5th December 2020
Saturday night and I'm logged into Skype in the Living Room.
Time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Early morning had come and gone in The City of Electric Dreams. Shimmering sunlight maliciously sliced through gaps in the badly fitted blinds of my grubby one-room corporate issue apartment and hit me square in the face.
I rolled out of the blazing light and sat up. The day was warming up, the temp readout said it had already reached too damn hot.
The water was out again, no chance of a shower. Instead I doused myself in cheap dubious deodorant, threw on what I hoped were clean clothes and checked my gear.
On the way out to meet the others I grabbed a carton of cheap self-heating Niaiwo noodles and sucked them down as I took the steps to street level. The label insisted they were chow mein, in reality every flavour was always sweet and sour.
The Goddess Of The Street statue was still missing and we planned to find it. Our next move was to Hikage Street, then head south into The Pipes and Poison Jam turf.
As always the rattling tram ride over was standing room only. Trigger looked more twitchy than usual, rocking back and forth on his heels, opening and closing his fists and repeatedly clenching his jaw. If I didn't know better, I would've said he was tweaking.
Hikage Street; a soaring concrete forest of anonymous, dull, grey residential high-rises set against the starkly over-bright sky. From a distance their uniformity made them almost look clean, up close was another story.
Time, neglect and Neon City's bizarre weather cycle had left them stained with slow but inevitable decay. Inside didn't fare much better, families, workers, the jobless and the marginalised were all crammed into undersized and under resourced apartments in single community together.
People were't built to live like this, wary of who they passed in the corridor, suspicious of their neighbours and fearfully hidden behind their doors.
On the street level were a smattering of convenience store chains as well as take-out and delivery joints. Invariably they attracted the disaffected youth with no cash, kicking about outside and harassing customers. A new generation of dead-enders waiting to become fodder for the gangs.
Walking along Hikage Street we discovered reams of missing-person and missing-robot posters plastered across walls and store-fronts. An array of badly framed and badly focussed photos of the lost and the forgotten. Things seemed to be going down on Hikage Street and none of them good.
Next we spotted a bright coloured street-booth decorated in purple-yellow with the handle Get That For You?, a well known local delivery and cleaning business that exclusively employed robots.
The proprietor was equally well known, formerly a janitor-bot called Roboy, he was a Kurissha class domestic robot from Shiaosha Robotics. Somehow a heuristic application in his data-bank caused his behaviour algorithms to rewrite themselves and he went from janitor to boss in one easy step
It probably violated some regulation somewhere and was illegal, but the corps didn't care, so neither did rentacop. What happened at street-level stayed at street-level.
Roboy had a rep of keeping one auditory mic close to the asphalt, so we went and spoke with him.
Inside the Get That For You? booth it was the plainest beige laminated plastic interior imaginable, that only a robot could tolerate and with nowhere to sit even. Standing behind the opening was Roboy who regarded us with custom Kuaijing Shixshi ocular lenses that rotated one way and then the other and greeted us with programmed cheerfulness.
After speaking with Roboy, he explained that people had been disappearing off the streets for two weeks, there was no pattern to it - other than it occurred at night. Even robots had gone missing, including his employees, who he wanted back.
Roboy also told us that if we were looking to get into Poison Jam turf, to an eye out for tags in their colours.
Southern Hikage Street; the overpopulated, noisy residential centre faded away as we sent south and its place came a light industrial area with a row of faceless identical warehouses. A few workers pounded the streets here, most activity came the electric auto-transports silently navigating their way to and fro, lugging whatever goods the warehouses stocked.
Large sloped ugly concrete blocks began springing up, used to anchor huge discoloured iron pipes that inexplicably rose, fell and twisted like the wiring of some giant, crazy circuit board.
Some blocks were inlaid with large grill-covered rusty, grimy inlet pipes. We kept looking until we scoped an inlet missing it's grill, it was surrounded by purple kaiju graffiti; Poison Jam.
Bigger than a door, the inlet was an oblong black hole stretching into an underground oblivion, there was the slightest breeze and indistinct muffled noises from the pipe. Something was down there.
For several hundred metres we trudged down the sloping pipe, stumbling along the curved tunnel under the light of our LED flash lights. It seemed empty, but the noises ahead grew louder. Eventually they became a gaggle of distorted voices reverbing up the pipe and accompanied by a faint glow. The pipe ended in some sort of doorway outlined in flickering dirty orange.
Koko sent Kevin ahead, the drone buzzed away and quietly darted through the doorway.
We watched as the video feed played out on the screen on Koko's control-slab.
The room was largish, ten metres aside with rough brick walls and a curiously domed rough concrete ceiling.
In a corner it was piled high with rusted chem-drums emblazoned with fading old hazardous substance symbols. Probably the gang's source of poison.
Looted and stolen goods also littered the room, low-tech, high-tech, whatever was easy to carry.
Twelve or so people were in here, dressed in shabby old clothes more than halfway to rags. Two of them were men who wore Poison Jam colours and sat apart but mostly it was women.
It all looked like some bizarre domestic set up, the women appeared to be doing normal chores in the weak light while the gangers watched on.
On the opposite side, someone had taken a sledge hammer to the walls creating an irregular hole where bricks had been haphazardly knocked out. Kevin dropped from its vantage point and filmed through the opening.
Another pipe, much larger was on the other side, but not an empty one.
It was a half filled sedately flowing river of turd. Not any waste pipe, a Neon City waste pipe; equally happy to also carry away people's hopes and aspirations.
Bobbing on the grim waterway were three moored boats! Gently rocking wooden relics that were out of place and utterly alien to the city's urbanised population.
As we watched, a large, dark shape slid into view and briefly broke the water's surface. It was a lizard of some sort, a pet flushed into system? If someone's idea of a pet was a giant monitor lizard.
The thing paused on the surface for a moment before sinking away lost to the shadowed depths.
Like it or not, the waste pipe was the only way ahead.
It was a measured risk striding into the room, but that's we did, glowering at the thugs as they jumped to their feet in shock and yelled threats at us.
We had gambled on the threats being hollow, there were four of us and two of them and true to form they chickened out. We ignored them and made for the boats.
This close, we noticed the boats had seen better days and the rot was beginning to set in. Maybe they did fit right in with The City Of Electric Dreams.
They also dipped alarmingly when we jumped aboard! Falling into that stream of turd wasn't something that had made it on to my e-bucket list.
Before we left, Trigger scuppered the other two boats and we watched as they brown waters claimed them. After that, we were off.
Living in Neon City meant navigating streets filled with crap for most people but I never thought I'd ride a river of it into the unknown!
It was the stuff of fevered nightmares. We were being pulled along by a sluggish current down a grim tunnel into what would become the brown circle of hell! Beyond the reach of our flashlights was only absolute darkness. The stink was almost overpowering, sub-dermal nose filters would have been good right about now.
Worse still, this deep in meant that we had lost all connectivity with the GLOWNET, we might as well have never existed.
We went on until eventually the uniformity of the tunnel walls gave way into some sort of huge rectangular high-ceilinged room. The roar of churning turd water was so loud, we had to shout to be heard.
It was a confluence room we had found. Because in Neon City, one river of crap was never enough.
We had come in from one of two tunnels and in our flashlights we could see two exit tunnels.
There were no signs or indications about where the tunnels led to, so we rowed for the left exit.
For years, for decades! We followed the tunnel as it wound its way along in the dark and the stink, as it branched off, joined other tunnels, entered other confluence rooms or perhaps the same room again and again.
We were lost. We were sick of this black labyrinth of brown crap. We had to get out.
The next time we passed a vertical access shaft we ditched the boat and climbed the ladder. Putting our backs into it, we managed to shift the manhole cover, rays of pain-inducing sunlight blazed down the shaft as the heavy iron and concrete disc slowly slid open.
With some effort we got out, the punishing heat and second hand air now felt like welcome luxuries. Back in Neon City, back in the familiar bustle, with its teeming crowds, droning background hum and equally strange and yet alluring smells.
It took a minute to reorientate ourselves once we were out, about the same time it took for full connectivity to return.
We had come out back on street-level in Shibuya Terminal, further away from The Sewage Facility than where we had started!
Next we tried hunting the digital avenues for a map of the sewers but nothing came up on the GLOWNET.
Without it, it would be impossible to get into the Sewage Facility.
Over at Roboy's, he told us that he knew a robot with a map of the sewers, but that robot had gone missing. It had been delivering food and medical supplies when it disappeared.
Our plans for Poison Jam were put on hold.
Instead we decided to look into the missing people.
Our plan was simple; use Bill as bait! Night came and so did the downpours, pummelling Hikage Street with particularly heavy sheets of rain, sending the night crowds running for cover and emptying the streets.
Bill wandered along, looking as vulnerable as possible. In his travels he eyeballed a Poison Jam gang materialising out of the rainy darkness and dimly lit by dripping street lights, they swaggered along, hauling various bulky items.
We watched as they entered Bric-A-Brac Shac, a local no-questions-asked pawn shop. So this was a place they used to fence hot goods. Good to know.
Bill walked on and we shadowed him at a distance. Koko noticed that Bill was not alone, someone else was tailing him. A band of women in shabby, muted and dark clothing, with elaborately braided hair and eye patches.
Love Shock; another of Neon City's gangs, this time a girl-gang that hung around this part of Hikage Street.
A few minutes of walking in the misty, watery haze and we got something. Yelling and a cry for help from the shadowy entrance to an alleyway, we went straight in.
There was a guy sprawled on the wet ground surrounded by six masked attackers, all wearing black.
They were professional black-baggers and well financed too.
They wore Verskeit, kevlar triple-weaved, triple-layered, tight-fitting Steutz armour. Not the kind of body-armour you saw on rentacop or your standard corp footsoldier, this armour tough but designed to be less bulky, lighter and easier to conceal.
They were also packing Intiging stun-batons, these extendable slim black rods kicked out enough juice to make any jacked-up roider think twice.
They outnumbered us so we had to try and end it quick. We laid into them and then luckily for us, a minute or so later the Love Shock girls also waded in.
Very soon, the fighting was over. Two of the attackers were dead, the others were unconscious. The Love Shock girls seemed pleased enough, they high-fived each other proclaiming that they had stuck it to the patriarchy and left, completely ignoring us!
The victim was an small skinny man and uninjured, lucky for him, the kidnappers were looking to take people alive.
After bringing him to his senses and helping him to his feet, he thanked us and told us that he lived locally, he had been searching Hikage Street for his wife, Bina Granskina who had gone missing. His own name was Silai, he was a minor official with the Neon City Transport Authority.
Koko asked Silai if he could acquire a map of the sewers, but Silai explained that they were very hard to come by, our best chance was to speak with someone from the city sanitation management.
Before we escorted Silai back to his high-rise apartment in we turned our attention to the kidnappers.
Searching them revealed little, the were professional enough to not have any ID, but they were carrying unmarked key-cards.
Bill roused one of them and pushed him for information. The kidnapper spilled his guts.
They were being paid to kidnap people off the street and take them to a place close by and take them through 'The Pipe'. then there they would be collected by scientists. From there he didn't know what happened.
We took their Steutz armour, stun-batons and pocketed their key-cards and bagged one of the live kidnappers as a victim.
Disguised as the kidnappers and shrouded in rain; it was easy to move unnoticed through the badly lit, puddle filled back alleys. Following directions led to a featureless steel security door in an anonymous graffiti covered grey concrete wall.
As expected, the security door opened with a click when swished with a key-card. Inside was a gloomy undecorated corridor, it led downwards and opened up to what looked like a unused metro-station.
It lacked any booths or stalls and was too small to ever have been be any kind of useful public transport facility.
We found ourselves on a cold station platform, in a large room that was drab, stark and inadequately lit with flickering strip lighting, we could hear the constant quiet hum of electricity, a lot of juice was flowing through here.
Alongside the platform was single workman's carriage of some kind, furnished with plain unpainted wooden benches, it was all function and no comfort. It sat on a monorail and up against a buffer. The monorail ran into a tunnel and vanished into the darkness.
Taking our prisoner, we boarded the carriage. It must have been self-powered and automated, there was no engine car. Controls were on a small panel and looked simple enough. When the appropriate chunky button was stabbed, the carriage jumped to life and began noisily accelerating into the tunnel.
A cold wind whistled its way through the rusted steel mesh covered glassless windows as the carriage clacked along the monorail.
For the most part, the tunnel was arrow straight but occasionally it would round a long gentle bend.
A couple of minutes into our journey and we noticed the carriage's sickly yellow light gleaming off the dampness on the tunnel walls. There were drips and occasionally rivulets clinging to the tunnel's curvature as well, we had gone under The Bay.
After about ten minutes we felt the carriage begin to slow and the tunnel took us into another station. The brakes squealed as the carriage came to a stop against the buffer with a slight jolt. End of the line.
Another small, empty, featureless metro-station. Like the previous station, there was only one way out.
It was a second steel door, this time with a security camera pointed at it. Making sure our masks were still on straight, we grabbed the prisoner and got off the carriage.
The key-cards worked and we went on through. On the other side was a grey corridor, along one wall ran a row of cells, further along on the opposite side was another open door. Finally on the far wall was a closed door, it looked like another security door and also had a camera mounted above it.
We deposited our prisoner into an empty cell, our boots squeaked on the floor as we slowly walked down the corridor. It was entirely featureless and empty, panel lighting filled it with a weak diffused clinical light. From the open door we heard indistinct voices.
Turning into the open door, we saw a cheap guardroom of sorts. Some chairs and a couple of basic worktops had been set up, a desktop terminal sat on one and the other was stocked with cups, a kettle and supplies.
A pair of black-baggers were here, their helmets were off and they sat chatting, paying us no attention.
They suspected nothing and were quickly incapacitated with the stun-batons and piled in a corner. It was time to get to work.
We had been told that the scientists came to the cells to collect the victims. This probably meant that the key-cards would only flag a security warning if we tried to get through the door. The security camera could see the corridor and we couldn't risk freeing the prisoners yet
The desktop computer looked like a pretty standard Karseakk model Preaavar security terminal. I would have hacked my way in, but the access codes were scrawled on a sticky note pasted to the desk. Amateurs.
I had access to one security camera feed from the monorail station, it wasn't good enough. This terminal was also connected to a Sainohon private server but lacked the privileges to access the data. It was time to muscle in.
I connected my Nonohiki slab to the terminal and jacked in, hacking these kinds of security systems was like breathing air for me and I was quickly in the secure server.
I quickly found the feed I was looking for and copied a few minutes of footage to the terminal. Then I put it into a loop and reconfigured the feed to point at the footage. Anyone watching the feed now, would see nothing special.
We went to the cells and freed all the prisoners, then we gave them some key-cards and explained how to get out.
Back at the server, I was skimming for more information. This was all part of some medical complex but everything was vague. Eventually I found made reference to another remote, currently offline server in the complex. It could only be accessed in person. I unlocked all the security doors and we went searching.
As we went deeper into the complex, along quiet corridors, we discovered numerous unoccupied operating rooms and machining rooms, all brimming with the latest biotech from Xideti or Saengdal. Whatever was going on here was big.
Soon we came across a warehouse door, unsurprisingly it opened into warehouse!
The lights flickered and hummed on step-by-step, revealing more and more of the contents.
Rows of perfectly lined unmoving people were here, standing to attention! Except they weren't people, not quite.
They stood unresponsive as we scoped them out.
Arms replaced by chrome and steel prehensile weapon mounts, legs replaced with powered hydraulics to increase agility and movement.
Joints reinforced with polymer frames for enhanced speed and strength, subdermal ceramic armour implants for protection, optical replacements for improved aiming, a genetically reprogrammed nervous systems to decrease reaction times and sharpen reflexes.
Finally steel cranial replacements to protect the brains- or what was left of them. They had haunted faces that were entirely vacant and watery eyes that unblinkingly stared ahead. Standing by for orders. Removing the higher brain function was illegal nearly everywhere, even for Neon City this was dark.
These hollowed out, zombie cyborg conversions were full-on military spec. A genuine nightmare if pointed your way.
All of them branded with the Chou-Nata logo.
The offline server still hadn't been found, we had to keep on searching. Eventually we came across some offices, finally somewhere important! Rows of cheap easily self-assembled plastic desks had been set up and loaded with computers attached to bundles of power and networking cables.
We kept searching until we found what we were looking for; one small office that had been securely locked off from the others. That's were we would find the offline server.
Security doors were no longer a problem and sure enough, in this small office we found an unconnected top of the line Atyadham model security server, a serious piece of hardware.
A row of LEDs blinked into life and glowed red when we powered the server up. As the boot completed they all flashed green. I got to work, using my data-slab, I jacked in.
Now the server was up and running, it would have connected to its network, one wrong move and it might ping out a distress signal. Considering where we were and what we were doing, this would bring serious heat down on to us. Time to tread very lightly.
It wasn't a problem though and pretty quick I access privileges to all folders. I began sifting through all the data.
My brain was assimilating the information quicker than I could consciously process it. Soon enough though, the server began giving up it's secrets.
Because of the branding we had seen earlier, we expected the facility to be owned by Chou-Nata, this wasn't the case, it was actually owned by rival corporation; Protobase Global.
Protobase Global had initiated some sort of covert project by building a temporary cybernetic manufacturing facility at the Robot Factory on an island in The Bay. This is where we were.
Robot Factory was considered a zone of critical importance in Neon city and off-limits to most people. As the name suggested, Robot Factory was a mostly automated robot manufacturing plant. It would have been easy for Protobase Global operatives to infiltrate the island and set things up. This was Phase One.
About two weeks ago, Phase Two and the process of black-bagging people off the streets, bringing them here and streamlining the conversion process that turned them into mindless cyborg footsoldiers had begun.
The ranks of this army had been swelling ever since. According to the project timetable, this covert recruitment would continue for another month.
Then, Phase Three would begin: The cyborgs would be fully loaded and programmed with targets to hit, among these targets included the Chou-Nata Shopping Mall in Dogenzaka Hill, other Chou-Nata locations in Neon City and elsewhere too.
The damage done to Chou-Nata property would be massive, the death and violence inflicted on the street-level citizens of Neon City would be unimaginable. All of this done by cyborgs with Chou-Nata branding!
Why was Protobase Global doing all of this? What was the purpose?
For some time Protobase Global had been stockpiling cash.
This was Phase Four: When the attacks began, it would hit Chou-Nata with a double-whammy. Not only would it seem that Chou-Nata financed cyborgs had gone a rampage, it would also have destroyed their assets.
Share prices would plummet and Protobase Global would be there, waiting with the capital to gobble up all those cheap Chou-Nata shares.
According to the documentation, Protobase Global bean-counters estimated it would give them a controlling share within twenty-four hours.
All of this was just for a stock-grab, a shift of power between two corporations, but who would truly pay the cost? The blood on the boardroom carpet would be nothing like the blood on the street.
Protobase Global had to be stopped.
I downloaded all the data on to my slab and we made our way out.
Out of the complex, over the monorail and back into the pouring rain.
It was late, soon it would be dawn in Neon City and we had things to do.
Our next step would be critical, since Chou-Nata was being targeted, we decided it was best to give the information to them - for a price of course!
How much would they pay, a hundred large, a million, ten?
The info was invaluable to them, but we decided to not push it too far, a cool million then.
Bill was better at negotiating this sort of thing than anyone else. He made a couple of vid-calls and managed to wake up a mid-level Chou-Nata exec.
Bill explained to the suit that we had information, data that would be worth a lot to Chou-Nata. The suit - who was actually in his posh silk, red and silver Eilbon designer pyjamas seemed interested, but needed more.
We sent him the first part of the Protobase Global docs, just the bit that contained a business proposal for taking over Chou-Nata.
He liked the taster and wanted the full meal-deal. Bill told that there would be a fee for transferring all the files.
"How much," the suit asked?
"Glad you asked," said Bill.
Turns out a shark in silk pyjamas is still a shark, he offered half-a-mill. Bill tried pushing him further, but the suit had gotten the measure of us and wouldn't budge.
So we settled for half-mill, it was still a damned good score for the night.
We transferred the files to him and he transferred the money to an account for us. Job done.
Throughout the negotiations Trigger had been getting jumpy and impatient, jittery and jumpy. He had to bite his tongue to keep quiet. I knew that sometime in the morning he'd rubbed more of the White Lotus liniment into his skin and that had seemed to settle him down.
I guess it must have worn off, things weren't looking sunny for Trigger right now. We needed to look into this.
Speaking of sunny, the rain was beginning to let up, the inky-black sky had become burnt orange, soon it be yellow and by the time we reached the park in Dogenzaka Hill it had changed to blue.
These next couple of hours would be the quietest and coolest of the day.
The little green park was empty except for those Buddhist monk types close to the shrine. As we got closer they recognised Trigger, smiled and presented us with a small phone - a burner, we took it and left.
We had to get the down-low on these Buddhists. Turns out that they weren't Buddhists, but another street gang; the Shaolin Rippers, obsessed with king fu and implanted animal-themed blades and claws, the Shaolin Rippers were said to peddle - and use White Lotus Liniment to fund their cybernetic - and chemical addictions.
Now it seemed they had their claws in Trigger, this burner could be bad news. We told Trigger he might have to go cold turkey.
He played it cool, shrugged nonchalantly and said, "I could quit it any time I want. NOW GIVE ME THAT PHONE!".
It just got worse and worse. Trigger rang the number stored on the burner and reached a recorded message. It gave him a seven-digit release code and the address of deposit box in the Sunshine Metro subway station on Dogenzaka Hill.
In the short walk to the station, we could feel the morning begin to heat up, soon rush hour would start and the streets would fill with surly commuters, contemplating their soulless jobs as the journeyed to work.
The deposit box was easy to find, Trigger punched in the code and the door swung open. Inside was an old style hardcopy photograph, Trigger pulled it out and behind it was a .38 Weimshou Holdout, a small easily concealed pistol only really any good when up close and personal.
Trigger flipped the photo.
A name, an address and a gun. It was pretty clear what Shaolin Rippers wanted. As I said, things weren't looking sunny for Trigger.
This was a problem for another day though, it was the end of long night and time for some shut-eye.
Later in the day, a delivery message pinged Koko's media-slug. She went to her local delivery storage pod and picked up a package.
Inside was a note, a couple of model trains and a data-slug.
The package and the note were from Silai Granskina.
It thanked us for saving his wife, Bina. She had been among the prisoners we had released from the cells and she now was home safely. The note also said that he had called in some favours to get a full topographical readout of the Sewage Facility which was stored on the data-slug.
We had a map of the sewers!
Even later in the day, news providers began pumping out a hot news story: An unexplained explosion had entirely demolished a part of Robot Factory, no one appeared to be injured, production would not be significantly impacted, only a small part of the plant had been flattened...
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.