17th April 2021
Saturday evening and I'm logged into Meet on my PC.
This means it's time for the next session in Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Location: Neon City.
A Neon City morning; the unforgiving sun climbed over the city's angular eastern skyline into a cloudless blue-white sky, flooding the City of Electric Dreams with searing heat and light.
The mixture of a late night and a sleepless morning had left me cradling my head and shielding my head from the urine coloured hue tat glared through one wall in my one-bed.
Bill had been pinged by Nina Chinova, ever since we'd introduced her to D4-VID and she had gotten her own show; The Vigilante Chat and Cake Show, her star had been meteorically rising in the world of vid chat show hosts and she'd become a major Neon City celebrity.
Somehow she'd gotten wind that Antin Grova's Heroes of Hope sculpture in Rokkaku Dai Heights was actually a sculpture of us. She told Bill that she now wanted all of us as guests on the show to talk about our activities!
After some discussion, we decided to appear on the show. It took further negotiations with her producers to get assurances that our faces would be hidden and our voices distorted by a masking algorithm. Getting put in the spotlight wasn't on our bucket list.
Like all of Neon City's vid shows, Vigilante Chat and Cake was made to a budget, the studio was buried at the back of a half disused business estate in Rokkaku Dai Heights.
It was a relatively small setup, some upholstered neutrally pale blue chairs and a cake filled table on a linoleum floor against a digitally manipulated background, lighting rigs and media-feeds were managed by some robots. Other than Nina, the only other humans were a skinny, scruffy editor in a black truckers cap and a quick to anger producer clutching a Senonable Sobeito Touchboard info-slab who walked around stabbing at it and self-importantly shouting at disinterested robots.
We were on the show for about thirty minutes and let Bill do much the talking, it was his kind of thing. I didn't bother listening to most of what he told Nina either, but at least the cake was good.
As our interview came to its conclusion, Nina revealed that she'd arranged for a hotline to be set up; people in need of our services could ping us!
I was a little unsure about this and would later rig the line to bounce pings anonymously to our personal media-slabs, keeping us at a distance from the hotline.
Later that day, news vines began busily chiming our media-slabs and feeding them with all the latest newsworthy stories, most prominently how The Snot Robber had struck again.
Then Thaddeus Rackham had pinged us and explained that Astiek Ikov, his mortuary worker friend who we'd some dealings with was the latest victim. Nasal replacement surgery was currently a costly procedure, two million bits was the asking price, Thaddeus told us that he was busy robbing lots of people to raise cash for Astiek's treatment!
Trying our best to ignore that last part of his statement, we thought about what Thaddeus had said. Someone was making a lot of bank from The Snot Robber's attacks, told him we'd look into it.
Data-images incandescently streamed into my consciousness after I'd jacked into the GLOWNET, seemingly endless pulsating polygonal constructs emerged from data-flows and populated the info-vista, contracting into the vanishing point, merging into an orthogonally undulating line on a dark, distant horizon. I sifted through the colossal data movements that constantly reshaped the GLOWNET, seeking out what was needed, news-vines, info-vaults. secured servers and more, all the time logging the data on my Nonohiki.
Once I had what I hoped was enough, I started looking for leads, connections, coincidences, any links that might help.
The Snot Robber had struck twelve times in as many days, the attacks mostly seemed clustered around Golden Gai, a district that was an intricate warren of back alleys, side roads and switchbacks that hosted countless colourful themed bars and watering holes. They pulled in tourists and fun-seekers from all around; inebriated revellers staggering homing presented a target-rich environment to The Snot Robber, which was fully exploited.
I began scoping the victims out, watching information flow through the GLOWNET and looking for some sort of commonality between them. Only one mote of data stood out; medical records showed seven of the twelve victims had signed on to the service of Doctor Ivan Grippen.
It was a name we'd heard, a specialist that was also treating Silai Granskina. At two mill a pop, he stood to make good chunk of change on these operations, maybe there was something to it. Was it possible Doctor Grippen was instigating the attacks to drum up business? Pricing of bio-engineered nasal replacements seemed high too? Needed more information.
The worldwide hub of bio-engineering big-tech was mostly located in the heart of a region of India that had been hit hard by the Bangladeshi Leprosy Outbreak, production of medical components had lurched to a halt, prices of existing inventory had skyrocketed as a result.
While there was some chatter on MyFaceSpace and on GLOWNET chat-servers that questioned the origins of the outbreak, some claimed it was a clandestine bio-weapon, but nothing was concluded one way or the other.
I turned my attention to Doctor Grippen.
We pinged Sila Granskina and asked him how he'd heard of Doctor Grippen, he explained that during his stay in hospital after suffering the attack, he'd been given a business card by an orderly.
Doctor Grippen's data-vault was a publicly listed commercial venture on the GLOWNET, a hovering, rotating pair of partially translucent powder-blue giant operating scissors constituted the data-image of Grippen's vault, from there it was easy to trace banking activities, find Grippen's bank and hack security on his account. Skimming through rows and rows of numbers, northing untoward came up, no suspicious outgoing or incoming payments.
He looked clean, a dead end.
No time to look further though, our slabs were being pinged.
Online were the uplifted and genetically enhanced penguins we'd helped before. Now though, there was only three of them instead of four. Paisano had been abducted we were told and they didn't trust anyone else to help! We made the elaborate trip to the Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku-Cho at the unexpected behest of the remaining penguins.
Exiting the typically crowded transit system put us squarely in view of the vast Metropolitan Building, a dominating, unwelcoming and pseudo-brutalist structure; it represented the central seat of municipal government in Neon City in more ways than one.
Leaving the noise and the bustle behind, we climbed the entrance steps and passed the replica wood-trimmed, frosted-glass doors into a high ceiling reception hall. A large faux-oak counter filled the space along one wall and was lit by subdued and time-stained hanging florescent, off-white globes. Old and faded patterned wallpaper still clung to the walls, while beneath our boots, the carpet was flattened, becoming colourless and threadbare in the main thoroughfares, only in corners did surviving thick shag betray it's original quality.
After approaching the receptionist in her pinstriped slate-grey Fassus business suit, we discovered that we were expected, a uniformed member of the security team led us along the labyrinthine dimly lit corridors of Neon City's waning power and we eventually found ourselves at the Transport Authority's department.
Waiting for us were George, Jasper and Casper, the uplifted penguins, also with them was their boss, the Transport Authorities departmental head. The penguins led us into one of their old style offices, explaining that Paisano had been kidnapped on one of the city's transit services and the department considered it a personal affront, hence their endorsement of our involvement.
A desk-slab quietly hummed as it was flipped on, it's screen showed what obviously was grainy security footage of a tram carriage's interior crammed with commuters. We watched and re-watched it several times.
Off centre to the left and among the crush was Paisano, also among the passengers were four individuals in nondescript industrial blue boilersuits, they had to be pros; good enough to wear caps or keep their faces turned from cameras.
When the kidnapping went down, it went down quick, the four boilersuits pulled pistols, put some rounds in the tram driver and quickly black-bagged Paisano. The tram's auto-brakes then kicked-in and most commuters were sent staggering in unison, like in a weird dance as the tram screeched to a jarring halt halfway between Chuo and Hikage streets. The black-baggers disappeared out of shot as they forced their way through the tram doors and climbed down a service ladder on to the lower street. It was the last we saw of them on the tram's footage.
One dead and one kidnapped, I could see why the Transport Authority wanted vengeance.
The search for footage needed to be widened.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, into Neon City's vast data-vista as it unpacked, watching data-flows as they pulsed along iridescent avenues that spider-webbed throughout the info-scape.
Throughout Neon City there were innumerable security cameras that fed into various data-vaults which stored the footage, we had a good idea where the black-baggers had exited the tram and I launched an algorithm tailored to look in the surrounding GLOWNET locales for the tell-tale regular movements of data and clone the resulting encrypted footage on to my data-slab, soon the Nonohiki was stacking up with videos.
Protocols I'd coded were continually cracking the encryption on the stream of downloaded files and I sifted through the footage as it became available.
Nothing I saw showed anybody carrying a penguin, I ran facial recog for Paisano and got zero hits. After we spent more time manually scanning through the footage we managed to find a small sliver of a lead.
On some of the footage we noticed a dark-haired, middle-aged woman in matching off-white joggers and polo shirt, walking down Chuo Street and carrying a scooped up bundle of clothing, all of it industrial-blue coloured. Was the bundle large enough to constitute four boilersuits? Maybe. We froze the footage and digitally zoomed in. The woman's clothes were part of a service uniform, branding on the polo shirt had the name; Joo May's Shower & Soap Emporium.
Chuo Street: known for its hotels and a particularly narrow maze of surrounding back alleys and side roads which branched off from the titular road erratically.
At the lowest street level here, even Neon City's glaring sunlight failed to fully penetrate much of the neighbourhood, leaving it in a perennial dull, dusky gloom and other parts in constant darkness.
Among this shadowy half-lit concrete maze we found Joo May's Shower & Soap Emporium, a small family business with a bright and cheerful water themed frontage that provided showering facilities to Chou Street's visitors and tourists along with an express laundry service for them while they washed.
Inside, the reception was a small, cramped room decorated with shelves filled by promotional soaps, scrubs, bath salts, shampoos and so forth. Behind the counter was the middle aged woman from the footage. We asked her about the four individuals who had come in with boilersuits, a brief frown and expression of annoyance crossed her face.
She explained that the four men came in, given her the boilersuits and before she had returned with them fully laundered, had changed into other clothes and departed. She was happy to give us the boilersuits, having no use for them.
Searching through the clothes gave us one thing; a scrunched up printout of a photo or video capture. It had been through the wash and had partially become a smear of muddled shapeless colours, however, the shot clearly showed all four penguins in their pool at Sky Dinosaurian Square, Paisano had been ringed with a marker pen. Additionally Somewhat out of shot was a soft toy of a penguin in the hands of a child, was this significant? We looked closer at the photo, it wasn't simply a soft toy, it was a Creative Cuddles toy.
Creative Cuddles manufactured bespoke hi-tech, artificial intelligence driven interactive children's soft toys for Neon City's exclusive, wealthy clientele, usually as a substitute for actual parenting duties, providing children with companionship.
Xylona Adler was our contact at Creative Cuddles, could she get access to the information we needed? After pinging her and explaining the situation, she got back to us and explained that the penguin model was one of their less popular lines, only one Penguin had been sold for some time.
Lars Jackstadt had been the buyer, Xylona told us his account listed an address in the Fortified Residential Zone. A quick GLOWNET search on Lars Jackstadt showed that he worked for Oshin Amalgamated, their corporate logo included a penguin, coincidence? Maybe!
Unlike Neon City's tram network, the Secure Residential Metro Link could take us directly into The Zone, bypassing it's security checks, biometric scans and questioning stares from uniformed rentaguards. These checks would instead actually be performed at the entrance into the metro link network from The Skyscraper District and in this case, we had the credentials to access the metro link.
It was a smooth, noiseless ride over to The Zone on the polycarbonate and toughened-glass shelled, gleamingly clean and well maintained metro link, there was seating enough for all and we sank into the generously upholstered cabin chairs and enjoyed the comfort of a climate controlled environment, for once wishing the journey wouldn't be over so quick.
A wall of almost stale hot air drenched our senses as we disembarked into the Fortified Residential Zone, even in The Zone it wasn't possible to fully escape the city's unremittingly harsh climate.
A grid of smooth, asphalt roads spanned The Zone here and were wider than anywhere else, wide enough to permit two vehicles to pass even. The high quality houses they criss-crossed were uniformly detached classic looking structures, usually surrounded by a verdant square of grass and flora, diligently cultivated by some sort of gardening robot.
Keeping as low profile as possible, we went along a spotless sidewalk until we came close to the Jackstadt's address. It was a detached building and by the standards of The Zone was of modest proportions, that was to say it was five times larger than my one-bed and sat in the centre of a garden. The home displayed a replica façade designed to lend it the air of a classic American Foursquare styled residence.
Stopping short, we observed the house with telescopics and noticed that partially visible amongst the trash was a discarded soft toy penguin, had to be the Creative Cuddles toy.
Creative Cuddles toys were programmed to heuristically adapt from their environment and owner interactions, perhaps there was something we could learn from what it had learned?
Without drawing attention, we stole the toy and flipped its power switch. With a short hum, it booted. It's head abruptly turns from left to right and back as it's optical circuits try to take in the situation, it's algorithms seemed stymied, the humming resumed.
It spoke with a specifically engineered, cute and childish voice when it tried answering our question. The last thing it had seen was another penguin in Kylie's room, it told us. Before it could continue, a secondary harsher synth voice squawked out.
"Discardment detected. Security protocol activated, wiping system memory and initiating factory reset," The synth voice stated, the humming intensified for a few moments. The penguin rebooted and stared at us.
"Enter end user license agreement authorisation code, then select accept or reject terms and conditions,".
The penguin wasn't going to be any use to us now.
Switching to thermals and cased the house. Three signatures; an adult, a child and what must have been a penguin.
From the signatures we surmised the child was continually feeding the penguin while the adult was reclined in a sitting position. We needed a way in. Anywhere else in Neon City and the locks, mechanical or electronic wouldn't be a problem, but in The Zone with it's wealthy residents, any error risked summoning a rapid response.
I turned back to the penguin, maybe it could help. I searched the fluffy soft outer lining until I found a small fold of cloth, behind it was a network port, no doubt connected to the main processor board. I connected the toy to my Nonohiki and jacked in.
A simple static steel-white framework was the processor's info-scape, without any flows of new data it remained unchanged and easy to navigate. The toy's core protocols were incorporated into a single central Monaozko Technologies ROM board which in turn issued instructions to subsystems to manage all its functionality. I moved through sub-folder after folder until I found what I was looking for: The heuristic function-set that managed the toy's learning ability, which it did by issuing learning instructions to a dedicated partition.
This dedicated partition had however been wiped clean during the re-initialisation, there was a chance that the data would have been fragmented and removed from the index directory and not been subjected to a secondary protocol that fully wiped the data. I ran a search protocol, got lucky and found the disparate fragments. Using an algorithm I reconstructed the data.
We now had access to all the information that the penguin had learned, information about Kylie Jackstadt and her obsession with penguins, about Jovena, Kylie's mother. Most importantly for us, we gained access to the house security codes that the penguin had learned, hopefully they hadn't been updated since the toy had been disposed of.
Pepper crept up to the front door lock and keyed in the code, we held our breaths for a moment before the door clicked open a few centimetres, he peeked through, slowly opened the door and disappeared into the building. For a bulky, clamorous doctor of dubious ethics, Pepper could be quite stealthy.
Later he told me how he silently made his way into the living room, where the thermals had shown a woman, presumably Jovena. Unsurprisingly, in part due to his dubious ethics, Pepper was well versed in the art of gauging how much sedative to employ when tranqing someone quickly.
Using a Jiaylij Multi-injector, he painlessly hit the woman with a dose strong enough to put her out for a couple of hours, she'd wake up with a head and no recollection of anything other than falling asleep.
Adjusting the dosage for someone much smaller and younger, Pepper quietly made his way towards the child's signature. Finding Kylie's room, he cracked the door open a touch and saw a young girl entirely preoccupied by a penguin dressed in a old style sailor's white suit, even including a little seaman's cap, Paisano, had to be.
Kylie was giggling as she dangling sardines in front of Paisano who was trying catch them his beak. Pepper sneaked up, hit her with the tranq, caught her as she fell and put her in a sleeping position on her bed.
"I'm here to rescue you," Pepper explained.
"Thank god! I was sick of wearing this costume," Paisano stated in response and rapidly waddled out to the kitchen. "Here's where they keep all the sardines," he exclaimed. "I can't leave without them!".
"They bribed me to come with them," the penguin admitted. "I was too weak resist the sardines,"!
"So you weren't kidnapped?" Pepper asked.
Paisano shook his head.
Quick as he could, Pepper grabbed all the sardines he found in the kitchen and stuffed them into a bin liner and left, Paisano duly followed. Koko decided to take the toy penguin and we all made for the metro link
The return trip was uneventful, Rentaguard didn't bother us, sitting in their reinforced security booth, distracted by their media-slabs, probably used to the rich kooks that lived in The Zone and no one else in Neon City was fazed by seeing a uplifted penguin riding the metro link.
On the way back, I jacked into my data-slab, now that I had Lars Jackstadt's access codes it was simple to get into the secured Oshin Amalgamated terminal at his home. I scoured through the files on his system and I was drawn to some of Oshin's future plans.
They were pressing on with their strategy to flood sizable parts of Neon City's waterfront and following the orbital laser strike that had hit and significantly damaged the district, their plan was already partially underway.
I continued reading: They had won all the contracts to rebuild these damaged areas and had plans to use specially engineered water-soluble building materials in the construction.
It was baked-in, planned obsolescence on a colossal corporate scale that would negatively affect thousands of people and at the same time create a highly lucrative revenue stream for Oshin Amalgamated.
They couldn't be allowed to get away with it, I copied the data and anonymously released it on several of Neon City's chat-servers, we hoped soon the news would spread.
The end of the journey took us Sky Dinosaurian Square, Paisano was joyfully reunited with Casper, Jasper and George.
Later that day Koko got pinged on her media-slab, it was an unknown number she told us before answering. The caller was using a vocal distortion filter to mask their voice, even so, filters couldn't disguise vocal characteristics or speech patterns, Koko immediately knew who it was.
"Hello my droogs," Said the resampled voice of Yennav Rybasei.
Yennav Rybasei had been a serious player for the Russian mob until he'd gone into hiding after sustained corporate sponsored attacks on his organisation and its base-of-operations at the Trans Metropolitan Union Hotel. It was the first we'd heard of him since his powerbase had collapsed and he'd retreated into the shadows, but if there's one thing I know about Neon City, it's that you can't keep a good old psychopathic homicidal manic down for long!
Off-the-grid but still making moves, there was a problem he wanted us to solve.
Vasi Pina, Russian mob courier had gone missing while carrying a package and Yennav wanted him and the package found, he passed us an address that he had somehow acquired and told us to check it out. Finally he told us that he believed that the culprits were Protobase Global, they were still moving against his organisation, he surmised.
The address led us to Kibogaoka Hill, home to Neon City's most marginalised citizens and its poorest district. In the early days, the dispossessed began gathering on the hill at a rate that soon outpaced corporate and commercial developments, Kibogaoka Hill's notorious patchwork shanty town rapidly sprawled its way across the district, encroaching on burgeoning retail centre that sat on top of the hill. Shadowy corporate interests pushed back and mobs of anonymous enforcers and unmarked military contractors appeared on the shanty town's meandering streets, violently turfing people out of their makeshift homes before destroying them with impunity. The shanty town's inhabitants though, weren't willing to roll over so easily, they adapted, avoided direct conflict and rebuilt quicker than corporations could claim land, initiating a push back of their own. This protracted skirmish lasted for years until the corporations got sick of it, cut their losses and exited the situation, realising they couldn't stem the tide. Kibogaoka Hill's shanty town had quickly established itself as the most erratic neighbourhood in The City of Electric Dreams, where the Neon City's manufactured and orderly planned designs crumbled before the very poverty it had created.
After a ride on the trams we found ourselves on one of the many dirt roads that haphazardly threaded their way through the mishmash streets and from at a hidden vantage point in the shadow of a corrugated, hardened vinyl wall, watched the address. Thermals indicated five signatures, one seated; Vasi Pina, the others standing; from our encounters, four was the typical size of a Protobase Global snatch squad. No doubt the black baggers were carrying the standard Protobase loadout; Konseye K4 SMGs and multipurpose Setihci body armour.
Our approach was simple; distraction.
Trigger ran at the front door, yelling loudly and hacking it down.
At the same time, the rest of us went in through the back, it didn't matter if there was a back door or not. Walls of fibreboard, thin sheets of steel and tarp wouldn't slow us down.
While the snatch squad turned to deal with Trigger, we crashed in and hit them hard. It was over before they had time to react.
Vasi Pina was a skinny guy, with a dirty blonde buzzcut and a diamond shaped face, like so many foot soldiers in the Russian mob, he a favoured the polyester tracksuit and Sport Lyafibya was his brand of choice. After we freed him, he told us to search the black baggers for the package. It was a money chip; encased in a small white translucent polymer slab the size of a thumbnail was a tiny ROM board and connector that contained a heavily encrypted version of an algorithm used in the banking world, it allowed the user a once-only transfer of a specified amount of bits from pre-deposited funds in a nominated bank to an account of issuers choosing. It was totally anonymous and allowed the transfer of theoretically an unlimited amount of untraceable cash. This money chip contained sixty-eight million bits.
We let Yennav Rybasei know we had the package. Immediately, he pinged us back, told us to take the package to a Adkale Tvolenkyin in The Skyscraper District.
"Make sure you're not followed," he instructed with his synthesised Russian accent.
Peering through a water stained transparent acrylic sheet that functioned as a window, we looked outside at the shanty town framed by the blue-white sky, homes were densely packed together in irregular strips that wended their way up and down the hill, frequently stacked on top of each other with precarious ladders or ropes leading up.
The streets here were busy with the shanty town's squatter underclass, out and looking for some respite from Neon City life, easy to spot with the grungy style that was popular here and worn like a badge of honour.
Loosely affiliated gangs also roamed the neighbourhood, hard-eyed thugs on the lookout for trouble and in particular; outsiders to target.
Was there a second Protobase Global squad somewhere out there? With such a heavily populated area, it was impossible to tell.
We came up with a strategy.
Splitting up, we all headed in different directions, trying our best to lose any tails, if there was another team watching, it was very unlikely they would have enough assets to shadow all of us. Bill took the money chip and would deliver it to Adkale Tvolenkyin, using his nanite implants to alter his appearance at an opportune moment and making it harder for pursuers to follow.
For a time we persisted on our random forays into Neon City, daylight had vanished, replaced by an inky sky and the thundering nightly rains by the time Bill pinged all of us, the package had been successfully delivered. There was nothing left to do but head home.
Back at my one-bed, city lights were barely visible through the urine coloured tarp, I relaxed and stretched out on my futon, a brace of clinking and sweating, brown Dindanha beer bottles in one hand and a steaming carton of Niaiwo noodles in the other. Kicking back, I flicked on my wall-slab and watched our appearance on Nina's Vigilante Chat and Cake Show.
It was the next day when Bill's media-slab pinged, someone calling himself Mister Blank was online.
Mister Blank wanted to employ us to move on some squatters who had taken up residence in a property he owned in Akihabara, he told Bill that he wanted to meet up with us to explain the details in person.
Before heading out to Akihabara, we decided to check out Mister Blank, I jacked into the GLOWNET, dropped into it's swirling, iridescent churning info-vista and launched a hunter protocol.
Shining slivers of information were brought back, parcels of data on the man which I scanned through.
He was a personality trader and a successful one too, for the last year or so, personality chips had picked up popularity and become a big deal in Neon City.
Small, tailored and bio-acceptable microprocessors that were wired into the frontal-lobe, they could exaggerate or lessen certain types of behaviour or modify consciousness. Want to quit smoking or maintain a fitness regime, or perhaps enhance your sense of humour? In Neon City, personality chips were the easy answer, at least they were the answer if you had the bits.
Akihabara was primarily a retail district in the Asakusa-cho prefecture that was known for servicing two distinct but partially overlapping markets.
From soaring multi-storeyed department stores that seemingly occupied every corner of the district to crowded and colourful smaller independent stores that flourished in side streets to flea markets that sprawled out beneath the tram arches for shade; all sold a vast variety of technology, slabs, gadgets and retro-gear, much of it cut price or obscure products. Akihabara was widely considered the consumer electronics heart of The City of Electric Dreams.
The district also drew in crowds of shoppers for its other market; transmission media, devout collectors and fans came to scour the extensive archives and collections of film, television, music and games in their original packaging and on their original formats that were sold throughout shops and stalls that frequently also traded in the same locations that sold electronics.
Every square metre of spare building frontage was covered in bright neon-lit larger than life advertising for cartoons, comic books and video games, characters from these products appeared on huge poster boards in cheerful poses or giant animated form on colossal wall slabs. The streets were thick with passersby who were endlessly bombarded with blaring jingles and dazzling adverts.
Mister Blank had arranged to meet us in one of the slew of boutique and themed cafes that dotted the neighbourhood and matched the aesthetic of Akihabara, serving tourists and buyers.
We were led to a private booth where Mister Blank waiting for us.
He was a tall stocky guy in a well cut, if typical Gaongha business suit, but his most prominent feature was the swathe of blisters that seemed to almost cover every centimetre of his visible skin.
Standing, Mister Blank greeted us when we arrived and asked us to sit.
"It's caused by a serious allergy to latex," he explained when he saw us trying not to stare. "Mostly caused by the particular brand of low cost love doll that I prefer to utilise," he added matter-of-factly.
Deciding not to press the issue, we instead asked what exactly he wanted us to do?
He went on to explain that he owned several commercial properties across the city and squatters had taken up residence in one specific property that he was intending to gift to a Olivia Chain. Mister Blank pinged us the address of the the property he wanted vacated.
"I don't care how you do it," he told us. "just as long as it's done, I must have the gift for my Olivia".
Mister Blank admitted us that he was love with her, although he let us know that she had yet to reciprocate.
We told him that we'd look into the squatters.
After leaving, we checked out Olivia Chain on the GLOWNET and what connection with Mister Blank there might be, didn't pay to wander into a situation blind.
Wasn't much to find; Olivia Chain worked for a talent agency that operated out of Akihabara, that was it, no red flags and no link or history with Mister Blank.
It was afternoon by the time we got to the address, it had led us to an unremarkable and unused office block on the edge of the district, it was an empty shell, externally complete but apparently empty inside, rows of windows that ran along each floor were unlit and beyond the large glass doors that swung into the reception foyer, it was dark.
The glass doors weren't locked, so we walked in, stepping on a crumpling layer of refuse that coated the floor.
The foyer was dimly lit by filtered sunlight that streamed through the glass doors, even so, we could clearly make out the brightly coloured but incomprehensible graffiti that had been sprayed over the beige coloured wall panelling.
Thermals showed the ground floor was unoccupied and with no working elevators, there was no choice but to proceed upwards on foot.
Accumulated detritus was piled up in the corners of the unlit, windowless stairwell and we were forced to use night-vision. Graffiti scrawled across walls became more and more frequent, eventually we began to hear voices, a lot of them and music too.
Arriving on what clearly sounded like the right floor, we looked across the gloomy bare landing, litter and rubbish were strewn across it, most of it discard food cartons, drained Kaia Cola bottles or pizza boxes.
Following the escalating noise, we walked through a bright, doorless frame into what, in different circumstances might have been an office. In my mind's eye, I could almost see it; open plan with grey, upholstered free-standing dividers creating a grid of cubicles, populated with wage-monkeys whittling away their lives at desk-slabs, quietly distracted by the office-politics uttered in hushed tones that this environment would foster.
On reflection, maybe it was better this way
Neon City sunlight flooded through windows and afternoon shadows loomed across the floor, we could see the singularly large room was filled with not just refuse, but junk and old tech, rigged-up desk-slabs sat on makeshift tables built of polymer sheets and breeze blocks, reclaimed wall-slabs were hooked to with old-school Segtendo game-decks that ran off original data-slugs, while a salvaged old Iksaarp sound system thumped out music. Mounds of clothes were piled throughout the room, close to old, stained mattresses that had been dumped in remote spots. A grimy, squalid living area.
The occupants - mostly teenagers, shabbily dressed in well-worn, low cost urban clothes had seen us enter and stopped dead, trying to scope the situation out, staring with calculating eyes.
They were part of the underclass that refused to buy into the cycle of futile consumerism that inevitably came with a Universal Credit account. They knew too, that they were squatting here on borrowed time, eventually they'd be turfed out. Only question was by whom and how?
Was that us, they must have wondered?
Were we going to do this the easy or hard way, they must have thought?
Luckily for them, we weren't the unquestioning thuggish trigger-jockeys that Mister Blank might have hired.
Clearly they were not threatening us, once the music had been lowered to an acceptable level, we approached and spoke with them, explaining that they had to leave, they then refused.
They lived here, as they told us because it was close to the heart of Akihabara. Close to the cutting edge of music, fashion and entertainment that the district offered. They weren't impressed when we said that whoever came here after us, would not be quite so accommodating, they were prepared to take the risks.
Bill spoke with the squatters and managed to get them to admit that if we found another good or better spot for their digs, they'd leave.
At any one time in Neon City, corporate players would always have at least a property or two that was either unoccupied or forgotten about on an asset list somewhere. Time to get to work.
Traffic on the GLOWNET was typically saturated with data-flows, the accumulated shining particles of information clustered into their millions, vividly pulsating along the skeletal polygonal substructure of Neon City's info-vista, constantly destroying and renewing the geometric landscape.
Trying to hack individual corporate data-vaults was futile and would take too long, there had to be another way? Then it came to me, the municipal authorities would keep records of unoccupied properties earmarked for commercial usage, it would probably be public records. I launched a search protocol on my Nonohiki and recoded its algorithmic boundaries on the fly with the desired parameters before unleashing it into the City Hall's data-vault.
The protocol quickly returned with results, as expected, there were numerous disused location in Akihabara, scanning through the results I found a suitable candidate, an unoccupied loft close to our current location, it had been neglected for some time. It was a good location.
After speaking with the squatters they agreed to move out and into their new digs, it didn't hurt that we provided them with an enormous box of Savka chocolate and a crate of Baishan cider for doing so.
We stayed to watch them pack up, it didn't take long, they only took what they considered irreplaceable and left the office mostly strewn with their junk, easier to just dumpster dive whatever they needed when they got to the loft.
Once the building had been vacated, an almost uncomfortable silence settled on the office, Trigger ran one last thermal scan to check the floor was empty, he got a hit, there was still a heat signature here.
It was a single unusual, small and faint heat signature located in the far side of the other wing? Our footsteps sounded unusually loud on the uncarpeted floor, almost echoing as we walked through the neglected, bare and empty wing, when we reached the heat source, what we found was surprising.
Wrapped in a slightly crumpled blanket and sitting there was a creature that resembled small white bear, it turned its head to regard us coolly as it drank from a cup of gently steaming tea!
Maybe it was an uplifted animal? We tried speaking to it, but it didn't answer or respond, either it was unwilling or unable to do so.
There was some strange marking on one of its feet, I zoomed in with my telescopics, it was writing. 'The Yokai Corporation, find us in Ikebukuro.'.
It made sense now: The Yokai Corporation was a videogame developer and competitor to Segtendo's Pouchebeast game. The Yokai Corporation produced a unique and elaborate videogame that was actually played throughout Neon City, it required the use of extensively genetically altered creatures such as this white bear that loosely resembled creatures of Japanese folklore called yokai, these yokai would be released into the wilds of the city to roam its districts and neighbourhoods. Hardwired and networked implants in their brains dictated their behaviour towards human trainers and other yokai.
In order to participate in the game, players had to become Yokai Trainers which involved purchasing Yokai Licences from the corporation. With a license, trainers now had the privileges to capture wild yokai, train them and use them to battle the yokai of other trainers.
This was achieved through GLOWNET connections and the elaborately coded actions of the yokai.
Pepper found all of this quite compelling, pulling out his media-slab, he quickly paid for an account, downloaded the necessary protocols and immediately gained his license!
This allowed him to capture his first yokai, in this case the yokai in front of him. It was a level one Shirokuma. The yokai immediately got to its feet and joined Pepper, who'd now part of the world of yokai battling.
When we left office block, the yokai followed along behind Pepper, the block was empty now and we let Mister Blank know.
The end of the day was fast approaching as I got back to my one-bed, cheap takeout in hand. Soon the gathering clouds above would erupt raging torrents crashing down on Neon City.
As I closed my door withc a click, I heard a rustling movement in the apartment, the easily recognisable footsteps of Lucy. In the peripheral of my vision I saw her heading my way. I avoided eye-contact, having no desire to hear what she had to say and made straight for my futon. Too late! She'd sprung in front of me, hands on hip, demanding to know why I hadn't taken her out for ages!
Trapped, I knew what was coming.
"Well honey," I had to say. "What do you want to do?".
Here it came.
"Uterus!" Lucy replied without hesitation, flashing a cheap printed flyer in my face.
Located in the southern half of the Shibuya Terminal district, Uterus was a big nightclub and a bigger deal, an infamous venue with a massive capacity and one of the most exclusive and trendy nightspots in Neon City that lured a celebrity clientele from all over, Uterus also pulled in thousands of clubbers nightly. People would figuratively kill to get in.
Wouldn't be cheap getting tickets this late in the day either, worse than that! Tickets were scarcer to come by than normal. Turned out that a popular annual event known as Uterus Gestation was scheduled for tonight and prices had been run up to a hundred grand each! As well as Lucy and I, I knew the others would want in, it was going to cost a lot of scratch to get through those doors and we resented being gouged, there must have been a way to get cheaper tickets?
Maybe D4-VID could help? The botcaster normally covered the Neon City current affairs beat, maybe it was time he had a change, there would be a lot of celebrity photo opportunities at Uterus Gestation, maybe he could get us in.
We pinged D4-VID and explained the situation and he pinged his publisher with it. They agreed to front half the cost of tickets for D4-VID and his entourage.
Once we'd gotten some tickets from a tout, Lucy was jumping for joy and went got ready for the night out.
An hour later and she reappeared in a short-hemmed pale yellow Fassus party frock with matching Poratier earrings and Oltrante stilettos.
I thought back to all the social events that I'd attended with Lucy and thrust a couple of extra clips for my Xiuzhol Arms .45 into a pocket of my armoured, black leather Verskeit trench coat.
Lucy had also booked a stretched, pink sky-limo and with D4-VID in tow, we headed into the rainy night and to the Shibuya Terminal. Finding Uterus wasn't hard, just headed towards the thumping bassline that permeated throughout the entire neighbourhood.
Approaching the venue, we saw that it was announced by massive blazing neon signage ten metres above street level. Searchlights were bolted to the flat exterior of what appeared to be steel clad walls, sweeping the night sky, with lancing beams of light, gleaming when caught in falling raindrops.
If it was possible, the crush of people intensified after we exited the limo and got close to the nightclub, the clamouring crowd threatened to even drown out the music pumping from within Uterus. Must've been a thousand people trying to get past the roped-off red carpet or straining a neck to get a glance at the arriving Neon City luminaries. Other news-droids were among the crowd, filming and snapping away.
Elbowing our way through the assembled people to the tanked up doormen bulging with grafted muscle packs and cheap Evoda tuxedos who convinced no one of anything other than their thuggish nature, we held out our tickets.
Then we hit a problem, the tickets were fake, we weren't getting in, Lucy was crestfallen, I didn't want to deal with the fallout, so this wasn't going to stop me, I slipped the bouncers a small stack of bits and Lucy and I were in! The others followed suit.
Even so they demanded that we handed over our weapons before granting us entry, we capitulated, grudgingly so as they were deposited into a secure locker.
I suspected this might all go south at some point. Fortunately, it was impossible to disarm Roderick, Bill's bodyguard!
Uterus was a massive converted, stripped down shell of a warehouse with multicoloured spotlights, that in time to the music played over the flat, garishly decorated interior wall and ceiling panels as well as the exposed skeletal steel frame that supported it, creating outlandish blended patterns of colour in the otherwise dimly lit venue. Through the press of silhouetted, churning bodies we could make out several bars, a stage with the DJ and his decks set out, two seating areas - one of which was in a raised area. There was also a dance floor, Lucy headed straight for it.
Once inside, the music had become louder as it blared out of a custom and pricey Oherut speaker setup and sound system that the DJ was controlling, conversing normally was an impossibility, then a little later, Gestation got underway and the music really became deafening!
The usual assortment of techno dancefloor songs had been replaced by something different. A procedurally generated almost pneumatic electronica sound originating from multiple sources within the warehouse that reverbed off the walls to create a cacophony of clashing chords that somehow harmonised into an all-enveloping body of sound.
It was beyond loud and was accompanied by a low humming as the old warehouse began vibrating, I could feel a nauseating tremor tightening my chest, it was beginning to affect others too, some began to collapse whilst others cheered and continued dancing. The sound continued to intensify, parts of the warehouse began to buckle, more people collapsed and then, the panic ensued, almost silent screams swallowed by the sound emanated from faces strangely lit by the kaleidoscopic hues and contorted by fear as people stampeded for the exits. Somewhere in that crowd was Lucy?
My vision grew blacker, as if someone had lowered the dimmer switch to reality and then I blacked out.
I was told what happened afterwards.
As the warehouse shook itself apart, dropping heavy steel panels on the hapless clubbers below, in the gloom a massive tangle of people had got caught up at the exits, unable to get out, fighting had broken out as a result.
Koko had reached the DJ's decks, found the lighting controls and managed put the normal lights back on, it didn't help much. Everyone still needed to get out so Bill had ordered Roderick to clear the way. Roderick's algorithms had assessed the risks and calculated the teeming people represented a clear threat, he opened up with his guns, firing clusters of explosive fletchette rounds into the crowd! It wasn't what Bill had asked for, but it was effective, if brutally so and there was no point crying over spilt milk so dragging Lucy and I, they managed to escape Uterus. Moments later the warehouse collapsed in on itself with a tremendous crash and billowing cloud of dust, killing everyone still left inside.
That wasn't all that had happened.
When I'd regained consciousness, something strange had happened. I could still hear the music, it's beat pumping away deep in in my brain like an echo, everyone had experienced a song that became stuck in their head but this was something else, different. I swear that somewhere in that electronica I could hear a voice, a voice that spoke to me? It called itself Koto? To say it conversed with me was inaccurate, but conversed it did.
Whenever Koto spoke to me, in the moment that followed, for a instant I could feel my senses become heightened; colours, light and shapes became more vivid, sounds were clearer and hearing became acuter, it caused my response times to external stimuli to rapidly decrease.
I would discover at a later time I was not the only survivor from Uterus who had experienced this. In a few people the music in the nightclub had caused some sort of shift in the electro-chemical balances in the brain, inexplicably creating what was named a Living Electronic Dance Music Entity or Living EDM Entity. An actual sentient individual that now resided in my brain. There appeared to be no way to reverse this. It seemed that Koto was here to stay.
I also expected the constant music that played in my head to drive me insane, instead the song and Koto managed to coexist in my consciousness without issue.
Lucy, at some point had vomited on her new frock and now wanted to go home to bed, I was also sore but uninjured. As first responders arrived to treated survivors, we managed to retrieve our secured weapons and made a hasty exit, not wanting to answer any awkward questions that might come up.
Later still, Bill told us, he'd found a crumpled up empty pack of Lunglife Cigarettes in one of his coat pockets, considering he didn't smoke - that was curious.
He turned it over in his fingers and found some scribbled writing. It was a number - and a name; Viper Joe. There was a short message too, From Viper Joe? Urging us to save his girlfriend from some sort of hacker? Wanted us to meet him at some place called the Freak Pit.
The next morning, stories came down the news-vines of the destruction of Uterus, the nightclub had been packed to capacity when it had happened, which was estimated at ten thousand people, of them there had been only about five hundred survivors!
Despite this, Uterus Gestation was generally considered a great success and declared the best Uterus event yet, particularly by the survivors! To much fanfare and excitement, it was announced that in the future, to mark the rebuilding of the nightclub there would be an even greater event called Uterus Reopening.
Tickets had already gone on sale were expected to soon sell out.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.