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
We came out in a maintenance shaft -- it wasn't street level, but it was open to the sky and a cab could get in. I beeped for one. Then I turned on the HG-2 and checked the read-outs to see if it had a fix on the invisible floater.
It did. I lifted the gun, pointed it in the right general direction, and fired.
The recoil knocked me back against the shaft wall, so I didn't get a good view of the explosion, but what I saw was pretty damned satisfying. Scraps of hot metal and melted plastic rattled off the walls and floor, and sparking bits of electronics spattered in all directions.
"What the hell...?" Singh said, turning around fast. He dropped my father on the way.
"Spy-eye," I said. "The Ginza cops set it on us."
"And you killed it?"
"Yes," I said. I didn't say anything more than that aloud, but I was thinking that I really hoped it hadn't been sentient. I had quite enough to explain to my ancestors when the time came without adding another murder.
"That blast is going to get the city cops after us!"
"Pfui," I said. "When was the last time you saw city cops do anything down here?"
"You've sure as hell pissed off the Ginza!"
I shrugged. "I've been on their gritlist for years."
A weird hissing noise interrupted us, and we both turned to see where it was coming from.
My father was lying sprawled on the floor of the shaft, laughing at us.
"My Carlie," he said. "Look at you!"
"I look a hell of a lot better than you do," I retorted.
"You... you're living like one of my dreams," he said. "How did that happen?"
"My parents did the dump on me when I was fifteen," I said, and I knew I sounded bitter and I didn't care. "I learned to do whatever I had to do to survive."
"You're.. what, an assassin?"
"A private detective," I said.
"And you're taking me to Prometheus?"
"Shut up," I replied; something was moving overhead, and I wanted to be sure it was our cab, and not a Ginza enforcer.
Then it was sinking down the shaft with the headlights blazing, a cloud of stardust forming the Midnight Cab & Limo logo on its taxi-yellow belly. "Our ride's here," I said.
"So are those," Singh said, pointing.
I looked where his finger indicated, and spotted two glossy black floaters -- not stealthed, but not lit, either. They were big ones, probably weighed more inert than I did, and were heading directly toward us. I didn't see a logo -- not the Ginza's, not the city cops' insignia, nothing but gleaming black. They didn't look like newsies; there were no visible lenses or antennas.
I looked at my gun and thought about it, but there were two of them, and they might be armed. I could probably take out one before they could react, but not both, and I didn't know what the survivor would be capable of.
They weren't shooting at us, and they weren't shouting, so I decided we could ignore them for the moment.
Well, partially ignore them, anyway. They did force me to change my plans. I had originally hoped to call 'Chan, get him to the casino door, then grab him, maybe drug him, and haul him along to the ship. That would have gotten everyone together, one happy family, and we could have just taken off for American City before the cops could stop us.
With those floaters there watching us, that probably wasn't going to work.
"Someone called for a cab?" the Midnight cab called, its door sliding open as it hung a few centimeters off the deck..
"Get him in," I told Singh, pointing at my father. While he loaded Dad into the cab I watched the black floaters, but they had slowed to a stop. They were hovering silently at the top of the shaft, noses toward us.
"You coming?" Singh called. He and Dad were sitting in the cab, the door open.
I holstered the HG-2 and climbed in after them. The door was closing behind me when a Ginza floater, exactly like the one that had accompanied the cops -- in fact, it probably was the one that had accompanied the cops -- came dropping down toward us.
"Transparency," I told the cab. "I want to see this."
The roof seemed to vanish, and there was the Ginza floater, swooping down toward us -- and then the black floaters were moving again, as well.
But they weren't moving toward the cab; they were diving in to cut off the Ginza's floater.
"Get us out of here," I said.
"I don't want any trouble with the casino," the cab protested.
"Neither do we," I said, "but it looks as if someone else does." The black floaters had blocked the cop's approach.
I couldn't see the Ginza floater anymore, since the black floaters were easily twice its size and there were two of them between us, but the cab had its external audio on, so I could hear it. "Hu Xiao!" the Ginza floater called. "You are charged with the destruction of casino property!"
"I don't want any trouble with the casino," the cab repeated.
"And I told you, we don't either," I said. "None of us is this Hu Xiao person. See for yourself." I slid my card in the slot.
"Thank you, Mis' Hsing," it said. "And these others?"
Singh threw me a glance, then fished out his own card and tabbed it in.
"Thank you. And the last of you?"
"That's my father, Guohan Hsing," I said. "He doesn't have his card with him, but if you're set up for a DNA check you can verify it."
"I'm Guohan Hsing," Dad agreed. "You can check my voiceprint if you can't do a genetic scan."
I wasn't any too sure his scratchy whisper would match any old voiceprints the cab might have access to, but apparently the cab was convinced somehow; it began rising.
"I notice the elder Mis' Hsing is naked and does not appear entirely well," it said, as it cleared the lip of the shaft. "Is medical attention desired?"
I was watching the floaters and almost didn't hear it; the Ginza floater was still trying to get at us, and the black floaters were blocking it, forcing it back. "Who are those things?" I asked.
Then the cab's question registered, and I quickly added, "Thank you, but no medical attention is needed. Just get us to the port asap."
"The blue floater is a security unit owned by the Ginza Casino Hotel," the cab said, answering my question. "The other two are refusing all requests for identification, but the specifications match descriptions of high-level units owned by the New York Townhouse Hotel and Gambling Hall."
"Carlisle Hsing!" the Ginza floater called. "You are charged with destruction of casino property and giving a false name to security personnel!"
They'd ID'ed me. I was a bit surprised it had taken that long, but I wasn't really thinking about that. I was thinking about the black floaters. They belonged to the New York?
That meant they belonged to the Nakadas. Had Grandfather Nakada sent them to protect me? It didn't seem likely; it didn't seem like his style, and besides, everyone on Epimetheus thought he was dead. He couldn't just give orders and expect them to be carried out without any explanation of his reported demise.
But who else could have sent them?
I didn't understand what was happening, and I didn't like that. I wasn't going to take any more big risks until I had a better idea what was running.
"The port," I told the cab. "Hurry!"
"But the Ginza..."
"We aren't in their jurisdiction," I said. "Go!"
It was; we soared up out of the shaft, and up Sixth Street, then diagonally over the rooftops toward the port.
"Oh, gods!" my father said.
I turned, thinking something was wrong, thinking maybe his heart was giving out without the steady stream of meds and fluids he'd had in the tank, but no, if anything he was looking better than ever. He was sitting up and staring out at the city.
Specifically, he was staring at the western wall of the crater, where the morning sun was gradually creeping downward from the rim, and at the higher towers, where sunlight was gleaming from their top few floors..
"It's the dawn," he said. "It is, isn't it?"
"Not yet," Singh told him.
"Soon, though," I said. "That's why I'm getting you out. I expect Seventh Heaven to declare bankruptcy the minute that light hits the streets of Trap Over. Maybe they won't just leave all the dreamers to rot in their tanks, but I didn't want to take the risk."
"How long was I in there?" Dad asked.
I glared at him. "I was sixteen, almost seventeen, when you went in," I said. "Look at me now."
"It's horrible," he said. "So bright!"
I almost laughed. I'd spent a year on Prometheus. I'd even been stranded on the Epimethean dayside once. To me, Nightside City was still an island of comforting darkness, even if the sky was no longer black. "What, none of your dreams were out in the sun?" I asked.
"Some of them were, yes, but those weren't real. I always knew that. And they weren't in Nightside City, in my home."
"Your home is about to get hit with hard ultraviolet," I said. "The temperature's already climbed at least ten degrees, and it hasn't rained since you bought your dream. You knew that was coming."
"I... I knew it, but I didn't believe it."
I snorted. "So you ran and hid in a dreamworld where you wouldn't have to see it," I said. "You know, when I pulled you out, I wasn't sure whether you would wake up or not, but I'm glad you did, so you could see this."
"I don't like it," he said. "I want to go back."
"Too late for that," Singh muttered.
"No, it isn't," I said. "I could drop the two of you, you could tell the authorities I had you at gunpoint the whole time and you never wanted to cooperate, and you could take Mis' Hsing here back to his happy fantasy life in the tank."
Singh looked at me. "And what do you do?"
"I get back to the port and head for Prometheus, and hope my rich friends there can buy my way out of this mess."
"And what about those?" He pointed.
I followed his finger to where the two big black floaters were following us at a frighteningly small distance, maybe ten meters behind our cab. "Oh," I said.
There was no sign of the Ginza cop floater, though. That was something. I wondered whether the black ones had disabled it somehow, or whether it had realized it was outmatched and backed down, or whether it had been called back by the casino management.
Any of those was possible.
And who sent the black floaters? Were they helping me, or just keeping me for themselves?
I didn't think Yoshio had sent them. If he had, wouldn't they have told me? But if he hadn't, who had? Was someone tracking me?
Or was someone keeping an eye on the Seventh Heaven dreamtanks?
Nakada floaters, according to the cab. And it was presumably a Nakada who had used the back door into Seventh Heaven's data. If someone was keeping an eye on them, it was a Nakada, or at any rate someone with access to the clan's inner workings..
And someone with access to the clan's inner workings had tried to kill Grandfather Nakada. Someone had made copies of the old man's ITEOD.files, including back-ups of a dozen high-ranking Nakadas.
It might all be coincidence. It might be unrelated intrigues or corporate espionage. I didn't think that was the way to bet it. It looked to me as if it was all part of the same conspiracy, and the only coincidence -- if it was a coincidence, and not somehow connected -- was that the dream company involved happened to be the one that had my father tucked away in their tanks.
Dreams -- someone was monitoring the top dream company on Epimetheus, and someone had tried to kill Yoshio Nakada by tampering with his dream enhancer. Another link.
But it wasn't about me or my father at all, then, and I could still try to grab my brother.
"Wait a minute," I told the cab. "Can you get back to the Ginza without attracting any unwanted attention?"
"What?" Singh said. "I thought we were heading for this ship of yours, to get the hell off Epimetheus!"
"There's another passenger," I said. "Someone else I want to bring."
"Where are you planning to put her?" Singh demanded. "This thing's full!"
It didn't look that full to me; yes, there were three of us on the main seat, but there was a luggage compartment in the rear, and I suspected a second seat could be folded up. "Cab, how many passengers are you licensed for?"
"Then can you get back to the Ginza?"
"I don't know, mis'," it said. "Those two floaters are following me, and I'm on the navigation grid; if anyone wants to find us, they can."
"I thought you were in a hurry!" Singh protested.
"My brother's in the Ginza," I said.
"Sebastian?" Dad croaked. He was slumped against the side of the passenger compartment, staring out through the transparent bubble at the glittering ads that filled the streets of Trap Over.
"Yes, Sebastian," I told him. "He's a croupier."
Dad lifted his head from the plastic. "I'd like to see him," he said.
Just then Singh's com buzzed. He tapped it for speaker.
"Singh," it said, in a woman's voice, "what the hell is going on?"
"Damned if I know," Singh said.
"That woman you're with has been identified as a private investigator named Carlisle Hsing, except Hsing is supposed to be off-planet, on Prometheus. Do you have any idea who she really is?"
"She gave her name as Hu Xiao," Singh said, throwing me a questioning look.
"She's not Hu Xiao -- at least, not the court officer Hu Xiao."
"Then I don't know any more than you do."
"She's listening to this, isn't she?"
For a moment no one spoke; then the cab asked, "Am I supposed to be going to the port or the Ginza?"
"The Ginza," I told it. Then I told Singh's com, "I'm Carlisle Hsing. My brother Sebastian can identify me."
"Mis' Hsing, what do you think you're doing? According to the records you've occasionally cut a few corners, but you've basically stayed clean, until now you've shot a floater and kidnaped an attendant and someone from a dreamtank, not to mention trespassing, avoiding arrest, impersonating an officer -- what is this?"
"It's a misunderstanding."
"It's one hell of a misunderstanding."
"Let me talk to my brother, face to face, and I'll explain. We're on our way back to straighten this out."
She didn't answer right away. Then she said, "I'll need to check with the floor manager."
"You do that," I said. "Oh, but one question first."
"That floater I shot, the stealthed one -- what kind was it?"
"What do you mean, what kind?"
"Was it sentient?"
"Not really. Semi-autonomous."
"Thank you." I leaned back on the seat, and only when I did that did I realize I'd been hunched forward. Now I could relax a little. "You go ask whoever you need to ask."
I had assumed it was just a dumb tracker when I first shot it, but then I'd had second thoughts. It was good to know I had been right the first time. Legally it probably didn't make any difference, but it mattered to me whether I'd killed something self-aware.
For the most part I was making this up as I went, as I usually did, but I decided it was time to do a little advance planning, for once. I ran my fingers over my wrist and sent a little message to the Ukiba -- four words, "add a hot lunch." I was fairly certain Yoshio-kun would punctuate that properly, even if Perkins didn't -- add "a" to "hot lunch," and have a hot launch ready to go when we got back to the ship.
"Privacy," I told the cab, once the message showed as sent and received.
The view of the surrounding city vanished instantly as the cab went opaque, and my symbiote flashed an alarm that all external input and net access had been cut off.
"Thanks," I said. "Tab yourself a fat tip for this -- double the fare, if you want." I might as well enjoy my expense account while I could.
"Thank you, mis'," it replied. "It's very exciting!"
"I thought you didn't want any trouble," I said, amused.
"It seems as if I have it whether I want it or not, so I might as well enjoy it."
I grimaced. I wished that attitude was more common.
Then I turned my attention to Singh and my father. "Listen," I said, "they think I kidnaped you two, but I really am going to kidnap my brother 'Chan. He's got an implant that'll shut down his legs if he leaves the Ginza, so we'll need to carry him. Once he's off-planet we can get the implant out, but first we need to get him onto the ship. Dad, I know you're in no shape to do anything, but Singh, can you help me with this?"
Singh cocked his head. "How big is your brother?" he asked.
"Bigger then me," I said. "Bigger than my father. But not really big."
"What's in it for me?"
"Besides a ride to Prometheus?"
"Yes, besides that."
I glared at him, then shrugged. "A kilocredit."
We shook hands, and then loaded my father into the luggage compartment, where he would be safely out of the way.
"Everything hurts," he complained. "I feel every little bump, and my legs and hands are all stiff."
"That's how you know you're alive," I said.
"They didn't hurt in the dream."
"It wouldn't be much of a dream if they did," Singh said, as he straightened Dad's limbs to make him more comfortable.
"We're approaching the Ginza," the cab said.
"Let me see," I said, and as the bubble turned transparent and the city reappeared around us, I pulled my gun from its holster and tapped the power switch to on.