The passing city blends into a loud neon blur as Kujo maneuvers through the streets. His nearly deadweight escort rides along without a peep, much to his relief.
Countless cluttered effigies of steel, electronics and glass reach perpetually skyward, tumultuous waves of riffraff and automated machine crashing between them like the rising tide. Glimpses of the amethyst ocean shine bright through the ocean-side sprawl. Artificially grown palm trees add a splash of natural colour to the streets, their trunks surrounded by gaudy holiday lights. He always finds it amusing. There was never any snow, yet people still found the need to celebrate the commercialized carcass of Christmas. The holiday is so powerful that the Auroreans adopted the idea right away, their unsightly bodies and faces commonplace among the busy crowds.
The clean main streets give way to a jumble of fluorescent Hanzi signs and paper lanterns behind an intimidating Paifang. The intoxicating aroma of street food combined with ocean spray in the air. Chinatown. An old haunt.
The main streets are busy as ever, forcing Kujo to detour through suspiciously empty backstreets. It’s always dubiously clean in the big city. Neohana is officially a Japanese province, but in reality, the oligarchy of Japanese and international megacorps run the entire former state. With an entirely new consumer base in the world, gentrification is one of the top priorities for upper management. Even if it meant losing out on profits in basic social welfare programs, no entrepreneur could resist the bigger prize. To them, the blemishes of society have to be swept away at any cost. They built a paradise on the bones of the damned and destitute, who went god knows where. The sewers, the northern mainlands, boats, maybe the communities at sea made entirely from the scraps of society. It’s like the silk road all over again, except it was playing out right before his eyes.
His first stop is the 8-carat, a stout pagoda-styled building on 8-5 Shizukana 4-Chiyu, nestled between a seemingly abandoned warehouse and a bustling four-story marketplace. It’s angular, yellow tiled rooftop and pale white walls help it stand out, but every other building is unique around here. Kujo visits the Hépíng market next door once in a while to pick up exotic smokes, but this isn’t the time. He’s on the job today. He waits a few minutes for the Satyros to finish gagging after parking a few blocks away before continuing along. The last thing he needs is for her to wander off in a place like this.
A decorative gong hangs heavily over the front entrance arch, leading into a dim entrance hall. Radiant oriental patterns of clouds and lotuses spiralled around the walls and ceiling towards the neon orange double-doors inside, mysterious and inviting. A well-dressed bouncer greets them, staring from underneath pitch-black sunglasses. He raises a hand to stop them, thick scars evident on his palm.
“We’re closed until seven. Come back then.”
Kujo slips off his helmet and casually wave.
“Yo, Jackie. It’s me.”
The bouncer lowers his sunglasses and raises his bushy eyebrows. He was a good half-foot taller than both him and the Satyros and built like a human tank. “Schultze. What a surprise. Here on business?”
“It’s the usual. I’ve got a few questions for Boss-Man Lee. Official business.” The Aurorean hasn’t slipped away yet. She stands close by with her arms crossed, looking as dignified as ever. A professional at looking important.
“Head on in.”
“Thanks, buddy. Next round’s on me, Jack.” Kujo claps Jack on the arm on his way in, exchanging a friendly nod with the bouncer. They lead different lives, but a stiff drink shared can melt away all barriers of life.
“Hold it right there.”
He stops in his tracks, the backlit door half-opened. Behind him, Jack holds a hand up to stop Fhrélia.
“Huh? Why? Both of us share the same authority.” The Satyros lowers her arms and narrows her eyes.
“No kids or unregistered Auroreans allowed. Bossman’s house policy.”
“I am not a child, knave. Know your place.”
“Do you have an ID?”
Kujo can see the trouble brewing. He signals for the Aurorean to relax and points inside. “Wait here. I’ll be right in and out. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Fhrélia doesn’t acknowledge him, only staring stonily at the bouncer. He sighs. This girl is already a handful. He turns to enter, only to hear the faint whistle of rapid movement.
Fhrélia stands with her sword drawn for just a moment, before sheathing it with a small flourish. The bottom half of Andrew’s slacks slump to the ground, the upper half quickly following. He’s got midnight blue briefs today.
“…You know what? Go on in.” The bouncer tiptoes aside, crestfallen, as he picks up the last scraps of his pride.
Kujo puts both of his hands on his face. This woman doesn’t understand any sort of modern social etiquette.
“What? It worked.”
She looks questioningly at him as she steps within gingerly, her tail wagging cheerfully. He doesn’t respond. She’s going to get him killed.
The first level of the pagoda is an empty nightclub that screams high class, with an open second level for high rollers. Velvet tables and booths populate the floor, with a backlit bar boasting exorbitantly priced vintage spirits. Neon back lights continue to streak along the ground and walls, creating the illusion of a heavenly realm. A taste of distant Hong Kong brought straight to Neohana’s doorstep, fit with the stench of cigarette ash and old perfume.
At a booth, a man clad in a pure-white suit and fedora lounges around open briefcases and holographic displays. He talks loud enough for both Kujo and Fhrélia to hear in exaggerated broken English.
“Got it. Keep south flow coming… Expand operations into Aurora, Gweilo spend out of ass to exotic shit. Counterfeits? Relocate stolen cars at new sewer markets. Good money, Good money.” When he notices the two approaches, he fumbles his Datagrip and shoves everything underneath the table. “Talk later. Busy.”
Kujo can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the sorry excuse. Fhrélia trains her death gaze on the man.
“Kake-Kami Lee. You’ve been busy.”
Lee kicks the briefcases out of sight, awkwardly chuckling,
“Kake-Kami? You know I prefer Dǔbó Zhī Shén [God of Gambling] when I’m not in those circles.” His English is flawless, his poker face is on point. “What brings you here today? Are you playing for the blessing of Lady Luck?”
“Maybe next time, Lee. I need an inside eye. There’s been a kidnapping. Technically.”
Lee winces, rapping his knuckles against the desk. “Kujo — Friend, I stay as far as I can from that business. I don’t keep tabs. Who’s the victim?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Poor Kujo, all work and no play.” Lee gives an exaggerated frown, tracing a tear down his cheek.
Kujo rolls his eyes, pulling up the SIN analysis of the two dealers from last night on his Datagrip. “First off, I need to know about these two. Their SINs were basically blank, but we know they were active in the scene.”
“I’ll see what my Tiangou can dig up. I must say, though. Plenty of faces come through here every night.” Lee sighs dramatically, drumming his fingers along his cheek. “If only something could help me remember…”
It always came to this with Lee. Even if he didn’t have anything, he still acts like he does. The man is a gambler at heart, somebody who could walk up a poker table with a single chip and somehow walk away with everything. His nickname wasn’t for show. Kujo was used to playing his game.
“Wainiha’s north port is going under maintenance five days from now, the ships are temporarily in the east. Be a shame if something fell through the cracks.”
“I think… I can almost remember now. I may have seen them the other night…”
Kujo slams his cybernetic fist into the table, glaring back with an unamused frown.
“Fine! Watch the velvet, these tables are brand new.”
Lee digs around in his coat and pulls out a copper Credstick. A Checkstick. Anonymous, untraceable. “Played those two in Mahjong a week ago and snagged this. They were friends, dressed like they stepped out a vat of expensive clown vomit. How close am I?”
Lee slides the stick over, self-satisfied as ever.
“Nicked this from them in a match. They were new dealers, dealt whatever fell into their lap. Bragged about easy Creds, and how their big break was coming up. Now it’s mine. Mine, oh, mine.” He kicks his feet up on the table, leaning back as though celebrating a job well done. “Run the prints if you don’t believe me.”
It doesn’t add up. If the two were new dealers, why did they have their hands on something so valuable? As far as products go, it was top of the line. At the time, they seemed like they were antsy to flip the live Alraune for a quick buck.
“Hmm… Did they say anything about their big break?”
“I think they said it was pure luck. It was a deal they couldn’t miss. Beats me, Kujo-Friend.”
“Hmph.” The two dealers are a dead end, a wild goose chase waiting to happen. They could follow the supply chain back to the smugglers and gangsters that run it all, but Kujo doubts the Yojimbo branch have the time or resources for it. Drug stings were one thing, but dismantling an entire criminal network that could be entirely off the grid is another. If the Alraune is still being passed around as merchandise to be processed, then a different approach is needed. An aggressive one. “The smugglers. Do you know who could’ve been in on the recent virescent dust shipments?”
Lee breaks into a wolf-fanged grin. “Luckily for you, we have a situation that benefits both of us.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Well, word on the street says the Jade Tempest Family is testing the waters in Neohana. Premium imports. Ask around the Royal Skypierce Lounge after dark. The one on Ala Waikiki boulevard.”
“That one? I thought it was straight, with all the kids working there by day.”
“The Yaks got the students by their debt-ridden asses. It’s been this way since the old world.”
“Alright, that’ll be it for today. Clock’s ticking. Be seeing you, Lee.” The confiscated Credstick disappears into an evidence bag. It’s not much, but it’ll help when the legal complications come in.
“No match today? What a shame. Suit yourself, Mr. Lawman. Come again.”
On the way out, Fhrélia glares at Kujo intensely enough to make his heart to skip a beat. Every time she looked at him, it felt like she was staring straight through him, illuminating the cracks and flaws that riddled his heart. He keeps his gaze straight ahead, wordlessly motioning to follow. He can feel her eyes burrowing into his back with every step.
“Who was that man?”
“He’s an unofficial active informant.”
“Why is it unofficial?”
“It’s off the books. No record.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t try too hard.”
They hit pedestrian streets, past shops vending discount hardware, shops selling everyday essentials, prices penned on sheets of plastic and electronic displays, fragments of music and voices melding from countless speakers, their own barely treading the current.
“Was he an undercover agent? A crown spy?”
“You could say that. A spy that works for us. There’s no record since he only answers to a select few.”
“I thought espionage was illegal for Earthlings.”
“Corporate and national espionage is. This isn’t.”
“Wait, what’s ‘corporate’?”
“Do you know what a corporation is?”
“Er-” Kujo was the wrong person to ask about technical definitions. “Well, they’re entities made up of any number of people who are treated as one single being.”
“…A knightly order?”
“Close enough. Right.”
The Satyros visibly ponders Kujo’s words, prodding him in the arm a few moments later.
“That man was engaged in criminal activity, though.”
“He’s our man on the inside.” He quips back hastily, ducking into a smaller street to avoid the congestion.
“A secret Po-ri-su-man that masquerades as a criminal?”
“He’s not a police officer,” he corrects, “but Lee works for us.”
“Not an officer?” She looks more agitated by the second.
“Not officially an officer on paper.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? By nature, officers of the law are official. Your actions do not sound like proper conduct.”
“Argh. Look, Lee’s under our control. He does what we say, pulls back when he needs to.”
“If that is the case, why did you give him that piece of information? That was a bribe.”
“We exchanged information. That’s all.”
“That…” Something seems to click for her. “That was a bribe, no matter how you look at it. If all of what you said is true, then that man is but a criminal.”
“Why have you not arrested that man? He is a criminal, through and through!”
Kujo can’t think of a reason that she’d accept. “It’s… complicated.”
“I cannot comprehend it. Why would you willingly work with criminals, going as far as to help them advance their foul activities…?”
“As I said, he’s our man on the inside.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
He doesn’t have a good response.
Her frigid address comes at the edge of the alleyway, crisp and dispassionate. Fhrélia takes a step forward, her eyes glinting with burning intent. Her hand rests on her sword’s handle.
“Explain yourself before you fall in the name of Caethyr, Kadiem-Wuzegyr. [Corrupt Beast]”
He raises his arms in the air, facing the woman. His holstered pistol weighs heavily at his side. Ten paces apart. If he acts now, he could jump the Aurorean. Two steps back clear enough room to draw and fire. He could sacrifice his cybernetic arm to her blade and beat her down. For some reason, he can’t move.
“Don’t do anything hasty.” Kujo takes a deep breath, steeling his gaze.
“Make your last words count, Kadiem-Wuzegyr. [Corrupt Beast].” Steel glints from her sheath. She might be intimidating him, but he can’t figure her out.
“Put the blade away before you regret it. Things aren’t simple around here. There are criminals on every single goddamn street block, and we don’t have the means to deal with all of them. ”
“That scarcely excuses your own crimes. Evil only permutes more evil.” This woman’s sense of justice is utterly draconic, but he continues nonetheless.
“Say a petty thief helped you catch a murderer. Would you lessen the thief’s sentence?”
She scoffs. “That is simply a hypothetical situ-“
“What would you do?” He repeats, more forcefully.
“…According to Caethyr’s tenants, the thief must bear the full conse-“
“What would you do, goddamnit!?” He roars, nearing his wit’s end with this girl. He drops his hands and angrily paces towards her, intent on giving a piece of his mind. This alien’s horrible mixture of arrogant naivety, self-righteousness and complete lack of modern sensibility infuriates him to no end. If it weren’t for the aliens, Cole and countless others would still be alive. She’s a living mockery of his partner’s memory.
The Satyros draws her pseudo-rapier, levelling the tip instantly at his throat. She could end him at any moment, but it’s too late to stop now;
“Can you think for your goddamn self? You’re not a puppet of a god, an organization, or a bloody noble family. You. You.” He jabs her in the shoulder with an accusatory finger, punctuating each syllable. “Why the hell are you here in the first place? You’re a nobody here, alien. There’s no place for you in Neohana. Drill it into your thick fucking skull, lady.”
He wants a reaction. Any reaction. Bestial rage, angry tears, seething frustration, his own bloody murder. Something to prove him right. That the aliens are all beasts inside, ready to kill on a moment’s notice. That they’re less than human.
It never comes.
Her eyes gleam with the dull sheen of indifference, the tip of her blade pressing lightly against his throat. Kujo can feel a faint sting where it is, a mere touch enough to draw blood.
“Are you finished?”
The words crush him. His anger burns out in a flicker, leaving only the dull throb of remorse in his chest.
“…Sorry. Just… I’ll shut up.”
He paces away and lights a smoke, each deep breath carrying a grounding sting, a chill clearing his mind. He has to get a hold of himself, soon. He can hear the Satyros sheathing her blade, much to his relief.
“I’ve known Lee for a long time. He doesn’t deal with death or drugs. He’s a thousand times better than the scum on the street.”
He doesn’t dare look at Fhrélia. Although he’s good at bottling everything in, it was always caustic on its way out.
“I’m here because I want to be. I chose this myself. For myself.” Kujo can’t see her face, but the girl’s tone softens. “The Imperial Alraune… No, Novia, she’s someone close to me. I’ll make sure she comes home, even if it may be the last thing I do. I promised.”
Kujo must’ve said something that hit where it hurts. He claps his palm against his forehead, straightening out his thoughts through blunt force. He’s a wreck, but there’s nothing smokes and good results can’t fix.
“Fala… Fhreza… Fhrélia, right?”
She looks at him from behind, tilting her head sideways. Her eyes betray a faint hint of amusement.
“You remembered my name.”
“However, if you speak to me in that manner again, I will not hesitate to cut you down.”
“Yeah, yeah, get on.” His trusty hoverbike rises to the call with a twist of the graviton lock key. “We’ve got work to do.”
Kujo learned about gathering evidence “properly” the hard way. In the era of private security contracts, you needed all the bells and whistles, even for crooks caught redder than red-handed. He was busy for the rest of the day.
Nearly a dozen dealers walked free a few years ago after the Shinkenpai District Court ruled that Kujo and Cole’s actions were ‘illegal.’ Evidence inadmissible. SIN-Buster drones had caught the crooks in civilian wear broad daylight. Should have been open and shut. Kujo cobbled a case together, his calibre of connections were “frowned upon” in a proper court of law. He could never forget the hours of sitting on his hands while the foxy lawyers did what they did best.
Kujo takes his time grilling relatives and known accomplices of the suspects, Fhrélia in tow. Things began to follow a pattern after a while. Kujo turns up the heat, and his interviewees throw their dear deceased friends under the bus. Then light it on fire. Then drove it into a volcano. He supposed it made sense that the two of them weren’t the most popular cons in the neighbourhood, and the living unincarcerated had Social Creds to worry about. Fhrélia was mute, more attentive and far less obtrusive after their last conversation. Whatever she thought of these people and their replies, or his manner of investigation, she kept to herself. Her presence raises all kinds of eyebrows, but the right kind this time. They had come to a mutual understanding, and that was a blessing.
Club Heliobit was thrilled to cooperate when they arrived late in the afternoon. It was a high-end cocktail bar by day, exotic strip bar at night. The logistics flew right over his head. As sleazy as they were, the Aurorean owner turned over droves of incriminating security and financial records get in the good books of the company. He could hear them boarding up the back rooms in live time, but he turned a blind eye this time.
Yojimbo had earned itself a reputation over the years. An elite agency able to pull any conceivable variety of muscle into the picture in the blink of an eye. If they needed heavy armour on the scene, they were going to get a Susano-VI hover-tank by airdrop. Criminals knew to sleep with one eye open with them around. While this reputation is mostly rightly earned, almost none know about the cumbersome paperwork and boardroom politics behind the scene, the back-scratching and secret dealing. How overstretched their network of contacts was at any given moment. Their proper reputation was a fierce weapon, which is why Yojimbo’s investigators had SMPD credentials for most mundane cases. Kujo wasn’t above psychological warfare, especially if it streamlined his job.
By the time nightfall comes, they had a case comprehensive enough to throw endless SIN-Busters at the suppliers involved and send the surviving dealer packing back to China. Served them right.
Skypiercers is the last stop of the day. One last lead to follow.