20th February 2021
Saturday evening and I'm the living room, logged into Meet on my PC.
Time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
The day had been a quiet one, without the hassles of work, I'd spent most of it languishing on my futon sleeping in, lingering on the lip of consciousness, slipping in and out, allowing the noise and the heat of The City of Electric Dreams to just flow on by.
That came to an end when the Jaunkeu pinged; Lucy, she was complaining about how I was ignoring her or something? Wanted to go out for a meal somewhere.
I cooled her down and said I'd sort something out. A quick GLOWNET search got a hit on some new opening in Shibuya Terminal called Itadakemasu!, it's data-image a towering stylised and colourful human upper body that turned its cheerful face to track users and hand out iridescent photonic fortune cookies that when opened produced a data-node of their menu. I booked us a table; knowing the others wouldn't want to miss out on meal, I also booked one for them.
The others made their own way to the restaurant, meanwhile on the way over to pick up Lucy I bought some synthetically grown blue orchids, I knew she'd appreciate them.
Lucy was in a white Evoda short skirt and jacket combo with a black halter top, her hair up in an elaborate bun. She was very pleased with the flowers.
Rain had begun to patter on the streets, daylight was giving way to night-light and Neon City slowly flickered into its true life, one LED, fluorescent or neon tube at a time.
We got out of the crowds and into Itadakemasu!. Inside it was rammed, nearly every white plastic table and chair occupied with noisy excitable customers.
We were seated, Lucy didn't notice the others arriving separately to be seated at an adjacent table.
The staff handed us brightly coloured laminated menus. Traditional Japanese Food like Grandma Made announced the top of the menu proudly. We perused the variety of burgers, fries, pizzas and deep-fried chicken available, Lucy seemed quite happy with the choices.
A little while into the meal and front door swung open, a dozen-or-so small-time thugs swaggered in, easy to spot with their tattered denims and leathers, tell-tale bulging pockets, sneering expressions and cheap cosmetic implants.
They spread across the room like a wave of sewage, instantly souring the atmosphere as they pushed customers about, swiped food off tables, swore and shouted.
From the way some of them moved through the room and their eyes swept left and right, they were looking for something?
From the other table, Koko was having none of it. She stood and began loudly berating them, I could almost see the index finger wagging accusingly in their faces.
The thugs had found their excuse and everything kicked off. Tables were flipped and customers scattered as thugs reached for Qucoruba CP-2 machine pistols. As gunfire opened up, screaming and panicking of people fleeing filled the room, the start of a full blown firefight.
For a moment I heard Lucy squeal with terror as she dived for cover but almost immediately lost track of her in the chaos.
The attackers who had been searching the room lunged for one scrambling skinny man in particular, luckily Trigger and I were quicker. between my stun-baton and his gunblade, the assailants went down.
Koko, meanwhile had called in Felix and Sylvester, the two gun drones came crashing through Itadakemasu!'s front window, shattering it into a thousand shards to join the fight.
Soon it was over, a relative quiet calmness had descended and other than us, the restaurant was empty of staff and patrons, the thugs had either fled or were sprawled across the linoleum floor.
One of the attackers was conscious, Bill questioned him but got nothing, the killers had been hired by an anonymous fixer and the skinny man had been their target.
Before he could make good his escape, we had grabbed this skinny man.
He wore cheap counterfeit jeans and a dishevelled black t-shirt and with a pale complexion because he didn't get out under the Neon City sun so much. I could tell his type and what he was. I didn't know the face but I would know the handle when he told us; Crash Override, a member of the hackerati and crusading hacktivist.
When asked why he had been targeted, he let us know that they were muscle paid for by Oshin Amalgamated: After snooping on their servers he had found proof that they had their fingers deep into the city's zoning committee and threatened to release it. This carnage had been Oshin's response.
What was the dirt Crash Override had on Oshin?
Yaran Kitchie had been chairperson of the committee and openly blocked Oshin's plans for their water purification plant. A while ago he had been found dead and his successor, Lindsay Berrett had promptly approved Oshin's plans.
Crash Override had proof that Lindsay Berrett was on the Oshin payroll.
With a shrug and a sharp intake, he nodded and said he was going to publish the info on the GLOWNET now anyway. We offered to provide protection but he said he didn't need it. Crash Override then slipped away, disappearing through the gawking crowds now gathering under the rain outside.
Lucy came stamping back into the wreckage of Itadakemasu!, broken glass crunched under the quick, short steps of her wobbling designer Oltrante white high heels, aggravation clear on her face, upset that the others had also come to the date.
I cooled her down, she seemed to accept that yes they had also been at the restaurant but they had been at a completely separate table; so it had still been a proper date, at least until the bullets began flying.
Date night had ended early.
Things moved fast in Neon City, by the time the next morning came around, news of the firefight and high-level corruption in the zoning committee had been side-lined by more recent events. Literally yesterday's new.
Over my bowl of Paheheu Pops I watched with faint disappointment as GLOWNET news-vines were pushing out a scandal and corruption story about the election of the next Overseer of the Women’s Liaison and Consultation Executive, some sort of public consulting department in for what passed as Neon City's municipal authority.
Inane pundits and talking heads had been discussing the situation, discussing the two rival candidates, Ms Tatsuya Niko and Aglayata Banova. Then in the early hours a video file had begun circulating on the GLOWNET. It showed Ms Tatsuya Niko in a revealing and compromising situation with a trio of hirsute individuals.
Powering down my wall-slab, I realised I didn't care.
That was about to change.
My media-slab was being pinged again. Sniffing out the story behind the story of Tatsuya Niko was robotic vid-journalist; D4-VID. He told us that he was suspicious of the footage's authenticity, believing it had been shot at an establishment named The Lusty Thrust on Chuo Street and instructed us to meet him there.
The lowest alleys and walkways of Chuo Street were some of the narrowest and deepest, even by Neon City standards. High-sided rows of buildings almost claustrophobically encroached in on each other, resulting in thin, frequently shadowed towering canyons of glass fronted concrete.
Flitting in and out of the uncaring sunlight were throngs of people navigating past each other without breaking stride, conditioned to ignore the lack of personal space.
Chuo Street was densely populated with scores of small typically neon-signed hotels of every type as well as numerous brothels, The Lusty Thrust was of the second variety and a humming red neon sign with self-explanatory flicking two-frame animation brightly announced its status.
D4-VID had almost finished shooting background footage outside The Lusty Thrust when we came on scene. Midday was fast approaching and the sun was almost directly overhead, Chuo Street was providing no respite from the rippling noon heat.
Madame Ma Zhui-Bao was a short middle-aged Chinese woman dressed in something akin an exotic belly dance outfit and appeared to manage The Lusty Thrust. When she saw us stroll into the lobby, she began shouting and frenetically waving.
"No press," Madame Ma Zhui-Bao shouted. "No press," pointing at D4-VID. She absolutely refused to talk to us until D4-VID had dejectedly slouched off.
A curiously heady incense clung to the air as cliched generic Arabian-Eastern flavoured music of suspect origin played out of wall speakers.
The room was decorated with faux exposed and painted stonework, filled with colourful replica Turkish sofas and rugs, further decoration included eastern looking ornaments and fittings set in small alcoves or on shelves.
A number of mostly young men and women dressed in revealing Arabic themed clothing and were draped over the furniture, eyeing us suggestively but it was all business today.
"What you want?" Madame Ma Zhui-Bao demanded curtly now that D4-VID had gone.
Questioning Madame Ma Zhui-Bao, she told us that she had never seen and did not know Tatsuya Niko, when shown the footage, she recognised the three others; regulars, Tomac Khan, Moroccan Tom and Big Man Arthur Ardley, they had come here with a blonde Russian woman, not Tatsuya Niko. As far as she knew, they were construction workers currently employed at Sunshine City.
Madame Ma Zhui-Bao allowed us to see the room the footage was shot in; fairly small with same faux exposed stone work and Turkish/Arabic decorations.
We searched around, there was no evidence of anything here, then we extrapolated that the camera must have been placed on the small replica pine wood side table flush against a wall. No evidence of anything there either.
Looking around the room further we spotted hidden cameras belonging to Madame Ma Zhui-Bao, she allowed us to review her own footage, to no one's surprise, it had somehow been corrupted.
Our only lead took us to Sunshine City. During the characteristically uncomfortable, hot, cramped and noisy tram ride D4-VID explained how he though the footage had been doctored, showing us what he believed was digital manipulation on the face of Tatsuya Niko.
From a vantage point at the tram stop it was easy to spot the construction work taking place at Sunshine City. Significant remodelling of the children's playground in the park that ringed the monolithic titular tower of Sunshine City in greenery was underway after it had been mostly levelled by Roderick 4-20 a while ago....
On the way down we encountered Frank and Joey, the two uniformed park patrol rentaguards we had dealt with before. Making small talk, they cheerfully told us that that they had been called out to deal with someone who had defecated in the sandbox at the playground!
At the worksite it took a bribe to the foreman to find Tomac Khan, Moroccan Tom and Big Man Arthur Ardley; they were happy to talk with us about their encounter at The Lusty Thrust.
The footage had been altered, it was a different woman in the video; all three confirmed it.
At the end of a shift, after payday they had been approached by a young blonde Russian working girl who asked if they were looking for a good time. They were flush.... so why not?
They also gave us a name: Ashaglaya Lova.
It was something to go on.
Jacking into my Nonohiki, I sank out of material reality and descended into the mutating multicoloured light-emitting geometry of the GLOWNET and ran a hunter/searcher. I was unmoving, motionless as trillions of data-points orbited round me, seemingly merging into a incomprehensible storm of sensory outputs until a single shining mote of silvery data emerged and became a fixed point ahead of me, a north star.
I moved towards it and it entirely enveloped my view. Light faded and rows of data came into focus. The name Ashaglaya Lova was in the data, Ashaglaya Lova was at The Catnap Hotel back on Chuo Street.
It was possible Yennav Rybasei would have some info, so Koko contacted him. He told us he was too busy helping his sister-in-law win an election? Who was his sister-in-law? He told us it was Aglayata Banova, the second candidate in the electoral race. Koko asked if he knew anything about the fake video that had been released smearing Tatsuya Niko.
"Yes," said Yennav. "It was me!" He admitted.
Koko thanked him and closed the line a pensive look on her face. It meant we were moving against Yennav now.
Meanwhile; D4-VID had been filming it all.
The contrast between the narrow chiaroscuro of Chuo Street and the unfettered verdant openness that surrounded Sunshine City couldn't have been starker.
A cool-blue curled neon cat marked out The Catnap Hotel, buried deep the back alleys it was a small fairly narrow establishment in a row of grubby brock buildings that ran up several storeys and was surrounded by more grubby buildings.
A timeworn entranceway opened to a decaying colourless carpet that led us to a half-lit lobby. Tinny music played out of a speaker behind the counter, the clerk's eyes flicked our way for a few milliseconds before returning to his media-slab. A dishevelled old man sat precariously on one seat of a row of upholstered black plastic chairs placed along a wall, loaded up on something and blazing away, talking incessantly to his imagination.
The clerk stopped chewing his gum, tore himself away from his slab and stared at us approaching. We didn't seem like the hotel's usual clientele and he was right.
He was hesitant to give us anything on Ashaglaya Lova but a few words and a handful of bits from Bill changed that. Leaning forward he punched some instructions into his desk-slab, scanning the results.
With the room number in hand we headed up to Ashaglaya's door, from the other side we could faintly make out several Russian voices, they were slightly distorted, it sounded like a Russian language daytime soap opera, probably Dni zhizni nashikh gangsterov, the most popular Russian language show in Neon City.
We knocked on the scratched and scuffed old door, an attractive and slim blonde woman in a short skirt and very low cut crop top opened it. The easy smile on her face melted away and eyes widened in surprise.
"You're not from Beetroot Palace?" exclaimed Ashaglaya.
Before she could react we had pushed our way into the room. Like the rest of the hotel it had all the hallmarks of a decline from former glory, faded old wallpaper peeling off walls, scratched up old furniture and fixtures and stained windows.
"Get out or I'll call my boyfriend Rostii," Ashaglaya threatened. "He's a gangster," she added with unconvincing menace.
Unfazed, we told her to go ahead and she pinged someone on her media-slab.
Whilst we waited, we told Ashaglaya that we knew she was the original woman in the video, shrugging she said that Rostii had asked her to do it and had told her who to approach and when. She was happy to do it for Rostii, he loved her.
Fifteen or so minutes later and there's a knock, Koko answered
Rostii Biniva was fairly stocky with spikey blonde-tipped hair and several days' stubble. He wore a red and black polyester Osolilitki tracksuit with a tasteless amount of fake gold around his fingers and neck. There was of course the tell-tale bulge of a pistol under his zipped-up jacket and tucked into his waistband.
His eyes flittered around the hotel room, taking in the situation. He was pro enough to take it in his stride and change tack.
"You are friends of Yennav? How can I help?" He said smiling and shaking Koko's hand. "If the girl is a problem, I can kill her. She means nothing to me," he added.
Ashaglaya, shocked, visibly trembled.
"That's not what we're here for," Bill replied. "Just tell about your involvement with filming the footage with Ashaglaya,".
Rostii freely admitted that he had arranged the setup for filming Ashaglaya with the other three, once the footage had been acquired it was passed on to Yennav who he guesses then doctored it.
D4-VID asked Rostii to repeat it all for an interview and Rostii didn't see the harm in it, we were of course, friends of Yennav Rybasei.
Once the interview was completed, D4-VID went off to file his report, happy with the results, he agreed to leave us out of it.
There was no reason for us to remain either. Ashaglaya was struggling to maintain composure so before we left, I turned to her, squeezing her hand with just the right amount of pressure and looking into a reflection of a cloudless azure sky in a field of smooth ice that were her pale blue eyes which were of course a set of Uluoyelo replacement irises and daid.
"If you feel in danger at all...." Handing her my business card.
Back out into churn of Chuo Street as we sought out some respite the afternoon heat, our media-slabs pinged.
Ram Rat was on the line, he had been sitting on Ghost Radical's slush fund watching for signs of financial activity, now he had one.
Five hundred thousand bits had been transferred back into the slush fund account not so long ago, Ram Rat couldn't trace the source.
We understood the significance: Ghost Radical's modus operandi meant that he had likely just killed someone he'd previously employed and reversed the payment. If we found his victim, it might give us a lead on Ghost Radical.
Using my data-slab I ran a hunter/searcher algorithm for unexplained deaths on the GLOWNET with a cross-referencing filter for time-of-death close to the time of the money transfer.
There were no hits, closest result came from Firestreaker, a YourTube broadcaster who reported on fire-based incidents throughout Neon City. His latest video had just gone up on the GLOWNET, its timestamp only a few minutes after the transfer.
Jacking into my slab, I was able to watch his report with full clarity, he had managed to film an apartment engulfed in flames and very quickly become entirely gutted. Narrating to the camera Firestreaker explained that it was believed that the fire had been caused by a faulty microwave unit and luckily the tenant, known locally as Case Mod was out at the time.
Case Mod was a familiar name, rung a bell; another hacker.
Were we missing something? We had to join the dots.
Was it possible Case Mod had been hired by Ghost Radical? Was Case Mod the victim? That would have meant that the fire was no accident, the times matched.
Ghost Radical may have slipped up, not realising Case Mod was still alive?
We had to get to him before Ghost Radical did.
Staying in the GLOWNET I ran another hunter/searcher, this time for Case Mod: There was a hit, he had been picked up for public defecation in Sunshine City at the children's park! We'd been there a couple of hours ago, Frank and Joey had him, we had to get back.
While heading for the closest Chuo Street tram stop, Alison pinged Bill on his media-slab. There was concern in her voice, she had a friend who needed our help now, it couldn't wait. We had to get to Aisle 10 now.
There was no other way; we had to split up. Koko and Bill headed to Dogenzaka Hill, Trigger and I went for Case Mod.
It was a tense journey to Sunshine City, stakes were high and we felt on edge, I was tapping my toes on the filth coated tram floor and Trigger bit his nails. Seconds must have lasted hours and minutes seemed to morph into infinite length.
After an age, the tram grinded to a halt at Sunshine City and we ran, a short sprint over the grass and we arrived at the Park Patrol Headquarters. It was a functional dull grey concrete cuboid bunker, with small barred windows and a couple of doors, clearly designed for purely functional purposes.
Quietly humming fluorescent strips lit the sparsely decorated interior in an equally dull hue, inside was a front desk, some offices and even a knock-off Dengken' Doughnuts booth! A slightly paunchy and scruffy looking uniformed Park Patrol officer manned the front desk, his faux police badge indicated his rank was sergeant. We asked about Case Mod and for a brief moment he was confused.
"You mean Goth Shitter?" He laughed! "That's what we call him!".
Exposed concrete steps led down to a long row of cells with toughened polymer barred doors.
Sitting dejectedly on the plain cot in a dismal cell was a young triangle-faced man, skinny, almost weedy, with a pale complexion and dyed messy long black hair, he wore black denim jeans and a food stained white t-shirt. I could see the small disc shaped magnetic connecter of his Konketak head jack in his neck. Typical hacker.
His head tilted a touch, rippling a few locks of hair as we walked up to his cell and introduced ourselves. There was no response when we told him that we were here to get him out got, for a moment he stared at us through the black locks that tumbled over his face, then looked at the cell wall.
Questioning the sergeant; he confirmed that Case Mod's/Goth Shitter's offence had been a minor transgression and he was free to leave at anytime but was unwilling to do so.
The sergeant opened the door to allow us to converse.
Turning to Case Mod, he refused to explain why he wanted to stay, even when we pressed him about it. Then it clicked.
Case Mod knew that Ghost Radical or someone was out to kill him.
Somehow the microwave fire hadn't done its job and by taking a dump in the sandbox, he knew he'd get arrested and put into the cell. His way of getting protection from Ghost Radical. I was sure of it.
We told Case Mod that these cells wouldn't protect him for long. Once Ghost Radical realised that he had missed the mark, he'd come gunning for Case Mod. If we could find him, then so could Ghost Radical, we were his only chance. I just about saw his eyes move behind the curtain of hair.
Case Mod looked at us, then the sergeant and lunged!
He landed a fairly ineffectual blow on the sergeant but it was enough to enrage the man.
"That's assault!" The sergeant exploded, furiously storming off, no doubt to file more paperwork Case Mod.
"There's nothing you can do," the hacker stated matter-of-factly before dropping back on to the bed.
We were wasting time here, I pinged Bill to see what their situation was?
Bill told us that they had encountered a problem on the way to Aisle 10.
Koko and Bill had been navigating the usual teeming afternoon shoppers on Dogenzaka Hill when a commotion had broken out ahead. There was an uproar and screaming, Koko and Bill strained to see over the milling people, moments later shoppers spilling forward crashed into other shoppers, like a human wave they parted before a gang of bikers.
The paved streets of Neon City were never designed for personal vehicles, but that didn't stop cyclists and the occasional biker weaving through the crowds, unlike this gang though, they didn't ride directly at pedestrians.
Bill said it was an almost surreal experience, rampaging bikers threatening the crowds on almost silent Bidaga or Grosenge E-bikes, only the gentle whine of their electric motors and their voices could be heard as they knocked over people. Autonomous anti-collision detection obviously deactivated, stability systems preventing them from falling themselves. The bikers were yelling, hollering and blazing their horns, shouting incomprehensibly about 'what they deserved', 'risk for nothing' or 'their money'.
The bikers mostly wore denim and leathers with open faced helmets and shades, partly for protection and partly a fashion statement echoing a mostly forgotten look from long ago. Of course modern synthetic multi-weaved polymer and nylon clothing was lighter, more durable and more comfortable than any protective clothing from the past but I guess that wasn't the point. They accessorised with lengths of chain and showy katana, Bill also noticed the give-away bulge of small sidearms.
The disruption they were causing was preventing Koko and Bill getting to Aisle 10. Eventually Bill lost his rag, identifying what seemed to be their leader he managed to pull him up with an intimidating stare and a steely grasp.
After being given a stiff shakedown by Bill, the leader offered up his name: Rooster, president of the Doomriders. Middle-aged, bearded and fairly stocky, he wore a black faux reinforced leather jacket over a scruffy t-shirt with a skull motif and a faded tatty pair of jeans over some well polished black Nochreb boots, Bill had told me that they remined him of something, but the in heat of the moment he couldn't remember what?
He was clearly tense or aggravated, skin a shade of red, voice strained and in response to Bill's demands, he spoke through gritted teeth.
Rooster and his companions were veterans of the Planetary Guard Defence Force. They'd recently retired after completed their last induction of the latest cohort recruits - including some sort of pimp he exclaimed!
Now they had time to spare they'd formed the motorcycle club Doomriders to spend their free time roaming Neon City's highways. Their military pensions and discharge bonuses had however never materialised. Rooster told Bill that this had all been handled by a contractor called Mabana Multinational.
Mabana Multinational had just been conglomerated into Thetatec Advanced Research, during this transition, all of their financial records had vanished, supposedly lost.
Mabana and Thetatec were of no help getting their pensions back, so angrily they'd taken to the streets in protest.
To placate them, Bill took a deep breath and agreed to look into the matter of their finances if they'd just stopped rioting. Rooster hesitated, fingers waggling in a ripple as he gave it thought and finally agreed.
"Now that my grievances have been vented I somehow feel deflated?" Rooster stated.
Rooster gave his card to Bill who couldn't help but notice that Rooster's name was actually Nigel Cheal.
Back at the Park Patrol Headquarters Trigger and I finally gotten Case Mod to talk. While we were talking to Bill, he'd overheard us talking about Thetatec and pensions.
"I know what that's about," he said swinging forward on his cot.
Case Mod went on to admit that Ghost Radical had hired him to hack into Thetatec's systems and delete all the Mabana merger files on pensions for the space people but data could be recovered - if you knew how it had been deleted.
"Why would Ghost Radical go after the Defence Force's pensions?" We asked.
Leaning back again, Case Mod shrugged. "It's all about the bits man and the stock markets,".
Checking newsfeeds, rumours had begun circulating rapidly; supposedly Thetatec was trying to undermine the Planetary Global Defence Force in an attempt to get their military contracts. Rumours were worth as much as the truth wasn't in Neon City, Thetatec's Rep had taken a hit and so had its share price. Trillions had been wiped off their market cap.
Ghost Radical had it in for Porter Sladek, was this some new avenue of attack?
Case Mod then told us how to recover the deleted data.
Bill pinged us an update.
With the Doomriders at least temporarily dealt with, Koko and Bill rushed on to Aisle 10, the trendy fashion boudoir within the exclusive Chou-Nata Corporate Mall and like every other designer shop in the high class shopping complex, served a selective affluent clientele.
Arriving at the glass walled entrance, Koko and Bill slowed to a nonchalant stroll as they went in, navigating browsing customers and corridors of racked colourful garments until they got to the counter.
Alison waved them out back to a small out-of-the-way office.
Waiting for them was Hida Masu, a thin man in a nondescript two-piece grey Evoda suit.
He politely introduced himself as a employee of the Rokkaku Group who worked in payload insurance at Goji Tower and lived in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
It wasn't clear to Koko and Bill what this was about.
He continued: Last night he had been working into the late hours at the tower alone when he saw something incredible.
Strange creatures sloping through the semi-lit office, he was dumbfounded and stared at them. Hida Masu told Koko and Bill that they became aware of him and turned and stared back with stalks of wire for eyes. Moments later, before he could react they turned and left, vanishing, all of this in total silence.
Hida Masu could not tell if he had fallen asleep and hallucinated the encounter or it was real? He admitted that it had left him rattled regardless. So he called it a night and decided to have a few drinks to settle his nerves, this took him to Braindance. Koko and Bill had heard of Braindance, an up-and-coming bar on Chuo Street that specialised in serving a potent blend of tequila and peyote.
Hida Masu had drunken himself into a stupor on that potent blend and realising the trip back Rokkaku Dai Heights might land him in trouble during the small hours, staggered to a local capsule hotel called Otsukaresamadesu and spent the right.
Morning came and so did a throbbing headache explained Hida Masu. After splashing his face with the meagre supply of water available, he headed back to the rooftop shanty that was his home in the Heights and was dismayed to discover that his apartment had been turned over, someone had broken in and wrecked the place. Then he went on to say that a peculiar smell like vomit hung in the air and a strange thin coat of oily substance seemed to be covering everything.
Maybe his night at Otsukaresamadesu had saved him in an unexpected way.
Finally he admitted that he was worried that someone at Rokkaku had it in for him. A little earlier he had been included on an email that mentioned Akumu Accord and Rokkaku Project. Maybe this wasn't a coincidence.
Bill said that we'd check it out for him.
Time to go, Koko and Bill were heading straight to Rokkaku Dai Heights to check out something serious and we had to meet them.
We called the desk sergeant to lock up Case Mod's cell again, said goodbye to the hacker and got up to leave.
"Wait!" He blurted. "Take me with you."
After smoothing things over with the irate desk sergeant he allowed Case Mod to go with a fine to pay. On the way out to the tram stop we passed Frank and Joey.
"Goth Shitter!" they laughed and pointed.
Case Mod shifted around staring at the ground.
The afternoon crush was underway and it was a short squalid tram ride to the heights. Through stained windows I watched the cluster of alabaster-white high rises grow from beyond Neon City's crowded skyline to loom overhead as we rolled into our destination.
Now with Koko and Bill, we headed up to Hida Masu's apartment. Like most shanty dwellings in the Heights, it was a part of the dizzying high-rise community that haphazardly sprawled from rooftop to rooftop of apartment blocks, interconnected by rope-bridges and makeshift walkways.
Breaking into Hida Masu's apartment would have been easy, constructed as it was out of whatever materials the occupants could scavenge and lug up the high-rises. In this case an oblong sheet of planking that had been screwed on to hinges. Now it hung on only one hinge and swung freely.
Immediately we became aware of the vomit-like smell as we entered, even hours later it clung to the air. Stifling our gag reflexes we investigated the shanty.
Unpredictably shaped, the apartment was a composite of mostly sturdy polymer sheets and reclaimed two-by-four wooden supports. Makeshift tables, chairs and other furniture had been tipped over or outright smashed during the incursion. Knick knacks and ornaments had been swept off the homemade shelves, lying scattered or smashed across the piecemeal flooring, it was the same everywhere.
As Hida Masu had told us, a thin film of some kind of viscous substance or slime seemed to coat everything.
Searching the shanty found nothing incriminating, if it had been the strange creatures hunting Hida Masu, then they were capable enough to leave no clues. We took a sample of the slime, maybe get it tested in a lab?
On the way out. Koko got pinged; Yennav Rybasei.
Koko answered and from the looks on her face, it wasn't a pleasant conversation. Once the call was over she explained that D4-VID's report about Tatsuya Niko's faked footage had been released and she had been exonerated, her popularity was rising in the polls again.
It wasn't going Yennav's way and he was not happy. He told Koko that he was sure that someone in his organisation had flipped on him.
Yennav wanted Koko to investigate the leak. Considering that we were the leak, it looked like things were going to get messy, for Koko in particular and she did not look happy.
Next we contacted Porter Sladek's direct line and explained that the Mabana accounts had been hacked. On the end of the call, Porter sounded surprised, he hadn't heard anything about anyone losing their pension, his organisation was too big for him to oversee everything.
We explained the situation with the Doomriders to Porter, how the attack had been directed at him by Ghost Radical and also how to resolve it. Without delay he said he'd sort the pensions out and give them a bonus as compensation.
Street-lit silvery sheets of water began hitting the streets of Rokkaku Dai heights just as we did, falling rain marked the beginning of night and only just the beginning for us.
The night's ecology surfaced; a forest of gently swaying umbrellas sprang up, allowing Neon City's population to venture out under the pattering deluges of darkness.
Our media-slabs pinged, calling was conductor Hideki Naganuma, last spoken to during the Rokkaku Dai Heights Bake Off competition in which he had been runner up. We had rescued his sister back then, looked like she was in trouble again.
Hideki Naganuma told us that we must immediately head to the Choose To Be Happy Hotel on Chuo Street, that's where Okan Ikomi could be found. From there we were to escort her to the Fortified Residential Zone.
Again, we got pinged on the way back to Chuo Street, a message from an unrecognised ID this time. It read: 'Where I have failed, you may succeed. Free the captives.', the message was signed off by Prophet Wei. He had also provided us an address for somewhere called Shou Shop in Highway Zero and told us a package had been delivered to Trigger's home which left him quietly pleased!
It didn't make much sense, who were the captives? It would have to wait, we continued on.
It felt like the morning we had just spent in Chuo Street was long ago but now here we were; for the third timek in the inadequately lit alleys, darker even thanks to the shroud of night. It was a small anonymous hotel, that didn't seem to want to be found. Working through the unabating crowds we eventually found it in an out-of-the-way back alley. Neon signage long since broken, the entrance unlit and unwelcoming.
Except for a capsule hotel, Choose To Be Happy was considered small even by Neon City standards. Inside it was unremarkable and quiet.
"We're expected," the desk clerk told us when we asked.
Okan Ikomi wasn't alone in her room, with her was a massive chromed up Jamaican Rude Boy in Noise Tank colours? With suspicion he grimly stared at us, I could see him become unsettled and reaching, we were about to do the same when Okan Ikomi pleaded with all of us to be calm.
The small woman went on to explain that Street was her boyfriend, that was quite a relationship for the mousey, quiet woman.
We asked them to explain what was going on.
Street was fleeing from gigantic cyborg killers, now that sounded familiar.
Charles 'Street' Spangler went on to explain that pretty much the entire Noise Tank gang had been instructed to attack a Protobase Global lab in Highway Zero and rescue some Galapagos tortoises.
"Instructed by who?" we asked.
"Great Prophet Wei," came the answer.
We had always suspected it, but this was the confirmation, Wei controlled Noise Tank and it answered the question about the captives from his message. Now it looked like we were going to be cleaning up the dirty work his gang couldn't finish. Worse still, it didn't shed any light on Wei's endgame.
Street continued; Noise Tank turned up at the lab in force but security was much heavier than anticipated and after an exchange of fire, the gang were driven off.
A few hours later, the retaliation came. A gang of giant cyborgs hit Noise Tank's most well known and popular hangout; cyBARtek and hit it hard too. Street couldn't tell us how many gangers were killed but he suspected it was a lot.
He was sharp enough to know when things were going south fast! Diving over the bar, avoiding fire and dashing for the back door, he barged it open, and ran for the back alleys, not slowing down, not looking back. The gunfire began to fade as he lost himself in the crowds and noise of Highway Zero.
After being contacted by Street, Okan Itomi came to Choose To Be Happy where he was hiding out. She then contacted her brother who had finished arranging an apartment for them in the Fortified Residential Zone and provided them with tickets for the Secure Residential Metro Link to get there.
It meant getting to the Skyscraper District, which is where we came in.
Exiting Choose To Be Happy took us back into the rainy, gloomy night of Chuo Street with its constant movement of workers, revellers and drunks, Closest tram stop wasn't far but it meant going through the badly lit and uncertain misty alleys. I tightened my Verskeit, pulled the collar up against the rain and sank my hands into its pockets, feeling the pistol grips within. I watched as Koko sent Kevin up above and ahead, melting into the night, despite the rain the drone might give us a decisive edge.
Concentrating on the risks ahead, we barely spoke as we went through unlit stretches, round blind corners and past unknown gaggles of people, the drumbeat of a million raindrops probably would have drowned most of the words out anyway.
Our slow caution eventually took us into one of Chuo Street's busy main thoroughfares, that's when everything changed. Soon Koko's control-slab began pinging, Kevin had picked up incoming hostiles, contact in a few seconds.
We ducked behind a nearby thriving food cart, drawing strange stares from diners sitting sheltered under a fluttering nylon canopy. Then we realised that with the crowds here, it might turn into a bloodbath.
The proprietor was about to lay into us when we repeatedly fired into the air, then he, his customers and everybody else fled, screaming and panicking. The cart's canopy was upended, tables were toppled and plastic chairs scattered into the rain. In moments this part of the thoroughfare was empty save for the hastily discarded umbrellas.
Still hidden behind the food cart, we waited for what might have been hours, blinking and wiping rainwater out of our eyes, gripping our weapons, taking controlled breaths and occasionally cautiously peeking at the way we knew the cyborgs must be coming.
Hopefully the cyborgs' tactical algorithms wouldn't pick up on the fleeing people and recognise an ambush.
Then they arrived; hulking four-limbed killing machines moving with robotic precision materialised out of the gloom, we broke cover and lit them up with everything we had. Protobase Global killer-cyborgs packed an immense amount of firepower, pressing our advantage was our best chance of destroying them before they turned that firepower on us.
Luckily we knew their design weakness, all critical functionality was managed by cranially implanted processors which were vulnerable to impact trauma; a solid head and down they went, like a sack of outdated and unwanted memory chips.
A short fierce firefight ensued. Soon it was over and only we remained standing with our guns out and soaked by the downpour, the ambush had swung it our way.
No time to congratulate ourselves, still had to get to a tram stop and no idea if more cyborgs were on the way.
Leaving the gunfight site in our wake we eventually merged into normal crowds, Koko kept Kevin flying until we reached a tram stop. Our eyes were peeled as we waited in the bustle of commuters, another tense wait that seemed to last hours except this time no cyborgs appeared as the tram came squealing into the stop.
We boarded, the trip to the Skyscraper District was uninterrupted and we arrived without a hitch, from there it was a short walk to the secured metro link. Koko kept Kevin in the air, scouting ahead for hostiles, nothing was detected so we pushed on.
It was fast approaching midnight when we arrived the elongated cubic concrete frontage of the metro link terminal with it's rows of steel and glass doors. They led into the bustling central lobby, even at this hour flocks of commuters came and went from the Fortified Residential District. Then we watched as Okan Itomi and Steel checked-in, Itomi turned and waved a thank-you as they were led into the terminal proper. That was the last we saw of them, they would be safe for the remainder of their journey, the entire line was called secure for a reason.
Despite time marching on, night wasn't over, we still had one loose end to tie up and some tortoises to find!
The address provided by Prophet Wei led to Shou Shop, small, discrete and some type of Chinese medicine shop, a deliberately old-style plain looking painted sign hung above the shop, designed to give it a traditional appeal. Signs of the Noise Tank attack were apparent, the window's safety glass had shattered into a spider's web of bullets holes which continued across the shop's façade and door.
It was still open for business, pushing the bullet-riddled door, we went inside. Replica wooden shelving lined with exotic packets and bottles filled the shop and behind the counter a middle-aged woman in a Chinese style high-collared tunic and loose cotton trousers looked at us. Just looking we told her, she smiled and nodded, handing us each some leaflets about healthy living and a fortune cookie.
I cracked mine open: 'Serious trouble will bypass you'.
Things were looking up!
An old man emerged from a back door labelled Treatment Rooms and exited the shop, giving the woman a goodbye wave.
Flicking on his thermals, Trigger swept the establishment. There were thermals for several people behind the walls beyond the door, nearly all of them laying down?
The shop looked clean, we browsed long enough to not raise any suspicion and left. We needed a way into the treatment rooms. Thanks to Street, we knew the potential risk that security posed.
Finding some shelter from the endless crashing downpour we waited and watched. Several more old people left one-by-one, using optics we managed to make out that they all seemed to be wearing identical bracelets on their left wrists? It wasn't too long before the middle-aged woman came out, locked the door behind her and went on her way. Shou Shop was closed for the night.
Another thermal sweep from Trigger showed that more people were still inside, mostly lying down, some moving around.
It was time for a hard infiltration and we now had our way in, using his implants Bill disguised himself as the middle-aged woman, in the dark it might be convincing enough....
Next, Koko worked on the door lock but the it eluded her. Roderick offered to try and open it.
"Be my guest," Koko replied.
Roderick grabbed the door and pulled, wrenching the lock out of its housing with the crunching noise of buckling and breaking plastic....
Still, we were in.
Bill led with Trigger following close by. Speed was of the essence, we were heading into the unknown, quicker this went, the better. Ignoring the shopfront, Bill went for the back door, it led into a featureless clinically white corridor brightly lit by strips lights, doors ran down the corridor at regular intervals until they reached a last door at the far end.
Bill checked a door, popping only his head through and it opened into what must have been one of the treatment rooms. It was a small room, equally white as the corridor, along one wall an old person was lying on a aluminium cot, under a surgical sheet. A cannula line was drip-feeding a colourless fluid into their arm from a bag hanging above. When the patient saw the disguised Bill, they waved, assuming he was the woman. Bill waved back and remarked that he was just checking in on them, then he closed the door.
Bill checked another door and it led into an empty office. A couple desk-slabs sat on a couple of vinyl coated tables. The terminals could have led to some useful info but there was no time.
It was probable that the other doors led to more treatment rooms, we went on to the last door.
Another clinically white room, this one larger though with a single door out on the opposite wall.
At the centre was a huge messy deposit of straw and placed on this straw were the two Galapagos tortoises. We had seen images and maybe videos of the creatures before but that didn't prepare us for the sheer size of these strangely limbed, long necked reptiles. They sat there, eating staring at us with their reptilian eyes. Each one had a cannula line coming out, extracting and pumping some fluid from the them through Saengdal Genetics med-slabs and into liquid bags. The med-slabs kits were clearly active, their readouts displayed fluctuating numbers, oscillating waveform graphs and constantly resizing bar charts. It was heavily customised software and the readings were beyond any of us. Is this what they were putting into people?
We carefully checked through the other door and saw a pair of pretty lax Protobase Global private security goons who didn't notice us, they were obviously weren't expecting any trouble after the pushback against Noise Tank. We were also keeping an eye on the corridor to our backs, at one point we saw someone in Protobase Global branded scrubs move from room to room. Definitely someone working here.
With their enhanced strength, it would take both Trigger and Roderick to carry one of these tortoises out, the rest of us had little chance. A GLOWNET search told us they would weight about four hundred kilograms each! We needed a solution. There wasn't much choice in our next move.
Quietly we contacted cyBARtek, there had to be some Noise Tank gangers still alive?
A voice answered at the other end, we told them that we needed to speak to someone in Noise Tank.
"Who is this?" the voice was bitter and questioning.
"Just tell them that Wei needs to contact Trigger now,".
Trigger's media-slab pinged and with a heavily modulated voice filter, Wei told Trigger that he was sending a sky-freighter to pick the tortoises up, we demanded to know what he was going to do with them? Wei assured us that he planned to return them to their natural habitat in the Galapagos Islands. It seemed fair to us. As the conversation concluded we could hear the low bass rumble of a heavy flier already landing outside.
We had to move, time had run out for subtlety.
Bill lured the two unsuspecting Protobase Base guards into the tortoise room where we got the drop on them, outgunned, they immediately surrendered, they were disarmed and stripped of their comms. Any Protobase Global staff were rounded up and also taken prisoner. Then they were all put into one of the treatment rooms, Roderick sealed the door by breaking the handle and lock. It would hold them long enough for us to do what was needed.
Getting the tortoises out was even harder than we expected. They were too big to get through the doorways! Perhaps they had been bought in another way, a way we had missed? It didn't matter, no time to search. It was relatively easy for Roderick to smash the interior walls down, none of them were load bearing. Out of the gleaming corridor and back in the shop, he kicked a shattered window out and one-by-one we could lug the tortoises into the waiting Armerdt sky-freighter. Fortunately, Highway Zero was the one district in Neon City where a sky-freighter could land at street level.
As the freighter's electric turbines spun up, they whipped the falling rain into a furious tornado of stinging droplets, a bulky backlit silhouette rose up against diffused streetlights, climbing higher, carrying the tortoises into the night and vanishing from our shielded eyes.
Next morning and results of the election of the next Overseer of the Women’s Liaison and Consultation Executive came in, Ms Tatsuya Niko had won a landslide victory despite the lewd video or because this is Neon City because of it.
Porter Sladek, dressed in grey Shaguaifu trousers and a black Avorukhclu shirt personally appeared in an impromptu news conference that was on all the GLOWNET's news vines. He announced that all Mabana Multinational records had been restored, including financial records regarding Planetary Global Defence Force pensions. He went on to give a personal assurance that all affected pensioners would receive a generous fiscal compensation for their troubles.
It resulted in a dramatic turnabout in Thetatec's share price and soon it was to skyrocketing to its earlier levels.
One thing you could not criticise Porter Sladek for was a lack of understanding of public relations.
Later that day; reports of a tragedy at Pharoah Park came in. A small unexplained fire, possibly from a small toy had caused a faulty power cell on an amusement ride to catastrophically explode. Among the victims was Ms Tatsuya Niko, winner of a recent local election.
The Neon City Oversight and Ethics Committee decided that running another election would unacceptably costly and timely. The committee's ruling decided it would be fair in reassigning the role to the first runner-up; Aglayata Banova.
It looked like luck had swung it Yennav's sister-in-laws way!
Even later; another news item came along on the GLOWNET news vines that caught my eye: A report stated that a waiter employed by the Union Trans Metropolitan Hotel had been found dead, accidental death by drowning was the verdict, although with unexplained puncture wounds.
He was identified as Rostii Biniva. It seemed as far as Yennav Rybasei was concerned, his leak had been found.
Koko was off the hook....
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.