10th April 2021
Saturday night again, I'm logged into Meet on PC and ready to game.
Time for session 18 of Matakishi's Wired Neon City campaign.
Doctor Pepper Mashup: Played by Karl.
A doctor of internal medicine and surgery - or so he said; his best friend was a vet? Pepper was a cynical opportunist always with one eye watching for an easy score. He was also incredible irregular and appeared only according to whatever whim he fancied.
Location: Neon City.
Thankfully, morning had come and gone before I woke to a hangover. Bumbling to the kitchen area, I labouredly rummaged through the piled trash until I came across a suitable breakfast; Savka chunky milk chocolate sticks and a couple of cans of Huntudi. After a few minutes, the mixture of flavour enhancers, additives and sugar had washed away the remains of last night's excesses.
I could've done with some more sleep, trying my best to ignore the flapping polymer tarp that covered the exposed side of my one-bed, I slumped back on my futon, dragging the sheet over my head and closing my eyes. It couldn't last though, it never did.
Silai Granskina pinged us a call: On the line, his voice was distorted, sounded strange, maybe coming down with a cold?
Told us he needed our help, had been coming out of a meeting in The Shibuya District when he'd been attacked! His nose had been chopped off and stolen! Well, that explained it.
He wasn't alone! We'd been hearing stories on the news-vines for a little while now, an unknown assailant had been targeting people in The Shibuya District and taking their noses! Media had dubbed them The Snot Robber!
It had been the beginning of Silai's problems, he needed reconstructive surgery which would require purchasing in a new and expensive vat-grown nose, his medical insurance typically refused to cover the cost, claiming that The Snot Robber was a terrorist and excluded from their coverage. As a consequence Silai needed two million bits. He'd been taken to The Shinjuku Prefecture and the Okkubo Hospital located within The Metropolitan Building District.
The Metropolitan Building District could only be reached one way; The Tochomae Electric Train. It was a transfer we had to make at The Shinjuku Station, a concrete, glass and steel colossus where four transit systems and an array of platforms intersected. Rippling swathes of people swept through the station's halls at every hour. The clamour was immense, a mixture of voices, footfalls and harshly electric public announcements that reverbed into the airy, vaulted, high-ceilinged roof filled with swooping mercenary pigeons.
The Tochomae Electric Railway was a small network that serviced The Metropolitan Building District, the trains were plain but well maintained and smoothly delivered us to our destination.
The district got its name from the behemothic Metropolitan Building that dominated the skyline like a silent watchful sentinel. An uncaring midday sun beat down on the bustling main thoroughfare that thronged with crowds as we threaded our way towards Okkubo Hospital. Despite its size, the hospital paled in the shadow its monstrous neighbour.
Concrete steps went up to automated glass doors that swished open into a neutral grey interior where staff and visitors shuffled through a eerily subdued reception hall. Following instructions to find Silai Granskina immediately got us lost in the multi-storied warren of annexes, wings and wards, boots squeaked on the polished linoleum floor as we wondered plain corridors decorated with hospital signs and a variety of health promotion posters that everyone in Neon City would ignore.
After a while something caught our eye, down one corridor we saw a doctor purposely striding away, face obscured, he wore a bright red and yellow floppy hat, even in a conurbation with Neon City's population, only one man wore a bright red and yellow floppy hat of that particular style; Thaddeus Rackham.
What had bought the vaudevillian transvestite street worker and assassin to Okkubo Hospital? What was he doing wearing a doctor's coat? After catching up with Thaddeus, he informed us that he was here to see a friend about a body!
Like us, Thaddeus knew The Accountant, a disembodied brain in a jar that resided in a suitcase that had belonged to Russian mobster Yennav Rybasei. He had promised to find a body for The Accountant and he had just been pinged by Astiek Steva, his friend and mortuary worker who had encountered a suitable candidate. We went with Thaddeus to the morgue, like the assassin, we were also on the hunt for a body for The Accountant.
The temperature noticeably dropped at a rapid pace as we descended into the hospital's basement levels, rooms and corridors here were lit by humming dim strip lights. The exposed walls and concrete floor lacked even the plain painting of the hospital above. Gone too, was the hubbub of people, only hospital staff in scrubs quietly walked the corridors here.
Astiek Steva seemed friendly enough when Thaddeus introduced us, he spoke with a measured quiet voice. He was a skinny, small guy with a triangular face, sunken eyes, sharp cheek bones and thing scraggly beard, on his slight frame he wore olive coloured scrubs and white Pohaden Xyrrig designer trainers.
He led us into a secluded examination room which was dominated by a sheet-covered body on a gurney, he went over to a table and scrutinised a desk-slab.
"Hayden Weyer, thirty years old, no underlying health issues, single, looks like he was a salaryman," Astiek read off the slab. "Aneurism was listed as cause of death. A perfect candidate for a brain transplant," he concluded.
The plastic sheet rustled as it was pulled back. Before us was the pale corpse of Hayden Weyer, preserved by the morgue. As expected, it lacked any obvious sign of injury or trauma, even so we decided to take a closer look.
Matters weren't so clear once we'd examined the remains of Hayden Weyer. We'd found a tiny mark behind one ear, it was unmistakably a puncture wound from a needle, no doubt directly into the brain? The kind of technique used by slick assassins who wanted a quick and unfussy death.
It was too much of a coincidence.
We turned to Thaddeus, he was shifting something around in the pocket of his lab coat nervously. After we demanded it, he pulled out whatever was in there; a needle gun!
"Well, I am an assassin!" He said, shrugging. trying hard to look innocent.
Thaddeus' victim was already long dead, too late to do anything now. Nothing to be gained from stopping the transplant, so we decided not to interfere.
"You're going to need a surgeon," Astiek told us. "And probably some sort of engineer to manage the bio-microelectronic components that keep the brain alive,".
Koko could cover the electronics but none of us had the skills to handle the transplant. Thaddeus piped in and told us that he knew a guy.
Doctor Pepper Mashup was a surly-eyed, jowl-faced man with a suspicious expression, deep rumbling voice and most definitely the haunted, twitchy look of a hypersucrose junkie? Pepper wore a dishevelled lab coat and carried a bulging faux-leather black bag. Pepper agreed to help us if we gave him a taste of money, there was little time to disagree.
Jacking into my data-slab, I watched as the GLOWNET emerged, surrounding me in the constantly churning plethora of brilliantly lit data-images and knowledge-vaults that constituted Neon City's info-vista.
Getting into Okkubo Hospital's systems was easy, I arrived at its gleaming, green translucent, Greek square cross data-image, launched a bypass protocol and was in. Hospital data flowed past me, finances, med-records, e-mails and more, I saw an unoccupied and available operating theatre, a couple of inputs and it was now reserved for Doctor Pepper Mashup.
I contacted Ashaglaya, told her to bring The Accountant's suitcase to us and Thaddeus quickly wheeled Hayden Weyer's body out of the morgue and into the theatre. Once everyone had converged, Koko and Pepper got to work.
It would be some time before the transplant was completed and the rest of us took the opportunity to go back into the maze that was Okkubo Hospital and found Silai Granskina, we had been delayed enough.
The centre of his unhappy face was covered by a thick white cotton wool pad held in place by numerous strips of surgical taping. Silai told us that a Doctor Ivan Grippen, specialist in rhino-constructive surgery had come highly recommended. Unfortunately The Snot Robber's exploits had increased the demand and thus driven up the costs of both Doctor Grippen's services and vat-grown noses from Saengdal Genetics to a total of two million bits. Well it looked like Doctor Grippen would be raking it in thanks to The Snot Robber.
Bill sighed and I'm pretty certain I could hear him grumble under his breath as he parted with the two million bits Silai required.
A while after we returned to the operating theatre, the procedure had been completed and was a total success! The Accountant's brain now resided in Hayden Weyer's body, despite the transplant's success, there would need to be a length convalescence. Ashaglaya, who had also befriended The Accountant was happy to provide care for him once we arranged for transport to our ghost apartment in The Skyscraper District.
There was one last thing that needed doing; I jacked back into the hospital's data-systems and began searching. It didn't take long to find; Hayden Weyer's death certificate. I wiped it off the system, wiped the backup record, wiped the emergency callout log and anything in between. It wasn't a perfect clean-up job by any stretch but it didn't need to be, why would anyone want to go looking for a deleted death certificate of man who was still alive? Inconsistencies would be put down to erroneous system code errors.
The Accountant was in Hayden Weyer's body, finally he had wanted and would now be free to live the life left behind by Hayden Weyer.
First though, he was transported to our ghost apartment in The Skyscraper District, a brain transfer was no small thing and he would need recovery time
Heavy Neon City rain nosily lashed violently against the tarp as it endlessly billowed in and out. What woke me in the small hours though, was the pinging from my Jaunkeu 6. I stretched for the media-slab and answered: Ashaglaya was on the line, the pitch and tempo of her voice were too high, something was wrong? Had something happened to Hayden Weyer?
Turns out she'd gotten a call from Cammy Sabine, owner of Coke & Whores, the previous business Ashaglaya had worked for, someone had been targeting the company's party favours and killing them. Cammy told Ashaglaya; she might be next, even the Coke & Whores office had been attacked! Cammy knew that Ashaglaya was tight with the Russian Mob and had asked her if she could get help from the gangsters? Instead, Ashaglaya had called us.
Ashaglaya calmed down and regained her composure once we assured her that the ghost apartment was off-the-grid and she was safe, it would be next to impossible for anyone to find her there, not to leave and we would look into it.
Our attention was turned to Coke & Whores, why had someone moved against them? Valaya Dova, one of their party favours had been murdered by the weird Rokkaku creatures, was it related?
I pinged the others and gave them the low-down, then I pinged the number Ashaglaya had given and told Cammy Sabine we were on the way. We pulled trench coats tight, turned up collars, unpacked umbrellas and hit the street: Undaunted graveyard-shift workers and shaky late-night revellers still filled the rain-swept, streetlight-lit thoroughfares of Rokkaku Expo Stadium as we made our way to the Coke & Whores office.
Cammy Sabine, a slim, slight, middle aged woman was waiting for us outside, she wore a rumpled slate-grey Sarochba business suit and was huddled beneath the protective dome of a nylon micro-umbrella. She looked pale and unsettled as she greeted us, explaining that the office had been hit a couple of hours after closing and she was too scared to go inside.
It was a mess, the street-level door had been struck a hard blow, torn off its hinges and hurled inside, only a curtain of raindrops dripping off the head jamb separated the building from the street.
Out of the rain and inside; we were immediately met with the smell of vomit. Much of the lighting had been broken and in the pale half-glow, it was clear the place had been turned over, floors were strewn with glittering, broken glass, smashed crockery and more, nothing was left standing, tables had been flung over, contents scattered everywhere, wall-slabs ripped from fittings and cables left dangling, even part of the flooring had been pulled up.
Worse still, mostly it seemed to be coated in thin oily film, the Rokkaku creatures had been here.
With caution, we scoured the office, scoping it out under the scrutiny of our flashlights. Nearly everything had been wrecked, except one desk-slab which had somehow survived the destruction, it appeared to be covered in an inordinate amount of nauseating slime.
Cammy gave us a password, so, trying my best to avoid the vile substance, I powered the desk-slab and logged in. Scrolling through system-logs, I saw that the slab had last been powered on less than two hours ago, after Coke & Whores had closed for the night. Only one file had been accessed, a list of Coke & Whores party favours, Ashaglaya's name was on it. I pinged it to my media-slab and we returned outside to the rainy street.
After showing the list to Cammy, we could visibly see the fear grow in her eyes. Trembling, she told us that several names at the top of the the list were dead.
Someone was working down through the list, killing everyone on it; except for Hiki Suko, who was the first to die, killed in a traffic accident supposedly, she was further down the list. Why had she been targeted first?
When posed with the question, Cammy didn't have an answer, then she remembered! Hiki had given Cammy a media-slab the last time she had seen her?
I grabbed the media-slab, it was a Gohotocang, a Dahure model, same model that Ashaglaya had. I networked it into my data-slab, launched a incursion protocol that bypassed the media-slab's password and was in.
It had belonged to Valaya Dova. I began searching the slab's memory partition and instantly found something, the first file I encountered was the last thing recorded, a video, its timestamp's date was identical to the time of Valaya's murder. I hit playback.
Watching the video whilst being jacked into my Nonohiki made it fill my virtual vision.
This video was shot from a unusually low, off-kilter angle, part of the picture was out of focus, seemingly obscured by something, it must have been Valaya, hidden behind something. The remaining visible part of the picture showed a tall and thin, almost spindly man with Goji Rokkaku, that wasn't all though. A Rokkaku creature came into shot, moving unnaturally, it rolled its strange head around as if it was looking for something. Suddenly it flicked its head with its strange stalk-like eyes in the direction of Valaya, I heard a gasp behind the video and the picture lurched abruptly and become shaky as Valaya began running, a moment later the video ended.
After this was another video with a slightly earlier timestamp, again I hit playback. It showed the same tall, thin man, this time being serviced by a party favour.
Was that what this was all about? Was this what Valaya had seen at the party that had gotten her killed? Somehow the media-slab had gone from Valaya to Hiki Suko and now Hika Suko was dead.
We asked Cammy if any of the people on the list had been at the Goji Tower party a little while ago.
"All of them," replied Cammy Sabine.
Everyone on that list was at risk, Rokkaku was cleaning up shop, bumping off anyone associated with that party, we had to get to the targets first. Koko bought the flier in as quickly as she could and we began searching.
Several people on the list were already dead; Ashaglaya was safe where she was and well hidden. Racing though the rain filled blackness of night, guided through the aerial landscape and congestion by city lights and night vision, we managed to reach other five party favours, that was about half of the list, they piled them into the flier as we found them.
By the time we'd got them all, the rain had been reduced to a drizzle and the eastern skyline was lightening, evidence of the oncoming dawn.
We decided to stash them on the autonomous RV that circled Neon City's road network, they would safe there and they could amuse themselves while they waited for things to cool down.
During this time, as Koko was flying through the night, I took the opportunity to run the tall man through facial recognition and got a hit; Barnabus Haywood.
Resident of The Glitterband, the vast orbital residential station that ringed the Earth, more than that, he was The Controller of one of The Glitterband's numerous habitats, namely The Messenger Habitat.
A little more digging and found records of him coming down The Skytree, the monumental undertaking that had created a space-elevator which physically linked Neon City to the vast geosynchronous Glitterband above.
Whatever was going on, looked like this was starting to grow bigger than just The Rokkaku Group. How big did it get? It was too late to try and figure out the significance, instead we returned to Hikage Street and bed.
Once again, we'd interfered with the machinations of The Rokkaku Group. It was only a matter of time before we surfaced on their radar and they might sic those creatures on to us.
We'd fought the creatures once and they proved to be dangerous enemies with bio-enhancements that gave them a serious tactical edge in combat, we needed a way to even that edge.
On every occasion that we'd seen of them, they exhibited exceptional hearing and had moved in total silence, maybe it was something that could be used against them?
Koko and I discussed creating a sonic drone that could pump out soundwaves on a multitude of frequencies and intensities, hopefully it would overpower the creature's hyper sensitive hearing or interfere with it.
Koko contacted Alex Chinsko, owner of Bric-a-Brac Shac, he had a knack of creating bespoke, modded tech, maybe there was something he could do.
Too few short hours later and with little rest, our media-slabs pinged again, with a sigh I rolled out of my futon. Shadows were shortening as a blazing midday sun was rising over Neon City, drenching it in punishing heat. From my one-bed, the usually stark, blue-white sky was now strange when viewed through the filter of the urine coloured transparent tarp.
Alex Chinsko had pinged us, only not about drones! someone had come into his shop looking for help, he'd come looking for a street-doc and ratchet-jockey and was willing to pay. Alex had immediately thought of us and said we should come down to and meet the guy.
Much of Hikage Street was primarily Neon City's residential, social-housing district and Bric-a-Brac Shac one of many strips of shops that nestled at street level beneath the collective of grey, concrete high-rises and serviced their inhabitants.
The street was always busy, most people here collected universal credit and lived a life stripped of aspiration, had little purpose other than you absorb mostly vapid wall-slab vid-shows or wander the city looking for some kind of meaningful gratification. Subsiding only on this municipal fiscal arrangement that allowed them acquire funds to continue consuming corporate products and ultimately line the pockets of said corporations.
It's where we lived too, only we weren't planning on making it a permanent deal.
Bric-a-Brac Shac was like a mini electronic supermarket, shop window brimming with it's eclectic array of consumer electronics. A tiny analogue bell chimed as we came in, the noise of the outside world fell away as we gazed on walls, shelves and aisles: All choked with second hand consumer electronics, slabs of every kind, lights, AC systems, electrical components, power blocks, recovered implants, as well torn-down circuit boards and components, actuators, servos and other robot parts, along with the tools to use them. Alex also had stock in code-black tech, but kept it out of sight. We strode down the narrow aisles, burgeoning piles of gear hung over us foliage born of metal, plastic and wiring.
At the cluttered, tech-covered counter, Alex introduced us to Urus Konicek, a tall man with a mohawk and goatee, a distinctive vertical scar ran down the left side of his face and his left eye was gone, in its place; a green orb that pulsated gently. Urus wore a large almost oversized olive green Evoda overcoat, he also had a distinct, peculiar, inexplicable bitter odour and spoke a slight accent that we couldn't nail down?
Urus told us he had come from The Enclave, we all looked at each other, it was a place none of us had heard of? Continuing on, he told us that at The Enclave there was an exowomb baby that needed delivering. Finally, Urus added that the whole job would take a few days?
Designed to allow pregnancy to continue outside the biological womb, exowombs were pretty rare pieces of tech, too expensive for nearly all Neon City inhabitants, I'd never seen one.
Despite Urus being evasive about the specifics, we agreed to help, he was paying well. He seemed pleased and added that we needed to pick his travelling companion before heading out to The Enclave.
Exiting Bric-a-Brac, Urus took us south and into Hikage Street's commercial quarter, dismal high-rises fell away as the almost anonymously identical factory and warehouse estates sprang up ahead. It was also here that vast amounts of Neon City's massive piping network converged, too massive in fact to fully fit underground. Huge pipes could be seen to rise and fall out of the street like giant arching sea-snakes in an asphalt ocean. Where pipes did breach the surface of Hikage Street, they were secured to the ground with enormous concrete blocks.
Urus led us to one such block, he had a way through the secured door and took us in. It wasn't our first time in The Pipes, the dank place was an accumulation of incomprehensible mazes and labyrinths, a nightmare to navigate. Urus however, seemed to know his way round the place. So as we followed, he took us through steel and concrete entrails that led deep into the city's bowels. Deep enough that our connections to Neon City were gone, no data-feeds, no GLOWNET, nothing. It was like missing an appendage.
For a while this continued until Urus gestured for us to halt, he activated some sort of wrist-comm and spoke with somebody, giving them a warning them that we were approaching before resuming. Whatever Urus' tech was, it allowed him converse with with other people using a connectivity protocol that didn't require access to the city's networks?
Eventually we were led into a room of sorts and waiting there was Urus' companion: A huge man, well over two metres tall and dressed entirely in black, no part of him showed. He must've had some kind of implants or bio-augmentation to make his torso so massive and his arms to so thick, by comparison, his legs looked short, almost stunted.
He was introduced as Neidzwiedz, he wore a black hood that covered his face and over it a full face mask. Muffled as his voice was, we noticed a definite East European accent to the rumbling bass of his voice when he greeted us. Neidzwiedz also exuded the same bitter odour as Urus?
Urus then told us we would be heading north but in here, it might as well have been Goji Rokkaku's apartment by our understanding of The Pipes! So we walked and eventually up and out of The Pipes, it was early afternoon and we found ourselves in the Itabashi-Cho Prefecture and north of central Neon City. Urus proceeded to take us away from the heaving main streets through grimy back alleys and shady side roads on an apparently meandering route. We realised though, that he was going to great lengths to avoid all the security cameras we encountered; it was an impressive feat.
As he led us on, he would habitually stop to scrutinise some pile of rubbish or discarded trash, rummaging through and pocketing various broken-looking circuit boards, components and whatever else he found he found into his overcoat. As Koko and I curiously observed, occasionally he would stop and while Neidzwiedz would go on lookout; he'd take several back out and after rolling them over in his hands, somehow assemble them together to make a piece of kit or component; Urus definitely had a talent as a scavenger.
We kept heading north, further north than we'd ever been. Soon the city wall began looming over the horizon behind the urban clutter. The concrete and steel wall marked the absolute limits of Neon City, it was dozens of metres thick and rose dozens of storeys above, taller than any close building. From street level we couldn't see them, but the wall was armed with extensive aerial defences to prevent transgressors from crossing in from uninhabitable wastes outside Neon City.
Still Urus took us north, past the easy recognisable and intricately built Jorenji Temple with the largest Buddha statue in the city and after that we arrived at the city wall. It was quiet, unsettlingly so, the city sprawl almost reached the wall but no one ever came this far out and the grey rough-surfaced wall was an imposing sight when it was close enough to touch, Urus continued, following the perimeter as it curved behind the windowless rears of city structures
He stopped at a sturdy, heavy looking steel panelled gate, it was covered in licks of rust and had the look of an unused thing.
"Few people in Neon City know about this, maybe nobody," Urus told us with a smile as he unlocked and opened the gate.
It was something we'd all seen, maybe in a park, definitely in photos and vids, on the GLOWNET or in VR; but going through that gate and tunnel, leaving behind the narrow, crowded streets of Neon City, the soaring skyline, concrete vistas and having it in front of us; that was something else.
An expanse of varied, seemingly unending greenery stretched out, impossibly disappearing into a distant, hazy and wavering horizon that could never exist in The City of Electric Dreams. Not even the wide spaces of Neon City's Bay could come close to matching the sparse openness here. Urus noticed our stunned expressions.
"Welcome to The Wilderness," he said with a chuckle. "Not what you were expecting?".
Wild grasses rippled under a breeze and we sensed a strange smell, it was the same bitter earthy smell that we had got from Urus and Neidzwiedz.
As we gawped at our surroundings, Neidzwiedz pulled off his black hood with a low bassy grunt. What we saw surprised us even more.
Neidzwiedz turned to look at us with a bear's head! He gave a laugh that rumbled when he saw our expressions. He explained that he was an grizzly bear that had been uplifted by the Russian Army and had been recruited into their special operation branch. He had stayed awhile before escaping into the wilderness here and encountering The Enclave, he spread his arms wide to indicate our surroundings.
Urus led us to an old style, wheeled flatbed truck, the kind that would never fit on Neon City streets, having been replaced by sky-freighters. I didn't recognise the model, but the badge said it was a Tulytt. Flecks of rust were erupting underneath the old paint, causing it to bubble and peel, looked weird; would never happen to a modern flier, old steel frames and bodies had been superseded by blended polymers and ultra-light composites. A row of glassy, gridded black panels were laid out along the flatbed trailer, they had to be solar panels, looked like someone had replaced the old internal combustion engine with a power cell.
I looked up, it was as hot as Neon City here but somehow, the sky was a softer, deeper shade of azure and cotton-white puffy clouds effortlessly hung there, nothing that could ever be seen in the harsh blue-white sky of Neon City. It made all of us wonder; how much of the planet was the uninhabitable eco-disaster that we had all been taught about as children and how much of it was like this wilderness?
The cab was sized generously enough to allow all of us - even Neidzwiedz to squeeze in. Powering up the flatbed, Urus turned to us and said we would be stopping at somewhere called Rabbit Town before he pulled away.
For a while the truck rolled on, slowly creaking and rocking its way along a faint, uneven and rocky track that had been trampled into the grass. To the rear, through the dusty trail kicked up the truck, Neon City's skyscraper-topped city-wall shrank away, swallowed by into a vanishing point where sky met earth.
On a whim, I powered my data-slab up; zero access to the GLOWNET, well and truly off-the-grid.
For an hour or so we travelled until we crested some low, gentle hills and on the far side, Rabbit Town came into view; a smallish settlement that seemingly existed within the confines of an old-world industrial facility.
There were a couple of large, time-and-weather stained, functional looking cuboid concrete structures set on a asphalt courtyard, one of which was surrounded by half a dozen dormant looking cooling towers and smokestacks that soared skyward. Faded and barely legible signage confirmed it was an obsolete old powerplant and clearly non-operational: The town's power came from an nearby, adjacent array of solar panels that had been constructed. Also close to the settlement was an iron latticework tower dotted with a handful of satellite dishes, a quick check indicated that out network connections had been re-established.
People could be seen moving about and rudimentary handmade decorations plastered walls throughout Rabbit Town, indicating signs of inhabitation.
As the flatbed bounced closer, we could see that large numbers of the titular rabbits freely roamed the entire settlement and its locales. Urus told us that the community here was a bit strange; they believed the rabbits were the personification of their ancestors and considered them to be sacred. Urus advised us to not harm them and leave them well alone as we came to halt.
The population of Rabbit Town observed us neutrally with mild curiosity as we exited the flatbed and made the last stretch on foot, once they recognised Urus and Neidzwiedz, they warmed to us and we were invited to join them for an evening meal.
The people here did not look or behaviour like the citizens of Neon City, they were content to converse with us and we could feel the sense of community they enjoyed, unlike the inward-looking media obsessed consumerists of our world. Additionally, they disconcertingly lacked the general nihilistic cynicism that imbued Neon City. Their unbranded clothes were clearly homespun, a strange and colourful, haphazard mix of wool, cotton and animal skins.
The food they offered us was strange too, a meal consisting mostly of real vegetables and real fruits, the textures were strange; firm and crisp in contrast to the processed, reconstituted, reshaped, soft and easily consumed corporate foodstuffs we were used to. The flavours too were strange, somehow more intense yet lacking the monosodium glutamate driven endorphin zing that Neon City food provided?
Urus told us it was naturally grown in fields that surrounded Rabbit Town, real fruit and vegetables went for a hefty price tag if sold to the right people in the right parts of Neon City.
After thanking our hosts we set off back to the flatbed. At the cab, Captain Noodles had remained behind with the vehicle, expressing no desire to visit Rabbit Town. Arriving back, we discovered that Noodles had killed and eaten several rabbits, he was smug and pleased with himself, completely oblivious to what he had done!
Quietly, we loaded up into the truck and set off northwards again.
In the west, an enormous wavering sun was slipping behind the unnerving, uneven and undulating wilderness horizon in a red-orange hue that blazed across half the sky, casting the longest of shadows. Soon it would be night.
As we went on, Urus flicked on the headlights and I peered up at the darkening sky as the failing light was consumed by inky blackness, something was different, some was wrong?
Rain, there was no rain and no black boiling clouds had gathered above to unleash torrents. As night bled into the clear sky, the cosmos in all its light and colour was revealed.
I had no memory of there being a night with no rain in Neon City, all of us stared above at the starry roof as high as the universe.
Soon it was entirely dark, dark in a way that The City of Electric Dreams could never be, no city lights or humming streetlamps could be found here, or lit-up fliers buzzing above either. As the truck trundled along, beyond the flatbed's lights; the world had been swallowed by night, only the creaking of the truck and our own restlessness were heard.
Later, a spark of pulsating light appeared in the void ahead; it's distance impossible to calculate. The light's intensity grew as we continued, until it split into two and split again into five lights? Soon, shapes materialised out of the night, rectangles - a row of them; grey-white and mostly washed out under the radiance of the stark white lights which seemingly hovered above. As the truck closed in, details swam into focus, rectangles morphed into polycarbonate-reinforced concrete panels anchored to each other by steel posts, forming a colossal wall. Hovering lights coalesced into floodlights bolted to shadowed watchtowers barely visible behind the unrelenting glare. This wall surrounded a compound of sorts, inside its perimeter taller buildings were indistinctly silhouetted against the night sky.
Urus drove around the wall and up to some gates, on a watchtower, a spotlight buzzed into life and swivelled towards us, its beam playing across the cab.
"Welcome to The Enclave," Urus announced.
While our identities were confirmed and the heavy gates slid open, Urus went on to explain that the compound had once been a military base, abandoned before the days of Neon City and now home to The Enclave.
Past the gates the lighting was kept to a minimum and from within we could make out that the watchtowers were manned. Urus eased the truck on to the small asphalt road network that spread throughout the compound, ahead of us was a courtyard and beyond it was a largish boxy building. Just to the west was a low wide structure with a dimly lit open front, to the east we also spotted a row of what looked to be single story cabins, several windows were lit. In the compound's north-east corner was a tall, angular tower and directly opposite the tower was the tallest structure here by far; a soaring latticework array housing a large white satellite dish. A quick check told us that it was networked into Neon City. A long strip of solar panels had been constructed in The Enclave, similarly to Rabbit Town.
Urus took the west road, turning the truck towards the low structure which we discovered was a garage constructed of ceramic corrugated sheets and parked up.
Now that we were at The Enclave, Urus explained that some sort of flier had come down hard in the wilderness reasonably close by; a security team was sent to investigate. At the crash site they discovered two occupants, both had survived the impact, but barely. The woman was unconscious, possibly comatose and Urus had no idea about the state of the exowomb.
Urus led us to the boxy building, telling us that it was The Enclave's hospital. It was apparent that the building had served some other function in the long-gone past and had been crudely repurposed as a med-facility, there were no dedicated medical wards or wings, no operating theatre or treatment rooms, the hospital was lacking both facilities and equipment.
We were taken to the two survivors.
The exowomb was a Kuihsih branded piece of med-tech, didn't know much about it, wasn't the kind of thing we dealt in. It had clearly taken a beating though but had undoubtedly saved the life of the infant within. Pepper checked its readouts, it wasn't good news; resources and power were nearly depleted and several sub-systems had also been damaged by the crash. The bio-monitor also indicated that the infant was male, had come to term and needed to be born. Without the password, there was no way to access the exowomb's control system. It was a problem.
Pepper then turned his attention to the woman, un moving in her rudimentary bed. didn't long to realise she was in big trouble, she had serious internal injuries causing a multitude of secondary medical problems. Circling the drain Pepper told us, he also said that he didn't have the equipment to treat her and after searching around, there was nothing in The Enclave that could help either. Worse still, she was too weak to move.
After some discussion, we formulated a plan!
If the woman couldn't be brought to a hospital, then the hospital would have to be brought to her!
The equipment required to treat the woman was fantastically expensive, luckily Pepper knew how to get it rented. He pinged his contact and set it up, then we Pinged Roboy, he could have it delivered to the city wall at Itabashi-Cho and Urus and Neidzwiedz would pick up early tomorrow morning and bring it here. It would take over twelve hours, but there was no other option. Pepper gave the woman some injections, it would stabilise her blood pressure and heart rate, it would also stave off the effects of infection and protect her vital organs - if only for a while, We had to hope it was enough.
The exowomb presented use with several problems.
First I networked my data-slab with it's system and jacked in. Streams of data imprinted themselves on to my consciousness, a constant flow of information in all its minutiae. I probed the encrypted defences, it was a fairly standard setup, I launched a bypass protocol and unlocked it.
Next; Koko had to open it, the servos that operated the exowomb's access panel had been knocked out of alignment by the crash impact, this required detaching the panel extender arms from the servo mechanism without causing further damage to other more critical systems, or harming the child.
Once that was done, it was down to Pepper to make sure the infant was safely extracted from the systems that had been providing nutrients and life support for him and ensure he was healthy. The birth went without a hitch, the boy was safe.
It would be hours until Urus and Neidzwiedz returned with the gear, so we decided to check out the shuttle. The crash site was located just within boundaries of a large forest to the west and might contain dangerous wild animals, a small security detail was assigned to us and we hiked the three kilometres to the site.
Ahead, silent rows of pine sentinels marked the forest's edge, we continued on.
It felt unnatural to be surrounded by so much greenery and vegetation that stretched out beyond the scope of our vision. It felt a quiet and secluded place, yet contrasted by distant, irregular but constant noises that we were told was birdsong. Unfamiliar and heady smells filled our nostrils, underfoot the ground somehow felt soft and frequently gave way with quiet crumpling noises?
About an hour after leaving The Enclave, we arrived at the crash site.
The shuttle was a wreck and situated in the centre of a shallow crater of exposed dirt and fallen trees, there was no ploughed ditch or line of damaged trees, it indicated that the vehicle had most likely plummeted down at a relatively steep angle and not glided or tried to land. This in turned implied that it had encountered a catastrophic event or failure that had immediately brought it down.
The shuttle wasn't a typical Neon City flier either, it was a Interstad Gruppe Sky-skimmer capable of surface-to-orbit flight. There was almost no way that it could have come down on its own or due to error, too many redundancies, too many fail-safes.
We searched the wreckage but got nothing, the ferocity of the impact had taken care of anything that might have resembled evidence. A portion of the hull was still intact and part of some corporate logo or livery was still visible, so we took a photo of it.
An hour later and we were back at The Enclave. Now that I was networked again, I ran the shuttle's livery through a GLOWNET search and got a hit. The shuttle belonged to some corporate public transport contractor that operated out of The Glitterband.
Had the shuttle been coming out of The Glitterband when it had gone down? Was it possible that the shuttle had sent out a distress call? Did someone on The Glitterband need to be contacted?
We had some discussion and in the end, decided to keep quiet about it. There was no idea what we might've have been getting ourselves into.
It was a few hours later that Urus and Neidzwiedz rode back to The Enclave with the gear Pepper needed, we took it to the hospital, set it up and let Pepper do his thing.
A little later and he was done, Pepper told us that the woman was in a serious but stable condition. Stable enough, he said, to take back to Neon City, she still needed extensive medical attention and rest. Pepper made a few calls and arranged to place her in a private med-facility under an alias.
I ran the woman's face through recognition before we left and I got a result I'd never seen; Access Denied? On a few rare occasions I got zero hits, I'd never seen something like this though. Something had to be blocking the search, it was likely that someone had coded some sort of autonomous predatory algorithm which was prowling the GLOWNET, killing any data-transmissions which matched whatever criteria had been inputted into the algorithm's parameters; in this case the identity of the woman. It would take a lot more effort to get past this, something for later.
As a parting gift, we were given a small crate of fresh fruit and vegetables by The Enclave. Urus and Neidzwiedz took us back to The City of Electric Dreams and the return journey was uneventful, by midnight we were back in the comfortable, recognisable asphalt canyons of Neon City, where concrete and glass trees replaced wooden ones and familiar sheets of heavy night rain came crashing down.
Urus and Neidzwiedz helped us bring the woman into the city, we said our goodbyes to the pair as Pepper called a private sky-ambulance to take her to the prearranged facility.
After that, Bill told us that he knew a buyer that served a very exclusive clientele who would pay good money for the opportunity to brag about how they'd eaten fresh fruit and vegetables.
Bill ended up getting seventeen million bits for the fruit and vegetables!
It was the morning after our return to Neon City when Ram Rat pinged me. Jacking into my Nonohiki, I spoke with the digitised consciousness who had been residing in a partition on the data-slab since the bio-components of his previous cyborg body had decayed into unviability.
Even though I was not connected to the GLOWNET, its sensory interface interpreted Ram Rat's consciousness as billions of clustered, swirling neon motes, iridescent and pulsating constellations of bio-data that expanded, contracted and cascaded into each other over digital aeons. An indecipherably and constantly changing, infinitely intricate geometry. A cosmic displayer of the hacker's entire mental process.
Ram Rat told me that his new robot body was ready: As his cyborg body had been failing, he'd managed to get into Robot Factory, hack its systems and insert a robot specification file into its construction database, then he had instructed the factory to produce it, now it had been completed. There was just the small matter of getting a hold of it!
Our last incursion into Robot Factory had nearly gone south, internal defence systems were pretty lethal. We decided that instead, perhaps the robot body should come to us. There was also the matter of cost.
Plugging into the GLOWNET, I navigated well-travelled lanes of Neon City's info-streams until I reached the steel-blue coloured, slowly rotating seemingly riveted polyhedral shape that was Robot Factory's data-image. Ignoring the colourful, friendly and public-facing info-vault, I looked for a node that might take me to the data-vault behind it, Robot Factory's real vault, I quickly found it and was of course immediately hit security protocols. Responding, I launched a protocol of my own, allowing me to bypass the security measures, granting full access to their system.
Even though I was riding the GLOWNET, Ram Rat's presence on my data-slab still registered with me and through this awareness he had the ability to connect with the GLOWNET himself.
Ram Rat probed the system quickly found and displayed for me records associated with his new robot body. I had expected the spec file to be assigned to one of the many product lines that Robot Factory manufactured. Instead, Ram Rat had prudently given it the status of; Unclassified Prototype, this meant the spec file had been assigned its own folder on their system, hidden in plain sight. Unknown unless it was specifically searched for, and why would they do that? Even better, as a prototype it had no manufacturing or delivery cost associated with the order! All that remained was giving it a delivery address.
Wasn't a good idea to deliver it to any of our apartments, instead we contacted Silai Granskina; his voice was clear as a bell now, the op must've been a success and he was happy to help us. Once the robot body was delivered we got it picked up by a courier from Get That For You?, Roboy, the robotic proprietor could be trusted to be discreet.
The robot body arrived without a hitch. It was a sleek design of multipolymers, steel alloys and chrome plated skin in humanoid proportions. The latest servo motors and cutting edge sensor banks gave it enhanced performance characteristics. Mnemonic fluidic joints gave the impression that the body had been seamlessly carved from a single chunk of polished steel with a face of perfectly chiselled features.
With some searching I found the concealed data interface and jacked my Nonohiki into it. A diagnostic protocol confirmed that its power cell was at peak efficiency, so I booted its systems, readouts on my data-slab went all green, Ram Rat began the transfer, it would take some time until his consciousness full occupied what was the robot's blank slate.
Some time later and the transfer was done. Ram Rat was up and about, he seemed pleased; his new configuration would outlast all of us - at least in our current bodies!
He began checking how the new body felt, crouching, jumping, punching the air, even running around the apartment. When his weapon ports opened, I told him it would probably be a good idea to test them out somewhere else and sent him out whilst eyeing the urine coloured tarp that gently wafted along one side of my one-bed.
Ram Rat told me he would finish his tests and fly back to the roaming RV.
The day of Yaroh Uron's trial had come around and we headed to the courthouse in the glaring low morning sunlight, found the relevant courtroom and took up seats in the gallery along with Yaroh's wife, Tohi.
It was a small but open room, lavishly decorated in replica wood panelling and furniture, designed to lend it an air of tradition and authority, something the Neon City legal system sorely lacked. Decidedly non-traditional globe-lights hung from the ceiling and lit the room in a unfavourably cold white hue. An overworked grinding air-con unit did it's best to keep the temperature tolerable.
There was a little wait before a shackled and orange jump-suited Yaroh was shuffled in, his face was long and he looked unhappy. Immediately we noticed that he was not accompanied by the lawyer we had hired for him - Finn Kinton, instead he was with the public defender.
Soon Magistrate Wyatt Lavanchy, presiding judge swept into the room, dressed in a archaic and voluminous black robe, he sat at the bench and pronounced that the trial was underway.
It didn't last long, seventeen minutes to be precise, Yaroh was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Black Dolphin Gulag and marched off.
The evidence against Yaroh Uron was weak, but the key witness in Yaroh's defence - Jinny Stoyer had not presented herself at the courtroom.
Someone was pulling strings behind the scenes? Had to be Benedict Twistom. Time for us to make a move.
We tried our best to console Tohi and said that we'd look into the matter, she told us that she would be making preparations to lodge an appeal.
A quick inquiry revealed that Finn Kinton had just recently died at home of a heart attack?
I consumed myself within the undulating data-scapeof Neon City's GLOWNET info-vista, travelled along the incandescent veins of information that ceaselessly flowed through its infinitely intricate collective construct, racing from one data-vault to another; looking for information on Wyatt Lavanchy. Had Benedict Twistom gotten to him? It didn't look like it. He was a long serving judge and had a rep as a hardliner, but he seemed legit clean as he looked, nothing for Twistom to latch on to.
Wyatt Lavanchy had a wife; Deliah, checked her out too, this time I got something. Deliah had no skeletons in her past either but municipal records indicated a home in the Fortified Residential District had been bought in her name recently. Judges earned good money but there was no way that they could bankroll a place in The Zone, too exclusive, too expensive. It was a lead we could follow, only there was no way we would easily get access to the Fortified Residential Zone, we had to work it sideways.
We were on good terms with Porter Sladek and Vlegei Kreshoma, both residents of The Zone: We pinged them and explained what we needed, they sent out some personnel to scope out the address we gave them. Both men pinged us back with the same result: The Levanchy residence was well guarded by a number of heavily armed retainers.
Next was Jinny Stoyer. We pinged D4-VID; the robot vid-corder had been covering the trial and we asked him if he knew anything about her? Stoyer had gone missing he confirmed but he had no idea how to find her.
Jinny Stoyer was a working girl who operated out of Ninety Ninth Street using the street-tag Juicy J. Under the early-afternoon heat, we took a crowded, sweltering tram ride out to The Neon Mile.
It was characteristically hot, noisy and busy, the blare of street hawkers, arcades and pachinko parlours mingled with heaving, clamorous crowds to create consciousness-numbing, cacophonic white noise that reverbed seemingly along the entire length of the street.
It was easy to find a number of Juicy J's contemporaries working Ninety Ninth, Bill did some talking and spread some bits about. Juicy J no longer tricked on Ninety Ninth, she'd got wind that some nasty men were on the hunt for her and had bugged out. No proof but it was likely that this was muscle on Benedict Twistom's payroll.
Word was that she was now working for Let All Your Rage Out under a different tag. Jinny had apparently told one of her former associates after a year at Let All Your Rage Out, she'd have enough money to get to the moon and be reunited with her boyfriend, OK Daddy.
Let All Your Rage Out was a fairly niche business that - for a price supplied human mannequins to its clientele to use and abuse as they desired. Even if Jinny had provided them her real name, it was unlikely that they'd give it up without some hefty persuasion. So, while perusing their corporate public facing data-vault on the GLOWNET, we came up with a plan.
Bill booked into one of the many cheap, anonymous and drab hotels somewhere on Chuo Street, created a bogus account with Let All Your Rage Out and logged on. He put in an order for a human mannequin, to be sent the hotel's address, on his order he requested a mannequin with physical characteristics that matched those of Jinny; height, build, hair and eye colour, fruit themed tattoos and so on. The mannequin would be delivered within two hours. Then we waited.
The ruse worked, less than two hours later and Jinny Stoyer was knocking on the hotel room door, so we let her in. She wore a miniskirt, boob tube, PVC micro jacket and knee-high boots. Once she realised who had made the order, she futilely tried to flee, we were ready that move though.
We assured her that we meant her no harm, she wasn't entirely convinced and continued shiftily looking around the tatty, barely maintained room for a way out. She was clearly scared and refused to testify on behalf of Yaroh. News that she was being hunted must've shook her pretty hard and we didn't blame her. We needed a different approach, we knew that she was trying to save money to finance a trip to The Moon, so we made a proposal; if Jinny agreed to testify, we'd front the money for her trip. Jinny hesitated before speaking and was still concerned about whoever was looking for her. We told Jinny that we could put her somewhere safe, somewhere she'd never been found. After some consideration, Jinny agreed.
We called the flier and stashed Jinny in the RV, she'd be safe there until the appeal. I'm sure she'd get on well with the party favours we'd also stashed there!
Later and Pepper got pinged. Came from the med-facility where Pepper had placed the unconscious woman from the shuttle crash. She had now regained consciousness.
Without delay, we headed to the facility.
Pepper knew his stuff, the woman's room bristled with medical apparatus and tools, scanners, monitors and at the centre of it, the woman, sitting up and eating.
Pepper checked her bio-readouts, vitals were strong, no sign of permanent or long term injury, she'd make a full recovery.
The first thing the woman did was to press us about her son, she demanded to know where he was, what had happened to him? We assured her that he was safe, at a place that no one in Neon City could hope to find. We also told her that they would be reunited now that she was safe to travel.
It was our turn to ask questions, we had plenty.
She told us her name was Avril Haywood, that made her the daughter of Barnabus Haywood: We'd stumbled on something that looked like it involved Barnabus Haywood just a few days ago, coincidence? Never a safe assumption in Neon City.
Next we asked about the shuttle. Avril told us it had beenshot down, we asked who would want to kill her.
"My father!" she said, matter-of-factly.
It was incredulous, why would he want to kill his daughter and grandson?
Avril went on to explain why, her son's father was Michael Leander, who sat on the ruling council of the Emptiness Habitat.
Barnabus Haywood, according to his daughter was a believer, a believer that he rules over the Messenger Habitat by divine right and is the literal word of god. To him The Messenger Habitat represents the domain of Barnabus and his descendants by birthright. This child was the result of the mingling of the Haywood and Leander bloodlines, giving him and potentially the Leanders and the Emptiness Habitat's ruling council a claim on the Messenger Habitat's throne. This was intolerable to Barnabus, who considered it a threat to his family's seat of power. When Avril realised what her father was prepared to do in order to eliminate this threat, she chose to immediately flee the Glitterband with her unborn son, come to Earth in a shuttle and hoped to find safe haven somewhere. She hadn't been quite quick enough though. Maybe her father would think they had died in the crash, she hoped.
We contacted Urus and he agreed to help, we arranged for Avril Haywood to be picked up at the north gate in Itabashi-Cho and taken her to The Enclave and her son.
Later, Koko received Pippy, a modified Suayo MKVI gun-drone. Alex Chinsko had removed the gun housings and ammo pods and replaced them with a pair of adapted Senonable Oktuto omni-speakers and additional power cells.
Alex had also coded an algorithm that allowed Pippy to use the internal rangefinders to harmonically modulate the audio output at the designated target with near pinpoint accuracy.
Maybe it was something we could use?
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.