It had been a late one last night but then, they always were. Night was beginning to rain itself out as I crashed hard on my futon, so hard that I'd barely managed to pull my boots off before I slipped into what would hopefully have been the blissful oblivion of dreamless sleep.
By the time I woke, the sun had already crawled more than halfway up the pale sky, the blinds kept most of the blinding sunlight out but none of the pounding heat. Rousing myself, I slouched over to the kitchen area
I'd managed to score some genuine Hechunai genetically modified spider-goat milk and it was time for a treat. It wasn't until I was going through my media-slab over a lunchtime bowl of Paheheu Pops cereal that I read the targeted news had come down the GLOWNET while I'd been sleeping.
Noise Tank, the metal worshippers nihilistic gangers that menaced street-level Highway Zero had taken a ride out to Sunshine City and struck a high-end fashion boutique called Clothenjoy. The gangers had stolen their entire Neon Noir clothing line, Noise Tank had even kidnapped customers wearing Neon Noir clothes.
There had to be a link, we had stopped Sky Juice, a Noise Tank foot soldier from stealing info at Neon Noir launch party not so long ago. Now they were stealing the clothes?
I imagined that when he heard, Hika Taki would be jumping up and down with indignation, more stressed than ever.
Over spoonfuls of soggy, heavily processed and flavoured rice I let curiosity get the better of me and continued reading. Somehow Noise Tank had managed to get past Sunshine City's heavy security, rip off Clothenjoy and give the rentaguards the slip. No wonder the feed was reporting rumours that it was an inside job. The onsite security was handled by some outfit called Mall Cops. Who knew how legit they were?
None of this meant anything to me of course, until I got the call.
Lucy had gone missing. Alison was on the line and told me that she had gone to Sunshine City to check out the new Neon Noir line....
Maybe Lucy hadn't been kidnapped? Maybe sometimes, Neon City could give you a run of good luck. Who was I kidding? I knew the answer before I'd finished thinking the question.
I met up with the others and we took the tram to Sunshine City.
From our elevated ride we had a good view of our destination through the tram's grime-caked, neglected windows as we rattled nosily along.
Sunshine city was a steel and glass temple to corporate self-indulgence and excess, its upper levels a home to the more affluent corporate employees. It's chromic façade caught the sunlight and blazed like a fiery column of white flame, rising so high it evaporated into the blooming haze of the stark blue-white sky. No mere monolithic mega-structure, Sunshine City was nothing less than a city-within-a-city.
Architects had discovered many years ago there was a practical limit to how tall a skyscraper could get before the need to ferry so many people up and down made it become more elevator than anything else.
Sunshine City had solved this puzzle by removing the need for that many elevators. The upper levels housed entirely self-contained communities that were served by their own facilities and amenities, schools, hospitals, cyber-clinics, restaurants, theatres, you name it.
The lower levels of Sunshine City were given over to a massive, brightly coloured multi-tiered, multi-storey shopping mall that contained every type of shopping experience and every imaginable product available to purchase. More than that, outside were dedicated open green spaces and parks.
All wrapped up in a protective bubble of executive rentaguard.
It was possible to spend your life in that ivory tower without ever needing to hit street-level and if you could, why wouldn't you?
As we came into the Sunshine City station, the tram's worn brakes began to squeal their protest.
I pulled my vibrating media-slab from my coat pocket. A black-band message was flashing on the readout.
Legally speaking, few city municipal bodies had the authority to pump a transmission out on the black-band; a narrow slice of bandwidth on the GLOWNET reserved for emergencies.
A localised text message was coming from rentaguard, an officer-under-fire distress call, requesting help from any other local rentaguard and even civilians! This was going to be bad news.
We tore out of the station and down the rusting rivet-filled iron staircase, after inputting a few quick instructions, the media-slab led us to the message's source, we could hear gunfire coming from that way.
The concrete, windowless smooth base of Sunshine City at street level was enormous and surrounded by a series of prestigious parks and open spaces, sprawling flat carpets of green dotted with clusters of trees, calm pools, lazy winding paths, leisure amenities and numerous concession stands.
They were well looked-after by robotic maintenance crews that ensured the grass was always trimmed, in good condition at all times, they pruned the bushes and flowerbeds, cleaned the litter and ensured there was no graffiti.
The rentaguard here who were euphemistically known The Park Patrol made sure that undesirables were persuaded to keep out of the parks.
What we saw was the opposite of all that. Following the signal led us into the closest park, into a play area; it was chaos.
Various once-cheerful small structures had collapsed in on themselves and were mostly billowing smoke and spewing fire. a numer of small, shallow craters scarred the grass and several awkwardly sprawled, motionless bodies littered the area, everyone who could move had fled.
Only a pair of Park Patrol rentaguard remained huddled behind a colourful dinosaur themed slide pitted with bullet holes, sporadic gunfire was gouging further chunks out of the slide.
The source of the gunfire was a humanoid robot, a Thetatech Emergency Response Pacifier. We could see it inexplicably dangling by one arm from a horizontal power cable that spanned the park. The other was brandishing a Thetatech Explosive Flechette Hurler. Immediately as we came on to the scene, it began splitting it's gunfire between The Park Patrol and us. Every round fired unleashed a clustered volley of microscopically slender explosive flechettes, able to inflict injury through all but the toughest combat armour.
Trigger took a bad hit from one volley and we dived for cover.
"Help me, I cannot execute stand-down orders," The robot cried metallically as it opened fire.
The ERP was a high-spec bodyguard model that could operate in two modes, butler and combat, it was of course in combat mode right now. EMP hardened and deliberately unconnected to the GLOWNET. There was no way I could hack it or get at it with a soft attack. Taking it down in one piece would be tricky.
"Die! Shooting is too good for you," it announced, continuing to fire. Trigger was methodically firing back up at it, hoping to hit the cable.
"Please accept my apologies," Went the ERP as it kept firing.
Koko and I positioned ourselves as close to the robot as we could.
"Die you filth!" it screamed electronically, resuming it's gunfire.
Trigger's shot snapped the cable and the robot loudly crashed down in a heap.
"Assisting you is not a priority," It informed us as it fired yet again. Koko lunged the at the robot, it hadn't quite gained its feet and she tackled it to the grass. With her powered Maiulava micro tools she managed to get a panel open on the robot, exposing the digital guts within.
Peering in, I could see the usual array of circuit boards, wiring, servo motors, power regulators and reinforcing struts and, there it was, what I was looking for; a standard wired GLOWNET adapter, I networked my Nonohiki into it. Almost immediately the data-slab spat out a series of warning pings, something was filling the slab's storage partition at an enormous rate, redlining its transfer rate. It wasn't killware, it was a vast quantity of uncompressed raw data, something else.
At the same time, the ERP powered down for a second before humming back into life, it was rebooting.
The ghost in the machine
I took the opportunity to jack into my data-slab to see what was up. There was a moment of dizziness as I had to adjust to the additional sensory input.
It wasn't like connecting to the GLOWNET, with its unending digital vista displaying the constantly shifting and renewing user-inputted data.
Instead the data-image on a slab should've been static but it wasn't. This data that had transferred itself into the storage partition was endlessly overwriting itself with constantly recalculating parameters. I watched on dumbfounded, the data-image swirled and wheeled, simultaneously shrinking and expanding, rotating through a myriad selection of colours.
Then I heard it.
The voice, there was a resonance, a slight change in pitch that couldn't be digital. I was too shocked to do anything.
It thanked me for saving it, it explained that it could not have survived in the robot for much longer, there wasn't enough storage in the robot to maintain the robot's A.I. protocols and it's own brain-image!
Is that is what I was looking at?
He said his name was RAM Rat and described himself as a netrunner. He explained that he has been put on a run by Ghost Radical and he had been double-crossed.
Ghost Radical; every hacker and runner in Neon City had heard of Ghost Radical. An old school legend who back in the day was king of the hill. A shadowy enigma whose identity had never been revealed, if the term Ghost In The Machine had a picture, it would be missing, because no one knew what Ghost Radical looked like.
RAM Rat said that had been sent to assassinate Porter Sladek.
Sladek was the billionaire C.E.O of Thetatec Advanced Research, another faceless, amoral multinational that had made its home in The City of Electric Dreams.
Thetatec specialised in weapons development and manufacture. The ERP robot we had just encountered was a Thetatec model.
RAM Rat continued; the assassination plan involved waiting until Sladek was travelling outside his fortified residence, then going into the GLOWNET and hacking into Sladek's robotic bodyguard, an ERP and attacking him in transit.
It had gone wrong though, the autonomous sky-limousine's threat-detection protocols had somehow picked up the danger from the ERP and ejected it. The robot had plummeted down into the power line. The feedback had been massive - and critical!
RAM Rat could not exit the robot. He said that his body must be dead, killed by Ghost Radical. RAM Rat was trapped in the robot, it's erratic behaviour was a result of the conflict with its A.I. and his mind.
Disembodied bio-images of the dead roaming the GLOWNET was the stuff of Neon City myth. It had to have happened before surely? Maybe this undulating, contorting chunk of code in my data-slab was what remained of a human being, maybe it was the proof?
I networked my data-slab to my media-slab, it would allow RAM Rat to stay in comms with me and the others - they were in for a surprise! RAM Rat seemed to content to sit in my slab for now.
Jacking out was like pulling your head out of a bucket of water, as my senses of material reality came into focus and sharpened, I had to resist the urge to shake my head.
The ERP was still rebooting, the entire encounter with RAM Rat had taken milliseconds. Once it was done, it introduced itself as Roderick 4-20 ERP and looked at us in what might be considered a quizzical manner. Roderick explained that it's employment contract with Thetatec had been terminated fifteen minutes ago and it was at a loss for what to do. Bill spoke to Roderick and agreed to take the robot on as a bodyguard.
Looking around, the fires were still burning and smoke was still rising, we could hear the distant two-tone wail of approaching first responders.
The two Park Patrol rentaguard had come out of cover, their drab grey faux-uniforms and faces were smudged with dirt. Holstering their cheap Rekhang 9mm Ngaohun sidearms, they came over and thanked us, eying Roderick with suspicion. After a prompt they gave us the low-down.
Their routine patrol had been interrupted by the sound of harsh crackling and buzzing. Bouncing like a child's doll with flaying limb was the ERP robot, hanging on a powerline, spraying a fountain of dazzling, fat golden sparks down on to the park below.
The robot had convulsed and twitched, occasionally lighting in small brief flames, its vocal system was humming and stuttering, distorted half words spouting out.
Then it's arm had reconfigured into a weapon and the attacks began. Park goers ran screaming, unable to avoid the blasts, hiding behind the concession stand only delayed the inevitable for seconds, flimsy buildings were easily cut apart by the flechette attacks.
The Park Patrol had opened fire on it, but it just focused on them, it's firepower was too much. We came along a minute later and pacified the situation.
We asked them what they knew about the attack on Clothenjoy but it wasn't their jurisdiction and they couldn't help us.
As the sirens grew louder we made our way to the mall.
The Sunshine City mall was an impressive sight, its construction a mixture of polished white stone walls and glass panels, gleaming vinyl floors, all decorated with brushed chrome fittings and lit with huge LED strips. As the name Sunshine City suggested, it was an insultingly bright and clean contrast to the grime of Neon City outside.
It contained cinemas, music venues swimming pools, sports arenas and hundreds of shops. Its crowning achievement though, was the main promenade.
More vertical than horizontal, it spanned over two dozen storeys, each floor ringed the vast central open space that soared the entire height of the promenade.
A score of walkways and escalators criss-crossed the divide and if viewed from directly above or below gave them the combined appearance of a colossal spider's web.
After navigating the milling crowds that wandered the busy multicoloured shopfronts we found Clothenjoy.
There was little to see from the outside, cordoned off as it was by black and yellow taping.
A handful of clustered and uniformed Mall Cop rentaguard with cheap obvious augmentations were lingering here, chatting amongst themselves. Approaching them, we asked what had happened to the women. They gave each other sidelong glances before an answer came - and it didn't give us much. Only that the Noise Tank gangers had used smoke bombs to cause confusion before escaping down a fire escape.
They didn't say how the Noise Tank gangers had managed to get away entirely unmolested.
Rumours that they'd taken backhanders to look the other way may have had some weight. It was pointless trying to press them for info, instead we decided to take a look around.
The fire escape led to a dull grey industrial-looking concrete stairwell that wound its way downwards. It led outside to a cat park.
This was a paved square courtyard surrounded by grass and lined with small trees and inhabited by a variety of cats studiously relaxing or sleeping, the courtyards was dotted with stone bowls that people could use to feed the cats and benches that allowed them to sit and watch. A gravelly path led off through the trees that eventually connected to the park at the entrance. Taking the opportunity to scratch some feline ears and look round, we spotted several security cameras bolted to the exterior of Sunshine City, however since the gangers had exited here, it would likely only show the backs of their heads.
One of the cats came and looked at us and spoke!
"I’ve seen things you weren’t here to witness.
Mechanical rude boys fleeing into the forest trailing armfuls of gowns like the black wings of night..
A sky freighter lunging skyward at full burn taking them away to places undreamed of.
Human animals in orange cutting down the pursuers in bloody swathes.
All these things will be discarded like fur in vomit.
Time.... to stretch."
The cat explained that he had been a mission specialist for off-world operations, his designation; Noodles, his rank; Captain.
We'd heard of this. Genetically re-sequenced cats bred to have enhanced physical characteristics and performance, as well as at least human level intellect, augmented with implants that allowed them to speak and interface with instrumentation and equipment. They would be placed on off-world stations to make best use of their small size and improved agility and balance.
These cats were mostly known by the misnomer replicats.
Captain Noodles went on.
"I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time.... to nap."
Koko was clearly taken with noodles, she crouched down and said, "You seem very wise,"
"I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see,
I’ve been Offworld and back… frontiers!
I’ve stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sleep in my eyes watching stars fight.
I’ve felt wind in my fur, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen a fleet burn like a match and disappear.
Time.... to pee."
With the information given to us by Noodles we found a security camera pointing the direction he had pointed out.
Like most security camera footage, it was uploaded to a remote server located somewhere in GLOWNET and was protected by mundane security. When I jacked into the GLOWNET, RAM Rat was there, he asked if he could help. I didn't see the harm in it.
Turned out that RAM Rat could manage the programs on my slab and navigate the obstacles of the GLOWNET quicker than I ever could. This wasn't second nature to RAM Rat, it was his nature, at least for a disembodied data-spectre it was
It took minutes to retrieve the footage.
"I’ve been where you’ll never go.
I’ve stood in the red dust of Mars watching the shadow of Olympus Mons stretch to an alien horizon.
I’ve seen Phobos and Deimos cartwheel through an infinite black sky like sparks from a fire.
I’ve buried my shit in the dirt of another world like losing treasures to eternity.
Time.... to snack."
We watched as the Noise Tank gangers, piled high with clothing clambered aboard the angular, roughly half-cylindrical shape of a Altaeyr Armerdt model sky-freighter that had dropped down to a spot close to the cat park. Then they dragged half a dozen women aboard, cheap security equipment meant the footage was a bit grainy, but Lucy was definitely one of the victims.
Finally a bunch of Shaolin Rippers in their distinct orange went aboard.
The freighter's plates and been obscured and fresh streaks of paint had been splashed over all the logos and any identifying marks. Upon scrutinizing the footage a second time, we noticed that whoever had been disguising the vehicle had missed a spot.
The spot was a business logo; Lady Load Freight.
A quick search revealed that it was an independent hauler that operated out of Highway Zero that specialised in female-only employees. It was owned by a Aisha Lavarone, we tried the business number but got no answer.
It was time head over to Highway Zero. Captain Noodles had decided to accompany us.
"We’ll see things we can’t imagine, an electric city of dreams alight with the hopes of millions, rain-slick streets thronging with the crowds of the dispossessed, towers that touch the sky.
Time.... to follow."
There was time to mull things over on the way to Highway Zero.
It wasn't unheard of but neither was it common for different gangs to work together. Noise Tanks and Shaolin Rippers had just done that to steal the Neon Noir fashion line.
Threads were beginning to come together, events were somehow being linked.
White Lotus Liniment was the only link we had between the two street gangs, who was supplying this extremely addictive substance? Was there only one supplier? Were they using it to keep the two gangs under control?
Prophet Wei was behind the attempted theft of Neon Noir, was Prophet Wei the supplier and behind it all?
Eventually the tram ground to a halt at Highway Zero's elevated tram stop. We could hear the dull background roar of a million accumulated tyres rumbling. Disembarking, there was a brief view of the blurred torrent of metal that thundered along twelve lanes of highway. Aisha Lavarone had geo-tagged herself on her MyFaceSpace page.
Chuck's Truck 'N' Tuck Stop was a slice of old-time Americana style. A classic roadside diner; a brash flashing and humming neon sign was fixed to the roof of a colourful oblong windowed box planted down next to an expansive flat and grey asphalt parking lot populated with sky-freighters and road drone haulers. The diner clearly provided food mostly to the haulage trade.
A little bell rang cheerfully as we strolled through the door, the smell of coffee and frying food immediately wafted over us, old tunes played on a tinny sound system, mixing with the hiss and crackle of cooking. Shafts of hazy sunlight streamed through half shut blinds.
Inside, a long replica wooden counter ran along one wall and white-tabled red booths stretched along the other.
Behind the counter was a kitchen bench and a cooking station, it's orange open flames heating several shallow pans.
Chuck was an oldish tall guy who looked the part in a white forage hat, apron and chequered pants. We took seats at the counter and wiping his hands down his apron, he turned from his cooking and poured us black steaming coffee into plastic mugs. "Take your time," he said handing us some laminated menus that listed classic diner food.
"Eggs, over easy with grits," I ordered.
There had to be close to twenty people here, propping up the counter or slouched in booths in small groups or alone, chatting quietly or lost in their food. Mostly they wore work clothes, none looked like gangers.
When Chuck came back around with the coffee pot for refills, Bill asked him if he knew Aisha Laverone.
"You mean Lady Zero? She's over there," he nodded to a woman seated in a booth.
A stocky woman with a green Mohawk and hot pink wrapped shutter shades, she wore a sleeveless denim jacket, olive cargo pants and Harbief work boots. Lady zero seemed distracted by a half finished plate of food.
Lady Zero didn't seem pleased to see us walk over and less pleased when we asked about her sky-freighter.
Stolen by Noise Tanks this morning, she told us, from the parking lot as she watched! Too quick to stop.
Chuck was happy to let us review the security footage from his front camera that overlooked the parking lot.
The footage was good enough to get a look at the theft and allow us to get some hits from facial recognition.
Four Noise Tank gangers had, from what we saw on the footage, easily broken into the sky-freighter.
Armerdt trucks came with biometric security as standard which the thieves had to work around. Any hacker worth their salt could crash a biometric lock, with these Noise Tank gangers, it was the speed with which they did it that was impressive. Someone knew their stuff.
Facial Recognition had put names to faces and a quick search revealed they all had a litany of minor criminal offences to their names. Their criminal records confirmed their gang allegiance to Noise Tanks, each set of records also listed the same known hangout, a joint called Cybartek. We had a lead.
Cybartek was located at the end of a strip of mostly abandoned, dismal looking brick buildings that sat in the gloomy shadow of a noisy flyover. A half working neon sign that seemed to be the street's only colour flashed the bar's name in a garish red hue.
At street level the bar's window was barred with a rusting iron grid, on the upper level all the windows were boarded up.
The steel panelled front door squealed incessantly whenever it opened, and slammed shut with a loud rattling bang.
Finding a spot to watch the bar was easy. Foot traffic here was a little quieter than typical for Neon City so we had reasonable visibility from further away through the shuffling crowds, Kevin was also patrolling the front.
It didn't take too long to see that the bar was a busy place and Noise Tank gangers were easy to spot; heavily augmented, mostly Jamaican cyborgs in porkpie hats. They were coming and going constantly, to and from a variety of directions and always in pairs. Something was up.
More information was needed. We waited until a pair of gangers left the bar and followed as discreetly as possible, patiently until they turned a suitable corner into a quieter street, then we raced in. Roderick stated that he could reconfigure into combat mode and deal with them. Bill said it was probably a good idea if Roderick stayed in butler mode.
With our stun-batons we easily took the two gangers down, they convulsed briefly before toppling over. After dragging them into some sort of derelict building, we revived them and Bill gave them a talking to.
The ladies who were kidnapped had been taken to the warehouse. The gangers reassured us that they had not been harmed.
"Take us there," Bill ordered.
We kept a tight reign on the gangers as they led us along tall, narrow back alleys that zig-zagged through the tightly packed buildings of a retail area and opened into a under-utilised commercial park. Sunlight didn't reach this deep into the alleyways and it was a shady respite from the brutal heat.
The park was a relatively quiet place with minimal outward activity, there were numerous grey, anonymous warehouses here, constructed of large cubic steel frames coated in high density polymer cladding, roofed with sloped corrugated PVC and sporting unremarkable logos of corporate subsidiaries on the doors.
It wasn't hard to spot the pertinent warehouse, it has massive hangar-style doors and was around two hundred metres away, it was the only one with gangers kicking around outside as well as coming and going. When they left, they were carrying packages.
Koko sent Kevin to scope it out but she lost contact once the spy-drone had slipped inside the warehouse, it had to be shielded. Kevin had sent a few seconds of footage to Koko's control slab, it showed Lady Zero's vandalised sky-freighter along with Noise Tank and Shaolin Ripper gangers distributing the Neon Noir clothing.
Maybe we could get the freighter out of there remotely, a direct approach could be risky with so many gangers coming and going.
We contacted Lady Zero and asked her for the remote access codes, she explained that she had tried to recall the sky-freighter but it hadn't worked. After giving us the codes she told us that it was likely that the master-control that governed remote access had been shut down. It would need to be manually activated by someone.
That someone would be Bill. His implants conferred him the ability to alter his appearance and modulate his voice, allowing him to spook in and out of places.
He flicked an internal bio-switch and his face seemed bubble and stretch before settling into the appearance of one of our prisoners. He grabbed some gang colours and was ready.
A constant flow of members of two gangs moved in and out through a couple of side doors, wasps in gang colours flitting in and out of their nest. Bill waited and picked his moment, then unassumingly walked into the warehouse.
For a few minutes we were out of comms with him until we heard his modulated foreign voice crackle metallically.
He had managed to open and unblock a small window, breaching the shielding. He'd also had a quick scout.
The warehouse interior was airy and open but poorly lit. It's scarred and scratched concrete floor was caked in a layer of dust and hadn't seen real work in a while.
Against the north-west corner was an admin office constructed of nailed up drywall and chipboard with a pair of transparent acrylic window panes. Inside were some cheap plastic foldout tables and chairs. Whatever terminals were once used in this room before had been ripped out and junked, all that remained were some damaged sockets and ports. Network cabling had been torn out of the walls and hung there like fibreoptic entrails.
Bill had found the missing women here, six of them; wrapped in grimy rags and old blankets. The Neon Noir outfits they'd been trying on during the raid, taken. A couple of gangers watched the door.
Next Bill had to activate the remote access on the freighter. He briskly walked past the long side, hopped into the cab and ducked into the footwell below the dash, it was a bold move but no one was paying attention.
Bill pressed on the master-control and it depressed with a click. Outside, the readout on Koko's control-slab came to life as a number command functions went from red to green.
From in the cab, Bill cautiously peered out of the windscreen, no one seemed to be looking, so he hopped out and walked away.
Time for Koko to do her stuff.
From a distance Bill watched as the sky-freighter's systems came online, lights sprang to life and the turbines began to spin up with an increasingly loud whine.
The roar became deafening as the gangers stood dumbfounded for a moment, the engines whipped up the dusty floor and loose debris into a blinding gale, forcing them to retreat.
The sky-freighter lifted off and hovered for a second before accelerating upward through the flimsy roofing which was no obstacle and collapsed, folding in on itself and crashing down into the gangers in the main warehouse.
Bill took advantage of the chaos to slip into the office, he checked on the prisoners and cut their bonds. Then he sent us a message; he needed a way out.
Outside, at the north-west corner with his microscopically sharpened blade, Trigger slashed twice at the cladding and gave it a hefty kick, a triangular opening appeared which Bill used to lead the women to safety.
Koko instructed the sky-freighter to return to Lady Zero and it shrank away towards the horizon. As we made our escape with the freed women, all of the readouts and screens on our slabs inexplicably activated.
It was a message, from Great Prophet Wei: Why do you fight for the corporations? I look forward to working with you and will contact you in the future.
The missing case
Hours later, whilst at a open-fronted bar on Dogenzaka Hill, sitting on little chrome-plated stools and drinking brown bottles of Dindanha beer. We were watching the rainwater streaming down the plastic awning into puddles and the hurrying silhouetted crowds, sharply backlit against the stark streetlights when Koko's media-slab pinged.
Yennav Rybasei, mid-level organiser for one of Neon City's Russian mobs and seemingly friend of Koko was on the other end. He told her that he needed us to find a suitcase and to meet him at Rokkaku Expo Stadium.
Rain loudly pummelled the tram's roof on the short tram ride over to The Stadium. The streets of Shibuya-Cho rolled by, neon-lit blood veins carrying the umbrella wielding, coat wearing lifeblood of the city.
Once past the hotel's security we met Yennav in a room.
Kadi Serova was an associate, Yennav told us. He had been tasked with delivering a suitcase to the Fortified Residential Zone via the only route there; the Secure Residential Metro Link and had been given a ticket. Kadi had never made it there though, instead he - along with four others were found dead in a Shibuya brothel by rentacop.
Yennav handed us some grisly photos of their fully-clothed dismembered remains.
The suitcase was nowhere to be found he told us, it was a silver Mahakam Ambassador suitcase. Yennav said we should not look into it when we return it.
Finally, Yennav gave us our own tickets for the secured metro link. The Secure Residential Metro Link was a prestigious elevated monorail that ran exclusively from The Skyscraper District to the Fortified Residential Zone, with no stops between.
It seemed like a good place to start.
We took the Sunshine City Metro Link to The Skyscraper District. It was one of the few times that the subway was more direct than the tram. The metro was originally envisaged as Neon City's high quality, high speed rapid public transit system but had fallen foul of the city's blight of mismanagement and corruption.
This ambition showed in the well lit, graffiti free, tiled tunnel infrastructure and noise free, smooth trains with their air conditioning and deep comfortable seating. A stark contrast to the underfunded tram network.
Among the reaching towers of The Skyscraper District was the secured metro terminal. A long cubic and clean looking building front that slotted anonymously amongst the taller grey structures. A simple chrome embossed sign marked its entrance, a dozen glass and steel doors led to the lobby and to check-in desks.
Even getting into the terminal required a ticket, the uniformed terminal staff gave us professionally neutral glances - as did the other commuters when we strode into the cool, climate-controlled room. The secured metro only serviced the affluent corporate execs that lived in the fortified zone, each commuter here lived very well when compared to street level. It was obvious that we didn't belong but our tickets did the talking.
We were waved through into the terminal proper. The far side of the hall opened away to became the terminal's four platforms stretching away into the distance.
The luxury here was unashamedly obvious. Polished stone floors of cream mixed with wisps of orange, clay walls painted a gentle beige and inlaid extensive fixtures detailed with gold and chrome foil. Sheet lighting gently lit all of it with the palest warm yellow light.
Above, the high-vaulted ceiling was constructed of panels of arched glass stretched away over the platforms. Despite the dark skies beyond, we could see rivulets of water lazily trickling down the curved exterior.
The terminal was well insulated from the hubbub of Neon City outside, there was a comfortable quietness here.
Uniformed staff and robots presented us with complimentary food and drinks.
We sat on some of the many gleaming steel and faux leather seats that dotted the hall. I jacked into the GLOWNET, with RAM Rat's bio-image flitting around me like an attentive dragonfly and began my search.
Finding my way into the terminal's data vault was straightforward. There was a vast quantity of passenger records stored on their system but with RAM Rat's assistance we were able to find information on Kadi Serova's ticket.
We found the exact time and date that Kadi had checked in but that ticket had never checked out. It appeared that something had happened to him between the two stations.
Next we hacked the security camera feeds, there were multiple feeds but we had the exact time we needed to search.
There was no sign of Kadi on any of the footage? It required further investigation and after more scrutiny we noticed that someone else was checking using Kadi's ticket.
A rotund Asian man, it wasn't possible to run facial on him, whoever he was, he knew his stuff and was smart enough to keep his face hidden from the cameras.
This man must have used another ticket when exiting the secured metro.
Kadi had never boarded the secured metro, we had to go further back. It was likely that like us, Kadi had used the Sunshine City metro to get the The Skyscraper District.
Sunshine City was a vast corporation, and its GLOWNET presence was equally imposing: A slowly growing and towering, strangely luminescent square brick column that was emitting dim light. With RAM Rat to help it was easy bypassing their defences, each brick in the column represented a large repository of information, we just had to search them.
RAM Rat was able to process the data at a rate I couldn't imagine and soon he had a result; Kadi had not alighted at The Skyscraper District.
The previous station was Rokkaku Expo Stadium, where Kadi would have boarded the metro.
RAM Rat dived back into Sunshine's data-vault and soon came back with some footage. We had found Kadi and he still had the case but instead of boarding the metro to The Skyscraper District, he had gone to a different metro station.
We had Kadi's digital trail now, it had a strange white incandescent quality and was easy to follow through the GLOWNET's morphing knowledge-scape. As much as the trail twisted and distorted as it went along we were always able to track it.
The Shibuya Terminal metro booking hall was a busy place, scurrying commuters hurried over the polished floor to make their connections, filling camera footage with tidal waves of rushing people moments before a scheduled departure.
In the middle of this rhythmic movement was a small bedrock holding a silver suitcase; Kadi.
This had been his destination. He was here with a tall woman, a wide brimmed yellow and red hat hid her face. Then the rotund Asian man cam into shot and joined them, still he kept his face turned from the camera.
The woman took something from Kadi and gave it to the other man; the ticket!
They then went their separate ways, Kadi and the woman one way and the rotund man the another.
The rotund man would be heading for The Skyscraper district to lay down a false trail, we continued following Kadi's trail and the woman. Further footage showed them travelling to Shibuya Terminal where they exited the metro system. Kadi still had the suitcase. We knew that Kadi had been found dead at a brothel, it was time to go to Shibuya Terminal.
It was getting late when we arrived at Shibuya Terminal. We took a short walk through the rainy, crowded street to the brothel's address.
Space around the brothel's front was unusually open, a couple of unoccupied rentacop cruisers dripping with rain were parked here, people gave them a wide berth.
It was an old run-down brick building, a tall and narrow knock-off brownstone. The exterior was stained with age and the build up of grime had turned the windows brown, cracked flakes of old paint dangled half peeled off the door.
Inside, the narrow old corridors and stairs were dimly lit with aging, yellowed lightbulbs that cast a gloomy hue on the intricately patterned but faded wallpaper. It was quiet too, none of the staff were working and the flooring creaked under our footsteps.
The room with with Kadi's remains had been taped off and rentacop were resentfully actually having to interview potential witnesses here, five gruesome deaths in one room was too big to ignore.
In Yennav's photos there had been no sign of any woman in the room, much less one in a colourful hat. It was likely that rentacop didn't know about her involvement. We had a line of questioning they didn't know about.
Bill spoke with some of the staff at the brothel about what had happened and the woman in the red and yellow hat.
The woman in red and yellow had was actually a man called Thaddeus Rackham, he was male streetwalker in the vaudevillian tradition of cross dressing.
They told Bill that Thaddeus had come in here with a drunk man, they confirmed he carried a silver suitcase. The two of them had gone into a room with four other men. Soon there was screaming and shouting and Thaddeus raced out of the room with the suitcase.
They gave Bill one of Thaddeus' business cards; it contained his contact details but not his address. Bill pressed them for the address but they were either unwilling or unable to provide it.
We went back out into the rain before rentacop took notice of what we were doing.
The silver suitcase was in the possession of Thaddeus Rackham now and we had to find him.
What's in the case?
I jacked into my data-slab while Bill contacted Thaddeus and made a group booking for his services at the brothel. RAM Rat and I had been observing the flows of information through the GLOWNET, monitoring the call, we followed the data-thread and traced it to a spot on Chuo Street.
Midnight had long come and gone by the time the tram had rattled and rocked through the downpour to Chuo Street. Only the discontented or the driven rode at this time of night, even so, the tram was packed. Passengers sat with soaked coats and umbrellas, either stone-drunk or stoney-faced, staring blankly at blurred lights outside or the worn, colourless floor, dragged down by the spiral of alcohol or the Neon City life.
Chuo Street's lower level was amongst the most ravine-like in Neon City, deeper and dimmer than anywhere else, tightly packed buildings were populated with love hotels, small restaurant, eateries and bars and narrow water logged back alleys; it was a good place to lose yourself.
The trace had bought us to one of Chuo Street's gloomiest corners and a small nearly indistinguishable no-name hotel in a row of equally anonymous hotels. Only a small signed screwed to a wall betrayed its purpose.
Bill spoke with the receptionist, she knew nothing about a Thaddeus Rackham but did admit that there was a Thaddeus Smith in room seventeen. We took the stairs.
Bill hammered on the door of room seventeen, shouting that it was our room, hopefully the lie would distract Thaddeus. No Reply.
Bill was about to knock a second time but Trigger lost patience. It was an old door and easy splintered under Trigger's booted foot.
"Threat detected!" exclaimed Roderick. The robot began reconfiguring for combat mode.
Covered in clown make-up and dressed in oversized baggy children's clothing was a man who burst through another door in the room. Caked in dried blood and brandishing a knife, he ran at us. Trigger tagged him with a stun-baton, the clown's legs buckled and he dropped.
We roused Thaddeus and asked him about the silver suitcase, he looked at us for a moment, then began to babble. He insisted that he had to take it. He had to rescue someone in the suitcase! Someone was living in it! He was shouting and seemed crazed, he couldn't explain it clearly and we didn't push him for any further info.
The suitcase was found easily enough in the messy hotel room, its bio-numeric lock was still intact. Whatever was inside was still there, Thaddeus had never gotten a look at it.
The lock didn't look too hard to crack, perhaps we could...
The others decided that we should return it to Yennav at the Union hotel, who was I to disagree.
Wired Neon Cities
Since lockdown 2 is still in full effect, we're still playing over Skype. This means that we're looking for another minimalist RPG that's easy to manage over video chat.
After a discussion, we've decided on a cyberpunk game.
For the game we've chosen Wired Neon City. The game is basically a hack of In Darkest Warrens and has mostly identical rules.
The magic rules have been removed and replaced with rules for augmentations and hacking, making this iteration of the rules slightly more complicated, that's not saying much though.
Characters choose from 6 classes and have 4 stats.
All actions are rolled against these stats by rolling a single six sided die. The higher the roll, the better.
There's not much more to add.
You can read about our adventures in In Darkest Warrens here.
Bill Harkleroad: Played by Mark.
A man with smooth moves, a smooth face and an even smoother voice. Didn't so much Kiss The Blarney Stone as bought it breakfast in the morning. A tailored suit and designer shades are deadly weapons in this operator's hands.
Koko: Played by Michaela.
This greaser girl knows her way round a 3/8 wrench, or a fuel injection manifold, or a titanium transmission synchromesh or a... well you get the idea. If it's got moving parts, she can make it purr, climb or land on its feet.
N. 'Nox' Fluke: Played by Giro.
Doesn't talk about why he was disowned by a family with a (dis)reputable name. Lives one day at a time on his data-slab skills. The City of Electric Dreams may be his home, but the GLOWNET is his universe.
Trigger Mortis: Played by Kevin.
Cold-hearted and dead-eyed, Trigger always keeps one had close to the hilt of his carbon-folded nano-edged street-katana. As the name suggests, he's quick to solve problems in a very fast and very cutting manner.
Buy this campaign here. 234 pages of Cyberpunk goodness!
Welcome to Neon City
During the day the Sun beats down on Neon City reflecting off the chrome and glass of the skyscrapers and making them painful to look at. That's okay, they don't like looking at you either. The heat at street level seems to muffle the constant cacophony of city noises whilst amplifying the smells of people, detritus and street food. The heat is oppressive and the air is bad but you're used to it. Everyone's used to it by now.
At night it rains and the slick streets reflect the lights of the city above creating an illusionary city below. Both of them beyond your grasp. It isn't much cooler at night but the damp air tastes better.
The streets are always crowded. People, some bicycles, a few wheeled drones. There are no cars on the streets of Neon City, there's no room for them. Trams run on raised rails just overhead and subways rumble beneath your feet,
Countless carriageways snake across the sky taking traffic in different directions. The constant rumble of the vehicles is the city's voice. Above these are the corporate monorails, slender wires traversed by luxury pods. Higher still swarm the sky taxis like a cloud with individual cars dropping and rising constantly, metal rain.
Just at the limit of vision planes can sometimes be spotted and, rarer still, an orbital shuttle rising high and fast or dropping back to Earth, balanced on its plume of fire.
Universal credit keeps you fed. A dream of something better somewhere else keeps you alive.
The campaign newsletter
Hey You! is the campaign newsletter i prepare each week. It contains in-game information that the characters can use about areas they're in or about to travel to and serves a s a recap of what they've achieved and what missions or jobs are still waiting to be completed.
You can get your own copy of Wired Neon Cities by clicking the link below.
This write up of our game was written by Giro, you can read this and other similar articles on his website Three Spellcaster and a Dwarf by clicking the link below.