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. This is as far as it goes.
Realms of Light
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
I called ahead, of course, to let Grandfather Nakada know we were coming. I didn't tell him exactly who "we" were, though -- I don't care what encryption Ukiba used, I didn't think interplanetary communications could ever be secure. I didn't mention his daughter, or Seventh Heaven, or his own alleged death; I just said I was returning with passengers and needed to talk to him in person at his earliest convenience.
I got an acknowledgment that was even more noncommital than my own message, saying that my situation would be discussed once we were on the ground.
I sent a follow-up, saying that some of our business was urgent. I didn't say what; I let him assume it was something to do with the murder attempt.
Really, though, it was Dad and 'Chan. Dad was starting to lose it, being out of his tank and no longer having his health monitored; the ship's medical banks could probably have handled him just fine if he'd allowed it, but he didn't trust me, or the ship, or anyone else, and said he would wait until we'd found him a new dreamtank. He insisted that the shaking hands and coughing fits and occasional spasms, and his inability to keep food down, were nothing to worry about.
And 'Chan was paralyzed from the waist down, which was more serious than I had initially thought. It wasn't just that he couldn't walk; there were other things he couldn't do, either. He was more cooperative than our father, so the ship was able to catheterize him, but still, I knew we needed to get that implant out as quickly as possible.
I debated sending a message that we wanted a doctor standing by, but decided against it. Grandfather Nakada was two hundred and forty years old; it was a safe bet he always had doctors nearby, ready to work.
At least Singh was no problem. Now that we were actually on the way to Prometheus he seemed subdued and nervous, as if he was having second thoughts about his impulsive decision to get off Epimetheus. He'd left his belongings behind, and his friends, if he had any -- he'd told me he didn't have any family, but not everyone we care about is related to us. I figured we'd be able to turn him loose with minimal fuss, maybe give him a few kilocredits to get started on his new life, and he'd be smooth, despite these belated doubts.
Yoshio-kun was another matter. I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know whether his existence was legal on Prometheus -- I knew making a recording was illegal, but bringing in an already-existing one was another matter. The old man had done it, but that didn't mean it was actually legal, and I wasn't him, and it might make a difference that the Yoshio-sempai was still alive. I could have asked the ship, but I didn't actually care whether he was legal, only about whether I would need to hide his existence, and hiding him from his original was likely to be far more important than hiding him from the law. The old man might not want a copy of himself around, and not everyone thinks there's anything wrong in erasing artificial intelligences.
And it was the original Yoshio's ship. I was fairly sure the ship already knew Yoshio-kun existed, and Perkins definitely knew, but I didn't see any need to remind anyone by asking about the laws.
Of course, Yoshio-kun probably knew better than anyone else what Yoshio-sempai was likely to do, so I could have just asked him, but I was busy with Dad and 'Chan and I didn't get around to it.
Perkins put the ship down on the private Nakada field, where I was not happy to see daylight, and plenty of it; we were back in the realms of light. By the time I got through the airlock a dozen floaters were waiting for me, glittering in that horrible sunshine. "I have two people here who need medical attention," I told the nearest one the moment I emerged; I was shading my eyes with my hand and blinking, but I could see that it was a blue and silver floater that looked like the one I'd talked with in the Shakai building. It might have just been the same model, though.
"Yes, Mis' Hsing," it said. "They will be seen to immediately."
Floaters aren't exactly known for accurately simulating emotions such as surprise, but I still thought this one seemed to be prepared for my request. The ship had probably been in communication with the planetary networks before we landed.
"I expect you to be discreet," I said.
"We have strict instructions that everything about you and your activities is to be treated as confidential," it assured me.
"You have an appointment with Yoshio Nakada in forty minutes. He trusts you will be prompt."
I stopped blinking and stared at the floater, my eyes starting to water. "Forty minutes?"
I had half expected him to be waiting on the landing field, but apparently he was in less of a hurry than I had thought. That meant I could oversee loading Dad and 'Chan into medical transports, and assure Dad that he would be going into a dreamtank as soon as we were sure he was healthy. Which wasn't necessarily true, since that hadn't been included in the agreement I made with the old man, but it kept everyone calm.
Singh was in the airlock when the medics left, staring out at the daylight. I realized he had probably never seen daylight first-hand before. We watched them go, and then Singh asked, "What about me?"
"Mis' Nakada would appreciate it if you would remain aboard the ship for the present," the blue-and-silver floater said.
"Am I being held?"
"Technically, you are trespassing, so the Nakadas would be within their rights to hold you. Mis' Nakada would prefer to keep this friendly, however."
"Friendly sounds good to me." Singh turned and headed back into the ship, probably looking for a snack, or hoping to talk Perkins into a game of something. I suspected he would just as soon wait until dark before venturing out into the thick, cool air of Prometheus.
And then it was time for me to head out to my appointment. Three floaters escorted me across the field and through a few corridors to a pleasant little office where daytime cloudscapes drifted across the walls, but there were no actual windows.
The floaters waited at the door, and once I was inside the door snapped shut, locking them out and me in. I guessed the office was a secured area, and the floaters didn't have clearance to enter.
In fact, I was sure the office was a secured area; the old man would scarcely have talked to me anywhere else. At least we weren't meeting in a dressing room somewhere.
Yoshio Nakada was waiting for me, sitting comfortably in a big black chair that made him look small and old and harmless -- probably deliberately. A small desktop floated by his right hand.
Nobody looks small to me, though, and I knew he wasn't harmless. I stepped in and stood there, waiting for him to speak first.
"Mis' Hsing," he said. "I see you have successfully collected your retainer."
"I have," I agreed. "Thank you. I trust their medical needs are being seen to, and my father will be installed in a dreamtank here?"
"They are. You don't mind if Guohan Hsing is once again removed from your life?"
I shrugged. "That's what he wants. I respect my ancestor's wishes."
He nodded. "I expected nothing less. When you required his safety as part of your fee I assumed either familial duty or familial affection was basic to your character, and I thought duty more likely."
I didn't reply, and he continued, "You have left me a mess to clean up, though -- contracts broken, property stolen or destroyed, serious criminal charges."
"I know. I assume you can manage it."
"Of course I can. I would have preferred a tidier retrieval, though."
"I thought you were in a hurry."
"I am. Are you ready to begin your investigation, then?"
Since he knew something of what had happened on Epimetheus I had assumed he had kept himself informed about all of it, but maybe I'd misjudged, or maybe someone had been interfering, and he really didn't know all of what I'd done in Nightside City. "I already began it," I said.
That did not seem to surprise him any more than my agreeing to put my father back in a tank had. "Are you prepared to report any results?"
"I am prepared to discuss the situation, Mis' Nakada. I have questions I need answered."
"I will try to answer them, then." He gestured toward a chair, which floated up behind me. I settled into it.
"Did you know that everyone on Epimetheus thinks you're dead?" I asked.
He frowned. "You're sure?"
"Oh, very sure."
"I had hoped that the reports had been hacked."
I shook my head. "Not about that," I said. "Your death is all over the nets. Died in your sleep, cause undetermined. The newsies wanted to know what the hell I was doing with a dead man's ship."
"That must have been inconvenient."
"Do you know the origin of the false report of my death?"
"Here," I said, pointing at the floor. "Somewhere in American City, and someone with access to your private nets."
"You think it's related to the attempt on my life."
It wasn't a question, but I said, "Probably, yes. Are you negotiating the purchase of Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery?"
He tilted his head to one side. "I am not," he said.
"Someone here is. The buyer's human agent is Chantilly Rhee."
That appeared to surprise him -- his eyes widened slightly. "I know Mis' Rhee," he said.
"So I assumed."
"I will not insult you by asking whether you are sure, but are you certain she is aware of her involvement?"
"No," I acknowledged. "Identity theft is a possibility."
"Is this planned purchase related to the sabotage of my dream enhancer?"
"I don't know yet. It may be."
"The negotiations are taking place on Epimetheus?"
"I think so."
"Mis' Rhee has not left Prometheus since the attempt on my life. I have kept very careful track of everyone in the family compound."
"That assumes your surveillance software hasn't been compromised."
"I never said she was the buyer, though; she's listed as the agent, not the principal."
"You think my daughter is the principal?"
I noticed he took it for granted I knew who Chantilly Rhee worked for. "I don't know," I said. "Until this meeting, I wasn't sure you weren't the principal."
"While I am familiar with Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery, I decided some time ago that it was not a sound investment."
"I know," I said. "Poor long-term prospects. But you might have reconsidered."
"Someone here thinks it's worth buying, though."
"Or worth appearing to want, at any rate."
"You seem to have learned some interesting things on Epimetheus, but I fail to see a connection to what I hired you to investigate."
"I don't know the link," I said. "Maybe there isn't one, but maybe there is. There's definitely a connection between Seventh Heaven and the false report of your death."
"Yes. And that report scrolling past right after the attempt on your life would be one hell of a coincidence." I think he expected me to explain how the Seventh Heaven deal was related, but I didn't feel like explaining the business with the ITEOD files.
"You said the false report came from Prometheus."
"But the negotiations with Seventh Heaven are being conducted on Epimetheus?"
"Oh, there's definitely been activity on both planets."
"Then if these events are connected, I am dealing with a conspiracy, and not a lone assassin."
"Well, it's not a single individual, acting entirely alone," I agreed. "But your assassin might just have hired help. Or bought it."
"Ah. Software might be conducting the negotiations with Seventh Heaven."
"And software might have made the phony death report."
"Do you have any idea why anyone would want to buy Seventh Heaven?"
He shook his head. "Their prospects are not good. The resident population of Nightside City is less than half what it was before the first light topped the crater wall, and those who remain are more likely to invest in a ticket off-planet than in a dream company's services. Seventh Heaven's present business model has no future, and I am unaware of any plans to refocus their resources."
"Oh, I know no one's stupid enough to want them as they are now," I said. "I was thinking about whether they have anything that could be valuable in some completely different way. Their dream library, maybe?"
"Their library is unremarkable," the old man said.
"What else do they have?"
"You believe this is relevant?"
"It might be. I don't know. If I can show that it isn't, that's one less dead link to explore."
He considered for a moment, then said, "Their assets consist of the tanks, which have no obvious use other than their present one; the trust fund that is intended to fund maintenance until their last client dies; the dream library; a diminished sales staff; long-term leases on property in Trap Under; and their client contracts. The sales staff and library are completely unremarkable."
"That trust fund -- is that worth chasing?"
"Not unless they intend to murder all their clients."
I felt a chill at that, and Grandfather Nakada must have read it on my face. "That isn't a viable option," he said. "While it's true that their client base has little connection to the outside world, all deaths are reported to the city authorities -- by the tanks, not by the personnel -- and any suspicious increase in mortality would be noticed."
"You're assuming they don't hack the tanks to prevent the death reports."
"Mis' Hsing, if the deaths aren't reported, the trust fund won't be released."
"Could they bribe the city authorities to ignore suspicions?"
"Of course they could, but corruption always carries some risk, and the amount in the trust fund would not justify that risk -- it would barely cover the bribes. What's more, some of the clients left family behind who would not be so easily silenced."
I had to admit that it didn't sound like a good reason to buy the company. I wondered where those black floaters that had helped me get my father out fit in; did the buyers want the clients to be removed? Would that free up the trust fund?
But they couldn't count on clients to have crazy relatives. That wasn't it.
From Yoshio's list, that left the leases and the contracts.
"Is space in Trap Under at a premium, maybe?" I asked. "Do people think it'll be protected from the sun?"
"It will be protected from the sun," the old man answered, "but no, it isn't particularly valuable. There's more than enough space available, and new tunnels can be bored cheaply enough. The city's economy is based on a liveable external environment; if it has to move underground it won't be any different than any of the mining towns further out on the night side, except that there's nothing worth mining. The tourist trade will disappear, and most of the miners will make do with their own casinos and entertainments."
That left the contracts.
The old man came to the same conclusion, and before I could ask a question he said, "The client contracts are more of a liability than an asset. The money has already been paid in, and what's left is the obligation to care for and entertain the clients."
I knew he was right, but I thought there was something there we were missing. Those black floaters -- had they deliberately been helping me get Dad out of there? They didn't belong to Seventh Heaven or the Ginza; they belonged to the New York, which meant the Nakadas, which probably meant whoever was backing Corporate Initiatives. The buyers had helped me kidnap one of the clients -- what did that mean?
Did they want Dad out of his tank? If so, why? What did a Nakada want with him?
Whatever it was, I had brought him straight to the Nakada family's private compound.
"Where's my father?" I asked.
"Medical services, I assume."
"Could you check?"
If I had to describe Nakada's expression I would call it "bemused." He didn't say anything; he turned to his desktop and pressed a thumb on a reader.
The seascape that had filled the display vanished, and menus appeared. He gestured, then read the results.
"He's in medical services, undergoing an examination."
"Who has access to the exam results?"
The old man's expression changed, so slightly I wasn't entirely sure at first I hadn't imagined it. "That's a very interesting question," he replied. He reached up to the back of his neck, and I realized for the first time that he was jacked in, and the desktop was for my benefit, not his. He'd found my question interesting enough to drop the grit.
I wouldn't have thought he'd want to ride wire after what happened to his dream enhancer, but apparently he wasn't deterred as easily as I was. I assume he had massive security on that line, the sort of watchdogs I had only ever seen from the outside.
"You're right, Mis' Hsing," he said, though I hadn't said anything to be right about. "Someone's hacked into medical and taken a very sharp interest in your father's condition."
"Can you tell who?"
"I can limit the possibilities," he said. "There are about a dozen."
"Is Chantilly Rhee one of them?"
"Yes. So is Kumiko."
"I'd guess some of the others are dead."
His eyes had drifted off, upward and to the right, since I asked who had access, but now they snapped back and focused directly on mine. "Oh?"
"I know there are at least eight uploads of dead Nakadas running in this compound, and I'd be surprised if none of them could get in there if they wanted to."
"I am impressed, Mis' Hsing. I am quite sure I did not mention my uploaded siblings and descendants to you."
"I told you I'd started my investigation."
"I will want to know more about this eventually, but for now, let us keep our attention on more urgent matters. You tell me that my daughter's aide is involved in a scheme to purchase Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery, a company that is, by any rational standard, almost worthless. You seem convinced this is linked to the attempt on my life. And I believe we have both concluded that what the buyers are actually after is not any of the company's normal assets, but the people inside the dreamtanks."
"I think they helped me get my father out of there," I said. I didn't bother telling him any details about the black floaters; they weren't relevant.
"You think they wanted him to serve as a test sample, so they could assess the condition of their intended acquisitions. Helping you kidnap him was far less likely to draw unwelcome attention than extracting one of the dreamers themselves."
"It's an interesting theory, Mis' Hsing, but it's based on very little evidence and a great deal of supposition. Further, there is one very basic question to which I do not see an obvious answer: What do they want with the dreamers?"
When I walked into the office I couldn't have answered that question, but by this time I had figured it out.
"Bodies," I said. "They want living bodies."