It was raining.

It always seemed to be raining here, like nature itself was committed to ensuring your boots were always dripping wet by the time you reached the busted old escalator. Relic neon signs and shattered glass lay strewn across the floor of the dilapidated mall, mixed in with trash and scraps of rusted metal. Looted long ago, and more recently shelter for squatters; at least until the ceiling had finally given way to time and collapsed.

Lee skirted around the bulk of the puddles and refuse, before taking the second right down what used to be the tech alley. There was a brief roar of thunder from overhead, and shutters across the windows down the way rattled with deafening intensity. At least the weather meant they were unlikely to bump into any other runners, and no-one else was brave enough to come through here during the day.

At the final shopfront of the alley, before it ended at a rusted chain link fence blocking access to a collapsed loading dock, Lee stopped. They paused to check the area for any… recently added surprises. A flick of their wrist brought their AR overlay winking into view, and with a quick dive into their rucksack they retrieved their PICM scanner. A few sweeps of the custom tool across the vicinity showed the all clear. With their brow furrowed in perplexion, Lee gingerly stepped up to the still-intact door. This was the first time they’d come here and found the place clear of anti-personnel devices, and it was slightly unnerving.

“RO-O ARC-DE”, read the loose and decayed sign above the arcade’s door, its neon tubes long since broken. This was a longtime meeting place for runners and white collar criminals, before the local gangs had cottoned on and started dropping booby traps into the mall. Paranoia ran deep in some of the older gangs around here, and any gathering space for runners made them nervous. Now the arcade was just a dead drop site, with a couple of hidden caches that runners would use to leave each other small goodies. For a price, of course.

Lee flicked their AR screen over to a local network view, and automatically popped into the covert wireless node that someone with a skill for occlusion had set up here. You had to get the code for it from another runner who knew the place, and few were trusting enough to give it up. After punching in the code Lee pressed a very small section of the door, activating the hidden switch. With a little sigh of release, the entrance popped open just enough for their hand to get around it and open the handleless door.

Walking inside the arcade was like travelling centuries back in time to the late 20th century. Rows of dilapidated pinball machines, arcade cabinets with all manner of games now lost to time. A busted popcorn machine sat next to a broken slushie maker along one side of the reception, just to the right of the doorway. The centre of the cramped room was dominated by several large pod-like machines: early attempts to create VR-like gaming experiences for some sort of mecha franchise.

Wiping their boots repeatedly on the mat, Lee softly swung the door shut behind them before keying in the security code a second time—this time into a physical keypad next to the doorframe. The alarm here had long since been co-opted by whichever runner “owned” this place, and now its purpose was unclear. But Lee’s buddy who had given them the code told them to always key it in here, no matter what.

The growing storm rattled the metal blinds again, and the wind howled down the alley outside. A row of pinball machines groaned and shuddered, decrepit bumpers, springs and balls grinding against each other within the rusted shells. Lee wandered past them, running a hand over their weathered glass tops, feeling the pits and cracks in the once smooth surfaces.

There was something strangely peaceful about this place, despite the cacophony outside and the death throes of the relics within. Lee wasn’t old enough to have ever been to a functioning arcade like this; they’d all been long defunct before they were even born. But their mother had told them stories of the early days of the technological revolution at the turn of the 20th century, and there was a sense of distant nostalgia whenever Lee visited the arcade.

As personal computers and the early versions of the Net became more and more advanced, the need for these sorts of places dwindled across a lot of the world, and the upkeep required to keep the increasingly sophisticated arcade machines running made the business prospects dire. Eventually, they all just died out. Everything has an exception, however, and the arcade that Lee’s mother spent much of her youth at back in Hong Kong was an ancient establishment kept alive by a wealthy family who passed it down from generation to generation.

That was one reason Lee always liked getting a courier job to come here; their relationship with their mother was strained at the best of times and memories of playing VR games together kept Lee grounded. It was a confirmation of the purpose behind what Lee did these days… an affirmation of their convictions.

Lee didn’t know why this arcade had stood for so long before the mall was abandoned, and trying to dig up records about the place always resulted in finding your way into corners of the Net where few runners ever wanted to venture. Perhaps it was for a similar reason to their mother’s old haunt: some wealthy lineage keeping it alive until it passed to an heir who thought the place was a joke. Or maybe whichever runner set up this place as a dead drop had kept the place clean over the years out of some sense of reverence for the ancient tech. Regardless, the building and the machines within looked like they’d only been neglected for a decade, rather than two hundred years.

But, to business. Lee was here for a reason, and further reminiscing could come later. Down the end of the row of pinball machines was something once known as a “claw machine”. The decayed contents of the glass tank weren’t of any interest to Lee. However, the concealed compartment on the underside of the machine was the very reason they were here.

The runner fiddled with the hidden latch for a few moments until a small container dropped down into their waiting hand. It was a smooth metal cylinder: a dead drop tube used by runners in New Angeles to deliver meatspace gear or messages to each other. Trying to open this latch without keying in the access codes earlier would have resulted in the tube’s spontaneous combustion, or so Lee’s contacts had always claimed. No runner or courier who valued their hands would be foolish enough to find out if that was really true.

With a firm grip on the top of the tube, Lee gave it a twist and with a soft popping sound the seal broke and the lid twisted off. Peering inside, they smiled at the sight of the expected contents. One of Lee’s oldest contacts in the runner underworld of New Angeles was an information broker, and here were the goods they’d paid good money and favours to buy. One rolled up sheet of laminated paper with a complex blueprint hand drawn onto it, and a physical data storage drive. Sometimes the information you wanted was too sensitive to send via the Net, even with sophisticated encryption, or simply didn’t exist in digital form at all.

Pocketing the storage drive, Lee fished around in their bag with their free hand to find their documents tube. This was a specialised item that they’d had made by a pair of hardware experts on the other side of town. It would release a cloud of airborne neurotoxin if someone without the right prints ever tried to open it. Never fond of sharing names, Lee had no idea what the pair were called, but they weren’t about to forget the burly tattooed man who handed over the commissioned item, or the cheerful (and honestly, attractive) face of the curly haired boy who Lee had first placed the order with in person.

Lee set the dead drop tube down on the ground, and something rattled around inside with the small impact. That was odd, there shouldn’t be anything else in there. After gingerly inserting the blueprint into the documents tube, Lee upended the dead drop tube onto the ground and three small chips tumbled out onto the tiled floor. These weren’t chips like the ones you stuck in your console, but rather like archaic poker chips you’d have found at casinos before they all went electronic. With a small smile, Lee scooped them up, slung their bag back over one shoulder, and tossed the dead drop tube into a nearby bin. Someone would probably retrieve it later in the week for future use. These chips were a small gift from their old friend: tokens for the nearby “unwanted items donation bin” as she called it, and Lee knew just what to do with them.

In reality the “donation bin” was a simple mechanical gachapon—a sort of vending machine that was typically used to dispense randomly chosen capsules containing one of a massive range of tiny toys or other collectables. This one had been modified a few years ago by the mysterious runner who maintained this place, and instead of capsules full of toys it now spat out small capsules full of data chips with discarded runner tech on them. The tokens that Lee held in their hand were the only currency that worked with the machine, and some sort of arcane system allowed runners to drop unwanted items here and eventually get some amount of credits back after they had been regurgitated back out. Sometimes you’d pop a few tokens in and get a bunch of tech you didn’t care for, and proceed to just toss them right back in.

But on occasion you’d find something special. A rare icebreaker that was impossible to reverse engineer and difficult to acquire at the best of times, coupons for a penthouse suite at the Earthrise Hotel, and possibly even an access key for one of the more interesting or useful places within the landscape of the Net. For that reason alone these tokens offered tremendous potential, and were often traded between runners or gifted alongside dead drops, as was the case here. Packing a few of them into a delivery like this was a kind gesture, and one that wasn’t too out of character for Lee’s contact.

The Gachapon was nestled in between two light gun arcade machines that were coated in a thick layer of dust. One of them was missing its guns; the cables that usually attached them to the cabinet cut through some time ago. If you looked closely at the Gachapon you could notice the telltale signs that it was sometimes used: a few sections that lacked the dust of the machines that flanked it. Every visit, the capsules you could see inside the translucent plastic dome that housed them were arranged differently, and the lever you pulled to pop a capsule out would be in a slightly different position.

Lee inserted the three tokens into the worn metal slot, twisting it each time to send a token rolling into the machinery inside. Three tokens for three capsules. Careful not to disturb any of the dust on the dull orange shell of the cabinet, they pulled the lever three times. Each time a small plastic ball would pop out of the chute into their hand. The capsules would simply twist open, allowing you to extract the data chip inside, and the bin at the bottom of the Gachapon waited patiently for you to toss the plastic hemispheres into its open maw.

Pulling out the scanning tool from their bag again, Lee carefully switched it over to isolation mode. You could never be too careful with unknown data chips; better to have one replaceable piece of tech infected with a surprise virus than your entire personal network. One by one they slotted the chips into the data port on the side of the scanner and did a quick check of the contents.

One was a massive collection of personal data and decrypted passwords for thousands of Haas-Bioroid employees… in India. Lee wrinkled their nose; this wasn’t the sort of info they were comfortable using, and blackmailing some unfortunate sysop or engineer in India wasn’t going to be particularly useful for Lee’s goals these days. The second was some kind of icebreaker, probably a decoder, that had some very peculiar code structure. Something about it reminded them of some older Chinese breaker tech, but it was unlikely to be particularly compatible with Lee’s more modern console.

The third one however was a real gem. The scanner’s visual interface indicated that the data chip contained a weak AI construct of some sort. It wasn’t a low AI killer like one of the iconic black widow-style designs, or a true AI icebreaker like the reliable Atman type. It was something else, some sort of digital camotech melded with a weak AI framework to form a support program for precision icebreakers. This wasn’t something Lee had ever seen before, and they couldn’t find any clear markers of who or where it might originate from, or at least not any that they could recognise.

Lee leant around the side of the Gachapon and popped open a concealed panel, revealing a small slot the exact size of a standard data chip, and a thumb print scanner. They pushed their thumb against the scanner, then slid the two unneeded chips into the slot. Some credits would hopefully trickle into their tertiary account eventually, whenever another runner pulled those two chips out of the Gachapon.

Barely a moment had passed after the runner had gently replaced the panel when there was an abrupt crash of metal on concrete from outside, loud enough to be heard through the din of the thunderstorm and the rattling of the arcade’s machines. Lee stopped moving instantly, holding their breath in sudden surprise. Was that just another part of the mall crumbling down under the wrath of the storm, or was there someone else outside who was a bit too clumsy? It wasn’t only the gangs around here who had a streak of paranoia when it came to this old arcade.

Lee waited several beats, straining to hear over the noise, before quietly making their way over to the front counter and vaulting over it to crouch behind the old timber bench. The runner instinctively reached for the stun gun in the concealed holster under one arm. They’d never had to use it before, but the urge to reach for it at the slightest notice had become familiar over the years.

There was another noise from outside, barely audible but clear enough to not be Lee’s imagination. It sounded like the crunch of loose concrete under a heavy boot, just on the other side of the door to the arcade. They flipped the leather strap holding the gun in place away and slowly began to draw it out of the holster. Do… do you just stun whoever comes through the door here, Lee wondered, or give them a chance to explain themselves?

The thought was interrupted when Lee abruptly smelt a slightly acrid scent in the air, and then heard a humming sound coming from outside.

“Oh fuc—”.

That was when the wall exploded inwards.

End of Part One. To be continued.



  • Morgan "Anzekay" White

    Serving as Null Signal’s current Narrative Director, Morgan is a long-time writer and game designer from Perth, Australia, who has been in the organisation since its early days. Morgan currently works full time as a Narrative Designer in the gamedev industry, enjoys a good nap, baking, a good craft cider and watching sunsets during cloudy autumn days. They are also the near-full time Chief of Staff to Daeg, the cat and "official" mascot of Null Signal playtesting.