19th June 2021
It's a Saturday evening and we're logged into video chat for some online TTRPG goodness with episode 25 of Matakishi's Wired Neon Cities campaign.
Neon City’s morning heat had risen to stifling levels, an underpowered Metoma branded wall-con unit strained to cope with the cruel climate.
Slouched on my futon with a can of Huntudi self-cooling beer hanging from one hand, I was watching a rerun of last night’s Nina Chinova’s Vigilante Chat and Cake Show on my wall-slab, audio was maxed and the slab trembled almost imperceptibly on its bracket; a futile attempt to smother the high-rises’ thousand railing, disillusioned voices outside my door.
The wall-slab displayed Nina interviewing Brenda Callahan on a cheap studio set of plain Mayari branded furniture against an equally cheap digital background. Brenda had become an overnight sensation.
We’d encountered her before, snatched by corporate black-baggers and indoctrinated into Protobase Global’s illicit enforced combat cyborg program. A process that used flesh as the anchor for an array of combat modifications, enhancements and weapons, she’d become one of their mindless killers - or so it had seemed.
The procedure that trashed a victim’s memories hadn’t quite taken hold on Brenda and her mind clung to neurochemical pathways of her modified brain and so she persisted but she was on borrowed time.
We’d given her as much help as we could but eventually necrosis, the side effect of the cyborg conversion would decay her remaining fleshly components.
Brenda had needed a solution and it looked like she’d gone on the Vigilante Chat and Cake show to make an appeal.
It had worked.
Something about her story had resonated with more than just Neon City viewers, the inevitable decline of the personality, the individual subsumed by the anonymous, unfeeling corporation was something viewers connected with.
Newsvines reported that the effect had been immediate with profound consequences.
Hours after the first transmission, mobs from across the planet had materialised at Protobase Global offices and facilities. Loaded with bricks, stones and whatever heavy detritus they could grab, they loudly let their anger be known. Millions of Protobase Global windows were shattered, buildings were stormed and wrecked, fires gutted a number of locations while employees found themselves nervously sprinting to or from their places of work, praying they avoided the ire of protestors. Some in the crowds had even made the effort to create banners demanding ‘Justice for Brenda’. This was serious!
Unsurprisingly, Protobase Global’s stock had dived, billions wiped off their market value in an instant and then, like the patient, silent predator it was, The Rokkaku Group had pounced!, Quickly acquiring a sizable amount of Protobase Global stock.
Goji Rokkaku was consolidating his power, taking no chances with Protobase Global and getting ready to move.
We knew something of his plans, it was going to get ugly.
An hour later and Koko got pinged a message.
Knight sacrifice - check.
The Red King again. Another chess term; searching the newsvines for horses or knights got us a result.
Shinjuku Station had gotten hit hard, some kind of horse-headed robot, specced out with serious ordinance had rocked in at rush hour and lit the station up. The station would have been heaving with bustling commuters, an undulating carpet of humanity striding across the faux marble station halls concerned only with getting places on time. In other words a target-rich environment for a spree killer.
Situation became too big to ignore, Rentacop had to turn up and a firefight broke out between them and the horse-head robot. Eventually they had taken down the robot, hailing it a victory for law and order, and it was - provided you didn’t look too hard at the swathe of bodies littering Shinjuku station.
Something was off though, the horse-headed robot was obviously one of The Red King’s knights but what was The Red King pulingl here, what had he achieved, what was his agenda?
Turned out the answer was in his clue.
The Red King hadn’t lost the robot, he’d sacrificed it. In chess sacrificing meant giving up a piece to get an advantage somewhere else.
The knight had just been a distraction for something else.
We hit up the newsvines again, results got nothing we could nail to The Red King.
Some parameters needed to be added to the search so I generated an algorithm targeting the pawn styled robots that The Red King seemed to favour. The criteria was also narrowed down to exclusively search the Shinjuku district; maximum disruption would be most effective closest to the distraction.
After running the targeted search, we got a hit.
A rando had pushed feeds from some street cams to the newsvines. A pair of cylindrical red robots were shown rapidly descending from a nondescript sky-van on to some backstreet on the periphery of the Shinjuku Station massacre, snatching up a flailing woman with their machine efficiency and bugging out in the sky-van.
Gone in seconds. Trying to follow up the sky-van would go nowhere, The Red King was too good at covering his footprints.
Luckily we got a good screengrab of the woman’s face; the recog algorithm ID’d her as Runa Golova and a quick data-search revealed Runa Golova was a photojournalist who worked out of Shinjuku.
Later we would discover she had gone to Shinjuku Station to document the killings and rentacop would find The Red King’s business card. On the back it said “Knight sacrifice. Check.”
Runa Golova’s reports about women getting chess related messages had gotten a lot of traction lately, getting her high circulation. Looks like she’d also attracted the wrong kind of attention.
Without a lead, we’d have to wait for The Red King’s next move.
Later, our media-slabs pinged.
“Hello my droogs,” crackled the familiar thick Armenian voice out of my J6 media-slab’s speaker.
Yennav Rybasei had been a mid level operator for the Russian mob until Protobase Global had moved against them, their brief bloody street war had ended in a stalemate but even so, the mob had been weakened, losing its grip in Neon City and Yennav slipped between the cracks, dropping off the grid.
There had been radio silence until today, now Yennav was looking to arrange a face-to-face.
The Orpust Hotel was somewhere we’d never heard of. A search on the GLOWNET came back with zero hits.
Had to dig deeper, took me into the shady reaches of the unregistered, unlisted reflection of the GLOWNET. On the surface, the DARKGLOW didn’t look too dissimilar, the same incandescent, pulsating, polygonal struts compiling across the angular, silhouetted horizon bleeding into gradient coloured skies. Looking closer though, the info-flows were disjointed, neon clusters carrying information could not easily move through node boundaries and search algorithms were next to worthless here. Bio-images were obscured and often hidden, their users probably loaded with blackware.
I knew I was.
Interactions were kept at a minimum,
Cred was everything and no rep got you nothing from anyone. I was tight with several hack-monkeys who prowled the shadow contract market for dollar, I hit one up and they set me up into some referral-only chat-vault.
I scrolled the directories, scoping whatever bio-images I could track. Few people knew and even fewer voiced it, but these kinds of non-indexed server-nodes were usually bankrolled by one corporation or another while their code-ninjas silently ran logging software. A way to get dirt on dumb loudmouths who never realised they were only off-the-grid and not actually off-the off-the-grid!
Treading carefully, I ran a low-cycle hack protocol. Had to be quick, didn't want anyone thinking I was zeroing in on them and didn’t want any ninja on overwatch to eyeball me. I pulled the chat-logs quick as I could then jacked out.
With the DARKGLOW flushed out of my cerebrum, the lurching mundanity of material reality clumsily expanded to fill the vacuum.
Searching the logs was easy. The Orpust Hotel was an upmarket off-the-books getaway favoured by wealthy execs or successful mobsters and was located on The Beach.
Early in the building of Neon City, the vast seawall had been constructed, radically altering the extent of the conurbation’s natural bay and vastly increasing its size.
One of the old-world corporations had seen an opportunity to earn a wad of profit by creating some real estate. It had led to the manufacturing of The Beach, an artificial island located out in the bay, close to Diver City Island, a couple of kilometres from the seawall perimeter and well away from the city proper.
At its centre sat the The Orpust hotel, an edifice of concrete and glass to the exclusive clientele it attracted.
Only one legitimate way existed to get to The Beach - a discrete branch from the corporate monorail. Otherwise, the Beach was shielded by a comprehensive array of defence systems that made approach by air or sea without authorisation a dicey proposition and they never gave out that authorisation.
It was no problem for us though, some months back Yennav Rybasei had provided us with access to the monorail.
The tram from Hikage Street to Highway Zero heaved with commuters, seating was nonexistent as late-running cheap-suited wage-monkeys vacantly stood elbow-to-elbow with rucksack wearing consumers, no-hopers and tagged-up gangers, all strangely swaying in unison as we clattered along the neglected, warped and uneven old rails. Failing climate control circulated hot fetid air throughout the grimy, aged interior, exacerbating the mid-morning heat.
From the tram it was a short street level walk to the ferry terminal and our boat ride to Diver City Island.
Urban heights gave way to unfettered overbright sky and the lapping sea at the bay’s edge. The smell of saltwater mingled with the engine odours of Highway Zero’s road traffic against a thumping background soundtrack of a million rushing autos.
Boarding, we found ourselves among tourists and daytrippers who’d packed out the old ferry’s short trip, leaning on railings as the ferry powered out of its mooring and filming Neon City’s profile dwindle away on their media-slabs.
At Diver City Island we transferred to the Corporate Monorail, a far cry from the tram. Our urban wear got us a lot of side-eye from execs and those wealthy enough to not even worry about the pretence of having to work as they powered along in the latest Shaguaifu, Gaongha or Hika Taki fashion lines. We swiped through the station’s security gates and strode over the highly polished replica marble floor into the high ceilinged hall.
A perimeter of boutique booths and outlets ringed the area and served the affluent travellers who enjoyed the luxury transit system.
Swiping through a second set of security turnstiles and boarding the gleaming, waxed missile-like monorail, we found ourselves in a spotless, subtly decorated interior and took our seats. Upholstered in faux Alasijaqi cream leather, they were so soft and deep, there was a danger we would be swallowed, each seat also came with ample leg room and individualised aircon.
On the dot, the monorail effortlessly glided out of the station, soundproofing lowered any noise to less than a whisper while the multi-photochromic toughened acrylic windows reduced the baleful glare of Neon City’s harsh blue-white sky to a comfortable hue.
Diver City Island slid away smoothly into the blue and while we journeyed onward, a dot emerged out of the hazy east and grew to fill our view.
Ringed by an expansive beach of real sand imported at great expense, The Orpust Hotel commanded attention and the eye was irresistibly drawn to the dominating semi-circular pastel yellow and white structure. Swathes of glinting balcony windows caught the sun as we drew closer.
The monorail terminated at The Beach, disembarking, a palpable wave of heat washed our us as we made brief trip to the Orpust Hotel
Despite our invitation, no reservation had been for us. Jacking into the GLOWNET, I found the hotel’s data-image, a stratospherically tall hotel tower constructed in brilliant golden yellow and white set in the centre stylised beach of glorious golden sand that dominated a tiny island set in a sky blue ocean. Miniature animated seagull models squawked, wheeled and arced around the tower while cheerful dolphins circled the island porpoising in and out of the elaborately undulating waves.
Didn’t take the cracker algorithm long to get me into the hotel systems.
Moments later, after Bill’s polite prompting, the receptionist was puzzled to find we did actually have reservations for a premium suite along with ancillary rooms.
Minutes after we had settled into our rooms, the landline in Bill’s suite pinged. Yennav was letting us know he was ready to meet and instructed us to come to one of the hotel’s myriad high-rise balconies.
Numerous Alasijaqi branded white sunlounger chairs, tables and colourful parasols dotted a deserted balcony; only Yennav was there to take advantage of them. Probably something he’d arranged.
Yennav Rybasei was a stocky, thick-limbed, squared-faced man with thinning hair, wide jaw and perennial five o’clock shadow.
Gone was the customary inoffensive slate grey two piece suit, replaced by beige coloured Duuner canvas shorts that hung a little too high above the knee and an unbuttoned, gaudy, orange and yellow tropically themed polyester Simaz & Jaccno shirt which revealed a chest, burly and matted that extended to a firm rotund belly. A man like Yennav could easily have afforded reductive surgery and biopolymer sculpted ab implants but there was too much of the old-school Armenian gangster about him to ever make that happen.
A pair of fancy Poviat sunglasses sat on a stubby nose under dense eyebrows while Dialso branded flip flops dangled off chunky toes. The look was finished by the customary heavy Agrapla gold chain wrapped around a bull neck.
A toothy grin split Yennav Rybasei’s face as he waved us over with one cocktail brandishing hand from the shade of a pink parasol with tassels that danced lazily in the pleasantly cooling sea breeze.
We walked over.
From the balcony’s vantage point, the waters in the bay stretched away impossibly, seemingly distant and still. Only glittering swathes of sunlight rushing along the undulating surface betrayed rhythmic oceanic movement.
The sea wall was visible here, a shimmering pencil-thin solid line in the east that emerged into the midday onslaught and spanned the entire horizon, while to the west, the receding boundary of Neon City’s reaching skyline was nothing more than a smear of shapeless dull colour behind layers of clinging smog.
Yennav waved a finger as we sat and unobtrusive staff made themselves apparent, soon we found ourselves clutching cheerfully fluorescent coloured drinks, which judging from the aroma, were laced with his favourite Ugteyr vodka.
Small talk didn’t last long, Yennav quickly got down to shop talk and it soon moved on to The Red King and Runa Golova. Turned out the kidnapped photographer was the cousin of his girlfriend, Berta.
“One of my girlfriends anyway,” he said, winking at me and adding. “We are dva sapaga para da?”
He handed us a hardcopy photo of Runa Golova, one of his crew had been following her closely.
“Unfortunately, not close enough to stop the abduction.” He added, turning to look out at the beach below.
Two of his goons with their signature polyester Sport Lyafibya tracksuits and Agrapla gold chains were walking away from a jetty having just dumped something heavy into the water and looking pleased with themselves.
A chef, a florist, a photographer and Koko had been targeted.
When asked if he knew any connection between The Red King’ and them, Yennav could not provide an answer.
“Perhaps The Red King is planning a wedding,” he remarked off the cuff.
We agreed to find and return Runa Golova.
I dived the GLOWNET during the return to Diver City Island, something about Yennav’s quip had got us thinking: What The Red King didn’t have was a wedding dress.
Hika Taki was a prominent fashion designer and leading trendsetter in Neon City, couldn’t think of anyone in a better position to give us help. I pinged him a call.
The answer was brief, his voice registered an octave higher than normal, usually that meant he was stressed about something; probably work related. In my mind’s eye I could see the skinny designer hopping from foot to foot and flapping his arms as he screamed his reply through gritted teeth.
Told us he was too busy to talk and was on the cusp of releasing his new product line themed on wedding gowns.
I guess we actually got the answer.
Day wasn’t over and it hadn’t let up. Back at Hikage, The Ikebukuro Muscle Gurlz had pinged us.
They were in trouble, Vanilla Goth told us as much while coughing and sneezing over the call. They needed us to get over to Akihabara pronto.
The address that got pinged to us led to a grimy neon-lit narrow hotel in a canyon-like sunless, dingy backstreet.
Vanilla Goth was in a bad way, letting us into their cramped hotel rooms with pained movements. Under her black Fassus cami top, boils and sores were apparent on pallid and waxy skin stretched over shifting muscle implants which had been grafted on to her arms and shoulders.
The Gurlz had been working a gig for some client called Substrate Fairy which involved sourcing spent 3D printing recyclables, they had gone trash diving in some abandoned district in a corner of Akihabara, one of Neon City’s many null spots.
Searching one building, they’d found twined ropes of rubberised electrical cabling snaking along the squalid floor. Following, The Gurlz encountered a basement, down the stairs they saw soft light originating from a side room play across the corridor’s bare concrete wall. Vanilla Goth paused, then she told us they’d gone in and found something.
While telling her story, Vanilla Goth led us into the bathroom. It stank and streaks of faeces scarred the walls. Pixie Skull was there, looking just as rough. She was staring at a sheet covered box. Before we had time to even process this, the box shook violently and an inhuman shriek blasted out of it?
Pixie Skull pulled the sheet back, inside was a chimpanzee! He was struggling against his restraints and wore an extremely baggy pair of Khitts denim cargo shorts, a palm tree and sunset patterned Avorukhclu Hawaiian shirt with a red and white name tag that read Mister Peepers and a black beanie hat.
He gave off a gamer vibe - because he was a gamer: Mister Peepers was a name I recognised,, a famous top ranked player on Legion of Luminaries who anonymously ghost streamed his matches. Millions watched but no one knew anything about Mister Peepers, until now anyway.
The Muscle Gurlz had stumbled across Mister Peepers in that basement, bathed in an ever colour shifting digital glow was a room full of tech junk.
Networking cables, power cords, wired keyboards and more dangled vine-like from the ceiling, old exposed and stripped data-slabs along with discarded screens piled up haphazardly in corners, while in the centre, surrounded by a cutting-edge GLOWNET setup was the chimpanzee!
When he spotted them, his reaction had been immediate. Launching himself out of his seat, anything in his reach became a projectile hurled at The Gurlz who found themselves peppered with everything from peripherals and old circuit boards to cups, food containers, fruit rind and even faeces.
The Gurlz had panicked and attacked in response, Mister Peepers was agile but space was tight in the junk filled room and The Gurlz’ augmented strength and numbers gave them the advantage, they managed to put a beatdown on him, then they’d shoved him into one of their beige coloured salvage bins.
Not knowing what to do next, they’d booked a room in this hotel to get a read on the situation, then they’d started falling ill and pinged us.
Mister Peepers had to be uplifted, no other way about it, after some effort and reasoning, we’d managed to calm him down.
Told us that a while back, he’d been kept captive in some corporate bankrolled, windowless, experimental underground med-facility in Sensoji, an off-the-books deniable asset, something he’d heard while playing dumb and listening. He’d also learnt that during the uplift, even more of his genetics had gotten edited and he carried a designer communicable disease which he was apparently immune to.
We now knew what had hit The Muscle Gurlz and we’d be next if we didn’t take precautions.
Lulling his captors into a false sense of security, Mister Peepers had managed to escape the facility and had been on the run ever since. He used the dollar he got from sponsorships to live off-the-grid and play the games he loved.
Mister Peepers was certain the corporation still had spooks and street ashigaru hitting the sidealks, hunting for him. Then, when The Muscle Gurlz had compromised his hideout, he’d expected the worst and reacted accordingly.
All of this had gotten The Muscle Gurlz and Mister Peepers where they are now.
Sensoji was known as the temple district, it was also home to three warring Triad gangs who were busy rubbing each other out in a long term low level street war. Finding some clandestine biotech stronghold wouldn’t be an easy task. Needed to move sideways on this instead.
The Muscle Gurlz needed treatment, Mister Peepers needed a new safe house, along with power, GLOWNET access, water, fruit: The works.
Dctor Pepper had some juice with a medtech response outfit he knew, pinged them. told them to get to Akkihabara on the down low.
An hour and the responders inconspicuously rolled in, their fluorescent tabards removed and med-tech bagged up.
Doctor Pepper drew some blood from Mister Peepers while Koko powered up a med-drone then fed the sample to it with instructions to run a full diagnostic algorithm on the blood.
Didn’t take long for the results to ping on our media-slabs, Pepper checked them out.
He told us the results showed that some kind of altered cell that mimicked a nerve toxin was abundant in Mister Peepers blood cells, replicating itself into various excreta, it was transmissible to humans. Doctor Pepper went on to tell us that it would bind itself to the victim’s blood cells, he estimated that it would be fatal within seventy-two hours of initial exposure.
There was more, Pepper had found an undocumented aberration in Mister Peepers cell receptors which prevented the disease from attaching: a result of the genetic rewrite.
With the available data Pepper quickly managed to formulate a synthetic substitute. Minutes later and the med-drone’s onboard pharma processor had manufactured serum, which it popped out in vials with a ding. Minutes after that, we were all inoculated and The Muscle Gurlz on the road to recovery.
Mister Peepers was a different situation though, not something Pepper could deal with. Instead he brought in Cheeky Bob, a grungy, possibly unlicensed veterinarian we’d encountered, and pinged him the data.
Bob got back to us, a complete blood replacement procedure would flush the toxin out of the chimpanzee. The procedure had a three-to-four day timescale and Bob would have to discreetly source enough of the right kind of plasma.
Mister Peepers needed to get out of the hotel and lay low with a place to do it, somewhere secure enough for the transfusion and his streaming. There was some discussion about who was best placed to set this up.
Thaddeus Rackham, cross-dressing vaudevillian street performer, sex worker and assassin was our best bet. As an asset, he was a loose cannon, unpredictable and murderous but his network of murky underworld contacts were solid. He had the ins with who could get us what we needed quick but there would be a price. Luckily, Mister Peepers had filthily lucrative sponsorship and the dollar to spare.
It was starting to come together, Thaddeus hooked us up with a delisted apartment somewhere on his turf in Sky Dinosaurian Square. Power got piggybacked off the park’s mainline and water was quietly reconnected by maintenance staff with flexible payment options. Same with the GLOWNET
Cheeky Bob and his gear got transported to the apartment, the procedure got underway and we left them to it.
Later, was about to hit the Huntudi beer again when I got pinged by newsvines. Algorithms had been busy, updating themselves after our digging into the PGDF and Martian incidents while back, now more data and content was being piped to my media-slab. Most of it was trash, nutjob rants and conspiracy theories but there was one thing I hadn’t seen before: Get Set Radio.
Get Set Radio was a pirate Glowcast station that streamed music and content out of a hidden venue in Akihabara. A small delinquent of a channel that managed to operate under the radar and evaded shutdown, pumping a frenetic and eclectic mixes of chill-hop-acid-beat jams and fringe news-items to whoever would listen.
Finding the station was no problem, accessing its data-vault triggered a batch of bombastic preroll jingles alongside a montage of orange, yellow and green branding and images.
“Keep your feet on the street and your eye on the sky.”
“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million-to-one, but still they come.”
“They’re on their way, they’ll be here any day.”
Heavily filtered, streams from the station’s feed showed it was fronted by someone who went by the handle DJ Doctor A.
Self-titled as “A Doctor of Criticality”, “A Professor of the Profound” and “A Graduate of the University of Futility”.
A couple of the topical stories caught our attention.
“The Holden Crater station located near the dig site has gone dark. Authorities say micrometeorites striking the comms satellite are the cause but sources close to the PGDF alerted us that the troopship “‘Flavour of the Dawn’ was diverted to Mars on full burn immediately after the links went dead.”
“Unusual traffic of unidentified craft near the Moon today. Yueyliang Base reports a ‘swarm’ of small vehicles unresponsive to hails that dropped below radar height on the dark side. After they failed to reappear search drones were dispatched but failed to locate the intruders. Experts are speculating the craft may have entered the tunnels in the ‘right eye’ of Leibnitz crater that remain unexplored since the unexplained loss of the Von Hoff expedition in ‘63.”
Was any of it true, was there some kind of inside knowledge?
It had slipped our notice but Captain Noodles had been away. Now returned, he told us that he’d spoken with the Armenian footsoldier that was trailing us, - no doubt one of Yennav’s - and then produced a package, handing out some tiny Ngumatadi Electronics Maeodoho branded GPS trackers and Insisting we take them,.
He was evasive about why, something had him rattled and he refused to say.
We took the trackers.
Hika Taki was still too busy to take a call. Pinged him, got nothing but answermail.
Considered getting Yennav to put some eyes on him, definitely a target for The Red King. We passed in the end.
DJ Doctor A dropped another one of his alien-rants on Get Set Radio.
“Several dogs have been stolen from homes in the Hoppi Street District. Their owners report they were taken at night by naked children with big heads. Camera feeds from the area seem to corroborate this but the thieves are hard to make out clearly since they blend into the greyness of the surrounding buildings. One owner, Lincoln Voight, claims to have grabbed one of the thieves but was he was overpowered and remained unconscious until morning.”
Managing to miss the late rush hour, we rode the tram into Hoppi Street. Back in the day, the district had become a focal point of nightlife in early Neon City, the titular street taking its name from hops used in brewing and was still known as The Street of a Thousand bars. A name well earned.
As we came to a straining, noisy halt at our stop, day had been reduced to a thinning band of red light along the western skyline.
The first sporadic drops of the oncoming rain streaking dirty tram windows through which we watched a multitude of neon decorated bar fronts and gaudy glittering signs flickering to life in the gloaming.
The dull, grey miasma of asphalt and concrete transformed into a silvery twinkling vein that threaded into the vanishing point before our eyes, contrasted by an amorphous shadowy mass that ran along it and consisted of the undulating silhouettes of countless revellers hitting the street.
The nightly deluge was in full force as the tram pulled out of our stop, drumming incessantly on the thin aluminium roofing. Lashed by the glimmering streetlight lit downpour, we exited into the darkening night; Lincoln Voight our target.
Easy to get details on Lincoln Voight, most citizens never gave their GLOWNET bio-vault a second thought. He lived in some identikit looking apartment in an unremarkable block in the district’s outlying residential quarter where the spirituous volume of Hoppi Street had faded.
A middle-aged, somewhat out of shape Lincoln Voight answered our knocking, a white headband decorated with a black dragon was tied around his head and he wore a yellow and black polyester Osolilitki tracksuit.
He didn’t look too pleased to see us but Bill managed to assuage his concerns and we were invited inside.
He took us to a studio apartment furnished blandly with old worn and drab Mayari branded furniture, covered with a vinyl cloth was a tiny dining table situated close to a window shuttered by roller blinds while on the adjoining off-white wall a small integrated Ajuarat kitchen unit had been installed.
In front of a Sulgeon wall-slab was a square armed faux-leather upholstered two-seater couch along with a couple of matching one seaters.
Lincoln went to the kitchen unit and powered up the Heseoc branded tea-maker, with a razor like hiss, steam vented almost immediately from the superheating element as it instantly prepared tea, vibrating and bubbling cheerfully while it did so.
Returning with an aromatically laden tray Lincoln took a seat and insisted we join him. Captain Noodles immediately curled up on the remaining one-seater so the rest of us squeezed ourselves into the couch awkwardly. He then handed out some plastic cups styled to imitate delicate china pouring into them what he called ‘Chinese tea,’.
Spanning the remaining wall hung a collection of ‘exotic’ weapons, knock-off tanto, cheap nunchucks, low quality sai and more, poor grade replicas available from any bogus GLOWNET seller.
Trigger gave them a cursory contemptuous glance, I’m sure it was an affront to his swordsman’s sensibilities.
Lincoln picked up on Trigger’s glance.
“I’m a martial arts master, I’ve completed the Black Dragon Remote Learning ‘Become a killer in three easy steps and learn to defend yourself against cyber bullies’ course,” he boasted enthusiastically, plucking a framed certificate from the wall and brandishing it at us. It stated; ‘Confirmed master of secret fighting arts handed down from antiquity’.
Lincoln sat down and we got him to tell us his story.
Yesterday, he’d been out walking Barabus, his dog when they had attacked. He described them as child-sized, perhaps naked and with large heads.
“I tried to fight them off but they were masters of jiu-jitsu,” he claimed excitedly. Jumping to his feet energetically, he unsteadily took a crane stance, adding. “I know my stuff, but that little guy stopped me dead with a single touch. Probably scrambled my ganglia, jiu-jitsu masters can do that, I read about it.”
Unmoving, Captain Noodles had been watching the exchange through one almost imperceptibly open eye. Rousing himself and uncurling, he dropped off the seat effortlessly and gave Lincoln Voight a sniff.
The result was instantaneous. Despite being uplifted, Captain Noodles’ response was pure animal instinct, his hackles raised, back arched and tail puffed out.
“We got to get out of here,” Noodles said. “Now!” With that, he immediately left the apartment.
What had Noodles detected? Was it the Martian link he refused to talk about? My eyes darted from corner to corner and at the window. We all shifted uncomfortably, no sign of immediate threat though, we continued.
It took some cajoling but Lincoln was convinced to come out and show us where the attack occurred. Grumbling under his breath a little, he pulled the zipper on his tracksuit jacket right up to his ill defined chin and stepped out into the rainy night with us.
The attack took place a brief walk from Lincoln’s apartment block where a typically poorly lit narrow back alley that ran between two tightly packed blocks intersected the main thoroughfare.
Barely visible behind wavering sheets of rain I could make out the glimmering red light-diode of a security camera bolted high up and across the street. Its feed would stream directly into the GLOWNET, it would have what was needed.
Lincoln went on his way after we’d thanked him.
Incandescent blurs left disjointed afterimages in my cerebrum as I flurried through data.
Grown accustomed to cracking street-feeds with their cheap security contractor provided under-resourced anti-intrusion protocols and measures meant I could autopilot through the GLOWNET routine and was barely conscious as the archived, time-stamped data appeared on my Nonohiki.
The footage matched what DJ Doctor A was saying. It was poor quality, low res and washed out but it showed Lincoln walking past the alley with his dog before swaying and collapsing.
An individual, somehow colourless and hazily indistinct, inexplicably emerged into sight, they looked small but it was hard to tell with certainty, their movements looked confident, swift and in a second, Barabus was gone.
Wasn’t much else to get out of the footage.
Time to pay DJ Doctor A a visit, had to be a reason he was so on-the-ball.
Started with a dive on him. Back into the GLOWNET, immersing myself in Neon City’s parametrically shifting info-vistas, dropped a hunter/searcher algorithm into the nearest data-flow, watched the nebulously shaped silhouette bound away and let it get to work.
Didn’t take long to get a hit, results were unexpected.
For all of Get Set Radio’s anti-establishment posturing and DJ Doctor A’s rhetoric, the channel was fully licensed by the relevant municipal authorities. The data gathered by the algorithm also included contact details.
Pinged a message to DJ Doctor A, told him we had solid evidence on aliens, sent him a taster, told him we wanted a face-to-face. Text message came back quick enough, he was onboard and gave us an Akihabara address.
The meet was tonight.
Midnight in Akihabara; rain wasn’t letting up, never did. Strips of retail units fiercely lit streets with multicoloured storefronts that welcomed our arrival. Rows of exterior Senonable wall-slabs flashed painfully bright, ever changing product commercials at us with a near hypnotic cadence through the glittering filter of light bending raindrops.
The small hours had thinned out the crowds and shoppers somewhat but enough people doggedly braved the precipitous night, bustling over colour smeared reflective pools which had accumulated on the sidewalks to keep the heart of the city’s consumer electronics centre beating.
The address took us to a litter-strewn rain-soaked slender side alley that divided two soaring retail city blocks and was lined with a jumble of canopy-covered street sellers hawking data slugs for ageing game-slabs and vending machines selling various flavours of Kaia Cola.
To an easily missed dive bar with a narrow door beneath a stuttering neon bar sign that read Udon Drizzle.
Into a crimson tinged noisy front bar decorated with old posters of forgotten sports and a wall of older empty, branded liquor bottles.
Past slouching and sideways glancing patrons, through a black unlabelled backdoor, up uncomfortably tight and creaking exposed woodwork steps and into a small converted back room office and finally, to DJ Doctor A.
Lit by the buzzing filament of an old yellowing bulb, tendrils of lingering smoke sluggishly curled beneath a nicotine stained ceiling. On a desk hidden under the weight of countless box folders and precariously stacked hardcopy documents leant a man.
Tall, lean but shredded with wayward chunky dreads framing a long face while blue-tinted Jaserasu branded rectangular, plastic rimmed shades hung on a nose decorated with a gold ring. Doctor A wore a distinctive white retro-reflective Duuner tee that glittered an opulent shade of gold in the light and was badged with a lightning bolt logo.
DJ Doctor A had a distinct west coast accent, an incandescent subdermal implant shaped into a stylised ‘A was embedded in one cheek ’ and gleamed with a strange intensity whenever he spoke.
Our conversation didn’t last too long. Doctor A told us by his account that the dognapping was a recent occurrence, something he’s only confirmed in the last twenty-four hours. He didn’t think the incidents went back far. He didn’t have any leads on more missing dogs but he did drop some info about a contact of his; one Irelyn Koerner.
Irelyn Koemer was a certified psychiatrist and social worker who practised out of Hoppi Street, she’d told Doctor A one of her cases was a transient who been in the PGDF, now a street zero who haunted the district that she hadn’t seen for a few days and was concerned about his well being.
Did the dognappings and this weird Martian menace have anything to do with the PGDF? Might have been a stretch but it was a lead - of a sort.
As promised, we pinged a copy of the autopsy footage to DJ Doctor A, told us he’d pass it on to his contacts who’d try and pull something from it.
Hours to dawn and with time to burn, we left Doctor A’s office and hit up the Udon Drizzle bar below hard.
Huntudi, Dindanha and Baishan chasers followed neat Shiaikan shots as we slumped into an intoxicated fugue while the clamour of energetic voices and an overstrained and distorted jukebox playing old tunes washed over us as we relaxed in an unhygienic and neglected plastic and vinyl furnished booth.
The rain dried up before we did. A sliver of reddish light was colouring the eastern horizon blue while the downpours began to subside and the heat rose. Taking our cue, we exited the bar which was still in full swing and headed for the tram, hoping to preempt the morning rush hour.
Luckily, finding Irelyn Koemer’s address was easy, as a municipal employee her details were stored on their underprotected data vault which was an open door to me. Irelyn lived close to her work community in Hoppi Street.
The lustrous multicoloured excess of light and noise from last night seemed muted against the now cloudless blue-white sky. Wage-monkeys were still pulling on their cheap, neutral slate-grey two-piece Kuabha suits by the time we rode back into Hoppi Street.
Only the night workers and dedicated nihilists were slouching along the sidewalks here.
The address took us into one of Neon City’s many anonymous low-rent apartment blocks in the residential quarter and an equally anonymous, windowless door in a partially lit corridor of anonymous, windowless doors.
We buzzed and waited.
After the minute it took the occupant to check us out on their security feed, It was answered by a middle-aged woman; average height, average weight, she had tight curling whitish hair in a short cut style.
Initially, Irelyn Koemer was suspicious but Bill’s practised, measured tone combined with the name-dropping of Doctor A alleyed her concerns and she provided us with some information on her missing client.
Known only as Nursery Bob, formerly of the PGDF who lived on the sidewalks and doorways of Hoppi Street was known for making elaborate and theatrical old-school toys which he gave to the neighbourhood kids. He had an almost pathological need to see children happy and used what seemed like a gift for the mechanical to do this.
Irelyn had noticed Bob was becoming furtive and unsettled, something was making him worried, fearful even and then, five days ago he vanished.
Irelyn pinged us a photo of Bob, middle-aged with grey-streaked dark hair, brawny shoulders as well as the bulky forearms and hands of a grafter, he didn’t have the tattered, misfitting, mish-mashed and patchwork-repaired clothing that would typically mark him out as a sidestreet obake. Irelyn added that she was certain that he had money somehow, perhaps he sold some of his toys? He wasn’t homeless because of poverty and as far as Irelyn could discern, he just refused to go indoors, preferring to live outside?
It was a short walk to where Bob slept, Irelyn had visited him there several times and took us to an unfrequented narrow alley that slipped away from the bustle of the main thoroughfare and branched into a narrower, perpetually shaded cul-de-sac that finally led us to a high-walled corner spot adjacent to padlocked and clearly disused maintenance access panel.
A pile of flattened cardboard boxes sat next to some scavenged plastic panelling and woodworking tools. A quick search showed nothing significant here or evidence Bob had been back recently.
The location was put into a positioning algorithm on my data-slab, it executed a series of locationally relative arguments and came back with some potential correlations, one seemed pertinent; Bob’s makeshift shelter was half between the apartments of Irelyn Koemer and Lincoln Voight.
It meant that Bob might have been close to Lincoln when Barabus was taken. Bob needed to be found.
Thanking Irelyn for her help, we made our way back to Hikage Street.
Back at the one-bed, I kicked off my Harbiefs and Hiaki, dialled up the audio on the wall-slab, crashed on the futon and pulled a blanket over my face.
An hour later and I was washing down some stim pills with a self-heated pot of Niaiwo. Time to dive on Nursery Bob.
The merging movements of data-flow patterns exploded with primary colours as they compiled into unpredictably emergent constructs that populated the data-scape while I jacked into the GLOWNET.
Usage was high, Bio-images filled my view, as I navigated the info-vista. Best to start with the PGDF.
Their data-image was public knowledge and easy to find. The shell on the image was a brief animated sequence displaying a carefully balanced multicultural blend of the brave young men and women of the force with their flaxen hair, cerulean eyes and brown uniforms.
It would take minutes to get into the PGDF directories and I wasn’t looking to generate any autonomous location logs for the bio-image I was using, even a low-cycle hack would be risky here. Instead I kept a half a dozen server nodes away and launched a normal cracking algorithm, inputted some protocols into it to remotely approach the bio-image and let go on its way.
A little progress bar began ticking up on the info-vista.
While I was waiting I launched a hunter/searcher algorithm to look for anything else on Nursery Bob, it got zero hits, he had no GLOWNET presence.
Eventually, the progress bar filled and I was in the PGDF data-vault and their directories. Without Bob’s full name, too many people in the PGDF, searching would get too much data,too many hits. I needed a data point I could filter.
Irelyn Koemer had given us a photo of Bob.The PGDF system would have security profiles on all staff. I put the photo through facial recog and pulled the data it generated, then used it as the search criteria.
It worked, I got a hit.
Robert Silverford: An orphan who’d signed up to the PGDF at the earliest opportunity out of Neon City’s brutally underfunded social care system. During induction he scored in the top percentile for mechanical aptitude and was recruited into the engineering corps where he had a successful if unremarkable career up until six years ago whereupon he was abruptly pensioned off?
I kept scanning the file: There was no record of disciplinary actions against Silverford, I kept diving. Then, towards the end of Silverford’s military record, there was some: During routine shuttle transport between Earth and the Moon, Robert Silverford had been involved in a catastrophic accident. The event had killed everybody aboard except for Silverford
According to the incident report, the salvage crew tasked with recovering the wreckage had not expected to find any survivors from the explosion and were surprised to encounter Silverford who had managed to secure himself, an EVA suit and some compressed oxygen tanks inside a reinforced storage locker where, somehow he had managed to survive three days before the unexpected rescue.
Just before his records were closed, it stated he was discharged with full disability pension.
The report didn’t say much, felt evasive, so I tried accessing the incident report source file. Wherever the link went, it was restricted, I got denied, slammed and kicked out the directory. I scoped the nearby data-vista, there was no response; no alarm or counter-intrusion measures had been triggered.
I captured some data and ran it through a logger, didn’t look like internal security was so hot, whoever had coded the vault had expected the outer security to do the heavy work.
I launched another cracker algorithm targeting the report’s node, it pulled the encryption string which bypassed the internal security, granting full access to the report.
Turned out the initial report was a half-fabrication and cover for the actual report.
The report determined there was no accident, Robert Silverford had been aboard a shuttle called Lost Wisdom of the Ancients which had been destroyed.
The report listed the shuttle as: ‘Destroyed by alien interference, all hands lost.’
Following the rescue, Silverford had been given a debriefing and psych-eval.
Silverford had no recollection of events leading directly up to the incident and no understanding of how or why the shuttle had been destroyed.
The evaluation recorded several examples of Silverford suffering post stress traumatic disorder, including: Claustrophobia, nyctophobia and pedophobia - particularly fear of angry children. The evaluation also cited Silverford as stating that he had intense recurring nightmares of being hunted by angry children.
Finally, it had recommended that Robert Silverford be discharged with full pension.
The report wasn’t done, there was more, so I kept reading.
Three days after Silverford had been discovered, six days after the incident, a second survivor had been found. This time though, it was not in space.
Jacqueline Boxer had been found outside the boundaries of Neon City wandering in a dazed through a forested region in the bordering wilderness.
She was suffering short term memory loss and similarly to Silverford had no recollection of events that led to the attack or how she had arrived at the forest.
Boxer had been suffering from several injuries and contusions while also displaying early signs of malnutrition.
Boxer had been extremely agitated and was given a med-eval for her injuries under sedation, it was discovered that she had signs of having given birth recently. The report stated there were no records of Boxer ever having been pregnant, in PGDF archives or anywhere else. Boxer had no memory of this either.
Boxer was also evaluated as suffering several disorders, including nyctophobia, iatrophobia, tomophobia and pedophobia. Boxer's evaluation also recommended that she be pensioned off.
There was something about the shuttle incident that was wriggling through my brain, something more vaguely half-remembered from six years ago. It took a quick GLOWNET to make it click. About the time of the shuttle accident, the PGDF had gotten a massive boost to their funding.
Jacqueline Boxer was a new lead, I ran her through the GLOWNET on the hunter/searcher algorithm and got a partial hit.
Jacky Boxes was a registered employee at a warehousing business located on Highway Zero’s waterfront. Ran them through a business profiler algorithm on my Nonohiki, there were no flags, looked like a typical run-of-the-mill commercial enterprise.
Met up with the others, took a ride out to Highway Zero, headed to the waterfront. Warehouses here were pretty much identikit poly-ferrous prefabricated grey structures that were clustered into small anonymous business parks that ran alongside the docks, servicing sea traffic that came into the city.
Bill took the lead here, approaching the warehouse front office and speaking to staff at the warehouse. He was disarming and they were happy to speak with him.
Jacky Boxes was a supply manager and well liked. A couple of weeks ago, staff began to notice she was becoming erratic, agitated and fearful. About five days ago, Jacky vanished, the staff are now concerned for her safety.
The management were unable to provide us with an address for Jacky, telling us that they believed she had no fixed abode and Neon City’s lax labour laws meant they were not required to have a home address.
They did however, provide us with an up to date photo. Boxer was in her early-to-mid thirties with an oval-shaped face, high forehead and shoulder length mousy-blonde hair she wore straight.
Something was definitely going down with Silverford and Boxer, especially since both had gone missing about the same time. According to the PGDF report, both had potentially encountered aliens, did this tie in with Lincoln Voight’s encounter?
If extraterrestrials were prowling Neon City, we had to find a way of tracking them. Captain Noodles had implied he could sense them but he’d gone off-the-grid.
There was one option that could be pursued.
Bill contacted Xylona Adler and offered to take her dog for a walk.
Wasn’t as left-field as it sounded. Like Noodles, Toby was an alpha-class uplift with full cognitive and communicative functions, his senses would be as acute. Potentially, Toby could lead us to the aliens.
Xylona looked at us through the distorted lenses of her archaic thick-framed spectacles, her oversized eyes blinked curiously as we took Toby off her hands for a few hours.
Trigger got some sideways glances during the packed out tram ride to Hoppi Street. Pets were a rare sight on Neon City’s public transit system. Toby wisely decided to keep quiet during the trip.
Soon the sun would be at its zenith, shadows would shrink and there’d be no way to escape the day’s full heat unrelentingly beating down with almost pain inducing intensity on the city. Trigger was hoping that Toby would pick something up before then as they navigated the endless parade of revellers, hard-drinkers and tourists that thrummed past the rows of bars and pubs Hoppi Street was known for.
After some walking and random sniffing, Toby picked up something, he stopped and could not conceal an instinctive momentary bearing of his teeth. Toby then turned to Trigger and explained how he wanted to leave, he did not want to be in the crowds.
Toby had gotten as spooked as Noodles and as tight lipped, he refused to say why he was so nervous.
Although he did let slip that he’s encountered the smell before when serving as captain aboard ‘The Ganymede’?
It must have been a reference to the PGDF? Alpha class uplifts were routinely created to serve and crew aboard adapted spacecraft.
It was a dead end, Toby wasn’t going to get us any further information, Trigger took him for some walkies before returning Toby to Xylona.
After some discussion, it was decided to try the plan again and we took a ride to Kibogaoka Hill. There was a dog sanctuary that Trigger knew about.
Charities were far and few between in the City of Electric Dreams. Most of the municipal authorities were deeply in the pocket of the corporations and clandestinely dedicated to forwarding those agendas, either that or they looked the other way.
Charities weren’t high on corporate priorities.
But if anywhere in Neon City would have a dog sanctuary, it would be Kibgaoka Hill. The district was dominated by the shanty town with its undocumented population and uncontrolled growth over the titular hill. The establishment regarded it a leach on their society
The shanty town was home and refuge to no-hopers, transients, last-chancers, fugitives, the unwaged and more who struggled everyday to survive and in return viewed the establishment with equal vehemence.
A dog sanctuary was just an extension of Kibogaoka Hill’s rebel spirit.
On a corner in the erratic,unpredictable twisting backstreets was the dog sanctuary where there was some scant space given over to a yard outside the usual stacked, shabbily constructed cubic homes.
Trigger soon emerged with Rex, a frisky German Shepherd rescue who was eager to explore the world beyond as Trigger took to the streets of The Hill.
Rex sniffed and rummaged seemingly everywhere but it was clear that the dog was not knowingly tracking any extraterrestrial activity or scents.
Trigger didn’t return Rex to the sanctuary, deciding to adopt the dog instead.
While Trigger was busy I put Jacqueline Boxer’s latest photo through facial recog and ran the data through a hunter/searcher algorithm, it got a hit from some rando’s MyFaceSpace page. The rando had captured a photo of someone being arrested at Rokkaku Expo Stadium, that someone was Jacqueline Boxer.
It put an idea in my head, I jacked into the GLOWNET and sank into the local info-vista.
Neon City’s rentacop data-images and secured data-vaults were all essentially identical, created by the same GLOW-designer contractors who’d no doubt tended the contract as cheapest bidders. All the security provisions and protocols for all the rentacop precincts had been written under one umbrella by the same code-monkeys. The precinct at Rokkaku Expo Stadium was no different. It meant they all had the same vulnerabilities. It meant that once I had the means to crack any one precinct, I had the means to crack them all.
Soon I was inside their directories, sifting through their arrest records. Using the facial recog data I soon got matches. Both Robert Silverford and Jacqueline Boxer had been arrested multiple times in the last five days while loitering and protesting outside of the Rokkaku Tower.
Pushing the flier as hard as it could go span the turbines up to their operational maximums and they hummed with a disapprovingly high pitch while Koko took us to Rokkaku Expo Stadium. Sky-congestion didn’t hinder her and I watched aerial traffic flicker past the viewports in erratic blurs while behind it, the high-rise dominated cityscape slowly rolled past, lurched with every bobbing course correction.
From a dot on the skyline, the Rokkaku Tower inevitably expanded to its massive proportions, growing to fill the front facing screens.
Koko put the flier down on the lowest roofpad close by and we raced the rest of the way on foot.
Luck was with us, after reaching the perimeter of the tower plaza we spotted the pair of them. Rentacop hadn’t moved them on yet.
After finally reaching Bob and Jacky, they gave us their stories.
Both of them had been inexplicably drawn here five days ago without ever having contacted each other, compelled by something they couldn’t comprehend or resist. They were convinced that aliens were inside the Rokkaku Tower, both spoke of hearing the alien voices in their heads.
By this time, Rentacop had made us aware of their presence, a number of suited-up uniforms were slowly trying to surround us while failing to inconspicuously reach for side arms or puke-prodders. They had probably been expecting Bob and Jacky but not us.
We preempted their strategy, Bill convinced Bob and Jacky to leave with us - at least for now. Renatcop stood down and watched as we walked out the plaza.
Bob and Jack knew where they wanted to go, wasn't too far to the PGDF Vets Association. When they got there, they were provided with some warm food and drink.
As they ate, they told us the rest of their stories, their versions of events matched each other and the classified PGDF incident report.
During this, Bill and Koko had spotted something; we were under observation.
The watcher was stood at the corner of a nearby back alley. We got the briefest of glances at her, dark skinned with blue hair and a noticeably oversized head, she looked young, it was impossible to determine any more about her age other than ‘young’. Somehow, she’d realised that we’d made her and retreated out of sight into the alley.
Trigger dashed across the street, into the alleyway and found nothing, no evidence of her ever being there, running further in, there was also nothing. She had disappeared.
Reading, writing, playing and painting are the things that I do.