13th February 2021
It's Saturday night at home on my PC in the living room.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Fortified Residential Zone.
Rainwater crawled sideways across the condensed tram window as it sped its path over Neon City's crowded neon-lit rainy streets, rattling into the Fortified Residential Zone.
Getting late but our night was only beginning.
A large proportion of the district was exclusively reserved and walled off for the city's wealthy citizens, this mostly meant high level execs and their families. Homes were suitability luxurious, ranging from family-sized detached housing to faux Neo-Georgian mansions.
None of the racked and stacked apartments of the Skyscraper District or the boxy, cramped social housing of Hikage Street.
The riffraff that represented the general population of Neon City were also absent. The Fortified Zone was a gated district, access was by appointment only.
One does not simply walk into The Fortified Residential Zone.
Also outside the fortified was the Fuku Bakuchi Casino, prestigious gambling den run by The Golden Rhinos, a Yakuza gang who dominated criminal behaviour in The Fortified Zone with a polycarbonate grip.
Grinding to a halt at the elevated stop; we disembarked the tram within view of the featureless opaque monolith that was the tall steel-reinforced concrete wall ringing the Fortified Zone, silhouetted against the red-black sky.
Trigger's Yioujishi optical implants could see the walls were topped with an array of long-range detection and early warning systems as well as Kaxnan deployable defensive measures. Aliraiyo Patrolman class gun-drones circled the perimeter, sweeping for intruders.
From the tram stop it was a relatively short march meet to our contact, itinerant gambler; Vlegei Kreshoma
Even through the murky heavy downpour, the clamour and gleaming lights of the Fuku Bakuchi Casino were noticeable and it only grew louder and brighter as we closed in.
Someone had gone to great effort to give the casino's architectural exterior a traditional Japanese slant with a replica upward curving gable roofs, walls, windows and faux wooden supporting beams, decorated with authentic looking fixtures and lighting.
Unfortunately, someone else had gone to a equally great effort to ruin the effect by adding a trim of flashing and humming red and yellow neon piping to the beam and roof, as well as adding a flashing, rotating sign.
Where the ancient met the modern - Neon City style!
A churning tidal wave of flash-photographing paparazzi photojournalists, hopeful bloggers and craning gawkers were pressing up against the temporary steel barriers that cordoned off the casino's front. Jostling and shouting; desperate to get a look or a shot of anyone, anyone special or attract their attention
An intermittent flow of black, shining executive class sky-limos were descending out of the soaked sky, battering the unflinching sea of watching faces with jet-wash driven rainwater and disgorging their tuxedo and evening dress wearing passengers on to a red carpet. A high stakes game needed high rolling whales.
Vlegei Kreshoma was already here, his endlessly optimistic face with its receding hairline and cheerful expression sat on a stocky frame dressed in a Ralodet overcoat and expensive Duuner tuxedo with diamond tipped cufflinks. say whatever about the man but Vlegei could turn on the class when he wanted.
He greeted us with characteristic happiness when we approached, there was a twang of excitement in his voice, he was looking forward to this.
As a group we were ushered through the smoky glass and aluminium doors into the casino, soft apricot coloured panel lighting lit a minimalist lobby that belied the elaborate faux-trad exterior, thick typically red carpeting covered the sparse beige walled lobby and led down some gold-trimmed steps to the main hall.
Whatever accoutrements and gaming machines that had packed the high ceilinged main hall before had been swept away to create a large open floor lit with more rows of soft panel lighting and hanging replica Japanese lanterns that glowed red-gold. The hum of high quality air conditioning working hard to keep the room cool was barely discernible.
About twenty circular mah-jong tables with finely upholstered tub-chairs had been set out across the carpeted floor.
Smartly uniformed staff hurried to provide the arriving gamblers with drinks and other requests.
Seemingly lounging around the hall were also a number largely shirtless men with spiked or slicked-back hair, brandishing hatchets: Golden Rhino muscle.
A mixture of hitting the weights at the gym and bio-nylon-fibre Otoruy muscle implants gave them well-toned and extensively tattooed upper bodies; proudly displaying their Yakuza loyalties and affiliation.
With sidelong half-sneering glances they watched the whales take their seats.
Vlegei gave us a toothy grin and took his allotted spot.
Along with all the other bodyguards we were sat to one side of the hall at what could only be described as a glorified children's table at a family get-together. Except children mostly didn't bristle with code-black implants and firearms.
While we were sitting and watching, the last player appeared and went to his table.
Impeccably dressed, tall and lean, he wore the waistcoat and trousers of a well cut silver-grey Gaongha three piece suit with a eggshell white Avorukhclu shirt and silk Kokenzua tie, he cut a confident stride across the room.
Barely visible beneath shirt sleeves were the tell tail tattoos of a Yakuza man: Tsuka Suko also known as Red Tongued Suko and leader of the Golden Rhinos, so-called because he supposedly drank the blood of his enemies.
Games would be played over several rounds of elimination until only four players remained for the final game.
A quiet babbling murmur fuelled by hunched concentration spilled across the hall as the games got underway. Waitresses darted in and out, swapping filled glasses for empties.
Over time, one-by-one players would fling their remaining tiles away, push their chairs back from the table, get up and walk off.
Vlegei was doing well, perhaps mah-jong was his game or it was just going his way tonight. Lucky Suko was also progressing through the rounds.
Hours passed; sixteen tables became four then became one and Vlegei kept winning.
One player dropped out, then another. Now it was down to Vlegei and Suko.
Many of the other gamblers had stuck around, professionally fascinated to the see the outcome.
If, like Vlegei, you were a gambler, Lady Luck could be fickle. She could be a harsh mistress or gentle caressing lover - in which case you gripped on with all your strength. Which is what Vlegei was doing, too busy drinking in his good fortune to see the risk.
"I thought they called you Lucky Suko?" Vlegei remarked innocently as he won another hand off Suko.
Suko's jaw muscles rippled and tightened, veins bulged as he gripped the table's edge with whitening fingers and just about visible beneath the table was a rapidly tapping imitation Italian leather Leoojt shoe.
Tension was rising but the aircon kept it cool.
Carefully, we shifted in our seats and scoped the casino out, there was only one obvious way out - they way we came. The windows, despite their decorative nature were made of strengthened glass and reinforced with steel bars. There was of course also the matter of the twenty-plus Golden Rhino Yakuza thugs.
It things went sour, it would be hard getting out.
Soon enough Vlegei had cleaned out Suko.
The Yakuza boss curtly spoke to a member of staff and called in cash reserves to bankroll another buy in.
"I've won back four times what I lost last year," Vlegei exclaimed happily.
Pursing my lips, I ran my index fingers along the textured grips of my .45ACPs for comfort.
Play continued, Vlegei was unbeatable, every hand went his way and he was one away from cleaning Suko out again when he sat back like a satisfied diner with a full belly.
"There you go," Vlegei conceded the final small pot.
Suko snapped to his feet, grabbing the tiny winnings that Vlegei had magnanimously gifted him, hurling them on the floor with disgust in one swift move. A moment later he took a deep breath and a long look at the way out.
"Great game," Suko said precisely and slowly through a firmly set mouth with a dangerously neutral expression.
"Great for me!" Quipped Vlegei, obliviously raising his eyebrows.
It was time to leave.
With his winnings gathered, we had to drag Vlegei out and make our hurried way to the Fortified Zone.
Vlegei was ecstatic with his win, gamblers lived for these rare moments that validated their losses and downs.
The experience would be burned into his memory as no doubt right now, endorphins were flooding his brain, heightening the euphoria.
He was too carried away by the rush to recognise the danger.
That was our job though. It was the small hours of the night as we strolled through the rain drenched streets, navigating the anonymously lit crowds. Eyes sweeping every shadowy alley for a threat, every unknown corner an ambush and every low rooftop an assassin's perch.
We knew it was coming, just not where and how.
The where turned out to be a park north of Buku Bakuchi, one of the rare green spaces in Neon City and the who were about thirty Golden Rhino Yakuza foot soldiers, charging towards us over the waterlogged grass, waving their hatchets.
They no doubt thought that their numbers would give them the advantage and in most circumstances that would be correct.
Without hesitation, we reached for weapons, Trigger grabbed his gunblade and counter-charged, yelling, closing and splashing through the soaked ground; melee was his forte.
Fighting continued for a few moments, several of the foot soldiers fell to our attacks and others waivered. Sensing a small swing in momentum, we pressed and the other Golden Rhinos crumbled and fled into the night.
We immediately moved on, who knew if they'd have reinforcements? We weren't hanging round to find out.
From there we manged to escort Vlegei to The Fortified Residential Zone's security walls and safety. After he thanked us, he was granted entrance though the layered steel security doors, authorised by the attendant rentaguards.
It had been a long day and felt like a longer night, still a couple hours to sunup. We turned back and headed for the tram stop, setting off back home.
The noisy ride back to Hikage seemed to take an age, muscles ached and I was restless, looking forward to a good lie-in at my one-bed.
Looking forward to something in Neon City was just an invitation for disappointment, never a good idea.
Only a couple of hours of sleep went past before it was cruelly ended by the shrill pinging from my media-slab.
One arm reached out from my futon, tapping and searching for the slab somewhere close. When I found it I flipped it to speaker-mode from muscle-memory and answered.
We'd all received invitations to the Phineous' Phish Phestival, whatever the hell that was and had to be at The Ferry Terminal soon.
My temples pounded and I could hear the beat in my ears, my eyes didn't want to focus no matter how much I rubbed them with the ball-joints of my thumbs. A diagnostic on the optics showed no faults, must've been run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation.
Swinging my legs over the edge of the futon I pushed myself to my feet, still feeling the vague sting of lingering muscle fatigue.
I shambled over to the cluttered kitchenette, somewhere amongst the piled detritus was a half empty can of Huntudi. I used the stale lager to wash down some Woanqie Xingfa stims, it would have to do, no time for any breakfast.
Late morning had arrived and the day's heat was starting to kick in as we rolled into Highway Zero and walked the final stretch to The Ferry Terminal.
Foot traffic seemed busier than usual, an increased volume of people were briskly striding their way to and from The Terminal, dull roaring of the ground level highway intermingled with screaming and whooping children?
The Bay was in sight and reaching out from the east were its open, murky green-blue waters, it lacked the shade provided by the sprawling towers of the city and made the morning sun, still rising in the blue-white sky even more intolerably brighter than usual.
Fish shop owner Phineous had persuaded someone in authority somewhere to allow a stretch of beach along The Bay to be fenced off and reserved. He had arranged some sort of event or publicity stunt.
This stretch hosted rows of village-fair styled covered stalls selling processed junk food and tacky souvenirs, unusual delicacies in Styrofoam cups or white paper napkins were sold from aromatic steamy street vendors, a huge Senonable speaker system had been set up and had been playing some thumping beatwave synth until Phineous grabbed a mic and used it to address the massive and lively crowd that had congregated.
Phineous' slightly distorted voice was blaring over the vibrating loudspeakers, explaining that the Phineous' Phish Phestival was a ritual to invoke the local Water Yokai and pay them respect.
Children in colourful cosplay costumes noisily tore along the beach, playing games launching paper boats into The bay, kicking up sand and making nuisances of themselves.
Even the four uplifted penguins George, Jasper, Casper and Paisano had joined the festivities.
we stumbled upon an industrious beach vendor selling brown bottled Dindanha beer at a slightly inflated price from a brimming icebox.
We drank and waited.
After a while, Phineous got on the mic again and called for a pause and then a prayer to the Water Yokai.
Caught in the moment, most of the people on the beach felt compelled to mumble their intelligible contribution. We on the other hand, felt no such compulsion and slowly shuffled to the edge of the crowd, keeping quiet and making no eye contact.
A minute later in an ephemeral almost otherworldly moment, Water Yokai began emerging from the bay to confer their blessings?
It was of course actors, kitted out in some SCUBA gear, dressed in curiously elaborate costume in a variety of strange animalistic design and rising through the lows waves. Labouredly in the soaked heavy costumes, they began wading ashore.
The moment didn't last, in Neon City it never does.
The air shook with the deafening boom of an explosion, before it had to time to register the gathered crowd swayed and rippled from the shockwave.
About half a kilometre from the shoreline, heavy chunks of something had crashed loudly into The Bay throwing up huge founts of water, the more air resistant debris was burning as it flittered and spiralled downwards. The remains of a sky-limo?
The vaguely box shaped multipolymer armoured passenger ejection module appeared to have survived whatever caused the explosion. The limo's auto-systems would have immediately isolated and shuttered the passenger compartment before detaching it when the catastrophic failure was detected.
Nylon parachutes had opened as small directional thrusters auto-guided the pod in the direction of the beach.
It splashed down about one hundred metres from the beach, sinking for a second then bobbing to the surface like a piece of cork.
There was disquiet on the beach, no one knew what was going on, people didn't how to react, Phineous was calling for calm over the sound system.
We elbowed through the chattering, rubbernecking crowd gathering at the water's edge.
The module's directional thrusters continued to propel it to the shore.
I felt the hairs on my arms and neck rising, a strange metallic sensation filled my mouth, something was ionising the air?
The module beached itself and the top hatch opened, a 4-20 robot bodyguard popped it's head out and rotated it in a full circle, it was identical to Roderick and would be assessing any potential threats. Moments later the robot leapt out the hatch and took up a guard position, The 4-20 was followed by a middle-aged man in an expensive looking neutral grey two piece Shaguaifu suit and a Nightshade Overduster, bald headed with an creased oval shaped face, he was someone we all recognised.
Perhaps Neon City's richest inhabitant; Porter Sladek.
My eye was drawn to a bizarre wide circle of sunlight playing on the undulating water behind Porter.
Without warning, the water erupted into a massive boiling geyser of heat and steam, the 4-20 and Porter were sent desperately running to avoid a scalding downpour.
Milliseconds prior to the eruption, the circle of light's radius had abruptly shrank, exponentially intensifying to became a super-luminous needle of red neon stretching from beyond the sky, briefly flickering on the water's surface before vanishing.
None of us had ever seen one in action but it could only be one thing; an orbital laser strike.
A networked grid of orbital lasers commanded by The Global Planetary Defence Force blanketed the Earth in geosynchronous orbit above, pointed outwards towards potential aggressors. Somehow one had been rotated to face Neon City.
In that moment it all started to make sense, the pieces began to fit together in my mind's eye, dot joined to dot by bolt of lightning.
Who might have the juice and the skills to override a military satellite? Who was gunning for Porter Sladek?
Another circle of light had appeared where Porter had stood by the module a few seconds ago, it was beginning to shrink.
There was no time, no one understood the threat, there was nothing we could - a second lancing flash of red neon licked the beach. The ensuing explosion instantly killed several onlookers, injuring many more and showering countless others in super heated sand.
The 4-20 and Porter continued sprinting over the beach, we pursued.
It was pandemonium, fear and chaos rippled through the crowd like tall synth-grass caught by a breeze, they broke in a stampeding screaming mob.
"Sorry, there're no refunds due to extenuating circumstances," was the last thing Phineous very quickly managed to utter before dropping the mic and running!
Another circle appeared where Porter had just been and another explosive strike followed, shaking the ground. Porter was some how being tracked in very close to real-time, data on his position was being provided to whoever controlled the satellite?
Roderick had detected an anomalous encrypted data-flow being transmitted locally, he interfaced with the other 4-20 and it confirmed the findings.
Through near-instantaneous communication they managed to triangulate the source of the transmission; Porter Sladek.
The 4-20 scanned Porter as it ran with him. It narrowed the transmission down to his Overduster. The 4-20 instructed him to remove it.
Porter was confused but complied and flung it away, a few seconds later the coat was struck by the laser strike and completely vaporised.
For a minute we all stood still, breathing heavily and staring at the ground, waiting for the tell-tale circle of light, none came. It was over.
Porter spoke briefly to his robot bodyguard, he then came to us and thanked us for our assistance.
"Why have you got one of my four-twenty robots?" he asked, looking at Roderick.
We explained that he had fired Roderick as the result of a botched assassination attempt and he was now employed by Bill. We also explained that Ghost Radical was trying to kill him.
"So the sky-taxi that crashed into my high-rise apartment wasn't an accident?" Porter pondered.
We explained that it was likely another attempt on his life, maybe we could help, We knew Ram Rat was eager for payback.
Porter Sladek seemed impressed with our information and offered us a very generous compensation package along with expenses if we could find and stop Ghost Radical, would've been stupid to turn it down.
The Overduster had been our only lead, Porter told us that he'd only had it two days, it had come from Executive Excess but his personal valet-bot had swept it for security breaches when the delivery had arrived. It would have picked up any tracker.
We told Porter that we needed to see his valet-bot.
Back at the half demolished festival site, emergency services were beginning to crowd the location. There had been significant casualties, too many to sweep entirely under the rug, questions would be asked, better to not be here when they were.
His 4-20 had already ordered a new sky-limo and soon it arrived, typically it was a prestigious German executive sky-vehicle, a boxy yet sleek glossy black Tolitag-Bricna B Class with smoked screens.
Inside there was room enough for all of us, we sank into the extremely comfortable adaptive and climate controlled seating before the T-Class silently lifted off and powered upwards
As the crow flies, the journey to the Fortified Residential Zone was short. No doubt as we descended, the piloting system was responding the zone's defence systems with Porter Sladek's personal authorisation code.
He told us we were going to his personal residence.
Through the tinted screens we observed below a tiny, elaborate looking structure that reminded me of a model kit.
The sky-limo continued along its flight plan downwards and the mansion expanded before us. By the time the limo had touched down it had become massive and completely dominated our view.
The sky-limo put down on the mansion's personal landing pad and upon exiting, we saw the mansion was a sprawling example of corporate wealth. Almost nowhere in Neon City had grounds, lawns or gardens, not even fake ones.
Porter's mansion was surrounded by them.
Some sort of gardening robots were plodding round, diligently maintaining the lush grass radiating a shade of green I'd never seen, pruning and tending the vibrantly coloured rows of flowers or whatever it was actual gardeners used to do in the old world.
Statues of the even ancienter world punctuated this small haven of the natural world.
A paved path led from the pad through a vaulted arch to one of the mansion's doors.
The mansion was decorated in cream, elaborate stone features and windows. Deep blue-grey slate covered a roof of gablets, dormers and cupolas.
The opulence continued unabated inside, shining gold leaf trimmed fixtures reflected in the polished stone hallway floor as did the wall mounted lamplights.
We were led into a waiting room where it felt like our boots were sinking into the thick carpets and invited to sit on finely detailed chairs and served drinks on an actual wooden coffee table.
For a few minutes we waited, distracted by the framed pictures and painted vases that lined the walls until Porter took us to the valet-bot in his personal rooms.
In the tastefully decorated massive bedroom there was a walk-in closet that was bigger than my one-bed. Inside was the smoking ruin of Porter's valet-bot.
Koko had a look, the robot must have bypassed its own safety protocols. It had used its ironing attachment to melt its central circuit board, frying all its processors and circuitry.
The core memory bank looked undamaged, I hooked it up to my data-slab and checked the files out.
Few records existed for GLOWNET access or activity but there appeared to be a significant amount of interaction and chatter with Executive Excess, the valet-bot had the privileges to order clothing for the Sladek account .
The last entry was only two days ago, the valet-bot had taken delivery of Porter's Nightshade Overduster, there were no records of it finding anything suspicious in it's security sweeps.
Someone had gotten to the valet-bot, interfered with the sweep, instructed it to self-destruct and left no visible footprint while doing it.
Ghost Radical? Was he that good?
Nothing else could be gained from the ruined robot, time to move on to Executive Excess.
I jacked into the GLOWNET.
The representation of data that constantly updated within the GLOWNET that primarily moved around Neon City and then the world beyond saturated my consciousness, material reality receded into a fuggy background, sensory models expanded with unnatural evenness, enveloping my bio-image, drawing me into the GLOWNET.
Executive Excess had a massive bright neon data-image, a series of interlinked circles and triangles representing their public-facing data-vaults. Those were of no interest, beneath the polygonal façade was a code-wall and beneath that; was what we needed.
I launched a security-hack protocol, something was wrong though, data being fed back to me wasn't adding up? Progress getting through the code-wall was taking much too long, no retail business had security encryption this strong?
As I was reacting, something changed, fast, barely perceptible. A flat, uncoloured, untextured stygian shape slid from behind the data-image, some part of it had extruded almost shapeless flapping extremities and it soundlessly sped at me!
More a lunge than flight and too fast to evade, it made contact with my bio-image, I felt distant, numbed, slowly throbbing pain. Something was happening.
Customised code, black code; by design unrecognisable to the GLOWNET's bounding protocols and and therefore not required to adhere to the GLOWNET's functionality. So called in part because no one who wrote black code would bother giving it an image-mesh and because of what it was typically used for.
More than that, this was black ICE. designed to trace a bio-image back to the user's interface - usually a data-slab and trigger a massive but vacant data spike through that interface.
The energy carried by that surge was inconsequentially small by normal standards but when delivered into the brain chemical pathways, it induced significant pain and risk of trauma, a prolonged spike or repeated spikes had been known to be lethal.
Back in material reality, that's what was happening to me but in the GLOWNET, the distorted perception of time and congested flow of neural data was keeping me from fully experiencing it. When I jacked out, it would be a different matter....
Since I wasn't in a position to deal with the ICE and it was going to attack again, that was going to be now and I expected it would hurt.
It did hurt, a lot.
A migraine of nuclear explosive proportions wracked by body When I jacked out, as the magnetic interface unlocked itself I could feel thin lines of napalm spreading out from my spinal column into my veins. Slumping back in a chair I rubbed my eyes, I could've done with a cold Huntudi.
Instead I made do with a Likyal med-kit, meds kicked in quickly, pushing the pain away.
That ICE must've been the handiwork of Ghost Radical, now I knew what to look for next time.
The soft approach wasn't going to get us what we needed, it would require a hard approach.
Executive Excess was a boutique that served an exclusive clientele and was located in Sunshine City, the part-mall, part residential city-block which was a vast, soaring concrete structure that completely dominated the district and seemingly faded away into the hazy blue-white sky.
Sunshine City was always busy, they couldn't keep the people away.
Specially chosen inane music filled the walkways and escalators, the food courts and the atriums as dense crowds of every kind of person wandered their way throughout the mall. Browsing from shop to shop along the polished amber-coloured vinyl flooring and past wall mounted soft strip lighting, finding ways to justify the pointless consumerism that drove them here.
Executive Excess was entirely glass and silver-trim fronted with warmly-lit floor-to-ceiling shop windows that displayed numerous examples of the boutique's luxury bespoke products.
Our entry was abruptly halted as the automated doors refused to open? Staff were flitting about inside and lights were on? Peering through the windows, beyond the tastefully outfitted and posed mannequins I could see scores of branded designer clothes hanging off every rack or folded and piled up into large cubby holes that entirely filled one wall.
A camera, high angled and watching the door made me suspect that we had been singled out for exclusion!
The faux black leather trench coats that stank of smoke and grease with barely concealed armoured plates that we tended to favour along with our Harbief workman's' boots meant pretty much meant that we'd never shop there and they were keeping us out.
Bill seemed taken aback and briskly strode off only to come back a few minutes later in a smart Duuner ash-grey two-piece with a pair black Peidi Oxfords. His hair combed but slightly tousled hair.
As Bill walked up, the doors swished open, without breaking stride he loped in and we followed.
As expected a well dressed sales assistant floated up to Bill, he was slim with surgically sculpted delicate features and well sculpted peroxide hair, he introduced himself as Mister Sebastian and asked "How can I help?".
Bill went into a overlong entirely bogus explanation about the promotion he'd received at his job and how he needed a new overcoat to display his new status.
While Mister Sebastian was distracted we quietly began looking round.
Quickly we found a workstation, it wasn't locked and I began combing the records. Soon we found the Sladek account and according to the records, his account was managed by a Mister Julian.
I let Bill know over comms that we needed to find Mister Julian.
Bill name dropped Porter Sladek and explained that Porter had recommended Mister Julian. Mister Sebastian called over Mister Robbins and sent him to find Mister Julian - who seemed to be working in the stockroom.
Mister Robbins came quickly running back, arms flapping and obviously in a panic.
Mister Julian was sprawled across the stockroom floor, contorted into an unnatural deathly pose, empty eyes staring at some corner, mouth hanging slack and fingers clenched.
Wisps of thin grey-white smoke slowly curling up from his ears, his once shiny plastic coated Minomasa smart headphones scorched black.
Mister Julian must have been responsible for putting the tracker in Porter's overcoat, now he had paid the price of Ghost Radical's betrayal.
Neon City was a down and dirty kind of town, where the inhabitants got to see the ugly side of The City of Electric Dreams on a routine basis but Mister Sebastian and Mister Robbins spent most of their lives working in the rarefied executive attire industry and lived in Sunshine City. This had left them unsettled, we told them to go and call the emergency services.
While they were preoccupied, I took Mister Julian's headphones and searched through his pockets and found his ID, I scanned it's information and returned it.
Then I opened the phones and looked inside, most of the circuitry had been fried, but it's tiny firmware chip was still intact. I networked the chip with my data-slab and copied it's data.
I pinged all of that data to Ram Rat, he had a better handle on Ghost Radical than anyone else we knew.
After the remains of Mister Julian were carted off the remaining staff settled back to some sense of normality.
Bill took the opportunity to order a bespoke overcoat, it would come loaded with urban armour, reactive defences, bio-monitors, the works.
Mister Sebastian totted up the cost. "Thirteen million bits," he said looking at Bill with a smile.
It was an inordinate amount of money for us!
Without blinking, Bill told him to put it on his expenses tab with Porter Sladek.
In the meanwhile, Ram Rat had gotten back.
The firmware on the headphones had be re-flashed with new code, it had triggered the power spike that killed Mister Julian. It was Ghost Radical's work, Ram Rat was sure of it.
Ram Rat had found very little on Mister Julian, there was only one event that looked out of place. Two days ago someone had deposited half-a-million bits into his account.
Then, as we watched, the money started being withdrawn! Vanishing bit-by-bit, it went out in smaller packets, too small to be picked up by regulators and soon all five hundred thousand had been syphoned off.
They weren't too small for Ram Rat to trace though! All the transfers led to the same account - a credit card account in the name of John Smith and situated at the Rokkaku Bank on Hikage Street. .
Ghost Radical had been busy tying up loose ends; no witnesses and now, no money.
We'd gotten lucky, he'd been too slow.
It looked like we'd found Ghost Radical's slush fund but not his address.
If we wanted more info, it would require hacking into the bank's secure severs and that would be hard for either Ram Rat or I to do, risky too, as it could traced back to us.
So instead, Ram Rat would sit on the bank and watch.
If Ghost Radical moved any of the money, Ram Rat would be on it.
Once Bill had finalised his order, we left. It would take a little while to get his coat.
Soon after leaving Sunshine City, Koko was pinged a message from Yennav Rybasei, her Russian mob contact.
Yennav wanted us to meet him at an establishment in Highway Zero, Yennav was at Empty Is Run About Freely. He explained it was a colonic-irrigation clinic and he was currently undergoing a course of treatment.
Yennav's treatment was still under way when we arrived at Empty Is Run About Freely, from his padded table he looked up at us, inviting us to join him and offered to pay.
Politely we refused, unfazed Yennav chatted on, calling us his "Favourite deniable droog assets,".
He told us that his men had picked up a lead on Nozi Kinko From Irma's Funeral Home on Ninety Ninth Street and wanted us to investigate.
Nozi Kinko was a former Protobase Global employee and perhaps still worked for them off the books. He had crossed swords with Yennav and the two had history, it was likely that Nozi would move on Yennav's organisation again sooner or later. Yennav wanted us to investigate Nozi before this happened.
It was a short trip over to the bustling, noisy and colourful avenues of Ninety Ninth; Neon City's entertainment and hospitality centre.
Neon City's populace was always on the look out for a good time and Ninety Ninth's lure was irresistible, particularly as the work day was drawing to a close - for those who had work anyway. It was easy to find a safe spot to case the funeral home out unseen.
Amongst Ninety Ninth's constant churn of activity was Irma's Funeral Home, sitting in a row of old-style brick buildings from Neon City's earlier years, it was small and anonymous looking, low budget operation with a discrete front. Thick lacy white curtains blocked off the front windows and hid what might lie beyond and a single door led in.
Right next door was Irma's Implants, another low budget enterprise - except that is was some sort of cyber-clinic instead, advertising its low budget implants as reconditioned and refurbished augmentations.
It couldn't be a coincidence that these two businesses were side-by-side.
As we observed, detaching itself from the congested sky-lanes above came some sort of sky-flier.
Sleek and dart-like, the flier smoothly executed a near-silent vertical descent. Low-profile yet possessed of strangely angular contours, it was coloured a dark and dull neutral grey, no navigational or cockpit lights were showing and it sort of blended into Neon City's gleaming but nondescript background with its measured movements.
It was just about possible to make out weapons panels and a recessed turret on the exterior.
Military-spec stealth vehicles were understandably a rare occurrence in Neon City and most inhabitants who saw one would think the flier was just some sort of weird vehicle funded by corporate eccentricity but we understood what we were looking at.
It was a Qiuonriji night-flier, a Yexingzhe SFS-70 model, its contouring was a multipurpose durable polymer armour designed to deflect direct attacks and also diffuse all kinds of radar wave. it was currently in running-black mode to enhance stealth.
A serious piece of hardware, stealthy, armoured and packing a heavy punch. It was also shielded against electromagnetic pulses and any kind of hacking.
The Yexingzhe dropped behind some buildings and out of sight.
A few seconds later we saw four burley individuals exiting Irma's Implants. They were in street clothes but to our eye it was clear that they were mercenary contractors, black-baggers, assassin's or some other kind of corporate muscle or assets.
It wasn't the penchant for bland, practical Evoda or Tremeita clothing that gave them away nor the crew cuts and surely expressions, the way they marched as a group or the implanted synthetic muscles.
It was the highly polished Nochreb black army boots that did it.
These fat-necks would have started their careers in a boot camp somewhere, most-likely East Europe and polishing their boots would have been endlessly drummed into them. Now they probably polished their boots each morning without questioning it.
The four of them strode purposely until they ducked into an alleyway they had encountered and then the Yaxingzhe lifted off a minute later, effortlessly eating the sky and shrinking away as it did so.
Before we had the opportunity to discuss our next action, our media-slabs pinged; it was Binary Johnny.
"Someone needs to get out of Neon City immediately," explained Johnny.
He wanted us to do the babysitting and now.
Johnny went on to tell us that the package was a former operator of some kind or other, had worked in covert operations or hard-infiltration.
He gave us the address where she was currently holed up in Kibogaoka Hill.
We had to drop the job at Ninety Ninth and get moving.
By the time we got to Kibogaoka Hill, night had rolled around, and so had the unabated rain. The erratic badly constructed narrow roads were beginning to flood.
Kibogaoka's shanty town could be a curious place at night, it lacked any conventional streetlighting and was only intermittently lit, relying on the arrays and strings of eclectic lamps, LEDs and spotlights gathered by its population.
As we pushed up the hill towards Johnny's address, through the downpour Koko had managed to spot the Yaxingzhe night-flier hovering above and slowly moving over the streets, grey against black, barely visible.
A stealth-flier here, when we were looking for a vet of covert ops, no way was it coincidence? How did this link to Irma and Nozi?
The address took us along a narrowing, unlit and twisting back alley of corrugated sheeting, plywood panels and tarps.
It led to a PVC door designed to look like stained oak, small cracks ran along the vinyl surface, its lustrousness long faded,
We knocked and she answered, average height but muscular with an almost gaunt face and glinting mirrored eye-implants surrounded by crows feet. Once we explained who had sent us, she gave us entry, before shutting the door eyes scanned the inky cloud-filled skies above for a moment.
The Operator told us that several of her former colleagues had vanished in the last forty-eight hours and suspected she was next. She had no idea why this was happening?
She was planning to get out of Neon City by train from The International Rail Link Hub in The Skyscraper District but doubted she could get there alive.
The longer she stayed here, the greater the risk of discovery, we needed a plan and we needed quick.
We came up with and idea, fairly basic but hopefully effective.
As a group we all went out into the rain and darkened alleyways, found a main thoroughfare and attempted to mingle in with the milling crowds.
We didn't get far before the Yaxingzhe spotted us and came banking round in the rainy sky above us. It was something we were counting on it, so we picked up the pace.
What we didn't anticipate was their willingness to open fire on a crowded streets. Staccato machine-gun fire mixed with screaming as pedestrians were murderously cut down.
We sprinted down the street until we reached a junction, then we split up into two groups.
Bill, Koko and I went one way and Trigger, Roderick and The Operative went another; or so it seemed.
Prior to leaving the hiding place, Bill and The Operative switched clothes!
Bill then activated his Mannikten implant, using the cluster of nanites that permanently inhabited his head to reshape his features to match hers. Of course Bill couldn't match the height and build and the effect wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny, but at a distance, at night and in the rain it might work.
It did work! The Yaxingzhe swept round to follow the other group with the disguised Bill. We kept on running for the tram stop, there was always the chance the ruse might be discovered. Hopefully Bill and Trigger could keep them occupied for long enough.
Utterly drenched and out of breath, we raced up the steps to the elevated tram stop. A few agonising minutes until the next tram; we watched the night sky, standing amongst the commuters under the rain-lashed drumming shelter, gulping down air and waiting.
During this time, Bill and Trigger started shouting at us over comms, something about a cockpit and needing drones? Koko pulled out her control-slab and activated Felix and Sylvester, The Operative and I watched as she punched some commands into the slab and the two gun drones flew off humming.
Koko was watching the screen on her slab and told us that they were fighting aboard the flier as our ride rolled in.
We rode it all they way to The Skyscraper District without incident. Koko was on her slab most of they way, continually directing her drones. When we were about halfway there she powered off the slab, telling us it had been dealt with?
Meanwhile I ran a sweep of The operative, there were no tracers or bugs that I could find but I had no idea if there was military spec kit that could avoid my scans?
From the tram stop it was a short transfer to the rail hub.
The massive off-white concrete domed building sported a curved tinted glass and steel-meshed roof with high semi-circular windows. It housed a major terminus as part of the international rail network.
Passing through aluminium and glass automated doors took us into a voluminous vaulted and high-ceilinged room, creating a feeling of airy open space. Its acoustics somehow softened the clamouring racket of Neon City to a tolerable background babble.
During the day sunlight would filter down through tinted glass panels, giving the hub a deceptively hazy and welcoming warmth, at night the dome would be dominated by thick meandering rivulets of water.
Pigeons fluttered amongst the exposed high beams, occasionally swooping down to raid for scraps.
A long strip of small shops, concession booths and eateries lined the interior walls of the central hall, attracting a captive audience of waiting passengers looking for food or diversions.
Information on all arrivals and departures were displayed on a massive row of screens and occasionally a synthesised, automated voice would spout an announcement over the speaker system.
After finding the platform of The Operative's train we walked across the polished cream coloured stone floor and through the milling people to get departures.
Soon The Operative was through the security gate and boarded the heavily protected, border-crossing Kiogo Engineering train, that was the last we saw of her.
Then Koko and I went back to Kibogaoka Hill to learn what had happened with the others.
The Yaxingzhe had chased them as we hoped. Bill, Trigger and Roderick returned fire but the flier wasn't even scratched by small arms fire and Roderick's explosive fletchette rounds were having minimal effect, being designed primarily for use against soft targets.
Trigger was cursing; if only he get at it with his sword!
Roderick turned to him and said that he could throw Trigger on to the flier!
Trigger was never one to waste time worrying about the shortcomings of a plan, so he agreed.
Trigger shouted at everyone else to get close to the buildings as possible, forcing the Yaxingzhe to get a lower angle.
In turn the flier was firing almost indiscriminately, its raking machine-gun fire tearing apart the fragile makeshift shanties on the hill, blowing them apart and collapsing the flimsy buildings.
Adjusting for heading, wind resistance and calculating distance, Roderick thrust his arms upwards with exactly the required force.
Trigger felt his guts tighten and slosh as he accelerated sickeningly towards the flier, it filled his view as he thumped down and almost slid off the smooth grey bodywork.
Regaining his balance on the swaying flier, Trigger looked around. The turret, no longer recessed was rotating, trying to acquire a lock on him and next to it was a disc, flush with the flier's shell; an access hatch.
Dismissing the threat of the turret, Trigger went for the hatch, grunting with effort he managed to prise it open with his gunblade, then he dropped into a dim blue tinted cockpit.
There were four soldiers, Trigger charged.
In the cramped space, Trigger was at an advantage but there were four of them and they wore top tier, costly Verskeit Haanut fully enclosed smart combat armour, the kind given to expensively trained expert soldiers to keep them alive. They were also equipped with military grade firearms.
Trigger's was on the back foot until Felix and Sylvester buzzed through the open hatch, deftly controlled by Koko.
Even with the two gun drones, it wasn't going Trigger's way, back aboard the Tram, Koko took a risk and targeted the Yaxingzhe's pilot.
Despite the raging fight going on, the pilot hadn't put the flier on to auto-controls, while concentrating on the dashboard he was caught totally unaware by Koko's attack.
After the pilot went down, the Yaxingzhe lurched sharply to one side, rotating by nearly forty-five degrees, everyone was caught off balance.
One of the soldiers staggeringly lurched for the dashboard to try and regain control but Trigger pounced at him and a rolling tussle in the unsteady cockpit ensued.
Seconds later the flier stacked into the ground, aquaplaning along the waterlogged street, sliding through the scattering crowds before coming to a crashing halt halfway through the plastic coated plywood wall of a shanty home.
No one inside the flier would be getting to their feet for a while, Bill and Rodrick ran to the downed flier and scrambled in through the hatch, they managed to take the couple of surviving soldiers prisoner.
Crowds were beginning to gather to rubberneck, soon Neon City's first responders arrived. Bill and Trigger handed over the bodies of the two dead soldiers.
Bill explained that there had been no one else aboard, he was a crisis-evaluator for Neon City's Municipal Safety Regulatory Body and this gave him authority to take ownership of crash and it's ensuing investigation. The emergency services were relieved of their obligation explained Bill.
I don't know how much of it was utter crap, but it convinced the emergency services who left the flier with Bill.
It was about this time that Koko and I returned, after some discussion, we decided what to do with the flier.
It was time to call in a couple of small favours
We pinged a call to Lady Zero and asked her to come and pick the flier up, she was the only person we knew with the rig to carry it. Then we called Alex Chinsko and asked if we could put the flier into one of his lockups so he could fix it; both agreed.
In the time it took Lady Zero to arrive, there was an opportunity to question the soldiers.
Bill got them to talk easily enough.
They were working for Nozi Kinko, he had provided them a list of targets, all ex-military with extensive top quality military implants. The soldiers had been instructed to kill the targets and take them to Irma's Funeral Home. The soldiers weren't sure what happened to the targets next, they heard rumours that the implants would be extracted from the corpses to be put into someone else in the basement.
They didn't know anything else so we cut them loose and sent the packing.
Meanwhile I had been going through the disarrayed clutter that filled the cockpit as a consequence of the battle and the crash: I found a matte black Rekhang Dohoeunqgu 9mm, a short barrelled room clearing submachinegun and basically a knock off of the more pricey Russian Konseye K4 that I decided to hang on to.
Once Lady Zero had carted the flier off, it was time to get back to Irma's Funeral Home, somehow all of this was linked.
Midnight was fast approaching and neither the rain nor the noisy revellers on Ninety Ninth had let up. The funeral home and the clinic were spots of muted darkness that interrupted the ribbon of colourful neon shop signs and flashing lights that stretched out of sight in both directions.
Trigger swept the clinic with his thermals, there was only one heat signature. We knew that implants were being brought here and they were killing people for those implants, so we decided to go in.
A buzzer rang as we pushed the door open, it led into a dingy looking reception with a plain white counter, behind it a door went elsewhere. Plastic seating was located close to the counter and walls were adorned with posters and ads for various cybernetic applications or gene enhancing and resequencing treatments. A small screen screwed high-up on a wall was playing a looping promo video for Xideti branded implants.
Behind the counter was a stocky man in his early thirties with unkept hair and an unruly beard, shabbily dressed in a cheap white button-down shirt and leaning on the counter, he was engrossed with his media-slab.
Which meant he didn't see it coming when we pulled handguns on him, he immediately surrendered. Questioning him, he denied all knowledge of the basement's existence.
Through the door behind the counter were some gloomy corridors and a couple of scruffy unhygienic looking treatment rooms used to apply implants. Searching on; we found a couple of unremarkable doors, behind the first were stairs going down.
They were old stairs, constructed when wood was still considered an abundant building material and creaked slightly underfoot as we made of our descent.
The clinic's cold whitish lighting seemed to fade into darkness as we continued down. Inky blackness fled before the LED glare of our flashlights.
The stairs became a corridor and the corridor became a room.
Fluorescents ticked and flickered into life after we had hit the switch next to the way in. The walls were exposed brickwork and the floor and ceiling were plain concrete.
The centre of the room was dominated by a large metal table. Strapped to it was a burly unconscious man, heavily built and clearly bristling with implants. Lines led from the body to a med console, its screen displayed life signs along with other puzzling metrics.
Deciding not to tamper with whatever was going on, we returned to the shop.
Pushing our prisoner for more info, he admitted that it had something to do with Mister Honda, prompting him for more, he gave us a description of Mister Honda, it matched the profile of Nozi Kinko.
Nozi was illicitly acquiring cybernetic implants and adding them on the man in the basement, obviously to strengthen the man but to what end?
There was the one remaining door, the other unremarkable door to check out, from its position, it was likely to lead into the funeral home. Indistinct voices were coming from the other side of the that door's thin material as we approached, so we listened.
The voices of three people could be heard, a woman and two men: there was talk about implants for the subject, the other team going missing and no one being unable to find the last person on the list, a woman.
After a couple of minutes, the conversation ended.
Triggers thermals showed a woman alone on the other side and a little way off, we bustled through.
The funeral home's reception area was decorated in browns and greys and filled with replica wooden furniture, a customer service desk in one corner was empty, quickly we moved into the other parts of the property
The woman, Irma we presumed, was located in a backroom mortuary, she was disrobing a corpse, using a thick-tipped black marker to circle implants when we burst in.
She was short, middle-aged and dressed plainly if neatly in a dark grey business suit. Hesitation struck her for a moment before she quickly reached for an alarm button. Not quick enough though, a hit with a stun baton put her down.
When Irma came to her senses, she found herself tied up, with the four of us staring at her.
Bill got to work and managed to pull some info out of her.
She admitted to working for Mister Honda buts he didn't know his plans and had no contact details for him, he would come here of his volition once a week to review progress on the subject. Mister Honda was next due at the funeral home in five days.
Maybe we now had the advantage on Nozi Kinko, maybe we could get the drop on him. Five days were all we had to wait.
There were there two prisoners though, no doubt they would contact Nozi at the first opportunity if we let them go and give us away. The two businesses also needed to be operated normally to allay suspicions, we couldn't do this alone.
Koko pinged a call to Yennav and explained everything, he seemed pleased with the turn of events, he told us that he would have some guys run the business for five days until Nozi Kinko returned.
Then we'd all be ready for 'Mister Honda'.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.