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.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.