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
This was obviously supposed to be a surprise, but I didn't really look at it that way.
After all, when you get right down to it, there aren't that many possible motives for murder. Sex, money, revenge, and defective programming are the big ones, and all four of those are likely to get tangled up with family matters, particularly when you're talking about a very big, very rich, and very complicated family like the Nakada clan.
If anyone was going to try to kill Grandfather Nakada, a member of his own family would have both the best reasons and the best chances. And any time anyone's that rich, that powerful, that famous, and that old, he's likely to be a target.
But old Yoshio thought he was surprising me, so I just said, "What makes you think so?"
"Before I tell you any more," he said, "I must first know whether you will work for me to investigate this, to find the assassin."
I wished he hadn't said that, because this was all very interesting, even if it wasn't exactly shocking, and I'd wanted to hear more before I turned him down.
But I wasn't going to get the chance.
"I'm sorry, Mis' Nakada," I said, "but I don't think so."
He stared at me silently for a moment, and then blinked, just once, and in a low, hard voice demanded, "Why not?"
Good tone he used there. Gave an impression of hidden strength, and it wasn't a voice you'd expect from an old man. He had to be getting on toward two hundred, but you'd never have known it from the voice.
"Because," I said, "it's too damn dangerous. I'd be out of my depth. You need a major security firm if you want to be protected from assassins. I'm an investigator, I'm not a bodyguard."
"Mis' Hsing," he said, "I'm not looking for a bodyguard. I have security people, plenty of them. I even still trust some of them. But none of them is as likely to track down the person -- or people -- behind the assassination attempt as you are. Their software has almost certainly been corrupted. All the software in my entire corporation may be infected. Yours is not. And I know that none of my major competitors, nor any of my family, has bought your services; I cannot be sure whether anyone else has been bought."
I sighed. "That's fine for why you want me," I said, "since you can't trust anyone local and there aren't many private investigators stupid enough to move into unfamiliar territory the way I did. But there's nothing there about why I would want you -- why I'd want this job, I mean."
"I will pay well, of course," he said, waving a hand in dismissal. "I paid you 492,500 credits for the work you did on Epimetheus, and my life is worth far more to me than my great-granddaughter's reputation. Would two million credits, in addition to expenses, be enough to convince you?"
That was tempting. Two million bucks is a lot of juice, especially on Prometheus. I thought about it for a moment.
"In advance?" I said. "And no limit on expenses?"
He blinked again. "Mis' Hsing," he said, "be realistic about this. The money is not important to me. But if I pay everything up front, you will have no incentive to complete the job. And if I place no limit on your expenses, that would make it even worse."
"What did you have in mind, then?" I asked. I might as well hear his offer, I thought.
"One million credits in advance, to be held in escrow by a bank not affiliated with Nakada Enterprises. A corporate expense account equivalent to that of a junior member of the Board of Directors. Upon completion of the job to my satisfaction -- no one else's -- an additional million credits. And I believe I have some additional incentives to offer."
"Go on," I said.
"If I die, under any circumstances that could conceivably be suspicious, before the payment of your full fee, then your expense account will be terminated immediately, and audited. The second million will be forfeit, and the first million will be distributed by the escrow trustee between yourself and my heirs in whatever fashion the trustee deems reasonable after reading your final report."
I nodded, and got ready to turn the whole deal down, but Nakada wasn't finished.
"Furthermore, I believe you have an older brother, a croupier at the Ginza in Nightside City. Sebastian Hsing, by name. And your father, Guohan Hsing, is currently a permanent resident of Trap Under in Nightside City. A dreamer. A wirehead."
My mouth closed and I listened.
"I have the names right?" he asked.
I nodded. He knew he had the names right.
"I am not threatening them, Mis' Hsing," he said, raising a hand in a gesture that I suppose was intended to calm me down. "I want you on my side, not as an enemy. But you know what's happening in Nightside City now."
I didn't bother to nod again. I knew, and he knew it.
Nightside City was about to fry -- and it was doing the biggest business in its hundred and sixty year history as the playground of the Eta Cassiopeia system, as all the tourists crowded in to see the last days. Impending doom really appeals to the thrillseekers, especially when it's a nice, safe impending doom, not anything that's actually dangerous. The incredibly slow planetary rotation that was carrying Nightside City out onto the dayside was steady and predictable -- tourists would have plenty of time to get out.
They were pouring in like data from a wide-open search.
That meant that the casinos and all the rest of the Tourist Trap needed all their best employees.
That meant they weren't letting them leave. Round-trip tickets to Epimetheus were selling three for a buck, practically -- the casinos wanted customers. But tickets off Epimetheus -- those were not to be had. At least, not if you were worth keeping. If one of the squatters out in the West End tapped out a ticket somewhere no one would weep, but a croupier like 'Chan -- they weren't going to let him go, not while the customers were still coming.
When the business finally burned out they'd let him go -- if there were still any ships running. He'd probably wind up paying out his life's savings for a steerage berth on an ore freighter bound out-system. Or he'd rot out in the mines on the nightside.
And my father, down in Trap Under, he was already rotting, plugged into dream central. Once the city went down, though, would they keep up the maintenance on the wireheads?
I wasn't all that fond of my old man, not after the way he and my mother dumped 'Chan and Ali and me, but I wasn't real happy about the idea of him rotting away literally, physically as well as mentally. And if the maintenance crews checked out, that might be just what would happen.
"I can get them both off-planet, off Epimetheus," Nakada told me. "When I have the assassin, I'll do it."
I stared at him for a moment, that ugly wrinkled old face with the smooth white hair, white as death. I looked up at the blue and silver floater, hanging there motionless.
"It's recording?" I asked.
"All right, here are my terms," I said, leaning forward. "You put this all on record, and you back it up, and if we make a deal you give me a certified copy. You'll pay me five million credits in advance -- five million, not two. You'll cover all my travel and com and medical expenses without question, you'll tell me everything I ask for, you won't hold anything back, you'll give me complete access to all family and corporation records, files, software, and personnel. You'll get my brother Sebastian and my father out of Nightside City and safely to Prometheus immediately. In exchange, I'll find your assassin and everyone connected with her. You won't interfere with the investigation, no matter who or what I go after. Those are my terms. Take it or leave it."
He sighed. "I'll leave it, if you're serious. I can accept all that -- if you make either the money or the rescue of your relatives contingent upon your success."
"The money," I said. "The five million bucks when I deliver, not before."
"All of it," he said.
"All of it," I agreed. "You'll pay my expenses, though."
"I will pay your travel expenses only within the Eta Cass system, unless you can provide me with convincing proof that you need to go elsewhere."
"Recorded," said the floater.
I could live with it. I'd get 'Chan and our father out, at least. And if I actually found the would-be killer -- well, five million is a lot of juice.
I was going to give this an honest try, anyway. If it didn't run, well... I'd been broke before. And I'd have 'Chan and my father out of Nightside City.
"All right," I said, "Now tell me all about it. Someone tried to kill you?"
He told me.