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
He raised his hands slowly and stared at me. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm the person with the gun," I told him, as I stepped away from the dreamtank and trained the HG-2 on his generously-sized belly. "That's all you need to know right now."
"Oh, there's a shock," I said. "Did you think I hadn't noticed?"
"What do you want here? There's nothing worth stealing."
"Is that why you aren't armed?"
"Why would I be armed? I'm just maintenance."
"No. Why would we have a human guard here? There's nothing worth stealing!"
"Security has been summoned," the room said.
"Tell them to stay back -- there's a hostage situation," I said, keeping the gun pointed at the maintenance worker.
"They won't be here for twenty minutes anyway," my hostage said. "Our security is the casino cops from the Ginza, and they'll want to clear it with management before they come down here."
I considered that, then asked, "Why are you telling me?"
"Hey, you're pointing a gun at me. I don't want you getting nervous because things aren't going the way you expect them to."
That made sense. "Which of these is Station 31?" I asked, nodding toward the dreamtanks on my right. "Give me a hand, and I can be out of here before the casino cops ever show up. No danger of getting caught in the crossfire."
"Thirty-One?" He blinked, then pointed, keeping his hand high as he did. "Over there somewhere." The hands drooped a little. "Is that what you're after? One of these lose... I mean, one of our clients?"
"That's right. Can you get him out for me?"
"You gonna kill him?"
I grimaced. "No," I said. Then a memory of what it had felt like when the three of us got the news that our parents were dumping us stirred in the back of my head somewhere, and I added, "Though he maybe deserves it."
"He owes you money?" He shook his head. "He can't pay it. That's part of the deal. The company takes control of all assets and all debts when the babies go in the bottle. They give up control of their own affairs. If he has any money left, he can't touch it."
"I know that!" I snapped. "I'm not here to...never mind. Just open Station 31, will you? It's none of your business what I want with him."
He shrugged. "Sure. No juice out of my system." He lowered his hands and headed toward one of the tanks. He tapped the display and said, "Maintenance."
The screen lit up. He glanced at it and said, "Oops." He moved two panels over and repeated his performance, except this time instead of "oops," he said, "Got it."
I moved cautiously closer, keeping the gun ready and staying a couple of meters out of reach.
TIER 4, ROW 6, STATION 31, the top line of the display read, and the second line said GUOHAN HSING.
That was him.
"Huh," the maintenance worker said. "Is that spelled right?"
"Yes," I said. "Get him out."
"I mean, it's usually Singh, S I N G H. That's how I spell it. Maybe the H is in the wrong place."
I put that together with the guy's turban. "He's not a Sikh," I said. "The name's Chinese, with an archaic spelling. Now, get him out of there."
"I don't know if that's a good idea," the turbaned man -- presumably Mis' Singh -- said.
"Security is on its way," the room reminded us. "Please do not take any hasty actions."
"Get him out," I repeated.
"He's been in there a long time," the maintenance worker warned me. "If I get him out he's going to be pretty disoriented, and there's probably been some muscle atrophy."
"You may need to carry him for me, then," I said. "Don't worry, he's not a big man."
"After all those years in there, I'll bet he's not." He glanced around. "Carry him where?"
"Anywhere I can get a cab."
He looked baffled. "You're taking him with you? Why? Does he know something you want?"
"You ask a lot of questions for someone being held at gunpoint," I said. "Just get him out." I pressed a button on the HG-2, and it made a threatening whine, as if the targeting mechanism were adjusting.
The real targeting mechanism was completely silent, of course; the button was just sound effects.
The sound effects worked, though; Mis' Singh, if that was his name, stopped asking questions and got busy with the panel on T4 R6 S31. A moment later there was a hiss, then a whir, and then Station 31 opened and a bed slid out.
And there was my father, lying naked in the bed -- not on it, but sunk down into it, surrounded by worn brown plastic. Tubes ran into both arms, his mouth, nose, anus, and urethra; a visor covered his eyes, and a heavy-duty cable was plugged into the back of his skull and secured with a clamp around his throat. He was shriveled and shrunken, his skin dry and flaking, his hair long and ragged; the only part of him that still looked healthy and normal was the wire job on his neck and one side of his head.
I hadn't seen him in years, and when I did he hadn't looked like this, he'd been healthy and alert, but all the same, I recognized him immediately. This was Guohan Hsing, all right. This was my father, genetically if not legally.
"Get him out of there," I said again. The maintenance guy tapped the control panel; the throat clamp released with a sharp click, and tubes started withdrawing. I decided I didn't need to watch that, and focused my attention on the paunchy man's face, but I could hear the tubes sliding from their places, which was almost as bad.
"Do you want him awake?" Singh asked.
"Waking Mis' Hsing is a violation of his contract," the room said. "Please wait for Security before taking further action."
"I just want him alive," I said. "Awake or asleep doesn't really matter right now."
"Waking Mis' Hsing is a violation of his contract," the voice repeated.
"Can you shut that thing off?" I asked Singh. I gestured with the gun. "It's annoying me."
"Not from here," the maintenance worker said.
"It's not very bright."
"It doesn't have to be, to watch over a bunch of dreamers."
The hiss and gurgle of retracting tubes stopped, and I heard the rasping as my father began breathing unassisted for the first time in years. I hesitated before looking at him, though; I wasn't sure I really wanted to see him.
"They didn't give it much authority, did they?" I said, putting off the inevitable. "You didn't need to do anything to override it."
"You just said it's not very bright, Mis'. Would you trust it with anyone's life?"
Then Dad coughed, a harsh, choking cough, and I turned to help.
So did the maintenance guy. Between us we got my father into a sitting position as he choked and gasped, his lungs struggling to work unaided. He coughed uncontrollably for what seemed like half an hour, but which my symbiote told me was only about twenty seconds, and when he was finally able to stop he was wide awake, sitting in his plastic bed. He raised one trembling hand and lifted off the visor, then looked up at us.
He tried to talk, but all that came out was a wheeze, and that started him coughing again. I decided not to wait. "Pick him up," I told Singh. I had lowered the gun while we moved my father; now I pointed it again.
He hesitated, glancing at Dad. "What are you going to do with him?" he asked.
"I'm going to get him off Epimetheus before sunrise," I said. "Pick him up!"
"Security will arrive in approximately fifteen seconds," the room said. "Please stand by."
"How?" Singh asked.
"I have a ship," I said. "It's waiting at the port. Unless you want to get caught in the crossfire, I suggest you pick him up and get him out of here before those fifteen seconds are up."
He bent down, unplugged the cable from the back of Dad's neck, then slid his arms under shoulders and knees and picked my father up. Either the maintenance guy was stronger than he looked, or Dad weighed about as much as a cup of coffee. He put up about as much resistance as a coffee cup, too.
"Which way?" Singh asked.
"Out," I said. "Wherever Security isn't. You show me."
He nodded and began walking, and said, "What kind of ship?"
"A yacht," I said, following him. I had to trot to keep up. "Not mine."
"Room for another passenger?"
I should have expected that. "If it won't get me arrested, there might be."
"Hey, getting me out isn't anywhere near as illegal as kidnaping this poor guy I'm carrying."
"Stop right there!" a new voice called.
I turned, the HG-2 in my hand, but before I could say anything Singh called, "It's okay, guys!"
I didn't point the gun at anyone after all; instead I just looked at the two cops who were coming down the aisle toward us. They had guns, too -- nothing quite as big as the HG-2, but probably more than enough to kill me several times over. A floater was hanging just above and behind them, scanning the scene.
"What's wrong?" I said, trying to sound confused.
"The surveillance system here reported a hostage situation," the lead cop said, keeping his gun trained on me. The second cop, I noticed, was pointing his gun at Singh.
Singh had been telling the truth about Seventh Heaven's security; these two were in charcoal-gray suits with the Ginza logo on the breast and security badges on their sleeves. Casino cops -- that was both good and bad. Good, because they didn't really care about the law, only about what was good for business, and shooting potential customers was pretty much never good for business. Bad, because they not only didn't care whether I was breaking the law, they didn't care whether they were, either -- they could play rough.
"The surveillance system is an idiot," Singh said. "There's a maintenance problem, that's all -- I had to get this poor luser out before his tank poisoned him."
"Who are you?"
Singh sighed. "I'm Minish Singh, second-shift maintenance."
"Hu Xiao. She wanted me to check on this guy -- he's a potential witness. Good thing she did; he'd have been dead in an hour."
I thought that was pretty good improvisation; I wondered whether they'd buy it. I didn't think I would have, but I'm not a casino cop. Casino cops don't like trouble.
"Surveillance, can you confirm?"
"Minish Singh, confirmed. However, this person does not match city records of Hu Xiao."
"I told you, rejuve," I said. "My files need updating."
"She's Officer Hu," Singh said.
"She threatened Mis' Singh with what she called a heavy-gravity handgun loaded with homing incendiaries."
"Fine, my weapon isn't standard issue," I said. "Is that any of your concern?"
"You threatened him?" the lead cop asked.
"What? No, I just told him to hurry."
The second cop spoke for the first time. "Who's the corpse?" he asked.
"I'm not..." Dad said. Then his voice gave out, and he coughed instead of finishing the sentence.
"Guohan Hsing," Singh said.
"He's a potential witness in a kidnap," I said, trying to reconcile the story I'd given the room with the story Singh had made up.
"I'm not dead," Dad said. This time he got the whole thing out, but so quietly I'm not sure the cops heard him.
They didn't care, in any case. To them he was a body Seventh Heaven had been storing, and whether he was alive or dead was a technical detail that didn't interest them.
"His tank glitched," Singh said.
"Or was hacked," I said.
"Surveillance, who's the hostage here?"
"The intruder calling herself Hu Xiao was holding Mis' Singh at gunpoint."
"Oh, come on," I said. "I was just trying to hurry him a little. Who wrote this piece of gritware, anyway? I'm sorry to drag you two down here, guys -- I guess this surveillance system's a little buggy."
"Mis' Singh, was this woman threatening you?" the lead cop asked.
"No," my father and Singh said in unison.
The second cop smiled at that, and lowered his gun a little.
"May we get this man out of here to some place he can get medical attention?" Singh demanded. "This is all a misunderstanding, but that tank did almost kill him."
"I did not detect any malfunction," the room said, and I had to agree it wasn't a very good piece of software -- it made this statement in a flat tone, neither sulky nor defensive.
"Well, I have eyes, rather than just a datafeed," Singh said. "We need to get him out of here."
"And after that Mis' Vo wants to question him," I said.
The lead cop glanced over his shoulder at the floater. "Any advice? Orders?"
"Neither account is entirely consistent or believable," the floater said in a pleasant alto.
"So everyone's lying?"
"You think it's all a misunderstanding?"
"We have insufficient evidence to conclude otherwise."
"I don't want to get mixed up in a kidnaping," the second cop said.
"Look, I'm the ranking representative of Seventh Heaven here," Singh said. "I'm telling you there's no problem. Go on back to the Ginza and forget about it."
"What the hell," the lead cop said, holstering his pistol. "That runs smooth enough for me."
"Want us to file a bug report?" the second asked Singh.
"I'll take care of it," he replied.
A second floater had arrived, I noticed. I didn't say anything, and tried not to let anyone see I had noticed it; it was stealthed, hiding itself in a holo that blended with the ceiling.
Except it had set the holo up as a compromise, angled as best it could to fool all three of us -- Singh, Dad, and me. And I was shorter and closer than they were, so my angle was different, and the image wasn't aligned perfectly for me.
"Good enough," the cop said. He holstered his weapon, as well, and the two of them turned away. The big floater, the visible one, kept a lens trained on us to make sure we didn't try anything, and followed the two humans as they headed back the way they had come.
For a second or two Singh and I watched them go; then Singh said, "Come on," and started walking again. He shifted my father around into a more comfortable position; it really looked as if my old man didn't weigh more than a dozen kilos.
"Just a moment," I said. "Let me check the safety." I looked down at the HG-2, and at the image of the ceiling reflected on the inert diagnostics screen.
The stealthed floater was still there. I activated the gun's targeting system, hoping it could find the floater and lock onto it. Then I hurried after the maintenance worker.
I had to be careful what I said, since I knew we were being watched. I couldn't even safely tell Singh we were being watched.
"Thanks," I said.
"Hey, if you can really..."
I interrupted him. "You aren't happy here?" I said.
He glanced back at me, puzzled. Then he looked thoughtfully along Row 6.
He might not see the floater, but he knew we could be heard. The surveillance system might be stupid, but it was probably bright enough to record everything, and sooner or later it would send those recordings to someone or something that wasn't stupid.
It probably had enough recorded already to get us both sent for reconstruction if anyone decided to push. There was no point in pretending we were complete innocents.
But we didn't want to say anything that would get us moved to the top of the priority list, either.
"No, I'm not happy," he said. He waved at the dreamtanks around us. "Look around. You know what people call us, all of us who work here?"
I knew. "Corpsefuckers," I said.
"That's right," he said angrily. "You look at this son of a bitch I'm carrying. Never mind that he's not dead, you think anyone would want to screw that?"
I didn't want to look at him. I wanted to remember my father as a human being, not a dessicated ruin. "I don't think anyone means it literally," I said. "It's just... it seems creepy, working with all these comatose dreamers."
"It is creepy," Singh agreed. "Not to mention boring -- no one's buying dreams anymore, not when the city's about to fry, and I'm nothing but a back-up system, watching the machines tend a bunch of lusers nobody cares about. You know something, Mis' One-With-the-Gun? I've had enough of it. If you can get me somewhere I can find a better job, I'll do whatever you want with this Guohan Hsing. Do you know where you're taking him?"
"I'm headed for American City on Prometheus," I said. "Or maybe Alderstadt."
"Either one sounds good to me."
"What..." The voice was a dry whisper, but we both heard it. "Who are you people?" my father asked.
"My name's Minish Singh," the paunchy guy said, without stopping. I hoped he knew where he was going. "Until maybe five minutes ago I was the second shift maintenance crew for Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery."
"What are you doing with me? This is real, isn't it?"
"As real as it gets," Singh replied.
"Why? I paid for a lifetime contract!"
"Ask her," Singh said, nodding over his shoulder toward me.
Dad struggled to turn his head to look at me, but the neck muscles weren't strong enough. Singh shifted his hold to help, and my father stared at me.
"You look familiar," he said at last.
"Good to know," I answered.
"You look... how long has it been?"
"Long enough," I said.
"You're Carlie, aren't you? Or... Ali? Or a granddaughter?"
"Right the first time," I told him.
"Carlie?" There was a sort of wonder in his voice -- and apprehension. "Are you going to kill me?"
"Why the hell would I do that?" I snapped. "Seems to me you already did it for me!"
"You... you might want revenge for dumping you," he said. "I thought... I've..." He began coughing again, and Singh thumped him on the back as if he was burping a baby.
Then we were at a door, and Singh pressed his thumb on the screen and the door slid open, and we were in a service corridor, black plastic all around. I glanced up where I thought the stealthed floater probably was, but I couldn't spot it.
I'd want to do something about that.
I tapped my wrist to call for a cab, then told Dad, "If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead. If I wanted you to suffer, you'd be suffering. You think no one can tamper with the software here? Anything can be hacked, you know that."
"We need to find street access," Singh said. "The cabs can't get in here."
"Scroll us out," I told him.
"Where are you taking me?" my father asked, as Singh turned left and trotted down the corridor.
"Prometheus," I said, hurrying to keep up. "Where you can go right back into a dreamtank. I don't trust Seventh Heaven to keep things running after the city's fried."
"Is your mother there?"
"What? Of course not. She's been out-system for years."
I wasn't any too sure of that myself. "Because someone offered to get you off-planet, and it seemed like a good play at the time," I said.
"But we dumped you."
"I know that, you bastard," I said. I could feel my eyes welling up. "But you never asked if we intended to dump you."