5th June 2021
It's a Saturday night and we're logged into video chat for some Saturday RPG action and it's time for the next part of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign
Location: Neon City.
The grinding clamour of the City of Electric Dreams had mingled into an expansive dulling background static, a numbing, urban white noise that scrambled the brain.
The day’s heat unrelentingly rose to intolerable levels before the sun had even half-finished its march into Neon City’s bleached blue-white sky as shafts of morning light blazed through the tarp that protected the blasted wall of my one-bed while lighting it up the colour of urine.
I coped by mixing Kaia Cola with Shiaikan whiskey; light on the Kaia and heavy on the Shiaikan did the trick; morning receded into a distant undefinable haze.
It couldn’t last and didn’t; the ping from my media-slab cut through the blur like a precision sword stroke, killing my euphoria and flooding my senses with material reality.
Neon City’s unluckiest man, Yaroh Uron was online and it wasn’t about to get better for him: His voice was laboured, erratic, I could almost see the furtive look and sheen of sweat on his face.
It wasn’t enough that he’d been wrongly convicted for murder, now he told us he was on the run and rentacop were after him for another!
We couldn’t leave him twisting in the wind and had to get to Rokkaku Dai Heights.
Koko had the flier prepped and airborne in minutes, remotely bringing it down on one of Hikage Street’s highrise pads while we hustled up to meet it in a shroud of jetwash.
Gravity pawed at me during lift off, I watched the grey tower that housed my one-bed fall away, swallowed by Neon City’s sprawling concrete maw while the urine coloured polymer tarp that marked out my destroyed wall shrank into an indistinguishable dot on the flier’s screens.
A tiny tremble vibrated out of the turbines, transmitted through the toughened poly-blended gum soles of my Habiefs while I scoped the newsvines. The sharp abrupt tugs on my guts told me Koko was pushing the flier hard as she sliced through Neon City’s sky traffic.
The news on Yaroh Uron was plentiful, so was the footage.
A few days ago, while locked up, Tohi, his wife, had been killed in a freak accident involving a delivery droid. Inexplicably, its powercell had somehow crashed all safety protocols, catastrophically overloading.
Unusually, The Black Dolphin gulag had granted Yaroh compassionate leave to attend Tohi’s funeral. That was the start of his troubles.
Footage on the vines from the outskirts of the funeral had shown an armed band of masked individuals decked in form-fitting black Steutz armour and riding a grimy, white, angular and square bodied Benlato Hochall sky-van descend on the ceremony and pounce:
With practised precision, they’d netted a hood over Yaroh’s head while firing indiscriminately into the mourners, dragged him into the Hochall and bugged out.
In and out in seconds; the work of professional black-baggers.
Further footage, grainy, badly lit and half out of focus, showed Yaroh Uron and the black-baggers hitting the tram network after dumping the Hochall. I watched the security feed of commuters awkwardly shrinking away while the black-baggers boarded and peeled the hood off of Yaroh’s head, moments later they induced him to vomit with a puke-prodder! A newsvine would later explain that they were flushing a tracker out Yaroh’s system that he’d been made to swallow by the screws at the Black Dolphin.
I continued to watch while between stations, the black-baggers punched the tram’s emergency stop. They dragged Yaroh with them as they evacuated the tram, disappearing out of shot.
Finally, an unconnected piece of footage showed Yaroh Uron killing Avery Kiani, emptying a full magazine at full auto from a grey-steel Koudeila submachine pistol into the corrupt rentacop’s chest, muzzle flash lighting up a furiously contorted, murderous visage while Kiani convulsed and collapsed into a bloody, dying heap.
Following that, the newsvines announced that Yaroh had been abandoned by his black-bagging so called ‘accomplices’.
I wasn’t so sure they were accomplices, the black-baggers had pretty forcibly pushed him around during his escape while he struggled and stumbled.
Tohi Uron was dead.
Avery Kiani was dead.
Averi kiani had been about as corrupt as rentacop got in Neon City, which is to say; very corrupt, deep in Benedict Twistom’s pocket.
Our dives into his past had pulled no dirt, instead, we’d pushed his button as hard as we could. Which meant hitting him in the bank balance; zeroing the bankroll delivered from Benedict Twistom’s slush fund then siccing D4VID on him, hoping the botcaster would score some usable leverage on the rentacop as he reacted to losing all his dollar.
Somehow he’d given D4VID the slip, soon after that, Annabel Twistom - Benedict’s wife had come up dead; victim of a bloody street execution. Looked likely we’d pushed Kiani pretty hard.
Annabel Twistom, Tohi Uron and now, Avery Kiani, was there a commonality, a thread that ran between all of them, linked one to another?
I kept replaying the clues, looking for anything in the footage that I’d missed. When I went back through the tram feed as the black-baggers and Yaroh fled, I saw something, there, in the background, unidentified and strange?
Scrubbing back and rewatching several times, I saw what seemed like a pair of red cylindrical robots? They were dragging some unidentifiable individual through some neglected, disused old brownfield the perimetered Zoshigaya Park, searching the GLOWNET told me the only notable feature close to the brownfield was ‘The Tower’, an exclusive ‘celebrity’ restaurant owned by McChef, real name Halifax Machesky.
Didn’t get the chance to dive deeper, Koko had piped up, The Heights had come into view.
Densely clustered in one neighbourhood of Rokkakau Dai Heights, the alabaster white residential high-rises reached into the overbright sky, looming above the urbanised horizon, welcoming our closing flier.
Yaroh Uron was there, he’d told us as much, somewhere among the undocumented population who inhabited the sprawling makeshift shanty town precariously anchored to the aerial arrays, sat-dishes, transmission antennae and water towers that dotted the off-white rooftops and were connected by a web of haphazardly swaying makeshift bridges and skywalks.
Circling the high-rises, we saw the large number of rentacop swarming the sidewalks on street level, trying to cordon off the entire neighbourhood while on the rooftop settlement, more uniforms brandishing their cheap Rekhang 9mm Ngaohun sidearms cautiously prowled the walkways. It would take them a while to flush out Yaroh, neither the locals nor the squatters here had any love for rentacop and would have them chasing shadows.
Beyond the edge of the housing district we spotted a column of black smoke billowing out of another high-rise, the lower plumes intermittently underlit orange by licking flames that extruded from a gouged, bloody wound of an opening in the side of the tower. That kind of shape was recognisable, something explosive had hit the high-rise hard.
Koko found an alley wide enough to rapidly put our feet on the ground somewhere inside the cordon, we managed to slip into one of the towers before rentacop could get eyes on us.
Apartments in The Heights were slightly more upmarket than the one-and-two-beds that we were used to on Hikage Street, even so, they were tightly packed and stacked on each floor. Rumours and news spread through these kinds of crammed communities faster than newsvines, someone would know something.
Bill took the lead here, he was in his element, a winning smile and silky patter got numerous residents talking and soon we had a good idea where Yaroh Uron was holed up.
The rooftop shantytown’s population was always transient and untrackable, it meant that a few of the makeshift shacks were always unoccupied. It was in one of these that Yaroh Uron had - at least so far, hidden from rentacop. Moving cautiously, we headed for the roof, the info led to a smallish squat; a clinging corner building, held up by misshaped wooden props and walled by a mixture of corrugated plastic sheeting and pallets wrapped in tarp, topped a thin, dented alloy sheet roof.
Trigger ran thermals and got a single hit, an individual male heat profile was inside, pacing the small room in short, swift movements, a firearm grasped in one hand. Yaroh would be on edge, it needed a measured approach.
Koko bought Pippy online, the custom Suayo MKVI drone had been outfitted with a voice function and could deliver Yaroh a message. Trigger approached one of the shack walls that faced towards the roof with Pippy quietly buzzing in tow and gave the wall a kick!
His Shiaosha leg implants activated, lending his strike extra momentum and the flimsy wall split in two, Pippy’s buzzing servos noticeably increased in pitch as the drone accelerated through the gap. From our position we just about saw Yaroh level his pistol at Pippy and pull the trigger.
Pippy was met with a spent magazine’s audible click, if Yaroh did have a reload, we got in the shack and had him calmed down before he had any chance to think about it. The wall, now in two pieces was hastily propped up, rentacop were nowhere to be found right now.
Turning to Yaroh Uron, we got his story out of him.
He’d never known the black-baggers who’d snatched him from the funeral, after exiting the tram, they dragged him aboard another sky van and made good their escape. Eventually they’d ended up at one of the many failed or abandoned urban renewal projects that littered Neon City’s sprawl, this particular example was a half finished high-rise and they were on one of the skeletal higher levels.
Benedict Twistom had been waiting, materialising out of an unlit corner with an offer.
Kill Avery Kiani and in return, Twistom would furnish him with a new identity and a way to evade rentacop.
Yaroh had nothing left in The City of Electric Dreams now, so he took the offer, Twistom even provided the gun and sent the black-baggers to help.
In hindsight though, Yaroh admitted it was obvious that Twistom would betray him and once he’d rubbed out Kiani, the black-baggers had evaporated into the sprawl and Benedict Twistom had ghosted him.
Now he was here, waiting for the inevitable.
I couldn’t help but try to put the dots together.
Avery Kiani had likely murdered Annabel Twistom and Benedict had gotten Yaroh to kill Kiani, that was one thread, what was the link between Yaroh and Benedict, the black-baggers had been bankrolled by Twistom, but how did he know to lean on Yaroh.
Tohi had been killed in unusual circumstances, it could have been arranged. The wife of an out-of-work, down-on-his-luck, former exec would have been an easy mark for the kind of spooks and street-ninja that someone like Twistom had in his pocket.
Avery Kiani had executed Annabel Twistom.
Benedict Twistom got Tohi Uron killed.
Yaroh Uron murdered Avery Kiani.
No solid proof, but the thread that ran from one to another was as clear as a set of bloody footprints.
What to do with Yaroh Uron now?
We couldn’t leave him to his fate and had two options: Enrol him in the Planetary Global Defence Force or get him out of Neon City.
Yaroh Uron chose the former. The closest PGDF recruitment office was located on Ninety Ninth Street. Getting him there would’ve been easy but Rentacop had tightened the noose.
Koko tols rentacop had escalated their cordon, now restricting all air-traffic; it meant we couldn’t call in the flier without triggering alarms, same was true of all the city’s sky-cabs, their piloting-systems would automatically divert them away from any airspace limitations introduced by rentacop. Another solution was needed.
I jacked into the GLOWNET, the shanty’s patchwork substance of material reality shrank away while polygonal neon veins expanded around me, incandescent growing crystalline settled into Neon City’s wavering and ever changing angular info-vista.
Here, even the shanty town had its own data-image; a giant, pulsating, colour-shifting, tangled mess of data movements that loosely resembled some monstrously chaotic spider’s web, as undesigned and unplanned as its material reality counterpart.
I could also see rentacop bio-images prowling the vicinity or lingering close by, the expanding cordon had now reached into the GLOWNET, glow-cops launching hunter algorithms on standard issue cheap Muanma slabs.
This was my jungle gym though, not theirs; I launched a spoofer that masked my own bio-image and was immediately past them without a hitch.
The city’s vista twisted and rotated as I navigated towards the closest rentacop precinct. It was a squat, concrete-grey, flat-coloured cubic data-image, looking as much of a bunker as the real thing. It looked like a lazy design but I knew better, it had been researched, focus grouped and designed to be as uninviting and intimidating as anything could be in the GLOWNET.
Not because they wanted to menace the population but because they didn't want to incur the fiscal expense of dealing with the public.
Getting through the public-facing data-image would be trickier, security wouldn’t be so lax in this department. I launched a hacking algorithm and watched as it worked through the rentacop’s encryption key, revealing each digit, one-by-one, calculations told me I’d crack it before rentatcop’s counter-hack system tagged a trace on me. Once all the numbers were revealed, it was done, I was past their security and into their core system.
It listed several subdirectories, one showed a constant gleaming flow of data to-and-fro between precincts but it didn’t interest me
Another subdirectory logged this precinct’s communications between patrols and street units. The records showed only intermittent contact between them, a length of chatter, followed by a length of silence, followed by another length of chatter and so on, this limited comms was another budget consideration and something that could be exploited.
I waited for a period of chatter to end and then got to work. I picked a rentacop sky-wagon outside of the cordon but close by and then, on the directory, I flicked it from green to red - the system would flag the unit as ‘in danger’. The closest rentacop units - those around us would have to prioritise the incident, respond and redirect to that location.
It was a rough hack and rentacop would figure out it was a phantom threat soon enough but it gave us the window we needed to get through the cordon.
It was going to have to be by foot, fast and to a public transit network, the metro would have sharper security, so the tram network it was.
Bill had taken the opportunity to give Yaroh a rudimentary disguise, wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny but it would slow facial recog.
I’d also sourced some new ID docs for Yaroh, the encryption algorithm utilised by the city to generate social security numbers, tracking numbers, case numbers and more had been cracked years ago, the city defences had been weak and to keep costs down, they relied on a single algorithm to drive everything.
From there, generating a new ID for Yaroh Uron had been child’s play.
Now we just had to get to Ninety Ninth Street.
Even out of rush hour, the crumbling tram infrastructure was unendingly clogged with commuters; wage-monkeys may have come and gone for the morning but It was a tense ride to Ninety Ninth crammed aboard its dirty, declining, unserviced carriages filled with consumers, no-hopers, inebriants, street gangs, and transients who all had places to be.
An unknowable time passed before Ninety Ninth Street came into view through dirt stained windows, faded old brakes squealed while they dragged the tram to a stop, then we were off and on our way.
Undulating crowds were ahead and had to be navigated, the mixture of onlookers and pachinko players didn’t let up when nows we were back on foot: The Neon Mile, with its long strip of fluorescent tube painted, jingle-playing pachinko rooms, bingo halls, gambling dens and karaoke setups pulled in an immense number of rollers looking to score big or die trying.
The pressing crush on the street only exacerbated the sweltering heat as we laboured through the tumultuous crowds and closed in on the PGDF recruitment office. It was a place we knew, having provided them with recruits in the past.
From behind came the abrupt, harsh staccato of small calibre automatic gunfire, probably a nine millimetre urbanised holdout spitting the lead. Keeping our heads down and without looking back, we reached the office.
Despite their immense budget, the PGDF constantly faced a recruitment crisis. The slim and well turned out uniformed recruiter didn’t spend much time scrutinising Yaroh’s fake ID before they allowed him to fill out an application in the small, street facing office.
After that, he was off, recruits were rapidly whisked to a flight into orbit before they could change their minds.
We left after saying our goodbyes to Yaroh Uron.
It didn’t take long before something came up, never did. Trigger’s slab pinged and Viper Joe was online. The synthesised voice box in his full body replacement frame spouted digitised low half-growls, distorting his words. Joe’s speech was too fast and changing tack too often for it to cope well. Something had him excited.
I could see Trigger wince as Joe’s voice changed pitch, dropped fidelity, squawked with feedback and hissed into Trigger’s ear. Joe was ranting about The Red King and a dead woman?
For days now, someone called The Red King had been anonymously posting messages on the newsvines and chat-streams. Looked like the boasting of another low rent serial killer who haunted the dimly-lit narrow streets and murky nil-spots of Neon City. Some trash about chess moves and ‘taking pieces’ which was just code for killing people. Truth was; nobody in Neon City cared about chess.
However, whatever the situation was, The Red King’s schtick had been good enough to attract the attention of the newsvines which meant rentacop, who had to at least look like they cared, had made a show of offering a reward for information.
Joe told us that he’d eyeballed the body of The Red King’s latest victim getting dumped, a woman called Avril Van Laere, a gardener who’d been found dead at the Mejiro Allotments and who lived in the Mejiro Housing Complex.
Joe told us he’d gotten a vid of the body being dumped and was going to claim that reward. It showed a pair of red, cylindrical robots unceremoniously hurling her ragdolling body out of a sky-van. Avril Van Laere’s body crumpled to the ground as the sky-van powered skywards.
Joe was on the money; had to be the Red King. What kind of game was he playing, well, other than chess?
Galvanised, Joe decided to head to the Ikebukuro precinct and pocket his reward.
Like a strange answer to my question; Koko’s media-slab pinged, someone was initiating an unlisted connection to her: The Red King was calling; told Koko she was next and quoted some kind of poem.
The flier easily allowed us to intercept Viper Joe and give him a ride the rest of the way and escort him into the concrete bunker rentacop called a precinct. Once through the steel and reinforced acrylic doors then past the hardened facade, we arrived at an almost equally protected front desk. Joe told his story to the rentacop behind the toughened glass screen
Over a rasping microphone that just compounded his own unnatural voice, he was crestfallen to discover that footage of Avril’s body had already found its way to rentacop.
It wasn’t over though, we went our separate way from Viper Joe and decided to keep digging on the Red King. His call to Koko told us he was planning to move against us someway?
The Tower was the first lead we decided to follow, we’d seen the footage of his red robots.
Zoshigaya Park contained one of the few open and wooded areas that flourished in the conurbation, a blossom of greenery bursting against the city’s asphalt grey, The Tower sat on the very lip of the verdant boundary, set in a grassy band that ringed the forest.
The restaurant was figuratively a tower with a faux stone facade that rose several storeys high and was complemented by parapets and blustery flags. It had just come into sight when Koko’s media-slab pinged; a message from the Red King.
‘King takes rook, check.’
We had no time to even process the message: A sudden wave of heat engulfed us as we were lifted off our feet. Almost instantaneously and before we’d even hit the ground, an enveloping roar reached our ears, threatening to overwhelm us as we landed with a crash.
For a moment, an expanding yellow-white spherical flare had bloomed from within The Tower, an intense glow visible through gaps in the stone work rendering it a skeletal shape before coalescing into a rippling orange ball of flame as the restaurant was torn apart.
Hurled by the explosion, scorched chunks of replica stone work and masonry thudded back to earth in a full quarter-kilometre smoking radius around the devastation, followed by a swarm of flittering, rectangular white shapes that danced and wheeled their way to the ground amongst the ruin.
I picked one up and turned it over in my fingers, old-school business cards. It was ivory white, plain on one side with a black and white checkerboard across the other. Over the checkerboard was a single image, an embossed red foil shape of a king’s crown icon
The Red king; I took a moment to register that he was up to his trick of using chess gimmicks. Rook had meant castle, the explosion was the Red King’s doing.
First responders got to Zoshigaya park quickly but Firestreaker was there quicker and was happily doing his streaming thing while they arrived.
Later, the newsvines would report that thirty seven customers and staff had been killed in the blast, including McChef.
There wasn’t much left of The Tower amongst the smoking ruin, at least in material reality. Amongst the cooling rubble we spotted the mostly flattened shape of a boxed security camera. The GLOWNET beckoned and who was I to deny it?
An incandescent multi-coloured, boiling swirl of data compiled around me, up-rezzing into the recognisable local info-vista after jacking in.
Here, The Tower was intact, as unchanged as its gaudy neon-delineated data-image. Somewhere behind it would be a data-vault with links to remote storage that archived security footage. A cracking algorithm quickly had me past The Tower’s lax security and into the vault’s directory, from there I saw several data-lines that went out into the GLOWNET, system records showed one line routinely sent out data to a location I knew belonged to a security provider.
I followed the data-line to the gleaming, angular, steel grey image of an actual old style safe, with a hinged door, lock and handle. Someone had a sense of humour at least; shame about their defences, especially considering their line of work. The safe was surrounded by a thin, silvery nimbus and hovered while rotating.
I launched the algorithm again, it got me in almost as quickly as The Tower. I had the ID string from the restaurant and quickly isolated its archived footage. Jumping to a close by timestamp, I scrubbed through the footage from all the cams until I got a hit. The restaurant’s faux glass windows were dim, the clientele absent when two red cylindrical robots came into the feed.
It was starting to fit together, the robots were under the Red King’s control, either via protocol or remotely. They weren’t just bespoke robots, they were his pawns. Carrying a package as they forcibly opened the restaurant doors and entered. Less than sixty seconds later they exited without the package, now effortlessly carrying a struggling individual, this time the identification was easy; McChef. The pawns had kidnapped the owner, he wasn’t dead.
It was a convulsing McChef that we’d seen the pawns dragging through the brownfield adjacent to The Tower in the other footage earlier. Koko sent Kevin up into the air to scan the landscape, I pulled Kevin’s aerial feed into an algorithm and it looked for breaks in the brownfields geo-data and it got a hit, tracks leading away from The Tower.
Kevin led and we followed, eventually the trail ended in the remotest part of the brownfield where Neon City’s skyline had shrunk away, distantly looming through a hazy low-level smog over the surrounding greenery and the oppressive, urban background noise had become a almost indistinct hum.
The algorithm showed that a standard sized sky-van had landed and taken-off: Dead end.
Koko left Kevin buzzing above, patrolling the area in a surveillance pattern and we went on to our next lead.
Avril Van Laere’s body had been discovered in the Mejiro garden allotments, a gridded spread of earth and greenery, decorated with an eclectic combination of vegetation, multicoloured flowers and assorted plantlife.
Even though Neon City was a behemothic, mostly uncontrolled nightmarish asphalt sprawl, there were still a few who lived in the concrete wilderness that retained a green thumb and an urge to plant and grow. Somehow, in the past, someone had managed to pressure the Mejiro municipal authority to set aside some open ground, exposed to the sky for gardening. Residents could apply for an allotment plot for personal domestic use.
Avril’s plot had been taped off in a bright yellow square by rentacop and her remains removed, it was easy to see they’d trampled most of the area, eradicating most evidence. They hadn’t even seen the crushed scenery stretched across several other close-by plots. More sky-van tracks, maybe the same one that had taken McChef had pulled its trick here.
There was nothing for us to work with here, maybe Rentacop gotten something? Bill pinged Captain Okano, the Shinjuku precinct captain we were tight with and asked if he could get us anything. I could hear Okano’s overloud response through the microspeaker on Bill’s media-slab.
He would call us back.
Unexpectedly, Viper Joe came into sight out of a door in the close-by apartment block which ran along one edge of the allotment perimeter and was - by Neon City standards a fairly low residential building.The machine-whine of Joe’s frame’s servo-motors were barely discernible as he strolled over.
Joe explained that Avril Van Laere was local, living close to her allotment and pointed out her apartment for us.
It was too good an opportunity to miss.
Rentacop weren’t about and everyone out the street was mostly preoccupied with their media-slab, lifting the yellow and black striped tape, we slipped through the door of Avril Van Laere’s apartment unseen.
Outside, Avril Van Laere’s home had been pretty plain, external walls were clad in neutral grey, furnished with polymer framed reinforced acrylic windows, indistinguishable from its neighbouring apartments.
It was a different story inside and the interior couldn’t contrast more. Avril’s greenthumb was evident everywhere, an assortment of plants sat on every shelf and available horizontal space in every room, filling pots and vases, obscuring wall decorations
Without attention, they’d soon be as dead as she was.
Even so, stacked cut bunches of peonies dominated the apartment, piled up throughout its few rooms, enveloping them with a strong citrusy scent and splashes of colour that popped against the off-white walls and grey carpeting.
Where had the peonies come from?
A trashcan check found the answer; a small printed receipt showed a batch of peonies had been sold off cheap - took a moment to realise it had to be excess stock from the Jorenji peony festival.
Didn’t explain why she was taking a dirt nap though, we kept searching.
A hardcopy printout from a newsvine dedicated to Neon City gardening was found on a little, circular faux pine kitchen table, a column of classified ads dated four days ago, one was circled.
Someone had been looking for a gardener, a no questions job that paid bits-in-hand, Avril must’ve bitten. Fianchetto Recruitment Facilitation, some low level job market player we didn’t recognise had posted it.
It wasn’t hard getting into Fianchetto’s system; quick joyride through the GLOWNET, blurring through sectors of multichrome constructs and running a hack past the security on their bio-image - a red, orange and white corporate logo and we were in vaut beneath it.
A directory record showed someone called Roy Rouge had listed the job, I pulled all the related data and jacked out, nauseously lurching back into material reality.
The records confirmed that Avril had accepted Roy Rouge’s job offer; her number was in the records, as was Roy Rouge’s.
Both numbers got us nothing and no way to ping their locations either.
City records showed at least a dozen Roy Rouges lived throughout the city municipalities. Tracking down all of them would take time, a way of getting through the data quickly was needed. I launched a hunter/seeker algorithm and set its parameters to find anything in the GLOWNET that would link with the term Roy Rouge, didn’t take more than a few seconds to get a hit.
The algorithm had generated an association between Roy Rouge and the phrase roi rouge phonetically, in French, roi rouge meant red king. The Red King had killed Avril Van Laere
Until there was a solid lead on The Red King, we’d hit a dead end.
Captain Noodles had pressed some theatre passes on us, they were to A Song For Neon City, the annual city-wide competitive music contest that dominated the social landscape and obsessed the public for exactly one week a year before immediately slipping into the foggy recesses of obscurity for the remaining fifty-one.
Each district had its own representative and Noodles was representing Hikage Street. We decided to attend and provide Noodles with moral support; the others seemed to like this sort of thing while I agreed with the sentiment that it was culturally bankrupt.
Like all big ticket events in Neon City, there was some bank to be made from it and in Neon City that meant an inevitably rising body count. I made sure to pack the full complement of ammo for my ACP .45s before we left.
Pharoah Park was one of the few usable open air venues in Neon City, having survived the municipal neglect and environmental ravages that had erased much of the city’s spaces. Built to an Egyptian motif it was frequently used to host popular events and drew large crowds from surrounding districts.
A sinking sun hung in the lateish afternoon blue-white sky as we arrived, drenching the venue in hazy orange light while throwing out immense shadows across the length of the park.
Large automated parasols provided shade from the day’s unflinching sunlight while altering function to become rain shelters when night came and with it, the thundering torrential downpours
It wasn’t long before the competition got under way. A massive row of Senonable wall-slab slab had been set up, painting the competitors larger-than-life and giving the audience better views of the acts.
First up, representing Highway Zero were the Joi Bois, male street walkers who roamed ground level Neon City region, cruising for trade amongst the constant flow of commuters and traffic. In what would be the first of several cover songs from back in the twentieth, they performed YMCA along with a series of simulated acts and interactions between them. Although the giant screen made it look quite realistic?
The Shaolin Rippers were representing Shibuya terminal. We’d had more than one run-in with the violent street gang who were bankrolled by the elusive Prophet Wei and had never realised they had their won.choir.
Their short set consisted of Mongolian throat-singing and chiming Tibetian bells.
Next was Ninety Ninth Street; represented by Milky’s Girls, a trio of working girls who plied their trade on The Neon Mile. They were joined on stage by their pimp, the albino Milky Smooth himself and performed an acapella cover of Uptown Girl while Milky Smooth accompanied them with obscene rap lyrics, it went down well with the crowd.
Delia Lavanchy was someone we knew well having investigated her finances recently. Delia was representing the Fortified Residential Zone. She performed a song called Korobeiniki, it was some kind of old, old Russian song. It was about peddling goods or something, at least that’s what the GLOWNET told me.
Delia also sang the song while constructing a wall consisting of brightly coloured acrylic tetriminos blocks.
Dogenzaka Hill was being represented by Rooster and the Doomriders, We’d also encountered Rooster before and the band was also named after their biker gang. Dressed in their synth-leathers and denims they performed another song I’d never heard of called La Colère de Ramsès?
At last! Captain Noodles came on stage, representing our home district, Hikage Street. Noodles performed his own spoken word interpretation of another song from the Twentieth - Rocketman; he appeared as a black and white image on the giant screen against a backdrop of photos of his time on Mars.
Somehow, the vaudevillian street performer, sex worker and assassin - Thaddeus Rackham had gotten himself made the representative of Rokkaku Dai Heights.
Thaddeus had chosen what sounded like an old showtune from the twentieth called They All Had a Finger in the Pie.
He was decked out in his full vaudevillian getup and sang it while riding a unicycle and juggling flaming clubs.
Finally, the last act was Franky & Joey. We only just realised they were Franky Frazackerly and Joey Peshwari; a pair of out-of-shape uniformed cut-rate rentaguard we’d run across and who patrolled the verdant perimeter of the monolithic, Sunshine City shopping mall.
Their blue-and-grey faux-cop uniforms had been replaced with washing-powder-white sailor boy outfits and they sang some song the slightly camp compare had announced as A Glass of Champagne while labouredly performing some dance called A Hornpipe.
Following this, the lines were opened and voters could ping their scores over the GLOWNET. The winner of a Song for Neon City was always decided by public vote from each district as delivered by some local celebrity. Districts generally voted along some kind of allegiance or other. Hikage Street always got twelve points from Dogenzaka Hill!
The massive slabs now showed a pair announcers, vid-celebs, larger-than-life in the latest Hika Taki fashion lines with sculpted features and surgically smoothed and purified skin who displayed rows of ivory-white porcelain as they grinned inanely and repeated text crawl displayed on the cheaply produced scoring graphics overlay.
It had started OK but soon, unexpected error stacks were getting thrown up on the slabs and the scoring failed to add up! Nervous looking floor managers, producers and stage crew were heatedly arguing and pointing, occasionally throwing up their arms in exasperation as they skittishly traversed the stage with sweeping eyes, looking for answers.
The situation needed a dive, so I jacked in the GLOWNET; the noise and sight of the hollering crush of congregated fans at Pharoah Park melted into the background while Neon City’s colour-shifting, iridescent info-vista materialised in its place.
Pharoah Park was busy, thousands of bio-images clashed, creating chaotic, chromic constructs and interactions, resulting in unpredictable reactions and outcomes.
The park’s info-image was a stylised and curved rectangular cuboid dominated by a trio of arches. A fat stream of content surged from the info-image along one of the venue’s many fixed data-routes, it would be the event’s media streams pushed out to the various content providers covering the event.
There should also have been a vast quantity of data packs sliding into the park but there were virtually zero.
I refocused outside the park and waited. Data packs were inexplicably vanishing? I ran an algorithmic code sweep that went to metal, it would log all activity in this corner of the GLOWNET and provide vast reams of data, the result was surprising.
Someone had written a code cluster that was completely unregistered, it meant that the GLOWNET’s sensory interpreters would miss its existence, rendering it essentially invisible. This kind of work was bespoke, done by someone with the right skills.
Once I knew what I was looking for, it got easier. I instructed my Nonohiki to log unregistered code and then I saw it.
A weird black, shapeless form that lacked substance somehow and endlessly folded in on itself while reforming, an infinite cycle and the wraith revealed.
It seemingly flitted around Pharoah Park erratically without purpose but there was order in that chaos and It followed an elaborate routine.
Data packs tagged with A Song for Neon City were its prey, hunted and deleted by the wraith code without mercy, preventing votes from getting to the show.
I grabbed an image of the wraith and got looking. Code was like handwriting or a fingerprint and if I knew them or they were some part of the hacker circles, the code would tell me, and it did.
Quantum Brandy was a hacker, an anarcho-pessimist feminist hacker with a colossal chip on her shoulder who liked to let everyone know it.
The name had triggered a memory, I’d heard it recently, related to a Song for Neon City?
Then, I had it. Flicking back to Pharoah Park’s info-image and scanning through the show’s vid-recordings. it showed that Quantum Brandy had washed out of the quarter finals with her Primal Scream Feminist Diatribe poetry reading. I watched the feed, a bad act and the voters knew it.
In response she‘d taken on the typical Neon City attitude; get smacked down and look to score some payback. I dug deeper into her code and there was more.
The code that powered the algorithm was logging each data pack that was deleted, the wraith also logged its path from origin. Reversing the code’s directions got me to where it was launched from.
Get Smile Amusement, an old-school slug-op arcade which hosted row after row of old style gaming cabinets was in Ikebukuro, that’s where Quantum Brandy was holded up.
Neon City’s fluorescent, angular geometry undulated and wavered in multi-coloured blurs as they flew past and I eventually ended up watching Get Smile Amusement arcade’s garish and overbright info-image: A neon-outlined, rotating two-player standup cab with no players, only an ancient colourful looking sprite-driven game flickering across the screen.
Data flows pulsed in and out of the info-image, connecting to the data-vault beneath the decorated shell. All normal traffic, or so it seemed.
Observing carefully, I saw one of the streams flicker for a couple of frames every few seconds, a small graphical conflict generally caused when two constructs occupied the same space and fought for draw-priority. It was a sign of piggy-backing, a classic hack used to hide data-movements, I looked closer.
Inside the data-packs on the stream were other, smaller packs, moving at almost the same time. I sent a hunter/search algorithm to investigate. It showed the extraneous data was delivering something to a hidden node, had to be Quantum Brandy’s de-registered data-slab.
Time to do some piggy-backing myself, I waited for the next data pack to leave Get Smile and head towards her slab and cloned its encrypted keycode.
Then I ran an algorithmic breaker on the keycode and generated one of my own. It got me inside Brandy’s slab after following the hidden data packs, the security protocols thought I was just another data-pack.
I wouldn’t have much time before Brandy figured out there was extra activity running on her system - but I wouldn’t need it.
Sifting through her records, I quickly found two points of interest, first; messaging from Prophet Wei, the elusive mob-boss who ran the Shaolin Rippers and the Noise Tank and operated out of Highway Zero.
For some reason he was backing Brandy’s attack on A Song for Neon City, something to do with his great prophecy I guess?
No time to waste though, I scanned the protocols in her hack, it had trace records of all the voting data that had been deleted, I coded a counter-hack and killed her algorithm, it also re-registered all the missing votes. Then before leaving Brandy’s system, I put it into a repeating diagnostic loop, by the time she straightened it out, the recovered votes would have flooded into Pharoah Park voting system.
Last thing I did before jacking out was checking out Brandy's timeline on her MyFaceSpace and she was raging!
When all the votes were finally compiled for A Song for Neon City, Franky and Joey emerged as clear winners.
I guess it did pay to go last.
Rippling swathes of umbrellas sprouted open on Hikage Street, gleaming slickly in silvery-white street lights as the nightly downpours got underway.
Back at my one-bed, raindrops splattered against the tarpaulin sheet and a wind driven irregular drumming played out.
Half dozing and slouched on my futon, I was roused by my media-slab pinging, an automated message, pushed by the algorithm I’d trojaned on to Falcon Lockley’s personal data-slab with instructions to notify me when it encountered certain keywords..
Lockley and his cohorts were planning another foray into The Wilderness; the vast tract of nature beyond the limits of Neon City.
I contacted the others and we contacted Urus at The Enclave who told us that Neidzweidz and himself had encountered Lockley and his retinue, convincing them to give up their hunting ways and not return to the wilderness. Uruas explained that Falcon Lockley would no longer be a problem.
Urus then told us he was glad we had contacted him, scavengers from The Enclave had made a strange discovery that was outside their fields of expertise.
A little later we were back in the flier, making the trip out to The Enclave, access codes which had been provided by Oni Tokugawa were still recognised and we flew over the fortified city walls and defence grids without hindrance.
Very soon, the heavy rain of Neon City’s macroclimate thinned out before dwindling away to nothing altogether and in the flier’s rear screens, a million city lights shrank into a single gleaming dot of light that hued the clouded sky above a dirty crimson shade until it was eventually swallowed by the horizon
Koko kept the flier low and night-vision screens displayed an unnaturally coloured grassy landscape that undulated in our turbulence and stretched into the vanishing point. Without the spook-tech night optics though, ahead would only be the unlit and unknowable inky landscape of The Wilderness, an unnerving sight for us without Hikage Street’s familiar and brightly delineated skyline or Ninety Ninth’s cacophonous glittering neon mile.
The Enclave seemingly emerged out of the night, the former military installation’s walled perimeter populated with humming, watchful giant spotlights cutting into the night sky. Koko put the flier down on the pad with a blast of displaced air, Urus and some of his scavengers were waiting, their flapping, homespun, earthy coloured overalls and outfits curiously accessorised with hunters hats and other hunting paraphernalia, Urus himself had a large sheathed knife tucked into his belt like some kind of trophy…
Once pleasantries were out of the way, Urus led us out of the floodlight lit Enclave and into the night, along the faintest of wilderness paths that only his scavengers and he could ever discern. Dirt and grass felt uneven and unpredictable, seemingly giving way beneath my heavy, thick-soled foot falls as Urus took us halfway up a hill, it’s peak silhouetted against the constellations, a lustrous, starry night that would never be visible through Neon City’s
Sunk deep into the grass, something glinted in our wavering flashlights as Urus called for a halt. An oblong, warped plate of incredibly thick carbon blended steel reflected our trained flashlights and we saw twisted, half-detached, heavy looking hinges along one edge and a row of massive buckled iron rods protruding from the opposite side. It took a moment to register that it was some kind of security door of immense strength and then a further moment to register that some kind of greater force had ripped the door out of its frame.
Alongside the door was a lightless void of identical size and shape that led into darkness, our flashlights revealed a cubic tunnel of manufactured origins that ran into the hillside. Our eyes darted from one to another and when our gazes met, an understanding passed between us: We had to go inside.
Thin eddies of unsettled motes swirled lazily in our lights as we crept into the unlit, quiet tunnel, across the floor we could see undecipherable dusty markings and maybe footprints. Something had disturbed the detritus recently.
Training our flashlights across the reinforced, plated walls revealed numerous button panels, all unlit, jabbing them got nothing, no power.
Further in and the tunnel opened up into a squarish room, darkness receding from us into distant corners as we entered, our footsteps reverbing in the silence.
Grimy, empty poly-fibre, beige desks, disconnected wall terminals and small, dull steel-topped tables littered the room, while apparatus lined one wall, some of it med-tech, much of it unfamiliar.
Except to Pepper Mashup, the doctor recognised the gear which was mostly used during autopsies, as would’ve been the small steel tables.
Closer scrutiny of those tables uncovered fragments of a strange metallic alloy and soil coloured an unearthly red - with good reason; soil from Mars! We grabbed samples for later research and continued our investigation.
Apart from the odd piece of stationary, the desks and terminals had been mostly cleaned out. Alongside one desk though, we found a small pile of stacked computer systems, ancient, beige coloured old-school towers, screens and manual input devices labelled JCO Corporate Technologies. A brand none of us recognised.
Powering on the systems got nowhere, they lacked any onboard power banks and the entire facility had no juice.
Instead we hauled it back to The Enclave. The return trip was uneventful and we soon found ourselves within the settlement’s well-lit boundaries. Even there, with the computer-savvy, skilled jury-rigging scavengers gathered around the tech, they couldn’t get the system going.
In the end, we’d agreed to take the old tech back with us and find a solution.
It was well past midnight by the time we hit Neon City airspace, met by punishing downpours that drummed noisily on the flier’s polycarbonate shell, the change from The Wilderness was palpable. A silhouetted cityscape delineated by countless grids of urban lights grew to fill our rain streaked viewports as narrow, fluorescent-lit, bustling streets teemed with umbrella wielding nocturnals.
Koko put the flier down on our secured pad and we went our separate ways for the night.
Morning came in seemingly minutes, minutes haunted by incomprehensible dreams, glimpses of daylit Neon City collapsing into bio-images, a twisted skyline morphing into an info-vista, curves straightening into polygons.
I woke with a start, temples pulsing, heart racing, vision blurry and breathing heavily. I could count the beats in my ears. Too much Shiaikan whiskey in its fancifully curved, faux-glass, elaborately labelled bottle had been knocked back last night and without undressing I’d stumbled to my futon.
Lurching to my feet, my head swayed and my eyes dimmed for a second, thankful I was dressed, I lurched out to meet the others.
Our last option for the old tech was Alex Chinsko, mechanic and guerilla technologist from our neighbourhood with a talent for tearing down and rebuilding tech, most of which he sold in his streetlevel shopfront.
Bric-a-Brac Shack was an almost old fashioned looking shop, its toughened acrylic shop window display was framed by replica wood and decorated with an assortment of whitebox consumer appliances. A little bell chimed tunefully as we swung the door open, shelves the height of the ceiling that ran the length of the room were stacked precariously with even more appliances, old tech and unrecognisable gear.
Flex cables dangling from the stuffed shelves swayed rhythmically as we had no choice but to brush past them in the narrow aisles.
Alex Chinsko had a glint in his eye, he was definitely happy to see us, we’d come in with something he rarely got to play with. As he got to grips with the system, he explained that it predated the existence of Neon City and JCO had folded before it had even been in its planning phase.
Soon, he had the beige shell stripped off the system, exposing innards of wiring and circuitry. Alex was immediately in there, the thin, cylindrical soldering iron, a scalpel in his hands. The problem, he told us, was the system’s power block; a design incompatible with modern power supplies. He was confident it would work once he’d transplanted a new block in.
Once the work was done, the system was hooked into its manual inputs and an old-style screen Alex had lying about. He jabbed the power stud and we waited.
There was a short, single tone beep and a tiny dot of green light gleamed on the system’s frame, it hummed into life while the screen clicked on, crackling after decades of disuse.
A logo popped on the screen, barely recognisable; an old iteration of the Planetary Global Defence Force badge. Below was a single command line in plain text, cursor winking. The system’s security protocols were beyond primitive, Alex was past its defences and into the file structure without delay. It looked empty, wiped no doubt, but he did a total image copy onto a data-slab and ran an algorithm on the image. Numerous files and documents were recovered.
The video files were our first choice, we watched a few badly lit, grainy security feeds and they all showed the same thing: At the facility, which must have been an early PGDF station, PGDF staffers in thin disposable translucent aprons and surgeons masks were craned over autopsy tables, cutting up something on those tables. The forms were somehow adjacent to humanoid but with bloated torsos, seemingly stunted limbs and overdeveloped craniums, in the feeds’ weak light, their skin had a pallid, pasty white-grey complexions.
We’d all seen the fakes, was this different? Had someone gone to immense lengths to dupe the scavengers or was it something else?
Next were the files, reams of archived data, much of it documenting information about the founding of the PGDF, other files listed technical data, hierarchical structure, roadmaps and budgets listed in old-world dollars. At its founding, the PGDF had been given inordinate funding - at least on paper.
Captain Noodles had spent time in the PGDF, we turned to him for answers. The uplifted cat chose that moment to lick his unmentionables clean, conveniently not acknowledging our questions.
Alex was intrigued but we decided to leave it alone. For now.
It looked like the Yaroh Uron case was over and he was out of the fingers of the city’s malevolent, plutocratic overlords, even though it hadn’t gone down the way we wanted.
Juicy J was the Neon City streetwalker who we’d agreed to help get back together with her boyfriend OK Daddy - someone else we’d helped join the PGDF once her part in Yaroh’s case was done and it was shut now.
We pinged her enough Dollar to catch a ride to the moon and the PGDF base.
Bill’s media-slab pinged later that morning. Porter Sladek wanted us over to his waterfront warehouse.
An entire stretch of the district was given over to sprawling clusters of identikit, high-windowed and plain corporate warehouses, which suited Porter Sladek just fine. He’d taken the opportunity to stash his off-the-grid assets here, hidden in plain sight.
Porter Sladek was waiting for us. The transplants, nanite dermal-grafts and implants had done their trick and the former exec was back on his feet after barely surviving an explosion in his boardroom. The ever so slightly mis-coloured patchwork of differing surgical work done on his recognisably bald head was only noticeable if you knew what to look for and the rest of him was hidden by his classy old style tailored obsidian black Gaongha suit.
Also waiting was Binary Johnny, easily recognised in his fur lined, faux leather flying cap and goggles, a small satisfied grin spread across his thin face.
Powered, corrugated warehouse doors opened with a metallic tortious murmur and we were led inside to a small, well protected office space. Footsteps on bare concrete echoed across the unoccupied building while automated fluorescent strips detected our presence and clicked into lifw.
Porter Sladek had been busy after we’d dumped a zero beast corpse on him to research; he’d recruited Johnny and they’d got to digging - and had hit paydirt.
They gave us the lowdown, something was going down. Something big.
Zero beasts were vat-grown by Rokkaku, engineered killing machines genetically programmed to be unswervingly loyal only to Goji Rokkaku himself. Goji’s own DNA had been spliced into their genetic code according to Johnny: His GLOWNET incursions into the Rokkaku data-vaults had revealed several internal memos in which Goji referred to zero beasts as ‘his sons’. They were designed to endure vacuums, to operate and fight in the hostile voids of space and bio-implanted internal thrusters allowed them zero-G manoeuvrability, giving them unopposable advantages in orbital combat.
Further memos indicated that Goji Rokkaku was part of something called the Akuni Accord and they were allied with a faction situated on The Glitterband. The accord was planning to destroy the opposing Emptiness habitat on the gigantic station.
Their attack plan had two fronts.
Firstly, zero beasts would be delivered on to the station via an enormous railgun hidden in a ride in Sky Dinosaurian Square’s roller coaster park.
While the zero beasts attacked the habitat, a missile strike launching from a facility in Kibogaoka Hill would hit the Sky Tree, it’s destruction would sever contact between Neon City and The Glitterband, leaving Leander’s Earthbound allies unable to provide him rapid assistance.
The Sky Tree was a vast megastructure, a space-elevator which had been hardened against terrorist attacks and conventional assaults, disabling or destroying it would require significant force.
The data on Kibogaoka Hill had chimed a bell with us. We’d previously seen a radioactive hotzone originating from one of the high-rises scattered across the slowly crumbling commercial quarter nestled over the district’s titular hill. We’d it left alone, now looked like we were going back.
None of the data Johnny had ripped from Rokkaku data-vaults overtly listed a timetable or schedule for this assault.
For now, we’d have to sit and wait.
Even though the sun had begun its crawl towards the western skyline, the heat never let up in Neon City afternoons as we found ourselves sweltering amongst the overwarm, overly dense, vaguely milling crowds at Sky Dinosaurian Square.
Clusters of massive Senonable wall-slabs erected high above the crush throughout the square served the viewers.
Lucy and Ashaglaya had dragged us to one of the city’s favourite spectator sports - greens bowling!
Like anything media-cast, it attracted corporate sponsorship and had top dollar payouts for the best. Where money went in Neon City, corruption and violence soon followed hand-in-hand. We’d all packed hardware in preparation for the inevitable slide into bloodshed.
Sky Dinosaurian Square had won the bid to host the annual city finals and had constructed an artificial grass bowling green for the competition which pulled in people from all across The City of Electric Dreams. Onlookers lucky enough to be closest to the event strained their necks, jostled and almost swayed strangely to get an actual view of the event.
D4-VID was here too, the botcaster was getting an on-the-ground report on the competition while the face of popular vid-presenter Nina Chinova loomed large on the wall-slabs as she cheerfully chatted to guests about the day’s matches. We also spotted Thaddeus Rackham; fresh from his appearance on the Song for Neon city contest,the vaudevillian assassin was back in a familiar haunt and had set up his market stall, he was busy hawking merchandise to curious bypassers among a sea of other sellers.
The games got off to a brisk start and competition between the Senkawa Aqueduct Aardvarks and the Skyscraper District Skylarks was fierce. Among the Skylarks was Xylona Adler, a programmer we’d encountered, obviously she had a talent for bowling but no so much as her partner.
Carrydat U was a Meshakotto class Shiaosha Robotics luggage porter-bot from the International Rail Link Hub, it was obvious he outclassed everyone. At some time, a kind of algorithm must have been introduced into his base code, granting him a profound understanding of greens bowling with skill at handling balls that was unmatched.
Soon the game swung in favour of the Skylarks and their victory grew imminent, then we felt more than saw a trembling murmur in the watching crowd, in that liminal moment, a wave of dissatisfaction seemed to wash over them as harsh edged whispers and hard eyed glares became apparent throughout the audience. Quiet accusations became loud threats and escalated into violence. Pro and anti Carrydat U spectators clashed, small arms and melee weapons were brandished as the aggression intensified.
Then, things only got worse.
Unseen by us while we’d been watching the bowling; a contingent of The Church of The Redeemed Sinner, with their extensive implants, augmentations and body replacement frames who had inserted themselves into the audience, now emerged and having taken umbrage at the anti-robot elements in the crowd, began laying into them.
Things had gotten hot on the Neon City streets between The Church of The Redeemed Sinner and their rivals, The Children of Saika for a while now, recently escalating into open warfare, so it was inevitable that when one appeared, so would the other.
The clash between them was brutal as they cut through the crush to get at each other.
Ignoring their protests, I grabbed Lucy and Ashaglaya by the wrists tightly and pulled them away before they could resist. Looking at the others, they were also shouldering their way through the crowds while Koko was remotely powering up the flier.
We knew what was coming.
A couple of minutes later and the flier was darting its way through aerial traffic and powering along the city’s sky lanes: Behind us, as the district shrank away, the Redeemed Sinners had begun triggering their final weapon The Children of Saika, series of limited-expansion micro-nukes were detonated across Sky Dinosaurian Square, blossoming balls of orange flame cascaded across the park, levelling a sizable chunk of it in a dead but it has to daid - spectacular light show.
Without employing decon protocols, the park would remain a radioactive hotzone for centuries to come.
Later that day, the Red King was back on the newsvines.
Another old chess reference to the destruction of The Tower restaurant.
King takes castle. Check.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.