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 buzzed into American City around 18:00, to give myself a little time to look around.
Strange place. Lots of pink glass, detached homes, two- or three-level malls. Bigger than Alderstadt, much bigger; bigger than Nightside City ever was, even before the dawn got too close for comfort.
In Nightside City the Tourist Trap, the central business district, was always ablaze with light, the streets awash in advertising, holos and neon and stardust. It was a constant barrage of color and motion. The streets were always full of people and floaters, despite the wind.
The outer parts of the city were darker and quieter, but the Trap never was.
In Alderstadt, the whole city was dark and quiet -- at least at night. People stayed inside, floaters were heavily regulated, and nobody advertised more than two stories above street level. Biggest ad I ever saw there wasn't much more than three meters high, a display out front of an exotics restaurant.
I'd gotten used to the low-key approach; my last few years in Nightside I was out in the burbs, and then I'd been in Alderstadt ever since.
American City was the Trap turned inside out. The streets and shells and burbs were blank and silent, but to get anywhere or do anything you had to use the malls, and inside the malls the electronic circus was at full output. The air buzzed with floaters, stardust bloomed above every doorway, holos beckoned on every side, and the walkways were jammed.
Made me feel homesick.
Not that Nightside City ever went in so heavily for pink. That was American City's favorite color, no doubt about it. And of course there wasn't any wind in the malls.
First Street was malled. I strolled down the right-hand traffic lane watching the displays, admiring the way the floaters picked out the best-dressed people in the crowd for their pitches.
That made it pretty clear why some of the really rich people didn't show it.
The floaters ignored me -- I couldn't afford to dress well, and probably wouldn't have bothered to anyway. I got the lightshows, though, and the directional pitches, and the scent traps. There was one place almost lured me in, a neurochemical joint -- it wasn't that their own pitch was so great, though the odors were just fine, but I was distracted by a beefcake show across the corner and wasn't paying attention to where I was going. They probably had some sort of subliminals going; I was right at the door when I realized I didn't want to go in.
After that I picked up the pace, and got to the Shakai building around 19:30.
I wasn't there for the meeting yet, I just wanted to scout out the place, see if there really was any chance for an ambush. I figured I'd look it over, get some dinner, look around town a little more, and still be at the meet a few minutes early.
I strolled up the black glass corridor between a bughouse and a gene boutique and found the lobby -- big room with blue carpet, pink ceiling, and more of the black glass walls. A line of floaters was hanging along one side, right up by the ceiling.
The minute I set foot in the room one of them beeped me -- a slick blue and silver one, general purpose, very glossy. The rest ignored me, just hung there, but this one zipped over.
"No names," it said, "I know who you are. You're early."
"Damn it, I'm not here at all," I said. "Not yet." I looked over at the line of floaters; they were shifting a little, closing up the gap my buddy had left.
"Don't confuse me," my glittery little friend said.
"Then don't talk to me," I told it. I turned to go.
It fizzed for a second, then called, "Wait!"
I gave it the three-finger curse. "The hell I will," I said, and started walking.
It followed me. I'd half expected that.
My hand wasn't too far from the butt of the HG-2, but I didn't really have any intention of drawing on the little buzzer. You can't outdraw a floater unless it lets you.
I didn't really have a good reason for being so hostile to the little machine; I just didn't like how little control I had over the situation. It knew who I was; I didn't know a thing about it. It could follow me; if I tried to follow it, it could just sail up out of reach, or probably outrun me on the level. And it could shoot me, if it was armed, but I wouldn't be able to shoot it unless it was ordered to let me, or unless I caught it totally off-guard.
I blew a floater apart once, more or less by both those methods, and it felt pretty good at the time, but I didn't care to try to do it again.
And besides, I didn't really have anything against it.
So I let it follow me, and I didn't say anything. I just walked back out into the mall and down a few storefronts and ducked into a bank.
The human staff was off-duty, but the tellers were up and running, and a few customers were wandering about. One or two glanced up at the floater, but nobody said anything.
I paused and looked about, and reconsidered. Banks are big on security. Not a good choice.
I turned and went back out on the mall, and this time I found a clothier.
"I'd like a private booth," I told the entry clerk. "I need to check some measurements."
It gave me a cheerful little chirp and said, "Certainly, Mis'. We've coded Number Four just for you."
"I'm taking my floater in with me," I told it.
"I'll tell the door," it said. "Catalog's all set on the big screen, any time you're ready."
Damn thing sounded like it was smirking. I hate that sort of smart-chip clerk.
I looked up to be sure Ol' Blue-and-Silver was still there, which it was, and I beckoned for it to follow me, then I marched across the display floor to the fitting rooms.
The door to #4 had a pink stardust aura around it, just to make sure I could find it. It itched a bit when I walked through it; I think my symbiote must have been sensitive to the static field.
The door waited until the floater was inside, then it slid shut. The big holoscreen was showing a montage of models in fancy gowns, any of which would have looked like a tent on me.
"Privacy," I told it. "And kill the display for a moment."
I don't know if it was smarter than the entry clerk, or what, but the room's software didn't say a word, just blanked the screen and lit up an aura around the measuring chip. The screen over the door displayed the word PRIVATE in flowing pink script.
I picked up the chip for the sake of verisimilitude, and then asked the floater, "What the hell were you doing there so early?"
"I could ask you the same question," it said. "I was told to go there and wait for you when I finished my regular duties for the day. I got done at 16:48. Waiting doesn't bother me."
Its tone made it quite clear that it wanted an answer to the question it hadn't actually asked.
"I was checking the place out," I said. "Wanted to see what it was like. I didn't expect anyone to be there waiting for me."
"Shall we return there now?" it asked.
"No," I said.
It thought that over for a second, and then asked, "Why not?"
"Because I don't like that place," I told it. "That line of floaters makes me nervous. Who put 'em all there? Are any of them armed? Look, I wasn't expecting to talk to a floater, and I certainly wasn't expecting to talk to anyone anywhere that public; I figured whoever it was would meet me there and we'd go somewhere else to talk. So I met you, and we came here, and it's still a couple of hours before our appointment, but I'll talk to you here if you want."
"You're being paranoid," it said. "I like that."
"Fine," I said, "Then talk."
"I'm not your client, Hsing," it said. "I don't even know what he wants you for. I was told to meet you and look you over, and if I approved to bring you to him. I've met you and looked you over, and I approve."
"So you're going to take me to him?"
"If you'll come, yes."
"Then let's go," I said.
We went, back to the Shakai Building, and up to the tenth floor.
Then I waited in a lounge, watching waves of green and blue chase each other across the furniture, while the floater went on into the inner sanctum. No holoscreen. No attendant software. No floaters. I sat.
It was maybe ten minutes before the floater reappeared through a holographic wall.
"Hsing," it said, "you'll have to leave your gun."
I didn't say anything for a minute, just stared at it.
"You're not the only one around here who's paranoid," it added helpfully.
"Hell," I said with a shrug. I pulled out the HG-2 and laid it on a table. I considered turning it on, with orders to refuse handling by anyone but me, but decided that was pushing it. It was just a gun. If it got nervous and blew someone's hand off I could catch some serious grit.
I did say, "It better still be here, untouched, when I get back."
"It will be," the floater said.
I wasn't particularly happy about leaving the gun, but it wasn't any great disaster to give it up. I still had plenty of other gadgetry on me.
The big difference -- which my mystery man was probably well aware of -- was that almost everything else I carried was defensive, rather than offensive. And the rest of my offensive arsenal, such as it was, was relatively easy to defend against, while stopping an armor-piercing round from the Sony-Remington could be a challenge.
Taking the gun and leaving the rest was a pretty fair balance between courtesy and caution on my host's part, and I could live with it.
Then at last I was shown into the other room.
It was a small room, maybe three meters square. The walls were covered with shielding -- not built-in stuff, but the heaviest portable shielding I'd ever seen in my life. They weren't passing anything I could see -- certainly no visible light, and nothing that registered on any of the pocket equipment I had jacked in. My symbiote wasn't telling me anything, either.
The floor and ceiling were shielded, too. I was inside a black box.
Once I was inside the floater extended a grapple and slid shut another panel, closing the box. I was completely sealed off from the outside world. Some of my transponder-based stuff objected; I overrode it.
The only illumination came from the floater, which had stepped itself up from running lights to moderate output and shifted from monochrome to full spectrum; the effect was eerie.
In the box with me were two chairs, two of the strangest chairs I'd ever seen, rigid and angular, and made of a material I didn't identify at first -- wood. With seats of some kind of woven string.
They looked, and presumably were, positively ancient. Antiques. Real second-millennium stuff. They looked out of place in that box of shielding.
Sitting on one of the chairs, and the only other thing in there besides the floater, the chairs, and myself, was an old man. A very old man. He went better with the chairs than with the box, but not very well with either one. He wore a simple red robe, and I could see no equipment at all. A dimple under his ear had to be a com jack, but it was camouflaged beautifully. His hair was white and thinning, his face wrinkled.
I'd seen that face before, on the holo and in stills, but I'd never met him before, never spoken with him.
This was Yoshio Nakada. Grandfather Nakada, head of the Nakada clan, chairman of Nakada Enterprises.
"I am honored, Mis' Nakada," I said.
"Carlisle Hsing," he said. "Please sit down."
I sat on the other chair; it creaked as it took my weight, and the seat felt rough and unyielding beneath me, not reshaping itself at all, though the woven stuff gave very slightly. It was like sitting on just a random object, rather than a chair.
"My floater tells me you are a cautious woman," Nakada said.
I gestured at the shielding. "I see you're a cautious man."
"I need to be," he said, "in my position. Mis' Hsing, last year you became involved with my great-granddaughter Sayuri."
He didn't say it like a question, but I treated it as one.
"Yeah," I said.
"Naturally," he told me, "I had you thoroughly investigated after that."
"Naturally," I agreed. I hadn't really thought about it, and I certainly never noticed any investigation, but it made sense, and he had the resources to do the job right, without buzzing me.
"I would like to ask you a question, though."
I noticed the floater gliding forward, so that it could get a good look at my eyes when I answered whatever it was I was about to be asked. I didn't say anything.
"Have you ever had any contact with my family other than Sayuri and myself?"
That was not the question I had expected, but it was an easy one.
"Not that I know of," I said.
"Another question, then. Have you ever had any contact with Sayuri other than during that unfortunate affair on Epimetheus?"
"No." I'd have liked to have given a more interesting answer, but the single syllable really covered the whole thing.
"Have you ever before had any contact with me?"
"Not directly," I said. "I tried to contact you about Sayuri last year, but I wound up dealing entirely with flunkies." I wondered if he were worried about clones, frauds, mindwipe, or what, that he didn't know himself whether we'd been in touch before.
I wondered if Ziyang Subbha would have resented being called a flunky; I suspected he was pretty high up in Nakada's organization.
"Are you carrying any recording devices or microintelligences?" Nakada asked.
"Yes," I said. I didn't see any point in lying.
He glanced up at the floater.
"She's either telling the truth or she was ready for this," it said.
The old man sighed.
"Life is so complicated," he said, "and there is so little we can trust. Everything we do, there is some way to interfere. Everything we think we know, there is some way it could be faked, or some way it could be changed. Mis' Hsing, you did me a service last year -- for reasons of your own, I know, and I would hardly expect otherwise. You did me a service in regard to little Sayuri, and I saw no purpose there beyond the honest and straightforward."
"I did it for the money."
"Is anything more straightforward?" He almost smiled. "And yet you did not betray our secrets in pursuit of more money; you kept your word. You live a simple life, by my standards, and you have shown yourself to be of use. I have decided to trust you."
"Thanks," I said, not without a hint of sarcasm.
"I need to trust someone," he went on, "and I cannot trust anyone in my family, nor in all my corporation, nor anyone associated with them. I cannot trust anyone who has lived long on Prometheus, for my family and Nakada Enterprises are everywhere here. Even picking someone at random, from all those on this planet, the odds are that she would be tainted. So I have turned to you, an Epimethean and an outcast who has shown herself to be a competent investigator."
"Fine," I said, "so that's why you picked me. So what's this problem that you can't trust anyone with?"
He hesitated, and then said, "Mis' Hsing, someone is trying to kill me."
That was not really very startling, given his position, and I was about to say so when he added, "Someone in my own family, I think."