Now that the novel is complete and published the first several chapters of the serial remain here purely for historical interest; the online version is not complete, and never will be.
Realms of Light
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
I finished logging out and shutting down, and then I sat for a moment, staring at a desktop image of rolling ocean.
This wasn't a coincidence. Oh, technically, I suppose coincidence was a possible explanation, but it wasn't one I'd run. Even the stupidest gambler in the Trap wouldn't play those odds. There had to be a connection between my visit to the Seventh Heaven system, and that hour-long probe a day earlier.
And the connection was pretty obvious. I got my access to the back door from a recording of Yoshio Nakada that I got from the old man's ITEOD file, and I wasn't the only one to look at that file. One of the others must have booted up a copy, just as I had, and found out about the back door from it.
That gave me three suspects: officer of the court Hu Xiao, an intelligence named Dipsy 3, and the anonymous user who had used a Nakada Enterprises corporate account. I knew which one I'd bet on, given a choice -- the one who had a connection with Grandfather Nakada all along.
But that left another question -- what was the connection with Seventh Heaven? Why would my mystery person (or Hu Xiao or Dipsy 3) want access to a dream company's records? I knew why I wanted it, but somehow I doubted that some member of the Nakada clan was searching for a particular wirehead in the storage tanks of Trap Under. Why would anybody be looking at dreamer files?
Whoever it was presumably wanted something Seventh Heaven had. I wanted my father; what did this other person want?
What did Seventh Heaven have?
More specifically, what did they have that other companies didn't? If the intruder had been going through multiple companies looking for credit or information, I didn't think she would have gotten to Seventh Heaven this quickly; a dream company wouldn't rank very high on my list of targets for the usual sort of exploitation.
So what would a dream company have that other companies wouldn't?
Dreams, of course -- millions of hours of interactive imagery ready to be fed into a client's brain without being filtered through actual eyes and ears. Imaginary kingdoms of light and color, lands of bliss, bedrooms where no matter how energetic or inventive you got, you never had to worry about tugging on hair or twisting an ankle. Thrilling adventures, willing harems, transcendent scenery.
But you could get that kind of thing anywhere. Hell, a lot of it was public domain, and you could download it free from the city's public service. Sure, some of the best stuff was the dream companies' proprietary material, but was it really worth this much trouble?
What else did Seventh Heaven have?
Row upon row of dreamtanks -- enclosed life-support systems that could keep an unconscious human being alive and reasonably healthy indefinitely without any external supervision, while a hardwired link fed pretty pictures into his brain. Was there some use for dreamtanks that I wasn't seeing, something that made them valuable?
You could hide things in them, I supposed, but so what? They didn't go anywhere, so that wouldn't help much with smuggling, and really, what would you need to hide in Nightside City that would be worth the trouble of finding an empty dreamtank to stash it in? There were dozens of abandoned buildings in the West End where you could hide things; why bother with a dreamtank?
I thought of an answer to that one. If what you were trying to hide was an unconscious human being, then a dreamtank would be perfect. I didn't know exactly why you would want to hide someone, but there could probably be some interesting reasons.
I wondered whether it might be worth checking the city's missing persons database against the DNA of the people in Seventh Heaven's tanks. Seventh Heaven might have kidnap victims stashed away somewhere without realizing it.
And that was the other thing Seventh Heaven had, of course -- people. Hundreds of them, tucked quietly away in Trap Under, dreaming their lives away undisturbed. Nobody ever visited dreamers, nobody checked on them; anyone might be in those tanks, and no one would ever know. Was there someone in there that somebody wanted?
Well, there was my father, and I wanted to get him out of Nightside City, but was there anyone else?
It didn't seem very likely. People who had something to do in the real world didn't buy the dream and disappear into the tanks. That took a luser like my father, and nobody but me had ever gone looking for him, not even my brother or sister. His wife had left him there to rot while she took off for Achernar or somewhere.
Of course, she had also left her three kids. Not exactly a perfect avatar of maternal concern, nor an advertisement for ancestor worship. Maybe there were other families less buggy than ours where someone bought a permanent dream and his family still cared what happened to him.
But in a family like that, would the parents have done the dump? If I were still legally family, I could have gotten Dad's location legally, without using the old man's back door.
No, I couldn't see any reason anyone else would be looking for a dreamer the way I was -- and if someone was looking for a dreamer, why would she have needed an hour looking through the back door? I was done in ten minutes.
So it wasn't someone trying to find an old friend, or a member of the family.
But what else did Seventh Heaven have? They had dreams, and tanks, and dreamers, and that was about it. The dreams weren't worth stealing, I didn't see what anyone would want with the tanks -- what did someone want with dreamers if he wasn't looking for a particular person? A couple of hundred years ago they might have been worth something as medical supplies and spare parts, but now? Doctors have better sources.
Could there be some dream in Seventh Heaven's inventory that was somehow special? Was there some other use for a dreamtank?
I didn't know, and I didn't think I would find out here in the New York's office suite. I stood up.
"I hope you have enjoyed your stay, Mis' Hsing," the room said, as the image of waves faded away and the door slid open.
"So do I," I said.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," the room said, but I didn't bother to explain.
"Tell Mis' Vo thank you," I said, as I headed out into the corridor.
The floater that took my gun was waiting for me by the door, tray extruded; I picked up the HG-2 and stepped out onto the roof.
"The car will take you back to your ship," the floater said from over my shoulder.
I hesitated. Did I want to go back to the ship, where the newsies were probably still snooping around? I would be more or less trapped there, but I would also be able to chat with Yoshio-kun. It might be able to tell me something useful about Seventh Heaven, or about who might be poking around in their system.
I definitely wanted to go back to the ship eventually, and when I did I would want to talk to the upload, but I had come here to fetch my father and 'Chan.
"Thanks," I said, "but I just need a lift down to street level. I have business in the Trap." I turned back to the door. "In fact, an elevator would be fine, I don't need the car."
"You are armed," the floater said. "High-powered weapons are not permitted in the casino."
I looked down at the gun I still held. "Oh, right," I said.
"The car will take you to any legal destination within a three-block radius," the floater said.
I nodded. "Fair enough," I said, heading for the car.
I wasn't sure just what I was going to do, but I knew part of it: I was going to find Tier 4, Row 6, Station 31 and make sure my father was really there. I might get him out, I might not; it would depend what I found down there.
And while I was there, I intended to keep my eyes and ears open and try to figure out what they might have down there that would be worth breaking into Seventh Heaven's system to get.
In particular, a strange possibility had gradually worked its way into my thoughts. Could it be that someone had faked Yoshio Nakada's death solely so he could get a copy of the old man's brain, and that he had wanted a copy just so he could get at the back door to Seventh Heaven?
It didn't seem likely; in fact, it didn't make any real sense at all. But the only tangible thing to come out of the false reports of Grandfather Nakada's death, the only real result I had yet found, was that someone had gotten into the back door at Seventh Heaven. If it really was the only result, then it must be the point of the whole thing.
If someone was going to run that much code just to break into Seventh Heaven, then there must be one hell of a reason, and maybe, just maybe, I would see some sign down there of what that reason was.
It was far more likely that the chance to get in there and look around was just a little extra, not the primary goal at all, but it was the only real effect I had seen so far.
I settled onto the car's upholstery, which was now a few shades lighter but still red, and looked at the gun in my hand.
Vo's people had probably bugged it. I would have, certainly. I flicked the switch to turn it on.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," the car said. "Where to?"
"Street level," I said. "Near an entrance to Trap Under."
"Could you be more specific, Mis'? There are no public entrances to the service levels."
"The nearest entrance that won't require any clearance."
"Would the northeast delivery entrance of the New York Townhouse Hotel and Gambling Hall suit you?"
"That sounds fine."
"I would appreciate it if you turned off your weapon."
"I'm not going to shoot you. Just get me down off this tower. The sooner I'm on the ground, the sooner I'll get my gun out of your cabin."
"Yes, Mis'." Then it finally got moving, and I could turn my attention to the read-outs on the HG-2.
The Sony-Remington HG-2 is a fine weapon, designed for use on high-gravity worlds. Epimetheus is not a high-gravity world; I'd had a friend bring the gun in from out-system for me, and it probably wasn't legal in Nightside City, but sometimes it was very handy to have. It could put a hole in pretty much anything I was likely to want a hole in. The recoil knocked me on my ass just about every time I fired it, but if I was ever up against something where I needed a second shot I was buggered anyway. It had all the power I wanted.
But it wasn't very bright. It understood spoken instructions, at least as far as being told what to target, but it didn't talk, not by sound and not by wireless. If I wanted to know whether anyone had tampered with it I had to rely on its diagnostic read-outs, which were not exactly detailed surveillance holos.
They weren't totally worthless, though, and they reported an unexplained power drain. It was bugged.
Which meant there were probably at least two bugs -- the one I was expected to find and remove, thereby convincing me that I was once again clean, and the serious one they didn't think I would notice. If they thought I was really cautious there might be a third, but I doubt they thought I was sufficiently paranoid to justify a fourth.
In fact, I wasn't going to remove any of them. I couldn't be sure I'd get them all. Even just worrying about hardware, if I did a mass check and made sure there wasn't any added weight that still wouldn't prove anything; they could have drilled out the exact weight of the bug somewhere.
And of course, they might have used software and planted a bot somewhere in the gun's pitiful excuse for a motherboard, though that would be tricky, given how little processing capacity it had and its complete absence of networking.
There wasn't any point in worrying about it. I wasn't going to do anything with the gun that Vijay Vo or the Nakadas would care about; I was going to get my father back. I expected to break several laws in the process, but Vo and the Nakada family weren't cops.
I'd clean the gun eventually, when I got it back to someplace with the equipment to do the job right, but for now I didn't mind if people listened in.
I turned the gun off and tucked it away just as the car settled to a stop and opened a door.
I looked out at the gleaming wall of a service tunnel, where news headlines, traffic reports, and casino inventories were scrolling past in various colors. I didn't recognize it, but my wrist com gave me my position.
I stepped out, and the car closed up and glided away, leaving me alone in the tunnel. I could see a service entrance for the New York ahead, and to one side was the access tunnel where the car had come in; Seventh Heaven was somewhere behind me, a few blocks and three levels away. I turned around and started walking.
Trap Under wasn't exactly open to the public, and there weren't any city streets, but the service tunnels and access corridors and passageways linked up to form a web under the entire Trap. Getting around wasn't a problem as long as you stayed clear of the high-security areas. I didn't have any trouble getting to an entrance to Seventh Heaven's tank farm -- a few minutes' walk, a ride down an open freight elevator, then another short walk, and there I was, standing in a black plastic corridor at a yellow door that had "Seventh Heaven Service Access T5" stenciled on it. No one bothered with any sort of images down here; it was just paint, and didn't change at my approach.
The door didn't open, either.
I stood there for a moment, looking impatient, but if the door was watching me it didn't care; it didn't say anything. "Got a delivery," I said.
The door still didn't answer.
I frowned, and took another look -- maybe it wasn't that smart a door. I didn't see any lenses or speakers, but that didn't mean anything. There was a big steel handle; I leaned on that, but it didn't budge.
There was also a red panel with white lettering that said "Emergency access -- alarm will sound."
I considered that for a moment, and then decided I didn't care about setting off any alarms. I slid the panel up, and found a single big red button behind it. I pressed it, hard, with my thumb.
Sure enough, an alarm sounded -- a sort of hooting. I ignored it, and watched as the door shook slightly; then the latch released and the door slid open.
It had opened less than halfway when I slipped sideways past it into the tank farm.
The alarms were hooting in here, too, and red lights were flashing, though the regular lights were on, too.
"Please identify yourself," something said.
"Hu Xiao," I said. "Officer of the court, on city business." I was in a corridor, with rows of black panels set with video displays on either side -- dreamtanks, I assumed. I had never seen one up close before.
The hooting stopped, but the red flashes didn't. "Please state the nature of your business."
"I'm investigating a reported kidnaping," I lied, trotting down the corridor.
At the first intersection I stopped and looked around for some indication of where I should go, and saw that the passage I was in was labeled T5, while the corridor crossing it was R1. I headed straight on.
At the next intersection Corridor T5 crossed Corridor R2. I smiled; that seemed straightforward enough, and picked up the pace.
"Please explain the nature of your investigation," the voice said, startling me. It had been quiet for so long I thought it had given up.
"Classified," I told it.
"Human personnel have been contacted, and are on their way to discuss the situation," it said. "Please have your city ID ready."
"Of course," I said, and I drew the HG-2.
"Officer Hu, your appearance and voice do not match the information on file."
"Rejuve surgery," I said as I got to the corner of R6 and hesitated. "I need to update that." I picked a direction at random and turned right.
Bad choice. The intersections were much farther apart in this direction, so by the time I spotted the red T6 on the wall above the corner tank I could hear footsteps in the distance.
"Hello?" someone called. It sounded like a man, not a machine, but you can't always tell. "Officer Hu?"
"Over here," I called. "Row Five." I turned and hurried back down Row Six, hoping we wouldn't cross the Tier 5 corridor at the same time.
We didn't; a moment later the voice was behind me, calling, "Officer Hu?"
I was in Row 6, between the T4 and T5 corridors -- did that put me in Tier 4? And which tank was Station 31? I didn't see any numbers.
"Officer Hu, if you don't show yourself I'll have to call Security."
"I'm over here," I said, while I wondered who I was talking to. Wasn't he Security? Did he mean he'd have to call for reinforcements? I stopped midway down the row and studied the nearest dreamtank's display panel. It was blank. I tapped it with a fingernail.
The word STANDBY appeared on the panel.
"Status report," I said.
"Right here," I called, as the screen lit up.
The red flashing lights were distracting, but I could read the screen. TIER 4, ROW 6, STATION 18, it said at the top. OHTA, AZRAEL -- I took that to be the occupant's name. A screenful of data appeared below that -- medical data, a list of recently-played dreams, and more. Azrael Ohta's blood glucose was 72 and his BP was 91 over 63, which both seemed a little low, but otherwise he appeared to be in good health, and he was eighty-three minutes into something called "Desert Encounter 306," with thirty-one minutes to go.
But he wasn't my father. I turned around and looked at the opposite side of the corridor. A tap on that panel got me the STANDBY message.
And then a paunchy guy in a purple turban and blue worksuit appeared at the corner of T5 and R6, looking at me.
"You're not Hu Xiao," he said
"Neither are you," I said, hoping to confuse him.
"I saw a picture," he said. "You aren't Officer Hu. Who are you? What are you doing here?"
I sighed, pressed the power button, and raised the HG-2. "I'm threatening you with a heavy-gravity handgun loaded with homing incendiaries," I said. "That's what I'm doing here. Now, are you going to cooperate, or is this going to get nasty?"