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