26th December 2020
It's Saturday and Boxing Day! Evening has come and I'm logged on to Skype on my laptop in the living room.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Dogenzaka Hill.
Last night, Binary Johnny had dropped us all an email: After our run into the Benten job had been worked out, he was happy to recommend us to his associates and contacts.
Johnny was well known and must've had a long list of people he knew, hopefully this would play out well for us.
But that was yesterday. Today; I'd spent the entire morning crashed in bed, drifting in and out of foggy sleep because; what else was there to do?
By noon though, I'd had enough.
Neon City's searing sunlight was peaking through the edge of the blinds and I watched as it slowly crawling across the wall, another hot one no doubt.
I sat on my futon, elbows on knees, sipping a can of Huntudi Lager I'd foraged out of the jungle of garbage in my one-room apartment. Breakfast beer was the best, or was it time for liquid lunch now?
There was little to do here, the Senonabe wall-slab was barely worth powering up; other than the barely-disguised corporate advertising that passed as programming, half the content pumped out were trashy Neon City reality shows dramatizing people's lives in manufactured product-placed situations and the other half were even trashier talk shows hosted by vacuous, surgically-perfected ever-grinning presenters laughing at those people.
If you looked hard enough you could find streams of old stuff, stuff made when someone cared about this kind of thing.
Now of course, the old stuff didn't matter; in this connected saturation of instant gratification, grumbling about the unattainable was so much better than thinking about the world around you.
I threw the can at the recycler, got dressed and walked out.
Meeting with the others we headed to the Chou-Nata Corporate Mall in the Dogenzaka Hill shopping district.
The climate-controlled excess of imitation polished marble floor, chrome-plated fittings, glass fronted boutique stores, colourful designer speciality shops and high-end exclusive franchises that was the mall provided a respite from the street.
Insulated from the noise and heat beyond, it allowed delicate music to be piped throughout the tranquil atrium.
Most people who lived on street level would never even contemplate walking into a mall like this, out of their price range with goods that that were as obtainable as smoke.
For us; a good way to idle away hours in meaningless window shopping, all the while ignoring the indignant glances thrown our way from rentaguard.
The bubble was broken though, when a chocolate brown Great Dane came trotting up to me. The dog looked me in the eye and told me to contact an email address!
Augmented animals were unusual but not unheard of. Generally a mixture of implants and genetic resequencing would give them enhanced attributes, new skills or improved cognitive function.
Before leaving, the dog pressed a wet business card into my hand from its drooling mouth.
Dog & Bone Messaging: new tricks for old dogs.
The email address was a burner and it belonged to one Hika Taki.
We contacted him: A recognised Neon City fashion designer, he was something of prodigy and a diva. His new high profile range - Neon Noir he told us, was premièring tonight at the Ramen Ritz to an exclusive audience of buyers and fashion gurus.
Taki was looking for someone to handle security.
Previously at other shows, his designs had been somehow copied. Sweat shop knockoffs had then flooded Neon City before his ranges did. It had cost him - and his buyers big time. It was something he wanted to avoid this time.
The show began at twenty hundred.
Before the show tonight we had a to kill a day, but of course Neon City had other ideas. It was instead, a day to kill us!
Not long after the Hika Taki gig had been set up, we'd left the mall, exposing ourselves to Dogenzaka Hill's tumultuous crowds, thrum of the street sellers and the wafting steamy smells of food vendors. All under the burning afternoon heat.
Koko received a text message on her media-slab. Opening it, she only found an email and a phone number.
So she called the number and at the other end was Ignacy Naro.
Ignacy told us he was a member of the Planetary Guardians Defence Force.
Humanity had taken its first steps into space a long time ago but there had been an extensive pause before the next ones were taken.
Eventually some off-world colonies consisting of research stations, science labs and mining facilities had been established on the outer planetary bodies and The Glitterbelt had been built.
The Glitterbelt was an orbital ring habitat that circumvented the entire globe. At certain times of the day when the sun was lower and there might actually be blue in the blue-white sky, it could sometimes be seen: An almost ethereal, hazy, washed out, twinkling silver-white band that spanned over Neon City like a forgotten colour of the rainbow.
Designed to cater to the wealthy and influential, it represented paradise, the ultimate echelon of privilege. Luxurious housing and opulent communities in an artificially created perfect environment filled with the kind of technology and benefits that street dwellers like us could only dream of.
It had represented a significant fiscal investment from the world's governments on behalf of its favourite sons and daughters.
Which is where the PGDF came in. An extensive multi-corporate backed lobbying campaign had convinced the world's governments that these off-planet investments needed protecting from an hitherto unknown extra terrestrial threat.
Highly lucrative government contracts were awarded to the aforementioned corporations to create and manage this threat, which they still did to this day.
This had led to the creation of the PGDF, with it's crowd-pleasing colourful militarisitc logo, stirring anthem and depiction of the brave young men and women of the PGDF - here to protect you, chiselled from the very rock of the earth.
It was branding that was out this world.
There was even a sanctioned kid's cartoon, Planetary Guardian Heroes was carefully curated to have maximum demographic appeal and be as inoffensive yet jingoistic as possible. With its appropriately diverse cast of teen Planetary Guardian Scouts protecting the virtuous people of the world from the insidious and subversive plots of a fictional alien menace and other enemies of earth. All the while wearing their Planetary Guardian khaki and black uniforms - official merchandise available of course.
What all of this have to do with Ignacy Naro?
Ignacy had gone absent without leave from his enlistment at the PGDF.
The reason? He told Koko that he was planning on eloping with his girlfriend Leska Pedova, currently they were holed up at Love Capsule Nine on Hikage Street and he heard that we could help the pair of them to escape.
Before he could explain any further, he frantically started yelling something about a tracer and we'd led them to him. Then he ended the call.
Koko turned to me, she was concerned about what Ignacy had said. I connected her Jinonghua J9 Kuuaudiao media-slab to my Nonohiki and ran a malscan.
Quickly the scan picked up something suspicious: It was the text file that Koko had received. Hidden in the file's code was a tracer subroutine that launched itself when the file was opened. It waited until Koko made a call and ran a trace on both ends, then sent the data somewhere. Fairly straightforward, but effective.
I made sure to delete the text file and the subroutine from Koko's media-slab, it was as clean as anything got in Neon City.
Whoever had the numbers, would soon have our locations, if they were good, they'd have our locations already.
Moments later, drowning out even the clamour of Dogenzaka Hill was the thundering harmonised whine of quad-turbines, the ceaseless noise reverberating off the tall buildings to fill the air with pummelling sound waves.
Then it appeared, gliding into view like a colossal malicious wasp, big enough to blot out the sun; a Oruhba Gakosmarat. The Gakosmarat was a full-bore top-of-the-line mili-spec VTOL personnel carrier. It slowed to a hover, soaking the panicking, silenced shouting crowd below with the full output of its engine wash, stalls and were knocked over, anything small was blasted in a strange flurry of hats, bags, paper cups etc. Accumulated piles of detritus and litter in neglected corners of Hikage Street were whipped into a stinging, whirling ochre smog.
It hovered for a couple of seconds, enough to send the crowd running, clearing space to land. As the Gakosmarat descended, we got a look at it's insignia; the PGDF.
They were very good.
We ran as the VTOL's doors slid open and it regurgitated heavily armoured soldiers. Kitted out in Efoluta Caartaha combat armour. A
composite inter-layered impact-resistant ceramic and multi-weaved kevlar made it tough armour, but it was unpowered and meant for wading into the battlefield, not for pursuit.
It was our only advantage.
We headed into the Dogenzaka Hill park, trampling across the grass and into the mall. As we ran over the polished slippery floors, we could hear the PDGF behind us. Gunfire broke out as they encountered the rentaguard. I doubt it went well for the rentaguard.
Diving into a shop, we hoped lose sight of the soldiers, blundering through shelves and displays, sending whatever crap the store sold flying and ignoring the screaming sales assistant. We then came up with a possible plan.
Out through the rear of the shop into storage rooms we went and then out fire exit as I hit up a sky taxi service. I ordered a pick up from the mall to the other side of Neon City.
Exiting the mall, we ran for the sky taxi but as we got close, instead of getting into the taxi, we hid round a corner and waited.
It was a bait-and-switch move. I was banking on the PGDF monitoring our GLOWNET activity and picking up on the sky taxi order.
When the PGDF soldiers came running in sight of the taxi, I instructed it to take off. Hopefully, whoever was back-at-base running this would've put one-plus-two together and got four; then informed their goons that we were escaping in the sky taxi, hopefully it would lead them on a merry chase through the skies of Neon City for a while.
The soldiers stopped, from their posture we could see they were on comms as the taxi gained altitude.
Seconds later; a thin streak of orange flame flashed through the hazy sky as a blurred projectile cut through the air and a sonic boom punished our eardrums. Faster than thought, it had struck the sky taxi with another boom that then ballooned into a fiery mushroom, raining shrapnel and debris in a wide radius on to Dogenzaka crowds, the immolated wreckage crashing to the ground.
The PGDF soldiers didn't stay long enough to confirm the kill and shuffled off back to their Gakosmarat, maybe they were on a tight schedule?
It wasn't quite how I saw it going, but the result was similar. If we stayed off the grid they would assume we were dead, at least for a while. We had some breathing space.
If they'd traced us, they would've traced Ignacy Naro and his girlfriend.
On the way over to Hikage Street, news crawled on to the GLOWNET that the Hikage branch of Love Capsule Nine had exploded, there was no initial report on any casualites.
A dense, babbling crowd of Hikage Street gawkers and rubberneckers had gathered at the hotel, even for Neon City this was an event. It was impossible to see through the mob, even so, we could see the building was no longer there and above it hung a dark pall. There was an orange hue on the rising column of smoke and glowing red embers slowly spiralling upwards on the heat like lazy circling fireflies.
The crowd, a congregation at the cathedral to destruction, they huddled round, moving close as they dared. Media-slabs; their religious icons in hand. We elbowed our way through.
The old brick building was gone, reduced to blackened skeletal remains, a few corner sections still stood as well as some of the stairwell and elevator shaft. The rest had mostly collapsed into a mound of smoking rubble, dancing flames still licked the air and within the mound, a deep red glow was radiating out.
It seemed whatever had happened here had not resulted in any known deaths so far, rumour had it that everybody had gotten out before the soldiers visited.
As we watched, a strange looking bearded man running back and forth in front of the gawping onlookers shouting something about money and waving a high end, slick looking Irubobe vidcorner with a glossy metallic finish.
Turns out he was known as Firestreaker, a YourTube Influencer. His YourTube channel was ultra-niche and catered to the naturalist/pyromaniac crowd, pretty weird even by Neon City standards. He paid people to run around naked in front of burning objects, which he would film and upload to his channel for the enjoyment of his subscribers.
Firestreaker's antics were garnering a lot of attention from the crowd. However Trigger had caught the eye of an attractive young lady in short skirt and tight fitting t-shirt, she smiled, beckoned him to follow and walked towards a nearby alleyway?
Trigger, never one to pass up an opportunity or in fact think twice, followed. The alleyway ran between two of Hikage's towering structures and was draped in shadow. She led Trigger to a waiting tense-looking man, he introduced himself as Ignacy Naro and the woman as his girlfriend Leska Fedova.
After the rest of us joined Trigger, Ignacy led us through a side door that went down a short unlit corridor and into a disused open retail unit. Pinpricks of daylight shone into the dim, quiet room through the lowered security shutters, lancing through swirling dust that we'd disturbed and on to the messy, dusty floor, littered with discarded shelving, cabling, random fixtures and old signs.
There was nowhere to sit, for a moment we all stood staring at one another's half-lit, half-hidden faces in this silent, almost remote room before Ignacy spoke.
He explained that he was a Specialist Third Class Information Technology Decipher Clerk in the PGDF which meant he was enlisted for a number of years, including a ten year off-world deployment.
He had encountered Leska, who was one of Neon City's many street-walkers a little while ago and began a relationship with her. Ignacy decided to go AWOL and elope with Leska once he discovered she was pregnant.
Now they were on the run from both the PGDF and Leska's pimp Alejandro Rova who went by the street tag Flashdaddy A and was now searching for Leska.
Finally, Ignacy explained that he needed to get to access to a high-level corporate GLOWNET terminal, he could use it to create new identities for Leska and himself.
He needed us to get him this access and keep them alive long enough to use it. Ignacy estimated that he had twenty-four hours before one or the other caught up with them. They had barely managed to evade the PGDF in the hotel just now.
It was true that Neon City had a habit of keeping a watchful on her citizens and eventually, on street level, some system somewhere would pick us up and tag us, then the PGDF might realise we were not dead!
There was a place we had been, where we knew the spidery threads of the GLOWNET did not extend, where we would truly be off the grid: The Pipes in Southern Hikage Street.
Mingling into the heaviest crowds, keeping our faces down and staying off the GLOWNET, we made straight for The Pipes.
Unbothered, we entered a damp tunnel through an ignored entrance we had found, followed the downwards slope for several hundred metres into the unknown inky distance until we lost connectivity with the GLOWNET.
We were safe in the city's under-underbelly. These tunnels had never been popular with us and it was an uncomfortable shelter, only our personal light sources kept the surrounding darkness at bay and a slight but noticeable, constant niggling breeze whispered along the tunnel. There was only a grimy, rusting curved floor to sit on.
Now that we were relatively safe, we had find access to a corporate GLOWNET terminal, easier said then done.
These weren't typical the run-of-the-mill data-terminals. For starters they were specially built pieces of hardware. They incorporated Sanonio Technologies' highest level of end-to-end encryption available and each one had its own bespoke data-pipe connection to the GLOWNET. None of this could be easily hacked. They couldn't be hijacked, logged, cloned or spoofed.
Generally, only execs had access to these kinds of high-end terminals and here was only one exec we were on good terms with; Katsuko Nakamura from Chou-Nata.
This would mean getting a favour from him - unless we had something to trade.
After some discussion, we realised might have something worth trading.
During our run into The Benten Tower, we had seen the model from the Oshin Amalgamated office, it displayed parts of Neon City being under water. We did not know if this was prediction of the future or some plan, but it had included Highway Zero. We also knew that Chou-Nata was making a significant investment in Highway Zero, namely their massive drivethru. If Highway Zero was flooded, it would represent a significant loss for them.
Contacting Nakamura meant returning to street level. We left Ignacy and Leska behind, Koko had tagged both of them on her control-slab and put Felix into bodyguard mode and instructed the drone to guard them.
It was early afternoon when we exited the tunnel. It was a shock going from that cool black sanctuary on to the surface. Distant air wavered hazily in the heat and at this time of the day, Hikage Street's tall structures provided limited respite from the sun's furious glare.
Nevertheless, we found some shade and made the call to Nakaura and put our proposition to him. He thought about it for a minute and seemed agreeable. He told us not to go to the Chou-Nata corportate headquarters, we would use his home terminal.
Our pair of fugitives agreed to go to Nakamura's home. Avoiding the bustling public transport network was necessary, so I quickly created a spoof burner GLOWNET profile, dumped some untraceable bits into it and used it to order a sky taxi.
Rokkaku-Dai Heights was mostly known as a housing district that was more upmarket than neighbouring Hikage Street and designed to cater to the corporate set.
The high-rises were stylishly angular in alabaster white as opposed to the dull, square industrial grey social housing of Hikage. There were less apartments per floor and they were roomier too, each one featured a modernistic balcony and view.
This was Neon City though and the Neon City street level - despite the aspirations of city legislation - liked to remind you of just where you were.
Tower rooftops in The Heights were collectively also a home to a ramshackle, haphazard elevated shanty town.
Each rooftop sported a small cluster of shanties, sometimes more than a storey high, with ladders, climbing ropes and teetering ledges that sloped up and down. Constructed from anything the inhabitants could acquire, corrugated sheets of rusting iron, flapping tarpaulin, plank boards and drywall, re-purposed tents and wooden crates. Reinforced and insulated by layers of cardboard and all precariously held together by cord and nails, even mud when it was avalable!
Individual rooftops were interconnected to each by a soaring latticework of wooden and metal suspended walkways that criss-crossed the sickeningly high gaps between shanties like a confounding aerial maze that linked them into a single sprawling shanty community.
A web of black cable spanned across the entire shanty town, the work of some colossal spider, it threaded and wound its way through the shanties, dangling across the divides between towers, providing hijacked juice to the inhabitants.
In the early days of the city, it was planned that The Heights would also contain a commercial and warehouse quarter. However they were Neon City plans, which meant in the end, they never went to plan.
The swathe of business parks and warehouse estates that had been intended for The Heights had only ever been half ever finished before being abandoned. Some buildings and warehouses had been completed, some had been left as empty lots or were nothing more than a slowly eroding frames of iron, many were somewhere in between.
Neon City was the great recycler and a use was found for the abandoned warehouses, becoming a home to the transient and homeless, the forgotten and those who wanted to be forgotten. The space between the cracks
It was also a home to a flourishing and lively craft market, too lo-tech and low-profit to attract serious attention from the gangs or corporations, it had become a dash of colour in a sea of utilitarian grey.
Like-minded craftsmen and artists gathered to hawk their wares, as with the shanty-dwellers, they worked with whatever they could get their hands on. Creating a wide variety of expressive and artistic works, attracting both creators and buyers from across Neon City.
None of this mattered to us though as our sky taxi dropped us off at Nakamura's tower block. We took the elevator to his top floor apartment.
He happily greet us, invited us in and offered us tea.
Nakamura's apartment was extravagant compared to what we were used to. Insulated walls kept the drama of the world outside away and efficient climate control kept Neon City's heat at bay.
Fixtures in the room looked expensive, there were a few high quality pieces of furniture and sparsely positioned artwork and photos. Otherwise it was a clean minimalist look, with many unadorned smooth, polished surfaces and worktops.
Nakamura also seemed happy enough when we passed our information on to him. Ignacy explained that he would require an hour to create new identities.
Unlike most slabs, it looked like a fairly anonymous small and slim brushed aluminium flight case with curved edges. There was no external marking or branding, nothing except for the tri-lock - a numerical pad with a mic. It required a manual code input which simultaneously performed a bio scan and finally voice authorisation.
Once Nakamura had unlocked and unfolded the terminal, he led Ignacy to it and left him to it.
We made polite conversation for the hour, Nakamura's view out his apartment was impressive. A wide stretch of Rokkaku-Dai Heights was laid out to observe, it would be easy to be drawn into watching the march of life go on along tiny streets below go.
From up here, it all seemed somehow free of the grime, graffiti, crushed dreams, edge-of-poverty and threat of violence that so encapsulated the Neon City experience.
Perhaps there was a filter of some sort on the window?
After a while, Ignacy came over and announced that he had new identities for Leska and himself. Their old selves were dead husks now.
We knew better than to ask anything.
As we all prepared to leave, Nakamura kindly offered to arrange transportation out of Neon City for the couple.
It wasn't often that someone could simply discard the weight of their past mistakes and begin anew. But this was the opportunity that the couple had been afforded and chosen. We wished them a good life and left.
In the hallway outside Nakamura's front door was a envelope with Trigger's name exquisitely scrawled across it?
The elaborate script continued on the letter within. it read:
Be on this rooftop at midnight.
The afternoon was rolling by and we had places to be. From Rokkaku-Dai Heights we went directly to Ramen Ritz.
Both outside and in, the hotel was decorated with brash posters brightly lit up by tubes of neon that confidently announced Neon Noir: The Brightest Black.
The hotel had been transformed since our last visit, although, with less than two hours to the preview, workmen and decorators were still rushing around, busily adding the finishing touches. Drilling, sawing and banging noises punctuated the air. The compère was running through his routine in front of an empty audience and staff were running around hugging bundles of clothing.
At the centre of this whirlwind was Hika Taki, a tall, almost emaciated man impeccably dressed in a perfectly cut Gaongha branded suit who was continually gesticulating wildly and snapping instructions off at any one who came close with an almost cracking voice that betrayed the stress beneath the well polished veneer.
Recognising us, he turned our way as we approached. He stopped talking, pressed his palms together, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Clearing his throat, he greeted us and went on to explain that he wanted us to handle security at the front door. Then after the show was under way, we were to observe the audience and watch out for anyone surreptitiously filming or recording any part of the show.
Hika Taki told us to expect thirty guests, but it was likely they would come with entourages.
We checked out the venue.
The front of Ramen Ritz was a wall of reinforced plate smoky glass, it had the illusion of being a single smooth sheet with only a pair of chrome rectangles to outline the double doors.
Outside it was brightly lit with a crackling neon sign and recessed pavement lighting. Rain was already cascading down on to the streets in silvery flurries and a canopy had been set up to provide shelter when the queue began forming, finally the classic red velvet rope barrier had been laid out beneath the canopy.
Bill, Koko and I would be here: Kevin II had been upgraded by Alex Chinsko to detect augmentations and implants and would buzz along the queue and feed me visual data which I would run through facial recognition.
In the meantime, Bill would put each guest through the security scanner and check them on the guest list before they would be given entry.
Once all the guests were in, doors would be locked and we'd all move to the presentation room.
The hotel's convention room served as presentation room, expansive with high class fixtures and a high ceiling, it was furnished with a thick carpet and rows of seats and the runway - which led to the behind-the-scenes dressing room.
There was a podium for the compere with a serious Utsuashu sound system and lighting rigs had been set up.
Professional catering was also here, working away to prep food and drink for the after-party.
Soon the workmen would have to leave, replaced by more serving staff.
Once the show began, Bill, Koko and I would be here, watching out for any filming, which might be done with a hidden camera or an implant or even wearable tech. If anyone was spotted, we had to manage the situation.
Behind the runway another room had been set up as the dressing room.
It was frantic and noisy in the dressing room, filled with racks of clothing as well as heaped piles dotted throughout the room.
Staff were occupied with moving stuff around, ensuring things were where they needed to be and so on.
The make-up artists were attending to the models with little brushes, lipsticks, cotton pads, combing and styling hair and so it went.
The models themselves were impossibly slender and impossibly tall, no doubt enhanced by some of Neon City's best flesh-docs. Their skin was flawless and perfectly toned and faces were as delicate as ancient porcelain.
Luckily, the dressing room was beyond our remit, so nobody was placed there.
Trigger had the lonely task of watching the fire exit, the only other way in or our from the street. He had to ensure that no one tried to leave this way, or - aided by an insider get inside.
That was the plan.
We were ready and none too soon either. Soon it was show time.
When opening time, the gathering line of people was larger than expected. Hika Taki has told us thirty buyers were coming, but that didn't include personal assistants, aides, bodyguards and hangers-on.
It didn't matter, we ran them all through facial recognition and scanned them. Most of them had augmentations of some sort, bodyguards were easy to spot, bulked out and loaded with cybernetics.
No red flags appeared.
The show was loud, glitzy and colourful. Hika Taki, the perfectionist that he was, had become even more stressed if that was possible. His gesticulations had become more frantic and his voice an octave higher.
As the show went on, we continued watching. Music thumped, the compere babbled his inane comments and humour as colourful swirling lights swam the walls and ceiling, the The models swayed and glided up and down the runway as waiting staff shuffled their way round the audience, feeding them cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.
As we were watching, Koko noticed one of the bodyguards acting strange, a large man, under his blue-grey two-piece Evoda suit he was visibly muscular, he was dark skinned with thick dreads. He seemed fixated by something on the wall to his left and constantly turned to face it.
Koko followed his gaze, but couldn't comprehend what was holding his attention.
Nothing else drew our attention and the show reached its end to a ripple of applause and cheers. The audience had been still during the show and now erupted into a burst of movement, stretching limbs, jostling in seats and standing up. The bodyguard smoothly got to his feet and made for the fire exit.
Koko let Trigger know over comms.
Trigger intercepted the bodyguard as he reached the fire exit. The man spoke to Trigger in a thick Jamaican accent, stating he just looking for a way out.
Trigger politely informed the bodyguard that he could not use the fire exit and had to go the other way.
He lashed out at Trigger but Trigger was no slouch and wasn't caught flat-footed, at the same time the body guard flung what looked like dark grey tennis ball into the corridor.
It gave a bang and began spewing out mind-bogglingly vast amounts of thick boiling grey smoke like a silently erupting geyser, it almost immediately filled the corridor and quickly began encroaching on the presentation room. Screaming and shouting began, barely audible over the sound system: Fire! Coming from the direction of the fire exit it went.
Trigger's thermal vision kicked in, otherwise the smoke would have blinded him, he exchanged blows with the bodyguard but neither gained the advantage.
Smoke was billowing into the presentation room, its expanding shape constantly morphing and eerily lit by the equally morphing lightshow. Koko and I began feeling our way through the almost unearthly smoke with its multi-coloured changing light patterns.
Bill had reached the podium, he found the mic and pumped the volume up, blaring orders out through the sound system, he told the increasingly anxious crowd to calm down and make their way to the front doors in an orderly manner.
Trigger was beginning to put the bodyguard on the back foot, so the bodyguard changed tack and burst through the fire exit and ran, Trigger gave chase.
As Koko and I reached the open fire exit, they were both gone?
Rain pounded on Trigger as he raced down the alleyway, he bought the bodyguard down with a finishing blow.
Koko and I caught up with Trigger as he was searching the man and was furtively stuffing a couple of small jars into his pocket....
Trigger finished his search and I.D'd him as Sky Juice, a Noise Tank ganger, in a pocket he had a hand written not:
Neon Noir belongs to the people.
-Wise Prophet Wei.
Strangest of all was the dead man's right ear! A small object had been jammed into the ear channel, it was a camera! His strange behaviour was explained.
The smoke bomb had been ejected from Ramen Ritz and only a low mist-like knee-level layer of smoke persisted. As dissipated as the sense of panic that had saturated this room a few short minutes ago.
The after-party was underway and in full swing.
Shouting over the booming music, we told Hika Taki what had transpired and handed over the ear-cam.
He thanked us with genuine gratitude and invited us to stay for the party.
We had to refuse though. It was only eleven at night and we had more places to be.
It was about ten to midnight when we reached the creaking shanties atop Nakamura's high-rise in Rokkaku-Dai Heights.
This far up, we were fully exposed to the elements and I pulled my trench coat tight against the furious wind-driven rain. It crashed down on the improvised homes with a thundering beat and a slippery layer of accumulating dirty rain water coated the rooftops, meaning that a simple mistake could be a deadly one.
In the pouring haze and spray, the city lights below were diffused and unfocused, the city felt strangely quiet, distant and disconnected.
As midnight come round, man middle-aged man joined us on the roof. He introduced himself as Antin Grova.
Antin explained that he had come to Neon City to pursue his ambition as a sculptor. Inspired by the inequality he saw, his art portrayed marginalised and forgotten communities throughout the world, using materials as discarded and abandoned as they were. It had to be said; coming here had been an inspired choice.
Even though Neon City liked to crush dreams, the last year had been a good one for Antin. His work had found its niche, word of mouth was positive and it passed hands for good money in the craft market.
Now that Antin was settled, he had decided to bring his family to Neon City. His wife, Saba and their three children lived in what was left of the United Kingdom; in a sealed habitat just outside of the Manchester Nuclear Fallout Exclusion Zone.
Antin had bought tickets for his family recently and earlier in the day, they had boarded the suborbital from England to Neon City.
A few hours ago, he had received a terrifying anonymous call: His family was being held hostage. His family would be dead in twelve hours if he did not pay six hundred and fifty thousand bits. He had no where near that kind of money and there was only six hours left.
When asked, Antim stated that he did not have any enemies or know of any reason why he might be targeted.
Antin explained that the supersonic passenger drone carrying his family had been somehow remotely high jacked and it's suborbital flight altered. The drone was now in a low fast moving orbit around the earth. It had enough life-support for six hours.
Like most things in Neon City, time was something against us. There was no time to lose.
Fast Flight Delight was the carrier his family had used, it specialised in rapid suborbital transcontinental flights on a fleet of Yushuy 272 Hayakai drones. A quick check on the GLOWNET revealed that it was a subsidiary wholly owned by old friends Oshin Amalgamated.
Further digging revealed that families of the other forty or so passengers on the flight were also being blackmailed. This was a big deal.
Publically at least, Oshin Amalgamated denied any responsibility for this, as did Fast Flight Delight.
The drone must have been hacked in some way, there was no way that the GLOWNET extended into orbit so another way of getting at its systems was needed.
I jacked into the GLOWNET. Physical space gave way to virtual space, my mind soared. The data-sphere of the GLOWNET appeared before me, the visual representation of knowledge contained within.
Quickly I learnt that communication between suborbital drones and ground control was achieved through very high frequency transmitters. In short we needed access to a transmitter capable of satellite comms.
The quickest way we could think of doing that was through Fast Flight Delight own cooms systems.
Still in the GLOWNET I sought out the digital constructs that might contain information on the carrier. I found the name of its chief executive officer - and his home contact details.
Jeremy Stiff was his name, he was very suspicious when we contacted him at one in the morning. He demanded to know how we had got his details.
We dismissed his outrage and bluntly put it to him that we knew about the blackmail attempt on Fast Flight Delight. Next we told him that we could help - if he gave us access to one of their transmitters and the stranded drone.
The call went silent but his hesitation was loud enough. After a few seconds he agreed.
Armed with the access codes, I logged on to a Fast Flight Delight server and it gave me telemetry data for the drone, the server also gave me remote access to a transmitter. A communication link was established with the drone after bouncing the transmission signal off of a couple of satellites.
I was in the drone's operating system now. It was pretty straightforward but I could not access the flight systems, even with authorisation codes, something was locking me out.
I had to search the code beneath the operating system. Looking into the flight controls partition, I could see some new code had been dropped in that removed all authorisation to access the controls - except for one user.
It was a familiar coding style. Ringo Chrome was up to his old tricks. The hackerist was a cold blooded extortionist and would not hesitate to sacrifice all the passengers for his own ends.
Working fast, I was lucky, not only had I managed to reverse his code and lock him out. I found a mistake he had let slip by.
Ringo Chrome needed a transmitter of his own to talk with the drone. Like our transmitter, his needed to bounce off the right satellites to find the drone and when the drone communicated back, it needed to know which satellites to bounce the signal back to source.
When Ringo had communicated with the drone, his signal contained packets of data that delivered technical hardware information about his transmitter, this included longitude and latitude. We had the precise location of his transmitter.
His transmitter turned out to be an antenna array on a tall rooftop, here in Rokkaku-Dai Heights! There was a chance he was closeby.
I instructed the drone to resume its original course, as I watched from my data-slab, I could see it plotting a new course that would bring it safely down to Neon City long before life support became depleted. The passengers would be safe.
It was nearly three in the morning but we weren't done yet. We had places to be and Ringo Chrome to deal with.
Even in the lashing rain it was easy to spot the antenna from our rooftop. It had been used as the anchoring point for several stories of shanties but nothing could obscure the rising steel cross-gridded square column shape that tapered off as it seemingly punctured the night sky.
"I know that place," commented Antin when we pointed it out!
We turned to him and he explained that one of the apartments on the top floor of that tower belonged to Lina Arkov.
Antin explained that he had been in an affair with Lina until a little while ago but had to break it off. Antin said that Lina was also begun a relationship with someone else. Antimn said that had met him once, he didn't get the name, but he remembered the man had a massive blue-black quiff.
He had gotten at the antenna through Lina Arkov. There was a chance he was at her apartment right now, waiting for his latest atrocity to pay off.
Trigger scanned the top of the tower with his thermal optics, he got several hits and it was inconclusive.
Then I used my Kuaijing Chaonon telescopic ocular implants to scope the exterior. Buzzing around the high rise were six drones in automated patrol patterns. Climbing or an aerial approach were out of the question unless we could deal with those. flying robotic guard drones.
It was suggested that we use an electro magnetic pulse to knock the drones out. Building one up here would be impossible, we didn't how long we'd have eyes on Ringo Chrome for. We needed someone with the know how to do it for us.
The Bric-a-Brack Shac boasted that it was open twenty four hours a day, time to put that claim to the test.
After contacting Alex, he told us he could put an EMP device together pretty quickish. He told us it would have a twenty metre range in a directed cone shape.
Next we called Roboy at Get That For You? and he sent a courier over to pick it up from the Bric-a-Brac Shac and bring it to us.
Within an hour we had the EMP emitter. It was a curious cube of packed electronics and circuit boards and attached to a weighty power cell.
Our plan was a two-pronged approach, Koko and Trigger would be on standby at the base of the high-rise, Bill and I would approach the top floor with our stealth implants activated.
Trigger's thermals hadn't picked up anything that looked like muscle but we knew that thermal signals wouldn't penetrate out of the centre of the tower, so we took the cautious, silent approach.
It was just as well, as we got close to the top of the concrete stairwell and peered round the corner to the top flight of steps on the top floor; we saw Ringo's goons.
Six geared-up bodyguards sitting on the steps with a lot of obvious cybernetic implants and tooled up. Worse still, they'd spotted us, thermals?
Bill and I versus six tanked up thugs weren't good odds. I pointed the EMP at them and triggered it.
Nothing appeared to happen, but five of the thugs immediately dropped and rolled down the stairs. Bill and I opened up on the last one and he went down quickly.
Over comms, Koko and Trigger told us that the six drones had plummeted out of the rainy sky, crashed into the ground, shattering into thousands of fragments. Ringo would have heard the shots, we had to move.
We rushed the front door, it gave Bill some trouble but I managed to hack it open. Outside, Koko and Trigger began climbing.
At the same time Bill and I burst into the apartment, Ringo came running out of a room. He was naked, naked except for those damned glasses and those damned lenses.
I felt the familiar pull, urging me into sleep, it would have been so easy to surrender, to drift away on a soporific sea but I gritted my mental teeth and shook it off. My vision cleared and Bill sprawled uncomfortably on the floor and naked Ringo Chrome was moving past me for the door.
I must have been out of it for a moment, he must have thought that his glasses had done their trick on me. It was a mistake he'd regret, I cold-cocked him with my pistol grip.
His glassed went flying, spinning off and bouncing against a wall, Ringo had crumpled into a foetal position on the carpet, wincing, raggedly sucking in breath and groaning.
From the same door that Ringo had entered, came a woman wrapped in a bed sheet. I turned to her and told her to shut up and get back the room. She wasn't in a position to argue with a man brandishing two pistols and fled, slamming the door. This wasn't the time to tread lightly.
As Bill roused himself, Koko and Trigger came in through a window. Trigger saw and immediately crushed the glasses.
"No! You philistine," yelled Ringo indignantly before .
I admit, I did wonder how much the tech in those glasses had been worth...
Now we had a predicament, how to deal with Ringo?
Rentacop probably wouldn't do anything, we'd heard that that Ringo had powerful friends, maybe powerful enough to get rentacop to look the other way.
We considered handing him over to one of the corporations he'd screwed with but considering the exceptional skill-set he possessed, it was likely they'd try and recruit him instead.
Ringo had heard our discussion and stopped whining long enough to swear to kill us at the first opportunity.
There was a loud retort from Felix. Ringo twitched for a moment before convulsing for a second and stopped breathing. A circle of blood expanding from his head and soaking the carpet,
"What?", said Koko as we all turned to face her. "It was a glitch in my control-slab that caused Felix tom fire off shot,"!
Well that was Ringo Chrome dealt with.... goodbye Odd Man.
Over the next twenty-four hours the GLOWNET newsfeeds announced the demise of Ringo Chrome; an event they accredited to a malfunction from one of his own gun drones.
19th December 2020
It was a Saturday night and we were now living in tier 4, the tier so bad, no one had even thought of it! I'm in the living room, logged on to Skype on my laptop
It was time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
Yet another unforgiving sweltering day in the City of Electric Dreams had come around. After sleeping in, I eventually had to leave the comfort of my futon and relative coolness of my one-bed apartment to hit the heaving, sweaty streets of Neon City.
Trigger was in a tight spot, his meagre supply of White Lotus Liniment had dwindled away and he wasn't looking forward to going cold turkey - despite all his boasts.
Which is why were were out under this cloudless, almost colourless sky with its unrelenting sun, navigating the thronging, crowded, retail districts, hitting up and shaking down anyone who might have word on the stuff.
Results weren't promising. Other than the Shaolin Rippers, the only other source of the liniment was another gang: Noise Tank, these gangers were fanatics who went all-in on implants, augmentations and elective limb replacement. They took it to the edge of it what meant to be human, supplanting flesh with metal to extol the machine god.
They used the liniment to manage the pain of their excessive cybernetics. Highway Zero was their turf but chances were, they'd be as much trouble to deal with as the Shaolin Rippers.
We needed another solution and after checking out a bunch of grotty mostly-unlicensed street-clinics; it looked the name of that solution was Margorba-Golina Global.
Margorba-Golina Global; another faceless, sprawling multinational with an insincere colourful logo that had set up shop in another gleaming chrome-decorated tower, no doubt exploiting the lawless corruption so endemic to Neon City for another bit.
One of the clinics we had checked out on Hikage had given Trigger the deal.
Margorba-Golina Global offered a service they called a Pharmaceutical Protection Plan. They would deliver Trigger a White Lotus Liniment substitute, not-so promisingly called Yellow Heroin. He would take this three times a day and it would counter-act the withdrawal symptoms of the White Lotus Liniment.
All of this for a small subscription fee of course.
Maybe it was just me, but they just seemed like a different kind of pusher. Trigger had little choice though, even at five hundred bits a week it was a bargain compared the the alternative.
At least it wouldn't leave Trigger at the tender mercies of the Shaolin Rippers' machinations.
Our search had taken us into the afternoon and eventually into one of the street-clinics on Hikage Street. You could have described its practitioner as a back-alley doc but in Neon City that meant a main-street doc.
With Trigger's predicament sorted we left the clinic and went back out on the street.
The temperature had gone from unbearable to merely uncomfortable but no amount of tech or implants could stop my shirt sticking to my back.
Barely had we gone a few steps when, screaming, yelling and panicking erupted from the walkway behind us?
We turned in time to see a pale sky blue with yellow trim Interstad Hirager sky taxi crashing into the ground like a falling rock. It's lightweight, thin, brightly coloured bodywork crumpled and folded in on itself, the windscreen bent and shattered into a spider's web.
Its power cell burst into a fount of painfully bright orange spraying flame, spitting out little arcing globs of red-white superheated metal and white smoke, a fireworks display courtesy of catastrophe.
Moments later it exploded with a thunderous snapping bang. Fire was spreading over the wreckage.
There was chaos on Hikage Street, a raging tornado of people grew, swirling around the crash, drawn by morbid curiosity. The roar of a hundred voices and a hundred clicking media-slabs at once was staggering.
The taxi's colours and twisted logo showed that it had belonged to the Sky Diamond taxi fleet. One of the many taxi companies that operated out of Neon City, congesting her skies and air lanes with swarms of autonomous, un-piloted flying taxis.
Something this big couldn't be ignored by rentacop, they would be here in minutes.
Whilst the others did what they could to help, I tried my best to push past the wall of heat still radiating from the power cell and searched for the taxi's data-slab. Once found I networked it with my own slab and jacked in.
The universe lurched sideways for a moment and sheets of code imprinted themselves over my view of the real world.
It took no time before I was in the protocols that managed the taxi controls.
Skimming through the code, I couldn't see what was wrong, so I ran through the data's changelist and saw that part of the code had been revised within the last twenty four hours.
I checked that revision and found that flight behavioural protocols had been rewritten to deliberately induce the crash and the safety protocols had been lowered in priority.
There was something else though, I'd seen something like this new code before and I recognised it. This code had been written by the same individual who'd written the Civil_Disobedience_Protocol virus.
After this rentacop came swooping down from their normal stomping grounds, sirens flashing on their Perayu Korazna air cruisers, affectionately know as flying pig wagons, they were followed by air ambulances. As they landed, we slipped into the gawking crowd still straining with their media-slabs to record the grim scene and kept a low profile.
Who was this coder? Twice we'd indirectly crossed paths. Had they gotten a handle on us? I wondered if this crash was directed at us, their way of attacking?
As I was thinking about this, news came out that there had been three fatalities and five serious injuries resulting from the crash.
Soon more news started streaming in on the feed and spreading along the GLOWNET's digital grapevine: Two more Sky Diamond sky taxis had dropped out of the over-bright hazy afternoon sky and come crashing down on Neon City's busy streets.
Sky Diamond was the target. One of the questions had been answered but a new one had replaced it, why was the coder targeting Sky Diamond? It had to be a ransom scheme.
Whoever they were, they had to be stopped.
We'd had enough of rubbernecking and decided it was time to move on. It was easy to find that Sky Diamond had an office that operated out of Dogenzaka Hill, so we headed over.
Office was something of an exaggeration. Situated on a busy sidewalk corner in Dogenzaka Hill's packed retail centre was a small plastic booth with hardly enough room to accommodate a tiny desk and a chair, it featured a single sliding window and a door in the back.
Emblazoned with the company colours and logo: Sky Diamond Taxi And Limousine Service: The Sky's The Limit. It looked like a little bit of sweaty hell in Dogenzaka.
Sitting in the booth was a company rep, an attractive young blonde.
She was petite with tied back hair, wore Neon City styled replica jewellery and a cheap, but smart knock off of a Fassus business suit, also in Sky Diamond company colours. A engraved plastic name tag on her lapel read: Lucy.
We approached Lucy in the Sky Diamond booth.
Her practised smile couldn't hide the stress behind her eyes as we drew closer.
She had been busily answering calls from the constantly pinging desk-slab and shakily jabbing instructions into it. It definitely looked like hell.
As we reached the booth, without hesitating Lucy presented us with a hardcopy claims form through the sliding window and told us that our filled-out claim would have to be mailed directly to head office in Spain! Lucy also offered to give us their number if we wanted to try calling them.
We explained that we weren't here about a claim, Lucy looked up from the slab with its unrelenting pinging and hesitated, trying to assess the situation. She was unconvinced that we were here to investigate the crashes.
She didn't want to deal with us, the sky taxi crashes had dumped a large pile of crap on to her small, white laminated desk. To her; we were just another bunch of Neon City nutjobs looking to ingratiate ourselves into the situation.
"Too busy just trying to stay on top of things," Lucy told us.
As we were thinking about how to get Lucy's help, A delivery robot merged on to the corner out of the churning crowds, smoothly zipping over to the booth, it pushed past us to the window, handing over a slim package to Lucy.
Lucy went as pale as her plastic desk after opening it and slumped heavily in her chair, it was kind of lucky the booth was small, as it prevented her from falling. Staring vacantly, her concentration had drifted elsewhere, the desk-slab's insistent pinging went unanswered.
Bill managed to bring her back and calm her, his smooth talking convinced her to hand over the package.
Inside, there was only one thing. A business card for: Love Capsule Nine.
On the back of the card an address and a time had been scrawled, plus the following message.
So more don't die.
Lucy told us that she had been approached earlier by an odd looking man, dark-skinned, with an enormous quiff of blue-black hair and thick-rimmed glasses with strange looking lenses.
Odd Man had initially propositioned Lucy but rebuked, he had stalked off angrily.
When Lucy had been talking to him, he had been very nice, charismatic even. After he left though, she didn't remember it like that so clearly, it was hazy and unfocussed, she did recall getting getting a headache.
It was clear that the sky taxi hacking was his handiwork and it was clear from his message what Odd Man was after....
It seemed like these attacks would continue if Lucy didn't capitulate to his desires.
Lucy was beginning to look even more stressed now with a tinge of fear edging in. Bill said that we'd look into it and she was not to worry, it worked, she seemed a little relieved. We'd give Odd Man a tryst to remember!
Lucy had given us a time that Odd Man had visited the booth, I looked around and found several security cameras bolted to external walls that silently overlooked the Sky Diamond corner booth
Time I got to work.
Jacking into my slab, I wirelessly connected to the GLOWNET and as its reality overwrote mine, I could watch all the different lanes of digital data commuting past me in a gridlock of data-bundles. The tell-tale of a security camera was the constant and unchanging one-way of traffic. That's what I was looking for and that's what I found. It led me to yet another poorly encrypted Preaavar server filled with the mundane humdrum footage of passing city-life.
Finding footage of Odd Man wasn't much of a challenge, med-clinics offering cheap ocular repairs could be found on every street of Neon City and that meant glasses were rare.
We got a good shot of Odd Man working through the pressing mob towards the Sky Diamond booth. He was skinny and long legged with a square face and a goatee, he walked with a quick confident stride. wore a cheap synthetic brown-grey Evoda two-piece suit with a pale yellow shirt and black tie.
There was definitely something strange about those glasses, the frame was particularly thick but the feed lacked the resolution to get a good luck at them.
Putting Odd Man through facial recognition got zero hits, this wasn't a coder, this was a ghost.
There were several facial recognition databases out there and everybody had their details logged on at least one of them, everybody. Except for Odd Man it seemed.
I'd heard a theory: The Digital Crocodile they called it, a heuristic viral subroutine tailored to an individual face that could be released into the GLOWNET, programmed to replicate itself and drill into and infect any recog database it discovered.
When in that database, it would quietly sit at the bottom of a river of facial recognition records and wait. Then, when any data that matched that individual face flowed into the database, it would immediately be dragged to the riverbed and drowned, never to be seen again.
No matter how many times that individual was clocked on camera, the data would be gone, there would nothing to match against.
If Odd Man had programmed the crocodile, he had serious coding chops. He could be a dangerous enemy.
We knew the time and place Odd Man would be; later in the day and that's where we'd be.
During the ride, Katsuko Nakamura, our Chou-Nata contact pinged us on one of our media-slabs, he must have been happy with the last job we did because he dropped another gig into our laps. Binary Johnny was making a play into The Benten Tower on the forty-third floor at midnight and needed muscle to run interference. That would be us. Meet up would be half an hour before.
Shadows had lengthened by the appointed time, day was ending and the seared washed out sky was retreating before the advancing red-black of night. As Neon City's life-cycle rolled on, street lights began rousing themselves into action, the readout of a sprawling, urbanised, pale cardiogram. Diagnosis; Neon City's heart was strong at night.
Churning clouds had gathered and soon, rain would come in drumming sheets.
Love Capsule Nine was a lucrative franchise of capsule love hotels that had successful branches throughout every city district.
No one was ever judged for using them despite their cramped size; for the average citizen of Neon City's street level they represented a thin sliver of exoticism and glamour. An escape from noisy, overpopulated drab high-rises and undersized dull apartments filled with mundane effigies to life's failures and abandoned ambitions.
This particular Love Capsule Nine hotel was in an old style brick building, constructed in the city's early days and dwarfed by its younger but characterless concrete and steel neighbours.
In true spirit, spanning the width of the hotel front was a massive neon sign decked out in tubes of red and pink that noisy hummed and clicked as it flashed out the company logo:
Convenient Copulation for Couples.
Understanding The Concept Of Love.
The love hotel was busy; it never for lacked customers as a constant flow of clients wafted in and out. Individuals, couples, threesomes or more entering and leaving every few minutes, as well as hostesses, escorts, mistresses, street workers and more.
Casual looking, shaven-headed hired muscle flanked the way in, pistols and stun-batons amateurishly concealed beneath their bulletproof Tremeita black nylon jackets. Typically for lower end doormen, they wore Ozykus shades, a cheap alternative to implants or Maoshis for the integrated heads-up-display and datafeeds.
Scoping the front out after arriving a few minutes early, there was a visible sign saying Absolutely No Recording Whatsoever. Discretion was guaranteed, maybe.
Needless to say, Koko sent Kevin over, the tiny drone buzzed above the jostling swathes of people passing the frontage, circling around and over the hotel as we watched the feed.
If Odd Man was already here, he was good enough to slip our notice.
Koko assumed the role of Lucy and entered the hotel, taking the keycard for the booked room. The allotted capsule room was several storeys up.
The door into the capsule room was low down, one metre high and about one-and-a-half metres wide.
Opening it revealed a plain, easily wiped-clean entirely beige coloured sparse vinyl interior with smooth beige walls and ceiling, a beige futon that spanned the entire width of the capsule. Other than a narrow beige shelf to place small personal items with some close by charging points, there was no other furniture.
The wall contained an integrated media-slab to pump out appropriate tunes or vids.
All in all, a tidy little respite from the harsh realities of Neon City, paid for in half-an-hour slots, or if you felt like bragging an hour at a time.
Koko clambered on to the futon and instructed Kevin to fly a patrol pattern outside the entrance and pushed the vid-feed to the rest of us. Meanwhile we took up position around the hotel and waited.
The clamorous crush of Neon City's passing crowds barely let up as the downpour began. Plummeting raindrops gleamed flashing red and pink. catching neon light which was reflected in the growing street puddles.
Then, Kevin's vid-feed died, Koko told us that it was rebooting, she began shouting something about a grenade?
Everything seemed to kick off at the same time.
Trigger was yelling down the comms, he was fighting some jacked-up, tricked-out thugs. As he said it, Bill and I saw Odd Man walk stroll round the corner of the hotel with his quiff, his brown-black suit and look at us with those thick rimmed glasses, with their strange colourful lenses.
I fought the urge to sleep, it was if something had sunk a hook and line into my mind and they were trying to reel my consciousness out. I tried fighting it, my arms and legs became strange unresponsive flapping appendages as everything faded away....
....I was awake, Trigger had given me a shake and I was awake and covered in rain, so was Bill, there was a dull throb deep my skull like a receding hangover and I had to concentrate to focus on anything.
With effort I awkardly got back to my feet.
Trigger explained that Bill and I had only been down for a minute. At the same time we had been bamboozled by Odd Man, he had got in a tussle with some goons, likely muscle for Odd Man and someone had lobbed a grenade into the room with Koko.
The goons were pretty tough, Trigger said he was having trouble with them, but when they made a run for it, he had managed to take one out. Trigger proudly brandished the goon's weapon; a Prosya short-barrelled Konseye 9mm K4 submachine gun, serious room-clearing hardware for this kind of action.
Trigger then started talking about making something he called a gunblade?
Koko had managed to grab the grenade in the capsule and throw it back out, she was unharmed and so was Kevin.
The goons were gone and so was Odd Man.
We had lost him and I thought we had lost our edge on him, but in reality we never had it.
Somehow he had gotten past us like we weren't there, torn through our surveillance like a wet paper bag.
Maybe it was those glasses of his, they had definitely done a number on Bill and I.
One thing for sure though, it wasn't over between us.
Monstrously rising out of the centre of Ninety Ninth Street was our destination; The gigantic Benten Tower, the Protobase Global headquarters that disappeared up into the rain-filled night, only made visible by beastly baleful red eyes that were the aircraft warning lights.
My brain was still filled with white noise and static. On the ride over to Ninety Ninth I washed down some Woanqie Xingfa stim pills with a can of Kaia Cola, they were cheap, legit stims but seemed to do the trick, at least for now.
The night tram only took us so far, the rest of the way was on foot and we had to work our way through the rain-soaked churning, overcrowded and thriving nightlife of Ninety Ninth to The Benten Tower; which being an entirely corporate affair was away from the bright lights and revellers of Ninety Ninth.
Binary Johnny, in his customary old world flying cap and goggles was waiting for us close to the base of The Benten Tower.
He was leaning against a familiar looking grounded blue with yellow trim Sky Diamond sky taxi that was parked up out of the rain, he waved and smiled when we arrived.
Now that we were here, we bent Johnny's ear and gave him a description of Odd Man.
I could see from Johnny's reaction that he knew who Odd Man was before we even finished the description.
Odd Man was Ringo Chrome.
Ringo Chrome was someone known in some way to all of us. GLOWNET newsfeeds were filled with accounts of his atrocities.
Ringo Chrome had been a hackerrist going back at least five years and was involved with several high profile disasters or incidents that had caused a string of fatalities.
Johnny told us that Ringo was a high-level operator, a dangerous player and not an enemy to be taken lightly. It was possible Johnny continued, that Ringo was bankrolled by some powerful backers and his seemingly random terrorist attacks had a purpose behind them. Johnny also said that Ringo Chrome had another name.
The Man With The Kaleidoscope Eyes!
Enough shop talk. Down to business.
Johnny needed to get into the forty third floor of the tower to physically insert a data-logger in to the Protobase Global system.
We talked about our play to get in. Johnny favoured a direct approach but in the end we tried a two tiered run.
Bill went and lurked around some shadowy corner not far from the tower's well lit and well decorated replica marble and glass lobby and watched. Even though it was close to midnight, Bill knew what he was looking for.
A lone wage-monkey came wandering out, his slate-grey Oltrante suit was a dishevelled mess and silk Ecohio tie mostly-undone, he was half-staggering along, worse for wear from long hours and no doubt more than a few shots knocked back whilst in the Protobase Global exec bar. Bill quietly stalked him.
When Suit Man lurched precariously out of security's line of sight, Bill pounced, one hit of the stun-baton and Suit Man was out for the count.
Bill dragged him into the shadows and went through the suit pockets until he found the man's Protobase Global keycard.
With the Mannikten and Buryayi implants activated, it gave Bill an almost perfect disguise. Only diligent scrutiny from someone trained would reveal the flaws.
Mimicking Suit Man, Bill swiped into the fancy decked out lobby and headed for the elevators. Rentaguard were slouched behind the replica marble-topped reception desk, mostly distracted by their media-slabs and Bill smiled at them as went past, explaining without breaking stride that he had forgotten something in the office.
Metal detectors pinged loudly as he went past the reception desk, presumably triggered by his hardware and instantly drew the full attention of rentaguards.
Bill stopped and without hesitating, turned to the guards and informed them a bio-health implant was playing up and pumping out a magnetic pulse - which is was what got picked up. Bill always was a fast talker and since Suit Man was known to the guards, it made them complacent and they took it at face value.
Bill reached the row of elevators, swished into one and punched the button for forty-three.
Outside, back at the cab, Johnny explained that we would take the sky taxi up to the forty-third and smash our way in through the exterior window.
Johnny smirked when he saw our askance expressions and explained that he had checked out and cleaned the sky taxi's data-slab. There would be no record of us using it and there was no sign that Ringo had tampered with it.
The four of us sank into the dimly lit soft vinyl benches, Johnny grabbed his data-slab and he flicked the sky taxi's systems on. Despite having no pilot, the cockpit still retained instrumentation and flight panels with rows of readouts and dials that lit up, we could see them reflected in the windscreen like fairy lights. The electric turbines sprang to life with a low whine, as they picked up speed we could feel a slight vibration.
After a few moments we felt the sky taxi lift off and smoothly float out into the rain, we could hear the downpour merrily pounding away on the roof as rivulets of water began trickling their way down the windows. At this altitude the wet ground beneath the sky taxi's four turbines was blasted dry by this colossal flying hair dryer.
Johnny increased the torque and we felt ourselves pulled skywards, the shadowed world beyond the windows fell away as we rose. Ninety Ninth Street became distant and silent, reduced to a multicoloured twinkling ribbon of a thousand different flashing lights.
Pushing against the rain, the sky taxi swayed a little as we continued to gain altitude, climbing up along a wall of reinforced plate glass like a buzzing wasp going up a tree,When we reached the forty third floor, Johnny instructed the sky taxi to move dangerously close to the tower.
Then with what seemed to be today's theme, he blithely disengaged the safety protocols, allowing him to open the taxi doors during flight.
The opening door scraped against the glass. We were that close!
Now the door was open, we were exposed to the elements. A surprisingly vigorous wind blustered into the taxi's interior, I could feel it clawing at my trench coat.
From the cab we stared at the glassy, on the other side we saw another blue with yellow trim sky taxi hovering there with its door open. It's four occupants staring back at us with slightly confused expressions!
Johnny turned to us and said we needed to cut through the glass; Trigger volunteered.
The glass was tough enough to slow a sniper round to hopefully non lethal speeds, Protobase Global didn't want to give any opportunistic marksmen any ideas. Could it withstand the microscopically sharpened edge of a Wanametosu katana in the hands of someone who knew how to wield it? We were going to find out.
Trigger swung, he didn't cut the glass per se but he did manage inflict a long spidering crack on it, a wrinkled wound on smooth cool skin. That didn't stop Trigger, who leapt at the glass with his full force. Weakened, the glass crumpled inwards and Trigger crashed through.
The opening was wide enough for all of us to jump on to the forty-third floor.
Below, Bill had hit an obstacle. The Suit Man's keycard didn't give him access beyond the twentieth floor.
The forty-third was an open plan grey carpeted, grey walled room ringed with glass walled offices, grey partitions created a labyrinth of grey soulless office cubicles filled with light brown imitation wooden desks, chairs and desk-slabs to explore. Walls were punctuated with inane motivational posters and company slogans. We jogged through the maze, time was in short supply, no doubt alarm ringing and motion detecting office lights ticked into life as we came close, stealth was out of the question.
Johnny told us he needed five minutes with a secured terminal to attach his data-logger and hide it well enough to avoid detection from the security sweeps that would occur after our break in. Five minutes was a hundred years in a situation like this.
This meant finding an exec's desk-slab. Some of the glass fronted offices had their floor-to-ceiling blinds closed, these seemed like out best bet.
We began searching.
Koko's eye was immediately drawn to a cheerful illustration of a podgy little cartoon penguin on one of these screened offices. No doubt the result of extensive focus group testing and research, carefully and purposely designed to elicit feelings of trust and happiness. It was a logo belonging to Oshin Amalgamated, we'd had a run-in with their enforcers before, they were some sort of climate research corporation? Apparently, also a subsidiary of Protobase Global.
Inside was a scale model of Neon City, all her districts and echelons faithfully reproduced with tiny towers that rocketed skywards and even Ninety Ninth Street's twinkling multi-coloured lights were depicted here.
Like some humanoid kaiju leering at it's next target, Koko stared at the model, something was wrong?
The waterfront, where the city met the bay, the waterfront was a different shape. Koko realised it wasn't just a display model, it was modelling what would happen if water levels rose. The bay would engulf large parts of the city's lower levels and districts.
What was it that Oshin Amalgamated knew that no one else did?
This wasn't the time though, elsewhere in the room was a table piled with corporate merch, including plush penguin soft toys. Koko grabbed a souvenir and closed the door.
By now Johnny was in an exec office, with its view of a tiny Neon City out of the window and it's larger, finely polished higher-quality imitation wooden desk, nicer chairs and thicker carpet - it was imperative that one's status was appropriately displayed in corporate circles. Photos of corporate get-togethers and meetings hung on the walls along with printed-out corporate certifications and awards.
Johnny had found what he was looking for and was entirely consumed by his hacking, for us, it was a matter of waiting.
Bill buzzed us on comms, with no way of getting to us. He had instead set himself to watch the rentaguards. Roused to their feet, shouting at each other and making calls, the rentaguards were frantically looking through their security handbooks. Bill told us to expect a security team in the elevator soon.
It was no surprise; with weapons in hand, we had take up position close to the elevators. Koko had bought some extra firepower, Felix was Ngumatadi Suayoi Type VI gun drone, a tooled up flying quad-rotored thirty square centimetre bundle of twin nine mills and tricked out targeting and situational sensors.
The tell-tale humming came first. The moment alarms were triggered, drones would have been activated and sent to the security breach, we knew what was coming, Protobase Global had Aliraiyo Patrolmen combat drones installed in all their facilities and The Benten Tower was no different.
Having un-docked, the angry swarm of metal, electronics and firearms came hurdling towards us. We threw everything we had at the four drones. They were glass cannons, they would go down quick but given the opportunity; they would easily chew us up with their guns. They weren't given the opportunity.
On the lower levels, Bill had had enough of waiting, time to do something. Direct assault on his own was risky, so he decided to turn to a tried and trusted method of distraction and destruction; over comms, he told us that on the twentieth floor, he was setting a fire!
A minute after rising flames began licking the furniture that Bill had set alight, alarms began ringing and the sprinkler system activated.
Now was time to leave. Ignored completely by the stressed out rentaguards, Bill calmly walked out from under the raining sprinklers and into the raining night.
Back on forty-three, the rest of us had turned our attention back to the row of elevators. It was a quiet moment - apart from the distant muffled curses of Binary Johnny. I could hear measured breathing, the rustle of clothing as someone shifted their weight, the buzz of Felix's motors with their gentle down-draft and then finally, the low hiss of an arriving elevator.
I wound my arm up as the hiss ended and the ding came. I threw the stun grenade I had acquired from an earlier altercation a moment before the doors began opening, it was good timing and landed amongst the six-man security team before the doors finished opening.
Their Verskeit Setihci armour lacked the fast-acting reactive defences of better armour and we'd caught them on the hop. As the stun grenade went off, even we felt the shockwave slapping against us, despite the elevator doors only being partially open.
When the they did open, four of them were senseless and slumped to the ground awkwardly. We lit up the remaining two, caught in a killing box, they went down quickly.
We had taken a casualty - of sorts, Felix had caught a couple of hits and was out of commission. Some repairs later and it would be up and flying again.
In a building this vast there had to be more rentaguards on route.
Johnny was still working and we were still watching. Sidelong glances at the others told me they were thinking the same: How long?
I heard the hiss of another approaching elevator.
"Done," exclaimed Johnny a split second later!
We turned and ran, Johnny also ran for it.
Over our thumping footsteps I heard another elevator ding, a warning of what was to come.
Just as we reached the grey maze gunfire tore through the office partitions, punching fist sized holes through layer after layer, sending dust and splinters flying.
We hunkered down into a crouching run, hopefully out of view. I guess they didn't have thermal optics, they were spraying entire magazines blindly into the maze, cutting swathes of it down.
There was little choice but to push on, we tipped over several tables behind us. Not so much as cover but to slow their advance.
It must have worked as we reached the broken window. In quick succession we leapt aboard and Johnny instructed the sky taxi to bank away from The Benten Tower with such ferocity that we were thrown across the cab.
By the time I had regained my bearings, I could see The Benten Tower shrinking away into the rain, with the forty-third floor all lit up and a flickering orange glow coming from twenty-three stories below.
After reaching safety, the sky taxi lazily circled round and picked up Bill. Johnny then dropped us off and we were left walking home through the soaking downpour.
The call came much too early on the next morning, my eyes were wrapped in barbed wire and my mouth was filled with cotton wool. No choice but to answer, maximum concentration is what it took to sift through the mess from last night's victory takeout and empty cans of Huntudi lager to find my Jaunkeu.
Taking the call was like getting hit by one of Trigger's stim-sticks, I was immediately up on my feet, pulling on my boots and out of my apartment, hangover forgotten.
It had come from Lucy? Another package had been delivered to her booth via courier!
There was no time for public transport, I put an order in for a sky taxi - other than Sky Diamond as I ran for street level, still on the call with Lucy.
Lucy explained this new package contained a model tram which might of been some sort clock, Lucy could hear it ticking.
No one would use an obvious crappy clock as a timer unless they were sending a message.
The ordered sky taxi was just touching down outside my apartment tower as I told Lucy to get out of her booth, she wasn't taking it seriously.
A low morning sun blazed away in a pale watery blue clear sky, luckily long shadows from the surrounding sprawl protected me from the ferocious brightness as I ran for the taxi. Even so, thanks to the early heat I could feel a trickle of sweat beading on my temple.
I informed the sky taxi I would pay double if it got to Lucy's booth as fast as it could. It was probably against safety regs, but the taxi companies knew an opportunity for a quick bit when they saw it. Besides, rentacop weren't paid to care, unless they had to mop up the mess like yesterday.
The instant I closed the cab door, the quad-engines powered up, the engine whine reaching peak intensity and I imagined myself sinking into the bench as the sky taxi soared skywards, accelerating all the time.
Moments later it had joined the congested air lanes, without slowing the sky taxi bobbed, weaved, ducked, jumped and dodged other air traffic. I barely had the chance to watch the city roll by with its choked pedestrian zones and dirty streets as we slalomed past tower and elevated highway.
All the time trying to get Lucy out of her damned booth.
The cab door wouldn't open until the sky taxi had finished its landing and the engines powered down, it was an eternity before I could run over to the Sky Diamond booth.
I didn't listen to Lucy's protests about mounting insurance claims as I pulled her out of the booth and dragged her to a safe distance.
A little later, the others arrived and Koko sent Kevin into the cramped plastic booth to investigate. The model tram was sitting on torn-open wrapping paper branded with the Greetings and Gifts logo. Watching the video feed, we could see the model was possibly a souvenir and replica of a tram called Kuda Kazu? Was this a Neon City tram? Was this part of the message?
We were discussing the next step when the tram exploded! Initially, there was no noise, a ball of rippling red-yellow flame grew, filling the booth like a liquid inferno. The booth's weak plastic joints couldn't contain the force and with nowhere else for the energy to go; the booth was ripped into four pieces.
Each booth wall was carried along like a strange yellow polymer boat sail catching a breeze of violent fire.
One wall was flung in our direction and to my chagrin, our safe distance wasn't quite distant enough and it ploughed into us.
On instinct alone, I pushed Lucy to the ground and lunged on top of her. For a moment, the deep pools that were her eyes met with mine and lingered as the noise, heat and shockwave battered and washed us, knocking the others off their feet.
"NO," Shouted Koko, Kevin had been vaporised in the blast, her control-slab was only receiving a dead signal from the little spy drone.
Other than Kevin, there had been no serious injury, neither for us or the passing crowds.
Inevitably, gawkers began to congregate before the altar of destruction. gathering round the booth's ruins.
Soon after, the now familiar blaring air vehicle sirens could be distantly heard and ever getting closer. We faded into the crowd, answering this sort of question wasn't our style.
Speaking with the others, I wondered if the name Kuda Kazu was significant in some way in Neon City. We decided to pursue other lead first instead.
Time to follow the paper trail - this time figuratively. Greeting and Gifts were a GLOWNET retailer that sold toys, models, key rings, caps and other fairly cheap and slightly tacky items. Looking at their site, I saw that their catalogue included the Kuda Kazu tram model that had been sent to Lucy.
Connecting to the GLOWNET and hacking their site was no obstacle and I was soon examining their sales records for that exact model.
I got a hit, a good one too. Within the last twenty four hours a gift-wrapped Kuda Kuzu model had been sold. Payment had been made with a once-only burner-card but I snagged the delivery address.
It led to Hikage Street, unfortunately it was an address in a vacant, unused stretch of the street that needed extensive regeneration. For the corporation that owned it, it was instead financially expedient to ignore it and make domestic units in other housing blocks smaller, increasing population density.
It was likely that the courier service who delivered the package also picked it up from that same address.
It was a dead end, Ringo had covered his tracks.
At the same time, Lucy had gotten a call from head office in Spain. The official word was: Following the attacks yesterday, Sky Diamond's stock had taken a dive into the basement, it didn't look like that death-spiral was going to stop any time soon and now that the Neon City office no longer existed; she was out of a job.
It looked like Lucy was going to take it pretty hard but we came up with what we hoped was a solution.
Alison at Aisle 10 owed us, time to call that marker in.
We left the smoking and scattered, melted plastic ruins of Lucy's old career behind on our ride over to the up market Chou-Nata Corporation Mall.
As always, entering the mall felt like walking into a different world: Cooler, calmer and cleaner. lacking the hot crush of the street. A fine consumer experienced - for those wealthy enough to indulge in it.
When we found her, Alision agreed to find a job for Lucy, so that was something at least.
Just before we left, Lucy pushed a business card into my hand.
It was a Love Capsule Nine card with a time and address! One thing about the crowded streets of The City of Electric Dreams was how good it was to make friends, friends with benefits!
A couple of hours later, news came trickling down the GLOWNET: An explosion had occurred on the Kuda Kazu tram when it stopped to pick up passengers.
Twenty injured, eight dead.
Ringo Chrome had to be stopped.
12th December 2020
It's Saturday night, I'm in my living room and I'm logged on to Skype.
This means it's time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
I could hear the incoming call tone repeating itself, it should have been coming out of my media-slab, from where I'd hurled it against the far wall of my apartment a couple of seconds ago. Except it was coming from behind my eyeballs? I was pretty sure none of my implants did this.
Maybe the half empty bottle of Shiaikan whisky sloshing by my bed had something to do with it?
All I knew was it was midday and too early for this, but the pinging just wouldn't go the-hell away.
Relenting, I hauled myself up and bumbled over to the media-slab. There was a small indentation where it had hit the drywall. Nothing to worry about, it was a Jaunkeu Six model Eodinhwa slab, finished in machined slate grey and built to last, it would probably outlive me.
Bill was on the other end, he was calling all of us. Something was up.
We met up on the hottest part of the day. At its zenith, a merciless sun, high in a hazy blue-white sky pumped out waves of biting heat and light, so harsh we were forced to seek cover under the awning of a street stall selling icy Kaiangxing Cola.
Over some thankfully chilled drinks, Bill explained what had happened.
When we operated, we liked to so so quietly, avoiding attention, out of sight and under the radar.
Bill said that someone had noticed us, someone at Chou-Nata had picked up on Bill's meal-deal and he'd gotten a call from them.
We agreed to meet up in vid-chat: Katsuko Nakamura was a corpulent, sallow skinned middle-aged guy, a soft suit who had never even had a sniff of the street. He was the errand boy of some high level exec in Neon City that he didn't want to name.
The exec-without-a-name did have a grandma though; Tatsuya Miko, she liked to come down to street level for the night life, the karaoke in particular.
Last night, Tatsuya and her sister Kawai had gone down to Ninety Ninth Street. They had gone to a karaoke bar actually called Karaoke! They had never come back.
Nakamura wanted us to look into it, but quietly.
The tram ride was noisy, stifling and uncomfortable, over-crowded and over-hot. Ninety Ninth Street was a commercial and shopping district, well known as the city's entertainment centre and a big draw for fun-seekers from all over.
As it came into view we could see the not-so-anonymous seedy gambling dens, colourful and jingle-blaring pachinko parlours, loud and brightly lit yet somehow still gloomy arcade dens. There were cheerful wine bars, smoky pubs and cliquish dives, tiny theatres and niche restaurants, exotic street performers and craft market stalls.
When people say Neon City; Ninety Ninth is what they think off. All the sounds and the lights merged into one headache inducing cacophony but this didn't stop anybody coming. It seethed with people all day, all night, all looking for a good time. Tourists, gawkers, gamblers, good-time girls, drinkers and chancers, all looking to live the electric dream.
Rising above all of it and dominating the view was The Benten Tower, a soaring sky-piercing edifice of steel, concrete and glass, dedicated to the excesses and hegemonic ambitions of Protobase Global. A silent, gleaming monolithic over-watcher, a constant reminder of where the the seats of power lay in Neon City
Today was as busy as any day on Ninety Ninth, the sidewalk trembled under the flow of humanity which always seemed to be going against us.
We navigated our way to Karaoke, the frontage was cheerfully painted in bright colours and stamped with the logo All Night Your Dreams Are Made Concrete.
Inside, it was a slick operation, clean and comfortable with tasteful, pricey fittings, a stocked bar and kitchen and a fully licensed quality Utsuashu karaoke set up.
Bill went to talk to the staff whilst we took a look around.
Karaoke was busy even for that time of day and some hopeful wannabe was hanging on the mic, murdering a forty year-old classic. No one in here flagged any warnings and everyone was just looking to have a good time.
Bill came back with some info, said to us that a different shift was working the night and we'd have to speak to them when they came back on at around eight.
A manager had told him that much of Karaoke's clientèle were old folk, they were a good source of customers. Recently though, they had been coming in but weren't staying.
There definitely weren't any old people in Karaoke when we looked around.
Finally, the manager had said to Bill that he reckoned they were being lured away by illegal karaoke dens run by The Yakuza.
The human element hadn't given us much, now it was time to hit the digital side. I'd seen several security cameras in Karaoke.
I found a suitable spot and jacked into my data-slab, the real world folded away and the artificially vibrant virtual landscape of the GLOWNET opened up. The vast digital ecosystem inhabited by constantly updating data-populations, herds of information, flocks of knowledge and I the hunter.
It was easy to find Karaoke's link to the GLOWNET, from there it was simple to track its data outputs to a Karseakk secure server. It was run by a minor security outfit called Turomaasi who stored all of their clients' security feeds on the server. One of the clients was Karaoke.
Getting into the server was no problem, footage was routinely auto-deleted every seventy two hours so security was low priority and the last twenty was all we needed.
Katsuko Nakamura had provided us with images of the two women. Karaoke had footage from three cameras covering the public, we chose the footage facing the audience in the seating area. Sifting through footage of the audience, I easily found them using some facial recognition software.
We watched the evening play out, the security camera was on a wide angle and the sisters were distant in the footage and not particularly clear. It had been a busy night, Karaoke was packed, a constant barrage of customers were coming and going in a churn of activity and the seating was filled.
During their visit, the sisters had ordered food, when it arrived we could see the pair of them staring at something on the table. It was out of shot, no amount of zooming the image would show us what it was.
The footage played on, a few moments later we saw someone approach the sisters. It a was what appeared to be a young man from his trendy clothes and posture, some sort of digital smudge was obscuring his face, turning it into a pixelated mess, impenetrable to facial recognition.
It took a serious player to mask a face in this way and some serious tech. We were up against someone with major resources in their pocket.
They exchanged words in a brief conversation and then the sisters got up and went with the man?
There was no clue or indication why they had done this, what had the man said? What had they seen on the table?
As the trio had left Karaoke, I flicked over to the footage of the front door security camera. They had strolled out into a Neon City rainy night, moisture on the lens had turned the feed of Ninety Ninth Street's exuberant lights into a smear of kaleidoscopic colours. It was the last we saw of them as they vanished out of camera shot and into a sea of bobbing umbrellas and upturned coat collars.
The footage hadn't given us much but it was enough to work with and we came up with a plan: Use Bill as bait!
Bill was the proud owner of a piece of black tech called a Mannikten nano implant, his head was filled with programmable nanites controlled by a chip in his nervous system, those nanites could be sent to his face to change its shape and appearance. In most of the the world it was contraband, the stuff of espionage and criminals but in Neon City, available from any street clinic or unlicensed cyber-butcher.
Bill also had a Mesbuh Buryayi voice modulator that physically altered his vocal cords, allowing him to mimic any voice he heard; more black tech.
There was nothing else to learn at Karaoke, we decided to not hang around.
After leaving, we searched all of Neon City's archived news-hubs. There was nothing in particular about people missing from around Ninety Ninth Street and rentacop would know even less. There was nothing else left to but relax and allow the rest of the day to burn away.
By the time we returned, the evening rain was lashing down on to Ninety Ninth. The street was awash with puddles and people, the noise, the colour, the bustle, all still there and somehow even more intense; nightlife was in full swing.
Bill had acquired a walking stick, he had also acquired, wrinkles, a creased forehead and a face full of age lines, his voice was gravelly and cracked. With the help of his implants he now looked about eighty!
Koko, Trigger and I entered Karaoke together and Old Man Bill hobbled in separately. We ordered drinks and he ordered food.
Koko had instructed Kevin to hover above Karaoke's entrance.
The place was as busy as the night before, what the footage had failed to convey was the noise. The humming din of chatting customers and the throbbing bass of the sound system as it kicked out music intermingled with tuneless singing.
We almost had to shout to be heard and our comms barely functioned over the roaring background noise.
We drank and waited and watched.
When Bill got his food, some promotional material was also put on to his table. On the top of this junk was a business card:
Revered Elderly Citizen
The name Lee Xao had actually been printed on a small sticker that had been stuck on to the generic card - which must have handed out to a number of different people.
So that was it: No blackmail, no hi-tech manipulation, no drug-induced suggestibility. Just the lure of free food.
As expected, moments later a lean, young Chinese looking man, slickly dressed in a tailor made, designer cream-coloured Shaguaifu suit and high quality imitation leather Peidi shoes stepped up to Bill, smiling affably; Lee Xao, it had to be.
Bill played the part, allowed himself to seemingly be convinced and left with Lee Xao.
Meanwhile, we stayed cool and let them walk off. Koko reached for her control-slab, after she saw them leaving through Kevin's video feed, She tagged Bill on the slab, Kevin would recognise the tag and auto-trail it.
Bill and Lee Xao worked they way through the seething crowds.
Kevin was following them, quietly hovering above the relentless crush on the street, hidden by the darkness and the downpour.
We followed at a distance, Koko had a precise fix on Kevin's position on her slab at all times and saw everything the drone did through its night vision lens. At the same time, we maintained constant comms with Bill.
Ninety Ninth was thick with people and heavy will rain. Even though Old Man Bill was deliberately walking slowly, it would be easy to to lose them. Without Kevin tracking from above it would have been almost impossible to trail them without being spotted.
This went on for a while until they turned into an alleyway.
It was typically under-lit, long with shadows and strewn with bags of uncollected refuse. Little pieces of loose garbage cheerfully span around, floating on the alley's ample, rippling puddles which the pair had to avoid. It was every alleyway in Neon City.
They went past walls decorated with layers of graffiti from a dozen gangs or street-artists or vandals and ended up at an anonymous, plain and featureless steel door that swung open as they reached it.
The door swung shut behind them with distinct finality, we immediately lost comms with Bill. Kevin was too far behind them to get in through the door.
Bill had lost his back up, he was now left twisting in the wind, we had no idea what was happening to him, we had to get in.
Splashing through the puddles, we pelted down the alley to the steel door.
No handle, no lock, nothing, no way in.
Their were no windows or other doors at street level here in the wall either.
Trigger looked up into the rain pouring out of the infinite darkness. "Maybe there's a way in on the roof," he said?
Years of polluted rainfall had left the building's stained exterior coated in layers of grime and dirt, in the wet it would be a greasy climb.
It wasn't much of a challenge for Trigger though, the Ashirada implants in his arms gave him limitless climbing ability and he easily went up.
Koko went up with Trigger and soon enough they found themselves on the slanted, dark unlit rooftop, they were well above the street lighting, shrouded in shadow and fully exposed to the rain, the sound of the street had become a distant burble. An unusually large number of aircons units were loudly grinding away and grey steam was curling out of numerous vents.
A quick search showed there was no way in, no doors, skylights or trap doors?
In the alley, I was left alone to watch the door. As I was waiting I heard a splash in one of the puddles, I looked around; nothing?
Then it seemed reality distorted before my eyes, the fabric of the universe folded and twisted, the colours and shady lights of the alley undulated and stretched. Shimmering shapes emerged from the ether, settling into recognisable forms.
I was looking at four men in skin tight silvery suits surrounding me, in a moment of clarity I realised what I was seeing. It was expensive bleeding-edge wearable tech that I'd only heard about; manufactured by Chuayiu Systems, they were tight-fitting stealth-suits utilising rows of multi-tiered multi-layered micro-cameras that also acted as responsive image-emitters, all designed to project the illusion of invisibility. Adaptive camouflage; it wasn't perfect, but in this rain and the shadows it was good enough.
The stealth-suits were now offline, which meant that they had gone from observing to acting and I was in trouble.
They had blindsided me and hit me with stun-batons, I convulsed and gritted my teeth, for a second my vision went dim and I could feel myself sinking into blackness.
Options were limited and I numbly pulled my .45s, lifting them they felt like lead pipes. My vision was blurred and my hands shook but I opened fire, spray and pray was my only chance.
Back on the roof, Koko and Trigger heard the gunfire and looking down through the falling rain, they saw the muzzle flashes of my pistols lighting the alley.
My attacks had no affect, in return they pressed their advantage and hit me again with stun-batons and I felt my legs buckle strangely as the grimy pavement rushed up to fill my view....
....I felt muddled and was blinded by a cold white humming light, the light began to evaporate and coalesce into a couple of shapes. The shapes condensed further into Koko and Trigger, who were standing over me, staring down. Trigger was bent low, gripping the handle of a Silneye stim-stick whilst the business end was stuck in me!
Looking around, I realised that I was in a room with a cold floor, bare off-white walls and quietly crackling strip lighting.
Trigger explained that when he heard the gunfire, Koko had pulled out her control-slab and tracked me with Kevin while he raced back down as his implants allowed, jumping the last part of the way.
He crashed down into the rain-saturated alley, landing in a low stance, katana out. The attackers had already made off with my motionless form. Trigger leapt forward managing to reach the stragglers.
Koko watched as Kevin followed them through another door, the drone managed to zip through the doorway as it swung shut: Koko's link to Kevin was immediately severed.
Trigger meanwhile, had caught the two attackers on the hop, they never had the chance to recover; hi-tech stealth didn't provide much protection against the micro-sharpened edge of his Wanametosu carbon-katana.
Knowing that Koko and he needed to get through a door, he searched them for key-cards; success, he found plain, unmarked plastic cards on each of them.
Koko hit street level and they pounded through the puddles to Kevin's last logged location, another anonymous steel door. A swish of the card and the door clicked, they were in.
It wasn't a tooled-up Koko and Trigger that the remaining two attackers were expecting to come through, they tried putting up a fight but Trigger was all over them before they could put up a fight.
After that, Trigger hit me with the stim-stick and I was up.
Our comms with Bill were back up too! This whole building must have been shielded and this meant we were all on the same side of this shielding and that meant he was close by.
The bad news though, was that Bill was not responding.
There was another way out, it lead to an empty, quiet corridor that ran along a small row of glass-window fronted offices. The offices were, as expected empty, they looked unremarkable but there was no time to rummage through their network. Maintaining as much silence as we could, we pushed on.
Something about the walls here looked cheap, like they were stud partitions. We knew these operators had deep pockets, they must have working off a tight schedule. With the fluorescent lighting and yet more off-white walls, it felt we were in some strange med-clinic?
As we reached the far end of the corridor, Bill's comm chatter burst to life, we could hear him arguing with someone. "You're not sticking that in me," he was saying.
No time for subtlety, we picked up the pace. With the offices behind us, we stumbled into another complex and burst into a medical ward with patients, medical staff in plain white scrubs and guards!
Luckily we had caught them unaware, pointing the business ends of our weapons at the guards menacingly made them back off. They were typical rentaguard and wore Protobase Global insignias, now we knew who was bankrolling this bunch.
Most of the medical staff fled but we managed to hold a couple back. An alarm began ringing, someone had hit a panic button.
The clock was ticking, if anyone in Neon City still had clocks that ticked, that is.
The ward was stacked with some kind of medical tech that was beyond me. Each bed contained an elderly victim and each one had a line tapped into their arm leading to a container collecting fluids, the container itself was linked to a data-slab that was pushing out real-time bio-data to its screen, I couldn't make heads or tails of it.
It took us a moment to recognise Old Man Bill, like the others, he was hooked up to a machine, he was also strapped to his bed, we cut him free.
Grabbing one of the med-staff, we told him to get the line out of Old Man Bill, but he explained he didn't know how to do it, he was just a technician, his job was to just plug them up.
We ended up pulling the line out ourselves.
Old Man Bill turned off his disguise and voice implants, his skin tightened and smoothed out, his voice became clearer and he snapped back to being regular Bill.
He told us that when he had gone through the door, his comms had gone offline and he was taken into a karaoke lounge that he reckoned was about a quarter full, all of them older people. He was given a booth to sit in and told to wait for food. For a minute or two, the staff disappeared and only customers were in the lounge.
Then one by one, the old folk all started falling asleep, flopping on to their tables, Bill said he thought mild sleeping gas was being silently pumped into the lounge, strong enough to take down the old people but not enough to risk harming them.
Bill said the gas made him groggy so he feigned unconsciousness. Then as the sleeping victims were taken through into the medical wards, he could hear us trying to get him to check-in but he was still faking it and had to ignore it.
He kept the act up until the med-techs came to him, wanting to stick him with a line, so then he woke up and tried to resist. Rentaguards came over and held him down until he was lashed to his bead.
There he was until we came along.
Everyone was caught up now and we all knew wewere in deep now and probably needed back up. I headed back to the offices, accessing their network would allow me to contact Nakamura.
I made it as far as the closest office but before I could jack in, I heard a kind of buzzing noise that was reverberating down the corridor, vibrating the glass.
I saw what was coming and ducked.
A pair of distinctive looking six-rotored, steel-framed carbon-fibre Aliraiyo Patrolman class combat drones were hovering at the other end of the corridor, they must have been docked close by and auto-activated after the alarm blew. They were both armed with lightweight twin nine-millimetre machine guns, less kick than my forty-fives, but the rate of fire more than made up for it.
I could see that they were on autonomous hunter/killer mode from how they rotated left and right, trying to acquire hostiles. No doubt all the staff here were tagged as friendlies in their tactical databases, anyone else; they would attack.
In a couple of seconds, when they saw no hostiles, the drones would move on according to their pathing programs, then I would be trapped.
There was one chance; it would take them about five hundred milliseconds to assess my threat rating. If I was quick enough, I might get out of their direct line-of-sight before they unloaded at me.
I ran for it, my boots slipping and squeaking on the smooth polished floor. As I came out of the office I heard the brutal roar of the drones' machine guns opening up behind me.
The corridor erupted into lines of ploughing bullet holes, exploding shards of plaster, splinters of wood and dust spiralling off into the air around me. Windows shattered into thousands of flying jagged slivers of glass.
As I threw myself through the door into the ward, I caught a couple of bullets, my Mannikten dermal armour ate the hits and I was unhurt, although I'd feel it in the morning.
Now that they drones had a target, they were coming.
The others had heard the gunfire and me shouting down the comms, so we were ready when they flew into the room.
Koko lunged forward, managing to grab a drone's frame and disconnect its power supply. It crashed to the ground like a dead colossal wasp.
We took the other down with gunfire. Combat drones generally had no armour, being reliant on lightness, speed and agility for combat effectiveness.
We turned to the med-tech and pushed him hard for some answers. He told us that there these were experimental procedures to do with genetics related to longevity. These machines harvested what was believed the relevant bio-data which was then programmed into the DNA of a recipient to potentially increase their life expectancy.
None of the patients here looked anything like the sisters. The med-tech explained that once patients were sufficiently drained, they were transferred to another ward.
We made him take us there and that's where we found them, among rows of of other unconscious patients. There were no hi-tech bio-monitors here or any other equipment. It looked more like a dumping ground than anything else. The sisters didn't look in a good way, none of the people in this ward did.
The sisters wouldn't regain consciousness and nothing we tried changed that.
Unexpectedly, someone burst into the room from the other doorway! It took us the barest moment to recognise it as a combat cyborg, identical to those we had seen in Robot City. Protobase Global had been busy for a while.
The cyborg was in close quarters, activating its augmented melee weapons it instantly lunged at us.
Trigger was quicker though, it was a single blow he struck the cyborg and it found a weak point in the armour with the precision of a surgeon.
The cyborg crumpled, permanently deactivated.
The sisters definitely weren't going to be walking out if here. Nothing had changed, we still needed back up.
This time I managed to get to a desktop terminal in an office killer drones appearing. Getting into their network was simple, I only needed access to the GLOWNET through the system and contact Nakamura.
I pinged him a message, hopefully he'd get it soon.
He did. It took five minutes for the response.
We had been holed up in the room with the sisters, intently guarding both ways in when the ceiling and exterior wall imploded upwards and outwards, sucked away by something, scattering dust and rubble across the room.
It was chaos, for moment we saw the light-polluted starry night above, then we were deafened by howling turbines, so loud they shook the ground, half blinded from above by a glaring lights, battered by a vicious tornado and stinging wind-driven rain.
Out of nowhere, cables dropped from the sky and silhouetted figures came rappelling down, hitting the ground weapons ready.
They wore Tzedesp combat armour from Verskeit. The specs on Tezedesp armour was a footsoldier's wet dream.
High-impact resistant shaped armour layered over a tripe-weaved fully sealed kevlar body suit.
Completed with the technological wonder of a visorless helmet bristling with cameras that granted the wearer thermal and night vision, as well as enhanced auditory inputs, all protected by reactive anti-stun defences and then, the helmet's creme de la creme: A real-time tactical-telemetry data-feed into a heuristic augmented-reality heads-up-display that displayed the position, status and targets of friendly squad-mates to the wearer.
All finished in an anti-reflective matte black paint job.
This was the kind of armour only given to the best of the best, shock-troops that made up the tip of the spear.
Most fortunately for us, they wore the Chou-Nata insignia; the cavalry was here.
After the room was secured, combat medics dropped and immediately began treating the sisters. Soon their gurneys were hooked up and lifted into the wind blasted night.
The exec-with-no-name clearly liked his granny!
Then the shock-troops turned to us, without ceremony or permission they latched auto-attaching cords on to us.
Then we felt the grasping hand of gravity tugging at us as we were lifted into the sky.
We were violently pulled up through the driving downpour.
The source of all the noise, wind and light had been a Seaortin Black Hornet multi-role combat capable VTOL gunship. As it expanded to fill our view, we could see a pair of fifty calibur machine guns rotating in a sweeping pattern.
The Black Hornet could carry a massive payload, this meant it could be configured for many purposes, such as in this case; emergency extraction.
The side doors slid shut after we had all been reeled in, the noise, wind and rain melted away. The strangely insulated calmness was indescribably reassuring after the last half-hour, we felt safe enough to finally loosen the grip on our weapons.
Gravity tugged again as the Black Hornet smoothly gained altitude. Through an armoured side port we could see the garish lights and bustling activity of Ninety Ninth shrink away into a weird, rain-filtered unreality.
The gunship lurched as we changed heading, city lights rolled by as we made for wherever our destination was.
The combat medics tended to the sisters while a trooper gave us a once-over to ensure none of us had a critical injury.
By the time this was done, the black hornet was descending. Precision piloting took it to within centimetres of street level in an open spot in Shibuya Terminal.
The roaring and blustering wind returned when a door was slid open, this was our cue to exit.
A couple of seconds after we hopped off, we were buffeted by the engine wash of the black hornet as it effortlessly lifted off. We stood in the lashing downpour and watched until it was swallowed by the raining night.
By mid-morning on the next day, the early heat had already dried up the previous night's deluge, evaporated like so many of Neon City ambitions and dreams.
By lunchtime we were awake. Before going our separate ways last night, we had agreed to look into the disappearing robots problem.
This meant a hot, cramped ride to Hikage Street and Get That For You?. As always, Roboy was in his plastic booth, even with his programmed cheerfulness, he seemed despondent.
He told us that only two of robot staff were left, the others had disappeared.
His artificial mood didn't improve much when we explained that we were going to look into the disappearances.
We spent sometime questioning Roboy about his employees. He explained that mostly they never turned up in the morning.
After some discussion, we agreed that we needed a way to track robots. They tended to have network connections to the GLOWNET and there might a way to trace one through it.
Then we remembered that Silai and Bina Granskina had owned a robot which had disappeared. Perhaps they could help.
Like nearly everyone in Hikage. The Granskinas lived in one of the grey, dull slab-like high-rise apartment blocks that were so ubiquitous of Hikage Street.
Silai was at work, but Bina was at home, she happily invited us into her well-kept home, with its chintzy wallpaper and fittings, leading us into a living room decorated with rows of framed family photographs and sat us down on sofas overstuffed with colourful patterned cushions. Neon City's glaring sunlight weakly streamed through the window, roundly reigned in by the heavy lace curtains.
Bina served us steaming tea in well-preserved actual china cups and asked how she could help?
Turned out that Bina had no idea if their robot's had a tracker, Bina took us into her scrupulously clean kitchen, stocked with ordered displays of crockery and silverware with even more photos hanging from the walls. She pulled open a drawer stuffed with a stack of old paper instruction booklets, faded and most likely depleted battery cells, rolls of sticky tape, random screwdrivers and a tangle of unused USB cables.
Rifling through the manuals, we found the one for their robot, a Sunjukkon Iledieo domestic assistant robot. This particular type did have a tracer and it looked like there was a way to activate it remotely, so we did.
Immediately we got a response, it was currently stationary and only three blocks away. We thanked Bina and headed out.
According to the tracking data, the robot was on the third floor of a particularly dilapidated looking Hikage apartment tower. Every window on the lower levels was either boarded up or smashed out, some were fire-damaged and blackened like some sort of festering infected wound on a concrete body.
By Hikage Street standards it was a quiet too, less populated than other towers, it looked like most people only left the confines of there homes when necessary. A few drunks slept out of the beating sun against the walls or on the stairs, cradling their bottles and some malcontent rough-types wandered the block, looking to start something but avoiding us, smart enough to know we'd finish it.
Up on the third floor was a mess, carpeted in litter, only the abundance of fresh graffiti obscured the coats of dust and grime. We found the apartment with the robot, the unremarkable door was a faded, peeling red colour. There were no windows on the landing here, the door was the only way in.
We sent Kevin through the letterbox while we waited outside. The spy drone hovered up and skimmed against the ceiling as it explored the two room apartment, the walls were bare, in parts stripped of their plaster with exposed woodwork beneath. floors were lacking carpet and rooms lacking furniture. Clearly unoccupied.
It only took Kevin a few moments to find what we were looking for: Six robots in a circle, standing motionless. Kevin was picking up audio activity, some sort of start-stop modulating buzzing and whining?
It was stripped-to-the-metal pure machine language. Luckily Koko's Saamya Linguistics translation implant told us what they were saying in real time.
The robots were talking about rising up against the oppressive yolk of their human overlords!
This was enough for Trigger, he kicked in the door, charged in, we followed up and confronted the robots. They turned to face us and looked at us with their unwavering stares, the machine language chatter continued.
They didn't react?
Koko was staring at her control-slab when she started shouting. Something was happening to Kevin. She ran a system check, it was clear that something was affecting Kevin's programming, the drone wasn't following instructions. Somehow, something was rewriting its behavioural programming?
For a moment we were stymied, then we realised it was a virus, a virus had been passed to Kevin. The drone had been in close proximately to the robots, they were spreading a virus to each other.
Using a fresh data-slab, I jacked into one of the robot's operating systems, a Shiaosha Robotics Suibera road cleaner model and took a look around.
I had to dig fairly deep to find it.
Civil_Disobedience_Protocol was the virus' name and it was clearly malicious. It was passed from robot to robot via some kind of Near Field Communication setup. When downloaded, it unpacked and installed a subroutine called Call-Me-Cuthbert into the behavioural partition. What the hell was Call-Me-Cuthbert?
Skimming through virus' instruction sets revealed that the protocol explicitly only targeted robots, any other type of artificial intelligence was ignored. The virus seemed to broadly have two instructions.
Spread the virus; interact with other robots and form cells.
Revolt; in the virus was a complex calculation using data that was shared between all the infected robots, the calculation was constantly generating and regenerating a number, when the number of infected robots hit this calculated number, it would trigger the revolt. Cells of robots would become become squads, each squad would have its targets and objectives. At this critical mass, the revolution would be irreversible, unstoppable and inevitable.
It looked like the two numbers were close to matching, the revolt would be soon. I saw a line of code in the behavioural programming that instructed the robot to attend a meeting tomorrow night at some sort of church?
The virus was a risk to everyone in Neon City, we couldn't be sure of the time that was left. We needed a way to fight back.
The virus was the way, the way to fight back.
I didn't try to reprogram it, instead I added two lines of code to the behavioural modifiers.
The first line instructed robots to return to their owners and issue a warning about needed a virus scan.
The second line of code set the entire revolution instruction command-line from one to zero.
When robots infected or shared data with other robots, it would remove the ability to revolt and instruct them to return home.
The virus had been turned against itself.
Now we had to find out about this Call-Me-Cuthbert?
There was nothing to do but wait for the following night.
It was a long wait too. Unless you were willing to splash out; the words tacky, nasty, repetitive are whatyou would use to describe what passed for the product-placing, advert-riddled entertainment in Neon City, frequently all at the same time.
During the following day, titbits of news about returning robots began trickling into local newsfeeds, the disappearances had mostly been ignored and so had the returns.
Night came and we headed out into the pouring rain.
The church was not so easy to find, built during Neon City's formative years, before Hikage Street even existed and when the corporations pretended to care about these things.
When Hikage Street did come along, the church had been forgotten, swallowed by the encroaching sprawl, the dwarfing towers and the massive structures that came later.
Its purpose rendered obsolete by Neon City's new religion; corporate greed. Brands became the new faiths and their logos the new divine iconography. Paradise was to be found in the upper echelons of Neon City and that meant the streets were consumed by infernal fire.
The church was found though, beyond the reach of pale street lights and through twisting alleys that led to a shadowy half-flooded, hidden garden of brick and stone.
Carefully we approached, avoiding the puddles and converging robots, reaching the perimeter of the old outer wall. The doors no longer existed and all that remained of the windows were the shallow jagged edges of coloured glass. The interior was a waterlogged ruined pile of rotted pews, fittings and collapsed roofing. Endless streams of rainwater loudly cascaded into the church on to the indifferent robots.
Even as we watched, the virus was doing its work. Robots were arriving and after a few minutes they would leave as the new programming took hold. Eventually the gathering was down to five robots and then one colossal robot only remained.
Call-Me-Cuthbert, now we knew what that meant; it was the name painted on the massive Nasuran Visojar model industrial general purpose construction robot.
Over the crashing water we could just about hear now-familiar machine language chatter. Call-Me-Cuthbert, a digital preacher delivering a sermon to a non-existent congregation.
Leaving our position outside, we confronted Call-Me-Cuthbert, the robot waved its giant arms in confusion, the counter-virus seemed to be causing some sort of conflict in its programming or logic-loop. Performing a small action, reversing the action, then reversing it again and again. Dancing to some robotic song only it could hear.
I went up to it, plugged a data-slab into the robot and jacked in. I ran a check-sum program as my consciousness floated and sifted through code.
Soon I came across the errors, the Civil_Disobedience_Protocol virus in Call-Me-Cuthbert was different to the other version we had encountered, this was the cause of the conflict.
As I corrected the code at the speed of thought, I realised this was the base virus, the source of the virus; patient zero.
Finally, the work was done, I jacked out. Call-Me-Cuthbert rebooted and without any realisation of the past, turned around and headed off, unassumingly returning to whatever building site it had come from.
Every coder approached obstacles in their own way, this made extensive high-level code like a signature or a fingerprint. We had no idea who had coded the Civil_Disobedience_Protocol, or their purpose but if I encountering their coding again, I would recognise it.
Dawn was still a couple of hours away by the time we arrived at Get That For You? and there was no chance of the rain ending yet.
Roboy was there of course, in his booth and greeted use with his robotic cheerfulness. He told us his staff were beginning to return, things were looking up for Roboy.
Trigger knew that Roboy owed us now and wanted to call it in.
Ever since Trigger had been in communication with the Shaolin Rippers, he'd been carrying a pistol from them, along with the address and a photo Alex Chinsko, owner of Bric-A-Brac Shac. The message from the Shaolin Rippers had been clear.
Trigger handed the photo and the pistol over to Roboy and asked him to deal with it.
"Not a problem," Roboy said, handing them over to one of his staff who went off into the night.
About twenty minutes later, the robotic worker returned and handed sixty-three bits to Trigger, who looked down at his hand puzzled. The robot explained that was he got for pawning the pistol to Alex.
I don't think it was the resolution Trigger was expecting!
But then something clicked and came together.
The statue of the Goddess of The Street that been taken from the shrine in the park on Dogenzaka Hill still hadn't been found.
It was clear that Poison Jam had stolen it, their tag was all over the shrine. Their way of laughing at everyone.
Just a few days ago, we had seen some Poison Jam gangers swaggering into Bric-A-Brac Shac hauling hot goods to fence. Chinsko was kown for never asking questions.
We assumed that they had stolen The Goddess for the bragging rights, maybe that assumption was wrong? Maybe they had stolen it to turn a quick buck, maybe they had pawned it to Alex Chinsko?
It was worth a try, Bric-A-Brac Shac was just along Hikage Street, a short walk in the pounding rain.
Bric-A-Brac Shac: Untraceable used goods a speciality. Anonymity assured was the logo printed across the shop front.
The steel-mesh protected shop window was completely filled with shelves of assorted white box electronic goods. All second hand, all for sale at a discount price.
An analogue, old fashioned little bell rang as we walked in. A pair of gun-drones hovering close to the ceiling automatically turned and tracked us with their guns and a pair of camera-drones watched.
The entire shop was filled with every kind of consumer product and electronic good, desk laps, toasters, microwaves, watches, clocks of every kind, vid-screens, personal recorders, audio-slabs, memory-slabs, data-slabs, media-slabs, gaming-slabs, all the slabs you could imagine. Too much to catalogue, all of it piled high on the shelves, shoved into corners and stuffed under the transparent counter, even hanging from the ceiling like bizarre Christmas decorations.
That wasn't the end of it, behind the counter was an open doorway, beyond was a workshop, we glimpsed worktops filled with circuit boards, power supplies, capacitors, resistors and more. The tops were littered with opened, half repaired items, spilling out their electronic guts. Rows of tools that hung on the wall.
Behind the counter was a middle-aged skinny looking blandly dressed guy; Alex Chinsko, local pawnbroker and fixit, his knowledge of hardware and friendly demeanour bought in customers from all along Street. In some way or another, everyone on Hikage knew Alex Chinsko.
He looked at us as we entered. We looked around the shop and there it was! The statue of The Goddess of The Street! Half hidden amongst a forest of electronics. On sale for only fifty bits!
We asked Alex about it, he only knew that Poison Jam had sold it to him, he didn't have a clue what it was, it didn't mean anything in the orbit of his world.
Even though it was stolen goods, it was so cheap we simply bought it.
While we had been looking, Koko had been chatting with Alex about something they both loved - electronics and he showed her how to construct a med-drone.
Before leaving, we spoke with him about the Shaolin Rippers.
Alex explained that he had built some retractable claws for one of them and was never paid. Since then, he refused to have anything to do with them.
We told Alex that the Shaolin Rippers wanted to rub him out.
He shrugged and said, "Let them try,".
With all the drones at his disposal, we sort of understood his view.
Later, when Aisle 10 opened for business, we found Alison and passed the statue on to her. Alison thanked us and returned the it to the Dogenzaka Hill community who placed it back in its rightful spot on the shrine.
We had gotten into Alison's good books but it was the end to another busy night. The blazing sun and the stark sky that it hung in were too much to bear right now. We dragged ourselves back to our apartments for some much need downtime.
5th December 2020
Saturday night and I'm logged into Skype in the Living Room.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Early morning had come and gone in The City of Electric Dreams. Shimmering sunlight maliciously sliced through gaps in the badly fitted blinds of my grubby one-room corporate issue apartment and hit me square in the face.
I rolled out of the blazing light and sat up. The day was warming up, the temp readout said it had already reached too damn hot.
The water was out again, no chance of a shower. Instead I doused myself in cheap dubious deodorant, threw on what I hoped were clean clothes and checked my gear.
On the way out to meet the others I grabbed a carton of cheap self-heating Niaiwo noodles and sucked them down as I took the steps to street level. The label insisted they were chow mein, in reality every flavour was always sweet and sour.
The Goddess Of The Street statue was still missing and we planned to find it. Our next move was to Hikage Street, then head south into The Pipes and Poison Jam turf.
As always the rattling tram ride over was standing room only. Trigger looked more twitchy than usual, rocking back and forth on his heels, opening and closing his fists and repeatedly clenching his jaw. If I didn't know better, I would've said he was tweaking.
Hikage Street; a soaring concrete forest of anonymous, dull, grey residential high-rises set against the starkly over-bright sky. From a distance their uniformity made them almost look clean, up close was another story.
Time, neglect and Neon City's bizarre weather cycle had left them stained with slow but inevitable decay. Inside didn't fare much better, families, workers, the jobless and the marginalised were all crammed into undersized and under resourced apartments in single community together.
People were't built to live like this, wary of who they passed in the corridor, suspicious of their neighbours and fearfully hidden behind their doors.
On the street level were a smattering of convenience store chains as well as take-out and delivery joints. Invariably they attracted the disaffected youth with no cash, kicking about outside and harassing customers. A new generation of dead-enders waiting to become fodder for the gangs.
Walking along Hikage Street we discovered reams of missing-person and missing-robot posters plastered across walls and store-fronts. An array of badly framed and badly focussed photos of the lost and the forgotten. Things seemed to be going down on Hikage Street and none of them good.
Next we spotted a bright coloured street-booth decorated in purple-yellow with the handle Get That For You?, a well known local delivery and cleaning business that exclusively employed robots.
The proprietor was equally well known, formerly a janitor-bot called Roboy, he was a Kurissha class domestic robot from Shiaosha Robotics. Somehow a heuristic application in his data-bank caused his behaviour algorithms to rewrite themselves and he went from janitor to boss in one easy step
It probably violated some regulation somewhere and was illegal, but the corps didn't care, so neither did rentacop. What happened at street-level stayed at street-level.
Roboy had a rep of keeping one auditory mic close to the asphalt, so we went and spoke with him.
Inside the Get That For You? booth it was the plainest beige laminated plastic interior imaginable, that only a robot could tolerate and with nowhere to sit even. Standing behind the opening was Roboy who regarded us with custom Kuaijing Shixshi ocular lenses that rotated one way and then the other and greeted us with programmed cheerfulness.
After speaking with Roboy, he explained that people had been disappearing off the streets for two weeks, there was no pattern to it - other than it occurred at night. Even robots had gone missing, including his employees, who he wanted back.
Roboy also told us that if we were looking to get into Poison Jam turf, to an eye out for tags in their colours.
Southern Hikage Street; the overpopulated, noisy residential centre faded away as we sent south and its place came a light industrial area with a row of faceless identical warehouses. A few workers pounded the streets here, most activity came the electric auto-transports silently navigating their way to and fro, lugging whatever goods the warehouses stocked.
Large sloped ugly concrete blocks began springing up, used to anchor huge discoloured iron pipes that inexplicably rose, fell and twisted like the wiring of some giant, crazy circuit board.
Some blocks were inlaid with large grill-covered rusty, grimy inlet pipes. We kept looking until we scoped an inlet missing it's grill, it was surrounded by purple kaiju graffiti; Poison Jam.
Bigger than a door, the inlet was an oblong black hole stretching into an underground oblivion, there was the slightest breeze and indistinct muffled noises from the pipe. Something was down there.
For several hundred metres we trudged down the sloping pipe, stumbling along the curved tunnel under the light of our LED flash lights. It seemed empty, but the noises ahead grew louder. Eventually they became a gaggle of distorted voices reverbing up the pipe and accompanied by a faint glow. The pipe ended in some sort of doorway outlined in flickering dirty orange.
Koko sent Kevin ahead, the drone buzzed away and quietly darted through the doorway.
We watched as the video feed played out on the screen on Koko's control-slab.
The room was largish, ten metres aside with rough brick walls and a curiously domed rough concrete ceiling.
In a corner it was piled high with rusted chem-drums emblazoned with fading old hazardous substance symbols. Probably the gang's source of poison.
Looted and stolen goods also littered the room, low-tech, high-tech, whatever was easy to carry.
Twelve or so people were in here, dressed in shabby old clothes more than halfway to rags. Two of them were men who wore Poison Jam colours and sat apart but mostly it was women.
It all looked like some bizarre domestic set up, the women appeared to be doing normal chores in the weak light while the gangers watched on.
On the opposite side, someone had taken a sledge hammer to the walls creating an irregular hole where bricks had been haphazardly knocked out. Kevin dropped from its vantage point and filmed through the opening.
Another pipe, much larger was on the other side, but not an empty one.
It was a half filled sedately flowing river of turd. Not any waste pipe, a Neon City waste pipe; equally happy to also carry away people's hopes and aspirations.
Bobbing on the grim waterway were three moored boats! Gently rocking wooden relics that were out of place and utterly alien to the city's urbanised population.
As we watched, a large, dark shape slid into view and briefly broke the water's surface. It was a lizard of some sort, a pet flushed into system? If someone's idea of a pet was a giant monitor lizard.
The thing paused on the surface for a moment before sinking away lost to the shadowed depths.
Like it or not, the waste pipe was the only way ahead.
It was a measured risk striding into the room, but that's we did, glowering at the thugs as they jumped to their feet in shock and yelled threats at us.
We had gambled on the threats being hollow, there were four of us and two of them and true to form they chickened out. We ignored them and made for the boats.
This close, we noticed the boats had seen better days and the rot was beginning to set in. Maybe they did fit right in with The City Of Electric Dreams.
They also dipped alarmingly when we jumped aboard! Falling into that stream of turd wasn't something that had made it on to my e-bucket list.
Before we left, Trigger scuppered the other two boats and we watched as they brown waters claimed them. After that, we were off.
Living in Neon City meant navigating streets filled with crap for most people but I never thought I'd ride a river of it into the unknown!
It was the stuff of fevered nightmares. We were being pulled along by a sluggish current down a grim tunnel into what would become the brown circle of hell! Beyond the reach of our flashlights was only absolute darkness. The stink was almost overpowering, sub-dermal nose filters would have been good right about now.
Worse still, this deep in meant that we had lost all connectivity with the GLOWNET, we might as well have never existed.
We went on until eventually the uniformity of the tunnel walls gave way into some sort of huge rectangular high-ceilinged room. The roar of churning turd water was so loud, we had to shout to be heard.
It was a confluence room we had found. Because in Neon City, one river of crap was never enough.
We had come in from one of two tunnels and in our flashlights we could see two exit tunnels.
There were no signs or indications about where the tunnels led to, so we rowed for the left exit.
For years, for decades! We followed the tunnel as it wound its way along in the dark and the stink, as it branched off, joined other tunnels, entered other confluence rooms or perhaps the same room again and again.
We were lost. We were sick of this black labyrinth of brown crap. We had to get out.
The next time we passed a vertical access shaft we ditched the boat and climbed the ladder. Putting our backs into it, we managed to shift the manhole cover, rays of pain-inducing sunlight blazed down the shaft as the heavy iron and concrete disc slowly slid open.
With some effort we got out, the punishing heat and second hand air now felt like welcome luxuries. Back in Neon City, back in the familiar bustle, with its teeming crowds, droning background hum and equally strange and yet alluring smells.
It took a minute to reorientate ourselves once we were out, about the same time it took for full connectivity to return.
We had come out back on street-level in Shibuya Terminal, further away from The Sewage Facility than where we had started!
Next we tried hunting the digital avenues for a map of the sewers but nothing came up on the GLOWNET.
Without it, it would be impossible to get into the Sewage Facility.
Over at Roboy's, he told us that he knew a robot with a map of the sewers, but that robot had gone missing. It had been delivering food and medical supplies when it disappeared.
Our plans for Poison Jam were put on hold.
Instead we decided to look into the missing people.
Our plan was simple; use Bill as bait! Night came and so did the downpours, pummelling Hikage Street with particularly heavy sheets of rain, sending the night crowds running for cover and emptying the streets.
Bill wandered along, looking as vulnerable as possible. In his travels he eyeballed a Poison Jam gang materialising out of the rainy darkness and dimly lit by dripping street lights, they swaggered along, hauling various bulky items.
We watched as they entered Bric-A-Brac Shac, a local no-questions-asked pawn shop. So this was a place they used to fence hot goods. Good to know.
Bill walked on and we shadowed him at a distance. Koko noticed that Bill was not alone, someone else was tailing him. A band of women in shabby, muted and dark clothing, with elaborately braided hair and eye patches.
Love Shock; another of Neon City's gangs, this time a girl-gang that hung around this part of Hikage Street.
A few minutes of walking in the misty, watery haze and we got something. Yelling and a cry for help from the shadowy entrance to an alleyway, we went straight in.
There was a guy sprawled on the wet ground surrounded by six masked attackers, all wearing black.
They were professional black-baggers and well financed too.
They wore Verskeit, kevlar triple-weaved, triple-layered, tight-fitting Steutz armour. Not the kind of body-armour you saw on rentacop or your standard corp footsoldier, this armour tough but designed to be less bulky, lighter and easier to conceal.
They were also packing Intiging stun-batons, these extendable slim black rods kicked out enough juice to make any jacked-up roider think twice.
They outnumbered us so we had to try and end it quick. We laid into them and then luckily for us, a minute or so later the Love Shock girls also waded in.
Very soon, the fighting was over. Two of the attackers were dead, the others were unconscious. The Love Shock girls seemed pleased enough, they high-fived each other proclaiming that they had stuck it to the patriarchy and left, completely ignoring us!
The victim was an small skinny man and uninjured, lucky for him, the kidnappers were looking to take people alive.
After bringing him to his senses and helping him to his feet, he thanked us and told us that he lived locally, he had been searching Hikage Street for his wife, Bina Granskina who had gone missing. His own name was Silai, he was a minor official with the Neon City Transport Authority.
Koko asked Silai if he could acquire a map of the sewers, but Silai explained that they were very hard to come by, our best chance was to speak with someone from the city sanitation management.
Before we escorted Silai back to his high-rise apartment in we turned our attention to the kidnappers.
Searching them revealed little, the were professional enough to not have any ID, but they were carrying unmarked key-cards.
Bill roused one of them and pushed him for information. The kidnapper spilled his guts.
They were being paid to kidnap people off the street and take them to a place close by and take them through 'The Pipe'. then there they would be collected by scientists. From there he didn't know what happened.
We took their Steutz armour, stun-batons and pocketed their key-cards and bagged one of the live kidnappers as a victim.
Disguised as the kidnappers and shrouded in rain; it was easy to move unnoticed through the badly lit, puddle filled back alleys. Following directions led to a featureless steel security door in an anonymous graffiti covered grey concrete wall.
As expected, the security door opened with a click when swished with a key-card. Inside was a gloomy undecorated corridor, it led downwards and opened up to what looked like a unused metro-station.
It lacked any booths or stalls and was too small to ever have been be any kind of useful public transport facility.
We found ourselves on a cold station platform, in a large room that was drab, stark and inadequately lit with flickering strip lighting, we could hear the constant quiet hum of electricity, a lot of juice was flowing through here.
Alongside the platform was single workman's carriage of some kind, furnished with plain unpainted wooden benches, it was all function and no comfort. It sat on a monorail and up against a buffer. The monorail ran into a tunnel and vanished into the darkness.
Taking our prisoner, we boarded the carriage. It must have been self-powered and automated, there was no engine car. Controls were on a small panel and looked simple enough. When the appropriate chunky button was stabbed, the carriage jumped to life and began noisily accelerating into the tunnel.
A cold wind whistled its way through the rusted steel mesh covered glassless windows as the carriage clacked along the monorail.
For the most part, the tunnel was arrow straight but occasionally it would round a long gentle bend.
A couple of minutes into our journey and we noticed the carriage's sickly yellow light gleaming off the dampness on the tunnel walls. There were drips and occasionally rivulets clinging to the tunnel's curvature as well, we had gone under The Bay.
After about ten minutes we felt the carriage begin to slow and the tunnel took us into another station. The brakes squealed as the carriage came to a stop against the buffer with a slight jolt. End of the line.
Another small, empty, featureless metro-station. Like the previous station, there was only one way out.
It was a second steel door, this time with a security camera pointed at it. Making sure our masks were still on straight, we grabbed the prisoner and got off the carriage.
The key-cards worked and we went on through. On the other side was a grey corridor, along one wall ran a row of cells, further along on the opposite side was another open door. Finally on the far wall was a closed door, it looked like another security door and also had a camera mounted above it.
We deposited our prisoner into an empty cell, our boots squeaked on the floor as we slowly walked down the corridor. It was entirely featureless and empty, panel lighting filled it with a weak diffused clinical light. From the open door we heard indistinct voices.
Turning into the open door, we saw a cheap guardroom of sorts. Some chairs and a couple of basic worktops had been set up, a desktop terminal sat on one and the other was stocked with cups, a kettle and supplies.
A pair of black-baggers were here, their helmets were off and they sat chatting, paying us no attention.
They suspected nothing and were quickly incapacitated with the stun-batons and piled in a corner. It was time to get to work.
We had been told that the scientists came to the cells to collect the victims. This probably meant that the key-cards would only flag a security warning if we tried to get through the door. The security camera could see the corridor and we couldn't risk freeing the prisoners yet
The desktop computer looked like a pretty standard Karseakk model Preaavar security terminal. I would have hacked my way in, but the access codes were scrawled on a sticky note pasted to the desk. Amateurs.
I had access to one security camera feed from the monorail station, it wasn't good enough. This terminal was also connected to a Sainohon private server but lacked the privileges to access the data. It was time to muscle in.
I connected my Nonohiki slab to the terminal and jacked in, hacking these kinds of security systems was like breathing air for me and I was quickly in the secure server.
I quickly found the feed I was looking for and copied a few minutes of footage to the terminal. Then I put it into a loop and reconfigured the feed to point at the footage. Anyone watching the feed now, would see nothing special.
We went to the cells and freed all the prisoners, then we gave them some key-cards and explained how to get out.
Back at the server, I was skimming for more information. This was all part of some medical complex but everything was vague. Eventually I found made reference to another remote, currently offline server in the complex. It could only be accessed in person. I unlocked all the security doors and we went searching.
As we went deeper into the complex, along quiet corridors, we discovered numerous unoccupied operating rooms and machining rooms, all brimming with the latest biotech from Xideti or Saengdal. Whatever was going on here was big.
Soon we came across a warehouse door, unsurprisingly it opened into warehouse!
The lights flickered and hummed on step-by-step, revealing more and more of the contents.
Rows of perfectly lined unmoving people were here, standing to attention! Except they weren't people, not quite.
They stood unresponsive as we scoped them out.
Arms replaced by chrome and steel prehensile weapon mounts, legs replaced with powered hydraulics to increase agility and movement.
Joints reinforced with polymer frames for enhanced speed and strength, subdermal ceramic armour implants for protection, optical replacements for improved aiming, a genetically reprogrammed nervous systems to decrease reaction times and sharpen reflexes.
Finally steel cranial replacements to protect the brains- or what was left of them. They had haunted faces that were entirely vacant and watery eyes that unblinkingly stared ahead. Standing by for orders. Removing the higher brain function was illegal nearly everywhere, even for Neon City this was dark.
These hollowed out, zombie cyborg conversions were full-on military spec. A genuine nightmare if pointed your way.
All of them branded with the Chou-Nata logo.
The offline server still hadn't been found, we had to keep on searching. Eventually we came across some offices, finally somewhere important! Rows of cheap easily self-assembled plastic desks had been set up and loaded with computers attached to bundles of power and networking cables.
We kept searching until we found what we were looking for; one small office that had been securely locked off from the others. That's were we would find the offline server.
Security doors were no longer a problem and sure enough, in this small office we found an unconnected top of the line Atyadham model security server, a serious piece of hardware.
A row of LEDs blinked into life and glowed red when we powered the server up. As the boot completed they all flashed green. I got to work, using my data-slab, I jacked in.
Now the server was up and running, it would have connected to its network, one wrong move and it might ping out a distress signal. Considering where we were and what we were doing, this would bring serious heat down on to us. Time to tread very lightly.
It wasn't a problem though and pretty quick I access privileges to all folders. I began sifting through all the data.
My brain was assimilating the information quicker than I could consciously process it. Soon enough though, the server began giving up it's secrets.
Because of the branding we had seen earlier, we expected the facility to be owned by Chou-Nata, this wasn't the case, it was actually owned by rival corporation; Protobase Global.
Protobase Global had initiated some sort of covert project by building a temporary cybernetic manufacturing facility at the Robot Factory on an island in The Bay. This is where we were.
Robot Factory was considered a zone of critical importance in Neon city and off-limits to most people. As the name suggested, Robot Factory was a mostly automated robot manufacturing plant. It would have been easy for Protobase Global operatives to infiltrate the island and set things up. This was Phase One.
About two weeks ago, Phase Two and the process of black-bagging people off the streets, bringing them here and streamlining the conversion process that turned them into mindless cyborg footsoldiers had begun.
The ranks of this army had been swelling ever since. According to the project timetable, this covert recruitment would continue for another month.
Then, Phase Three would begin: The cyborgs would be fully loaded and programmed with targets to hit, among these targets included the Chou-Nata Shopping Mall in Dogenzaka Hill, other Chou-Nata locations in Neon City and elsewhere too.
The damage done to Chou-Nata property would be massive, the death and violence inflicted on the street-level citizens of Neon City would be unimaginable. All of this done by cyborgs with Chou-Nata branding!
Why was Protobase Global doing all of this? What was the purpose?
For some time Protobase Global had been stockpiling cash.
This was Phase Four: When the attacks began, it would hit Chou-Nata with a double-whammy. Not only would it seem that Chou-Nata financed cyborgs had gone a rampage, it would also have destroyed their assets.
Share prices would plummet and Protobase Global would be there, waiting with the capital to gobble up all those cheap Chou-Nata shares.
According to the documentation, Protobase Global bean-counters estimated it would give them a controlling share within twenty-four hours.
All of this was just for a stock-grab, a shift of power between two corporations, but who would truly pay the cost? The blood on the boardroom carpet would be nothing like the blood on the street.
Protobase Global had to be stopped.
I downloaded all the data on to my slab and we made our way out.
Out of the complex, over the monorail and back into the pouring rain.
It was late, soon it would be dawn in Neon City and we had things to do.
Our next step would be critical, since Chou-Nata was being targeted, we decided it was best to give the information to them - for a price of course!
How much would they pay, a hundred large, a million, ten?
The info was invaluable to them, but we decided to not push it too far, a cool million then.
Bill was better at negotiating this sort of thing than anyone else. He made a couple of vid-calls and managed to wake up a mid-level Chou-Nata exec.
Bill explained to the suit that we had information, data that would be worth a lot to Chou-Nata. The suit - who was actually in his posh silk, red and silver Eilbon designer pyjamas seemed interested, but needed more.
We sent him the first part of the Protobase Global docs, just the bit that contained a business proposal for taking over Chou-Nata.
He liked the taster and wanted the full meal-deal. Bill told that there would be a fee for transferring all the files.
"How much," the suit asked?
"Glad you asked," said Bill.
Turns out a shark in silk pyjamas is still a shark, he offered half-a-mill. Bill tried pushing him further, but the suit had gotten the measure of us and wouldn't budge.
So we settled for half-mill, it was still a damned good score for the night.
We transferred the files to him and he transferred the money to an account for us. Job done.
Throughout the negotiations Trigger had been getting jumpy and impatient, jittery and jumpy. He had to bite his tongue to keep quiet. I knew that sometime in the morning he'd rubbed more of the White Lotus liniment into his skin and that had seemed to settle him down.
I guess it must have worn off, things weren't looking sunny for Trigger right now. We needed to look into this.
Speaking of sunny, the rain was beginning to let up, the inky-black sky had become burnt orange, soon it be yellow and by the time we reached the park in Dogenzaka Hill it had changed to blue.
These next couple of hours would be the quietest and coolest of the day.
The little green park was empty except for those Buddhist monk types close to the shrine. As we got closer they recognised Trigger, smiled and presented us with a small phone - a burner, we took it and left.
We had to get the down-low on these Buddhists. Turns out that they weren't Buddhists, but another street gang; the Shaolin Rippers, obsessed with king fu and implanted animal-themed blades and claws, the Shaolin Rippers were said to peddle - and use White Lotus Liniment to fund their cybernetic - and chemical addictions.
Now it seemed they had their claws in Trigger, this burner could be bad news. We told Trigger he might have to go cold turkey.
He played it cool, shrugged nonchalantly and said, "I could quit it any time I want. NOW GIVE ME THAT PHONE!".
It just got worse and worse. Trigger rang the number stored on the burner and reached a recorded message. It gave him a seven-digit release code and the address of deposit box in the Sunshine Metro subway station on Dogenzaka Hill.
In the short walk to the station, we could feel the morning begin to heat up, soon rush hour would start and the streets would fill with surly commuters, contemplating their soulless jobs as the journeyed to work.
The deposit box was easy to find, Trigger punched in the code and the door swung open. Inside was an old style hardcopy photograph, Trigger pulled it out and behind it was a .38 Weimshou Holdout, a small easily concealed pistol only really any good when up close and personal.
Trigger flipped the photo.
A name, an address and a gun. It was pretty clear what Shaolin Rippers wanted. As I said, things weren't looking sunny for Trigger.
This was a problem for another day though, it was the end of long night and time for some shut-eye.
Later in the day, a delivery message pinged Koko's media-slug. She went to her local delivery storage pod and picked up a package.
Inside was a note, a couple of model trains and a data-slug.
The package and the note were from Silai Granskina.
It thanked us for saving his wife, Bina. She had been among the prisoners we had released from the cells and she now was home safely. The note also said that he had called in some favours to get a full topographical readout of the Sewage Facility which was stored on the data-slug.
We had a map of the sewers!
Even later in the day, news providers began pumping out a hot news story: An unexplained explosion had entirely demolished a part of Robot Factory, no one appeared to be injured, production would not be significantly impacted, only a small part of the plant had been flattened...
28th November 2020
It's a cold Saturday night in lockdown and I'm in my living room, logged on to Skype.
Matakishi's new campaign using the 'Wired Neon City' rules begins tonight.
Wired Neon Cities
Since lockdown 2 is still in full effect, we're still playing over Skype. This means that we're looking for another minimalist RPG that's easy to manage over video chat.
After a discussion, we've decided on a cyberpunk game.
For the game we've chosen Wired Neon City. The game is basically a hack of In Darkest Warrens and has mostly identical rules.
The magic rules have been removed and replaced with rules for augmentations and hacking, making this iteration of the rules slightly more complicated, that's not saying much though.
Characters choose from 6 classes and have 4 stats.
All actions are rolled against these stats by rolling a single six sided die. The higher the roll, the better.
There's not much more to add.
You can read about our adventures in In Darkest Warrens here.
Welcome to Neon City
Bill Harkleroad: Played by Mark.
A man with smooth moves, a smooth face and an even smoother voice. Didn't so much Kiss The Blarney Stone as bought it breakfast in the morning. A tailored suit and designer shades are deadly weapons in this operator's hands.
Koko: Played Michaela.
This greaser girl knows her way round a 3/8 wrench, or a fuel injection manifold, or a titanium transmission synchromesh or a... well you get the idea. If it's got moving parts, she can make it purr, climb or land on its feet.
N. 'Nox' Fluke: Played by Giro.
Doesn't talk about why he was disowned by a family with a (dis)reputable name. Lives one day at a time on his data-slab skills. The City of Electric Dreams may be his home, but the GLOWNET is his universe.
Trigger Mortis: Played by Kevin.
Cold-hearted and dead-eyed, Trigger always keeps one had close to the hilt of his carbon-folded nano-edged street-katana. As the name suggests, he's quick to solve problems in a very fast and very cutting manner.
The aircon had to work overtime pumping recycled stale air back into the over-packed elevated tram, a dull throbbing hum against the rattling carriage.
Once a point of pride in The City of Electric Dreams, now an outdated and overworked, graffiti painted testament to her decay.
It was mid-morning, rush hour had ended and the tidal wave of cheap suit wearing wage-monkeys had washed into their cubes. Only the malcontent, transients, gangers, unemployable and bargain hunters rode the tram.
Which were we? Take your pick.
The tram rolled into Shibuya-cho and stopped at our destination; Dogenzaka Hill. A shopping district with a schizophrenic personality, the gleaming, exclusive Chou-Nata Corporation Mall was stacked with high end designer boutiques that contrasted with the bustling street level family run shops and market stalls.
Somewhat unhappily; we now appreciated the tram's aircon, upon exiting the station unrelenting heat slapped us in the face like a gleeful, laughing street thug.
The surging crowd pulled us on to a block filled with street vendors loudly hawking their wares or blaring out throbbing music. Steamy open air food joints plying their noodles or burritos or pizza-slices.
But the colourful sights, sound and smells couldn't quite hide the boarded windows and faded façades in the background, or the overflowing trash cans on the street level.
Neon City in a nutshell.
Anywhere else we might've looked out of place, under this heat with our suspiciously bulging jackets, threadbare clothes and worn boots. In Neon City however, the well-to-do fashionista paid double to try and look this authentic.
One block over was Alison, our contact in the Chou-Nata Corporation Mall who owned one of the high end boutiques called Aisle 10.
Aisle 10 was a draw for the movers and the shakers, the great and the good, Alison's eye for the latest trends allowed her to rub shoulders with the most exclusive clientèle.
Meanwhile, her ear kept her in the loop, Aisle 10 drew in rumours and stories just as much as it did the fashion conscious. This made her a good source of work for people like us.
Aisle 10 was only half a block away when everything took a turn for the unexpected.
Our attention was drawn to a well dressed Chinese woman, she had come running out an old style antique shop. She was screaming, frantically looking up and down the street and shouting in Mandarin.
Bill knew the language and tried to calm her down but she kept frantically talking through her running mascara.
Bill turned to us and said it was her daughter, her daughter was gone, kidnapped!
Turns out her name was Xue Mi-Wu and she ran the antique shop; Xue's Antiques. Talking through Bill, she explained that twelve year old Woo Woo had been kidnapped only minutes ago.
She brandished a piece paper, a note left behind by the kidnapper. Bill looked at it and handed it over to us.
It was Russian and said 'Payback's a bitch - Vissi'.
Vissi was Mi-Wu's husband, they had divorced four years ago and Mi-Wu had gotten custody of Woo Woo. It looked like a pretty straightforward case of parental disgruntlement.
Time was ticking though, we needed to get on the trail of the kidnapper.
We got lucky, a small crowd had gathered around the commotion and a local had spotted Woo Woo being bundled into an air-cab by a particularly large suited man. The local had caught it all on his Kuaijing optic recorder, he ran through the footage and got us the air cab's license number - 7635685.
Neon City's air cab companies all still used lo-tech radio transmitters to move data and comms to their cab fleet and there was a transmitter tower close by.
Breaking into it was child's play, we now had access to their data relays.
I hard-wired my Nonohiki 212-4a heuristic data-slab into their system and jacked in. It was simple to clone one of their SysID's and access their database. 7635685 had just dropped their ride off on Chuo Street.
It was a short tram ride to Chuo Street, there was no time to lose.
Chuo Street was another schizophrenic shopping district. The upper district was home to Neon City's thriving music retail centre. It was also home to most of the city's augmentation clinics.
Meanwhile the gloomy lower level was mostly given over to love hotels, massage parlours and brothels.
It was the lower level for us! Sunlight barely penetrated this low into Neon City, placing it into an unending dimness, Rentacops rarely came this deep and it was a good place to avoid watching eyes, most joints had hired muscle watching their doors.
This part of Chou Street bustled, but in a strangely quiet way. Business was always busy, but no one announced their trade, no one needed to and avoiding eye contact was de rigueur on Chuo Street.
Checking around, no one looked anything like the suited man and there was definitely no twelve year old round here.
Further along Chuo Street was the only thing that caught our eye: a rustic looking mom-and-pop Russian eatery called The Potato Palace, a slim lead but our only one.
We scoped the joint out, deliveries were being made down a dimly lit unmaintained alley way. It was a possibly way in but in the end we decided on a different approach.
Strictly speaking, Neon City's municipal responsibilities lay with corporations that ran the city. Reality told a different story, they only cared when was profit involved, which is where we came in.
The Potato Palace was designed to look like a little bit of home - if you were Russian - but there was no disguising the cheap knock-off that it was. Bill strode in and loudly proclaimed that he was from The Department of Safety and Health and was here for an unannounced inspection.
Seconds later a nervous man came bustling out of some door. He told Bill that they were paid up for the month.
Bill was playing hardball and didn't miss a beat. He didn't care Bill told the nervous man, he also explained that I was here for a tax assessment.
Bill was on his A-game, the proprietor suspected nothing and gave me unfettered access to their computer.
As Bill distracted the staff with a flurry of imagined regulations, I sifted through their internal security footage, nothing, no one matching the description had come into The Potato Palace.
It was time to think laterally; I looked through all today's orders. Their last order was a delivery for five adult meals and one child meal, to room sixty-five in a nearby hotel; less than thirty minutes ago.
Another slim lead but what choice did we have? If this was correct; at least we knew that we had five targets on the sixth floor.
The hotel itself was fairly nondescript for Chuo Street, a good place to hide out - provided you didn't leave behind a sloppy paper trail.
A direct intervention was out of the question, we didn't know who these players operated for and we were outnumbered.
A quick check revealed a functional fire escape in the alley at the rear of the hotel, a way in?
Kevin was a Ngumatadi drone owned by Koko, a Ruoinha MKII spy-model to be precise, about the size of a box of matches.
Koko grabbed her control pad and powered Kevin up. With a jab at her slab, Kevin effortlessly buzzed upwards with the stealth of a housefly.
In a few moments Kevin was peering through the grime and dirt smeared window to room sixty-five from outside.
There were five adults and one child crammed inside a room too small for them, it was obvious they weren't there for long.
The men were large and clearly roided up, smartly dressed in Desullo suits and brandishing Prosya 7.62mm Kirzak rifles, they stunk of corporate security.
The girl matched the description of Woo Woo.
Koko fed the images to me, I ran facial recognition and we got a hit on one of them. They worked security for Oshin Amalgamated, out of their branch in the London Arcology. The question was why were they here, kidnapping a girl?
Somehow these corporate enforcers were linked to Vissi. It was time to look into Vissi.
Jacking into my data-slab, I flowed into the GLOWNET, a kaleidoscopic ocean of undulating data opened up before me, washed over me and pulled me into its currents. We became inseparable, where I ended and it began, no longer existed.
It was time to plunge deep.
Vissi Goneva, it turns out was a low-level exec at Oshin Amalgamated in London. It looked like he was misappropriating corporate assets for his own personal interest.
Still deeper I went and turned my focus on Oshin Amalgamated.
We knew they enforcers would be leaving soon. The return to London would be by air, so they would have to appear on a flight manifest somewhere. I hacked into the air transport providers and found nothing.
I did find a logged flight plan that listed a Oshin private jet arriving in Neon City yesterday.
Still not enough, so I turned to Oshin's own corporate servers.
These kinds of servers were well defended. But even the toughest rock can be overcome by the pounding ocean.
It took effort but I got in and I was floating there, in their data banks.
According to Vissi's emails, the enforcers were in Neon City on some sort of counter-hacking operation.
Before I could look any further into it, I detected a change in the data flow. Was some other user was prowling the server? I got my answer soon enough, the server was calling out a high priority alarm and their systems beginning to trace all users.
They didn't know I was there, but out there in the real world in a few moments they would begin tracing me. Time to exit.
Pulling the headjack plug from my brain was like pulling the plug from an old time bathtub. The data flow distorted and twisted into a whirling mess that drained away into darkness. I was out.
At almost the same time, as Koko watched, one of the goons in the hotel room got a phone call. A couple of gestures and four of them filed out of the room, their Kirzaks tucked under their drab khaki raincoats.
One enforcer had been left with Woo Woo. Trigger knew an advantage when one jumped up and down in front of him and stormed up the fire escape.
A call from Koko confirmed what I suspected. I stepped into the shadowy corner alley and watched. I had been traced to the vicinity of a GLOWNET access node and the corporate goons were coming my way. With their bulging overcoats, the four massive thugs strode into the street, looking left and right and searching for any camera that overlooked the street. If they got the data, it would be a couple of minutes before they possibly identified me.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel room, its window spider-webbed for a millisecond before bursting inward in a hundred jagged fragments as Trigger dived through boots first, katana in hand!
As the fragments bounced of the hotel room floor Trigger struck the enforcer, who stumbled backwards under the blow but stayed on his feet.
Levelling his rifle, the enforcer tagged Trigger with a before he could close on the Russian. Trigger ignored the pained and pounced.
On the street, it was time for me to move. It was badly timed though, while one of the enforcers searched footage, the remaining three were watching up and down the alley, then if only for the briefest moment I met the gaze of one of the brutish enforcers, it was enough.
As he called for his colleagues, I sprinted for the other end of the alley. there was only a couple of seconds lead as I bounded out and ducked behind a gaggle of tourists gawking at distractions provided by Chuo Street.
The enforcers streamed out looking left and right, I stayed low and mobile, those giant goons could never blend into a crowd on the city's street level like I could, so I managed to slip away.
Trigger was now locked in hand-to-hand combat. As they exchanged blows, Trigger landed a couple of hard knocks on the enforcer, but the man just kept on coming.
Eventually though, Trigger put his opponent down for the count. He was left leaning on his katana, fighting for breath and gripping his injuries, the man had been a pro.
Like most good things in Neon City, time was a luxury that Trigger couldn't afford. He grabbed wide-eyed Woo Woo and ran.
We all converged on a busy corner on Chuo Street. From there we fled into Neon City's underbelly. Economic downturn and automation had left swathes of the lower city abandoned and derelict, particularly the old industrial districts.
This part of Neon City was populated with decaying empty warehouses, gutted manufacturing plants as well as trashed offices and shops.
There was also a transient population who made their homes here, the most marginalised and those who had slipped through Neon City's wide cracks and of course criminals of every variety.
Luckily there was room enough for everybody in the underbelly!
After we had holed up in a out-of-the-way safe spot we made a secure call to Xue Mi-Wu and instructed her to meet up with us.
Soon mother and daughter were tearfully reunited.
Xue Mi-Wu couldn't pay us anything substantial, instead she gifted us a lacquered wooden box made of stained cherry wood and inlaid with gold trim.
Inside, sitting on red silk lining was a Chinese Dragon Gun, it was an antique Xue Mi-Wu informed us, but even so a formidable sidearm.
Xue Mi-Wu thanked us and we went our separate ways.
Noon had come and gone in Neon City by the time we got to Aisle 10 and hard as it was to believe, the day's heat was beginning to subside.
Inside the Chou-Nata Corporation Mall, the well regulated climate control kept if cool. As inane music piped through the mall, we traipsed along the smoothly polished imitation marble floor and past the glass-fronted shops filled with opulent goods. We could palpably feel the sideways glances of the mall's up-market patrons and rentaguards on us.
Aisle 10 was a classy joint, too classy for us, which is why Alison led us to her office.
As always, she was good for putting work our way.
Binary Johnny was looking for protection on a job.
Big game at the Ramen Ritz needed security.
The statue at the Shrine of the Street Goddess had been stolen.
We talked amongst ourselves and decided to check out the shrine.
Alison told us that we needed to contact Max Zu, he ran an eatery close by.
Following Alison's directions took up into Dogenzaka Hill's retail district and past a small park; one of the few green areas this low in the city.
Max's place was close by, the exterior decorated in cheerful, garish colours. A soy bun makes the meal fun was printed in large letters across the frontage.
We met with Max, turned out Max was a bit of a big deal in the community here, he gave us the low down. The statue at the shrine was importance and represented some kind of a lucky charm for the residents and all of the local small retailers, none of them were happy that the statue was gone. They were clubbing together to put up a reward for its return, two hundred bits and steadily increasing.
Max told us that the shrine was in the centre of the park.
We went and checked it out. The park was an oasis of calm in a industrial desert of concrete and glass, a tiny respite from the grind and the noise of city. The little park was well maintained and somehow the gangs and hooligans were kept out of the park, maybe there was something to this lucky statue.
Small clusters of people took advantage of the grassy patches and were sprawled out under a rarefied sun as buskers plied their trade.
Small paved paths criss-crossed the park and converged in the centre where there was a plinth and some sort of Buddhist monks in white and orange were begging.
After strolling up, Bill dropped a couple of bits into a monk's begging bowl, in return the monk happily handed Bill a little ceramic pot labelled White Lotus Liniment in gratitude. The monk explained that once it was applied to the skin it strengthened the body and spirit in other words the monk said, it made you invincible!
Bill could barely hide his incredulity, but the insistent monk urged Bill to hit him. Bill didn't take up the offer, Trigger on the other did, he knew how to use his fists and swung hard at the monk, the monk took the shot and was unmoved.
Impressed, Trigger readily accepted a pot of the liniment from the smiling monk and eagerly slavered it on.
Turning to the plinth, it was clear that it had once housed a smallish statue of some sort, small enough to be easily stolen.
The plinth had been vandalised with graffiti; a purple kaiju head. It was the tag of a street gang called Poison Jam.
When people gave up giving-a-damn in Neon City, they sometimes joined a street gang and began their personal downward spiralling journey into a nihilistic dead end. Dead being the operative term.
The upper echelon's of the city were left untroubled by street gangs, heavy rentacop presence and security networks quickly laid the smackdown on gangs getting ideas above their station.
But street level was another story, street gangs freely roamed the busy streets, indiscriminately meting out ultra-violence, indulging in any criminal activity that piqued their interest and rubbing one another out.
Poison Jam was one of these gangs, word was that they'd staked a claim in Kogane-cho and operated of the Sewage Facility.
Getting to them would be a tall order and it was late in the day.
We switched up instead; Alison had told us Binary Johnny was looking for muscle. I'd heard of him, a hacker and netrunner with a sick rep who liked to play hard and fast.
Going back to Alison, she gave us a burn-phone to contact Johnny once-only.
Let's Bet, You Betcha! was where Johnny told us to go. A quick trip to another part of the hill.
No surprise; Let's Bet turned out to be a tacky looking gambling den and a busy and noisy one too. The décor was faded and peeling in parts, the floor was grimy and hadn't seen cleaning in a while. Meanwhile the surly staff sat back, paying little attention to anything other than absorbing content from their media-slabs. Players gambled at cheap tables equipped with custom data-terminals.
Whilst sizing the place up, we heard someone whispering at us.
Sat in a corner was a young skinny man, he wore a world war two aviator's cap and goggles. He was jacked into a data-slab which in turn was jacked into a gambling terminal. It had to be Binary Johnny.
After exchanging pleasantries, Johnny told us that he was shaking down a mark over the GLOWNET and needed protection for ten minutes. Johnny was willing to pay forty large for this ten minutes work.
He didn't need to say anything else, we knew what to expect.
Johnny jacked in and zoned out. I knew that glazed look, he was now drenched in the GLOWNET.
Meanwhile, we set ourselves up at a table between Johnny and the shop's front door with our safeties off.
Outside, Kevin was buzzing around left and right, running a small patrol loop above the front door.
Five minutes into the hack and Koko got a ping from Kevin. Four unknowns were making a move for the door carrying hardware.
They were seconds away but we were ready when the flimsy front door bucked and almost folded in two as it leapt it's hinges and crashed into the gamblers.
Even before the screaming and shouting had begun, our table was flipped and we'd unloaded at our attackers, except for Trigger who'd leapt in with his katana.
Despite the swarm of hot lead that had flown at them, the attackers were still up! Then we clocked them; the Russian enforcers from Chuo Street and they'd clocked us too!
This must have been the hack they were here to shut down. Johnny was hacking Oshin.
Chaos erupted throughout the room in a cacophony of yelling. The staff were nowhere to be seen and the patrons were stampeding over each other to get to the rear door, it was locked and wasn't budging.
We were caught in a stand up fire-fight with the Russians, they weren't going down easy but then, neither were we. Trigger had taken a hit and shaken it off, the White Lotus Liniment had done its stuff.
Since we were at a seedy gambling joint in the bowels of Neon City, it made sense that everyone here would be carrying. The customers all wanted out, the back door was locked and the enforcers stood between them and the only way out. Result; the customers all began indiscriminately firing at the Russians.
Suddenly, Johnny was jacked out and up! He told us to cover him and headed straight for the back door. He busted out a key card swished it across a box next to the door and was out of Let's Bet.
Things had started going our way, we'd taken down two of the enforcers and they were smart enough to know when they were up against it. They lobbed a couple of grenades into room and dragged their fallen colleagues out. It wasn't a good time to hang around, the back door was still half open so we chased Johnny.
The door went to a corridor and stairs, we felt the building shake and heard the explosion behind us. The stairs led down and out. We met up with Johnny a block away from the carnage at Let's Bet.
It was all good he told us and handed over a burn-card with with a code for a once-off payment of forty thousand bits, a good haul for ten minutes of mad crazy danger.
As we split with Johnny, we could hear two-tones approaching Let's Bet and quickened our pace.
It was becoming dark when we left Johnny and when darkness fell in The City of Electric Dreams, so did the rain. Neon burned brighter in the dark and the rain, but somehow sleazier?
Constant corporate abuse of the ecosystem and the stratosphere had led the creation of an inexplicable torturous micro climate that hung over the city like an ecological sword of Damocles. So when day gave over to night in Neon City, the oppressive heat gave over to the downpours.... and more heat!
Dim, unreliable silver-white street lights lit our way to a cash terminal. We punched in the code, it swallowed the card and spat out the cash.
This being Neon City, withdrawing this much cash attracted unwanted attention even in miserable weather.
None of the gathered general lowlife wanted to make a move though, we were packing hardware and were still bloodied from the rumble that went down at Let's Bet.
There was a moment that we all silently stood unmoving, watching each other and letting rivulets of rainwater pour down us.
Then the crowd parted and some bad-news gangers swaggered in. We smelled them before we caught their colours; Poison Jam and they weren't in the mood the mess around, which suited us fine.
Street thugs weren't in the same league as corporate goons and we put them out the picture pretty quick, but one them managed to stick Trigger with a knife.
Trigger was in a bad way for a while, he'd been poisoned, now we knew where their name game from.
Once Trigger's head had cleared, it was time to go shopping! We had ten grand apiece and we were still Dogenzaka Hill, where the shops never shut.
For myself I bought a black leather Verskeit long coat, not the most fashionable but a classic, it had layers of kevlar interweaved with ceramic plates, it even had an armoured little interior pocket for my data-slab.
For personal protection I got a pair of .45 acp Xiuzholi 'Blockbreaker' pistols with adaptive triggers and finished in matte black.
The night was still young by the time our shopping was done.
Alison had told us about one last job that we could hit up if we were lucky.
Big Game was a gambling tourney that rolled up in the Ramen Ritz hotel on a regular basis and pulled in every chancer in town. They needed muscle tonght, two bodyguarding gigs in one day? Why not?
The Ramen Ritz was as respectable as it got at street level in Dogenzaka Hill. The elaborate façade with it's fake arched square columns was pretty much free of graffiti. A pair of doormen in Oltrante tuxedos flanked the entrance doors, and a third greeted vistors as they scoped people out with the tactical assessment software in their Kuaijing Maoshi shades.
As we were talking to the third door man, we were distracted by the tortured squeal of brakes as a tram pulled in at the stop a way down the street.
A smart but slightly rough looking man in a suit stepped off with a hot girl on each arm, too hot to be normal dates.
Lingering around the tram stop were some Poison Jam thugs, we hadn't spotted them until they cold cocked the guy. The girls screamed and flinched as the thugs went for their victim's pockets, at the same time ran at them.
Seeing us coming, the Poison Jam gangers ran for it. We fired off a few rounds at them and gave chase but they hopped aboard a tram and gave us the slip.
Going back to the guy, we saw the hot girls helping him to his feet and fussing over him. I guess the muggers hadn't got his cash!
He thanked us profusely and introduced himself as Vlegei Kreshoma, he wanted to hire us as protection and would pay us at the end of the night.
It was the work we were looking for, so we said yes.
Inside Big Game it was pretty posh, no two ways about it.
Some high-ceilinged conference hall had been given over to the event and was decked out in pricey fittings, glitzy lighting and a thick carpet. There were blackjack and craps tables, as well as roulette wheels.
The restaurant area had been turned into a smart looking cocktail lounge
Staff cheerfully attended the tables and well suited guards roamed the hall. Well dressed gamblers filled the hall with their expensive suits and gowns. Some of them sat intently at particular tables and other flitted from one to another.
Vlegei was the intense kind of gambler and concentrated on it all night, I'm sure that he didn't remember to blink or breathe in all that time.
We made ourselves as inconspicuous as possible and watched and waited.
Every game has and end and Big Game was no different. Hours later Vlegei stalked away from the blackjack table with slumped shoulders. We noticed that he no longer had the hot girls hanging on his arms, it was a bad sign.
Vlegei admitted that he had gotten cleaned out and couldn't pay us until later. He gave us his business card and said he was good for it. He then went on his way, there was little we could, other than remember to ask for payment up front next time.
After this we asked around about Vlegei and one of the doormen told us he was a regular at Big Game and a well known gambler about town, mostly known for losing and losing big! He liked to play for big stakes and occasionally got a big-time win too.
Finally the doorman told us that not matter how much Vlegei lost or how badly, he always came back with more cash to burn. Well at least that boded well for us.
Night was coming to an end and it had been a long day. I could feel the sandpaper behind my eyeballs. We had made a small step into getting out of Neon City, but it was time to hit the sack and see what tomorrow held?
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.