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 had time to think it over on the ride back to Alderstadt.
It was not going to be an easy job. Nakada himself had already done the easy stuff, and it hadn't worked.
The way it scrolled along was this: Someone had turned the old man's own personal com against him, in the Nakada family compound itself. In his own bedroom, in fact. He had been settling down for the night, about to jack in for a dreamscape, when he decided to double-check the program. He'd already read out the schedule once, but on a whim, just a lucky accident, he read it out again.
It was wrong. Instead of a sensible, conservative dream enhancer, the com was running a euthanasia program. If he'd jacked in it would have quietly shut down his autonomic nervous system. And when they found him in the morning it could have been put down to wetware systems failure -- old age affecting the brain, his body just giving out on him.
After all, he was two hundred and forty-one years old, he said, and at that age no one was really surprised when even healthy people didn't happen to wake up.
He'd shut the bedroom com off from the rest of the household net immediately, of course, and used his personal implants to analyze the programming. It was clever -- the euthanasia program was nested inside a worm that would control the entire unit until he was dead, and would then shut itself down, turn control back to the original program, and set markers so that the com's own everyday internal monitoring would wipe out all trace of the worm and its contents, just as if it were an ordinary bit of gritware that slipped in over the lines. The worm was started in the first place by his regular check of the night's dream schedule.
If he hadn't done the check over again after the worm had been invoked, or if the programmer had set the worm to hide its tracks even while it was actually running, he'd have gone to sleep and never woken up. Sweet and simple.
And it was on his own bedroom com.
That com was not on the planetwide nets. It wasn't even on the internal corporate nets that Nakada Enterprises ran. It was only hooked into the family's household net.
So only family members could get at it -- in theory.
In practice, both the old man and I knew better than that. The household net wasn't totally closed off; it had links to the top-level corporate net, and that had links to all the rest. All those links were heavily screened and firewalled, though. It would take phenomenal skill and planning to work into that bedroom com from outside.
It wasn't impossible, though.
The most likely explanation was that someone inside the family compound -- which meant either a member of the family or one of their AIs -- was responsible.
The next most likely was someone on the top level corporate net at Nakada Enterprises.
And so on, down through all the internal corporate nets to the intercorporate net and finally the public net.
That was from the point of view of opportunity; if you considered motive, then business rivals jumped up the scale -- but the family and the corporate insiders at Nakada stayed on it, too.
And if you considered means -- who knew? Someone who knew a lot about the old man's personal com habits had designed that little booby-trap, but that didn't mean much.
It could be anybody.
Anybody, Grandfather Nakada thought, except me.
So I was going back to Alderstadt to clean out my office -- I was moving to American City for the duration of this case. The trip would give Nakada time to start the disks turning to get 'Chan and my father off Epimetheus. When I got back to American City and saw some proof that they were coming, I'd start to work.
There wasn't really much to clean out. I duped my office software, and left one copy in Alderstadt, took one copy with me. I'd already had my gun with me. I didn't own all that much else, in the way of external hardware -- mostly just a set of teacups my mother had left behind when she headed out, and a couple of changes of clothing. The furniture was rented; it stayed. And I hadn't made any real friends during my stay in Alderstadt -- I'd gotten to know some of the local software, I said hello to some of the neighbors when I saw them, and around the corner at Steranko's I called Ed the bartender by his first name, but that was about it.
I didn't know if I'd be back or not, so I didn't say any goodbyes.
I was on my way out the door when the com beeped.
I wasn't in that big a hurry; I turned and went back and sat down.
"Yeah?" I said.
"Mis' Hsing," said a synthetic voice. "There's a problem."
"Yeah?" I said again.
"Details cannot be given here, but you must return to American City immediately."
"I was planning to," I told whatever it was. There was no visual.
"You must go to where you spoke to the floater."
"Got it," I said, and signed off.
If whoever it was was being that mysterious, I didn't want to ask any more questions. I didn't need to, either. It meant that someone wanted to talk to me in private. Either it was the old man, or one of his flunkies, or else the whole investigation had already been blown. Whoever it was didn't want anything important to get out on the nets.
So it was back to the dressing room.
And a couple of hours later, there I was at the clothier.
"Number Four," I said. "I'm superstitious."
The entry clerk said, "I hope you'll find something you like this time, Mis'." I ignored the sarcasm. "We've coded Number Four just for you. Will you be taking your floater in again?"
I looked up, and there was the blue and silver floater, right behind me.
"Yeah," I said.
"I'll tell the door," the clerk said. "You can go right in."
We went. The stardust still itched.
"Privacy," I ordered when we were inside. "And kill the display, I want to think."
The booth obeyed. The screen over the door told me we were private. I turned to the floater.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Mis' Yoshio Nakada would like to propose a modification of your agreement."
"No," I said.
It fizzed, then asked, "Don't you want to hear what he's suggesting?"
"No," I said again.
It hung silently for a moment, mulling that one over. With the privacy seal on it couldn't ask anyone else to help it make up its mind, so it had to work the problem out for itself, and the neural net in a floater isn't really made for that sort of decision.
Eventually, though, it said, "I would like to ask you to reconsider."
"I don't intend to modify the deal," I told it, "but we're here, so what the hell, give me the read-out."
That it could handle.
"Mis' Nakada would greatly prefer to pay you the five million credits now, in advance, and to bring Sebastian Hsing and Guohan Hsing from Epimetheus to Prometheus only after the investigation has been completed to Mis' Nakada's satisfaction."
That was all, and I let the silence run for a moment.
"Why?" I asked, finally.
"I'm not sure I should tell you that," it said.
"Then I'm damn sure I won't agree to the change," I replied.
It fizzed again, which could have meant almost anything, and then said, "You know that Mis' Nakada is concerned about the integrity of the corporate software in use by Nakada Enterprises."
"Yeah," I said, with a nod. "So?"
"You are aware that Guohan Hsing is currently, by the terms of his lifetime entertainment and maintenance contract, legally incompetent, and a ward of the Seventh Heaven Neurosurgical Corporation. Legalities aside, he is also in an induced coma and kept comatose but alive by machinery owned and operated by Seventh Heaven."
It paused, but I didn't bother saying anything this time, I just stared at it.
"Removing a properly-contracted ward from the property of Seventh Heaven is not legal, except in a very few exceptional circumstances, none of which appear to apply in this case."
"So?" I said. "Nakada knew that from the start."
The floater ignored my objection.
"Sebastian Hsing," it said, "is employed by the Interstellar Resorts Corporation at the Ginza Casino Hotel. IRC has classed him as essential personnel. While he is still technically a free adult, if he chooses to leave his job he will be in breach of contract and subject to a fine of up to one million credits. He has not chosen to leave. Nakada Enterprises is forbidden by city regulations to pay his fine, should he choose to leave; to do so would leave Nakada open to lawsuit for employee piracy, and would have serious extra-legal consequences as well. Nakada could make an offer to buy out his contract, and in fact, such an offer has been made. The offer was refused; IRC is not willing to part with Sebastian Hsing's services at any reasonable price, and to make an offer any higher would surely raise suspicions."
"Go on," I said.
"Are you recording?"
"No," I said, which was a lie, but what the hell.
"I believe that Yoshio Nakada had every intention of circumventing these obstacles. However, he now has reason to believe that the corruption of the corporate software available to him is far more extensive than he had realized when he spoke to you last night."
Last night? I'd been thinking of it as earlier today. Not relevant; I ignored that and listened.
"He is unsure whether he can get Guohan and Sebastian Hsing off Epimetheus safely, given the current means available to him."
It shut up, and I stared at it for a moment.
"That's it?" I said at last.
"That's it," it agreed.
"But that's stupid," I protested. "Everything he'd need is on Epimetheus, not in the Nakada family compound. All he has to do is send one message to a trustworthy human on Epimetheus!"
"No," the floater said.
"Why the bloody hell not?" I demanded.
"Because all secure corporate communications between Prometheus and Epimetheus have been affected, and Mis' Nakada is unable to determine whether he is, in fact, speaking to a human on Epimetheus, or to a digital simulation. Furthermore, it appears that the conspiracy that... the conspiracy he is aware of is more extensive than he thought, and there is literally no one employed by Nakada Enterprises on Epimetheus he feels he can trust with the assignment."
I felt a creeping uneasiness somewhere in my spine.
"It's that bad?" I asked.
"I don't know, Hsing," the floater said, "but Mis' Nakada thinks it is."
The thing's manner had changed; it had gone from formal and every centimeter a machine to its more familiar self. I guessed it was because it was back in its familiar groove, no longer stretching its instructions to the limit and telling me things it hadn't been told to tell me.
"If the conspiracy, or whatever it is, is that extensive, how the hell does he expect me to stop it?"
"By finding the parties running it, of course."
I snorted. "Sure, that's all," I said. "Finding the people responsible for infiltrating one of the most powerful corporations in the galaxy, and exposing them -- that's easy, right? Hell, maybe it is easy, I don't know. I've never tried it." I grinned at the floater. "But you know what must be pretty tricky? Staying alive while I do it. That's got to be tough!"
"But Hsing," it said, "you're good at that."
"Good at what?"
"At staying alive. You're tough, Hsing -- people have tried to kill you, IRC tried to break you, but here you are."
"Yeah, right," I said. "The old man's stayed alive six times as long as I have -- he's the one who's good at it!" I shook my head. "And besides, if he can't get 'Chan and my father off Epimetheus, why should I work for him?"
"For the money?" the floater asked, as I paused for breath.
"No, thanks," I said. "Money's nice, but so's maintaining decent odds of living to enjoy it. No family, no deal. That was what we recorded." I reached up and signaled the privacy seal off; I didn't see that we had anything more to talk about. "Guess I'll be buzzing back to Alderstadt," I said. "Good luck to your boss."
"Hsing, wait," the floater said.
I didn't answer, I just headed for the door of the booth.
"Hsing, please," it said. "I'm talking to him now. Could you wait? He may have an offer to make."
"What can he offer?" I asked, my hand on the door.
"Hsing," the floater said, "he does have an offer."
"I don't care," I said.
"You will," it stated flatly.
I hesitated, then turned back.
"All right," I said. "Boot it up. What's the offer?"
"You get an unlimited expense account," it said. "The corporation will pay any fines, bail you out, anything. You investigate the infiltration, conspiracy, whatever it is -- on Epimetheus. And while you're there..."
"I get them out myself," I finished.
I stared at the machine, at the metal that gleamed pink in the booth's light, and the blue plastic that looked almost as black as the plastic streets of Trap Under.
"You've got a deal," I said at last.