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 hadn't specified which entrance to use, so the cab had brought us down at the big front door on Cassiopeia Avenue, and our arrival was the central act of a circus.
Ginza cops were everywhere, three or four different varieties of them, and a few characters who had the look of cops but who I didn't think were from the Ginza. People in fancy suits were there, as well, and I don't think they were all on the same side. Dozens of floaters were swooping around, or hovering -- newsies and security and spy-eyes, and advertisers that saw a crowd forming and didn't care why. Tourists were watching; they probably had no idea what was going on, but thought it looked exciting.
Add that to the usual glittering chaos of a casino's entrance, the stardust and holos and lightscapes.
But I didn't see 'Chan.
"Hey," I said into Singh's com. "Where's my brother?"
"On his way."
The cab asked, "Will you be disembarking?"
"We're staying right where we are," I told it. "Go ahead and charge waiting rates if you want."
"Thank you, Mis'."
"You're either crazy, desperate, rich, or on an expense account," Singh remarked. "I'm guessing it's an expense account. You're working for someone."
"Could be more than one of those," I said.
"It could. You said something about rich friends; I'm betting it's more like a rich client."
I glanced at him. "You know, you should be careful about what you bet on. You might make someone angry."
"You must know you couldn't get out of this with your brain intact if you didn't have some pretty serious backing."
"So maybe I want to be reconstructed. Maybe it's my way of avoiding reality, since I can't afford to buy the dream the way my old man did."
Singh shook his head. "You aren't that crazy."
The cab was now completely surrounded by Ginza cops and security floaters. "Are you sure?" I asked.
He considered that for a moment, then said, "Yeah, I think I am."
"Good. Cab, privacy, please?"
"You do know that the city police can override my privacy field?"
"I didn't, but I'll risk it. Do it."
"Yes, mis'." The bubble went black, plunging us into gloom lit only by the cab's various internal displays.
I turned back to Singh. "Here's what I want you to do for your three kilocredits. I'm going to talk to my brother, and I'm going to tell him I have someone here in the cab he needs to see. He'll come over to look and he'll see our dad here -- and when he does, you grab him and pull him into the cab."
"I can do that."
"And cabbie, the instant our new passenger is aboard, I want you to close up and head for the port as fast as you can. Don't wait for further instructions. Got it?"
"Good. Then drop the privacy."
"Yes, mis'." The bubble was transparent again, and I looked out at a dozen guns pointed at us -- and at 'Chan, who was walking slowly across the entry plaza toward us with a woman in a navy blue suit walking beside him and talking, while read-outs flickered across her chest and sleeve. 'Chan was leaning toward her slightly, obviously listening to whatever she was saying.
"Open the door," I said.
The cab's door slid aside, and I perched myself in the opening with the HG-2 in my hand. "'Chan!" I called.
"Mis' Hsing," the woman beside him called. "Come out and talk."
"Talk first," I said. "Then maybe I'll come out." As I spoke I was trying to take in as much of my surroundings as possible, and in particular what sort of weaponry the casino cops were displaying. It looked like about half lethal, half merely incapacitating, which meant that they'd be willing to take me down at the first opportunity. Killing me would mean kiloscreens of reports and documentation and trouble with superiors who might want to know what the hell I'd thought I was doing, but tranking me, or otherwise shutting me down somehow, would be good for a few karma points, so long as I didn't manage to do any damage going down.
Which was why I had the gun turned on and ready. If they shot me I intended to get off a shot or two of my own before I went blank.
"Carlie, what the hell are you doing?" 'Chan asked. He sounded both concerned and annoyed.
"Did they tell you who I kidnaped?" I called.
'Chan glanced at his keeper -- I wasn't sure if she was his boss, or some security admin, or what. "No," he called back.
"I think you should take a look."
The woman in blue whispered something to him; he threw her a startled glance.
"It may not be who they think it is," I said.
"Carlie, this is insane," he answered.
"Come take a look, and then tell me that."
That definitely had his interest; he came and looked. I leaned aside and pointed toward the luggage compartment.
"Is that Dad?" 'Chan asked, leaning in. "They said..."
And that was when Singh grabbed him by the front of his worksuit and heaved him over me into the cab.
"Go!" I shouted, but I didn't really need to; the cab was already moving.
The door closed on 'Chan's foot at first; we must have been forty meters up by the time the cab was able to get it free and Singh managed to pull 'Chan entirely in.
"I'm being ordered to land immediately," the cab told us.
"You tell 'em that if you land, I'll start shooting."
"They want to know whether I consider this a credible threat."
"I have an active gun here; what do you think?"
"I think I am not programmed for threat assessment. I am reporting this conclusion to the city police."
"It's city cops?"
That was bad. I didn't want to mess with city cops. I glanced out through the bubble at the city zipping past. "Is this your maximum velocity?"
"I am exceeding the posted speed limits by the customary twenty-five percent."
"Go to emergency maximum, please."
"I am forbidden to do so without an order from authorized personnel."
"An active gun doesn't constitute authorization?"
"I regret to say it does not."
I looked out and saw no fewer than four cop cars following us -- and those two black floaters. The cops seemed to be ignoring the floaters; I wasn't sure what to make of that.
Getting from the cab into the ship was going to be tricky.
"Privacy," I said.
"The city police have overridden my privacy systems."
Damn. "They're listening?"
"I would assume so."
"Listen, cab," I said. "I like you, and I don't want you to get hurt. Put us down where I point, and as soon as we're out, get the hell out of there. You understand?"
"We're clear on the fare and tip?"
"I believe so, mis'."
I smiled. "If you're coding for even more -- well, how much can you take without getting called for an ethics violation?"
"You might be surprised, mis'."
"I might, at that. Okay, not that much, but I'm feeling generous. You charge what seems fair."
"Thank you, mis'."
We were approaching the port by then. I tried to arrange myself so that my gestures wouldn't be visible to the cops behind us, but I knew the onboard security cams would be feeding to them, and they could calculate from those. "Put us down there," I said, pointing at the steps to Ukiba's airlock.
"Carlie!" 'Chan said. "What the hell are you doing?"
I turned to look at him; he and Singh were thoroughly tangled on the seat beside me. Dad was leaning over the seat-back and grinning at them.
"Getting you out," I said. I would have said "off this planet" if the cops hadn't been listening. "Mis' Singh, can you manage both?"
Singh had straightened himself out. He looked at 'Chan and Dad, considering. He did not look happy.
"Never mind," I said. "Get him." I pointed at 'Chan. "I'll get the other."
"Carlie, you know I'm paralyzed from the hips down, right?"
"I know," I said. "You just cooperate and no one gets hurt."
"Oh, come on, Carlie, I'm your brother! You aren't..." He stopped in mid-sentence, and I don't know whether it was because he realized the cops were listening, or because he suspected I really was that crazy.
Or maybe it's just that he didn't think I was listening, because I was hauling Dad out of the rear compartment. Dad was helping me as much as he could, but that wasn't much.
Grandfather Nakada's doctors were going to have some work to do getting my family back in shape, I thought. Assuming anyone bothered to do anything with Dad other than stick him back in a dreamtank.
The cab was settling down right next to the Ukiba -- I mean, close enough that my feet wouldn't have to touch the plastic pavement at all, I'd step straight from the cab onto the metal steps. I heaved Dad onto my shoulder and got ready to jump, but paused long enough to com Perkins two words -- "Open up."
The cab opened up first, but only by a second or two; by the time I was solidly on the steps and trying to climb with my old man on my shoulder the airlock door was sliding aside.
I was relying on the fact that the cops were human, and had only human reaction times; the pause while they decided whether to shoot or not gave us time to get aboard the ship.
But only barely. Singh was right on my heels, with 'Chan on his shoulder, and the first trank bounced off the steps where his foot had been an instant before while I was still staggering into the airlock.
We made it, though, and the airlock closed up behind us, and the ship began moving the instant the outer door had a good seal.
If we'd been using a commercial vessel that would have been it, the authorities would have shut it down before it got off the ground, but I was pretty sure Yoshio Nakada wasn't the sort of person who would allow that. I'd gambled that the Ukiba did not have any of the standard police or port overrides -- or at least, that they didn't actually override the ship's own systems.
The warning sirens were howling; we could hear them through the hull until we got through the inner door of the lock. I hoped the newsies and cops would all realize we meant it, and that the overrides weren't going to stop us; I didn't want anyone to be hurt by the launch.
I dumped Dad on the vibrating floor as soon as we were in the ship; he might only weigh half what he ought to, but that was still more than I was accustomed to carrying, and the ship's acceleration made any movement more difficult.
Singh lowered 'Chan to the deck, too, and we both sank down as well, and sat there leaning against the wall and panting as the roar of atmosphere past the hull peaked, and then began to fade.
"Mis' Hsing?" Perkins asked over the intercom.
"Right here," I said. "Everyone's aboard and alive."
"We're clear of the crater and heading for space," Perkins said. "I'm ignoring a lot of questions and demands from the ground."
I nodded, not that I thought he could see it. "Good."
"What's our destination?"
"American City," I told him.
"Thank you. May I ask who our passengers are?"
I glanced around. "The one with the working legs is Minish Singh," I said. "He's a passenger -- I promised him a ride off Epimetheus in exchange for his help with the others. The skin and bone near-corpse is my biological father, Guohan Hsing; we want to make sure he's healthy, then get him settled into a dreamery on Prometheus. And the last one's my brother Sebastian, who needs to have an implant removed before we can let him go."
"An implant? So we're being tracked?"
I sighed. "Perkins, we're staying in-system; they don't need an implant to track us."
"Oh. Of course not." There was a click; I didn't know whether he had really broken contact, but he seemed to be done talking.
"I assume you've got a surgeon lined up to take it out," 'Chan said.
"Not yet," I said. "We can take care of it when we get to Prometheus."
"Do you have a dream booked?" Dad asked.
"No." I saw the disapproving look on his face and said, "I'm improvising."
"You should have left me in the tank."
"Yes, I probably should," I agreed, "but I didn't trust Seventh Heaven to keep you alive in there once the Trap is in daylight."
"I hate this, Carlie," he said. "Everything hurts, and sometimes it's boring, and it seems dangerous. Someone could have shot at that cab, or at this ship."
"Run it," I said. "We should have you saved in a new tank in a couple of days."
"You know, you made a real mess back there," 'Chan said. "Kidnaping and extortion and an unauthorized launch and probably a lot I don't know about. You better keep the Nakadas happy; they're going to need to pay off a lot of people to clean that up."
"I intend to satisfy my client," I said.
"So you know who killed Grandfather Nakada?"
I grimaced. "Nobody," I said.
"Then what did they hire you for? If he died of natural causes, what do they need with a detective?"
"He didn't die," I said. I started to explain further, then stopped; it wasn't any of 'Chan's business.
"What, he faked his death? Why would he do that?"
I shook my head. "It's complicated," I said. "You don't need to know. All you need to know is that I got you out of Nightside City."
"With my legs locked up and my accounts probably frozen."
"We'll get that fixed. We'll get the implant out, and we'll get your money to Prometheus. You'll be fine."
"The Ginza is going to be furious if I don't go back."
"Screw the Ginza and IRC. We'll take care of it."
He stared at me. "You're running that smooth with the Nakadas?"
"I hope so." I looked at Singh. "You haven't been saying much."
He shrugged. "I don't have much to say. I wanted a ride off Epimetheus, and I'm getting one; I'm happy."
"A man of simple code," I said. "I like that."
"I may need some help with a breach of contract suit from Seventh Heaven."
"If they bother," I said.
"I said 'may.'"
Singh started to say something else, then took a look at my face and stopped; I guess he realized I wasn't listening any more.
I was thinking.
I was thinking about what Seventh Heaven might do about a stolen customer and poached employee, and that led me to the conclusion that it depended on the personalities involved, which led to me wondering who owned Seventh Heaven, and that led me back to the back door into their systems, the back door that old Yoshio had had installed, but which someone else had recently been using.
Yoshio had the back door installed when he was thinking of acquiring the company. What if whoever had used it had also been thinking about buying up Seventh Heaven? With the dawn maybe a year away, it was probably available cheap.
In fact, maybe the original Yoshio had reconsidered and was taking another look. Yoshio-kun wouldn't know that, and the old man probably wouldn't have bothered mentioning it to me, since so far as he knew it was just another byte of business and had nothing to do with the tampering with his dream enhancer. Grandfather Nakada himself wasn't on Epimetheus, and I didn't think he could have used that back door over interplanetary distances; the delay in response time between Epimetheus and Prometheus was about eighteen minutes at the moment, and you couldn't sustain a connection with a break like that in it. He could have had one of his agents checking it out, though.
But if that was the case, then whoever used the back door hadn't needed the old man's ITEOD files to get access.
So maybe our little corporate explorer and the party who faked the old man's death weren't the same person at all; maybe it was just a coincidence, and the fraud had been after something else in the ITEOD files. Or maybe there was a connection I was missing.
Or maybe Yoshio had nothing to do with the intrusions, and I'd been right the first time. Or this was all part of some complicated corporate espionage that the old man might or might not know about.
I would have to ask him a few questions once we were safely back in American City.
But there were things I could check right here. "Ukiba," I said, "research request -- I want to know the exact ownership of Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery, including any recent changes in ownership, or bids for purchase or control."
"Working," the ship replied. "How would you prefer the data to be presented?"
We were clearing atmosphere by then, or at any rate the noise and vibration had subsided, so I was able to make my way to a terminal and look at what the ship had pulled off the nets -- or maybe it had the information in its own files all along, for all I know; it might be something the old man liked to keep current.
As I suspected from its location, about thirty-four percent of Seventh Heaven was owned by IRC. Another eleven percent was owned by New Bechtel-Rand. The rest was spread across dozens of small investors.
And someone was trying to negotiate a takeover. An investment group calling itself Corporate Initiatives had approached IRC, NBR, and several of the other shareholders with a tender offer -- or rather, looking at the times, someone was approaching them right now.
I pulled up everything available on Corporate Initiatives. There wasn't much. Most of the listed contacts were software, the legal filings were all as vague as possible, the addresses were all just mail drops.
I knew there had to be a human agent listed somewhere, and eventually I found her. Her name was Chantilly Rhee, and at least legally, she was a resident of American City.
That was a surprise; I'd expected the whole thing to be based in Nightside City, or at least somewhere on Epimetheus. I asked for her background.
She was nine going on ten in Promethean years -- twenty-six Epimethean, twenty-seven Terran. That was too young to be the real power here, I was pretty sure. Born in Muriel, a couple of hundred kilometers west of American City -- that didn't tell me anything. Her parents weren't anyone special, a roomscape artist and a tactile therapist. Two younger sisters. Standard online education, got her checkmark when she was just five -- sixteen Terran. Took half a year to travel, then found a job and settled in American City.
But then I saw what that job was, and Mis' Rhee got very interesting.
She was personal assistant to Kumiko Nakada -- Yoshio Nakada's only surviving daughter.
Of course, Chantilly Rhee's involvement didn't mean that Yoshio's daughter was the one behind the assassination attempt; for one thing, if this was all connected and Kumiko was really the villain of the piece, I'd expect her to do a better job of hiding it. This could be coincidence, or misdirection, or one corner of a conspiracy.
Whatever it was, though, at least I finally had a suspect. When I got to American City I intended to have a chat with Grandfather Nakada, and then a little talk with his daughter. I doubted I would be able to get within twenty meters of her ordinarily, but with her father's backing I thought I ought to be able to arrange a conversation.
And one thing I wanted to know was what the hell she wanted with Seventh Heaven. Dream companies weren't exactly a hot item, last I heard; most people preferred real life. A dream company based in Nightside City seemed like an especially bad investment.
I remembered the case that got me off Epimetheus in the first place, when Sayuri Nakada had been conned into buying up worthless real estate by convincing her there was a way to keep the sun from rising and cooking Nightside City. What was it with Nakadas making stupid investments in a doomed city? Was Kumiko being conned, the way Sayuri was?
I knew it wasn't the same people; Sayuri was suckered by a group operating out of the Ipsy, the Institute for Planetological Studies of Epimetheus, and Grandfather Nakada had put a very definite stop to that. Those scammers were gone, sent for reconstruction.
But maybe they had friends. I frowned. Maybe the attempt on Grandfather Nakada had been an act of revenge, or maybe it had been intended to make sure he didn't do to these people what he did to Paulie Orchid, Bobo Rigmus, and Doc Lee. Maybe someone was running a con on Kumiko Nakada.
I wouldn't expect someone her age, in her position, to fall for any such scheme, but maybe they had a better pitch this time than the grit Sayuri bought into.
Or maybe it wasn't Kumiko after all; maybe Chantilly Rhee was the one being conned. She was young enough to be that dumb.
Or maybe she was part of the con, and Kumiko had bought in because she trusted Rhee.
And all that assumed there was a con, and this wasn't something completely different. I didn't actually know what was going on at all. It was even possible that Chantilly Rhee had been a front for Yoshio himself, and not Kumiko. I just didn't know.
But I intended to find out.