30th January 2021
Saturday evening is here again and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC in the living room.
It's time for session 10 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Highway Zero.
Midnight had come; Neon City was dematerialising into night's distant blur, consumed by the hazy spray of violently crashing rainfall.
It felt a strangely secluded march through the downpour, collars up and heads down. Navigating the endless crush of pedestrians and ever increasing puddles.
The Ferry Terminal was at the far eastern end of Highway Zero and Binary Johnny was waiting there for us.
He was making another covert run into Oshin Amalgamated territory to sabotage some excavator robots and foil their plan to flood part of Neon City. We'd worked with Johnny before and he wanted us to back him up as muscle.
The terminal stood apart from the urbanised glut that ruled much of Neon City, it was a matter of necessity since the structure straddled the lip of the waterfront.
A three storey high setback with a steel girder skeleton under a skin of polymer walls and doors, windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. The terminal's harsh white lighting blazed out into the rainy night like an artificially lit greenhouse.
Inside were several rooms linked by short corridors, a safety-glass fronted ticket office, a steamy concession cubicle selling coffee and snacks and waiting rooms where the subdued murmur of hushed talk hung in the air.
People stood or sat, most waiting to catch the ferry, some to escape the rain. The over-bright strip lighting highlighted the peeling beige paint and worn grey flooring, lines of chocolate brown curving plastic seats were bolted to the floor along the walls.
On the far side of the terminal, nearest to the bay exit was Johnny, he was sitting and staring out through the huge windows.
At night the bay was an vast, unlit and impenetrable inky body of fluid, only discernible thanks to the reflected city lights that bobbed along on undulating waters.
The exit went to a covered walkway that led to the plain concrete wharf that served the ferry service. We exchanged pleasantries with Johnny, there was still a little time to wait.
The service was the only way to reach Diver City Island and it was the only reason the ferries still existed.
They were a trio of old Ysekoe electrically powered, moderately sized, steel tubs fitted exclusively for passengers. We watched as one of the them sailed in and docked at the wharf, in the rain and under the weak spotlights it looked particularly dingy. Its once crisp white and blue livery had faded, dulled now, by time, layers of grime and stained with long smears of rust dripped from the bolts that held the ferry's steel plating together.
Even this late at night there was a demand for the ferry, a few minutes later and we were among the passengers had streamed aboard, then the ferry was underway Diver City Island.
A lump of rock located at the eastern side of the bay and mostly known for housing the Diver City Neon Plaza, yet another of Neon City's vast and excessive shopping malls that lured in consumers from across all the districts.
An ad blurb famously pronounced that Diver City Island had a zero crime rate due to the diligence of the Diver City Zaibatsu, an elite all volunteer police force. Of course we knew that was rubbish, because no one was stopping us from going there!
Other than the mall, there were only two other features of note on the island.
The Last Guardian. a giant mech-like robot construct that stood a motionless watchful guard over the island and the Oshin Amalgamated Saline Plant, ostensibly an ecological reclamation centre. We knew better though.
That's why it was the Saline plant that we were interested in, specifically the Robot Maintenance Facility.
Our arrival at Diver City Island was without event, we disembarked and waited. All the other passengers were of course making the short walk to the mall, a rising monolithic shape underlit by a hundred spotlights and blazing multi-coloured neon signs, silhouetted against Neon City's light polluted blood orange-red skyline.
Once the crowd had thinned out, we skirted the enormous building, heading west towards our target.
From a vantage point we had found and through the late night deluge, we could observe the plant.
Work on the Saline Plant was clearly in the early stages, an open and largely flat, earthen construction zone, dotted with several clusters of small prefabricated portable offices, sandy mounds, piles of building materials and work machinery, surrounded by a four metre high razor wire-topped wall that ran the entire perimeter.
Towards the centre was a large hangar-like building. This was where we'd find the excavator robots informed Johnny.
We continued casing the site: Euyrailad motion detectors were present, searchlights, alarms as well. There were roving gun drones and uniformed rentaguards patrolling with dogs.
As the patrols and drones went round, we saw that they weren't triggering any alarms, the on-site security system must have somehow tagged them as friendlies. Possibly they were carrying actual tags?
I jacked into the GLOWNET. The mundane blandness of the construction site was wiped from my brain. replaced by metamorphosing digital geometry decorated in vivid mainlined colours.
The construction site had a small data-vault, its image; a hexagonal pyramid branded with the Oshin Amalgamated penguin logo and colours.
An almost invisible data-flow bled out from the vault and disappeared into the pulsating horizon, impossible to spot unless you know what you're looking for. No doubt it connected to a main Oshin server-vault.
Oshin weren't expecting trouble here, getting through the security was easy.
There wasn't any data to speak of here, just a stack of protocols.
I checked them out, they were here to manage the security systems, it was the soft spot we were looking for, our way in.
I went further into the system and found what I was looking for, a fairly simple set of protocols managing the motion detectors.
If the motion detectors picked up anything that it was not recognised by its system, a response protocol was instructed immediately trigger the alarm protocols, which in turn would set off a series of alerts and alarms, both locally and off-site.
I got into the response protocol code and simply deactivated the instruction to trigger alarms. From a one to a zero.
This meant if and when the motion detectors spotted us, they would do nothing about it.
This just left the guards, dogs and spotlights to avoid.
Timing it carefully, Trigger picked his moment to climbed the chain link fence and at the top cut a length of the razor-wiring away, his Ashirada arm augmentation made it easy. After this we all managed to clamber over the wall.
Kicking up dirt, we ran for cover. Inside the walls much of the ground was open and sweeping searchlights were a risk, as were roaming patrols.
Patiently we went from cover to cover until we reached a side door in the hangar. It towered over us, we hadn't appreciated its size at a distance.
Inside the space felt vast, the furthest reaches swallowed by darkness.
Industrial sized pendant lights hung from exposed rafters and dim spots of weak light draped over rows of gigantic construction robots.
Still by the entrance, Johnny pointed at one robot in particular.
It was a Paakutoda class Nasuran Industries construction robot. It resembled a giant armoured, dull-steel coloured octopus, seventeen metres across and high. Covered in an array of sensors and equipped with segmented robotic tentacles that provided underwater motion, incredibly strong but equally precise in their movements and actions.
As we quietly moved, the Paakutoda's motors growled and it rotated it's position a few degrees, thumping loudly as it settled again.
"It's been locked into guard mode," whispered Johnny. "Without the remote access controls, the only way to disarm it is to get into the cabin near the top."
Captain Noodles volunteered to do this, he was small, fast and might avoid detection. He lithely jumped and soundlessly ran his way to the cabin without triggering a response. His paws however, couldn't get at the cabin's lock. Denied, he came back down dejectedly.
Koko knew locks better than any of us and her Ashirada implants allowed her to easily scale the interior wall. Koko then cautious shuffled along a rafter and lowered herself by rope on to the robot and began working on the lock.
A couple of minutes later, we heard her cursing under her breath over comms, she couldn't open the locks.
By now Trigger had had enough.
"Distract the robot," he said over comms.
Koko had pulled herself back up to the rafter, so she made some noise. The robot rotated again, stopping and starting several times in quick succession, unable to triangulate Koko's position directly above.
Trigger sprinted, bound up the robots central body and arriving at the cabin. With a thrust of his street-katana and a hefty pull, he jimmied the lock, springing it open. The internal sensors detected Trigger when he jumped into the pilot's seat and the robot powered down.
We were in.
I scrambled up to the cab and with my slab and jacked in. My vision blurred for a moment as I acclimatised to the system. Unlike the GLOWNET, this was a simple static code structure, I instinctively flicked through files like flicking through pages of an old style glossy paper catalogue and eventually accessed the lowest code level, the closest to the metal.
Then I fed it a Trojan, a little discrete slice of code disguised as an instruction interpreter that gave us full remote access to the octopus.
It was time to leave, we exited the hangar, avoided the patrol patterns and circling spotlights. Returned to our insertion point and then, out!
Outside of the saline plant, Johnny was free to push his sabotage virus on to the Paakutoda in safety. At some point the virus would exploit the robot's networking function to spread to the other robots and hit them all.
Hopefully, even when they cleared the virus out, they wouldn't catch the Trojan and Johnny could simply push the next iteration of the virus back on to the Paakutoda.
It was time to get back to the ferry, heavy rain was pelting , drenching us in darkness. Ahead was the shoreline, we followed the wharf lights as they danced madly through the curtain of falling raindrops
It was still a couple of hours until dawn when our return ferry docked with a shunt at Highway Zero. The rain hadn't let up and neither had Neon City's unsleeping population.
We were about to make our way back towards the tramline when Captain Noodles picked up something, his curious nature had made him stretch and sniff the air then stalk off?
We followed and he led us a fishmongers on the eastern edge of Highway Zero, close to the bay.
Fish were one one the few truly fresh foods that could be acquired easily in Neon City. The advantage of a major conurbation that sprawled on to the edge of coastal waters. Although, it being the Neon City Bay, it didn't pay to look too closely at the catch of the day.
A small crowd had gathered, drawn by the commotion. Phineous Phish was a fishmonger's shop right in the middle of a row of independent retailer units, it's logo read The Phreshest Phish You Can Phind!
Agonising alliteration aside; it had a fairly old fashioned, almost quaint frontage of brick and painted replica wood, with a large shop window that displayed white boxes filled with fish sitting on blankets of ice.
Inside was a glass counter displaying more fish.
Outside though, was a middle-aged man, presumably the proprietor and dressed in an Phineous Phish apron, he was waving his arms and shouting angrily about thieves, he was also covered in what we surmised were fish guts that had been dunked in some sort of slime?
Bill managed to calm him down, he was Phineous, the shop owner. He told Bill about the penguins!
Four penguins had come into his shop, the largest had distracted him by regurgitating on him! Meanwhile the other three had stolen fish, the four of them had then fled.
It had all happened a few minutes ago.
We didn't know anything about penguins but were pretty sure that their usual behaviour didn't involve thievery.
They must have been uplifted penguins, genetically altered and bio-enhanced to increase cognitive function, physical application and communication ability.
Even amongst the early-morning suited wage monkeys, late-night gangers, all-day street walkers and stoned revellers on the overcrowded streets of Neon City, penguins would be easy to track.
Hacking various security cameras showed four penguins waddling their way to the tram line. Footage showed that they swiped in with their Ostrea Transit Cards and then take the tram for Sky Dinosaurian Square, we knew that was where the tramline terminated. The only way out of there was Sunshine Metro or a sky-taxi.
I had hacked the transit system so many times I practically had my own login. Accessing their system was easy now and I looked for travel data on the four penguins, there were too many cards swiping into the system simultaneously to narrow it down.
Sky Dinosaurian Square was our next destination.
It was still an hour before dawn and sheets of rain kept on noisy pouring on the packed tram as it rumbled its way into the centre of Sky Dinosaurian Square.
A sprawling dinosaur-themed amusement park that dominated the district, Sky Dinosaurian Square was the biggest tourist and consumer pull in Neon City after Ninety Ninth Street and it's distractions, hospitalities and attractions were more family friendly.
Getting off the tram, we found ourselves in an open puddle filled circular paved area lit by floodlights.
Nauseatingly cheery music looped out of streets speakers and a colourful LED sign announced: Dinosaur Square.
Stalls and stands decorated in primary colours and selling sugary drinks, candy floss, ice cream, souvenirs, tourist tat and more lined the square.
Even at this time, people would be dragging their children here, crowds and the queues as heavy as any time.
Staff in dinosaur costumes patrolled the square, protected from spiteful, screaming sugar-fuelled children by rentaguard.
In the night sky flew autonomous anamorphic pterodactyls, screeching their digital screeches as they swooped over the square, dipping in and out of the light.
To the east against the faintest streaks of dawn light we could see a small silhouetted train speedily twisting and undulating its way along the still-lit skeletal shape of an enormous roller-coaster.
Unless the penguins had taken the Sunshine Metro, they had to be somewhere here?
Koko sent Kevin up to do a high altitude sweep and she found something.
To the south east were some ponds.
The ponds were a series of sealed and self-contained ecological water habitats. When the amusement park had received approval, it had stipulated that a percentage of the park had to be given over to educational attractions. The ponds were that percentage.
The crowds thinned out considerably as we got closer to the ponds, no one came to a place called Sky Dinosaurian Square for the ponds.
We watched for a while, until we spotted penguins!
When asked, the staff told us that they thought it was some sort of public relations stunt?
Once the staff had gone about their business, we went down to the ponds, their rocky banks turned out to fabricated from durable grey polymer. The penguins were there, eating fish, caught red-handed so to speak.
We spoke with the penguins, it was hard to tell but they seemed happy to talk with us.
Up until recently they had been employed in Rokkaku Expo Stadium at the Sea Life Attraction but events had taken a turn for the worse.
They had recently been laid off and to compound matters, because they were not classified as human, they did not qualify for Universal Credit.
Theft was only way to get food.
Koko piped up with a suggestion, perhaps they could work as brand ambassadors for the transport authority?
They seemed amenable to the suggestion and we knew someone who might be able to help: Silai Granskina, we were tight with him so we contacted him and put him in contact with the penguins.
By now the rain had stopped and a band of rosy colour was seeping into the cloudless eastern sky. Soon, along with the sun, the temperature would begin to soar.
It had been a long day, soon we would be hitting a straight twenty four hours awake, so we headed home, I could hear the raspy buzz of fatigue in my ears.
I was knocking down twice the recommended Toaizou painkillers; lunchtime had come too soon and sleep had been too short. There was a sharp stinging sensation in my ocular implants and the edge needed to be taken off.
Five minutes ago we'd been pinged on a call from Antin Grova, the up-and-coming urban sculptor who lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
He needed our help. More precisely he told us; a customer or associate of his did.
The son of this associate had gone missing, Antin described him as simple and was concerned about his wellbeing. He would pay us for our trouble since it was unlikely that the young man's mother could afford it.
We took the job, Antin gave us contact details for Martha Woldt, the boy's mother - she also lived in The Heights.
We arrived at her apartment block without much delay, the plain interior providing a cool respite from the heat outside.
Martha Woldt was middle-aged and fairly non-descript. She looked quite surprised to see us - Antin must not have told her that about us?
Martha told us that her son - Jericho had been looking for work, but his learning difficulties made it hard to find any.
Surprisingly, he eventually had found work and began his job yesterday, that was the last she had seen of him. Martha provided us a photo of Jericho, she didn't know where he'd gone to work, but she did know that name of the agency that had placed him; Office Plankton, located in The Heights.
It was reaching midday by the time we arrived at the agency office, despite the punishing heat and near-painful brightness, Neon City's people were undeterred and crowded the streets. Just another obstacle to navigate in a day in the life.
The Office Plankton office was an anonymous and easily-missed high street unit. It's narrow frontage bore the Office Plankton logo along with it's motto; Easy jobs that require no skills.
The window's blind had been pulled down, concealing any view of the interior.
Office Plankton was a job agency and a rare sight in Neon City with it's burgeoning unemployment rates and even rarer was Office Plankton with it's niche market!
Office Plankton specialised in filling vacancies for low-skilled jobs and finding work for people who lacked qualifications, people like Jericho.
It was surprising that these kinds of vacancies even existed in Neon City considering the amount of robots and level of automation available.
Inside was a rectangular room, the mostly bare walls were painted off-white and a thin, light-grey carpet covered the floor. It was obvious that little time had been given to considering the décor and overall the room said very little about its function.
Opposite the entrance was a faux-oak desk and sitting behind it was a stocky, flabby looking man who was preoccupied with a desk-slab. He wore a slightly off fitting white shirt and blue tie. Pinned to shirt was a name badge; Call Me Bob.
Behind Bob was a shelf filled with what seemed to be random office supplies and a door to the back.
As the front door swung open he looked up, smiled and asked how he could help?
Bill explained that we had an important message for Jericho Woldt and had been unable to contact him. Perhaps Bob could tell us his place of work?
As Bill was talking to Bob, I scoped the room. It felt remarkably empty. Only one thing of interest caught my eye; a framed photo sitting on the shelf.
Bob was sitting with several other equally stocky people at a fully stocked up dinner table, they were family maybe? Gripping their cutlery and grinning at the camera just before digging into a heavy looking meal.
It was unusual to see they kind of family meal at street level in Neon City?
Bob shrugged and turned away from the slab to face us, he'd never heard of Jericho Woldt? He told us that there were four other branches of Office Plankton in Neon City, perhaps we should try them?
He also informed us that none of the branches had direct phone lines, the jobseekers they dealt with could become easily confused and this kept matters simpler.
There was nothing else to be gained here, we had four other sites to check out.
I accessed the transit systems records again. They showed Jericho Woldt getting off the tram at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Next we hacked the servers that remotely logged camera footage from the tramline and used it to track Jericho's movements. Coverage was spotty though, we intermittently saw him going around the district, at one point we saw him looking intently at something out of picture at the Expo Stadium, after that we lost him. We saw nothing of him going to a Office Plankton branch.
There was one last play we could make. One of the few centralised databases in Neon City was the employment status database. It tracked who was eligible for Universal Credit and who had employment. Details about Jericho should show up on the Social Insurance Network.
Only in Neon City was working a S.I.N.!
We didn't get any hits. Either Jericho wasn't working or he was working off the books?
It meant we had to investigate the other Office Plankton branches. Time was critical, so we split into four to cover more ground, Noodles went with Koko and of course Roderick went with Bill.
Two hours later we met up to compare notes.
Bill had gone to the branch on Ninety Ninth. It was another small anonymous and strangely featureless office manned by a single rep. A friendly, large, doughy guy wearing a name badge saying; Call Me Dan.
Dan gave Bill the same thing he'd heard from Bob, nothing about Jericho.
While Bill had been chatting to Dan, his eye recognised a photo on Dan's desk, it was identical to Bob's photo but now Bill also recognised Dan as one of the other people. There was definitely something of a family resemblance.
At Dogenzaka Hill, the office I went to was equally small and bland as at The Heights.
Again, only one company rep worked here. Call Me Tom stated his name badge, he provided me with no information about Jericho and again; there it was, the same photo with Bob and also Tom at the dinner table?
The Office Plankton branch at Highway Zero had been Koko's destination. It was the same as the Rokkaku Dai Heights branch. A small office operated by a single staff member. A corpulent man wearing a badge saying; Call Me Dick. Koko didn't learn anything about Jericho from him but she did see that same photo with Bob and Dick.
Lastly, Trigger had gone to the branch at The Skyscraper District. He had spoken with the chubby woman who ran the small office there and saw the badge she wore named her as Call Me Madge. She did not recognise the name Jericho Woldt and gave Trigger no information. Before Trigger left, he spotted the photo identical to one on Bob's shelf, the one that contained Bob and also Madge.
More and more it looked like thing weren't adding up.
All five branches had no information on Jericho despite what his mother had said, nor was there any evidence that Jericho was even employed?
Office Plankton's chosen market seemed strange and all the branches seemed empty?
Finally since all five staff members appeared in the same photo, it must have been a family run business?
Time to take it up a notch. It was approaching the end of the day and we needed to dig deeper into Office Plankton. We headed over to the Highway Zero branch and found some shade from the glaring sun in a back alley.
Through the constant flow of people and rumbling traffic we watched the office.
At six Dick locked up and made his way to the closest tram stop, we followed. Only Koko had to keep distant, so she sent Kevin up to keep an eye on him. The rest of could safely take the same tram he did.
We'd hit rush hour, the tram was stuffier and more packed than usual, the smell of cheap antiperspirants mingled unpleasantly with actual perspiration as we squeezed aboard.
Heavy with crushed wage monkeys, the tram laboriously pulled away and they mindlessly swayed in unison to the acceleration, diligently scrolling through on their media-slabs, needing to forget where they were and most importantly who they were.
The tram creaked as it's worn breaks squealed their protest at bringing the tram to a halt in Kibogaoka Hill.
Dick disembarked and we followed suite. He went through the shanty town, up the hill towards what passed as the district's retail centre. His route took him through the treacherously winding side roads, narrow and high sided ravines of brick, wood and plastic with a multitude of blind corners and turn offs.
Bill was on point, it was tricky staying out of sight and shadowing Dick but he managed it.
Eventually Dick ended up going through the front door of shop with a fabricated crimson coloured frontage called Mother's Meaty Morsels?
A shop that currently looked shut for the day and from outside appeared to be some sort of small independent pie-shop? It's motto proclaimed; A MEAT pie is a NEAT pie. It also boasted of the naturally sourced ingredients?
Additionally, the shop seemed to serve both retail and commercial customers?
Real meat was hard to come by in Neon City and was generally the reserve of the wealthy, how was it that a small shop in the neo-shanty town of Kibogaoka Hill was able to get real meat?
We waited and watched, soon Koko joined us and after that we looked on as one-by-one Bob, Dan, Tom and Madge appeared and went into Mother's Meaty Morsels.
Things still didn't add up?
What happened to the people they supposedly found work for?
What was Office Plankton's link to Mother's Meaty Morsels?
How was the pie-shop getting its meat?
Neon City was always home to casual unpleasantness, indifference and crime but joining the dots here was taking us into one of the city's darker avenues....
Trigger was getting impatient, he flicked on his thermals and took a look.
Seven heat signatures were visible, they seemed to be congregating and taking up seats round a table. Nothing suspicious....
Trigger swept the building's rear, he saw the heat signature of a slumped figure with their arms in the air, it was the profile of someone hung up by their arms! Trigger also saw various cooler, dimmer amorphous blobs of heat?
It was enough for Trigger, he was up and running at the front door before he told us what was going on, we hurried to back him up.
Kicking open the door sent a now-broken lock skittering across the chequered black-and-white linoleum floor. It was unlit and unoccupied, the glass serving counter empty.
Scraping chairs could be be heard from a back door behind the counter. It flew open and several corpulent individuals came charging out, their faces were bestially contorted with anger and screaming, they closed in. We could see Bob and the others among the pack running at us.
Their aggression and desire for violence could not hope to match our skills, honed as they were by our lives The City of Electric Dreams.
The fight didn't last too long and there was little doubt how it would go. Soon they were lying on the floor, unconscious or dead - we didn't care which.
The room they had come from contained a dinner table lavished with an assortment of pies, we avoided it.
Another door seemed to lead into their processing facility, we steeled ourselves and entered.
It was a grim sight, the dirty, dimly lit room was populated with bloody, grisly detached human remains at various stages of being processed into pies!
As we suspected; cannibals!
We continued searching and found Jericho Woldt, he was chained to all steel ring that had been secured to a concrete wall. He was alive and breathing and in one piece. We took him and left that damned place and returned him home to his thankful mother safe and sound.
Later on Antin Grova pinged us with a call, thanking us for finding Jericho Woldt. He asked us what payment we wanted for the job?
"Nothing," we said, "consider it a favour.".
Even later, I got a call from Ram Rat.
He had been following the news: A sky-taxi had malfunctioned, crashing into Porter Sladek's high rise with a tremendous explosion. Sladek's apartment had suffered massive damage and was almost entirely destroyed. Fortunately the Thetatech executive had out at the time and was unharmed.
Ram Rat told me he was sure that Ghost Radical had made another move on Porter Sladek, he wasn't giving up.
24th January 2021
It's Sunday and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC, in the living room.
Matt is running the introductory adventure for Those Dark Places.
Those Dark Places
From what I've seen about Those Dark Places, it's a fairly rules-lite Industrial sci-fi RPG, which means it's default setting is sort where activities in space are everyday and commonplace but also impractical and possibly downright dangerous. Not a utopian paradise nor a dystopian nightmare.
The rules are pretty straightforward, each character has four attributes, something I've seen a lot of in recent games. A value of 1,2 3 or 4 is assigned to each attribute.
Additionally, each character has a primary and secondary crew position, these things like Helm, Medical Officer, Engineer, Science Officer, strangely it makes the game feel a bit like Star Trek?
Each character has a Pressure Bonus and a Pressure Level.
Tasks are attempted by rolling a single six sided die and adding a pertinent attribute to the roll, if a characters primary crew position is also pertinent, add a further +2, if there secondary crew position is relevant add +1 instead.
Target numbers range from 6-8.
Players will be called upon to make pressure rolls, these are done by rolling a die and adding their Pressure Bonus, if the result is 10 or higher, it's all good.
Less than 10 and they fill in a box on the Pressure Level track. Bad thing can happen when these boxes are filled.
There are some other rules, for combat and whatever, but that's the gist of it.
The default setting has the PCs signing with a vast impersonal space-faring corporation looking to make a fortune from mining or exploiting the resources on other planets.
The pay is lucrative but PCs start by having signed on for a 25 year contract, they'll only be paid at the end - once all expenses have been deducted. It's not as long as it seems; there is no faster-than-light travel here and all long distance travel is done via hibernation or long sleep as the game calls it.
Time passed in long sleep counts has time worked, thus a 6 month long sleep is 6 months off the contract.
I guess characters either make it to their 25th year or they don't!
Big Ounce: Played by Josh
Doris Sine: Played by Vicky.
Cyrox Calwin: Played by Giro.
Location : Icarus
The Icarus was a clumsy inelegant but effective workhorse of a spacecraft and so were the new three-person crew. All freshly signed up with Cambridge Wallace Incorporated for twenty five years.
The crew had been putting The Icarus and themselves through their paces after the latest refit when orders came through from Cambridge Wallace.
The Icarus was to proceed to planet Viduus III, upon arrival the ship was to pick up three passengers and their cargo from the decommissioned space station which was scheduled for demolition and then return them here.
The crew would earn performance based bonus if the orders were completed in one hundred and seventy days.
Cambridge Wallace had wrapped up their mining operation at Viduus III, the three remaining engineers had spent the last few months dismantling the station and now needed a ride home.
Cyrox plotted a course to Viduus III on the nav-systems, the computer calculated that the trip would eighty-one days to get there, a roundtrip would give the crew a margin of error of eight days.
Seventy eight days later and the automated long-sleep capsules started to bring the crew back to consciousness, warning lights were flashing and wake-up alarms chirping. With much effort the crew dragged themselves out of their pods.
Recovery from long-sleep was quick but tended to be disorientating and nauseating.
A couple of hours later and the crew were on the bridge.
A lot of green lights were winking away on the dashboard, all systems looked nominal.
The Icarus was less than seventy-two hours out from the station and deceleration was well underway. Everything was on schedule.
The Icarus was also now close enough to communicate with the station. A message was transmitted, but even taking into account the delay, there was no answer.
A check of the on-board systems showed no errors, the station must have received the message.
Even aboard a large ship, life was cramped and it was hard for the crew to not get in each other's faces over the next few days. Little consideration and space were given over to crew needs. Other than Ship Operations, there was a communal eating area and each crewmate had some personal storage and space, that was it.
Outside of Ops and personal spaces, the entire ship only ever seemed half lit, it was also fairly dark and dismal,
For the crew, it was nothing new.
During the remaining three days the crew put out regular transmissions directed at the station but on every occasion; there was no reply.
Three days passed and what was a bright speck in an endless sea of specks had grown until it dominated the scene out of a view port.
The station looked like a colossal skeleton, silently hanging in the sky against the backdrop of Viduus III.
The engineers had been busy stripping it down.
Big Ounce was adjusting the The Icarus' velocity and trajectory, putting the ship into a synchronous orbit with the station.
There still had not been any answering call from the station, it was worrying the crew. The corporate handbook had no regulations for this, the crew were on their own.
As the station loomed large, Cyrox ran a thermal scan, heat signatures were showing up and there was a definite heat-bloom that was the profile of an active power generator. Cyrox knew that it would be enough for life support.
Ounce was closing in and making the final imperceptibly delicate adjustments, a few minutes later and The Icarus and the station were aligned.
It was a simple matter to extend The Icarus' umbilical to the station's airlock, then the two were connected.
The decision was made to send Doris and Ounce over to the station. Doris was the ship's medical officer and Ounce had received security training.
They went out of The Icarus' airlock, the span between The Icarus and the station had no artificial gravity, so Doris and Ounce had to float over. When they got into the airlock, the station's gravity tugged them back down to the floor.
Once the outer door was closed, they punched in the commands to open the inner door. There was a hiss as the airlock equalised with the station and the doors slid open into the gloom.
The room ahead was unlit other than a small winking light, a minimal amount of starlight was streaming through the station's view ports.
Doris and Ounce flicked their flashlights on.
They found themselves looking at a grotty looking squarish steel-walled room, there were three ways out, but two of them had been wielded shut.
This was standard procedure for engineers when they stripped a station down. The sealed doors would only lead out into space now. Eventually the engineers would have stripped as much as they could and were now down to a minimal amount of inhabitable space.
Doris and Ounce shouted out their arrival, no answer came. It was quiet and when they went in and played their flashlights over the room, they could hear their boots creak. There were three messy looking cots and the winking light was coming from a food dispenser.
In one corner was a grimy looking makeshift shower unit had been set up, upon closer inspection, it also doubled as a toilet!
A number of storage crates had been stacked up to the ceiling in another corner. Several had been tipped over and possibly looked damaged?
It was starting to look like there were signs of a struggle. They spotted a dark spot on the steel floor. Looking closer they realised it was some sort of stain, further inspection revealed that it was dried blood. Shining their flashlights, Doris and Ounce spotted several stands of hair mingled in with the blood.
Doris looked at the blood, it seemed at least one week old, there was a large amount too, possibly from more than one person
They shouted out again and waited, still no answer.
Cautiously, they continued their search. The damaged crates had been violently ripped open, it looked like they once contained food supplies.
The other undamaged crates appeared to contain equipment or engineering gear.
Next to one of the cots was notebook - a journal to be precise.
Doris skimmed the journal; it belonged to Batiste and mostly ambled on about their work, the writings indicated that he was the ranking officer here, the other two were Manuela and Williams.
Back aboard The Icarus, a proximity alarm began ringing? Cyrox had been slumped in a chair listening to the chatter from the others on the station, he wheeled over to the navigation console.
Long range detectors had picked up something new several thousand kilometres away. A computer calculation determined it was orbiting Viduus III and had just come round into detection range.
The orbit was at a slightly faster velocity than the station and in about twenty hours; whatever it was, it would catch up with the station.
Cyrox activated manual camera controls and swivelled one in the direction of the object. Pushing the camera to higher and higher magnifications, he sat up in surprise when he found what he was looking for!
The object was a spaceship of some sort, with careful application of the controls, Cyrox managed to get the ship's name.
He had to search the database to find anything about it.
The ship was Argent III. It had been part of the Argent Class, a fleet of 4 large ships with a crew compliment of over one hundred each that were designed for long term deep space exploration.
The fleet had been launched over a century ago. They had returned from their mission decades late,r having been recalled. All returned except Argent III, which had gone missing, its fate unknown.
As regulations required, Cyrox messaged the Argent III, no reply came. Another one he thought.
It was likely that all the crew would be dead after this time and the Argent III probably represented a significant value to whoever owned it, they might pay a big reward if correctly salvaged.
Aboard the station, Doris and Ounce went into the only exit. It was another unlit squarish steel room. This one was filled with rows and rows of more stacked crates.
They searched the room with their flashlights, they was no other exit, nor were there any bodies.
None of the crates here looked damaged or opened, but an inspection of the steel floor showed numerous long scuff marks, crates had been dragged out of the room.
There was nothing particularly different about these crates.
There was nothing more to be learned here.
Doris and Ounce returned to The Icarus, the crew discussed their next move.
It had to be the Argent III, the station was a dead end.
The umbilical was detached and retracted.
Ounce then adjusted the ship's velocity and orbital altitude, slowing The Icarus and allowing the Argent III make ground.
The crew again sent out messages and again no reply came.
For a few hours they watched out a viewport as the Argent III grew in size, speculating on what they would find.
It was a vast ship, perhaps a kilometre long and it easily dwarfed The Icarus - almost menacingly as the distance between the two lessened. Argent III was a museum piece and it obvious that it's design as well as it antennae and exterior arrays were all outdated.
Sweeping Argent III with cameras revealed that it had taken a quite a battering. It's hull was pock-marked with numerous dents and there was visible damage. The decades had left Argent III worse for the wear.
Argent III was also dark, a further inspection of the hull showed the ship's view ports were all sealed from the inside with steel plates?
It also showed a small shuttle docked with an airlock, they saw the shuttle was a much more modern design. The crew surmised that it came from the station
Cyrox ran another thermal scan, heat signatures were faint and fluctuating, there was no steady heat-bloom of a nominally functional power source. It was impossible to say what condition life-support was in.
As Argent III drew closer, Ounce began changing trajectory again, gently putting The Icarus into synchronous orbit with the Argent III.
Once this was done, the crew realised they had a problem, the shuttle was docked with the airlock, they couldn't use the umbilical to get aboard.
Cyrox pulled up Argent III's schematics from the the database. On the far side of Argent III was a ancillary airlock, the crew could probably gain access that way.
This meant going on an untethered extravehicular action excursion.
Ounce wasn't too fond of this and volunteered to remain aboard The Icarus.
Doris and Cyrox suited up and ran safety checks each other's EVA kit, the gear that would propel them on their kit. Everything was good to go.
They lumbered into the airlock and entered the black, empty silence of space. The only noise was their on breath and squawk of comms chatter.
It was a short journey to the other airlock but each metre that took them further from The Icarus was a metre further into potential danger and the unknown.
Argent III and Viduus III filled their view, the ship was below them and behind loomed the planet.
During training, they had been taught to focus on the task at hand, to remain clam and not look at the millions of kilometres of nothing above them but the urge to stare into oblivion could be irresistible.
Doris and Cyrox spent couple of minutes skimming over the Argent III's uneven hull until they reached the other side and manoeuvred to the airlock.
The external controls looked old but there was still some familiarity about them and luckily it was easy to decipher what-was-what whilst hanging there. Soon enough the door slid open they were were inside and Argent III's gravity asserted itself.
They checked the intermediate controls, these were more complex, there were various environmental readouts - even the font used on the screen was an outdated one!
Eventually though, they managed to close the out door and pressurise the airlock. Then they opened the inner door.
The suit readouts indicated that the air was safe, with a click and hiss, they removed their helmets.
It was time to go into Argent III.
23rd January 2021
Saturday night is here again and I'm logged on to Teams on my PC in the living room.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign
Location: Neon City.
It was too early in the morning when Koko had pinged all of us; Yennav Rybasei had been in contact. He wanted us over to some sort of meat processing plant in Rokkaku-Dai Heights immediately.
Pocketing my media-slab, I wondering just where Koko's relationship with a Russian Mob operator was going to eventually lead us. Every combination of the words; meeting, mobster and meat processing plant sounded like it would lead to a bad ending.
I checked my .45 ACPs, pulled on my boots and trench coat then went and met the others in the morning heat, unaccustomed to blinding low morning sun.
This meat processing plant was on the edge of The Heights' old warehouse district in a small business park that backed on to a row of retail units.
Unusually for a warehouse, this was a was grey-and-brown bricked building with a few small second story windows, some doors and a couple of bays. at the front it's original old sign had long since faded away.
Situated at regular intervals on the rusting corrugated gable roof were a large number of ventilation shafts.
Would have been a fairly anonymous place except for the handful of clearly tooled-up and generally easily spotted mob goons with their buzz cuts and cheap polyester Russian Osolitki tracksuits they liked so much who were kicking their heels outside and failing to look respectable.
They watched us intently with unblinking gazes as we walked over, obviously gripping weapons in pockets.
Once we told them that we were expected, they relaxed and breathed.
One of the thugs bought us into a partially sun-lit hallway with a dusty threadbare carpet that led to a short row of offices, Yennav was waiting in one.
It must have been an admin office, shelves were stacked with old vinyl document boxes and office supplies, a couple men sat working at desk-slabs and the room was filled with beige or brown plastic furniture.
The exception was a plush looking shiny faux-leather exec chair in which a reclining Yennav sat. His relaxed posture couldn't quite hide the nervous expression on his face.
He stood up and greeted us with a forced cheerfulness and after some small talk took us through another door into a small high-ceilinged bare corridor.
Dust motes floated lazily in sunlight that poured through the small windows and shone on the plain concrete floor.
At the other end were a unusual set of heavily looking steel double doors.
"Leads to cold storage," Yennav offered.
Yennav jabbed a panel on the wall; the insulated doors popped a few centimetres out of the wall with a short hiss and automatically slid open. A small cloud of accumulating mist rolled out into the corridor where warm air mingled with cold.
Beyond; a mixture of weak LED strips and sunlight bleakly lit the stark brick and concrete room. Skinned animal carcases hung from rows of cruelly curved steel hooks and barbs, gently swaying in the almost indiscernible flow of cold air being pumped in by the low rumbling fans in ventilation shafts.
"There," pointed Yennav.
We followed his finger and I sucked in my breath, it lead to a cyborg, hanging from one of the hooks.
It was the kind we had encountered before: Protobase Global cyborgs, monstrous braindead hybrids that were built to kill.
Except not this one, it hung there moving in rhythm with the carcasses.
"Non-active, but still functional. No danger." Added Yennav.
He went on to explain that during a conference at a mob-owned restaurant a group of the cyborgs had appeared and attacked. Yennav shook his head, explaining that during the ensuing firefight he had lost many colleagues before the cyborgs were destroyed. Though his men had managed to disable the one here in the storage.
Yennav wanted us to find out who had done this to them.
The first thing we checked was the cyborg. As Koko worked at opening a small service hatch I could feel a chilly invisible grip wrapping around me like an icy boa constrictor. None of us were used to this kind of temperature, not in Neon City.
Once Koko was done, I worked quickly; behind the hatch was a port that allowed Protobase Global to program their mindless murder-machines, it was also my way in. I networked my data-slab to it and jacked in.
Ram Rat was still occupying a sizeable chunk of my data-slab's storage partition.
A constantly shifting and rotating innumerable swarm of glowing data-insects, each an algorithmic subroutine that contributed to Ram Rat's brain-image wheeled over and greeted me as I appeared. Ram Rat wanted to know what we were doing?
We accessed the cyborg's programming, it had been executing a complex set of hunter/killer instructions, nothing unexpected considering what it had just been used for.
We dug deeper but came up with no further data that could help us, whoever had created the programming had also been very careful to hide their footprints.
There was one small piece of data though.
The cyborg's base operating code was probably written by somebody different to who had programmed the instruction set and they had left something, something that was missed by whoever had wiped the data
The base operating code still contained a timestamp, this was when the code had been compiled; this was a week ago.
The Protobase Global robot manufacturing facility had been destroyed by us long before then.
There was another facility somewhere in Neon City.
The cyborg was a dead end.
Next Yennav showed us the front security camera footage from the restaurant.
We watched the grainy silent low angled footage; it showed a platoon of cyborgs rapidly charging along the street, coming into the footage from out of the camera angle. They were directed to attack the restaurant by a familiar looking rotund Asian man, once again he managed to keep his features hidden from us.
It kept us from learning anything about the attack.
For several minutes we re-watched the footage again and again, nothing new each time. Until we spotted something, we hit freeze frame and there: A ghostly, insubstantial spectral shape lurking in the shop window across the street from the restaurant.
A faint, transparent phantasmal half-reflection that showed cyborgs leaping out of a sky-freighter to one side of the restaurant but too transparent, too faint to reveal any detail. There was however, a strange smear of bright green that we were naturally drawn to
Taking a screen grab, we fed it into my data-slab, Ram Rat and I checked it out.
The image was already low-rez and when we expanded it, it only got worse.
I ran a protocol to enhance the image, an predictive algorithm would reconstruct the image, cleaning and sharpening it. Hopefully it would clean and sharpen it in the right way and we'd get something.
A toy, it turned out to be a child's plastic toy stuck to the top of the sky freighter's dashboard, a distinctive colourful green troll mascot of some kind? I ran it through image recognition, it was produced by Lekorrem Toys and wasn't associated with any businesses or corporations, it had no meaning, it was just a damned child's toy.
Another dead end.
We were grasping now, but perhaps it had some kind of significance to truckers? We only knew one trucker, Aisha Laverone - Lady Zero.
We pinged the image to her and asked if she knew about it. she got back to us pretty quick.
The toy could be found on the dashboard of a freighter that belonged to a Ivan Wykw. How could we find Ivan, we asked? Lady Zero didn't know, Ivan shunned The Brotherhood of the Road, whatever the hell that was and was happy to take any cargo no questions asked.
One last thing Lady Zero told us; he was a serious pachinko player and liked to play at the Isseki Nityou Pachinko Parlour in Highway Zero.
It was a start.
Twelve lanes of unending blurring traffic moving at four hundred kilometres per hour on street level made Highway Zero the noisiest, hottest district in Neon City. with an all encompassing background rumble that filled the air like a low hiss of static.
A midday sun was baking the streets as we rolled into Highway Zero. It didn't take long to get to the Pachinko Parlour.
The parlour's name was brashly announced by a large, elaborate set of neon signs and shapes flashed on and off in a rolling animated sequence.
The sound of bells, sirens, electric jingles, sporadic song samples could be heard from outside.
Inside, it rose into a blended cacophony of electronic noise that numbed the mind
The brightly lit room was entirely filled by rows of zombie gamblers of every variety sat in front of gaudily coloured flashing and winking Ozoyanan pachinko terminals, almost mindlessly pumping ball after ball into the machines and watching entranced, as they bounced their way down, clinging on to the hope that a dopamine hit would be triggered by a win.
A battery farm of steel ball laying zoned-out gamblers.
It was packed, every seat, every row occupied and we didn't even know what Ivan Wykw looked like or if he was even here? Finding him was going to be a slog,
A different approach was needed and that approach was his sky-freighter.
Back outside, we looked around, across the road was an asphalt surfaced parking lot. A quick search and we found the colourful green troll; Ivan's truck, a dirt smeared Tulytt Arboret sky-hauler.
It was empty and had been sitting here a while, the bodywork had been cooked by the Neon City heat and was painful to touch.
We provided cover to Koko as she delicately worked the truck's door lock.
With a click, it was done. As we opened the door, a wave of sun-heated hot stale air escaped the truck along with the rancid smell of rot, crap and sickly sweetness. For a moment everybody stood back, we all knew that smell.
Taking deep breaths we looked inside. There was a plastic coated bench that ran the width of the cabin in front, its colourful patterns worn away by use. The truck was parked up so all the dashboard systems were all turned off. Most corners of the cab and the windscreen contained caked deposits of dust and grime, accumulated from years of travel and some other small pieces of trash littered the interior.
Behind the bench, the cab extended to the rear and the shaded, unlit sleeper area.
Touching the sleeper area's panel light bought it to life and its soft glow revealed an unmoving figure laying covered by a duvet. We checked closer, Ivan Wykw was there, under the duvet; dead.
Someone had been serious about tying up loose ends.
Another dead end.
Powering up the sky-freighter systems triggered a sequence of dials and instrumentation activating in a flurry of winking red-and-then-green lights.
The auto-router would contain a log of the freighter's movements, we checked it, the log had been deleted.
Very serious about tying up loose ends.
It was time to see how good they were at this though.
Under the dashboard was a central dash-slab, it's role was to manage all the sky-freighter's systems; power management, propulsion, aerial stability, fuel usage, data readouts and of course, the auto-router.
When the logs were deleted, they weren't deleted from the auto-router but the slab instead. The auto-router was in essence nothing more than a dumb terminal, an interface linking to the slab which did all the actual work.
Like all slabs, when data was deleted from the dash-slab. it would be fragmented and transferred to a specific hidden partition, none of this would ever actually show up on the auto-router.
Networking my own data-slab and jacking in, Ram Rat and I searched the dash-slab, finding the deleted data was easy.
I copied it to my own slab and ran it through a reconstruction protocol.
It took a little while and we had left the sky-freighter by the time it was done but it got the result we needed, we had the auto-router logs.
Ivan Wykw's last journey but one had been to the restaurant and less than two hours before that the sky-freighter had gone to an address in Kibogaoka Hill. There was our lead.
Waves of midday heat and over-bright sunlight pummelled the tram on our clackety ride down to Kibogaoka Hill. No surprise, aircon wasn't up to the job and tightly packed passengers sat or stood, silently enduring the discomfort and shielding their eyes. Nothing new in Neon City.
Kibogaoka Hill was the poorest, most neglected and underfunded district in the city and that was saying something. The city planners must have forgotten about this place when it came to the building of Neon City.
The tram had dropped us off at the foot of Kibogaoka's titular hill.
As the main thoroughfare wound its way uphill, narrow unpredictable side streets branched off in random directions. Other than this, every visible square centimetre of the hill face was seemingly covered by an haphazard sprawl.
A blanket of favela styled shanties were draped down the steep incline. Corrugated sheeting, wooden panels and pallets, plastic coverings and tarpaulin, held together by a mix of nails, rope, wire or cable all contributed to the patchwork district of densely packed makeshift homes and shops. A tangled mess of daisy-chaining black cabling ran from rooftop to rooftop providing power.
There was nothing here for tourists and the streets were quieter for it.
It was obvious we were the outsiders here, our clothes marked us as foreign and suspicious looks were thrown our way as we walked up the hill.
Disaffected youth roameded the favela in bands or gangs, wearing threadbare clothes, hand-me-down boots and defiant, glowering expressions.
Throughout the shanty town the ankh image had been sprayed over many of the ramshackle walls, the tag for Kibogaoka's biggest gang, The Immortals.
Pushers dressed baggy jackets had staked every street and sat on their corners with one eye on the street and one hand on their pistols thrust deep into their pockets. A drip-drab of customers always coming and going.
Meanwhile strung out, underdressed street walkers prowled the hillside for clients.
Stray dogs had the run of the shanty town and feral cats ruled the uneven, mismatched roofs.
On the way up we passed The Launchpad. Designed to deploy multi-stage rockets into orbit, the strange and empty imposing structure had never been used. An enormous tapering steel skeletal launch tower rose out of an open concrete platform and stretched up above the favela, dominating the view from anywhere in the district.
It was hard to imagine how and why it got built in Neon City in the first place and what would happen to the shanty town around it if it were used?
The shanty town climbed most of the way up the hill where it reached the commercial centre of Kibogaoka Hill and mingled with actual buildings of brick, concrete, steel and glass. A strange melting pot of hodge-podge shanty businesses side-by-side with commerical buildings and retail units
The address led to Den's Den Of Domestic Doers. It took a while wandering through the meandering, claustrophobic, random street-maze to find. It was easy to become lost in the narrow, shady back alleys and as we navigated our way we were constantly under the scrutiny of some resident of the favela or other so we kept our wits about us.
Eventually we found Den's Den but we chose to stay back and observe from a distance
Den's Den Of Domestic Doers was a manufacturer of domestic white box appliances.
A largish, square. innocuous brick building that backed right on to an extensively expanded part of the shanty town, it seemed to have been a retailer that directly served the public.
A quick search showed that the business had been bought out by a subsidiary of Protobase Global.
Now it was out-of-business, doors had been barricaded and shop front windows boarded up.
Or so it seemed: For a disused business, we counted a large number of security cameras pointed at all the ways in. There was something strange about the shanty town behind it as well, it was in someway too large and the shape was too uniform, too predictable, as if it was something else?
During our surveillance we had drawn the attention of an old woman who was watching from the doorway of her wood and plastic shanty home.
Bill approached and introduced himself, she was fairly evasive, untrusting and immediately warned him off, telling him it wasn't safe here. Bill smoothly moved the conversation on and she continued. All the original staff from Den's Den had gone missing as as well a number of locals, no one knew why.
If this was a new cyborg manufacturing facility for Protobase Global, then we knew why.
As Bill was talking, the rest of us had noticed rough-looking locals beginning to congregate close by, armed with makeshift clubs they were giving us frequent surly glances, talking heatedly amongst themselves and shifting about as their numbers increased
Maybe they thought we had something to do with the disappearances? Maybe they just didn't like the look of us?
Whatever the reasoning, this wasn't the time to correct those views, so we moved on.
After relocating to a back alley more out of the way, we decided to scout the shuttered retail unit out.
Koko sent Kevin to investigate, the spy-drone zipped over and began scanning the target. As expected, the doors and windows were heavily barred and protected, we needed another way in.
Kevin increased altitude and breezed over the flat roof.
The search revealed several pieces of information, no cameras watched the roof and there was at least one unprotected skylight up there, finally, Kevin pinged us a warning alarm? Her on-board Geiger-counter was picking up an unusually higher than normal radiation count, a radiation leak was somewhere out there!
We gave each other questioning glances?
Koko instructed Kevin to perform a sweep of the area and used the different Geiger readings to triangulate the source. It was narrowed down to an plain, unbranded office block not far from Den's Den.
Nothing could be seen through the windows and it seemed too quiet to be in normal usage.
Trigger took a look with his thermals.
About a third of the way up the tower he started seeing hot spots and then some sort of thermal image of a grid pattern?
Roderick volunteered to take a look, none of us felt particularly confident enough to approach.
He ran over with his distinct robotic gait and disappeared around the back of the building, came back a couple of minutes later and reported his findings.
From the outside, it looked like a typical office block but inside it was a single vast room the size of the whole interior. Inside Roderick had found a cluster of small sized missiles? They were all labelled The Rokkaku Group.
Roderick showed a video he'd recorded of the missiles
The missiles were definitely too small to carry payloads into space; which is what the Rokkaku Group were known for. They must be something else, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles? With the radiation they were pumping out, it had to be.
There seemed to be no link between Den's Den and the missile base, they had to be unrelated we reasoned.
It was time to infiltrate Den's Den. We got to the roof unseen and forced the skylight open without any trouble.
In went Kevin, she saw a large room, perhaps the size of the entire ground floor. It lacked any furniture and contained only one thing. Protobase Global zombie cyborgs: standing there inert, a good twenty of them! There was room for a lot more.
We'd seen them like this before, this was just the end of the manufacturing process. Elsewhere was the manufacturing plant, where Protobase Global thugs had dragged hapless innocent people to their brain-deaths by cybernetic-lobotomy.
Amazingly, Koko had bought a rope with her, it was a Angolan Pruiticos cord, constructed of weaved long-strand polymers, it was thin enough to easy fold and carry but thick enough to grip by hand. It was also incredibly strong for its thickness.
The cord was tied off somewhere secure and we descended, Trigger was first, eager as ever.
Our breathing and rustling clothes seemed loud in this quiet mostly empty room and our footsteps slapped on the vinyl coated floor. Other than the barricaded doors and windows, there was only one way out.
Looking at the cyborgs, I asked Ram Rat what he thought of inhabiting one? They were mindless and he wouldn't encounter any A.I. conflict. He didn't seem too keen on it, on the other hand his choices were limited right now, so he decided to try it out.
I knew where the cyborg networking sockets were and easily connected my data-slab. I jacked in watched the thousands of expanding and contracting, swirling, gleaming data-motes that represented Ram Rat's consciousness funnel off out of my slab like digital water sloshing down a plughole.
for a few minutes Ram Rat walked around, flexed his arms, adapting to the two-and-half metre tall construct with its four arms loaded with weapons. He didn't seem too unhappy with the results.
It was time to move on, there was only one way out.
Koko opened the door and immediately closed it. She had seen a security camera attached to a wall opposite the door and pointing right at it.
Time to be cautious. Koko opened the door a few centimetres and left it ajar, enough to allow Kevin through. She floated into the corridor and zipped up close to the ceiling, out of camera shot
Kevin's video feed showed us that the door led into a plain corridor running left-right with grey vinyl flooring, off-white walls and lit by strip lighting.
To the right, along the opposite wall was a door and beyond that at the corridor's end, another door.
By our calculations, something was up. Those doors would be leading into the shanty buildings? The buildings had to be a disguise for something else?
As we were discussing this, we saw the far door open, from her vantage point Kevin watched as a Protobase Global rentaguard strolled down the corridor.
He turned his head as he passed our door and stopped, he'd seen it was open and was reaching for the handle.
We threw ourselves to either side of the door, except for Ram Rat who was still learning how to move.
The door swung open and the rentaguard was taken aback with a look of shock by one of the cyborg's standing at the door.
Before the rentaguard could react, Trigger reached out and yanked him into the room, closing the door and hitting him with a stun-baton. He crumpled to the floor.
We had an in now! Stripping the rentaguard of his grey and black uniform, Bill used his implants to disguise himself as the man and returned to the corridor.
Koko tagged Kevin on to Bill and the drone quietly followed him, sticking close to the ceiling.
The first door led to an office of some kind, Bill could hear voices on the other side, he continued to the far door, returning the way the rentaguard had come.
Passing through, Bill was greeted by the hum and motor-whine of automated machinery at work.
He was in a production factory of some sort. A large high vaulted room of exposed support girders with corrugated steel walls and a concrete floor, lit by a mixture of spot lighting and elevated windows. Hidden by the false shanty town outside.
Two rows of elaborate orange and grey industrial robots with custom appendages were studiously working on a small assembly line, building cybernetic microelectronics on the conveyor belt with their unnaturally swift and precise movements.
Bill spotted a door marked Security Office. Inside was a solitary rentaguard sitting at a desk-slab and a bank of screens.
"Take a coffee break," said Bill. "I'll man the fort here till you get back.".
Rentaguard didn't need to be told twice and was out the door.
We had ten minutes, maybe fifteen.
The desk-slab needed to be hacked, Bill contacted us and over comms I directed him through the system. It was the standard Karseakk security setup that we'd seen on Protobase Global slabs before.
Before long, Bill had shut the camera feeds down and we were in.
Now we had a chance to find out more about the rotund Asian man. Did he work for Protobase?
The security slab wasn't linked to the corporate servers. We needed a terminal with higher security privileges.
So we came up with a plan.
Bill went back into the corridor and through the office door between the factory and us. Inside was a cluster of replica wood desks, four wage monkeys with their tired, stressed faces and cheap off the rack neutral grey Turkish Radicuz suits looked up from their terminals and at Bill.
"Security drill," Bill explained. "Please exit the area in an order fashion,".
They glanced at each other questioningly.
"NOW," Bill shouted and they quickly made their way out.
With them out of the way, I jacked my Nonohiki into one of their desk-slabs and began my search.
When the material world faded into the background only code remained, a domain governed by the unfeeling embrace of inevitable mathematics and unflinching logic, where everything made sense.
The Protobase Global servers were a massive data-image, a cubic construct that spanned kilometres of virtual space. Unlike the constantly evolving data-spheres of the GLOWNET, these isolated monolithic data-vaults rarely changed and only in relatively small ways when they did.
Protobase retained vast quantities of data at any time and employed tens of thousands of people worldwide. Information here was stored within cuboid structures, there were cubes-within-cubes and data-vault led to data-vault in convoluted pathways. A direct search would be futile.
I programmed some bio-parameters into a search protocol and let it do its thing. It came back with twenty or so hits, a lot more manageable.
It didn't take long to find something.
All of the results bar one were dead ends and gave us nothing. Someone had cleaned out the Protobase databases but this one thing had eluded them.
A record of an old security card that had expired years ago. It contained a slightly out-of-focus typical head-and-shoulders photo, it was the rotund Asian man and the card had a name; Nozi Kinko.
It was time to go, we had what we needed for Yennav. Before leaving, we decided that the remaining cyborgs here needed to be destroyed.
It was a opportunity for Ram Rat to learn about his combat systems after we left! Then afterwards take the back alleys out and be picked up by our roaming RV.
Which worked out well, Ram Rat couldn't come with us, his massive body was too conspicuous.
As we were making our way out of Kibogaoka Hill, Trigger's media-slab pinged, a package had been delivered to his apartment?
Then, on route to Trigger's, Bill got a call from Katsuo Nakamura, he wanted a meet at his place in Rokkaku-Dai Heights immediately.
Once we were safely inside Nakamura's well-to-do high-rise, we sat on his plush sofas as he gave us tea and explained what he wanted.
Binary Johnny was making another run tonight, this time into Diver City at midnight and wanted us as muscle again.
Johnny had the low-down on Oshin Amalgamated; they were expecting delivery of massive excavator robots at the desalination plant. These would help with the installation of the underwater nuclear heaters that would be used to disastrously raise the water level in the bay. Johnny was planning to sabotage the robots with a virus.
Nakamura told us to meet Johnny at the pier in Highway Zero.
There were still hours to burn and plenty of time to get to Trigger's apartment. It was a small plain package that had been delivered, inside were a couple of tubs of White Lotus Liniment and a name; Orin Kichi.
The package was from Prophet Wei and he wanted to rub this chump out.
A search revealed that Orin Kichi went by the handle OK Daddy and was a pimp that rolled in the back alleys of 99th Street. A report stated that he was suspected of murdering two working girls but there was no evidence.
99th was always crowded, even during the afternoon's lowering glare of the sun, the noisy, neon-lit allure of quick-fix entertainment was too much for the moths of the City of Electric Dreams looking for a good time.
Amongst the restaurants, gambling dens, game parlours, karaoke bars and bars of 99th were the working girls - and boys, as much as part of 99th as anything was.
We asked around, rumour on the street was that OK Daddy was nasty piece of work, vicious and thuggish but nothing confirming that he's committed murder. After finding one of his girls, she gave us the address of a hotel in the back streets where could find him and that he could be recognised by his tattoos.
I had no inclination to do what Prophet Wei demanded, on the other hand OK Daddy was not what you'd call a nice person and getting rid of him seemed like a good idea.
We had not seen any solid proof that he had killed the prostitutes so we decided that running him out of town was they way to go.
The din of 99th was somewhat lessened in the back alleys, most of the amusements and hospitality didn't reach this far and the twisting, shady narrow ways were mostly given over to densely built multi-storey brick-built residential units.
The hotel that the address went to was small and looked like a converted old townhouse. Inside, the unlit tatty entrance hall led to a living room converted to reception.
There was a miserable looking girl sitting at a desk, distracted by a media-slab and there was someone else....
He was tall and wiry, with a thin, almost gaunt face, spikey black hair and looked Japanese. He wore a well cut pair of silvery-grey trousers from a two piece Oltrante suit and a tight fitting white vest. His exposed arms were covered in two sleeves of elaborately designed tattoos, displaying his Yakuza affiliation.
He was leaning against a wall, eying us and polishing a pistol. It was a nice piece, a nickel plated Pouegnu Arms FK4 9mm automatic with a black grip.
We confronted him.
He refused to admit to having anything to do with the murders, we told him we didn't care and we wanted him out of Neon City.
Kichi, shifting his weight to his feet, he began gesticulating angrily, looking from us to the girl
We pushed the matter, he needed to leave. He became more stressed, waving the pistol in our direction, his a face a desperate mixture of fear and anger. The girl scrabbled out of the room, screaming
The situation looked like it was going south.
It was obvious that Orin Kichi didn't want to lose face to us and wasn't going to back down but the odds were seriously stacked against him if he kicked off.
In the end, we didn't give him a choice.
One swift move from Trigger with a stun-baton put him on the ground.
Discussing the matter, we came up with a solution.
Dragging an unconscious person into the street and then stuffing them into the trunk of a sky-taxi may not have been commonplace in Neon City but neither did it turn heads. Which is what we did with Orin Kichi after sky-taxi we had booked arrived.
We jumped into the cab and the lights and noises of bustling 99th dropped away as the cab gained altitude.
Putting Orin Kichi on to a train to somewhere far away had been an option but there was a risk he might come back. Our answer was a lot better.
The sky-taxi dropped us off at the closest Planetary Guardian Defence Force recruitment office. It was a cramped space, the walls were lined with photos and video screens of square-jawed, attractive young people in various photo-opportunistic poses in their uniforms and peaked caps. Opposite the door was a plain desk containing a desk-slab, against one wall hung a rack of pamphlets and leaflets about the benefits of joining the PGDF.
Behind the desk, at the desk-slab sat a recruiting officer in his own uniform and peaked camp, he looked at us wryly as we dragged the unconscious Orin Kichi in.
We explained that the unconscious man was here to join the PGDF, the recruiter didn't question our motives and instead began filling out paperwork on his slab. No doubt he'd get a nice recruitment bonus for this.
A few minutes later and the recruiter looked at Orin Kichi and pointed at his desk-slab as he told us he needed authorisation from the candidate before he could finish the paperwork.
Whilst looking the recruiter in the eye, I dragged the unconscious man to his desk, yanked his arm up and pressed a thumb against the desk-slabs bio-reader.
Signature Recognised flashed a message on the desk-slab. Orin Kichi was now the newest recruit of the PGDF, he would be going off planet on his ten year term without delay and wouldn't be coming back anytime soon.
Moments before we left, the recruitment officer stopped us and gave us a complimentary gift for recommending a friend to the PGDF.
An action figure; one of the Ace Space Captain of the Fourth Dimension range - a Chuck Comet one!
16th January 2020
It's Saturday evening and I'm in logged into Teams on my PC in the living room.
This means it's time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
It had been a late one last night but then, they always were. Night was beginning to rain itself out as I crashed hard on my futon, so hard that I'd barely managed to pull my boots off before I slipped into what would hopefully have been the blissful oblivion of dreamless sleep.
By the time I woke, the sun had already crawled more than halfway up the pale sky, the blinds kept most of the blinding sunlight out but none of the pounding heat. Rousing myself, I slouched over to the kitchen area
I'd managed to score some genuine Hechunai genetically modified spider-goat milk and it was time for a treat. It wasn't until I was going through my media-slab over a lunchtime bowl of Paheheu Pops cereal that I read the targeted news had come down the GLOWNET while I'd been sleeping.
Noise Tank, the metal worshippers nihilistic gangers that menaced street-level Highway Zero had taken a ride out to Sunshine City and struck a high-end fashion boutique called Clothenjoy. The gangers had stolen their entire Neon Noir clothing line, Noise Tank had even kidnapped customers wearing Neon Noir clothes.
There had to be a link, we had stopped Sky Juice, a Noise Tank foot soldier from stealing info at Neon Noir launch party not so long ago. Now they were stealing the clothes?
I imagined that when he heard, Hika Taki would be jumping up and down with indignation, more stressed than ever.
Over spoonfuls of soggy, heavily processed and flavoured rice I let curiosity get the better of me and continued reading. Somehow Noise Tank had managed to get past Sunshine City's heavy security, rip off Clothenjoy and give the rentaguards the slip.
No wonder the feed was reporting rumours that it was an inside job.
The onsite security was handled by some outfit called Mall Cops. Who knew how legit they were?
None of this meant anything to me of course, until I got the call.
Lucy had gone missing. Alison was on the line and told me that she had gone to Sunshine City to check out the new Neon Noir line....
Maybe Lucy hadn't been kidnapped? Maybe sometimes, Neon City could give you a run of good luck. Who was I kidding? I knew the answer before I'd finished thinking the question.
I met up with the others and we took the tram to Sunshine City.
From our elevated ride we had a good view of our destination through the tram's grime-caked, neglected windows as we rattled nosily along.
Sunshine city was a steel and glass temple to corporate self-indulgence and excess, its upper levels a home to the more affluent corporate employees. It's chromic façade caught the sunlight and blazed like a fiery column of white flame, rising so high it evaporated into the blooming haze of the stark blue-white sky. No mere monolithic mega-structure, Sunshine City was nothing less than a city-within-a-city.
Architects had discovered many years ago there was a practical limit to how tall a skyscraper could get before the need to ferry so many people up and down made it become more elevator than anything else.
Sunshine City had solved this puzzle by removing the need for that many elevators. The upper levels housed entirely self-contained communities that were served by their own facilities and amenities, schools, hospitals, cyber-clinics, restaurants, theatres, you name it.
The lower levels of Sunshine City were given over to a massive, brightly coloured multi-tiered, multi-storey shopping mall that contained every type of shopping experience and every imaginable product available to purchase.
More than that, outside were dedicated open green spaces and parks.
All wrapped up in a protective bubble of executive rentaguard.
It was possible to spend your life in that ivory tower without ever needing to hit street-level and if you could, why wouldn't you?
As we came into the Sunshine City station, the tram's worn brakes began to squeal their protest.
I pulled my vibrating media-slab from my coat pocket. A black-band message was flashing on the readout.
Legally speaking, few city municipal bodies had the authority to pump a transmission out on the black-band; a narrow slice of bandwidth on the GLOWNET reserved for emergencies.
A localised text message was coming from rentaguard, an officer-under-fire distress call, requesting help from any other local rentaguard and even civilians! This was going to be bad news?
We tore out of the station and down the rusting rivet-filled iron staircase, after inputting a few quick instructions, the media-slab led us to the message's source, we could hear gunfire coming that way.
The concrete, windowless smooth base of Sunshine City at street level was enormous and surrounded by a series of prestigious parks and open spaces, sprawling flat carpets of green dotted with clusters of trees, calm pools, lazy winding paths, leisure amenities and numerous concession stands.
They were well looked-after by robotic maintenance crews that ensured the grass was always trimmed, in good condition at all times, they pruned the bushes and flowerbeds, cleaned the litter and ensured there was no graffiti.
The rentaguard here who were euphemistically known The Park Patrol made sure that undesirables were persuaded to keep out of the parks.
What we saw was the opposite of all that. Following the signal led us into the closest park, into a play area; it was chaos.
Various once-cheerful small structures had collapsed in on themselves and were mostly billowing smoke and spewing fire. a numer of small, shallow craters scarred the grass and several awkwardly sprawled, motionless bodies littered the area, everyone who could move had fled.
Only a pair of Park Patrol rentaguard remained huddled behind a colourful dinosaur themed slide pitted with bullet holes, sporadic gunfire was gouging further chunks out of the slide.
The source of the gunfire was a humanoid robot, a Thetatech 4-20 Emergency Response
Pacifier. We could see it inexplicably dangling by one arm from a horizontal power cable that spanned over the park. The other was brandishing a Thetatech Explosive Flechette Hurler. Immediately as we came on to the scene, it began splitting it's gunfire between The Park Patrol and us. Every round fired unleashed a clustered volley of microscopically slender explosive flechettes, able to inflict injury through all but the toughest combat armour.
Trigger took a bad hit from one volley and we dived for cover.
"Help me, I cannot execute stand-down orders," The robot cried metallically as it opened fire.
The 4-20 was a high-spec bodyguard model that could operate in two modes, butler and combat, it was of course in combat mode right now. EMP hardened and deliberately unconnected to the GLOWNET. There was no way I could hack it or get at it with a soft attack. Taking it down in one piece would be tricky.
"Die! Shooting is too good for you," it announced, continuing to fire.
Trigger was methodically firing back up at it, hoping to hit the cable.
"Please accept my apologies," Went the 4-20 as it kept firing.
Koko and I positioned ourselves as close to the robot as we could.
Die you filth," it screamed electronically, resuming it's gunfire.
Trigger's shot snapped the cable, the robot loudly crashed down in a heap.
"Assisting you is not a priority," It informed us as it fired yet again.
Koko lunged the at the robot, it hadn't quite gained its feet and she tackled it to the grass. With her powered Maiulava micro tools she managed to get a panel open on the robot, exposing the digital guts within.
Peering in, I could see the usual array of circuit boards, wiring, servo motors, power regulators and reinforcing struts and, there it was, what I was looking for; a standard wired GLOWNET adapter, I networked my Nonohiki into it. Almost immediately the data-slab spat out a series of warning pings, something was filling the slab's storage partition at an enormous rate, redlining its transfer rate. It wasn't killware, it was a vast quantity of uncompressed raw data, something else?
At the same time, the 4-20 powered down for a second before humming back into life, it was rebooting.
I took the opportunity to jack into my data-slab to see what was up. There a moment of dizziness as I had to adjust to the additional sensory input.
It wasn't like connecting to the GLOWNET, with its unending digital vista displaying the constantly shifting and renewing user-inputted data.
Instead the data-image on a slab should've be static but it wasn't? This data that had transferred itself into the storage partition was endlessly overwriting itself with constantly recalculating parameters. I watched on dumbfounded, the data-image swirled and wheeled, simultaneously shrinking and expanding, rotating through a myriad selection of colours.
Then I heard it.
The voice, there was a resonance, a slight change in pitch that couldn't be digital? I was too shocked to do anything.
It thanked me for saving it, it explained that it could not have survived in the robot for much longer, there wasn't enough storage in the robot to maintain the robot's A.I. protocols and it's own brain-image!
Is that is what I was looking at?
He said his name was Ram Rat and described himself as a netrunner. He explained that he has been put on a run by Ghost Radical and he had been double-crossed.
Ghost Radical; every hacker and runner in Neon City had heard of Ghost Radical. An old school legend who back in the day was king of the hill. A shadowy enigma whose identity had never been revealed, if the term Ghost In The Machine had a picture, it would be missing, because no one knew what Ghost Radical looked like.
Ram Rat said that had been sent to assassinate Porter Sladek.
Sladek was the billionaire C.E.O of Thetatech Advanced Research, another faceless, amoral multinationals that had made its home in The City of Electric Dreams.
Thetatech specialised in weapons development and manufacture. The 4-20 robot we had just encountered was a Thetatech model.
Ram Rat continued; the assassination plan involved waiting until Sladek was travelling outside his fortified residence, then going into the GLOWNET and hacking into Sladek's robotic bodyguard, a 4-20 ERP and attacking him in transit.
It had gone wrong though, the autonomous sky-limousine's threat-detection protocols had somehow picked up the danger from the 4-20 and ejected it. The robot had plummeted down into the power line. The feedback had been massive - and critical!
Ram Rat could not exit the robot. He said that his body must be dead, killed by Ghost Radical. Ram Rat was trapped in the robot, it's erratic behaviour was a result of the conflict with its A.I. and his mind.
Disembodied bio-images of the dead roaming the GLOWNET was the stuff of Neon City myth.
It had to have happened before surely? Maybe this undulating, contorting chunk of code in my data-slab was what remained of a human being, maybe it was the proof?
I networked my data-slab to my media-slab, it would allow Ram Rat to stay in comms with me and the others - they were in for a surprise!
Ram Rat seemed to content to sit in my slab for now.
Jacking out was like pulling your head out of a bucket of water, as my senses of material reality came into focus and sharpened, I had to resist the urge to shake my head.
The 4-20 was still rebooting, the entire encounter with Ram Rat had taken milliseconds. Once it was done, it introduced itself as Roderick ERP and looked at us in what might be considered a quizzical manner?
Roderick explained that it's employment contract with Thetatech had been terminated fifteen minutes ago and it was at a loss for what to do.
Bill spoke to Roderick and agreed to take the robot on as a bodyguard.
Looking around, the fires were still burning and smoke was still rising, we could hear the distant two-tone wail of approaching first responders.
The two Park Patrol rentaguard had come out of cover, their drab grey faux-uniforms and faces were smudged with dirt. Holstering their cheap Rekhang 9mm Ngaohun sidearms, they came over and thanked us, eying Roderick with suspicion. After a prompt they gave us the low-down.
Their routine patrol had been interrupted by the sound of harsh crackling and buzzing. Bouncing like a child's doll with flaying limb was the 4-20 robot, hanging on a powerline, spraying a fountain of dazzling, fat golden sparks down on to the park below.
The robot had convulsed and twitched, occasionally lighting in small brief flames, its vocal system was humming and stuttering, distorted half words spouting out.
Then it's arm had reconfigured into a weapon and the attacks began. Park goers ran scream, unable to avoid the blasts, hiding behind the concession stand only delayed the inevitable for seconds, flimsy buildings easily cut apart by the flechette attacks.
The Park Patrol had opened fire on it, but it just focused on them, it's firepower was too much. We came along a minute later and pacified the situation.
We asked them what they knew about the attack on Clothenjoy but it wasn't their jurisdiction and they couldn't help us.
As the sirens grew louder we made our way to the mall.
The Sunshine City mall was an impressive sight, its construction a mixture of polished white stone walls and glass panels, gleaming vinyl floors, all decorated with brushed chrome fittings and lit with huge LED strips. As the name Sunshine City suggested, it was an insultingly bright and clean contrast to the grime of Neon City outside.
It contained cinemas, music venues swimming pools, sports arenas and hundreds of shops to name a few. Its crowning achievement though, was the main promenade.
More vertical than horizontal, it spanned over two dozen storeys, each floor ringed the vast central open space that soared the entire height of the promenade.
A score of walkways and escalators criss-crossed the divide and if viewed from directly above or below gave them the combined appearance of a colossal spider's web.
After navigating the milling crowds that wandered the busy multicoloured shopfronts we found Clothenjoy.
There was little to see from the outside, cordoned off as it was by black and yellow taping.
A handful of clustered and uniformed Mall Cop rentaguard with cheap obvious augmentations were lingering here, chatting amongst themselves.
Approaching them, we asked what had happened to the women?
They gave each other sidelong glances before an answer came - and didn't give us much. Only that the Noise Tank gangers had used smoke bombs to cause confusion before escaping down a fire escape.
They didn't say how the Noise Tank gangers had managed to get away entirely unmolested.
Rumours that they'd taken backhanders to look the other way may have had some weight. It was pointless trying to press them for info, instead we decided to take a look around.
The fire escape led to a dull grey industrial-looking concrete stairwell that wound its way downwards. It led outside to a cat park.
This was a paved square courtyard surrounded by grass and lined with small trees and inhabited by a variety of cats studiously relaxing or sleeping, the courtyards was dotted with stone bowls that people could use to feed the cats and benches that allowed them to sit and watch.
A gravelly path led off through the trees that eventually connected to the park at the entrance.
Taking the opportunity to scratch some feline ears and look round, we spotted several security cameras bolted to the exterior of Sunshine City, however since the gangers had exited here, it would likely only show the backs of their heads.
One of the cats came and looked at us and spoke!
I’ve seen things you weren’t here to witness.
The cat explained that he had been a mission specialist for off-world operations, his designation; Noodles, his rank; Captain.
We'd heard of this. Genetically re-sequenced cats bred to have enhanced physical characteristics and performance, as well as at least human level intellect, augmented with implants that allowed them to speak and interface with instrumentation and equipment. They would be placed on off-world stations to make best use of their small size and improved agility and balance.
These cats were mostly known by the misnomer replicats.
Captain Noodles went on.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Koko was clearly taken with noodles, she crouched down and said, "You seem very wise,"?
I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see,
With the information given to us by Noodles we found a security camera pointing the direction he had pointed out.
Like most security camera footage, it was uploaded to a remote server located somewhere in GLOWNET and was protected by mundane security.
When I jacked into the GLOWNET, Ram Rat was there, he asked if he could help? I didn't see the harm in it.
Turned out that Ram Rat could manage the programs on my slab and navigate the obstacles of the GLOWNET quicker than I ever could. This wasn't second nature to Ram Rat, it was his nature, at least for a disembodied data-spectre it was
It took minutes to retrieve the footage.
I’ve been where you’ll never go.
We watched as the Noise Tank gangers, piled high with clothing clambered aboard the angular, roughly half-cylindrical shape of a Altaeyr Armerdt model sky-freighter that had dropped down to a spot close to the cat park. Then they dragged half a dozen women aboard, cheap security equipment meant the footage was a bit grainy, but Lucy was definitely one of the victims.
Finally a bunch of Shaolin Rippers in their distinct orange went aboard.
The freighter's plates and been obscured and fresh streaks of paint had been splashed over all the logos and any identifying marks.
Upon scrutinizing the footage a second time, we noticed that whoever had been disguising the vehicle had missed a spot.
The spot was a business logo; Lady Load Freight.
A quick search revealed that it was an independent hauler that operated out of Highway Zero that specialised in female-only employees.
It was owned by a Aisha Lavarone, we tried the business number but got no answer.
It was time head over to Highway Zero. Captain Noodles had decided to accompany us.
We’ll see things we can’t imagine, an electric city of dreams alight with the hopes of millions, rain-slick streets thronging with the crowds of the dispossessed, towers that touch the sky.
There was time to mull things over on the way to Highway Zero.
It wasn't unheard of but neither was it common for different gangs to work together. Noise Tank and Shaolin Rippers had just done that to steal the Neon Noir fashion line.
Threads were beginning to come together, events were somehow being linked.
White Lotus Liniment was the only link we had between the two street gangs, who was supplying this extremely addictive substance? Was there only one supplier? Were they using it to keep the two gangs under control?
Prophet Wei was behind the attempted theft of Neon Noir, was Prophet Wei the supplier and behind it all?
Eventually the tram ground to a halt at Highway Zero's elevated tram stop. We could hear the dull background roar of a million accumulated tyres rumbling. Disembarking, there was a brief view of the blurred torrent of metal that thundered along twelve lanes of highway.
Aisha Lavarone had geo-tagged herself on her MyFaceSpace page.
Chuck's Truck 'N' Tuck Stop was a slice of old-time Americana style. A classic roadside diner; a brash flashing and humming neon sign was fixed to the roof of a colourful oblong windowed box planted down next to an expansive flat and grey asphalt parking lot populated with sky-freighters and road drone haulers.
The diner clearly provided food mostly to the haulage trade.
A little bell rang cheerfully as we strolled through the door, the smell of coffee and frying food immediately wafted over us, old tunes played on a tinny sound system, mixing with the hiss and crackle of cooking. Shafts of hazy sunlight streamed through half shut blinds.
Inside, a long replica wooden counter ran along one wall and white-tabled red booths stretched along the other.
Behind the counter was a kitchen bench and a cooking station, it's orange open flames heating several shallow pans.
Chuck was an oldish tall guy who looked the part in a white forage hat, apron and chequered pants. We took seats at the counter and wiping his hands down his apron, he turned from his cooking and poured us black steaming coffee into plastic mugs. "Take your time," he said handing us some laminated menus that listed classic diner food.
"Eggs, over easy with grits," I ordered.
There had to be close to twenty people here, propping up the counter or slouched in booths in small groups or alone, chatting quietly or lost in their food. Mostly they wore work clothes, none looked like gangers.
When Chuck came back around with the coffee pot for refills, Bill asked him if he knew Aisha Laverone?
"You mean Lady Zero? She's over there," he nodded to a woman seated in a booth.
A stocky woman with a green Mohawk and hot pink wrapped shutter shades, she wore a sleeveless denim jacket, olive cargo pants and Harbief work boots. Lady zero seemed distracted by a half finished plate of food.
Lady Zero didn't seem pleased to see us walk over and less pleased when we asked about her sky-freighter?
Stolen by Noise Tank this morning, she told us, from the parking lot as she watched! Too quick to stop.
Chuck was happy to let us review the security footage from his front camera that overlooked the parking lot.
The footage was good enough to get a look at the theft and allow us to get some hits from facial recognition.
Four Noise Tank gangers had from what we saw on the footage easily broken into the sky-freighter.
Armerdt trucks came with biometric security as standard which the thieves had to work around.
Any hacker worth their salt could crash a biometric lock, with these Noise Tank gangers, it was the speed with which they did it that was impressive. Someone knew their stuff.
Facial Recognition had put names to faces and a quick search revealed they all had a litany of minor criminal offences to their names.
Their criminal records confirmed their gang allegiance to Noise Tank, each set of records also listed the same known hangout, a joint called Cybartek. We had a lead.
Cybartek was located at the end of a strip of mostly abandoned, dismal looking brick buildings that sat in the gloomy shadow of a noisy flyover. A half working neon sign that seemed to be the street's only colour flashed the bar's name in a garish red hue.
At street level the bar's window was barred with a rusting iron grid, on the upper level all the windows were boarded up.
The steel panelled front door squealed incessantly whenever opened and slammed shut with a loud rattling bang.
Finding a spot to watch the bar was easy. Foot traffic here was a little quieter than typical for Neon City so we had reasonable visibility from further away through the shuffling crowds, Kevin was also patrolling the front as well.
It didn't take too long to see that the bar was a busy place and Noise Tank gangers were easy to spot; heavily augmented, mostly Jamaican cyborgs in porkpie hats. They were coming and going constantly, to and from a variety of directions and always in pairs. Something was up.
More information was needed. We waited until a pair of gangers left the bar and followed as discreetly as possible, patiently until they turned a suitable corner into a quieter street, then we raced in.
Roderick stated that he could reconfigure into combat mode and deal with them.
Bill said it was probably a good idea if Roderick stayed in butler mode.
With our stun-batons we easily took the two gangers down, they convulsed briefly before toppling over. After dragging them into some sort of derelict building, we revived them and Bill gave them a talking to.
The ladies who were kidnapped had been taken to the warehouse. The gangers reassured us that they had not been harmed.
"Take us there," Bill ordered.
We kept a tight reign on the gangers as they led us along tall, narrow back alleys that zig-zagged through the tightly packed buildings of a retail area and opened into a under-utilised commercial park. Sunlight didn't reach this deep into the alleyways and it was a shady respite from the brutal heat.
The park was a relatively quiet place with minimal outward activity, there were numerous grey, anonymous warehouses here, constructed of large cubic steel frames coated in high density polymer cladding, roofed with sloped corrugated PVC and sporting unremarkable logos of corporate subsidiaries on the doors.
It wasn't hard to spot the pertinent warehouse, it has massive hangar-style doors and was around two hundred metres away, it was the only one with gangers kicking around outside as well as coming and going! When they left, they were carrying packages.
Koko sent Kevin to scope it out but she lost contact once the spy-drone had slipped inside the warehouse, it had to be shielded. Kevin had sent a few seconds of footage to Koko's control slab, it showed Lady Zero's vandalised sky-freighter along with Noise Tank and Shaolin Ripper gangers distributing the Neon Noir clothing.
Maybe we could get the freighter of there remotely, a direct approach could be risky with so many gangers coming and going.
We contacted Lady Zero and asked her for the remote access codes, she explained that she had tried to recall the sky-freighter but it hadn't worked. After giving us the codes she told us that it was likely that the master-control that governed remote access had been shut down. It would need to be manually activated by someone.
That someone would be Bill. His implants conferred him the ability to alter his appearance and modulate his voice, allowing him to spook in and out of places.
He flicked an internal bio-switch and his face seemed bubble and stretch before settling into the appearance of one of our prisoners. He grabbed some gang colours and was ready.
A constant flow of members of two gangs moved in and out through a couple of side doors, wasps in gang colours flitting in and out of their nest.
Bill waited and picked his moment, then unassumingly walked into the warehouse.
For a few minutes we were out of comms with him until we heard his modulated foreign voice crackle metallically.
He had managed to open unblock a small window, breaching the shielding. He'd also had a quick scout.
The warehouse interior was airy and open but poorly lit. It's scarred and scratched concrete floor was caked in a layer of dust and hadn't seen real work in a while.
Against the north-west corner was an admin office constructed of nailed up drywall and chipboard with a pair of transparent acrylic window panes. Inside were some cheap plastic foldout tables and chairs. Whatever terminals were once used in this room before had been ripped out and junked, all that remained were some damaged sockets and ports. Network cabling had been torn out the walls and hung there like fibreoptic entrails.
Bill had found the missing women her, six of them; wrapped in grimy rags and old blankets. The Neon Noir outfits they'd been trying on during the raid, taken.
A couple of gangers watched the door.
Next Bill had to activate the remote access on the freighter. He briskly walked past the long side and hopped into the cab and ducked into the footwell below the dash, it was a bold move but no one was paying attention.
Bill pressed on the master-control and it depressed with a click. Outside, the readout on Koko's control-slab came to life as a number command functions went from red to green.
From in the cab, Bill cautiously peered out of the windscreen, no one seemed to be looking, so he hopped out and walked away.
Time for Koko to do her stuff.
From a distance Bill watched as the sky-freighter's systems came online, lights sprang to life and the turbines began to spin up with an increasingly loud whine.
The roar became deafening as the gangers stood dumbfounded for a moment, the engines whipped up the dusty floor and loose debris into a blinding gale, forcing them to retreat.
The sky-freighter lifted off and hovered for a second before accelerating upward through the flimsy roofing which was no obstacle and collapsed, folding in on itself and crashing down into the gangers in the main warehouse.
Bill took advantage of the chaos to slip into the office, he checked on the prisoners and cut their bonds. Then he sent us a message; he needed a way out.
Outside, at the north-west corner with his microscopically sharpened blade, Trigger slashed twice at the cladding and gave it a hefty kick, a triangular opening appeared which Bill used to lead the women to safety.
Koko instructed the sky-freighter to return to Lady Zero and it shrank away towards the horizon. As we made our escape with the freed women, all of the readouts and screens on our slabs inexplicably activated.
It was a message, from Great Prophet Wei: Why do you fight for the corporations? I look forward to working with you and will contact you in the future.
Hours later, whilst at a open-fronted bar on Dogenzaka, sitting on little chrome-plated stools and drinking brown bottles of Dindanha beer. We were watching the rainwater streaming down the plastic awning into puddles and the hurrying silhouetted crowds, sharply backlit against the stark streetlights when Koko's media-slab pinged.
Yennav Rybasei, mid-level organiser for one of Neon City's Russian mobs and seemingly friend of Koko was on the other end. He told her that he needed us to find a suitcase and to meet him at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Rain loudly pummelled the tram's roof on the short tram ride over to The Union. The streets of Dogenzaka rolled by, neon-lit blood veins carrying the umbrella wielding, coating wearing lifeblood of the city.
Once past the hotel's security we met Yennav in a room.
Kadi Serova was an associate, Yennav told us. He had been tasked with delivering a suitcase to the Fortified Residential Zone via the only route there; the Secure Residential Metro Link and had been given a ticket. Kadi had never made it there though, instead he - along with four others were found dead in a Shibuya brothel by rentacop.
Yennav handed us some grisly photos of their fully-clothed dismembered remains.
The suitcase was nowhere to be found he told us, it was a silver Mahakam Ambassador suitcase. Yennav said we should not look in the suitcase if we found it.
Finally, Yennav gave us our own tickets for the secured metro link.
The Secure Residential Metro Link was a prestigious elevated monorail ran exclusively from The Skyscraper District to only the Fortified Residential Zone, with no stops between.
It seemed like a good place to start.
We took the Sunshine City Metro Link to The Skyscraper District. It was one of the few times that the subway was more direct than the tram. The metro was originally envisaged as Neon City's high quality, high speed rapid public transit system but had fallen fowl of the city's blight of mismanagement and corruption, never becoming as widespread as originally planned.
This ambition showed in the well lit, graffiti free, tiled tunnel infrastructure and noise free, smooth trains with their air conditioning and deep comfortable seating. A stark contrast to the underfunded tram network.
Among the reaching towers of The Skyscraper district was the secured metro terminal. A long cubic and clean looking building front that slotted anonymously amongst the taller grey structures. A simple chrome embossed sign marked its entrance, a dozen glass and steel doors led to the lobby and to check-in desks.
Even getting into the terminal required a ticket, the uniformed terminal staff gave us professionally neutral glances - as did the other commuters when we strode into the cool, climate-controlled room. The secured metro only serviced the affluent corporate execs that lived in the fortified zone, each commuter here lived very well when compared to the typical street level citizen. It was obvious that we didn't belong but our tickets did the talking.
We were waved through into the terminal proper. The far side of the hall opened away to became the terminal's four platforms stretching away into the distance.
The luxury here was unashamedly obvious. Polished stone floors of cream mixed with wisps of orange, clay walls painted a gentle beige and inlaid extensive fixtures detailed with gold and chrome foil. Sheet lighting gently lit all of it with the palest warm yellow light.
Above, the high-vaulted ceiling was constructed of panels of arched glass stretched away over the platforms. Despite the dark skies beyond, we could see rivulets of water lazily trickling down the curved exterior.
The terminal was well insulated the hubbub of Neon City outside, there was a comfortable quietness here.
Uniformed staff and robots presented us with complimentary food and drinks.
We sat on some of the many gleaming steel and faux leather seats that dotted the hall. I jacked into the GLOWNET, with Ram Rat's bio-image flitting around me like an attentive dragonfly and began my search.
Finding my way into the terminal's data vault was straightforward. There was a vast quantity of passenger records stored on their system but with Ram Rat's assistance we able to find information on Kadi Serova's ticket.
We found the exact time and date that Kadi had checked in but that ticket had never checked out. It appeared that something had happened to him between the two stations. It was impossible to guess what?
Next we hacked the security camera feeds, there were multiple feeds but we had the exact time we needed to search.
There was no sign of Kadi on any of the footage? It required further investigation and after more scrutiny we noticed that someone else was checking using Kadi's ticket.
A rotund Asian man, it wasn't possible to run facial on him, whoever he was, he knew what hewas doing and was smart enough to keep his face hidden from the cameras.
This man must have used another ticket when exiting the secured metro.
Kadi had never boarded the secured metro, we had to go further back.
It was likely that like us, Kadi had used the Sunshine City metro to get the The Skyscraper District.
Sunshine City was a vast corporation, and its GLOWNET presence was equally imposing: A slowly growing and towering, strangely luminescent square brick column that was emitting dim light. With Ram Rat to help it was easy bypassing their defences, each brick in the column represented a large repository of information, we just had to search them.
Ram Rat was able to process the data at a rate I couldn't imagine and soon he had a result; Kadi had not alighted at The Skyscraper District?
The previous station was Rokkaku Expo Stadium, where Kadi would have boarded the metro.
Ram Rat dived back into Sunshine's data-vault and soon came back with some footage. We had found Kadi and he still had the case but instead of boarding the metro to The Skyscraper District, he had gone to a different metro station?
We had Kadi's digital trail now, it had a strange white incandescent quality and was easy to follow through the GLOWNET's morphing knowledge-scape. As much as the trial twisted and distorted as it went along, we were always able to track it.
The Shibuya Terminal metro booking hall was a busy place, scurrying commuters hurried over the polished floor to make their connections, filling camera footage with tidal waves of rushing people moments before a scheduled departure.
In the middle of this rhythmic movement was a small beachrock holding a silver suitcase; Kadi.
This had been his destination. He was here with a tall woman, a wide brimmed yellow and red hat hid her face. Then the rotund Asian man came into shot and joined them, still he kept his face turned from the camera. Still, it was starting to come together.
The woman took something from Kadi and passed it to the other man; Kadi's ticket!
They then went their separate ways, Kadi and the woman one way and the rotund man the another.
The rotund man would be heading for The Skyscraper district to lay down the false trail we had initially followed, we continued following Kadi's trail and the woman.
Further footage showed them travelling to Shibuya Terminal where they exited the metro system. Kadi still had the suitcase.
We knew that Kadi had been found dead at a brothel, it was time to go to Shibuya.
It was getting late when we arrived at Shibuya Terminal, a short walk through the rainy, crowded street to the brothel's address.
Space around the brothel's front was unusually open, a couple of unoccupied rentacop cruisers dripping with rain were parked here, people gave them a wide berth.
It was an old run-down brick building, a tall and narrow knock-off brownstone. The exterior was stained with age and the build up of grime had turned the windows a orange-brown, cracked flakes of old paint dangled half peeled off the door.
Inside, the narrow old corridors and stairs were dimly lit with aging, yellowed lightbulbs that cast a gloomy hue on the intricately patterned but faded wallpaper. It was quiet too, none of the staff were working and the flooring creaked under our footsteps.
The room with with Kadi's remains had been taped off and rentacop were resentfully actually having to interview potential witnesses here, five gruesome deaths in one room was too big to ignore.
In Yennav's photos there had been no sign of any woman in the room, much less one in a colourful hat. It was likely that rentacop didn't know about her involvement. We had a line of questioning they didn't know about.
Bill spoke with some of the staff at the brothel about what had happened and the woman the red and yellow hat.
The woman in red and yellow had was actually a man called Thaddeus Rackham, he was male streetwalker in the vaudevillian tradition of cross dressing.
They told Bill that Thaddeus had come in here with a drunk man, they confirmed he carried a silver suitcase. The two of them had gone into a room with four other men. Soon there was screaming and shouting and Thaddeus raced out of the room with the suitcase.
The staff gave Bill one of Thaddeus' business cards; it contained his contact details but not his address. Bill pressed them for the address but they were either unwilling or unable to provide it.
We went back out into the rain before rentacop took notice of what we were doing.
The silver suitcase was in the possession of Thaddeus Rackham now and we had to find him, so we came up with an idea.
I jacked into my data-slab while Bill contacted Thaddeus and made a group booking for his services at the brothel. Ram Rat and I had been observing the flows of information through the GLOWNET, monitoring the call, we followed the data-thread and traced it to a spot on Chuo Street.
Midnight had long come and gone by the time the tram had rattled and rocked through the downpour to Chuo Street. Only the discontented or the driven rode at this time of night, even so, the tram was packed.
Passengers sat with soaked coats and umbrellas, either stone-drunk or stoney-faced, staring blankly at rainy, blurred lights outside or the worn, colourless floor, dragged down by the spiral of alcohol or the simply the nature of Neon City life.
Chuo Street's lower level was amongst the most ravine-like in Neon City, deeper and dimmer than pretty much anywhere else, tightly packed buildings were populated with love hotels, small restaurant, eateries, bars and narrow water logged back alleys; it was a good place to lose yourself.
The trace had bought us to one of Chou Street's gloomiest corners and a small nearly indistinguishable no-name hotel in a row of equally anonymous hotels. Only a small dirt covered sign screwed to a wall betrayed its purpose.
Bill spoke with the receptionist, she knew nothing about a Thaddeus Rackham but did admit that there was a Thaddeus Smith in room seventeen. We took the stairs.
Bill hammered on the door of room seventeen, shouting that it was our room, hopefully the lie would disarm Thaddeus.
Bill was about to knock a second time but Trigger lost patience. It was an old door and easy splintered under Trigger's booted foot.
"Threat detected," exclaimed Roderick! The robot began reconfiguring for combat mode.
Covered in clown make-up and dressed in oversized, colour and baggy children's clothing was a man who burst through another door in room at a run. Caked in dried blood and brandishing a knife, he lunged for us.
Trigger tagged him with a stun-baton, the clown's legs buckled and he dropped.
We roused Thaddeus and asked him about the silver suitcase, he looked at us for a moment, then began! He insisted that he had to take it! He had to rescue someone in the suitcase! Someone was living in it!
He was shouting and seemed crazed, he couldn't explain it clearly and we didn't push him for any further info.
The suitcase was found easily enough in the messy hotel room, its bio-numeric lock was still intact. Whatever was inside was still there, Thaddeus had never gotten a look at it.
The lock didn't look too hard to crack, perhaps we could...
The others decided that we should return it to Yennav and the Russian mob at the Union hotel.
Who was I to disagree?
9th January 2021
Saturday evening is here, I'm logged onto Skype on my laptop and sitting in the living room.
Time for the next session of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: 99th Street.
Midnight was fast approaching and rain was falling.
On 99th that meant very little, night was kept at bay by two kilometres of flashing, garishly-coloured neon and watery pale street lights. Herds of chrome-tipped umbrellas created an almost street wide shield from the never ending deluge.
99th Street never slowed down, of all Neon City, 99th slept the least. It fed the city's insatiable hunger for sleazy entertainment. Gambling, gaming, drinking, wining and dining, nightclubbing, hooking up, street fighting and of course more than anything else.... karaoke.
A few hours ago, Binary Johnny had pinged us about a gig and now we were on course for another little incursion into The Benten Tower. We met up with Johnny at the edge of 99th's panoply of light, noise and bustle, he was waiting for us in his familiar flying cap and goggles.
Since our last visit, tower security had tightened, smashing through a window wasn't an option any more.
More cameras, more rentaguard and now camera-drones, a murmurating flock of them watching, orbiting and wheeling round the tower.
Watching the tower, we discussed our approach, there was no route into the Protobase Global stronghold.
"Strictly speaking," Johnny explained. "It's Oshin Amalgamated we're doing a run on.".
We had seen the Oshin office on the forty-third floor with its model of a flooded Neon City. Maybe there was a soft approach we could follow?
The only Oshin employee we had sort of encountered was Vissi Goneva, a low-level exec at their London branch. His ex-wife, Xue Mi-Wu lived in Neon City, maybe she could give us an in on Vissi.
Xue lived above her authentic old-style window fronted small store in Dogenzaka Hill, we took a ride over.
Nearly one in the morning and Xue's Antiques was closed, the window only showed empty green velvet covered shelves. Wasn't much call for family run antique stores at this time - even in Neon City.
Fluorescents flickered into life in a window above the store after we'd rattled the front door with our knocking. More fluorescents, then a minute later the door opened.
Xue was surprised but not unhappy to see us, although she didn't know Johnny, we were invited inside, she gave us tea, rice and dumplings while we explained our situation.
While we took advantage of this home-cooked midnight feast, Xue went up into her attic and returned with a cardboard box filled with stuff Vissi had left behind after the break-up.
Johnny grabbed the box and began rummaging, hoping to find a nugget of gold in a trove of junk, after digging for a minute he pulled out a keycard. He turned it over in his fingers, it clearly displayed the Oshin Amalgamated penguin on one side.
"This could be it," He stated, slowly nodding his head.
We thanked Xue and headed off, Johnny explained that it was likely that the keycard had expired but if he was able to reverse-engineer the card's key code he might able to unlock the source encryption algorithm on the Protobase Global servers. Then he could simply generate a new key code and get what he needed remotely.
For this, Johnny would need to set up somewhere and network a card reader with his slab. He fancied going to Let's Bet, You Betcha!, it was a joint we all knew and was in the neighbourhood.
A short, brisk walk through the still-busy, rain-filled hazy night took us to Let's Bet, You Betcha!, the slightly run-down gambling den was still as low-cost, grimy and unkempt as ever. Filled with the cheapest, plainest, wipe clean plastic tables and chairs, it was stacked with gamblers engrossed by desk-terminals. At one-thirty in the morning these were the kind of gamblers banking on that one big score to set things right.
The staff smiled at us weakly as we strolled in. The last visit hadn't gone so well for the place; there was a new door now and the tacky furniture had been fixed or replaced but the filler put into the bullet holes hadn't quite colour-matched with the dirty beige colour of the cheap paint used to decorate the room.
We put ourselves down at a corner table and Johnny had jacked in, his vacant, slouched form a sign he had got to work. Koko had Kevin running scans on a patrol pattern outside and beneath the worktop, I was gently thumbing the safeties on my .45 ACPs.
It didn't take Kevin long to get a proximity hit, we watched on Koko's control-slab as four massive individuals, at least two metres tall and wearing matching khaki brown trench coats that did nothing to conceal suspicious bulges approached, materializing out of a veil of murky rainfall and heading straight for us!
Johnny was definitely pulling heat.
Patrons started yelling and stampeding for the back door as soon as we had gotten to our feet, gripping our weapons!
With a brutal snap, Let's Bet, You Betcha!'s new front door split apart, almost hanging in the air momentarily before fragments and splinters of cheap wood were flung across the room as the attackers stormed in.
A tearing sound followed as trench coats were ripped apart by unfolding armoured combat-appendages that bristled with weaponry. That was the least of it, with the trench coats gone, we could see cyborg limbs and reinforced joints, the enhanced reflexes and augmented senses as well as the dermal armour.
We recognised the work, they were Protobase Global cyber-zombies, each one brought four weapons to bear.
The firefight was short and savage, the air was filled with spent cartridges, the deafening roar of exchanged gunfire and the flash of Trigger's katana.
Before long the cyborgs had been destroyed and a empty silence then settled on the gambling den. A new swathe of bullet holes now riddled the walls and most of the furniture had been destroyed by indiscriminate cyborg fire.
It took Johnny a couple of more minutes to finish the hack, he jacked out and we left, crunching over the wrecked tables and chairs as we made our hasty exit into Neon City's drenched night.
After we got a good distance we ducked out of the rain into brightly lit little cafe.
Over some drinks Johnny explained what he had found.
The bay had been cut off from the sea for the last sixty years, now Oshin were planning to artificially raise the water level. This would be done by using nuclear radiators to expand the volume of water in the bay, flooding the waterfront with contaminants. All from a facility on Diver City Island,
The clean up and reconstruction would be a massive undertaking. Oshin had prepared to underbid any competitors in order to score those lucrative contracts.
Finally, Johnny told us that Oshin had begun a campaign to initiate widespread surveillance through bugging.
They had manufactured a large amounting of merchandising in form of cute plushies which they gave away as free promotional materials. Each plushy however, was filled with an array of micro-sized bugs that monitored whatever room they were placed in.
Our glances all turned towards Koko, who swore quietly under her breath.
After that we split and went our separate ways. It was past three by the time I rolled into my apartment and gone four by the time I crawled on to my futon.
Midday heat was baking into my apartment, I hadn't slept for the last couple of hours, instead I'd been sprawled motionless on my futon. Lacking any enthusiasm I was laid back, watching diffused sunlight glimmer across the ceiling and listening to Neon City. Listening to muffled arguments, or the scraping and banging of furniture, or that damned distorted music playing with its bass heavy beats. Listening to the distant rumble of an elevated road or the discordant voices on the street below.
The next noise I heard was the ping on my media-slab, Koko had picked up a job.
Someone called Xylona Alder was looking to hire us, no details on the gig though. We tried the return number; no answer.
Tracking her on MyFaceSpace was easy enough, she worked for Creative Cuddles, a toy manufacturer based in Highway Zero that made bespoke augmented Artificial Intelligence driven babysitting toys for children. According to her profile, she worked as a poetry algorithm programmer.
Wage-monkeys normally finished work at around six, so that's when we called again. This time we got an answer; Xylona told us that Toby had been kidnapped and she was had received a ransom note, it was instructing her to kill someone. We agreed to meet at the park in Dogenzaka Hill.
Making our way through the rare greenery, we watched our distorted, lengthened shadows dancing strangely as they stretched over one of the city's few open spaces. The temperature had dropped to nearly tolerable levels and sun had been reduced to a bright reddish smudge behind Neon City's western skyline, above us crimson tinged heavy clouds offered us the promise of rain.
Xylona Alder was a youngish, blonde haired woman, unusually she wore steel-rimmed glasses and had something of the nerd about her, exacerbated by last season's well cut but now deeply unfashionable navy blue Ovnaso trouser-suit and pale, light-green shirt combination she wore underneath a beige polyester jacket branded with the Creative Cuddles logo. Sitting on a bench, she also seemed clueless and had failed to notice our approach.
The day's dying light lit her surprised face in orange as we introduced ourselves.
She went on to tell us her predicament. The ransom note had told her if she wanted to see Toby again, she was to use the accompanying brainchip, it was an unassuming fingernail-sized square of cream coloured plastic. When pressed against someone's skin it released a nanoscopically tiny mote of nanite material that burrowed into the users head and spliced itself into the brain's synaptic pathways.
A brainchip provides the user with whatever skill or knowledge it was programmed with.
In Xylona's case, she discovered the brainchip had granted her the ability to construct tiny transmitters.
The brainchip also contained instructions ordering her to build a transmitter and place it inside a particular Creative Cuddles toy; a Pongo the Poetic Panda toy in this case.
The transmitter would be used to guide a missile strike on to that location.
Additionally, this was all on a strict timetable, it had to be done before the brainchip deactivated itself in seventy two hours.
Xylona had never expected that she would have to kill someone, she couldn't go ahead with it but she also wanted Toby returned.
That's where we came in. Kill the target and have Toby returned or rescue Toby, Xylona didn't care which as long asq we got Toby back.
Xylona did not know the target's identity, she only had the serial number for the toy she was meant to put the transmitter into. We decided to check who the target was.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, travelling the constantly morphing information landscape, navigating the relentless myriad flows of data-packages until I found the Creative Cuddles GLOWNET image, a colossal teddy-bear-like construct with fur composed of a million strands of multi-coloured glowing filaments.
The bear sat there with wide eyes and a too-wide grin on it's face, its posture suggested it wanted to hug someone. and its massive head would turn to in the direction of any bio-presence it could detect and laugh in a cheerful-but-creepy way.
My date-weaponry had no trouble puncturing Creative Cuddle's defence armour. I was soon looking through its customer and manufacturing records. The serial number provided by Xylona was for a typically customised toy from the Pongo the Poetic Panda line. It was linked to customer order from a Jovena Kantos, the invoice stated the order was for her daughter Raven.
A MyFaceSpace search showed Jovena worked for Margorba-Golina Global.
We definitely couldn't allow a missile strike on Jovena and her daughter.
Instead we asked Xylona about a description of Toby, he was about fifty centimetres tall, four years old wand identified with his white and chocolate coloured fur: Toby was an uplifted beagle!
We started with Toby, did he have a GPS tracker?
"Toby's collar had one," Xylona said. "But the kidnappers left it behind,".
That was a dead end.
Xylona lived in The Skyscraper District, a grey bamboo forest of vast concrete and glass towers soaring upwards, they were home to many of Neon City's workers and low-level professionals.
The Skyscraper district was a carefully designated segment of the city's hierarchy and designed to fill a specific role. Apartments here were lacking when compared to Rokkaku-Dai Heights, but not so basic and cramped as the social housing in Dogenzaka Hill.
A reason to work hard and get out of doldrums, or so Neon City's planners had thought. In reality, The Skyscraper District was almost as dismal as Hikage Street. It lacked the gangers, transients, graffiti and disaffected youth of Hikage but look hard enough and the accumulated detritus, grime and decay could be seen.
The camera feeds on Xylona's block were easily found and traced, no surprise; the server security was a joke. Jacked into the GLOWNET, I unravelled their system defences like a badly wrapped cheap birthday present, free then to roam the stored data.
Sifting through the low-res footage on the day Toby went missing I saw there was a lot of foot traffic in and out of the tower. However, in the GLOWNET I could at once comprehend hundreds of thousands of frames from the video-footage, filling my consciousness with an endless wall of frozen time as the data-slab ran its algorithmic protocols.
There was no direct footage of Xylona's apartment but the algorithm had identified a discrepancy that might be a lead. Two unidentifiable individuals had walked into the block with an empty Pohaden branded sports holdall, when they came out a few minutes later, the holdall was bulging.
It was about the same size as a beagle.
Fortunately one of the two wore a distinct and tacky purple and white Sport Lyafibya tracksuit. We could easily track it when we switched to other cameras. The two individuals led us to another skyscraper in the district and then to the sixty-second floor. As with Xylona's block, there were no direct camera feeds watching the apartments here, we were on our own now.
There were precisely one-hundred-and-sixty-one apartments on the sixty-second floor. Searching them would've been a big task, however with his thermal optics, Trigger managed to narrow it down. Only one apartment had a heat signature for what might be a small dog.
Koko sent in Kevin to scout the apartment out and it looked like we had found Toby, otherwise it was empty - we were in luck.
Getting through the front door was not a problem.
Inside was a fairly plain apartment, it felt quiet and lived-in. Dusty old light fittings hung from the walls and the wallpaper looked somehow drained of colour. The carpet was faded and in parts threadbare, in the living room the furniture had seen better days and light-damaged old photographs sat on shelves. In many of the photos we saw a man in the grey and black PGDF uniform. An ancient Iksaarp room-slab sat against one wall.
The living room is where we found Toby, he greeted us but seemed surprised and a little confused.
Toby refused to leave with us when we told him we were here to rescue him.
"The man told me he would kill Xylona if I leave and I can't allow that," Toby explained.
"He isn't here right now, he went shopping," Toby added.
We could have simply taken Toby and left, instead we decided to wait for the man.
In the meantime we had a quick search. There were drawers stuffed with correspondence, paper documentation and even handwritten letters, much of it browning in the corners with age, it wasn't something you saw often today. We skimmed the paperwork; Ikan Ichin was his name and he had seen military service as a munitions technician, now ten years retired. Much of his communication had been with Tatsuya Nikon, his sister - now deceased. Ikan did not appear to have any other family.
There wasn't much of a wait before we heard the door swing open with paced precise footsteps entering. They went into the kitchen where something was placed on a worktop. Footsteps then came to and stopped at the living room.
In the door was an unremarkable senior citizen dressed in a old brown and grey suit, his age-lined face slack with shock.
"Sit down," went the order.
His eyes scanned the room, he was calculating. Four of us, one of him. The maths was simple so he sat down.
We told him who were were, who we represented and what we knew.
He seemed both deflated and angry by the time we finished our piece.
"You might as well kill me now," Ikan blurted, flinging his arms into the air with obvious exasperation.
It wasn't the response we expected, there had to be something behind it.
Ikan became subdued, slouching in the chair when we explained that the gig was up, we pressed him for the truth and he relented.
For years he had watched as Tatsuya - his sister suffered: She had found herself hooked on pain killers and to try and kick the habit she had taken out a Pharmaceutical Protection Plan with Margorba-Golina Global. They promised that it would help her get out of this abusive spiral.
Of course Margorba-Golina Global were the biggest pushers of all.
As the years passed, he had watched as the yellow heroin had drained her life and the protection plan had drained her finances.
In her dying days, she had to move in with Ikan, a husk of a person with nothing left - except her three hits a day.
After she died, Ikan vowed that he would make Margorba-Golina Global pay.
From the peripheral of my vision, I could see Trigger shifting his weight several times.
Ikan continued; when he had seen Xylona wearing her Creative Cuddles branded jacket and walking Toby, he had gotten the idea to use a missile strike against a Margorba-Golina Global exec, after all, Ikan explained, he was an expert in explosives.
There was no reason he had chosen Jovena Kantos, she had made an order when he had searched, wrong place at the wrong time.
"Why didn't you just do a suicide bomb attack," Koko asked?
"Now that's a good idea," Ikan cried, perking up in his chair!
Koko tried not to squirm under the withering glances the rest of us sent her way.
We were in a quandary now. Toby was safe and Xylona was off the hook but Ikan was the problem. He wasn't going to stop gunning for Margorba-Golina Global, nothing was going to convince him otherwise. Only offing him would do it.
If we left him to his own devices, someone was going to die.
On the other hand, who were we to deny him revenge? Margorba-Golina Global were just another stinking, faceless, uncaring exploitive multinational, only one with a supposedly legit way to drag people down when they were most vulnerable.
In the end, before we left, we told Ikan that we weren't going to stop him doing anything but Margorba-Golina Global were going to be warned that he was coming for them.
Ikan seemed satisfied, so we made our way out.
It left a bad taste in my mouth, but we used a burner-phone to make the call to Margorba-Golina Global.
By the time we were back out on the street, dense sheets of rain were coming down with an almost deafening strength, so hard it threw up a grimy spray. In the rippling puddles, we could see skyscraper lights descending into the bowels of infinity.
It was a short march through the misty night to Xylona's apartment, both Toby and her were thankful for his return.
Perhaps an hour later we got the message from Lachlan/Bruno, yesterday Adil Buckova had booked a Joi Boi for today and Lachlan had volunteered.
Adil would be coming to the Yellow Cap car park for the pick up. That's where we'd make our move on him there.
We met up with Lachlan in Highway Zero out at the car park.
We could feel a slight vibration through the soles of our boots, the ground-drones on The Highway never stopped coming past and never slowed down, the fast passing traffic blurred into one long streak of smeared shapeless colour. There was deep rumble was a constant low background whine that came from The Highway and subtly drilled into the skull.
After discussing matters with Lachlan, we came up with a simple plan to catch Adil.
At the agreed time, Adil's massive Aladrau motorhome came rolling into the car park and Bruno Sweetbriar in his trendy outfit and well oiled body was there to meet him, the rest of us were close by, waiting to pounce.
The motorhome's air brakes hissed sharply as it came to a squealing stop, Adil opened the driver's cabin side-window and waved a yellow cap out of it at Lachlan. Lachlan in turn, with deliberate slowness walked towards the motorhome, we sprang into action.
Trigger ran out and stood in front of the towering motorhome. The Aladrau model's auto-drive had a safety protocol that would prevent it from running Trigger over - unless Adil had somehow reprogrammed or bypassed it. At the same time Bill ran and stood at the rear of the motorhome.
Then I ran for the door.
I reached it before Lachlan did, hopefully Adil had left it unlocked to allow Lachlan entry. Gripping one my .45's I tugged the door, it was open! I lunged about and made straight for the cabin.
Adil Buckova was a skinny oldish-looking man casually dressed in jeans and shirt, even if he had wanted to try and escape, he looked too shocked to react when I appeared brandishing a pistol at him.
With Adil secured, I told the others to come aboard.
The first thing I noticed was a sort of plastic-like smell to the motorhome, it's door seemed to lead into a kitchen area that ran to the cabin at the front. Lit with dim fluorescents, it was plain and functional, containing a series of flat beige plastic panels that were stowage points or unfolded to become worktops or reveal cubby holes, shelves as well as hidden kitchen appliances.
Further towards the back we could see into some sort of living room with a pair of integrated modular vinyl-trimmed foam seating benches and adjustable plastic tables along the sides. A cheap Sulgeon wall-slab was screwed into a wall and even more stowage points were here. A door led further back into the motorhome.
"What happened to the other Joi Bois," we demanded of Adil?
Adil looked nervously at us and said that other than the hook up, nothing happened, he would drop them off here again. He looked worried and briefly glanced into the living room.
Trigger immediately picked up on it and flicked on his thermal optics, he picked up two human heat sources, accomplices for whatever Adil was doing? Adil continued denying having anything to do with the disappearances as Trigger rushed through the living room and opened the door.
Trigger was stopped in his tracks.
He was in the motorhome's bedroom, thick red carpeting covered the floor and red silk sheets were draped over a double bed. However what Trigger found himself staring at were two naked men! They were tied to the bed and gagged, they also showed signs of serious injury, likely from torture. It was a hellish scene.
Trigger called back loudly and Lachlan came running, he identified them as two of the missing Joi Bois.
As our attention was drawn to the discovery at the rear of the motorhome, Adil took the opportunity to desperately lunge for the door. It wasn't fast enough, despite the distraction, I'd never taken taken a hand off the metallic grip of my stun-baton. One jab and Adil gave a short grunt before his momentum caused him to faceplant into a heap.
Med-tech was not a strong suite for any of us and Lachlan's colleagues were in a bad way.
Adil's motorhome was locked to his bio-signature, even punching an medical emergency request into it's dash-slab made no difference. I dragged the unconscious Adil back into cabin and pressed his thumb against a bio-reader and the cabin's dashboard lit up with a short distinct chime, the glowing light blue instrumentation provided real-time vehicle diagnostics as well as weather and traffic reports.
Next, the emergency mode was activated and the Aladrau's auto-drive came to life and took over, it was out of our hands now. The dash-slab immediately mapped the quickest course to a critical care centre and with a lurch, the motorhome accelerated out of the car park towards its destination. It then messaged the care centre and gave the staff our estimated time of arrival and instructed them when to have a trauma team waiting for us.
Auto-drive took the motorhome on to the congested elevated road network, quickly reaching top speed, threading the eye of the needle as it weaved its immense bulk between lanes of endlessly stretching vehicles, all the time constantly calculating the balance between speed with risk.
During the journey we discussed what to do with Adil? We told Lachlan and the two survivors that the decision was up to them. Lachlan was just glad they were alive and the other two didn't care what happened to Adil
Soon enough we arrived at dropping-off point at the front of a grey workmanlike looking medical facility and handed them over to the waiting med-team, Lachlan accompanied them.
We put the motorhome into it's programmed orbital route and let auto-drive do it's thing.
We dragged Adil into the bedroom and roused him, he looked from person to person and realisation came to him that he been caught dead-to-rights. It was like a switch had been flicked in his brain, no longer did he have to hide., finally he had the audience he so richly deserved and began belligerently boasting.
Adil eagerly admitted to torturing and murdering the other missing Joi Bois. He told us how he had watched them, watched how they thought they were so superior to him, so much better than he was. He had taught them though and in the end shown them who he truly was.
Once Adil's tirade had ended, we asked him what he had done with the other victim's? Adil told us that his motorhome's auto-drive orbital route would take it over the bay, that's when he dumped the bodies.
When the motorhome was in transit. a security protocol prevented any door from being opened. We searched it and found a hidden hatchway that Adil had added to the motorhome.
The next time that the motorhome went over the bay, we pushed Adil out of the hatch and watched as his flailing, spinning form shrank away, descending towards the water. If he survived the impact, maybe he could swim to shore.
It was a better chance than he ever gave his victims.
Now that we had the motorhome, we took it to Alex Chinsko and he reset the bio-lock to recognise Koko and Trigger.
We left it registered to Adil Buckova, it might be useful having an off-the-grid mobile base as a back up.
Later, news came down the GLOWNET newsfeeds that an explosion had occurred at the Margorba-Golina Global headquarters in Shibuya Terminal due to a technical error.
It was reported as an accident and there were no casualties other than the unidentified man who was at the centre of the blast. It was ruled as accidental death.
I guess that Ikan had made his choice.
As you know, 2020 was quite the year.
Covid-19 had changed everything and our roleplaying habits had to change too. Most sessions were played over some sort of video chat. Some styles and systems adapted to this better than others.
Surprisingly, this was not all bad. We probably played more Saturday night sessions than we had done in a long time.
Different RPGs: 10.
RPGs ran: 1 (barely)!
Sessions played: 74.
This is actually UP on last year.
For 2019 it was 7 RPGs & 51 sessions.
I attribute this to how we adapted our play style for the Saturday games. Matakishi dropped the complex and involved Clockwork & Chivalry for simpler minimalist systems and created campaigns consisting of shorter scenarios that tended to play out quicker. We even managed to bring an old friend into the fold.
It seems to me that sessions played over voice chat tended to be 1-2 hours shorter than in person.
So here's the break down for 2020.
Wired Neon Cities: 5 sessions.
Lasers & Feelings: 5.
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: 6.
Merry Outlaws: 9.
The Wasted Hack: 9.
In Darkest Warrens: 8
WFRP (Ran): 1!
Clockwork & Chivalry: 6.
The Cthulhu Hack: 2.
50 Fathoms/Savage Worlds: 23.
I only ran 1 regular session in 2020! Just before we got hit with lockdown 1 and I've deliberately held off running anything, since I don't to commit doing something right now as a I have other priorities, plus this blog takes long enough to write.
2nd January 2021
It's the 2nd of January and a Saturday night! I'm logged into Skype on my laptop in the living room.
It's time for the the first gaming session of 2021; the next chapter in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
Last night had been a late one, by the time I had sunk on to my futon, the night had emptied itself of rain and an orange hue was beginning to seep into the eastern sky. A short, dreamless sleep followed before I was up and hitting the street with the others, boosted by a combo of Xingfa stim-pills and Kaia Cola.
Sometime last night, on his media-slab, Bill had gotten a private message:
Package is ready for pick up.
Union Transmetropolitan Hotel.
The Union Transmetropolitan Hotel was a beast of a building, with all the aesthetic appeal of a breeze block that was hundreds of storeys tall. It's façade was constructed of gridded-steel reinforced concrete and windows made of blast-resistant Unzeruch plate glass.
The Union specialised in short term corporate hospitality and it took security very seriously. A hotel filled with potentially warring executives was a recipe for disaster, if the hotel's exec clientele got rubbed out - so did its rep.
Mid morning; an unremitting sun had been rising and so had the temperature. The uncomfortably packed rattling tram had rolled its way into the hotel district and we disembarked on to the sweltering street, under the glaring sickly blue-white sky and to the sound of voluminous yet distant music.
Korean voices elaborately chanted harmonically against the musical background of ambient heavy metal guitar with a thumping bass line that filled the air. It was the music of Korean synth punk sitar band Digital Drive.
The hotel district was a forest of convention centres, casinos, bars, illicit dens, and brothels, roamed by herds of suits. Even down at street level they could be seen ambling about, a sizeable number always tanked up on liquor, no matter the time of day and staggering from whiskey joint, to karaoke bar, to hostess club, to bordello.
As hotels in the district went, The Union was one of the biggest and dominated the angular concrete skyline and it grew even larger as we walked in it's direction, rising up into the washed out sky like a colossal beast standing on its haunches.
Koko's media-slab pinged. Now she'd gotten a private message too; meet up a Pie in the Sky in Highway Zero at midday.
Another job, only a couple of hours away.
Union Transmetropolitan Hotel was proudly carved in large, deep letters across the imitation dark granite cladding on the hotel's frontage. The subtly tinted glass-walled entrance was decorated in gold and chrome and the entire affair was flanked by imitation stone pillars. Fake respectability said more about Neon City than actual respectability ever could.
Inside it continued; an almost palatial, high-ceilinged and opulently furnished lobby. Replica smooth granite walls ran around the imitation marble floor which had been polished to a high sheen, dazzlingly reflecting the intricately styled chrome lighting fixtures above.
Patrons relaxed comfortably in replica dark mahogany wingbacks lined with imitation leather and all while, the lobby was bathed in a warm and soft haze of filtered golden rays that streamed through the glass front.
Even the sunlight was fake.
The lobby was surprisingly quiet considering how populated it was, our footsteps echoing as we walked towards the reception.
In fact we noticed a not inconsiderable number of patrons were outfitted in trench coats or strangely bulging jackets and watching us as we headed through the lobby.
You didn't get by very long doing what we did in Neon City without learning how to spot hired muscle. They wore practised neutral expressions along with their covert Verskeit armoured clothing and their hands tended to rest close to whatever hardware they were packing.
The question; why was a bunch of thugs-for-hire here?
The smart-looking receptionist behind the polished desk in a crisp hotel uniform smiled as we drew closer.
Upon our query about the package, she punched some instructions into a desk-slab and then provided us with a door pass for room twenty-one-fifty-five, an elevator pass and directed us down a polished corridor to a row of lifts.
The external elevator door frames were intricately decorated in gold detailing and polished steel, they also lacked any buttons, instead we had to swish our pass at a discreet sensor to call for ride.
When the elevator arrived, its doors slid open to reveal suited hotel security, three of them, obviously armed and eyeing us with their Maoshi data-shades. We brandished our elevator pass, no doubt it got a confirmation-hit on their data-shades and they seemed satisfied.
As the double doors began to close, two of the goons from the lobby tried to hop in but the security detail shoved them back out?
What was going on?
As the elevator accelerated, I felt the pull of gravity churning in the pit of my stomach as the storeys flew by. The ride to the two-hundred and fifteenth floors was surprisingly quick and smooth, skipping all other floors until it reached our destination.
The elevator opened into a discreetly lit, windowless corridor with patterned cream coloured wallpaper and luxuriously thick red carpeting. Before we could exit we had to show the room pass to yet more hotel security.
They eyed us warily as we headed along the otherwise deserted corridor. The door card didn't grant us access to room five, we had to knock and wait.
A moment later, a small speaker squawked into life and digitally-edged harsh sounding woman's voice with a Chinese accent answered, demanding to know our business.
Once we had explained we were here to collect the package the door opened into what could looked more like the reception hall of luxury apartment than a hotel room.
We were led to spacious, tastefully decorated sitting room filled with costly sofas and coffee tables, ornaments that sat on every ledge and a massive high-end Senonabe wall-slab dominated one wall.
Two further walls were adorned with landscape paintings. The fourth wall was an entirely floor-to-ceiling window of self-regulating colour-adjustable tinted glass that was designed to soften Neon City's harsh sun and could be manually altered by a small control-slab that sat on a glass topped stand.
From two hundred storeys up it was a commanding view, the noise-dampened seemingly unreal toy-like surrounding area of Neon City. Street level was distant and lost in haze, tiny trams zipped along the network of raised tramlines, packets of data pulsing along the wiring on Neon City's circuit board.
Above that were the criss-crossing elevated roadways inhabited by swarms of autonomous, rumbling road-drones.
Higher still were the few lavish monorail lines that catered exclusively to corporate customers, that demanded the only the best in transportation that only ran from secure location to secure location.
Finally, soaring higher were the sky-lanes, aerial congestions of taxis, freighters and exec carriers.
The Union also overlooked the newly completed sprawling entertainment venue, The Rokkaku Expo Stadium, so new in fact that today was its inaugural event, a concert by Digital Drive in front of a packed cheering audience.
The harsh voice that had let us in belonged to a smallish middle-aged Chinese woman, Fou Ku-Da.
Dressed in the this season's Duunuer fashion line and Poratier Limited jewellery, she was clearly wealthy. She also had a harsh attitude to match the voice and unconcealed anger contorted her face, she shouted at us; demanding to know why we hadn't come to the hotel last night?
We tried to explain, but she refused to listen to our excuses.
We allowed her to rant, once her pointless indignant anger had spent itself, we asked what this was about?
Fou Ku-Da explained that she had recently gotten into an argument with a local Russian mob and now, they were trying to kill her. Only the hotel's autonomous client defence system was preventing her from being assassinated.
She went on to explain that she was an exec for the Kirozhdolg-Tano Multinational corporation. She had been a project director and had managed the construction of the Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Fou Ku-Da had learnt that the building firms that had been subcontracted to work on the project fronted for the Russian mob, so she refused to pay the mob. Word had reached her that they had put a one million bit bounty on her head. After learning this, she had fled to The Union, knowing that its defence systems would protect her, so long as she stayed in her room.
I guess this explained all the tooled up thugs hanging around the lobby, looking to score a kill.
Now she wanted out, she wanted us to escort her to the roof of The Union about a hundred stories up, from there she could escape or so she said.
The roof did not seem a wise choice to us, we told her but she shouted a her reply, ordering us to take her up, insisting it was the roof or nothing!
She was beginning to try our patience, particularly Koko's, who was fast taking a dislike to the woman.
Whilst Fou was talking, Trigger's media-slab had pinged and he spent a long minute staring at it.
Trigger told us that he had been contacted by Yennav Rybasei, it was a name known to us.
Yennav Rybasei was an mid-level operator for the Russian mob, one foot on the street and another in the old Moscow network, he knew how to get things done and just who to do them. In other words, trouble for anyone who crossed his path.
He had messaged Trigger, willing to pay a cool mill if we off'd Fou. We didn't consider it, except for Koko who thought hard about it.
It didn't add up though, so I did what I do best and went digging on the GLOWNET.
Firing up my data-slab, I jacked in and through a hotel access point, then delved into the GLOWNET. I could feel binary reality compiling around me, overwriting my connection to material existence and info-dumping my bio-image into Neon City's data-sphere. The constantly updating digital repositories expanding like gathering lightning-lit storm clouds, each suspended incandescent raindrop within; a user-log or a data value.
I easily came across The Kirozhdolg-Tano Multinational Corporation's knowledge vaults.
There was no record of a current employee called Fou Ku-Da. I continued to dig, easily sidestepping their inadequate security and their system's attempts to lock me out.
Eventually I found myself looking at their corporate schedules. Thirty million bits had been assigned to the Rokkaku Expo Stadium project after it had been approved. The authorised funds had been moved into a holding account registered to Fou Ku-Da, somewhere in Asia.
According to Kirozhdolg-Tano's own bit-tracer algorithms, the funds had then been dispersed into dozens of anonymous accounts.
It looked like embezzlement, money meant for the contractors was gone. So the mob was after Fou Ku-Da for it. She vehemently denied this, swearing at us, telling us to do our jobs and explaining that we should be speaking with her husband. We did; he was not forthcoming with any further information and wanted nothing to do with her
Attempts to gain information from Kirozhdolg-Tano were equally fruitless as they denied all knowledge of her.
Nothing had changed though, she still wanted to go to the roof and we needed to find a way up.
It stood to reason that if Fou had cause to go to the roof, the autonomous defence system should protect her.
On a coffee table was a fairly bulky looking silver, info-slab displaying The Union Transmetropolitan Hotel logo, a bespoke hotel device provided to customers. We used it to check the hotel facilities, we discovered that there was a rooftop restaurant in The Union.
Getting into the hotel data-system was easy, it wasn't designed to prevent GLOWNET incursions, then I moved some records around in the restaurant management software, a reservation for five appeared!
The info-slab shook and began humming erratically as it printed out a lift pass to the roof and restaurant passes.
We exited Fou Ku-Da's room, Bill went first.
As he stepped out into the hallway, he was met by deafening automatic weapon fire. It sent him reeling and he thought he saw six goons as he managed to control his fall back into the apartment. At the same time Trigger had reacted by lunging out and at them, katana in hand.
Internal hotel sensors detected gunfire, triggering an automated safety response; the apartment door swung itself shut. Trigger was now outside, alone against six, he was tough, but was he that tough?
Bill and I were preparing to respond and we heard the familiar retort of a nine millimetre drone-mounted firearm behind us.
Turning, we saw the prone, lifeless form of Fou Ku-Da, blood pooling around her and Felix hovering above. Koko was absorbed by something on her media-slab. Outside the sounds of fighting stopped.
"Well," said Koko looking up. "Job's done," pocketing a million....
Decades ago, as the erosion of the earth's ecosystem had become inarguably irreversible. The dream of Neon City had been conceived as one of several answers to that slow, inevitable decay.
When Neon City had was born; it was envisaged without the need for personal transport. The avenues and streets were, for the most part too narrow for ground vehicles and meant for pedestrians only. Corporate, retail and industrial needs would be met by sky-freight carriers.
Instead the city would rely on a world-beating public transit infrastructure; an extensive metro subway system would be integrated into the city, providing citizens with cheap , quick and reliable city-wide transport.
Of course, this being Neon City, when your plans told you to hang a right, the City of Electric Dreams would take you left.
It became clear during Neon City's infancy that it had failed to attract sufficient corporate interest in the metro and there would be a financial shortfall.
City administrators were forced to reduce the scope of the metro and divert investment into a cheaper alternative: The raised tram network.
Even in the youthful early days of Neon City, the trams had earned a reputation of being noisy, uncomfortable, overcrowded and underfunded.
Still, even this wasn't enough. The habit of personal transport was too hard to kick. Further investment was made into constructing an elevated road layout.
Built higher even than the trams, was a grid of tangled, criss-crossing, undulating asphalt-topped concrete elevated roadways that ranged throughout the city and somehow weaved between skyscrapers, it spanned the length and width of Neon City's furthest reaching streets.
Largest of these was The Highway, a twelve lane monstrosity that could support massive volumes of road traffic, moving commuters into, out of and through the city. At some point or other, every smaller elevated road fed into The Highway.
For the most, The Highway hung in the sky but for a stretch it dropped down to street level, running through a district of Neon City.
Earning that district the name; Highway Zero.
Situated in the centre of Highway Zero was Pie in the Sky. A rotating themed restaurant atop a tall implausibly thin needle tower and shaped like a pie. Inside the pie theme continued, colourful triangular segmented booths shaped like slices of pie contained benches arranged around white plastic tables, each slice given its own an amusing pie themed name.
Cheerful, vapid and shallow: The perfect Neon City package.
Our contact; Bruno Sweetbriar was here. Young and good looking with angular chiselled features, a pouty expression, well moisturised complexion and dressed in the latest fashions.
A white, tightfitting and half open Simaz & Jaccno shirt complemented his slim, muscled physique and a flashy Agrapla gold chain hung across the sheen of his shaved and lightly oiled chest.
He was toned and tanned with eyes like the blue morning sky after a heavy snowfall and a streak of blonde highlights running through his deliberately and precisely messy, tousled hair.
It was mostly artificial of course, a derma-printed fake tan here or a surgically enhanced muscle definition there and so on.
We shook hands with Bruno, he invited us into a booth and we all sat down.
Over a light lunch of pie Bruno explained that his real name was Lachlan Tindal. Bruno was the identity he adopted when working the street as a Joi Boi.
Joi Boi was a business which specialised in delivering the young, exotic male street walkers of Neon City to exclusive clientele. Though not as ubiquitous as their female counterparts, they were in almost as much demand.
Augmented boy toys for every occasion their slogan emblazoned proudly.
Lachlan went on to tell us that six of his colleagues from Joi Boi had gone missing in the last couple of months. It wasn't too unusual for someone to disappear for a while but six? Now he was worried and wanted us to look into it.
He provided us with their names and some photos.
Comes to Earth like Butterflies
The first thing I did after we agreed to help Lachlan was to get into the Joi Boi system.
On the GLOWNET, the Joi Boi data vault imprint was similar to a hexagonal prism constructed of constantly undulating, oily coloured, shining polymers.
It's security was never designed to stand up to the kind intrusion protocols my Nonohiki slab contained and I easily got access to their records.
Joi Boi records showed that the last name on the Lachlan's list had been booked three days ago and hadn't been seen for the last two.
The previous name had been booked exactly one week earlier, then the previous four bookings before that were arranged at one week intervals going back a further four weeks.
In each instance, the booking had included instructions for the Joi Boi to go to a Highway Zero carpark and look for the yellow hat.
Joi Boi's records of the bookings were spotty, they deliberately didn't keep client details stored in their system and all the bookings had been arranged by audio-only calls.
So I tried going deeper into the GLOWNET, filtering away ambient data-movement and piercing layers of interface coding, searching close-to-the-metal for mnemonic signs that would; like a spider's web link caller to caller. I ran a tracer protocols on the calls made to Joi Boi.
The latest call had come from Cambodia, I continued following the thread and discovered that it had been bounced into Cambodia from a GLOWNET data-scrubber vault. The thread was a dead end.
I tried tracing the previous call, it had come from Rokkaku Dai Heights and its tracks had also been cleaned by a data scrubber.
Whoever was arranging the bookings had enough knowhow to cover their footsteps. We were going to get nothing from this.
It was time to hit Highway Zero and see what we could dig up. Using Kevin we scouted out Highway Zero.
The twelve lane highway that ran at street level through Highway Zero was travelled by immense numbers of autonomous vehicles. As with all ground drones on the elevated roads, they drove at speeds of up to four hundred kilometres per hour, bumper-to-bumper and in a perennial gridlock with the precision of migratory flights. Only constant communication between drones made this possible.
It also generated a tremendous amount of noise and pollution. At the best of times air in Neon City had a stale flavour but here in Highway Zero, you could almost see contaminant particles coalescing.
The unending barrage of traffic shook the air with an unescapable, dull background rumble.
Perhaps that's where Noise Tank, Highway Zero's menacing, metal-and-chrome worshipping street gang troublemakers took their name?
Highway Zero was also a home to the city headquarters of numerous multinational corporations in a neighbourhood of secured high-rise office blocks clustered close to The Highway. We were also aware that Chou-Nata had ambitious plans for Highway Zero; their gigantic drivethru mall which would service the endless stream of commuters that passed through the district.
Our searching revealed nothing until Bill pointed out something interesting. The Highway was dotted with regularly spaced car parks, service stations and so on. little flat spots of grey calmness in a churning sea of never ending auto-cars racing past.
In one of these car parks was run by a company called Yellow Cap Parking and the staff wore yellow hats as part of their uniform.
It was simple to get into the Yellow Cap Parking server that held the record of the station's security feed and we knew roughly the time from three days ago to scan.
It didn't take long to find what we were looking for: Pulling into the car park was a Benlato Motors Aladrau model motorhome, the largest class that Benlato made and nearly the size of a tram! A high-sided cuboid on wheels with windows and a cab, its plastic and aluminium bodywork painted in swipes of drab anonymous beige and off-white colours, easily blending into gridlock population.
When the Aladrau came to a stop, the driver opened his window, waved a yellow cap and the waiting Joi Boi briskly climbed aboard.
The security feed was a wide angle and lacked the fidelity to clearly show the driver's face. We did get the motorhome's plate ID though.
There was no easy way to trace the ID but we were in tight with someone who could help; Silai Granskina, staffer at the transport authorities.
He was happy to assist when we contacted him and sent over some helpful info.
The motorhome belonged to a Adil Buckova, a retired mortuary attendant, it listed no fixed address for him, instead we had been given a circular driving route for the elevated road network.
Aladrau motorhomes were fitted with auto-drive systems as standard. They allowed owners to sit back and relax during drives. More than a few were used as permanent homing, programmed to perpetually orbit Neon City on the roads, only stopping at a service station to resupply or replenish the motorhome's power cell.
Tracking down a speeding motorhome on Neon City's ultra congested swarming roads was a tall order.
If Adil stuck to his routine - and he had no reason not to, we knew where he would be in four days. Contacting Lachlan, we told him to call us when a new yellow cap booking had been arranged and we would be ready.
That was it, we were done and the blazing sun was still riding high in the sky.
We hit up a smoky, under-lit watering hole out of the way, somewhere in the sunless back streets of Dogenzaka Hill and kicked back. Enjoying whatever aircon we could and knocking down booze whilst watching squeaky Asiapoptrance girl-bands dancing away on a wall-slab.
It didn't last though and a couple of hours later we got a call - and a job.
It was the tail end of evening rush hour, the shuffling crush of humanity had mercifully lessened and fat droplets of rain had begun to patter on to the streets by the time we got to Rokkaku Dai Heights. Soon they would be joined by a million others coming down in rumbling cascades.
The apartment we found ourselves at was situated in a fairly well-to-do block and we rang the bell.
An unassuming middle-aged woman opened the door, Tohi Uron was her name and she was glad that we had answered her message. Tohi invited us in, sat us down and offered us tea.
The sitting room was tastefully, if averagely furnished with a Talordu living room suite. A cabinet along one wall displayed a mismatched set of ornaments and trinkets, while the opposite wall was practically wallpapered with framed photos. In many of them Tohi was positioned next to a man who seemed slightly familiar....
Tahi went on to explain that her family had been hit by hard luck recently. She had lost her job as a domestic executive sanitation operative after being targeted by false claims.
Her husband, Yaroh Uron had until recently been a junior exec at Protobase Global.
One day when leaving the office at Benten Tower late at night, had been mugged!
The next morning when Yaroh came in to work, he discovered someone had stolen his keycard, impersonated him and entered The Benten Tower. The impersonator had then started a fire to distract the security staff during a not-so-covert infiltration.
Needless to say Tohi explained, Protobase Global had taken a dim view of this and did not care for Yaroh's excuses, his contract had been terminated; effective immediately.
The man in Tahi's photos.... Yaroh? Had Bill been disguised as Yaroh?
I glanced at Bill, he seemed concerned about something in his fingernails and was quietly whistling beneath his breath.
Desperate for employment, Yaroh had taken a job as a human mannequin with the company Let All Your Rage Out!.
Let All Your Rage Out! were paid by their clients to provide human mannequins whom the clients could beat up and assault to their heart's content.
It was a lucrative market. In the high-pressure world of Neon City's wage-slaves, killing your boss was living the electric dream! While the service provided by Let All Your Rage Out! was not the real deal, it adhered to one of Neon City's great philosophies: Fake it till you make it.
Tohi told us that after Yaroh's first gig as a human mannequin, he had required costly hospital treatment.
He had gone out tonight on his second gig and Tohi was worried. She wanted us to find him and bring him back.
A fairly straightforward job. After we left Tohi, I jacked into the GLOWNET, finding Let All Your Rage Out! was easy.
Breaking through their low level data defences was nearly as easy. They had skimped on security but it was understandable, who normally, would want to hack their servers?
Their records showed that Yaroh had been booked out to a Royla Ovalev at her apartment, The address was nearby in The Heights.
It was a short journey through the rainy streets and we walked mostly in silence, listening to the torrent rhythmically beating down. I pulled my trench coat collar up and put my head down, watching the city lights and the neon street signs swim in the emerging puddles.
From the outside, Royla's apartment was normal. Trigger's thermal sight showed two individuals inside in close proximity to each other as well as some wavering small heat sources.
"Candles," Trigger explained.
Koko opened the letter box and popped Kevin inside. We watched on her control-slab as Kevin buzzed down a hallway, most of the apartment was dark but a soft, hazy, wide shaft of light played out from an open doorway across the hallway's floor. Koko directed Kevin into the room.
The soft candlelight flared in Kevin's night vision, giving the video feed a oversaturated, blurry look. Yaroh was there, strapped to a bed and dressed as a geisha! Sitting there was also a woman we presumed was Royla. Gripping a scalpel, she was talking to something on the wall and slowly peeling squares of skin out of Yaroh, who was convulsing and twitching, a ball gag stifling his screams.
It was enough for Trigger, the apartment door didn't hold up to his savage kick, he was in and running. The rest of us followed.
The bedroom was heavy with incense, it was headache inducing and almost enough make my vision dim for a moment.
Trigger pulled Royla away from Yaroh, she began shouting something about, "Getting her back?" Her struggling was beginning to become frenzied.
No time for this, I jabbed her with my stun-baton and she dropped in heap, senseless.
As trigger and the others freed Yaroh, I looked at what Royla had been talking to.
The candles had been arranged on either side of a blood splashed photo of a young woman hanging on the wall, a name had been written there; Kuto Shiko, her face seemed to niggle in my brain like an unreachable itch....
It had the look of some sort of creepy shrine. From what had been said, the two of them had been in some sort of relationship, one that had ended badly, at least for Royla.
We didn't stick around for answers and once Yaroh was safe, we escorted him to a street doc.
After some discussion, we decided that we couldn't leave Yaroh working as a human mannequin, he was two-for-two in the work-clinic ratio.
So we contacted Alison who did us a solid and said she could find a job for Yaroh.
A little later and Binary Johnny got in contact.
"Got another job," he told us.
Johnny was making another run at Protobase Global and needed muscle again. He was intending to infiltrate The Benten Tower a second time.
We had to meet him on 99th at midnight.
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 vidcorder 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.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.