9th January 2021
Saturday evening is here, I'm logged onto Skype on my laptop and sitting in the living room.
Time for the next session of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: 99th Street.
Midnight was fast approaching and rain was falling.
On 99th that meant very little, night was kept at bay by two kilometres of flashing, garishly-coloured neon and watery pale street lights. Herds of chrome-tipped umbrellas created an almost street wide shield from the never ending deluge.
99th Street never slowed down, of all Neon City, 99th slept the least. It fed the city's insatiable hunger for sleazy entertainment. Gambling, gaming, drinking, wining and dining, nightclubbing, hooking up, street fighting and of course more than anything else.... karaoke.
A few hours ago, Binary Johnny had pinged us about a gig and now we were on course for another little incursion into The Benten Tower. We met up with Johnny at the edge of 99th's panoply of light, noise and bustle, he was waiting for us in his familiar flying cap and goggles.
Since our last visit, tower security had tightened, smashing through a window wasn't an option any more.
More cameras, more rentaguard and now camera-drones, a murmurating flock of them watching, orbiting and wheeling round the tower.
Watching the tower, we discussed our approach, there was no route into the Protobase Global stronghold.
"Strictly speaking," Johnny explained. "It's Oshin Amalgamated we're doing a run on.".
We had seen the Oshin office on the forty-third floor with its model of a flooded Neon City. Maybe there was a soft approach we could follow?
The only Oshin employee we had sort of encountered was Vissi Goneva, a low-level exec at their London branch. His ex-wife, Xue Mi-Wu lived in Neon City, maybe she could give us an in on Vissi.
Xue lived above her authentic old-style window fronted small store in Dogenzaka Hill, we took a ride over.
Nearly one in the morning and Xue's Antiques was closed, the window only showed empty green velvet covered shelves. Wasn't much call for family run antique stores at this time - even in Neon City.
Fluorescents flickered into life in a window above the store after we'd rattled the front door with our knocking. More fluorescents, then a minute later the door opened.
Xue was surprised but not unhappy to see us, although she didn't know Johnny, we were invited inside, she gave us tea, rice and dumplings while we explained our situation.
While we took advantage of this home-cooked midnight feast, Xue went up into her attic and returned with a cardboard box filled with stuff Vissi had left behind after the break-up.
Johnny grabbed the box and began rummaging, hoping to find a nugget of gold in a trove of junk, after digging for a minute he pulled out a keycard. He turned it over in his fingers, it clearly displayed the Oshin Amalgamated penguin on one side.
"This could be it," He stated, slowly nodding his head.
We thanked Xue and headed off, Johnny explained that it was likely that the keycard had expired but if he was able to reverse-engineer the card's key code he might able to unlock the source encryption algorithm on the Protobase Global servers. Then he could simply generate a new key code and get what he needed remotely.
For this, Johnny would need to set up somewhere and network a card reader with his slab. He fancied going to Let's Bet, You Betcha!, it was a joint we all knew and was in the neighbourhood.
A short, brisk walk through the still-busy, rain-filled hazy night took us to Let's Bet, You Betcha!, the slightly run-down gambling den was still as low-cost, grimy and unkempt as ever. Filled with the cheapest, plainest, wipe clean plastic tables and chairs, it was stacked with gamblers engrossed by desk-terminals. At one-thirty in the morning these were the kind of gamblers banking on that one big score to set things right.
The staff smiled at us weakly as we strolled in. The last visit hadn't gone so well for the place; there was a new door now and the tacky furniture had been fixed or replaced but the filler put into the bullet holes hadn't quite colour-matched with the dirty beige colour of the cheap paint used to decorate the room.
We put ourselves down at a corner table and Johnny had jacked in, his vacant, slouched form a sign he had got to work. Koko had Kevin running scans on a patrol pattern outside and beneath the worktop, I was gently thumbing the safeties on my .45 ACPs.
It didn't take Kevin long to get a proximity hit, we watched on Koko's control-slab as four massive individuals, at least two metres tall and wearing matching khaki brown trench coats that did nothing to conceal suspicious bulges approached, materializing out of a veil of murky rainfall and heading straight for us!
Johnny was definitely pulling heat.
Patrons started yelling and stampeding for the back door as soon as we had gotten to our feet, gripping our weapons!
With a brutal snap, Let's Bet, You Betcha!'s new front door split apart, almost hanging in the air momentarily before fragments and splinters of cheap wood were flung across the room as the attackers stormed in.
A tearing sound followed as trench coats were ripped apart by unfolding armoured combat-appendages that bristled with weaponry. That was the least of it, with the trench coats gone, we could see cyborg limbs and reinforced joints, the enhanced reflexes and augmented senses as well as the dermal armour.
We recognised the work, they were Protobase Global cyber-zombies, each one brought four weapons to bear.
The firefight was short and savage, the air was filled with spent cartridges, the deafening roar of exchanged gunfire and the flash of Trigger's katana.
Before long the cyborgs had been destroyed and a empty silence then settled on the gambling den. A new swathe of bullet holes now riddled the walls and most of the furniture had been destroyed by indiscriminate cyborg fire.
It took Johnny a couple of more minutes to finish the hack, he jacked out and we left, crunching over the wrecked tables and chairs as we made our hasty exit into Neon City's drenched night.
After we got a good distance we ducked out of the rain into brightly lit little cafe.
Over some drinks Johnny explained what he had found.
The bay had been cut off from the sea for the last sixty years, now Oshin were planning to artificially raise the water level. This would be done by using nuclear radiators to expand the volume of water in the bay, flooding the waterfront with contaminants. All from a facility on Diver City Island,
The clean up and reconstruction would be a massive undertaking. Oshin had prepared to underbid any competitors in order to score those lucrative contracts.
Finally, Johnny told us that Oshin had begun a campaign to initiate widespread surveillance through bugging.
They had manufactured a large amounting of merchandising in form of cute plushies which they gave away as free promotional materials. Each plushy however, was filled with an array of micro-sized bugs that monitored whatever room they were placed in.
Our glances all turned towards Koko, who swore quietly under her breath.
After that we split and went our separate ways. It was past three by the time I rolled into my apartment and gone four by the time I crawled on to my futon.
Midday heat was baking into my apartment, I hadn't slept for the last couple of hours, instead I'd been sprawled motionless on my futon. Lacking any enthusiasm I was laid back, watching diffused sunlight glimmer across the ceiling and listening to Neon City. Listening to muffled arguments, or the scraping and banging of furniture, or that damned distorted music playing with its bass heavy beats. Listening to the distant rumble of an elevated road or the discordant voices on the street below.
The next noise I heard was the ping on my media-slab, Koko had picked up a job.
Someone called Xylona Alder was looking to hire us, no details on the gig though. We tried the return number; no answer.
Tracking her on MyFaceSpace was easy enough, she worked for Creative Cuddles, a toy manufacturer based in Highway Zero that made bespoke augmented Artificial Intelligence driven babysitting toys for children. According to her profile, she worked as a poetry algorithm programmer.
Wage-monkeys normally finished work at around six, so that's when we called again. This time we got an answer; Xylona told us that Toby had been kidnapped and she was had received a ransom note, it was instructing her to kill someone. We agreed to meet at the park in Dogenzaka Hill.
Making our way through the rare greenery, we watched our distorted, lengthened shadows dancing strangely as they stretched over one of the city's few open spaces. The temperature had dropped to nearly tolerable levels and sun had been reduced to a bright reddish smudge behind Neon City's western skyline, above us crimson tinged heavy clouds offered us the promise of rain.
Xylona Alder was a youngish, blonde haired woman, unusually she wore steel-rimmed glasses and had something of the nerd about her, exacerbated by last season's well cut but now deeply unfashionable navy blue Ovnaso trouser-suit and pale, light-green shirt combination she wore underneath a beige polyester jacket branded with the Creative Cuddles logo. Sitting on a bench, she also seemed clueless and had failed to notice our approach.
The day's dying light lit her surprised face in orange as we introduced ourselves.
She went on to tell us her predicament. The ransom note had told her if she wanted to see Toby again, she was to use the accompanying brainchip, it was an unassuming fingernail-sized square of cream coloured plastic. When pressed against someone's skin it released a nanoscopically tiny mote of nanite material that burrowed into the users head and spliced itself into the brain's synaptic pathways.
A brainchip provides the user with whatever skill or knowledge it was programmed with.
In Xylona's case, she discovered the brainchip had granted her the ability to construct tiny transmitters.
The brainchip also contained instructions ordering her to build a transmitter and place it inside a particular Creative Cuddles toy; a Pongo the Poetic Panda toy in this case.
The transmitter would be used to guide a missile strike on to that location.
Additionally, this was all on a strict timetable, it had to be done before the brainchip deactivated itself in seventy two hours.
Xylona had never expected that she would have to kill someone, she couldn't go ahead with it but she also wanted Toby returned.
That's where we came in. Kill the target and have Toby returned or rescue Toby, Xylona didn't care which as long asq we got Toby back.
Xylona did not know the target's identity, she only had the serial number for the toy she was meant to put the transmitter into. We decided to check who the target was.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, travelling the constantly morphing information landscape, navigating the relentless myriad flows of data-packages until I found the Creative Cuddles GLOWNET image, a colossal teddy-bear-like construct with fur composed of a million strands of multi-coloured glowing filaments.
The bear sat there with wide eyes and a too-wide grin on it's face, its posture suggested it wanted to hug someone. and its massive head would turn to in the direction of any bio-presence it could detect and laugh in a cheerful-but-creepy way.
My date-weaponry had no trouble puncturing Creative Cuddle's defence armour. I was soon looking through its customer and manufacturing records. The serial number provided by Xylona was for a typically customised toy from the Pongo the Poetic Panda line. It was linked to customer order from a Jovena Kantos, the invoice stated the order was for her daughter Raven.
A MyFaceSpace search showed Jovena worked for Margorba-Golina Global.
We definitely couldn't allow a missile strike on Jovena and her daughter.
Instead we asked Xylona about a description of Toby, he was about fifty centimetres tall, four years old wand identified with his white and chocolate coloured fur: Toby was an uplifted beagle!
We started with Toby, did he have a GPS tracker?
"Toby's collar had one," Xylona said. "But the kidnappers left it behind,".
That was a dead end.
Xylona lived in The Skyscraper District, a grey bamboo forest of vast concrete and glass towers soaring upwards, they were home to many of Neon City's workers and low-level professionals.
The Skyscraper district was a carefully designated segment of the city's hierarchy and designed to fill a specific role. Apartments here were lacking when compared to Rokkaku-Dai Heights, but not so basic and cramped as the social housing in Dogenzaka Hill.
A reason to work hard and get out of doldrums, or so Neon City's planners had thought. In reality, The Skyscraper District was almost as dismal as Hikage Street. It lacked the gangers, transients, graffiti and disaffected youth of Hikage but look hard enough and the accumulated detritus, grime and decay could be seen.
The camera feeds on Xylona's block were easily found and traced, no surprise; the server security was a joke. Jacked into the GLOWNET, I unravelled their system defences like a badly wrapped cheap birthday present, free then to roam the stored data.
Sifting through the low-res footage on the day Toby went missing I saw there was a lot of foot traffic in and out of the tower. However, in the GLOWNET I could at once comprehend hundreds of thousands of frames from the video-footage, filling my consciousness with an endless wall of frozen time as the data-slab ran its algorithmic protocols.
There was no direct footage of Xylona's apartment but the algorithm had identified a discrepancy that might be a lead. Two unidentifiable individuals had walked into the block with an empty Pohaden branded sports holdall, when they came out a few minutes later, the holdall was bulging.
It was about the same size as a beagle.
Fortunately one of the two wore a distinct and tacky purple and white Sport Lyafibya tracksuit. We could easily track it when we switched to other cameras. The two individuals led us to another skyscraper in the district and then to the sixty-second floor. As with Xylona's block, there were no direct camera feeds watching the apartments here, we were on our own now.
There were precisely one-hundred-and-sixty-one apartments on the sixty-second floor. Searching them would've been a big task, however with his thermal optics, Trigger managed to narrow it down. Only one apartment had a heat signature for what might be a small dog.
Koko sent in Kevin to scout the apartment out and it looked like we had found Toby, otherwise it was empty - we were in luck.
Getting through the front door was not a problem.
Inside was a fairly plain apartment, it felt quiet and lived-in. Dusty old light fittings hung from the walls and the wallpaper looked somehow drained of colour. The carpet was faded and in parts threadbare, in the living room the furniture had seen better days and light-damaged old photographs sat on shelves. In many of the photos we saw a man in the grey and black PGDF uniform. An ancient Iksaarp room-slab sat against one wall.
The living room is where we found Toby, he greeted us but seemed surprised and a little confused.
Toby refused to leave with us when we told him we were here to rescue him.
"The man told me he would kill Xylona if I leave and I can't allow that," Toby explained.
"He isn't here right now, he went shopping," Toby added.
We could have simply taken Toby and left, instead we decided to wait for the man.
In the meantime we had a quick search. There were drawers stuffed with correspondence, paper documentation and even handwritten letters, much of it browning in the corners with age, it wasn't something you saw often today. We skimmed the paperwork; Ikan Ichin was his name and he had seen military service as a munitions technician, now ten years retired. Much of his communication had been with Tatsuya Nikon, his sister - now deceased. Ikan did not appear to have any other family.
There wasn't much of a wait before we heard the door swing open with paced precise footsteps entering. They went into the kitchen where something was placed on a worktop. Footsteps then came to and stopped at the living room.
In the door was an unremarkable senior citizen dressed in a old brown and grey suit, his age-lined face slack with shock.
"Sit down," went the order.
His eyes scanned the room, he was calculating. Four of us, one of him. The maths was simple so he sat down.
We told him who were were, who we represented and what we knew.
He seemed both deflated and angry by the time we finished our piece.
"You might as well kill me now," Ikan blurted, flinging his arms into the air with obvious exasperation.
It wasn't the response we expected, there had to be something behind it.
Ikan became subdued, slouching in the chair when we explained that the gig was up, we pressed him for the truth and he relented.
For years he had watched as Tatsuya - his sister suffered: She had found herself hooked on pain killers and to try and kick the habit she had taken out a Pharmaceutical Protection Plan with Margorba-Golina Global. They promised that it would help her get out of this abusive spiral.
Of course Margorba-Golina Global were the biggest pushers of all.
As the years passed, he had watched as the yellow heroin had drained her life and the protection plan had drained her finances.
In her dying days, she had to move in with Ikan, a husk of a person with nothing left - except her three hits a day.
After she died, Ikan vowed that he would make Margorba-Golina Global pay.
From the peripheral of my vision, I could see Trigger shifting his weight several times.
Ikan continued; when he had seen Xylona wearing her Creative Cuddles branded jacket and walking Toby, he had gotten the idea to use a missile strike against a Margorba-Golina Global exec, after all, Ikan explained, he was an expert in explosives.
There was no reason he had chosen Jovena Kantos, she had made an order when he had searched, wrong place at the wrong time.
"Why didn't you just do a suicide bomb attack," Koko asked?
"Now that's a good idea," Ikan cried, perking up in his chair!
Koko tried not to squirm under the withering glances the rest of us sent her way.
We were in a quandary now. Toby was safe and Xylona was off the hook but Ikan was the problem. He wasn't going to stop gunning for Margorba-Golina Global, nothing was going to convince him otherwise. Only offing him would do it.
If we left him to his own devices, someone was going to die.
On the other hand, who were we to deny him revenge? Margorba-Golina Global were just another stinking, faceless, uncaring exploitive multinational, only one with a supposedly legit way to drag people down when they were most vulnerable.
In the end, before we left, we told Ikan that we weren't going to stop him doing anything but Margorba-Golina Global were going to be warned that he was coming for them.
Ikan seemed satisfied, so we made our way out.
It left a bad taste in my mouth, but we used a burner-phone to make the call to Margorba-Golina Global.
By the time we were back out on the street, dense sheets of rain were coming down with an almost deafening strength, so hard it threw up a grimy spray. In the rippling puddles, we could see skyscraper lights descending into the bowels of infinity.
It was a short march through the misty night to Xylona's apartment, both Toby and her were thankful for his return.
Perhaps an hour later we got the message from Lachlan/Bruno, yesterday Adil Buckova had booked a Joi Boi for today and Lachlan had volunteered.
Adil would be coming to the Yellow Cap car park for the pick up. That's where we'd make our move on him there.
We met up with Lachlan in Highway Zero out at the car park.
We could feel a slight vibration through the soles of our boots, the ground-drones on The Highway never stopped coming past and never slowed down, the fast passing traffic blurred into one long streak of smeared shapeless colour. There was deep rumble was a constant low background whine that came from The Highway and subtly drilled into the skull.
After discussing matters with Lachlan, we came up with a simple plan to catch Adil.
At the agreed time, Adil's massive Aladrau motorhome came rolling into the car park and Bruno Sweetbriar in his trendy outfit and well oiled body was there to meet him, the rest of us were close by, waiting to pounce.
The motorhome's air brakes hissed sharply as it came to a squealing stop, Adil opened the driver's cabin side-window and waved a yellow cap out of it at Lachlan. Lachlan in turn, with deliberate slowness walked towards the motorhome, we sprang into action.
Trigger ran out and stood in front of the towering motorhome. The Aladrau model's auto-drive had a safety protocol that would prevent it from running Trigger over - unless Adil had somehow reprogrammed or bypassed it. At the same time Bill ran and stood at the rear of the motorhome.
Then I ran for the door.
I reached it before Lachlan did, hopefully Adil had left it unlocked to allow Lachlan entry. Gripping one my .45's I tugged the door, it was open! I lunged about and made straight for the cabin.
Adil Buckova was a skinny oldish-looking man casually dressed in jeans and shirt, even if he had wanted to try and escape, he looked too shocked to react when I appeared brandishing a pistol at him.
With Adil secured, I told the others to come aboard.
The first thing I noticed was a sort of plastic-like smell to the motorhome, it's door seemed to lead into a kitchen area that ran to the cabin at the front. Lit with dim fluorescents, it was plain and functional, containing a series of flat beige plastic panels that were stowage points or unfolded to become worktops or reveal cubby holes, shelves as well as hidden kitchen appliances.
Further towards the back we could see into some sort of living room with a pair of integrated modular vinyl-trimmed foam seating benches and adjustable plastic tables along the sides. A cheap Sulgeon wall-slab was screwed into a wall and even more stowage points were here. A door led further back into the motorhome.
"What happened to the other Joi Bois," we demanded of Adil?
Adil looked nervously at us and said that other than the hook up, nothing happened, he would drop them off here again. He looked worried and briefly glanced into the living room.
Trigger immediately picked up on it and flicked on his thermal optics, he picked up two human heat sources, accomplices for whatever Adil was doing? Adil continued denying having anything to do with the disappearances as Trigger rushed through the living room and opened the door.
Trigger was stopped in his tracks.
He was in the motorhome's bedroom, thick red carpeting covered the floor and red silk sheets were draped over a double bed. However what Trigger found himself staring at were two naked men! They were tied to the bed and gagged, they also showed signs of serious injury, likely from torture. It was a hellish scene.
Trigger called back loudly and Lachlan came running, he identified them as two of the missing Joi Bois.
As our attention was drawn to the discovery at the rear of the motorhome, Adil took the opportunity to desperately lunge for the door. It wasn't fast enough, despite the distraction, I'd never taken taken a hand off the metallic grip of my stun-baton. One jab and Adil gave a short grunt before his momentum caused him to faceplant into a heap.
Med-tech was not a strong suite for any of us and Lachlan's colleagues were in a bad way.
Adil's motorhome was locked to his bio-signature, even punching an medical emergency request into it's dash-slab made no difference. I dragged the unconscious Adil back into cabin and pressed his thumb against a bio-reader and the cabin's dashboard lit up with a short distinct chime, the glowing light blue instrumentation provided real-time vehicle diagnostics as well as weather and traffic reports.
Next, the emergency mode was activated and the Aladrau's auto-drive came to life and took over, it was out of our hands now. The dash-slab immediately mapped the quickest course to a critical care centre and with a lurch, the motorhome accelerated out of the car park towards its destination. It then messaged the care centre and gave the staff our estimated time of arrival and instructed them when to have a trauma team waiting for us.
Auto-drive took the motorhome on to the congested elevated road network, quickly reaching top speed, threading the eye of the needle as it weaved its immense bulk between lanes of endlessly stretching vehicles, all the time constantly calculating the balance between speed with risk.
During the journey we discussed what to do with Adil? We told Lachlan and the two survivors that the decision was up to them. Lachlan was just glad they were alive and the other two didn't care what happened to Adil
Soon enough we arrived at dropping-off point at the front of a grey workmanlike looking medical facility and handed them over to the waiting med-team, Lachlan accompanied them.
We put the motorhome into it's programmed orbital route and let auto-drive do it's thing.
We dragged Adil into the bedroom and roused him, he looked from person to person and realisation came to him that he been caught dead-to-rights. It was like a switch had been flicked in his brain, no longer did he have to hide., finally he had the audience he so richly deserved and began belligerently boasting.
Adil eagerly admitted to torturing and murdering the other missing Joi Bois. He told us how he had watched them, watched how they thought they were so superior to him, so much better than he was. He had taught them though and in the end shown them who he truly was.
Once Adil's tirade had ended, we asked him what he had done with the other victim's? Adil told us that his motorhome's auto-drive orbital route would take it over the bay, that's when he dumped the bodies.
When the motorhome was in transit. a security protocol prevented any door from being opened. We searched it and found a hidden hatchway that Adil had added to the motorhome.
The next time that the motorhome went over the bay, we pushed Adil out of the hatch and watched as his flailing, spinning form shrank away, descending towards the water. If he survived the impact, maybe he could swim to shore.
It was a better chance than he ever gave his victims.
Now that we had the motorhome, we took it to Alex Chinsko and he reset the bio-lock to recognise Koko and Trigger.
We left it registered to Adil Buckova, it might be useful having an off-the-grid mobile base as a back up.
Later, news came down the GLOWNET newsfeeds that an explosion had occurred at the Margorba-Golina Global headquarters in Shibuya Terminal due to a technical error.
It was reported as an accident and there were no casualties other than the unidentified man who was at the centre of the blast. It was ruled as accidental death.
I guess that Ikan had made his choice.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.