celeb. Neon Suspect had also joined us, we noticed that he was staring intently at Joe with a faraway look, pretty sure now that he was actually more interested in Joe than Ishimura.
Time to check Viper Joe out.
I jacked in and the mindless roar of the crowd evaporated as the GLOWNET enveloped my consciousness, almost threatening to overload my awareness. To the uninformed observer, the localised info-vista and ensuing traffic would look normal for Neon City, but for me, the cascading flow of passing data-clusters couldn't mask the irregularity surrounding the Freak Pit's bogus data-image which seemingly led nowhere but to a dead construction company. However, beneath the dead company was something, the fight organisers had hidden data-vault of their own, those in-the-know could use it to access the fight's stream and bet on the outcomes.
Hacking the data-vault was straight forward and sifting through it's data logs, I found a record for Viper Joe. I could use it to trace and hack his credit activity. From there I saw frequent movements of bits in and out of the account, looked like payments for Joe's repeated cheap organ replacements, but nothing sizable enough to be something like a bribe.
Viper Joe was having a nose bleed and suspected he was on the verge of experiencing a major organ failure when Bill had shuffled through jostling spectators to reach him.
Bill went and told him what we'd found, told him how Neon Suspect's combat scripting was fine, how weapon's had been Dr Ishimura's problem and how we knew that he was involved. Only thing we didn't know was why?
Joe paused for a second before dabbing at his nose and taking a deep breath, he then admitted to sabotaging the weapons, he was hoping to discredit Neon Suspect to get him sacked and get closer to Ishimura.
Then Bill told him how it had all been unnecessary and how Neon Suspect was more interested in him that Ishimura! Joe's obsession had blinded him. Joe told Bill that the sabotaging would now stop and the matter could be considered closed.
Bill wished him good luck with managing his implants and left.
After greasing some wheels with the organisers, we managed to get Trigger a match despite being an unknown fighter.
Bookies were running long odds against Trigger, we bet heavily on him.
The Pit thrummed and we felt it through our feet, the distorted, raspy blaring of an old Iksaarp sound system announced Trigger's entry as he jumped into the Pit brandishing his gunblade.
His opponent came in from the other side, a bare-chested giant of a man dropped into the far side of the pit, bio-sculpted muscles squirmed beneath grafted and repeatedly reconstructed skin as he flexed, striding forward. Gone were the weaknesses of flesh, bone and muscle, replaced by the resilience of reinforced carbonate. Grimy and unclean, dull coloured metallic flails sprouted from the giant's wrists. He glared at Trigger with an unhinged, drug-fuelled expression!
"Ultimate Hobo," blasted the speakers and the giant raised his augmented arms, the crowd responded with a bellow.
The clamour reached a crescendo once the announcer started the fight.
For a moment, Trigger and Ultimate Hobo weighted each other up, slowly circulating one another; then the fight began. Ultimate Hobo was strong but Trigger was fast. Blows were exchanged and Trigger got the better of his opponent, one of Ultimate Hobo's augmented arms flopped to the dusty floor, the giant wasn't slowed, a mixture of bloodlust and pain management software kept him going, Trigger could see coagulants injected into his blood by an implant were already stemming the flow of blood.
With a howl that almost drowned out the screaming crowd, Ultimate Hobo pressed his attack with a series of wold swings, but Trigger saw it coming, easily sidestepping the telegraphed swipe and counterattacking.
Ultimate Hobo's other arm flopped to the floor, after that, Trigger easily cut him down and was victorious. Spectators roared their approval as Trigger glowered defiantly at them.
Senonable wall-slabs above the arena repeatedly replayed the killing blow, from a variety of angles and in slow-motion.
Ultimate Hobo's corpse was carted off, he was dead for now, the technology to revive him existed, it was the matter of dealing with brain damage would be an obstacle and for Ultimate Hobo that wasn't really an issue, he might well soon be back in The Pit!
But otherwise, some use would be found for his remains no doubt.
Trigger meanwhile, was hailed as victor when he exited The Pit, he was then gifted a aluminium badge that said: 'I beat U.H.!'.
The rest of us had made serious bank on his win.
The nightly deluge was waiting for us as we exited Freak Pit, nosily pattering on to the asphalt around us as we went into the gloomy rain, collars turned up against the downpour and the black sky above.
We had hardly begun the return journey when Pepper's media-slab pinged; he checked the message, illuminated by it's soft glow, his face showed surprise?
"It's a Yokai trainer!, he exclaimed, turning to us.
A script running on his media-slab had detected another trainer's media-slab and they'd communicated, setting up match. Pepper said he'd catch up with us and went off to find his opponent. Later that night, he would come back, telling us that he had won the match and captured a new yokai called Megura!
On the way back to Hikage Street, another call pinged in, this time for Koko. The modulated, disguised voice of Yennav Rybasei was on the other end.
"Hello my droogs,"!
A Russian mob owned distillery, The Glass Face Vodka Distillery on Hoppi Street had gone dark and Yennav wanted us to check it out.
It was getting late by the time the rumbling old tram had dropped us off in the centre of Hoppi Street and happy hour was in full swing! Or so it seemed, as every hour in Hoppi Street might have been happy hour.
Located within the Asakusa-cho prefecture, Hoppi Street crawled with the neon-lit bars and themed pubs, smoky watering holes and shady drinking dens it was known for. Its sidewalks teemed with unending dense, lively crowds; tourists, serious drinkers, wage-monkeys and down-and-outers, all drawn by lure of dozens of drinking establishments.
Navigating the staggering and sodden revellers, we arrived at The Glass Face Vodka Distillery.
We had smelt it before we saw it, that was a bad sign; an acrid and bitter odour that hung in the air, recognisable for what it was, not simply the smell of smoke, but the smell of a burnt building.
By the looks of it, an explosion had reduced the distillery to a heap of still heated slag that smouldered in the hammering rain, vapour mixing with smoke. Orange embers cheerfully twinkled in the ruinous piles of charred debris and small patches of spluttering, tenacious fire continued consuming whatever was left of the building.
Numerous blackened and contorted bodies littered the site. Drunken passerbys gawped incomprehensively at the wreckage as they shuffled past, too inebriated or too hardened to life in The City of Electric Dreams to care.
In true Neon City fashion, the municipal first-responders had taped off the collapsed building and done nothing else.
After climbing through the yellow and black tape to examine the rubble, I could feel that heat seeping up through the soles of my Harbief boots as we trod on the remains of the distillery and the acrid smell, now at its most intense, filled my nostrils. I was tempted to activate my internal rebreather.
Then, over the drumming rainfall we heard something, quiet, an indistinct voice, but still something. Following the voice led us to a shocking discovery.
Among the corpses was a Protobase Global zombie cyborg! Constituted of an assortment of cybernetic components and weapons held together by a cage of flesh that was once human and networked by their nervous system, it was designed with only one purpose: to mindlessly, unrelentingly kill.
Protobase Global routinely and clandestinely kidnapped those on the fringes of society or in the underclass; the poor, the dispossessed, the transient and then hollowed the humanity out of them until only a biological chassis for their polymer, steel and chromed up cyberware and weaponry remained.
Twice we'd encountered their secretive production facilities and twice we'd shut them down.
This cyborg though, seemed different, it twitched unpredictably, sparked violently in the rain and spoke? Zombie cyborgs never spoke, we'd encounter them several times and without fail, they were utterly silent.
Cautiously, we moved in.
Koko checked it over, there were clear signs of severe trauma to its head module. Zombie cyborgs could soak an enormous amount of punishment and only damage to its brain stem could put one down immediately and reliably. This one should have been dead, but somehow it clung to life by the thinnest of slivers.
Looking even closer, Koko noticed that the sparks were actually tiny but intensely bright and powerful arcs of crackling electricity jumping between capacitors and circuits. Damage that should have done for the zombie cyborg was being repaired and the biological components were being preserved. The short-circuiting firmware had bypassed the disconnected brain stem in some unpredictable manner and triggered an autonomous repair protocol.
When the zombie cyborg spoke, it was a faraway whisper.
"Brenda Callahan," she said her name was Brenda Callahan and she was asking about her family?
Did the zombie cyborgs retain their memories? Personality?
It didn't bear thinking about.
We asked Brenda what her last memory was? She told us that she had gone into Den's Den of Domestic Helpers, looking for a washing machine.
Den's Den had been located in Kibogaoka Hill, it had been a front for the second production facility. It didn't take any stretch of the imagination to figure out what had happened.
A quick search revealed that Brenda Callahan of Kibogaoka Hill was married to a Phillip, we tried pinging him but got nothing.
A further search revealed that Phillip and Brenda Callahan and their four children had been reported as missing by their neighbour in the Kibogaoka Hill shanty town. Rentacop would never have made any effort to investigate the report. Wasn't any point in looking further into this, grimly, we had to accept that they had met the same fate as Brenda.
Softly, in an almost trance-like way, Brenda kept asking about her family and where she was? We all looked at each other, her state was precarious, telling her might make matters worse.
Thanks to our experiences with RAM Rat, we also knew that eventually her biological components would begin to decay, Protobase Global zombie cyborgs weren't build to last. We had to try and find a solution to her predicament, but first, she had to be moved out of here.
None of us knew of anywhere that might off-the-books have the kind of facility needed to treat Brenda, none of us at least, until Pepper spoke up.
"I know a guy," Pepper piped in. "His name is Cheeky Bob and well, he's veterinarian! But he might be able to help.".
Nobody had any better alternative.
Pepper pinged a call to Bob, they seemed pleased to see each other, at least it was promising. Once the situation was explained, Bob agreed to see Pepper's unregistered patient.
Cheeky Bob's practice operated out of Rokkaku Dai Heights, Koko remotely bought in the flier and Brenda was carefully loaded in and ferried over, he instructed us to bring Brenda through the tradesmen entrance and was waiting for us as we slowly lowered her to street level.
Cheeky Bob was an unshaven, corpulent man with messy hair in a tatty and worn lab coat smeared with grease stains and other fluids, he looked surprised to see his patient was a giant cyborg. I could see from his expression that he was about to complain, but looking at us, thought the better of it.
Brenda was moved into one of the practice's examination rooms and put under a bright spot light, all the while asking about her family. Bob checked her over, humming as he did so. He hit her with a sedative and she slipped into voiceless sleep. He turned to us and explained that he could give Brenda a cocktail of injections that would inhibit necrosis, she would be stable for about six months, but after that, loss of biomass would be inevitable and irreversible.
Six months to solve the problem, better than the alternative. We agreed and Cheeky Bob did his work, he also gave us a stash of sedatives to help Brenda cope with her situation.
Brenda needed a chance to recuperate and had to be stashed somewhere safe. It was easy to find an anonymous, small no-questions-asked lockup on Hikage Street that was paid for through one of our ghost accounts.
It was the dead of night in the crashing rain when we moved Brenda again and Neon City was as quiet as it ever got. Ensuring that no one had eyes on us we took her through the downpour to a puddle-ridden side street at the edge of the residential quarter where the lockup could be found. The aluminium roller door opened with a metallic rattle, revealing a bare and undecorated concrete and corrugated steel cube; basic, but it would do, it would have to!
Brenda was made as comfortable and secure as possible before we left, the roller door came back down with another metallic rattle and clunked shut as the auto-lock engaged.
With our heads bent low against the relentless precipitation, we began the return to our apartments, The City of Electric Dreams had other ideas though and didn't let us go so easily.
Our media-slabs started pinging, Roboy was on the line.
Roboy was a trusted contact and robotic owner of a courier service staffed entirely by robots which confidentially boasted that their couriers could deliver almost anything, anywhere; a resource we'd made use of more than once.
Unsurprisingly, Roboy had a problem that needed dealing with.
Recently, several of Roboy's smaller employees had been targeted by unknown thieves in the Senkawa Aqueduct area, so he'd hired a couple of Muscle Gurlz to investigate and resolve the situation. Now they'd gone missing too and Roboy needed us to investigate and resolve the new issue! Find the thieves, find the gurlz.
Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz; a name we recognised, it belonged to some sort of bodybuilder's bar that we'd never visited. Roboy's description of the two Muscle Gurlz was of pair of cybered up, martial arts, bodybuilding, goth chicks.
It was into the small hours of night when we returned to Senkawa Aqueduct, a subdued time, gone were the drinkers and fun-seekers, only the lost, disparate and night-workers now rode Neon City's public transit network, I wondered which we were? Driving rain slammed against the elevated tram as it noisily laboured its way onwards while we watched the panoply of passing city lights become distorted, rippling smears of multicoloured light sprawled across rain-splashed windows.
The search to find one of the missing delivery drones was straightforward, Roboy had provided us with a code to trace it's tracker on our media-slabs, it was so straightforward, it made us wonder what the Muscle Gurlz had encountered?
It led us to some narrow, detritus littered, half-lit alleyway and a dented, scarred dumpster. Inside was the drone, the tracer on my Jaunkeu confirmed it. It had suffered serious damage, I watched as exposed actuators and servos twitched and buzzed, the drone hadn't given up trying to recover. Once the drone was out of the dumpster, Koko checked it over, the source of the damage was undiscernible.
Behind a panel was connector, I used it to network the drone with my data-slab and downloaded it's entire recent telemetry data. First thing I did was to pull down and review its archived camera feed.
We watched the footage.
At first it showed the drone navigating its way through Neon City's sky-lanes, then abruptly, it's view lurched sideways, the world rotating as the ground raced up to meet it. The drone bounced and skittered several times before skidding to a halt at an uneven angle, almost instantly, the seemingly frenzied, half silhouetted figure of woman with baleful, glowing red eyes lunged for the drone, leaving crimson trails of light on the footage as she moved! The video feed ended.
I tried to run facial recog on the silhouette, but the image was too blurred, too badly lit for the search algorithm to get a hit.
I was about to try another tack when Roderick interrupted me, the robotic bodyguard informed us that he was receiving some kind of transmission? It was a message and Roderick described it as an artificial but kindly woman's voice and repeated the message to us.
“New meat, my children, Mother is deciding when to serve it.”
The message went on further.
“Keep your eyes peeled my children, search the skies, one of the drones is carrying our prize.”
Our hackles were up, we took sidelong glances into the poorly lit alleyway as it stretched away, swallowed by distant night. Somehow the message related to the drones and maybe the Muscle Gurlz? Who was Mother and who were the children? Did this represent a danger for us?
We soon got an answer.
“More enemies are here my children, watch for them, kill them.”
"Another message," Roderick told us that a video feed was also being transmitted on a different channel, which he then relayed to my data-slab.
All of us watched it; it was grainy, slightly out of focus footage from a higher angle and poorly lit, but undeniably, it was us in the feed, standing there in the alleyway. Somebody waved an arm, a second later the arm waved onscreen; live footage from a street cam somewhere close to the alley.
Trouble was coming.
Out of the rainy haze materialised the attackers, ten of them frenziedly running at us and all ten had the same baleful glowing red eyes.
In seconds the red-eyes would be on us, the odds had to be evened. The eyes had to be some sort of implant. Koko frantically punched at her control-slab and Nermal sprang to life, servos hummed into action, rotors span, the drone rose into the air with a robotic purr. Koko instructed Nermal to trigger its targeted EMP pulse, if the attackers were wired up, it might give us an edge.
About of half their number stumbled to a halt, gawked about blinking and stumbled off. Looked like they were being controlled? The others though, kept coming, screaming and charging in with flailing arms.
We were hesitant to fight them, were they innocent victims of some kind of brain-jacking? It was enough to make us hold back.
They attacked with ferocious, unhinged strength, hitting hard.
Koko jabbed one with her puke-prodder; no effect.
Trigger landed a telling blow on one; no effect.
None of it was working, there was no choice but to use whatever force we could bring to bear. Even so, the fight was a hard one and we were left nursing our injuries, they unflinchingly soaked up massive injuries before they went down.
Quickly, Kevin scanned one. Results showed they had some kind of interconnected implants in their brain, spinal column and nervous system, it didn't reveal any enhancements or augmentations to physical performance or endurance, nothing to explain their strength.
No time to speculate either. Roderick interrupted us again, matter-of-factly informing us that more enemies were vectoring in on our position. We looked a each other, none of us wanted to continue this.
Koko remotely called in the flier.
No way to take one alive, nothing to be gained from fighting more of them. So time to bug out, we just had to wait for our ride to get here. Thirty seconds is a long time when you know an unrelentingly, seemingly psychotic mob is closing in on you.
The flier's turbines whipped the falling rain into a localised stinging hurricane as it dropped into a hover at street level. We dragged a body aboard for further investigation as we made good our escape, we weren't done with this.
I was flooded with relief as the flier pulled away, for once, the sensation of gravity tugging at my guts was a comfort as I watched the streets fall away.
It wasn't over though.
Roderick told us that he'd gotten another transmission.
“Our meat is escaping the larder my children, hurry now and recapture it.”
Did it mean us? Tactical showed nothing in the vicinity of the flier. Using external cameras, Koko swept the streets below, infrared picked up scores, maybe hundreds of the red-eyes storming through Senkawa Aqueduct like an swelling flood of bodies. Ahead of them; their prey, two sprinting individuals, straining to keep just ahead of the baying mob, the two ducked into an apartment block, the red-eyes close behind.
As we watched, even more red-eyes appeared from seemingly everywhere, converging on the apartment block and in streaming in like so much water emptying down the drain.
Koko circled with the flier and waited; the two individuals burst on to the rooftop. The horde would be seconds behind. We dropped a line down to them, without any delay, the two of them leapt for it and we pulled them to safety as the red-eyes came spilling on to the rooftop.
Once they were reeled in, they introduced themselves as Pixie Skull and Vanilla Goth. The pair of them were scantily dressed in almost matching black outfits, admirably showing off the low-percentage of their body fat and well defined, possibly surgically improved muscle definition. They also both possessed smooth porcelain skin, the result of either applying a lot of skin toner or some dermal, melanin alteration treatment, heavy and dark make-up completed the goth aesthetic.
Muscle Gurlz, had to be, they confirmed it.
We told them that we had been sent by Roboy to investigate their disappearance, in reply, they explained that had been tracking the missing courier drones when they were attacked and forced to flee into an abandoned office block, to hide amongst the discarded trash that had been left behind and littered the interior. For a time, they had avoided detection and carefully observed the red-eyes who wandered the rainy streets listlessly.
Then abruptly, the red-eyes had all run off in the same direction, attention drawn to something else, probably us! The pair then took the opportunity to make a break for it. It didn't work out and more red-eyes appeared! So they made for the apartment block and the roof.
They thanked us for our timely intervention and provided us with some cards that gave us free drinks at the Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz bar.
Once the Muscle Gurlz were dropped off well away from Senkawa Aqueduct, we contacted Roby, explained the situation to him and how it was too dangerous, even for hardened street samurai to wander the district.
It was apparent even over the voice call that Roboy's synthetic voice couldn't disguise his unhappiness. He would have to suspend deliveries into Senkawa Aqueduct for the time being.
For us, what was left of the night was over, time to hit Hikage Street and home.
Later, Koko and Pepper would thoroughly pore over the red-eye body that we'd brought back, their findings were not quite what we expected.
For the most part, the implants were designed to receive carrier waves, trans-process the data into sensory inputs and relay the results into neural pathways to the brain.
None of the implants were wired into higher brain functions at all.
It was likely that the transmissions which Roderick had intercepted were instructions meant for the red-eyes. Furthermore, it was clear that they hadn't been brain-jacked at all and were willingly following these instructions.
Further examination revealed the red-eye's blood contained an extraordinarily highly concentrated blend of performance enhancing designer poly-amphetamines, which explained their behaviour. Judging by the concentrations, Pepper estimated that these amphetamines were administered to the red-eyes on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, I'd been scouring the GLOWNET info-vista, even the most remote data-vaults for any information or chatter on the sinister activities in Senkawa Aqueduct and constantly running search-algorithms.
Every time a name a came up, it was always one name.
The name was associated with a nebulous cult that went by the name Children of Saika that had seen an increase of activity recently. The cult itself was linked with an equally nebulous organisation known as The Church of Redeemed Sinners.
It wasn't much to go on, but it was something we'd keep an eye on.
17th April 2021
Saturday evening and I'm logged into Meet on my PC.
This means it's time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
A Neon City morning; the unforgiving sun climbed over the city's angular eastern skyline into a cloudless blue-white sky, flooding the City of Electric Dreams with searing heat and light.
The mixture of a late night and a sleepless morning had left me cradling my head and shielding my head from the urine coloured hue tat glared through one wall in my one-bed.
Bill had been pinged by Nina Chinova, ever since we'd introduced her to D4-VID and she had gotten her own show; The Vigilante Chat and Cake Show, her star had been meteorically rising in the world of vid chat show hosts and she'd become a major Neon City celebrity.
Somehow she'd gotten wind that Antin Grova's Heroes of Hope sculpture in Rokkaku Dai Heights was actually a sculpture of us. She told Bill that she now wanted all of us as guests on the show to talk about our activities!
After some discussion, we decided to appear on the show. It took further negotiations with her producers to get assurances that our faces would be hidden and our voices distorted by a masking algorithm. Getting put in the spotlight wasn't on our bucket list.
Like all of Neon City's vid shows, Vigilante Chat and Cake was made to a budget, the studio was buried at the back of a half disused business estate in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
It was a relatively small setup, some upholstered neutrally pale blue chairs and a cake filled table on a linoleum floor against a digitally manipulated background, lighting rigs and media-feeds were managed by some robots. Other than Nina, the only other humans were a skinny, scruffy editor in a black truckers cap and a quick to anger producer clutching a Senonable Sobeito Touchboard info-slab who walked around stabbing at it and self-importantly shouting at disinterested robots.
We were on the show for about thirty minutes and let Bill do much the talking, it was his kind of thing. I didn't bother listening to most of what he told Nina either, but at least the cake was good.
As our interview came to its conclusion, Nina revealed that she'd arranged for a hotline to be set up; people in need of our services could ping us!
I was a little unsure about this and would later rig the line to bounce pings anonymously to our personal media-slabs, keeping us at a distance from the hotline.
Later that day, news vines began busily chiming our media-slabs and feeding them with all the latest newsworthy stories, most prominently how The Snot Robber had struck again.
Then Thaddeus Rackham had pinged us and explained that Astiek Ikov, his mortuary worker friend who we'd some dealings with was the latest victim. Nasal replacement surgery was currently a costly procedure, two million bits was the asking price, Thaddeus told us that he was busy robbing lots of people to raise cash for Astiek's treatment!
Trying our best to ignore that last part of his statement, we thought about what Thaddeus had said. Someone was making a lot of bank from The Snot Robber's attacks, told him we'd look into it.
Data-images incandescently streamed into my consciousness after I'd jacked into the GLOWNET, seemingly endless pulsating polygonal constructs emerged from data-flows and populated the info-vista, contracting into the vanishing point, merging into an orthogonally undulating line on a dark, distant horizon. I sifted through the colossal data movements that constantly reshaped the GLOWNET, seeking out what was needed, news-vines, info-vaults. secured servers and more, all the time logging the data on my Nonohiki.
Once I had what I hoped was enough, I started looking for leads, connections, coincidences, any links that might help.
The Snot Robber had struck twelve times in as many days, the attacks mostly seemed clustered around Golden Gai, a district that was an intricate warren of back alleys, side roads and switchbacks that hosted countless colourful themed bars and watering holes. They pulled in tourists and fun-seekers from all around; inebriated revellers staggering homing presented a target-rich environment to The Snot Robber, which was fully exploited.
I began scoping the victims out, watching information flow through the GLOWNET and looking for some sort of commonality between them. Only one mote of data stood out; medical records showed seven of the twelve victims had signed on to the service of Doctor Ivan Grippen.
It was a name we'd heard, a specialist that was also treating Silai Granskina. At two mill a pop, he stood to make good chunk of change on these operations, maybe there was something to it. Was it possible Doctor Grippen was instigating the attacks to drum up business? Pricing of bio-engineered nasal replacements seemed high too? Needed more information.
The worldwide hub of bio-engineering big-tech was mostly located in the heart of a region of India that had been hit hard by the Bangladeshi Leprosy Outbreak, production of medical components had lurched to a halt, prices of existing inventory had skyrocketed as a result.
While there was some chatter on MyFaceSpace and on GLOWNET chat-servers that questioned the origins of the outbreak, some claimed it was a clandestine bio-weapon, but nothing was concluded one way or the other.
I turned my attention to Doctor Grippen.
We pinged Sila Granskina and asked him how he'd heard of Doctor Grippen, he explained that during his stay in hospital after suffering the attack, he'd been given a business card by an orderly.
Doctor Grippen's data-vault was a publicly listed commercial venture on the GLOWNET, a hovering, rotating pair of partially translucent powder-blue giant operating scissors constituted the data-image of Grippen's vault, from there it was easy to trace banking activities, find Grippen's bank and hack security on his account. Skimming through rows and rows of numbers, northing untoward came up, no suspicious outgoing or incoming payments.
He looked clean, a dead end.
No time to look further though, our slabs were being pinged.
Online were the uplifted and genetically enhanced penguins we'd helped before. Now though, there was only three of them instead of four. Paisano had been abducted we were told and they didn't trust anyone else to help! We made the elaborate trip to the Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku-Cho at the unexpected behest of the remaining penguins.
Exiting the typically crowded transit system put us squarely in view of the vast Metropolitan Building, a dominating, unwelcoming and pseudo-brutalist structure; it represented the central seat of municipal government in Neon City in more ways than one.
Leaving the noise and the bustle behind, we climbed the entrance steps and passed the replica wood-trimmed, frosted-glass doors into a high ceiling reception hall. A large faux-oak counter filled the space along one wall and was lit by subdued and time-stained hanging florescent, off-white globes. Old and faded patterned wallpaper still clung to the walls, while beneath our boots, the carpet was flattened, becoming colourless and threadbare in the main thoroughfares, only in corners did surviving thick shag betray it's original quality.
After approaching the receptionist in her pinstriped slate-grey Fassus business suit, we discovered that we were expected, a uniformed member of the security team led us along the labyrinthine dimly lit corridors of Neon City's waning power and we eventually found ourselves at the Transport Authority's department.
Waiting for us were George, Jasper and Casper, the uplifted penguins, also with them was their boss, the Transport Authorities departmental head. The penguins led us into one of their old style offices, explaining that Paisano had been kidnapped on one of the city's transit services and the department considered it a personal affront, hence their endorsement of our involvement.
A desk-slab quietly hummed as it was flipped on, it's screen showed what obviously was grainy security footage of a tram carriage's interior crammed with commuters. We watched and re-watched it several times.
Off centre to the left and among the crush was Paisano, also among the passengers were four individuals in nondescript industrial blue boilersuits, they had to be pros; good enough to wear caps or keep their faces turned from cameras.
When the kidnapping went down, it went down quick, the four boilersuits pulled pistols, put some rounds in the tram driver and quickly black-bagged Paisano. The tram's auto-brakes then kicked-in and most commuters were sent staggering in unison, like in a weird dance as the tram screeched to a jarring halt halfway between Chuo and Hikage streets. The black-baggers disappeared out of shot as they forced their way through the tram doors and climbed down a service ladder on to the lower street. It was the last we saw of them on the tram's footage.
One dead and one kidnapped, I could see why the Transport Authority wanted vengeance.
The search for footage needed to be widened.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, into Neon City's vast data-vista as it unpacked, watching data-flows as they pulsed along iridescent avenues that spider-webbed throughout the info-scape.
Throughout Neon City there were innumerable security cameras that fed into various data-vaults which stored the footage, we had a good idea where the black-baggers had exited the tram and I launched an algorithm tailored to look in the surrounding GLOWNET locales for the tell-tale regular movements of data and clone the resulting encrypted footage on to my data-slab, soon the Nonohiki was stacking up with videos.
Protocols I'd coded were continually cracking the encryption on the stream of downloaded files and I sifted through the footage as it became available.
Nothing I saw showed anybody carrying a penguin, I ran facial recog for Paisano and got zero hits. After we spent more time manually scanning through the footage we managed to find a small sliver of a lead.
On some of the footage we noticed a dark-haired, middle-aged woman in matching off-white joggers and polo shirt, walking down Chuo Street and carrying a scooped up bundle of clothing, all of it industrial-blue coloured. Was the bundle large enough to constitute four boilersuits? Maybe. We froze the footage and digitally zoomed in. The woman's clothes were part of a service uniform, branding on the polo shirt had the name; Joo May's Shower & Soap Emporium.
Chuo Street: known for its hotels and a particularly narrow maze of surrounding back alleys and side roads which branched off from the titular road erratically.
At the lowest street level here, even Neon City's glaring sunlight failed to fully penetrate much of the neighbourhood, leaving it in a perennial dull, dusky gloom and other parts in constant darkness.
Among this shadowy half-lit concrete maze we found Joo May's Shower & Soap Emporium, a small family business with a bright and cheerful water themed frontage that provided showering facilities to Chou Street's visitors and tourists along with an express laundry service for them while they washed.
Inside, the reception was a small, cramped room decorated with shelves filled by promotional soaps, scrubs, bath salts, shampoos and so forth. Behind the counter was the middle aged woman from the footage. We asked her about the four individuals who had come in with boilersuits, a brief frown and expression of annoyance crossed her face.
She explained that the four men came in, given her the boilersuits and before she had returned with them fully laundered, had changed into other clothes and departed. She was happy to give us the boilersuits, having no use for them.
Searching through the clothes gave us one thing; a scrunched up printout of a photo or video capture. It had been through the wash and had partially become a smear of muddled shapeless colours, however, the shot clearly showed all four penguins in their pool at Sky Dinosaurian Square, Paisano had been ringed with a marker pen. Additionally Somewhat out of shot was a soft toy of a penguin in the hands of a child, was this significant? We looked closer at the photo, it wasn't simply a soft toy, it was a Creative Cuddles toy.
Creative Cuddles manufactured bespoke hi-tech, artificial intelligence driven interactive children's soft toys for Neon City's exclusive, wealthy clientele, usually as a substitute for actual parenting duties, providing children with companionship.
Xylona Adler was our contact at Creative Cuddles, could she get access to the information we needed? After pinging her and explaining the situation, she got back to us and explained that the penguin model was one of their less popular lines, only one Penguin had been sold for some time.
Lars Jackstadt had been the buyer, Xylona told us his account listed an address in the Fortified Residential Zone. A quick GLOWNET search on Lars Jackstadt showed that he worked for Oshin Amalgamated, their corporate logo included a penguin, coincidence? Maybe!
Unlike Neon City's tram network, the Secure Residential Metro Link could take us directly into The Zone, bypassing it's security checks, biometric scans and questioning stares from uniformed rentaguards. These checks would instead actually be performed at the entrance into the metro link network from The Skyscraper District and in this case, we had the credentials to access the metro link.
It was a smooth, noiseless ride over to The Zone on the polycarbonate and toughened-glass shelled, gleamingly clean and well maintained metro link, there was seating enough for all and we sank into the generously upholstered cabin chairs and enjoyed the comfort of a climate controlled environment, for once wishing the journey wouldn't be over so quick.
A wall of almost stale hot air drenched our senses as we disembarked into the Fortified Residential Zone, even in The Zone it wasn't possible to fully escape the city's unremittingly harsh climate.
A grid of smooth, asphalt roads spanned The Zone here and were wider than anywhere else, wide enough to permit two vehicles to pass even. The high quality houses they criss-crossed were uniformly detached classic looking structures, usually surrounded by a verdant square of grass and flora, diligently cultivated by some sort of gardening robot.
Keeping as low profile as possible, we went along a spotless sidewalk until we came close to the Jackstadt's address. It was a detached building and by the standards of The Zone was of modest proportions, that was to say it was five times larger than my one-bed and sat in the centre of a garden. The home displayed a replica façade designed to lend it the air of a classic American Foursquare styled residence.
Stopping short, we observed the house with telescopics and noticed that partially visible amongst the trash was a discarded soft toy penguin, had to be the Creative Cuddles toy.
Creative Cuddles toys were programmed to heuristically adapt from their environment and owner interactions, perhaps there was something we could learn from what it had learned?
Without drawing attention, we stole the toy and flipped its power switch. With a short hum, it booted. It's head abruptly turns from left to right and back as it's optical circuits try to take in the situation, it's algorithms seemed stymied, the humming resumed.
It spoke with a specifically engineered, cute and childish voice when it tried answering our question. The last thing it had seen was another penguin in Kylie's room, it told us. Before it could continue, a secondary harsher synth voice squawked out.
"Discardment detected. Security protocol activated, wiping system memory and initiating factory reset," The synth voice stated, the humming intensified for a few moments. The penguin rebooted and stared at us.
"Enter end user license agreement authorisation code, then select accept or reject terms and conditions,".
The penguin wasn't going to be any use to us now.
Switching to thermals and cased the house. Three signatures; an adult, a child and what must have been a penguin.
From the signatures we surmised the child was continually feeding the penguin while the adult was reclined in a sitting position. We needed a way in. Anywhere else in Neon City and the locks, mechanical or electronic wouldn't be a problem, but in The Zone with it's wealthy residents, any error risked summoning a rapid response.
I turned back to the penguin, maybe it could help. I searched the fluffy soft outer lining until I found a small fold of cloth, behind it was a network port, no doubt connected to the main processor board. I connected the toy to my Nonohiki and jacked in.
A simple static steel-white framework was the processor's info-scape, without any flows of new data it remained unchanged and easy to navigate. The toy's core protocols were incorporated into a single central Monaozko Technologies ROM board which in turn issued instructions to subsystems to manage all its functionality. I moved through sub-folder after folder until I found what I was looking for: The heuristic function-set that managed the toy's learning ability, which it did by issuing learning instructions to a dedicated partition.
This dedicated partition had however been wiped clean during the re-initialisation, there was a chance that the data would have been fragmented and removed from the index directory and not been subjected to a secondary protocol that fully wiped the data. I ran a search protocol, got lucky and found the disparate fragments. Using an algorithm I reconstructed the data.
We now had access to all the information that the penguin had learned, information about Kylie Jackstadt and her obsession with penguins, about Jovena, Kylie's mother. Most importantly for us, we gained access to the house security codes that the penguin had learned, hopefully they hadn't been updated since the toy had been disposed of.
Pepper crept up to the front door lock and keyed in the code, we held our breaths for a moment before the door clicked open a few centimetres, he peeked through, slowly opened the door and disappeared into the building. For a bulky, clamorous doctor of dubious ethics, Pepper could be quite stealthy.
Later he told me how he silently made his way into the living room, where the thermals had shown a woman, presumably Jovena. Unsurprisingly, in part due to his dubious ethics, Pepper was well versed in the art of gauging how much sedative to employ when tranqing someone quickly.
Using a Jiaylij Multi-injector, he painlessly hit the woman with a dose strong enough to put her out for a couple of hours, she'd wake up with a head and no recollection of anything other than falling asleep.
Adjusting the dosage for someone much smaller and younger, Pepper quietly made his way towards the child's signature. Finding Kylie's room, he cracked the door open a touch and saw a young girl entirely preoccupied by a penguin dressed in a old style sailor's white suit, even including a little seaman's cap, Paisano, had to be.
Kylie was giggling as she dangling sardines in front of Paisano who was trying catch them his beak. Pepper sneaked up, hit her with the tranq, caught her as she fell and put her in a sleeping position on her bed.
"I'm here to rescue you," Pepper explained.
"Thank god! I was sick of wearing this costume," Paisano stated in response and rapidly waddled out to the kitchen. "Here's where they keep all the sardines," he exclaimed. "I can't leave without them!".
"They bribed me to come with them," the penguin admitted. "I was too weak resist the sardines,"!
"So you weren't kidnapped?" Pepper asked.
Paisano shook his head.
Quick as he could, Pepper grabbed all the sardines he found in the kitchen and stuffed them into a bin liner and left, Paisano duly followed. Koko decided to take the toy penguin and we all made for the metro link
The return trip was uneventful, Rentaguard didn't bother us, sitting in their reinforced security booth, distracted by their media-slabs, probably used to the rich kooks that lived in The Zone and no one else in Neon City was fazed by seeing a uplifted penguin riding the metro link.
On the way back, I jacked into my data-slab, now that I had Lars Jackstadt's access codes it was simple to get into the secured Oshin Amalgamated terminal at his home. I scoured through the files on his system and I was drawn to some of Oshin's future plans.
They were pressing on with their strategy to flood sizable parts of Neon City's waterfront and following the orbital laser strike that had hit and significantly damaged the district, their plan was already partially underway.
I continued reading: They had won all the contracts to rebuild these damaged areas and had plans to use specially engineered water-soluble building materials in the construction.
It was baked-in, planned obsolescence on a colossal corporate scale that would negatively affect thousands of people and at the same time create a highly lucrative revenue stream for Oshin Amalgamated.
They couldn't be allowed to get away with it, I copied the data and anonymously released it on several of Neon City's chat-servers, we hoped soon the news would spread.
The end of the journey took us Sky Dinosaurian Square, Paisano was joyfully reunited with Casper, Jasper and George.
Later that day Koko got pinged on her media-slab, it was an unknown number she told us before answering. The caller was using a vocal distortion filter to mask their voice, even so, filters couldn't disguise vocal characteristics or speech patterns, Koko immediately knew who it was.
"Hello my droogs," Said the resampled voice of Yennav Rybasei.
Yennav Rybasei had been a serious player for the Russian mob until he'd gone into hiding after sustained corporate sponsored attacks on his organisation and its base-of-operations at the Trans Metropolitan Union Hotel. It was the first we'd heard of him since his powerbase had collapsed and he'd retreated into the shadows, but if there's one thing I know about Neon City, it's that you can't keep a good old psychopathic homicidal manic down for long!
Off-the-grid but still making moves, there was a problem he wanted us to solve.
Vasi Pina, Russian mob courier had gone missing while carrying a package and Yennav wanted him and the package found, he passed us an address that he had somehow acquired and told us to check it out. Finally he told us that he believed that the culprits were Protobase Global, they were still moving against his organisation, he surmised.
The address led us to Kibogaoka Hill, home to Neon City's most marginalised citizens and its poorest district. In the early days, the dispossessed began gathering on the hill at a rate that soon outpaced corporate and commercial developments, Kibogaoka Hill's notorious patchwork shanty town rapidly sprawled its way across the district, encroaching on burgeoning retail centre that sat on top of the hill. Shadowy corporate interests pushed back and mobs of anonymous enforcers and unmarked military contractors appeared on the shanty town's meandering streets, violently turfing people out of their makeshift homes before destroying them with impunity. The shanty town's inhabitants though, weren't willing to roll over so easily, they adapted, avoided direct conflict and rebuilt quicker than corporations could claim land, initiating a push back of their own. This protracted skirmish lasted for years until the corporations got sick of it, cut their losses and exited the situation, realising they couldn't stem the tide. Kibogaoka Hill's shanty town had quickly established itself as the most erratic neighbourhood in The City of Electric Dreams, where the Neon City's manufactured and orderly planned designs crumbled before the very poverty it had created.
After a ride on the trams we found ourselves on one of the many dirt roads that haphazardly threaded their way through the mishmash streets and from at a hidden vantage point in the shadow of a corrugated, hardened vinyl wall, watched the address. Thermals indicated five signatures, one seated; Vasi Pina, the others standing; from our encounters, four was the typical size of a Protobase Global snatch squad. No doubt the black baggers were carrying the standard Protobase loadout; Konseye K4 SMGs and multipurpose Setihci body armour.
Our approach was simple; distraction.
Trigger ran at the front door, yelling loudly and hacking it down.
At the same time, the rest of us went in through the back, it didn't matter if there was a back door or not. Walls of fibreboard, thin sheets of steel and tarp wouldn't slow us down.
While the snatch squad turned to deal with Trigger, we crashed in and hit them hard. It was over before they had time to react.
Vasi Pina was a skinny guy, with a dirty blonde buzzcut and a diamond shaped face, like so many foot soldiers in the Russian mob, he a favoured the polyester tracksuit and Sport Lyafibya was his brand of choice. After we freed him, he told us to search the black baggers for the package. It was a money chip; encased in a small white translucent polymer slab the size of a thumbnail was a tiny ROM board and connector that contained a heavily encrypted version of an algorithm used in the banking world, it allowed the user a once-only transfer of a specified amount of bits from pre-deposited funds in a nominated bank to an account of issuers choosing. It was totally anonymous and allowed the transfer of theoretically an unlimited amount of untraceable cash. This money chip contained sixty-eight million bits.
We let Yennav Rybasei know we had the package. Immediately, he pinged us back, told us to take the package to a Adkale Tvolenkyin in The Skyscraper District.
"Make sure you're not followed," he instructed with his synthesised Russian accent.
Peering through a water stained transparent acrylic sheet that functioned as a window, we looked outside at the shanty town framed by the blue-white sky, homes were densely packed together in irregular strips that wended their way up and down the hill, frequently stacked on top of each other with precarious ladders or ropes leading up.
The streets here were busy with the shanty town's squatter underclass, out and looking for some respite from Neon City life, easy to spot with the grungy style that was popular here and worn like a badge of honour.
Loosely affiliated gangs also roamed the neighbourhood, hard-eyed thugs on the lookout for trouble and in particular; outsiders to target.
Was there a second Protobase Global squad somewhere out there? With such a heavily populated area, it was impossible to tell.
We came up with a strategy.
Splitting up, we all headed in different directions, trying our best to lose any tails, if there was another team watching, it was very unlikely they would have enough assets to shadow all of us. Bill took the money chip and would deliver it to Adkale Tvolenkyin, using his nanite implants to alter his appearance at an opportune moment and making it harder for pursuers to follow.
For a time we persisted on our random forays into Neon City, daylight had vanished, replaced by an inky sky and the thundering nightly rains by the time Bill pinged all of us, the package had been successfully delivered. There was nothing left to do but head home.
Back at my one-bed, city lights were barely visible through the urine coloured tarp, I relaxed and stretched out on my futon, a brace of clinking and sweating, brown Dindanha beer bottles in one hand and a steaming carton of Niaiwo noodles in the other. Kicking back, I flicked on my wall-slab and watched our appearance on Nina's Vigilante Chat and Cake Show.
It was the next day when Bill's media-slab pinged, someone calling himself Mister Blank was online.
Mister Blank wanted to employ us to move on some squatters who had taken up residence in a property he owned in Akihabara, he told Bill that he wanted to meet up with us to explain the details in person.
Before heading out to Akihabara, we decided to check out Mister Blank, I jacked into the GLOWNET, dropped into it's swirling, iridescent churning info-vista and launched a hunter protocol.
Shining slivers of information were brought back, parcels of data on the man which I scanned through.
He was a personality trader and a successful one too, for the last year or so, personality chips had picked up popularity and become a big deal in Neon City.
Small, tailored and bio-acceptable microprocessors that were wired into the frontal-lobe, they could exaggerate or lessen certain types of behaviour or modify consciousness. Want to quit smoking or maintain a fitness regime, or perhaps enhance your sense of humour? In Neon City, personality chips were the easy answer, at least they were the answer if you had the bits.
Akihabara was primarily a retail district in the Asakusa-cho prefecture that was known for servicing two distinct but partially overlapping markets.
From soaring multi-storeyed department stores that seemingly occupied every corner of the district to crowded and colourful smaller independent stores that flourished in side streets to flea markets that sprawled out beneath the tram arches for shade; all sold a vast variety of technology, slabs, gadgets and retro-gear, much of it cut price or obscure products. Akihabara was widely considered the consumer electronics heart of The City of Electric Dreams.
The district also drew in crowds of shoppers for its other market; transmission media, devout collectors and fans came to scour the extensive archives and collections of film, television, music and games in their original packaging and on their original formats that were sold throughout shops and stalls that frequently also traded in the same locations that sold electronics.
Every square metre of spare building frontage was covered in bright neon-lit larger than life advertising for cartoons, comic books and video games, characters from these products appeared on huge poster boards in cheerful poses or giant animated form on colossal wall slabs. The streets were thick with passersby who were endlessly bombarded with blaring jingles and dazzling adverts.
Mister Blank had arranged to meet us in one of the slew of boutique and themed cafes that dotted the neighbourhood and matched the aesthetic of Akihabara, serving tourists and buyers.
We were led to a private booth where Mister Blank waiting for us.
He was a tall stocky guy in a well cut, if typical Gaongha business suit, but his most prominent feature was the swathe of blisters that seemed to almost cover every centimetre of his visible skin.
Standing, Mister Blank greeted us when we arrived and asked us to sit.
"It's caused by a serious allergy to latex," he explained when he saw us trying not to stare. "Mostly caused by the particular brand of low cost love doll that I prefer to utilise," he added matter-of-factly.
Deciding not to press the issue, we instead asked what exactly he wanted us to do?
He went on to explain that he owned several commercial properties across the city and squatters had taken up residence in one specific property that he was intending to gift to a Olivia Chain. Mister Blank pinged us the address of the the property he wanted vacated.
"I don't care how you do it," he told us. "just as long as it's done, I must have the gift for my Olivia".
Mister Blank admitted us that he was love with her, although he let us know that she had yet to reciprocate.
We told him that we'd look into the squatters.
After leaving, we checked out Olivia Chain on the GLOWNET and what connection with Mister Blank there might be, didn't pay to wander into a situation blind.
Wasn't much to find; Olivia Chain worked for a talent agency that operated out of Akihabara, that was it, no red flags and no link or history with Mister Blank.
It was afternoon by the time we got to the address, it had led us to an unremarkable and unused office block on the edge of the district, it was an empty shell, externally complete but apparently empty inside, rows of windows that ran along each floor were unlit and beyond the large glass doors that swung into the reception foyer, it was dark.
The glass doors weren't locked, so we walked in, stepping on a crumpling layer of refuse that coated the floor.
The foyer was dimly lit by filtered sunlight that streamed through the glass doors, even so, we could clearly make out the brightly coloured but incomprehensible graffiti that had been sprayed over the beige coloured wall panelling.
Thermals showed the ground floor was unoccupied and with no working elevators, there was no choice but to proceed upwards on foot.
Accumulated detritus was piled up in the corners of the unlit, windowless stairwell and we were forced to use night-vision. Graffiti scrawled across walls became more and more frequent, eventually we began to hear voices, a lot of them and music too.
Arriving on what clearly sounded like the right floor, we looked across the gloomy bare landing, litter and rubbish were strewn across it, most of it discard food cartons, drained Kaia Cola bottles or pizza boxes.
Following the escalating noise, we walked through a bright, doorless frame into what, in different circumstances might have been an office. In my mind's eye, I could almost see it; open plan with grey, upholstered free-standing dividers creating a grid of cubicles, populated with wage-monkeys whittling away their lives at desk-slabs, quietly distracted by the office-politics uttered in hushed tones that this environment would foster.
On reflection, maybe it was better this way
Neon City sunlight flooded through windows and afternoon shadows loomed across the floor, we could see the singularly large room was filled with not just refuse, but junk and old tech, rigged-up desk-slabs sat on makeshift tables built of polymer sheets and breeze blocks, reclaimed wall-slabs were hooked to with old-school Segtendo game-decks that ran off original data-slugs, while a salvaged old Iksaarp sound system thumped out music. Mounds of clothes were piled throughout the room, close to old, stained mattresses that had been dumped in remote spots. A grimy, squalid living area.
The occupants - mostly teenagers, shabbily dressed in well-worn, low cost urban clothes had seen us enter and stopped dead, trying to scope the situation out, staring with calculating eyes.
They were part of the underclass that refused to buy into the cycle of futile consumerism that inevitably came with a Universal Credit account. They knew too, that they were squatting here on borrowed time, eventually they'd be turfed out. Only question was by whom and how?
Was that us, they must have wondered?
Were we going to do this the easy or hard way, they must have thought?
Luckily for them, we weren't the unquestioning thuggish trigger-jockeys that Mister Blank might have hired.
Clearly they were not threatening us, once the music had been lowered to an acceptable level, we approached and spoke with them, explaining that they had to leave, they then refused.
They lived here, as they told us because it was close to the heart of Akihabara. Close to the cutting edge of music, fashion and entertainment that the district offered. They weren't impressed when we said that whoever came here after us, would not be quite so accommodating, they were prepared to take the risks.
Bill spoke with the squatters and managed to get them to admit that if we found another good or better spot for their digs, they'd leave.
At any one time in Neon City, corporate players would always have at least a property or two that was either unoccupied or forgotten about on an asset list somewhere. Time to get to work.
Traffic on the GLOWNET was typically saturated with data-flows, the accumulated shining particles of information clustered into their millions, vividly pulsating along the skeletal polygonal substructure of Neon City's info-vista, constantly destroying and renewing the geometric landscape.
Trying to hack individual corporate data-vaults was futile and would take too long, there had to be another way? Then it came to me, the municipal authorities would keep records of unoccupied properties earmarked for commercial usage, it would probably be public records. I launched a search protocol on my Nonohiki and recoded its algorithmic boundaries on the fly with the desired parameters before unleashing it into the City Hall's data-vault.
The protocol quickly returned with results, as expected, there were numerous disused location in Akihabara, scanning through the results I found a suitable candidate, an unoccupied loft close to our current location, it had been neglected for some time. It was a good location.
After speaking with the squatters they agreed to move out and into their new digs, it didn't hurt that we provided them with an enormous box of Savka chocolate and a crate of Baishan cider for doing so.
We stayed to watch them pack up, it didn't take long, they only took what they considered irreplaceable and left the office mostly strewn with their junk, easier to just dumpster dive whatever they needed when they got to the loft.
Once the building had been vacated, an almost uncomfortable silence settled on the office, Trigger ran one last thermal scan to check the floor was empty, he got a hit, there was still a heat signature here.
It was a single unusual, small and faint heat signature located in the far side of the other wing? Our footsteps sounded unusually loud on the uncarpeted floor, almost echoing as we walked through the neglected, bare and empty wing, when we reached the heat source, what we found was surprising.
Wrapped in a slightly crumpled blanket and sitting there was a creature that resembled small white bear, it turned its head to regard us coolly as it drank from a cup of gently steaming tea!
Maybe it was an uplifted animal? We tried speaking to it, but it didn't answer or respond, either it was unwilling or unable to do so.
There was some strange marking on one of its feet, I zoomed in with my telescopics, it was writing. 'The Yokai Corporation, find us in Ikebukuro.'.
It made sense now: The Yokai Corporation was a videogame developer and competitor to Segtendo's Pouchebeast game. The Yokai Corporation produced a unique and elaborate videogame that was actually played throughout Neon City, it required the use of extensively genetically altered creatures such as this white bear that loosely resembled creatures of Japanese folklore called yokai, these yokai would be released into the wilds of the city to roam its districts and neighbourhoods. Hardwired and networked implants in their brains dictated their behaviour towards human trainers and other yokai.
In order to participate in the game, players had to become Yokai Trainers which involved purchasing Yokai Licences from the corporation. With a license, trainers now had the privileges to capture wild yokai, train them and use them to battle the yokai of other trainers.
This was achieved through GLOWNET connections and the elaborately coded actions of the yokai.
Pepper found all of this quite compelling, pulling out his media-slab, he quickly paid for an account, downloaded the necessary protocols and immediately gained his license!
This allowed him to capture his first yokai, in this case the yokai in front of him. It was a level one Shirokuma. The yokai immediately got to its feet and joined Pepper, who'd now part of the world of yokai battling.
When we left office block, the yokai followed along behind Pepper, the block was empty now and we let Mister Blank know.
The end of the day was fast approaching as I got back to my one-bed, cheap takeout in hand. Soon the gathering clouds above would erupt raging torrents crashing down on Neon City.
As I closed my door withc a click, I heard a rustling movement in the apartment, the easily recognisable footsteps of Lucy. In the peripheral of my vision I saw her heading my way. I avoided eye-contact, having no desire to hear what she had to say and made straight for my futon. Too late! She'd sprung in front of me, hands on hip, demanding to know why I hadn't taken her out for ages!
Trapped, I knew what was coming.
"Well honey," I had to say. "What do you want to do?".
Here it came.
"Uterus!" Lucy replied without hesitation, flashing a cheap printed flyer in my face.
Located in the southern half of the Shibuya Terminal district, Uterus was a big nightclub and a bigger deal, an infamous venue with a massive capacity and one of the most exclusive and trendy nightspots in Neon City that lured a celebrity clientele from all over, Uterus also pulled in thousands of clubbers nightly. People would figuratively kill to get in.
Wouldn't be cheap getting tickets this late in the day either, worse than that! Tickets were scarcer to come by than normal. Turned out that a popular annual event known as Uterus Gestation was scheduled for tonight and prices had been run up to a hundred grand each! As well as Lucy and I, I knew the others would want in, it was going to cost a lot of scratch to get through those doors and we resented being gouged, there must have been a way to get cheaper tickets?
Maybe D4-VID could help? The botcaster normally covered the Neon City current affairs beat, maybe it was time he had a change, there would be a lot of celebrity photo opportunities at Uterus Gestation, maybe he could get us in.
We pinged D4-VID and explained the situation and he pinged his publisher with it. They agreed to front half the cost of tickets for D4-VID and his entourage.
Once we'd gotten some tickets from a tout, Lucy was jumping for joy and went got ready for the night out.
An hour later and she reappeared in a short-hemmed pale yellow Fassus party frock with matching Poratier earrings and Oltrante stilettos.
I thought back to all the social events that I'd attended with Lucy and thrust a couple of extra clips for my Xiuzhol Arms .45 into a pocket of my armoured, black leather Verskeit trench coat.
Lucy had also booked a stretched, pink sky-limo and with D4-VID in tow, we headed into the rainy night and to the Shibuya Terminal. Finding Uterus wasn't hard, just headed towards the thumping bassline that permeated throughout the entire neighbourhood.
Approaching the venue, we saw that it was announced by massive blazing neon signage ten metres above street level. Searchlights were bolted to the flat exterior of what appeared to be steel clad walls, sweeping the night sky, with lancing beams of light, gleaming when caught in falling raindrops.
If it was possible, the crush of people intensified after we exited the limo and got close to the nightclub, the clamouring crowd threatened to even drown out the music pumping from within Uterus. Must've been a thousand people trying to get past the roped-off red carpet or straining a neck to get a glance at the arriving Neon City luminaries. Other news-droids were among the crowd, filming and snapping away.
Elbowing our way through the assembled people to the tanked up doormen bulging with grafted muscle packs and cheap Evoda tuxedos who convinced no one of anything other than their thuggish nature, we held out our tickets.
Then we hit a problem, the tickets were fake, we weren't getting in, Lucy was crestfallen, I didn't want to deal with the fallout, so this wasn't going to stop me, I slipped the bouncers a small stack of bits and Lucy and I were in! The others followed suit.
Even so they demanded that we handed over our weapons before granting us entry, we capitulated, grudgingly so as they were deposited into a secure locker.
I suspected this might all go south at some point. Fortunately, it was impossible to disarm Roderick, Bill's bodyguard!
Uterus was a massive converted, stripped down shell of a warehouse with multicoloured spotlights, that in time to the music played over the flat, garishly decorated interior wall and ceiling panels as well as the exposed skeletal steel frame that supported it, creating outlandish blended patterns of colour in the otherwise dimly lit venue. Through the press of silhouetted, churning bodies we could make out several bars, a stage with the DJ and his decks set out, two seating areas - one of which was in a raised area. There was also a dance floor, Lucy headed straight for it.
Once inside, the music had become louder as it blared out of a custom and pricey Oherut speaker setup and sound system that the DJ was controlling, conversing normally was an impossibility, then a little later, Gestation got underway and the music really became deafening!
The usual assortment of techno dancefloor songs had been replaced by something different. A procedurally generated almost pneumatic electronica sound originating from multiple sources within the warehouse that reverbed off the walls to create a cacophony of clashing chords that somehow harmonised into an all-enveloping body of sound.
It was beyond loud and was accompanied by a low humming as the old warehouse began vibrating, I could feel a nauseating tremor tightening my chest, it was beginning to affect others too, some began to collapse whilst others cheered and continued dancing. The sound continued to intensify, parts of the warehouse began to buckle, more people collapsed and then, the panic ensued, almost silent screams swallowed by the sound emanated from faces strangely lit by the kaleidoscopic hues and contorted by fear as people stampeded for the exits. Somewhere in that crowd was Lucy?
My vision grew blacker, as if someone had lowered the dimmer switch to reality and then I blacked out.
I was told what happened afterwards.
As the warehouse shook itself apart, dropping heavy steel panels on the hapless clubbers below, in the gloom a massive tangle of people had got caught up at the exits, unable to get out, fighting had broken out as a result.
Koko had reached the DJ's decks, found the lighting controls and managed put the normal lights back on, it didn't help much. Everyone still needed to get out so Bill had ordered Roderick to clear the way. Roderick's algorithms had assessed the risks and calculated the teeming people represented a clear threat, he opened up with his guns, firing clusters of explosive fletchette rounds into the crowd! It wasn't what Bill had asked for, but it was effective, if brutally so and there was no point crying over spilt milk so dragging Lucy and I, they managed to escape Uterus. Moments later the warehouse collapsed in on itself with a tremendous crash and billowing cloud of dust, killing everyone still left inside.
That wasn't all that had happened.
When I'd regained consciousness, something strange had happened. I could still hear the music, it's beat pumping away deep in in my brain like an echo, everyone had experienced a song that became stuck in their head but this was something else, different. I swear that somewhere in that electronica I could hear a voice, a voice that spoke to me? It called itself Koto? To say it conversed with me was inaccurate, but conversed it did.
Whenever Koto spoke to me, in the moment that followed, for a instant I could feel my senses become heightened; colours, light and shapes became more vivid, sounds were clearer and hearing became acuter, it caused my response times to external stimuli to rapidly decrease.
I would discover at a later time I was not the only survivor from Uterus who had experienced this. In a few people the music in the nightclub had caused some sort of shift in the electro-chemical balances in the brain, inexplicably creating what was named a Living Electronic Dance Music Entity or Living EDM Entity. An actual sentient individual that now resided in my brain. There appeared to be no way to reverse this. It seemed that Koto was here to stay.
I also expected the constant music that played in my head to drive me insane, instead the song and Koto managed to coexist in my consciousness without issue.
Lucy, at some point had vomited on her new frock and now wanted to go home to bed, I was also sore but uninjured. As first responders arrived to treated survivors, we managed to retrieve our secured weapons and made a hasty exit, not wanting to answer any awkward questions that might come up.
Later still, Bill told us, he'd found a crumpled up empty pack of Lunglife Cigarettes in one of his coat pockets, considering he didn't smoke - that was curious.
He turned it over in his fingers and found some scribbled writing. It was a number - and a name; Viper Joe. There was a short message too, From Viper Joe? Urging us to save his girlfriend from some sort of hacker? Wanted us to meet him at some place called the Freak Pit.
The next morning, stories came down the news-vines of the destruction of Uterus, the nightclub had been packed to capacity when it had happened, which was estimated at ten thousand people, of them there had been only about five hundred survivors!
Despite this, Uterus Gestation was generally considered a great success and declared the best Uterus event yet, particularly by the survivors! To much fanfare and excitement, it was announced that in the future, to mark the rebuilding of the nightclub there would be an even greater event called Uterus Reopening.
Tickets had already gone on sale were expected to soon sell out.
10th April 2021
Saturday night again, I'm logged into Meet on PC and ready to game.
Time for session 18 of Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Doctor Pepper Mashup: Played by Karl.
A doctor of internal medicine and surgery - or so he said; his best friend was a vet? Pepper was a cynical opportunist always with one eye watching for an easy score. He was also incredible irregular and appeared only according to whatever whim he fancied.
Location: Neon City.
Thankfully, morning had come and gone before I woke to a hangover. Bumbling to the kitchen area, I labouredly rummaged through the piled trash until I came across a suitable breakfast; Savka chunky milk chocolate sticks and a couple of cans of Huntudi. After a few minutes, the mixture of flavour enhancers, additives and sugar had washed away the remains of last night's excesses.
I could've done with some more sleep, trying my best to ignore the flapping polymer tarp that covered the exposed side of my one-bed, I slumped back on my futon, dragging the sheet over my head and closing my eyes. It couldn't last though, it never did.
Silai Granskina pinged us a call: On the line, his voice was distorted, sounded strange, maybe coming down with a cold?
Told us he needed our help, had been coming out of a meeting in The Shibuya District when he'd been attacked! His nose had been chopped off and stolen! Well, that explained it.
He wasn't alone! We'd been hearing stories on the news-vines for a little while now, an unknown assailant had been targeting people in The Shibuya District and taking their noses! Media had dubbed them The Snot Robber!
It had been the beginning of Silai's problems, he needed reconstructive surgery which would require purchasing in a new and expensive vat-grown nose, his medical insurance typically refused to cover the cost, claiming that The Snot Robber was a terrorist and excluded from their coverage. As a consequence Silai needed two million bits. He'd been taken to The Shinjuku Prefecture and the Okkubo Hospital located within The Metropolitan Building District.
The Metropolitan Building District could only be reached one way; The Tochomae Electric Train. It was a transfer we had to make at The Shinjuku Station, a concrete, glass and steel colossus where four transit systems and an array of platforms intersected. Rippling swathes of people swept through the station's halls at every hour. The clamour was immense, a mixture of voices, footfalls and harshly electric public announcements that reverbed into the airy, vaulted, high-ceilinged roof filled with swooping mercenary pigeons.
The Tochomae Electric Railway was a small network that serviced The Metropolitan Building District, the trains were plain but well maintained and smoothly delivered us to our destination.
The district got its name from the behemothic Metropolitan Building that dominated the skyline like a silent watchful sentinel. An uncaring midday sun beat down on the bustling main thoroughfare that thronged with crowds as we threaded our way towards Okkubo Hospital. Despite its size, the hospital paled in the shadow its monstrous neighbour.
Concrete steps went up to automated glass doors that swished open into a neutral grey interior where staff and visitors shuffled through a eerily subdued reception hall. Following instructions to find Silai Granskina immediately got us lost in the multi-storied warren of annexes, wings and wards, boots squeaked on the polished linoleum floor as we wondered plain corridors decorated with hospital signs and a variety of health promotion posters that everyone in Neon City would ignore.
After a while something caught our eye, down one corridor we saw a doctor purposely striding away, face obscured, he wore a bright red and yellow floppy hat, even in a conurbation with Neon City's population, only one man wore a bright red and yellow floppy hat of that particular style; Thaddeus Rackham.
What had bought the vaudevillian transvestite street worker and assassin to Okkubo Hospital? What was he doing wearing a doctor's coat? After catching up with Thaddeus, he informed us that he was here to see a friend about a body!
Like us, Thaddeus knew The Accountant, a disembodied brain in a jar that resided in a suitcase that had belonged to Russian mobster Yennav Rybasei. He had promised to find a body for The Accountant and he had just been pinged by Astiek Steva, his friend and mortuary worker who had encountered a suitable candidate. We went with Thaddeus to the morgue, like the assassin, we were also on the hunt for a body for The Accountant.
The temperature noticeably dropped at a rapid pace as we descended into the hospital's basement levels, rooms and corridors here were lit by humming dim strip lights. The exposed walls and concrete floor lacked even the plain painting of the hospital above. Gone too, was the hubbub of people, only hospital staff in scrubs quietly walked the corridors here.
Astiek Steva seemed friendly enough when Thaddeus introduced us, he spoke with a measured quiet voice. He was a skinny, small guy with a triangular face, sunken eyes, sharp cheek bones and thing scraggly beard, on his slight frame he wore olive coloured scrubs and white Pohaden Xyrrig designer trainers.
He led us into a secluded examination room which was dominated by a sheet-covered body on a gurney, he went over to a table and scrutinised a desk-slab.
"Hayden Weyer, thirty years old, no underlying health issues, single, looks like he was a salaryman," Astiek read off the slab. "Aneurism was listed as cause of death. A perfect candidate for a brain transplant," he concluded.
The plastic sheet rustled as it was pulled back. Before us was the pale corpse of Hayden Weyer, preserved by the morgue. As expected, it lacked any obvious sign of injury or trauma, even so we decided to take a closer look.
Matters weren't so clear once we'd examined the remains of Hayden Weyer. We'd found a tiny mark behind one ear, it was unmistakably a puncture wound from a needle, no doubt directly into the brain? The kind of technique used by slick assassins who wanted a quick and unfussy death.
It was too much of a coincidence.
We turned to Thaddeus, he was shifting something around in the pocket of his lab coat nervously. After we demanded it, he pulled out whatever was in there; a needle gun!
"Well, I am an assassin!" He said, shrugging. trying hard to look innocent.
Thaddeus' victim was already long dead, too late to do anything now. Nothing to be gained from stopping the transplant, so we decided not to interfere.
"You're going to need a surgeon," Astiek told us. "And probably some sort of engineer to manage the bio-microelectronic components that keep the brain alive,".
Koko could cover the electronics but none of us had the skills to handle the transplant. Thaddeus piped in and told us that he knew a guy.
Doctor Pepper Mashup was a surly-eyed, jowl-faced man with a suspicious expression, deep rumbling voice and most definitely the haunted, twitchy look of a hypersucrose junkie? Pepper wore a dishevelled lab coat and carried a bulging faux-leather black bag. Pepper agreed to help us if we gave him a taste of money, there was little time to disagree.
Jacking into my data-slab, I watched as the GLOWNET emerged, surrounding me in the constantly churning plethora of brilliantly lit data-images and knowledge-vaults that constituted Neon City's info-vista.
Getting into Okkubo Hospital's systems was easy, I arrived at its gleaming, green translucent, Greek square cross data-image, launched a bypass protocol and was in. Hospital data flowed past me, finances, med-records, e-mails and more, I saw an unoccupied and available operating theatre, a couple of inputs and it was now reserved for Doctor Pepper Mashup.
I contacted Ashaglaya, told her to bring The Accountant's suitcase to us and Thaddeus quickly wheeled Hayden Weyer's body out of the morgue and into the theatre. Once everyone had converged, Koko and Pepper got to work.
It would be some time before the transplant was completed and the rest of us took the opportunity to go back into the maze that was Okkubo Hospital and found Silai Granskina, we had been delayed enough.
The centre of his unhappy face was covered by a thick white cotton wool pad held in place by numerous strips of surgical taping. Silai told us that a Doctor Ivan Grippen, specialist in rhino-constructive surgery had come highly recommended. Unfortunately The Snot Robber's exploits had increased the demand and thus driven up the costs of both Doctor Grippen's services and vat-grown noses from Saengdal Genetics to a total of two million bits. Well it looked like Doctor Grippen would be raking it in thanks to The Snot Robber.
Bill sighed and I'm pretty certain I could hear him grumble under his breath as he parted with the two million bits Silai required.
A while after we returned to the operating theatre, the procedure had been completed and was a total success! The Accountant's brain now resided in Hayden Weyer's body, despite the transplant's success, there would need to be a length convalescence. Ashaglaya, who had also befriended The Accountant was happy to provide care for him once we arranged for transport to our ghost apartment in The Skyscraper District.
There was one last thing that needed doing; I jacked back into the hospital's data-systems and began searching. It didn't take long to find; Hayden Weyer's death certificate. I wiped it off the system, wiped the backup record, wiped the emergency callout log and anything in between. It wasn't a perfect clean-up job by any stretch but it didn't need to be, why would anyone want to go looking for a deleted death certificate of man who was still alive? Inconsistencies would be put down to erroneous system code errors.
The Accountant was in Hayden Weyer's body, finally he had wanted and would now be free to live the life left behind by Hayden Weyer.
First though, he was transported to our ghost apartment in The Skyscraper District, a brain transfer was no small thing and he would need recovery time
Heavy Neon City rain nosily lashed violently against the tarp as it endlessly billowed in and out. What woke me in the small hours though, was the pinging from my Jaunkeu 6. I stretched for the media-slab and answered: Ashaglaya was on the line, the pitch and tempo of her voice were too high, something was wrong? Had something happened to Hayden Weyer?
Turns out she'd gotten a call from Cammy Sabine, owner of Coke & Whores, the previous business Ashaglaya had worked for, someone had been targeting the company's party favours and killing them. Cammy told Ashaglaya; she might be next, even the Coke & Whores office had been attacked! Cammy knew that Ashaglaya was tight with the Russian Mob and had asked her if she could get help from the gangsters? Instead, Ashaglaya had called us.
Ashaglaya calmed down and regained her composure once we assured her that the ghost apartment was off-the-grid and she was safe, it would be next to impossible for anyone to find her there, not to leave and we would look into it.
Our attention was turned to Coke & Whores, why had someone moved against them? Valaya Dova, one of their party favours had been murdered by the weird Rokkaku creatures, was it related?
I pinged the others and gave them the low-down, then I pinged the number Ashaglaya had given and told Cammy Sabine we were on the way. We pulled trench coats tight, turned up collars, unpacked umbrellas and hit the street: Undaunted graveyard-shift workers and shaky late-night revellers still filled the rain-swept, streetlight-lit thoroughfares of Rokkaku Expo Stadium as we made our way to the Coke & Whores office.
Cammy Sabine, a slim, slight, middle aged woman was waiting for us outside, she wore a rumpled slate-grey Sarochba business suit and was huddled beneath the protective dome of a nylon micro-umbrella. She looked pale and unsettled as she greeted us, explaining that the office had been hit a couple of hours after closing and she was too scared to go inside.
It was a mess, the street-level door had been struck a hard blow, torn off its hinges and hurled inside, only a curtain of raindrops dripping off the head jamb separated the building from the street.
Out of the rain and inside; we were immediately met with the smell of vomit. Much of the lighting had been broken and in the pale half-glow, it was clear the place had been turned over, floors were strewn with glittering, broken glass, smashed crockery and more, nothing was left standing, tables had been flung over, contents scattered everywhere, wall-slabs ripped from fittings and cables left dangling, even part of the flooring had been pulled up.
Worse still, mostly it seemed to be coated in thin oily film, the Rokkaku creatures had been here.
With caution, we scoured the office, scoping it out under the scrutiny of our flashlights. Nearly everything had been wrecked, except one desk-slab which had somehow survived the destruction, it appeared to be covered in an inordinate amount of nauseating slime.
Cammy gave us a password, so, trying my best to avoid the vile substance, I powered the desk-slab and logged in. Scrolling through system-logs, I saw that the slab had last been powered on less than two hours ago, after Coke & Whores had closed for the night. Only one file had been accessed, a list of Coke & Whores party favours, Ashaglaya's name was on it. I pinged it to my media-slab and we returned outside to the rainy street.
After showing the list to Cammy, we could visibly see the fear grow in her eyes. Trembling, she told us that several names at the top of the the list were dead.
Someone was working down through the list, killing everyone on it; except for Hiki Suko, who was the first to die, killed in a traffic accident supposedly, she was further down the list. Why had she been targeted first?
When posed with the question, Cammy didn't have an answer, then she remembered! Hiki had given Cammy a media-slab the last time she had seen her?
I grabbed the media-slab, it was a Gohotocang, a Dahure model, same model that Ashaglaya had. I networked it into my data-slab, launched a incursion protocol that bypassed the media-slab's password and was in.
It had belonged to Valaya Dova. I began searching the slab's memory partition and instantly found something, the first file I encountered was the last thing recorded, a video, its timestamp's date was identical to the time of Valaya's murder. I hit playback.
Watching the video whilst being jacked into my Nonohiki made it fill my virtual vision.
This video was shot from a unusually low, off-kilter angle, part of the picture was out of focus, seemingly obscured by something, it must have been Valaya, hidden behind something. The remaining visible part of the picture showed a tall and thin, almost spindly man with Goji Rokkaku, that wasn't all though. A Rokkaku creature came into shot, moving unnaturally, it rolled its strange head around as if it was looking for something. Suddenly it flicked its head with its strange stalk-like eyes in the direction of Valaya, I heard a gasp behind the video and the picture lurched abruptly and become shaky as Valaya began running, a moment later the video ended.
After this was another video with a slightly earlier timestamp, again I hit playback. It showed the same tall, thin man, this time being serviced by a party favour.
Was that what this was all about? Was this what Valaya had seen at the party that had gotten her killed? Somehow the media-slab had gone from Valaya to Hiki Suko and now Hika Suko was dead.
We asked Cammy if any of the people on the list had been at the Goji Tower party a little while ago.
"All of them," replied Cammy Sabine.
Everyone on that list was at risk, Rokkaku was cleaning up shop, bumping off anyone associated with that party, we had to get to the targets first. Koko bought the flier in as quickly as she could and we began searching.
Several people on the list were already dead; Ashaglaya was safe where she was and well hidden. Racing though the rain filled blackness of night, guided through the aerial landscape and congestion by city lights and night vision, we managed to reach other five party favours, that was about half of the list, they piled them into the flier as we found them.
By the time we'd got them all, the rain had been reduced to a drizzle and the eastern skyline was lightening, evidence of the oncoming dawn.
We decided to stash them on the autonomous RV that circled Neon City's road network, they would safe there and they could amuse themselves while they waited for things to cool down.
During this time, as Koko was flying through the night, I took the opportunity to run the tall man through facial recognition and got a hit; Barnabus Haywood.
Resident of The Glitterband, the vast orbital residential station that ringed the Earth, more than that, he was The Controller of one of The Glitterband's numerous habitats, namely The Messenger Habitat.
A little more digging and found records of him coming down The Skytree, the monumental undertaking that had created a space-elevator which physically linked Neon City to the vast geosynchronous Glitterband above.
Whatever was going on, looked like this was starting to grow bigger than just The Rokkaku Group. How big did it get? It was too late to try and figure out the significance, instead we returned to Hikage Street and bed.
Once again, we'd interfered with the machinations of The Rokkaku Group. It was only a matter of time before we surfaced on their radar and they might sic those creatures on to us.
We'd fought the creatures once and they proved to be dangerous enemies with bio-enhancements that gave them a serious tactical edge in combat, we needed a way to even that edge.
On every occasion that we'd seen of them, they exhibited exceptional hearing and had moved in total silence, maybe it was something that could be used against them?
Koko and I discussed creating a sonic drone that could pump out soundwaves on a multitude of frequencies and intensities, hopefully it would overpower the creature's hyper sensitive hearing or interfere with it.
Koko contacted Alex Chinsko, owner of Bric-a-Brac Shac, he had a knack of creating bespoke, modded tech, maybe there was something he could do.
Too few short hours later and with little rest, our media-slabs pinged again, with a sigh I rolled out of my futon. Shadows were shortening as a blazing midday sun was rising over Neon City, drenching it in punishing heat. From my one-bed, the usually stark, blue-white sky was now strange when viewed through the filter of the urine coloured transparent tarp.
Alex Chinsko had pinged us, only not about drones! someone had come into his shop looking for help, he'd come looking for a street-doc and ratchet-jockey and was willing to pay. Alex had immediately thought of us and said we should come down to and meet the guy.
Much of Hikage Street was primarily Neon City's residential, social-housing district and Bric-a-Brac Shac one of many strips of shops that nestled at street level beneath the collective of grey, concrete high-rises and serviced their inhabitants.
The street was always busy, most people here collected universal credit and lived a life stripped of aspiration, had little purpose other than you absorb mostly vapid wall-slab vid-shows or wander the city looking for some kind of meaningful gratification. Subsiding only on this municipal fiscal arrangement that allowed them acquire funds to continue consuming corporate products and ultimately line the pockets of said corporations.
It's where we lived too, only we weren't planning on making it a permanent deal.
Bric-a-Brac Shac was like a mini electronic supermarket, shop window brimming with it's eclectic array of consumer electronics. A tiny analogue bell chimed as we came in, the noise of the outside world fell away as we gazed on walls, shelves and aisles: All choked with second hand consumer electronics, slabs of every kind, lights, AC systems, electrical components, power blocks, recovered implants, as well torn-down circuit boards and components, actuators, servos and other robot parts, along with the tools to use them. Alex also had stock in code-black tech, but kept it out of sight. We strode down the narrow aisles, burgeoning piles of gear hung over us foliage born of metal, plastic and wiring.
At the cluttered, tech-covered counter, Alex introduced us to Urus Konicek, a tall man with a mohawk and goatee, a distinctive vertical scar ran down the left side of his face and his left eye was gone, in its place; a green orb that pulsated gently. Urus wore a large almost oversized olive green Evoda overcoat, he also had a distinct, peculiar, inexplicable bitter odour and spoke a slight accent that we couldn't nail down?
Urus told us he had come from The Enclave, we all looked at each other, it was a place none of us had heard of? Continuing on, he told us that at The Enclave there was an exowomb baby that needed delivering. Finally, Urus added that the whole job would take a few days?
Designed to allow pregnancy to continue outside the biological womb, exowombs were pretty rare pieces of tech, too expensive for nearly all Neon City inhabitants, I'd never seen one.
Despite Urus being evasive about the specifics, we agreed to help, he was paying well. He seemed pleased and added that we needed to pick his travelling companion before heading out to The Enclave.
Exiting Bric-a-Brac, Urus took us south and into Hikage Street's commercial quarter, dismal high-rises fell away as the almost anonymously identical factory and warehouse estates sprang up ahead. It was also here that vast amounts of Neon City's massive piping network converged, too massive in fact to fully fit underground. Huge pipes could be seen to rise and fall out of the street like giant arching sea-snakes in an asphalt ocean. Where pipes did breach the surface of Hikage Street, they were secured to the ground with enormous concrete blocks.
Urus led us to one such block, he had a way through the secured door and took us in. It wasn't our first time in The Pipes, the dank place was an accumulation of incomprehensible mazes and labyrinths, a nightmare to navigate. Urus however, seemed to know his way round the place. So as we followed, he took us through steel and concrete entrails that led deep into the city's bowels. Deep enough that our connections to Neon City were gone, no data-feeds, no GLOWNET, nothing. It was like missing an appendage.
For a while this continued until Urus gestured for us to halt, he activated some sort of wrist-comm and spoke with somebody, giving them a warning them that we were approaching before resuming. Whatever Urus' tech was, it allowed him converse with with other people using a connectivity protocol that didn't require access to the city's networks?
Eventually we were led into a room of sorts and waiting there was Urus' companion: A huge man, well over two metres tall and dressed entirely in black, no part of him showed. He must've had some kind of implants or bio-augmentation to make his torso so massive and his arms to so thick, by comparison, his legs looked short, almost stunted.
He was introduced as Neidzwiedz, he wore a black hood that covered his face and over it a full face mask. Muffled as his voice was, we noticed a definite East European accent to the rumbling bass of his voice when he greeted us. Neidzwiedz also exuded the same bitter odour as Urus?
Urus then told us we would be heading north but in here, it might as well have been Goji Rokkaku's apartment by our understanding of The Pipes! So we walked and eventually up and out of The Pipes, it was early afternoon and we found ourselves in the Itabashi-Cho Prefecture and north of central Neon City. Urus proceeded to take us away from the heaving main streets through grimy back alleys and shady side roads on an apparently meandering route. We realised though, that he was going to great lengths to avoid all the security cameras we encountered; it was an impressive feat.
As he led us on, he would habitually stop to scrutinise some pile of rubbish or discarded trash, rummaging through and pocketing various broken-looking circuit boards, components and whatever else he found he found into his overcoat. As Koko and I curiously observed, occasionally he would stop and while Neidzwiedz would go on lookout; he'd take several back out and after rolling them over in his hands, somehow assemble them together to make a piece of kit or component; Urus definitely had a talent as a scavenger.
We kept heading north, further north than we'd ever been. Soon the city wall began looming over the horizon behind the urban clutter. The concrete and steel wall marked the absolute limits of Neon City, it was dozens of metres thick and rose dozens of storeys above, taller than any close building. From street level we couldn't see them, but the wall was armed with extensive aerial defences to prevent transgressors from crossing in from uninhabitable wastes outside Neon City.
Still Urus took us north, past the easy recognisable and intricately built Jorenji Temple with the largest Buddha statue in the city and after that we arrived at the city wall. It was quiet, unsettlingly so, the city sprawl almost reached the wall but no one ever came this far out and the grey rough-surfaced wall was an imposing sight when it was close enough to touch, Urus continued, following the perimeter as it curved behind the windowless rears of city structures
He stopped at a sturdy, heavy looking steel panelled gate, it was covered in licks of rust and had the look of an unused thing.
"Few people in Neon City know about this, maybe nobody," Urus told us with a smile as he unlocked and opened the gate.
It was something we'd all seen, maybe in a park, definitely in photos and vids, on the GLOWNET or in VR; but going through that gate and tunnel, leaving behind the narrow, crowded streets of Neon City, the soaring skyline, concrete vistas and having it in front of us; that was something else.
An expanse of varied, seemingly unending greenery stretched out, impossibly disappearing into a distant, hazy and wavering horizon that could never exist in The City of Electric Dreams. Not even the wide spaces of Neon City's Bay could come close to matching the sparse openness here. Urus noticed our stunned expressions.
"Welcome to The Wilderness," he said with a chuckle. "Not what you were expecting?".
Wild grasses rippled under a breeze and we sensed a strange smell, it was the same bitter earthy smell that we had got from Urus and Neidzwiedz.
As we gawped at our surroundings, Neidzwiedz pulled off his black hood with a low bassy grunt. What we saw surprised us even more.
Neidzwiedz turned to look at us with a bear's head! He gave a laugh that rumbled when he saw our expressions. He explained that he was an grizzly bear that had been uplifted by the Russian Army and had been recruited into their special operation branch. He had stayed awhile before escaping into the wilderness here and encountering The Enclave, he spread his arms wide to indicate our surroundings.
Urus led us to an old style, wheeled flatbed truck, the kind that would never fit on Neon City streets, having been replaced by sky-freighters. I didn't recognise the model, but the badge said it was a Tulytt. Flecks of rust were erupting underneath the old paint, causing it to bubble and peel, looked weird; would never happen to a modern flier, old steel frames and bodies had been superseded by blended polymers and ultra-light composites. A row of glassy, gridded black panels were laid out along the flatbed trailer, they had to be solar panels, looked like someone had replaced the old internal combustion engine with a power cell.
I looked up, it was as hot as Neon City here but somehow, the sky was a softer, deeper shade of azure and cotton-white puffy clouds effortlessly hung there, nothing that could ever be seen in the harsh blue-white sky of Neon City. It made all of us wonder; how much of the planet was the uninhabitable eco-disaster that we had all been taught about as children and how much of it was like this wilderness?
The cab was sized generously enough to allow all of us - even Neidzwiedz to squeeze in. Powering up the flatbed, Urus turned to us and said we would be stopping at somewhere called Rabbit Town before he pulled away.
For a while the truck rolled on, slowly creaking and rocking its way along a faint, uneven and rocky track that had been trampled into the grass. To the rear, through the dusty trail kicked up the truck, Neon City's skyscraper-topped city-wall shrank away, swallowed by into a vanishing point where sky met earth.
On a whim, I powered my data-slab up; zero access to the GLOWNET, well and truly off-the-grid.
For an hour or so we travelled until we crested some low, gentle hills and on the far side, Rabbit Town came into view; a smallish settlement that seemingly existed within the confines of an old-world industrial facility.
There were a couple of large, time-and-weather stained, functional looking cuboid concrete structures set on a asphalt courtyard, one of which was surrounded by half a dozen dormant looking cooling towers and smokestacks that soared skyward. Faded and barely legible signage confirmed it was an obsolete old powerplant and clearly non-operational: The town's power came from an nearby, adjacent array of solar panels that had been constructed. Also close to the settlement was an iron latticework tower dotted with a handful of satellite dishes, a quick check indicated that out network connections had been re-established.
People could be seen moving about and rudimentary handmade decorations plastered walls throughout Rabbit Town, indicating signs of inhabitation.
As the flatbed bounced closer, we could see that large numbers of the titular rabbits freely roamed the entire settlement and its locales. Urus told us that the community here was a bit strange; they believed the rabbits were the personification of their ancestors and considered them to be sacred. Urus advised us to not harm them and leave them well alone as we came to halt.
The population of Rabbit Town observed us neutrally with mild curiosity as we exited the flatbed and made the last stretch on foot, once they recognised Urus and Neidzwiedz, they warmed to us and we were invited to join them for an evening meal.
The people here did not look or behaviour like the citizens of Neon City, they were content to converse with us and we could feel the sense of community they enjoyed, unlike the inward-looking media obsessed consumerists of our world. Additionally, they disconcertingly lacked the general nihilistic cynicism that imbued Neon City. Their unbranded clothes were clearly homespun, a strange and colourful, haphazard mix of wool, cotton and animal skins.
The food they offered us was strange too, a meal consisting mostly of real vegetables and real fruits, the textures were strange; firm and crisp in contrast to the processed, reconstituted, reshaped, soft and easily consumed corporate foodstuffs we were used to. The flavours too were strange, somehow more intense yet lacking the monosodium glutamate driven endorphin zing that Neon City food provided?
Urus told us it was naturally grown in fields that surrounded Rabbit Town, real fruit and vegetables went for a hefty price tag if sold to the right people in the right parts of Neon City.
After thanking our hosts we set off back to the flatbed. At the cab, Captain Noodles had remained behind with the vehicle, expressing no desire to visit Rabbit Town. Arriving back, we discovered that Noodles had killed and eaten several rabbits, he was smug and pleased with himself, completely oblivious to what he had done!
Quietly, we loaded up into the truck and set off northwards again.
In the west, an enormous wavering sun was slipping behind the unnerving, uneven and undulating wilderness horizon in a red-orange hue that blazed across half the sky, casting the longest of shadows. Soon it would be night.
As we went on, Urus flicked on the headlights and I peered up at the darkening sky as the failing light was consumed by inky blackness, something was different, some was wrong?
Rain, there was no rain and no black boiling clouds had gathered above to unleash torrents. As night bled into the clear sky, the cosmos in all its light and colour was revealed.
I had no memory of there being a night with no rain in Neon City, all of us stared above at the starry roof as high as the universe.
Soon it was entirely dark, dark in a way that The City of Electric Dreams could never be, no city lights or humming streetlamps could be found here, or lit-up fliers buzzing above either. As the truck trundled along, beyond the flatbed's lights; the world had been swallowed by night, only the creaking of the truck and our own restlessness were heard.
Later, a spark of pulsating light appeared in the void ahead; it's distance impossible to calculate. The light's intensity grew as we continued, until it split into two and split again into five lights? Soon, shapes materialised out of the night, rectangles - a row of them; grey-white and mostly washed out under the radiance of the stark white lights which seemingly hovered above. As the truck closed in, details swam into focus, rectangles morphed into polycarbonate-reinforced concrete panels anchored to each other by steel posts, forming a colossal wall. Hovering lights coalesced into floodlights bolted to shadowed watchtowers barely visible behind the unrelenting glare. This wall surrounded a compound of sorts, inside its perimeter taller buildings were indistinctly silhouetted against the night sky.
Urus drove around the wall and up to some gates, on a watchtower, a spotlight buzzed into life and swivelled towards us, its beam playing across the cab.
"Welcome to The Enclave," Urus announced.
While our identities were confirmed and the heavy gates slid open, Urus went on to explain that the compound had once been a military base, abandoned before the days of Neon City and now home to The Enclave.
Past the gates the lighting was kept to a minimum and from within we could make out that the watchtowers were manned. Urus eased the truck on to the small asphalt road network that spread throughout the compound, ahead of us was a courtyard and beyond it was a largish boxy building. Just to the west was a low wide structure with a dimly lit open front, to the east we also spotted a row of what looked to be single story cabins, several windows were lit. In the compound's north-east corner was a tall, angular tower and directly opposite the tower was the tallest structure here by far; a soaring latticework array housing a large white satellite dish. A quick check told us that it was networked into Neon City. A long strip of solar panels had been constructed in The Enclave, similarly to Rabbit Town.
Urus took the west road, turning the truck towards the low structure which we discovered was a garage constructed of ceramic corrugated sheets and parked up.
Now that we were at The Enclave, Urus explained that some sort of flier had come down hard in the wilderness reasonably close by; a security team was sent to investigate. At the crash site they discovered two occupants, both had survived the impact, but barely. The woman was unconscious, possibly comatose and Urus had no idea about the state of the exowomb.
Urus led us to the boxy building, telling us that it was The Enclave's hospital. It was apparent that the building had served some other function in the long-gone past and had been crudely repurposed as a med-facility, there were no dedicated medical wards or wings, no operating theatre or treatment rooms, the hospital was lacking both facilities and equipment.
We were taken to the two survivors.
The exowomb was a Kuihsih branded piece of med-tech, didn't know much about it, wasn't the kind of thing we dealt in. It had clearly taken a beating though but had undoubtedly saved the life of the infant within. Pepper checked its readouts, it wasn't good news; resources and power were nearly depleted and several sub-systems had also been damaged by the crash. The bio-monitor also indicated that the infant was male, had come to term and needed to be born. Without the password, there was no way to access the exowomb's control system. It was a problem.
Pepper then turned his attention to the woman, un moving in her rudimentary bed. didn't long to realise she was in big trouble, she had serious internal injuries causing a multitude of secondary medical problems. Circling the drain Pepper told us, he also said that he didn't have the equipment to treat her and after searching around, there was nothing in The Enclave that could help either. Worse still, she was too weak to move.
After some discussion, we formulated a plan!
If the woman couldn't be brought to a hospital, then the hospital would have to be brought to her!
The equipment required to treat the woman was fantastically expensive, luckily Pepper knew how to get it rented. He pinged his contact and set it up, then we Pinged Roboy, he could have it delivered to the city wall at Itabashi-Cho and Urus and Neidzwiedz would pick up early tomorrow morning and bring it here. It would take over twelve hours, but there was no other option. Pepper gave the woman some injections, it would stabilise her blood pressure and heart rate, it would also stave off the effects of infection and protect her vital organs - if only for a while, We had to hope it was enough.
The exowomb presented use with several problems.
First I networked my data-slab with it's system and jacked in. Streams of data imprinted themselves on to my consciousness, a constant flow of information in all its minutiae. I probed the encrypted defences, it was a fairly standard setup, I launched a bypass protocol and unlocked it.
Next; Koko had to open it, the servos that operated the exowomb's access panel had been knocked out of alignment by the crash impact, this required detaching the panel extender arms from the servo mechanism without causing further damage to other more critical systems, or harming the child.
Once that was done, it was down to Pepper to make sure the infant was safely extracted from the systems that had been providing nutrients and life support for him and ensure he was healthy. The birth went without a hitch, the boy was safe.
It would be hours until Urus and Neidzwiedz returned with the gear, so we decided to check out the shuttle. The crash site was located just within boundaries of a large forest to the west and might contain dangerous wild animals, a small security detail was assigned to us and we hiked the three kilometres to the site.
Ahead, silent rows of pine sentinels marked the forest's edge, we continued on.
It felt unnatural to be surrounded by so much greenery and vegetation that stretched out beyond the scope of our vision. It felt a quiet and secluded place, yet contrasted by distant, irregular but constant noises that we were told was birdsong. Unfamiliar and heady smells filled our nostrils, underfoot the ground somehow felt soft and frequently gave way with quiet crumpling noises?
About an hour after leaving The Enclave, we arrived at the crash site.
The shuttle was a wreck and situated in the centre of a shallow crater of exposed dirt and fallen trees, there was no ploughed ditch or line of damaged trees, it indicated that the vehicle had most likely plummeted down at a relatively steep angle and not glided or tried to land. This in turned implied that it had encountered a catastrophic event or failure that had immediately brought it down.
The shuttle wasn't a typical Neon City flier either, it was a Interstad Gruppe Sky-skimmer capable of surface-to-orbit flight. There was almost no way that it could have come down on its own or due to error, too many redundancies, too many fail-safes.
We searched the wreckage but got nothing, the ferocity of the impact had taken care of anything that might have resembled evidence. A portion of the hull was still intact and part of some corporate logo or livery was still visible, so we took a photo of it.
An hour later and we were back at The Enclave. Now that I was networked again, I ran the shuttle's livery through a GLOWNET search and got a hit. The shuttle belonged to some corporate public transport contractor that operated out of The Glitterband.
Had the shuttle been coming out of The Glitterband when it had gone down? Was it possible that the shuttle had sent out a distress call? Did someone on The Glitterband need to be contacted?
We had some discussion and in the end, decided to keep quiet about it. There was no idea what we might've have been getting ourselves into.
It was a few hours later that Urus and Neidzwiedz rode back to The Enclave with the gear Pepper needed, we took it to the hospital, set it up and let Pepper do his thing.
A little later and he was done, Pepper told us that the woman was in a serious but stable condition. Stable enough, he said, to take back to Neon City, she still needed extensive medical attention and rest. Pepper made a few calls and arranged to place her in a private med-facility under an alias.
I ran the woman's face through recognition before we left and I got a result I'd never seen; Access Denied? On a few rare occasions I got zero hits, I'd never seen something like this though. Something had to be blocking the search, it was likely that someone had coded some sort of autonomous predatory algorithm which was prowling the GLOWNET, killing any data-transmissions which matched whatever criteria had been inputted into the algorithm's parameters; in this case the identity of the woman. It would take a lot more effort to get past this, something for later.
As a parting gift, we were given a small crate of fresh fruit and vegetables by The Enclave. Urus and Neidzwiedz took us back to The City of Electric Dreams and the return journey was uneventful, by midnight we were back in the comfortable, recognisable asphalt canyons of Neon City, where concrete and glass trees replaced wooden ones and familiar sheets of heavy night rain came crashing down.
Urus and Neidzwiedz helped us bring the woman into the city, we said our goodbyes to the pair as Pepper called a private sky-ambulance to take her to the prearranged facility.
After that, Bill told us that he knew a buyer that served a very exclusive clientele who would pay good money for the opportunity to brag about how they'd eaten fresh fruit and vegetables.
Bill ended up getting seventeen million bits for the fruit and vegetables!
It was the morning after our return to Neon City when Ram Rat pinged me. Jacking into my Nonohiki, I spoke with the digitised consciousness who had been residing in a partition on the data-slab since the bio-components of his previous cyborg body had decayed into unviability.
Even though I was not connected to the GLOWNET, its sensory interface interpreted Ram Rat's consciousness as billions of clustered, swirling neon motes, iridescent and pulsating constellations of bio-data that expanded, contracted and cascaded into each other over digital aeons. An indecipherably and constantly changing, infinitely intricate geometry. A cosmic displayer of the hacker's entire mental process.
Ram Rat told me that his new robot body was ready: As his cyborg body had been failing, he'd managed to get into Robot Factory, hack its systems and insert a robot specification file into its construction database, then he had instructed the factory to produce it, now it had been completed. There was just the small matter of getting a hold of it!
Our last incursion into Robot Factory had nearly gone south, internal defence systems were pretty lethal. We decided that instead, perhaps the robot body should come to us. There was also the matter of cost.
Plugging into the GLOWNET, I navigated well-travelled lanes of Neon City's info-streams until I reached the steel-blue coloured, slowly rotating seemingly riveted polyhedral shape that was Robot Factory's data-image. Ignoring the colourful, friendly and public-facing info-vault, I looked for a node that might take me to the data-vault behind it, Robot Factory's real vault, I quickly found it and was of course immediately hit security protocols. Responding, I launched a protocol of my own, allowing me to bypass the security measures, granting full access to their system.
Even though I was riding the GLOWNET, Ram Rat's presence on my data-slab still registered with me and through this awareness he had the ability to connect with the GLOWNET himself.
Ram Rat probed the system quickly found and displayed for me records associated with his new robot body. I had expected the spec file to be assigned to one of the many product lines that Robot Factory manufactured. Instead, Ram Rat had prudently given it the status of; Unclassified Prototype, this meant the spec file had been assigned its own folder on their system, hidden in plain sight. Unknown unless it was specifically searched for, and why would they do that? Even better, as a prototype it had no manufacturing or delivery cost associated with the order! All that remained was giving it a delivery address.
Wasn't a good idea to deliver it to any of our apartments, instead we contacted Silai Granskina; his voice was clear as a bell now, the op must've been a success and he was happy to help us. Once the robot body was delivered we got it picked up by a courier from Get That For You?, Roboy, the robotic proprietor could be trusted to be discreet.
The robot body arrived without a hitch. It was a sleek design of multipolymers, steel alloys and chrome plated skin in humanoid proportions. The latest servo motors and cutting edge sensor banks gave it enhanced performance characteristics. Mnemonic fluidic joints gave the impression that the body had been seamlessly carved from a single chunk of polished steel with a face of perfectly chiselled features.
With some searching I found the concealed data interface and jacked my Nonohiki into it. A diagnostic protocol confirmed that its power cell was at peak efficiency, so I booted its systems, readouts on my data-slab went all green, Ram Rat began the transfer, it would take some time until his consciousness full occupied what was the robot's blank slate.
Some time later and the transfer was done. Ram Rat was up and about, he seemed pleased; his new configuration would outlast all of us - at least in our current bodies!
He began checking how the new body felt, crouching, jumping, punching the air, even running around the apartment. When his weapon ports opened, I told him it would probably be a good idea to test them out somewhere else and sent him out whilst eyeing the urine coloured tarp that gently wafted along one side of my one-bed.
Ram Rat told me he would finish his tests and fly back to the roaming RV.
The day of Yaroh Uron's trial had come around and we headed to the courthouse in the glaring low morning sunlight, found the relevant courtroom and took up seats in the gallery along with Yaroh's wife, Tohi.
It was a small but open room, lavishly decorated in replica wood panelling and furniture, designed to lend it an air of tradition and authority, something the Neon City legal system sorely lacked. Decidedly non-traditional globe-lights hung from the ceiling and lit the room in a unfavourably cold white hue. An overworked grinding air-con unit did it's best to keep the temperature tolerable.
There was a little wait before a shackled and orange jump-suited Yaroh was shuffled in, his face was long and he looked unhappy. Immediately we noticed that he was not accompanied by the lawyer we had hired for him - Finn Kinton, instead he was with the public defender.
Soon Magistrate Wyatt Lavanchy, presiding judge swept into the room, dressed in a archaic and voluminous black robe, he sat at the bench and pronounced that the trial was underway.
It didn't last long, seventeen minutes to be precise, Yaroh was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Black Dolphin Gulag and marched off.
The evidence against Yaroh Uron was weak, but the key witness in Yaroh's defence - Jinny Stoyer had not presented herself at the courtroom.
Someone was pulling strings behind the scenes? Had to be Benedict Twistom. Time for us to make a move.
We tried our best to console Tohi and said that we'd look into the matter, she told us that she would be making preparations to lodge an appeal.
A quick inquiry revealed that Finn Kinton had just recently died at home of a heart attack?
I consumed myself within the undulating data-scapeof Neon City's GLOWNET info-vista, travelled along the incandescent veins of information that ceaselessly flowed through its infinitely intricate collective construct, racing from one data-vault to another; looking for information on Wyatt Lavanchy. Had Benedict Twistom gotten to him? It didn't look like it. He was a long serving judge and had a rep as a hardliner, but he seemed legit clean as he looked, nothing for Twistom to latch on to.
Wyatt Lavanchy had a wife; Deliah, checked her out too, this time I got something. Deliah had no skeletons in her past either but municipal records indicated a home in the Fortified Residential District had been bought in her name recently. Judges earned good money but there was no way that they could bankroll a place in The Zone, too exclusive, too expensive. It was a lead we could follow, only there was no way we would easily get access to the Fortified Residential Zone, we had to work it sideways.
We were on good terms with Porter Sladek and Vlegei Kreshoma, both residents of The Zone: We pinged them and explained what we needed, they sent out some personnel to scope out the address we gave them. Both men pinged us back with the same result: The Levanchy residence was well guarded by a number of heavily armed retainers.
Next was Jinny Stoyer. We pinged D4-VID; the robot vid-corder had been covering the trial and we asked him if he knew anything about her? Stoyer had gone missing he confirmed but he had no idea how to find her.
Jinny Stoyer was a working girl who operated out of Ninety Ninth Street using the street-tag Juicy J. Under the early-afternoon heat, we took a crowded, sweltering tram ride out to The Neon Mile.
It was characteristically hot, noisy and busy, the blare of street hawkers, arcades and pachinko parlours mingled with heaving, clamorous crowds to create consciousness-numbing, cacophonic white noise that reverbed seemingly along the entire length of the street.
It was easy to find a number of Juicy J's contemporaries working Ninety Ninth, Bill did some talking and spread some bits about. Juicy J no longer tricked on Ninety Ninth, she'd got wind that some nasty men were on the hunt for her and had bugged out. No proof but it was likely that this was muscle on Benedict Twistom's payroll.
Word was that she was now working for Let All Your Rage Out under a different tag. Jinny had apparently told one of her former associates after a year at Let All Your Rage Out, she'd have enough money to get to the moon and be reunited with her boyfriend, OK Daddy.
Let All Your Rage Out was a fairly niche business that - for a price supplied human mannequins to its clientele to use and abuse as they desired. Even if Jinny had provided them her real name, it was unlikely that they'd give it up without some hefty persuasion. So, while perusing their corporate public facing data-vault on the GLOWNET, we came up with a plan.
Bill booked into one of the many cheap, anonymous and drab hotels somewhere on Chuo Street, created a bogus account with Let All Your Rage Out and logged on. He put in an order for a human mannequin, to be sent the hotel's address, on his order he requested a mannequin with physical characteristics that matched those of Jinny; height, build, hair and eye colour, fruit themed tattoos and so on. The mannequin would be delivered within two hours. Then we waited.
The ruse worked, less than two hours later and Jinny Stoyer was knocking on the hotel room door, so we let her in. She wore a miniskirt, boob tube, PVC micro jacket and knee-high boots. Once she realised who had made the order, she futilely tried to flee, we were ready that move though.
We assured her that we meant her no harm, she wasn't entirely convinced and continued shiftily looking around the tatty, barely maintained room for a way out. She was clearly scared and refused to testify on behalf of Yaroh. News that she was being hunted must've shook her pretty hard and we didn't blame her. We needed a different approach, we knew that she was trying to save money to finance a trip to The Moon, so we made a proposal; if Jinny agreed to testify, we'd front the money for her trip. Jinny hesitated before speaking and was still concerned about whoever was looking for her. We told Jinny that we could put her somewhere safe, somewhere she'd never been found. After some consideration, Jinny agreed.
We called the flier and stashed Jinny in the RV, she'd be safe there until the appeal. I'm sure she'd get on well with the party favours we'd also stashed there!
Later and Pepper got pinged. Came from the med-facility where Pepper had placed the unconscious woman from the shuttle crash. She had now regained consciousness.
Without delay, we headed to the facility.
Pepper knew his stuff, the woman's room bristled with medical apparatus and tools, scanners, monitors and at the centre of it, the woman, sitting up and eating.
Pepper checked her bio-readouts, vitals were strong, no sign of permanent or long term injury, she'd make a full recovery.
The first thing the woman did was to press us about her son, she demanded to know where he was, what had happened to him? We assured her that he was safe, at a place that no one in Neon City could hope to find. We also told her that they would be reunited now that she was safe to travel.
It was our turn to ask questions, we had plenty.
She told us her name was Avril Haywood, that made her the daughter of Barnabus Haywood: We'd stumbled on something that looked like it involved Barnabus Haywood just a few days ago, coincidence? Never a safe assumption in Neon City.
Next we asked about the shuttle. Avril told us it had beenshot down, we asked who would want to kill her.
"My father!" she said, matter-of-factly.
It was incredulous, why would he want to kill his daughter and grandson?
Avril went on to explain why, her son's father was Michael Leander, who sat on the ruling council of the Emptiness Habitat.
Barnabus Haywood, according to his daughter was a believer, a believer that he rules over the Messenger Habitat by divine right and is the literal word of god. To him The Messenger Habitat represents the domain of Barnabus and his descendants by birthright. This child was the result of the mingling of the Haywood and Leander bloodlines, giving him and potentially the Leanders and the Emptiness Habitat's ruling council a claim on the Messenger Habitat's throne. This was intolerable to Barnabus, who considered it a threat to his family's seat of power. When Avril realised what her father was prepared to do in order to eliminate this threat, she chose to immediately flee the Glitterband with her unborn son, come to Earth in a shuttle and hoped to find safe haven somewhere. She hadn't been quite quick enough though. Maybe her father would think they had died in the crash, she hoped.
We contacted Urus and he agreed to help, we arranged for Avril Haywood to be picked up at the north gate in Itabashi-Cho and taken her to The Enclave and her son.
Later, Koko received Pippy, a modified Suayo MKVI gun-drone. Alex Chinsko had removed the gun housings and ammo pods and replaced them with a pair of adapted Senonable Oktuto omni-speakers and additional power cells.
Alex had also coded an algorithm that allowed Pippy to use the internal rangefinders to harmonically modulate the audio output at the designated target with near pinpoint accuracy.
Maybe it was something we could use?
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
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.