30th January 2021
Saturday evening is here again and I'm logged on to Meet on my PC in the living room.
It's time for session 10 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Highway Zero.
Midnight had come; Neon City was dematerialising into night's distant blur, consumed by the hazy spray of violently crashing rainfall.
It felt a strangely secluded march through the downpour, collars up and heads down. Navigating the endless crush of pedestrians and ever increasing puddles.
The Ferry Terminal was at the far eastern end of Highway Zero and Binary Johnny was waiting there for us.
He was making another covert run into Oshin Amalgamated territory to sabotage some excavator robots and foil their plan to flood part of Neon City. We'd worked with Johnny before and he wanted us to back him up as muscle.
The terminal stood apart from the urbanised glut that ruled much of Neon City, it was a matter of necessity since the structure straddled the lip of the waterfront.
A three storey high setback with a steel girder skeleton under a skin of polymer walls and doors, windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. The terminal's harsh white lighting blazed out into the rainy night like an artificially lit greenhouse.
Inside were several rooms linked by short corridors, a safety-glass fronted ticket office, a steamy concession cubicle selling coffee and snacks and waiting rooms where the subdued murmur of hushed talk hung in the air.
People stood or sat, most waiting to catch the ferry, some to escape the rain. The over-bright strip lighting highlighted the peeling beige paint and worn grey flooring, lines of chocolate brown curving plastic seats were bolted to the floor along the walls.
On the far side of the terminal, nearest to the bay exit was Johnny, he was sitting and staring out through the huge windows.
At night the bay was an vast, unlit and impenetrable inky body of fluid, only discernible thanks to the reflected city lights that bobbed along on undulating waters.
The exit went to a covered walkway that led to the plain concrete wharf that served the ferry service. We exchanged pleasantries with Johnny, there was still a little time to wait.
The service was the only way to reach Diver City Island and it was the only reason the ferries still existed.
They were a trio of old Ysekoe electrically powered, moderately sized, steel tubs fitted exclusively for passengers. We watched as one of the them sailed in and docked at the wharf, in the rain and under the weak spotlights it looked particularly dingy. Its once crisp white and blue livery had faded, dulled now, by time, layers of grime and stained with long smears of rust dripped from the bolts that held the ferry's steel plating together.
Even this late at night there was a demand for the ferry, a few minutes later and we were among the passengers had streamed aboard, then the ferry was underway Diver City Island.
A lump of rock located at the eastern side of the bay and mostly known for housing the Diver City Neon Plaza, yet another of Neon City's vast and excessive shopping malls that lured in consumers from across all the districts.
An ad blurb famously pronounced that Diver City Island had a zero crime rate due to the diligence of the Diver City Zaibatsu, an elite all volunteer police force. Of course we knew that was rubbish, because no one was stopping us from going there!
Other than the mall, there were only two other features of note on the island.
The Last Guardian. a giant mech-like robot construct that stood a motionless watchful guard over the island and the Oshin Amalgamated Saline Plant, ostensibly an ecological reclamation centre. We knew better though.
That's why it was the Saline plant that we were interested in, specifically the Robot Maintenance Facility.
Our arrival at Diver City Island was without event, we disembarked and waited. All the other passengers were of course making the short walk to the mall, a rising monolithic shape underlit by a hundred spotlights and blazing multi-coloured neon signs, silhouetted against Neon City's light polluted blood orange-red skyline.
Once the crowd had thinned out, we skirted the enormous building, heading west towards our target.
From a vantage point we had found and through the late night deluge, we could observe the plant.
Work on the Saline Plant was clearly in the early stages, an open and largely flat, earthen construction zone, dotted with several clusters of small prefabricated portable offices, sandy mounds, piles of building materials and work machinery, surrounded by a four metre high razor wire-topped wall that ran the entire perimeter.
Towards the centre was a large hangar-like building. This was where we'd find the excavator robots informed Johnny.
We continued casing the site: Euyrailad motion detectors were present, searchlights, alarms as well. There were roving gun drones and uniformed rentaguards patrolling with dogs.
As the patrols and drones went round, we saw that they weren't triggering any alarms, the on-site security system must have somehow tagged them as friendlies. Possibly they were carrying actual tags?
I jacked into the GLOWNET. The mundane blandness of the construction site was wiped from my brain. replaced by metamorphosing digital geometry decorated in vivid mainlined colours.
The construction site had a small data-vault, its image; a hexagonal pyramid branded with the Oshin Amalgamated penguin logo and colours.
An almost invisible data-flow bled out from the vault and disappeared into the pulsating horizon, impossible to spot unless you know what you're looking for. No doubt it connected to a main Oshin server-vault.
Oshin weren't expecting trouble here, getting through the security was easy.
There wasn't any data to speak of here, just a stack of protocols.
I checked them out, they were here to manage the security systems, it was the soft spot we were looking for, our way in.
I went further into the system and found what I was looking for, a fairly simple set of protocols managing the motion detectors.
If the motion detectors picked up anything that it was not recognised by its system, a response protocol was instructed immediately trigger the alarm protocols, which in turn would set off a series of alerts and alarms, both locally and off-site.
I got into the response protocol code and simply deactivated the instruction to trigger alarms. From a one to a zero.
This meant if and when the motion detectors spotted us, they would do nothing about it.
This just left the guards, dogs and spotlights to avoid.
Timing it carefully, Trigger picked his moment to climbed the chain link fence and at the top cut a length of the razor-wiring away, his Ashirada arm augmentation made it easy. After this we all managed to clamber over the wall.
Kicking up dirt, we ran for cover. Inside the walls much of the ground was open and sweeping searchlights were a risk, as were roaming patrols.
Patiently we went from cover to cover until we reached a side door in the hangar. It towered over us, we hadn't appreciated its size at a distance.
Inside the space felt vast, the furthest reaches swallowed by darkness.
Industrial sized pendant lights hung from exposed rafters and dim spots of weak light draped over rows of gigantic construction robots.
Still by the entrance, Johnny pointed at one robot in particular.
It was a Paakutoda class Nasuran Industries construction robot. It resembled a giant armoured, dull-steel coloured octopus, seventeen metres across and high. Covered in an array of sensors and equipped with segmented robotic tentacles that provided underwater motion, incredibly strong but equally precise in their movements and actions.
As we quietly moved, the Paakutoda's motors growled and it rotated it's position a few degrees, thumping loudly as it settled again.
"It's been locked into guard mode," whispered Johnny. "Without the remote access controls, the only way to disarm it is to get into the cabin near the top."
Captain Noodles volunteered to do this, he was small, fast and might avoid detection. He lithely jumped and soundlessly ran his way to the cabin without triggering a response. His paws however, couldn't get at the cabin's lock. Denied, he came back down dejectedly.
Koko knew locks better than any of us and her Ashirada implants allowed her to easily scale the interior wall. Koko then cautious shuffled along a rafter and lowered herself by rope on to the robot and began working on the lock.
A couple of minutes later, we heard her cursing under her breath over comms, she couldn't open the locks.
By now Trigger had had enough.
"Distract the robot," he said over comms.
Koko had pulled herself back up to the rafter, so she made some noise. The robot rotated again, stopping and starting several times in quick succession, unable to triangulate Koko's position directly above.
Trigger sprinted, bound up the robots central body and arriving at the cabin. With a thrust of his street-katana and a hefty pull, he jimmied the lock, springing it open. The internal sensors detected Trigger when he jumped into the pilot's seat and the robot powered down.
We were in.
I scrambled up to the cab and with my slab and jacked in. My vision blurred for a moment as I acclimatised to the system. Unlike the GLOWNET, this was a simple static code structure, I instinctively flicked through files like flicking through pages of an old style glossy paper catalogue and eventually accessed the lowest code level, the closest to the metal.
Then I fed it a Trojan, a little discrete slice of code disguised as an instruction interpreter that gave us full remote access to the octopus.
It was time to leave, we exited the hangar, avoided the patrol patterns and circling spotlights. Returned to our insertion point and then, out!
Outside of the saline plant, Johnny was free to push his sabotage virus on to the Paakutoda in safety. At some point the virus would exploit the robot's networking function to spread to the other robots and hit them all.
Hopefully, even when they cleared the virus out, they wouldn't catch the Trojan and Johnny could simply push the next iteration of the virus back on to the Paakutoda.
It was time to get back to the ferry, heavy rain was pelting , drenching us in darkness. Ahead was the shoreline, we followed the wharf lights as they danced madly through the curtain of falling raindrops
It was still a couple of hours until dawn when our return ferry docked with a shunt at Highway Zero. The rain hadn't let up and neither had Neon City's unsleeping population.
We were about to make our way back towards the tramline when Captain Noodles picked up something, his curious nature had made him stretch and sniff the air then stalk off?
We followed and he led us a fishmongers on the eastern edge of Highway Zero, close to the bay.
Fish were one one the few truly fresh foods that could be acquired easily in Neon City. The advantage of a major conurbation that sprawled on to the edge of coastal waters. Although, it being the Neon City Bay, it didn't pay to look too closely at the catch of the day.
A small crowd had gathered, drawn by the commotion. Phineous Phish was a fishmonger's shop right in the middle of a row of independent retailer units, it's logo read The Phreshest Phish You Can Phind!
Agonising alliteration aside; it had a fairly old fashioned, almost quaint frontage of brick and painted replica wood, with a large shop window that displayed white boxes filled with fish sitting on blankets of ice.
Inside was a glass counter displaying more fish.
Outside though, was a middle-aged man, presumably the proprietor and dressed in an Phineous Phish apron, he was waving his arms and shouting angrily about thieves, he was also covered in what we surmised were fish guts that had been dunked in some sort of slime?
Bill managed to calm him down, he was Phineous, the shop owner. He told Bill about the penguins!
Four penguins had come into his shop, the largest had distracted him by regurgitating on him! Meanwhile the other three had stolen fish, the four of them had then fled.
It had all happened a few minutes ago.
We didn't know anything about penguins but were pretty sure that their usual behaviour didn't involve thievery.
They must have been uplifted penguins, genetically altered and bio-enhanced to increase cognitive function, physical application and communication ability.
Even amongst the early-morning suited wage monkeys, late-night gangers, all-day street walkers and stoned revellers on the overcrowded streets of Neon City, penguins would be easy to track.
Hacking various security cameras showed four penguins waddling their way to the tram line. Footage showed that they swiped in with their Ostrea Transit Cards and then take the tram for Sky Dinosaurian Square, we knew that was where the tramline terminated. The only way out of there was Sunshine Metro or a sky-taxi.
I had hacked the transit system so many times I practically had my own login. Accessing their system was easy now and I looked for travel data on the four penguins, there were too many cards swiping into the system simultaneously to narrow it down.
Sky Dinosaurian Square was our next destination.
It was still an hour before dawn and sheets of rain kept on noisy pouring on the packed tram as it rumbled its way into the centre of Sky Dinosaurian Square.
A sprawling dinosaur-themed amusement park that dominated the district, Sky Dinosaurian Square was the biggest tourist and consumer pull in Neon City after Ninety Ninth Street and it's distractions, hospitalities and attractions were more family friendly.
Getting off the tram, we found ourselves in an open puddle filled circular paved area lit by floodlights.
Nauseatingly cheery music looped out of streets speakers and a colourful LED sign announced: Dinosaur Square.
Stalls and stands decorated in primary colours and selling sugary drinks, candy floss, ice cream, souvenirs, tourist tat and more lined the square.
Even at this time, people would be dragging their children here, crowds and the queues as heavy as any time.
Staff in dinosaur costumes patrolled the square, protected from spiteful, screaming sugar-fuelled children by rentaguard.
In the night sky flew autonomous anamorphic pterodactyls, screeching their digital screeches as they swooped over the square, dipping in and out of the light.
To the east against the faintest streaks of dawn light we could see a small silhouetted train speedily twisting and undulating its way along the still-lit skeletal shape of an enormous roller-coaster.
Unless the penguins had taken the Sunshine Metro, they had to be somewhere here?
Koko sent Kevin up to do a high altitude sweep and she found something.
To the south east were some ponds.
The ponds were a series of sealed and self-contained ecological water habitats. When the amusement park had received approval, it had stipulated that a percentage of the park had to be given over to educational attractions. The ponds were that percentage.
The crowds thinned out considerably as we got closer to the ponds, no one came to a place called Sky Dinosaurian Square for the ponds.
We watched for a while, until we spotted penguins!
When asked, the staff told us that they thought it was some sort of public relations stunt?
Once the staff had gone about their business, we went down to the ponds, their rocky banks turned out to fabricated from durable grey polymer. The penguins were there, eating fish, caught red-handed so to speak.
We spoke with the penguins, it was hard to tell but they seemed happy to talk with us.
Up until recently they had been employed in Rokkaku Expo Stadium at the Sea Life Attraction but events had taken a turn for the worse.
They had recently been laid off and to compound matters, because they were not classified as human, they did not qualify for Universal Credit.
Theft was only way to get food.
Koko piped up with a suggestion, perhaps they could work as brand ambassadors for the transport authority?
They seemed amenable to the suggestion and we knew someone who might be able to help: Silai Granskina, we were tight with him so we contacted him and put him in contact with the penguins.
By now the rain had stopped and a band of rosy colour was seeping into the cloudless eastern sky. Soon, along with the sun, the temperature would begin to soar.
It had been a long day, soon we would be hitting a straight twenty four hours awake, so we headed home, I could hear the raspy buzz of fatigue in my ears.
I was knocking down twice the recommended Toaizou painkillers; lunchtime had come too soon and sleep had been too short. There was a sharp stinging sensation in my ocular implants and the edge needed to be taken off.
Five minutes ago we'd been pinged on a call from Antin Grova, the up-and-coming urban sculptor who lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
He needed our help. More precisely he told us; a customer or associate of his did.
The son of this associate had gone missing, Antin described him as simple and was concerned about his wellbeing. He would pay us for our trouble since it was unlikely that the young man's mother could afford it.
We took the job, Antin gave us contact details for Martha Woldt, the boy's mother - she also lived in The Heights.
We arrived at her apartment block without much delay, the plain interior providing a cool respite from the heat outside.
Martha Woldt was middle-aged and fairly non-descript. She looked quite surprised to see us - Antin must not have told her that about us?
Martha told us that her son - Jericho had been looking for work, but his learning difficulties made it hard to find any.
Surprisingly, he eventually had found work and began his job yesterday, that was the last she had seen of him. Martha provided us a photo of Jericho, she didn't know where he'd gone to work, but she did know that name of the agency that had placed him; Office Plankton, located in The Heights.
It was reaching midday by the time we arrived at the agency office, despite the punishing heat and near-painful brightness, Neon City's people were undeterred and crowded the streets. Just another obstacle to navigate in a day in the life.
The Office Plankton office was an anonymous and easily-missed high street unit. It's narrow frontage bore the Office Plankton logo along with it's motto; Easy jobs that require no skills.
The window's blind had been pulled down, concealing any view of the interior.
Office Plankton was a job agency and a rare sight in Neon City with it's burgeoning unemployment rates and even rarer was Office Plankton with it's niche market!
Office Plankton specialised in filling vacancies for low-skilled jobs and finding work for people who lacked qualifications, people like Jericho.
It was surprising that these kinds of vacancies even existed in Neon City considering the amount of robots and level of automation available.
Inside was a rectangular room, the mostly bare walls were painted off-white and a thin, light-grey carpet covered the floor. It was obvious that little time had been given to considering the décor and overall the room said very little about its function.
Opposite the entrance was a faux-oak desk and sitting behind it was a stocky, flabby looking man who was preoccupied with a desk-slab. He wore a slightly off fitting white shirt and blue tie. Pinned to shirt was a name badge; Call Me Bob.
Behind Bob was a shelf filled with what seemed to be random office supplies and a door to the back.
As the front door swung open he looked up, smiled and asked how he could help?
Bill explained that we had an important message for Jericho Woldt and had been unable to contact him. Perhaps Bob could tell us his place of work?
As Bill was talking to Bob, I scoped the room. It felt remarkably empty. Only one thing of interest caught my eye; a framed photo sitting on the shelf.
Bob was sitting with several other equally stocky people at a fully stocked up dinner table, they were family maybe? Gripping their cutlery and grinning at the camera just before digging into a heavy looking meal.
It was unusual to see they kind of family meal at street level in Neon City?
Bob shrugged and turned away from the slab to face us, he'd never heard of Jericho Woldt? He told us that there were four other branches of Office Plankton in Neon City, perhaps we should try them?
He also informed us that none of the branches had direct phone lines, the jobseekers they dealt with could become easily confused and this kept matters simpler.
There was nothing else to be gained here, we had four other sites to check out.
I accessed the transit systems records again. They showed Jericho Woldt getting off the tram at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Next we hacked the servers that remotely logged camera footage from the tramline and used it to track Jericho's movements. Coverage was spotty though, we intermittently saw him going around the district, at one point we saw him looking intently at something out of picture at the Expo Stadium, after that we lost him. We saw nothing of him going to a Office Plankton branch.
There was one last play we could make. One of the few centralised databases in Neon City was the employment status database. It tracked who was eligible for Universal Credit and who had employment. Details about Jericho should show up on the Social Insurance Network.
Only in Neon City was working a S.I.N.!
We didn't get any hits. Either Jericho wasn't working or he was working off the books?
It meant we had to investigate the other Office Plankton branches. Time was critical, so we split into four to cover more ground, Noodles went with Koko and of course Roderick went with Bill.
Two hours later we met up to compare notes.
Bill had gone to the branch on Ninety Ninth. It was another small anonymous and strangely featureless office manned by a single rep. A friendly, large, doughy guy wearing a name badge saying; Call Me Dan.
Dan gave Bill the same thing he'd heard from Bob, nothing about Jericho.
While Bill had been chatting to Dan, his eye recognised a photo on Dan's desk, it was identical to Bob's photo but now Bill also recognised Dan as one of the other people. There was definitely something of a family resemblance.
At Dogenzaka Hill, the office I went to was equally small and bland as at The Heights.
Again, only one company rep worked here. Call Me Tom stated his name badge, he provided me with no information about Jericho and again; there it was, the same photo with Bob and also Tom at the dinner table?
The Office Plankton branch at Highway Zero had been Koko's destination. It was the same as the Rokkaku Dai Heights branch. A small office operated by a single staff member. A corpulent man wearing a badge saying; Call Me Dick. Koko didn't learn anything about Jericho from him but she did see that same photo with Bob and Dick.
Lastly, Trigger had gone to the branch at The Skyscraper District. He had spoken with the chubby woman who ran the small office there and saw the badge she wore named her as Call Me Madge. She did not recognise the name Jericho Woldt and gave Trigger no information. Before Trigger left, he spotted the photo identical to one on Bob's shelf, the one that contained Bob and also Madge.
More and more it looked like thing weren't adding up.
All five branches had no information on Jericho despite what his mother had said, nor was there any evidence that Jericho was even employed?
Office Plankton's chosen market seemed strange and all the branches seemed empty?
Finally since all five staff members appeared in the same photo, it must have been a family run business?
Time to take it up a notch. It was approaching the end of the day and we needed to dig deeper into Office Plankton. We headed over to the Highway Zero branch and found some shade from the glaring sun in a back alley.
Through the constant flow of people and rumbling traffic we watched the office.
At six Dick locked up and made his way to the closest tram stop, we followed. Only Koko had to keep distant, so she sent Kevin up to keep an eye on him. The rest of could safely take the same tram he did.
We'd hit rush hour, the tram was stuffier and more packed than usual, the smell of cheap antiperspirants mingled unpleasantly with actual perspiration as we squeezed aboard.
Heavy with crushed wage monkeys, the tram laboriously pulled away and they mindlessly swayed in unison to the acceleration, diligently scrolling through on their media-slabs, needing to forget where they were and most importantly who they were.
The tram creaked as it's worn breaks squealed their protest at bringing the tram to a halt in Kibogaoka Hill.
Dick disembarked and we followed suite. He went through the shanty town, up the hill towards what passed as the district's retail centre. His route took him through the treacherously winding side roads, narrow and high sided ravines of brick, wood and plastic with a multitude of blind corners and turn offs.
Bill was on point, it was tricky staying out of sight and shadowing Dick but he managed it.
Eventually Dick ended up going through the front door of shop with a fabricated crimson coloured frontage called Mother's Meaty Morsels?
A shop that currently looked shut for the day and from outside appeared to be some sort of small independent pie-shop? It's motto proclaimed; A MEAT pie is a NEAT pie. It also boasted of the naturally sourced ingredients?
Additionally, the shop seemed to serve both retail and commercial customers?
Real meat was hard to come by in Neon City and was generally the reserve of the wealthy, how was it that a small shop in the neo-shanty town of Kibogaoka Hill was able to get real meat?
We waited and watched, soon Koko joined us and after that we looked on as one-by-one Bob, Dan, Tom and Madge appeared and went into Mother's Meaty Morsels.
Things still didn't add up?
What happened to the people they supposedly found work for?
What was Office Plankton's link to Mother's Meaty Morsels?
How was the pie-shop getting its meat?
Neon City was always home to casual unpleasantness, indifference and crime but joining the dots here was taking us into one of the city's darker avenues....
Trigger was getting impatient, he flicked on his thermals and took a look.
Seven heat signatures were visible, they seemed to be congregating and taking up seats round a table. Nothing suspicious....
Trigger swept the building's rear, he saw the heat signature of a slumped figure with their arms in the air, it was the profile of someone hung up by their arms! Trigger also saw various cooler, dimmer amorphous blobs of heat?
It was enough for Trigger, he was up and running at the front door before he told us what was going on, we hurried to back him up.
Kicking open the door sent a now-broken lock skittering across the chequered black-and-white linoleum floor. It was unlit and unoccupied, the glass serving counter empty.
Scraping chairs could be be heard from a back door behind the counter. It flew open and several corpulent individuals came charging out, their faces were bestially contorted with anger and screaming, they closed in. We could see Bob and the others among the pack running at us.
Their aggression and desire for violence could not hope to match our skills, honed as they were by our lives The City of Electric Dreams.
The fight didn't last too long and there was little doubt how it would go. Soon they were lying on the floor, unconscious or dead - we didn't care which.
The room they had come from contained a dinner table lavished with an assortment of pies, we avoided it.
Another door seemed to lead into their processing facility, we steeled ourselves and entered.
It was a grim sight, the dirty, dimly lit room was populated with bloody, grisly detached human remains at various stages of being processed into pies!
As we suspected; cannibals!
We continued searching and found Jericho Woldt, he was chained to all steel ring that had been secured to a concrete wall. He was alive and breathing and in one piece. We took him and left that damned place and returned him home to his thankful mother safe and sound.
Later on Antin Grova pinged us with a call, thanking us for finding Jericho Woldt. He asked us what payment we wanted for the job?
"Nothing," we said, "consider it a favour.".
Even later, I got a call from Ram Rat.
He had been following the news: A sky-taxi had malfunctioned, crashing into Porter Sladek's high rise with a tremendous explosion. Sladek's apartment had suffered massive damage and was almost entirely destroyed. Fortunately the Thetatech executive had out at the time and was unharmed.
Ram Rat told me he was sure that Ghost Radical had made another move on Porter Sladek, he wasn't giving up.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.