Shadows in Neon City: Part One
This City Is A Better World
Written by: Zack
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
The sudden jolt that made Murph Bell’s eyes snap open told him two things. First, that it was still early morning and the sun hadn’t come up yet. Second, they were outside the Yupe, entering the poorly maintained roads of the satellites, a stone’s throw away from his final destination: Neon City. Murph stretched and knuckled his back. He hadn’t really been asleep, but in that fugue state between waking and sleeping that made one extra tired. His duffel bag rested on his lap, the strap looped around his arm to make sure nothing moved during his long trip. The duffel had all he could carry from his old life: two sets of clothes, a laptop, and a small cache of toiletries and tools.
Murph rubbed the sleep from his eyes and focused on his hands. With a thought, neon blue lights danced before his eyes and brought up his interface. He scratched the smoothed skin behind his right ear, a finger brushed past a scar and around a polished metal neural socket. The stitcher who installed Murph’s cyber brain told him to avoid picking or scratching around the neural port area for at least two weeks. He had given in after just eight days. Adapting to an interface like this was still a work in progress for Murph, but if he wanted to make it in Neon City, he would have to work twice as hard to make up for lost time. The lights settled down and began to form numbers and icons in the corners of Murph’s vision. A clock told him that it was 4:41 am and a little thermometer told him it was 52 degrees outside. He looked at the little phone icon with an “X” next to it to signify the “do not disturb” status.
“Not until I am in,” he muttered to himself and dismissed his interface. Murph Bell combed his hand through his black hair and leaned back against the cool window. The bus jolted and sputtered along the cracks and holes in the road. It would be a rough ride from here on out. Despite that, Murph tried to get some more sleep. Another sharp jolt had Murph bang his head against the window and he sat up rubbing the spot.
“Mother fucker!” he said with a snort, still half asleep. The man sitting next to him let out a small chuckle.
“The bus gave you a good one, eh,” he asked. Murph had been traveling on this bus from the Yupe since late yesterday night, and this man had taken the seat next to him when he got on with Murph. He perked up and looked around the bus to see there were a lot of available seats. Most people got off at the satellites outside Neon City. Aside from Murph and this stranger, there were about half a dozen other people.
Murph hadn’t taken a good look at the man sitting next to him until now. The man’s teal suit warranted a second glance but, in Murph’s defense, he had had a million and one things to think about when they boarded. This man appeared to be well off, a bit too well off to be taking the bus from the dusty outskirts of Neon City. The man’s spectacles rested delicately on the bridge of his nose. His eyes matched his suit and glowed bright against the darkened backdrop of the early morning. Murph took that for the universal sign that it was; this man was on an interface too.
“I know the satellite roads are shit, but I never imagined they would be this bad,” Murph began. “It’s my fault for wanting to sleep, really.” The man nodded and propped a leg on his knee. His eyes dulled and he adjusted his glasses.
“Business or pleasure,” he asked. He gave Murph a good once over. If someone had looked back at the two, it would be like night and day. This stranger looked clean and pressed, fresh off an Incubo fashion advert. Murph, on the other hand, looked like a drifter who’d just bought his way into town with his last fistful of dollars. There was a trail of holes in Murph’s jeans, and his red jacket was more earthen patches than cloth.
“A little of column A, little of B. Mostly A,” Murph said. The man nodded as Murph gestured to himself. “I may not look like it, but I have what some might call a golden opportunity.”
“In Neon City, gold is a garnish on expensive desserts. There’s plenty to go around and it offers little in terms of fulfillment,” the man said. He held up his hands soon after. “I’m only saying this as a compliment. If you found something outside the Nu-Wave, it’s gotta be something good.” Murph was silent for a moment. Just what exactly was this character?
“I think we got off on the wrong foot honestly, or in your case, the wrong side of the bus,” the man said. Just then, another jolt rattled them in their seats.
“I guess it happens a lot,” Murph said “I’m Murph. Murph Bell.”
“Simon,” he said. Murph waited for a last name. “Just Simon I’m afraid. It’s a mononym, you see?” Simon said. Murph nodded skeptically.
“So like, does that mean you’re somebody in Neon City? People don’t need to know you as anything else?” Murph said. Simon gave a half-smile and juggled his hands in the air.
“In a sense yes, but honestly no. Nu-Wave is a game, Murph, and the ones who win play by their own rules, if you catch my drift,” he said.
“You mean breaking the law? So you’re what? Some kind of gangster or merc?” Murph said. He smiled but he didn’t really want to know the answer. He had heard stories — everyone heard stories — of famous mercs, of hardened soldiers for hire that would do anything for anyone for the right price. Murph leaned in a little closer and kept his voice low.
“Are you a Street Samurai? A Neon Cowboy even?”
Simon let out a louder laugh now. Murph could see a chipped incisor tooth, a flaw in the man’s otherwise pearly white grin.
“No no no, Murph, nothing like that. Only a very special kind of person lives long or well in that line of work,” he said. Simon smoothed out the wrinkles in his sleeves. “I solve people’s problems. Human resources if you will.”
The way he phrased that set off more alarm bells in Murph’s head. He looked at Simon and brought up his interface. He looked at the icons on his display and connected to the net. His software wasn’t anything fancy — he could barely afford the implant at all — but Murph still pulled up the NCPD’s criminal database and scanned Simon’s face. No results came up. It put Murph at ease, but not by a lot. He had to give it to Simon; he was a smooth talker. He was sure Simon would have described himself as a “people pleaser,” but now Murph was just making assumptions.
“That’s an interesting glow you have there Murph. I would have taken you for more of a cyan or even emerald green,” Simon said. His stare was fixated right on Murph’s eyes. He put away his interface.
“What do you mean?” Murph said.
“Your interface lenses. You know, the glow in your eyes you get when you’re surfing the net and shit,” Simon said. His eyes glowed that teal green again. He narrowed his eyes while he looked at Murph.
“Heterochromatic lenses eh? One sky blue the other a soft pink. Did you want something more flashy or did the stitcher only have mismatched lenses? I only ask because you don’t seem like the flashy type and stitchers outside Neon City often work with what they come by,” Simon said. He scanned Murph’s demeanor again. Murph slumped in his seat and let out a long sigh.
“They only had incomplete sets. I told him I didn’t care what the colors were, only that they worked.” Simon nodded and gave him an understanding look.
“Well, they are a bold choice. I think we got off-topic, though. What was this golden opportunity you found yourself out in the Yupe? Chances to come to Neon City get fewer and fewer the farther up the Great Lakes you go,” Simon said. He seemed engaged enough. The two were beyond small talk now. He had to agree with Simon about the sparsity of opportunity in the far north. The Yupe, a span of land in what was once Michigan and Wisconsin, was just outside of Neon City’s direct influence.
“I work in data entry mostly. I know it’s a job mostly dominated by AI, but I spot check and adjust when needed. My company, Orion Electronics, an Atsutenki subsidiary, recently had a lottery for some of us Yupe workers to join the corporate office.”
“And you got the golden ticket,” Simon said.
“Yep,” he said finally. “I earned it. After years and years of slaving away in a tiny cubicle, I got my golden ticket.” Simon flashed another smile and leaned back in the bus seat. He kicked his foot up.
“Not bad, Murph. All things considered, that is about as golden as they come. To work for Atsutenki, a big MegaCorp titan that rules over Neon City with the rest of them. In another lifetime, I might have been jealous of you,” he said. Murph looked at the sun rising over the horizon. The sky was a deep orange that pushed the deep purple and black away.
“It’s gonna be hard to get sleep now. We’re about two hours outside the city limits. You got arrangements when we stop?” Simon asked. Murph brought up his interface again. He opened a document he sent himself that contained his company-paid hotel room details.
“Yeah, staying at a mid-level hotel for the weekend before my interview. By then, I hope I can steel my nerves enough to make it through. People at the office call it The Crucible,” Murph said. His stomach lurched a bit when he thought of the interview. It wasn’t enough that Murph had won a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it was never that easy. Being picked was just the first step. After that, the lucky worker was sent to Neon City for a weekend to prepare for a lengthy all-day interview. Only then would you be welcomed as an entry-level Atsutenki representative.
Everyone from the top brass to the lowly intern put their names in the lottery for a chance to be chosen. Even if the prize was an entry-level job at Astutenki, many saw it as the first real step to climbing the MegaCorp ladder. Until then, you’re just paying your dues until they begin to pay you.
“Generous indeed! Even for a small fry that’s a lot of scratch,” Simon said. His eyes glowed teal green again and he looked out the opposite window. Even though he was looking the opposite direction, he still spoke to Murph with the same tone of engagement.
“Best of luck to you, Murph! Lord knows, everyone needs that in Neon City,” he said.
“Even someone like you?” Murph said. Simon let out a small chuckle and turned back to Murph, his glow gone for now.
“Oh, especially someone like me, Murph Bell.”
Tune in next month, as Murph’s story continues in the next chapter: This City Is From Me, To You