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'd never seen Epimetheus from space before; when I'd left I hadn't bothered to look.
I looked this time, and decided I hadn't missed much.
The ship I was in was Grandfather Nakada's private yacht, and it had all the luxuries, including a live pilot, just in case the old man wanted something the software couldn't handle. The pilot was a redheaded roundeye, tall, with a face I could live with that wouldn't win any awards, 100% natural as far as I could tell. When I asked, the ship told me his name was Colby Perkins.
Wasn't sure I'd heard it right at first, and since the man himself wandered in just then I asked, "Your name's Pickens?"
"It's Perkins," he told me, blinking those pale blue eyes of his -- strange how many colors eyes can come in, but usually don't. "Colby Perkins."
"Perkins," I said. "Got it. I knew someone named Pickens once, wondered if you were any relation."
"No, Mis', it's not the same name at all." He seemed a little uneasy about something, wouldn't keep his eyes on me, but it didn't look serious. Maybe he just wasn't used to passengers.
Or maybe I'm uglier than I thought.
At least he wasn't family to Zar Pickens, who welshed on me back on Epimetheus; I wouldn't want anyone who shared ancestors with that human gritware to be piloting any ship I was on.
Whatever, I didn't need to make him uncomfortable, so I looked out the window, and he went away.
Yes, window. Nakada's yacht had big, fancy windows in the lounge, not just vid or holo. I could watch realtime, direct and live, as we came in across the nightside and headed for the field in Nightside City.
Just a lot of darkness, and a seething mass of pale clouds in a gigantic ring at the storm line. If you get out further and look straight down at the midnight pole the planet must look like a practice target, with the slushcap at the pole, and then the dark stone around it, and then the circle of clouds where everything precipitates out of the upper-level air currents, and then dark stone again, and finally the bright line of the dayside at the edge.
I never saw it from that angle, though; we came in low so it was just black and grey, no details anywhere until the lights of Nightside City sparkled on the horizon, and an instant later the light of day spread across behind the city in a long, widening arc like a cadcam construction, hot and golden.
I don't like daylight, so I didn't look any more after that. I let Perkins, or maybe the ship, take us into port.
One thing about the Wheeler Drive -- it's so fast that I hadn't had time to plan much on the way. I'd taken in some data on Nakada's immediate family, but that was about it. I came out of the port without any very clear idea of just what I was going to do.
I could eat and sleep on the ship, if I wanted to -- I'd made sure that was understood. I didn't have to worry about finding somewhere to park myself.
All I had to do was find 'Chan and my father and get them out of there, and if I happened to learn anything about the conspiracy against Grandfather Nakada while the program was running, that was fine and smooth. I was supposed to investigate the conspiracy, sure, but all I really intended to do was take a quick look, because the odds were way the hell up there that the important stuff was back on Prometheus. As far as I was concerned, I'd just come for my family.
So where to start?
My father was in a Seventh Heaven dreamtank somewhere in Trap Under. 'Chan was at the Ginza, working for IRC. Neither one was all that easy.
But 'Chan would be faster -- all I had to do there was convince him to make a run to the ship, and get him off-planet before IRC stopped us. Once we were off Epimetheus, Nakada could debug whatever IRC might want to do.
My father I had to find first. And getting him aboard the ship would be easier without 'Chan trailing along.
That meant starting in Trap Under. Do the hard part first. I waved, and a cab zipped up, door opening.
I got in, and the cab asked, "Where to, Mis'?"
I didn't have an answer for that right there and ready to run.
Trap Under isn't exactly open to the public; they don't want the tourists wandering in, getting in the way. The tourists are supposed to stay up top, where everyone can skim off their money, not get down there in the maintenance corridors. I couldn't just walk in.
The obvious way into the Seventh Heaven dreamtank was through the Seventh Heaven sales office in Trap Over, but that didn't look as if it was going to work too well -- if it were that easy, Nakada could have done it and at least presented me with half the deal. Sure, Nakada was a competitor and I was family -- but I wasn't legally family any more, not since my parents did the dump on me more than twenty years back, and competitors on Epimetheus weren't all armed camps, doing a favor for Grandfather Nakada wasn't unthinkable.
So I wasn't going to be able to do this the easy way. I'd have to get into Trap Under somehow, and either scam or bribe or threaten my way to my father.
I tried to remember where the dreamtank was. I'd never visited it -- there's no point in visiting dreamers -- but I'd had a pretty good map of Nightside City in my head once.
And I'd lost it. Oh, I still had my natural memory, but I hadn't kept it up, hadn't thought about Trap Under in a year or so, and the old artificial-memory back-up had gotten fried when I took a little unscheduled vacation on the dayside, courtesy of the walking gritware who'd been conning Sayuri Nakada.
But the dreamtanks were mostly right under the casinos, to make it easy for big-time losers to cash out permanently; I remembered that much. And maybe I could beep 'Chan, let him know I was back on Epimetheus for the moment.
"The Ginza," I said. "Service entrance."
The cab didn't bother to answer, it just zipped up into traffic, headed for Trap Over. I sat back, thinking, and hoping the cab didn't decide to get chatty.
I hadn't really planned anything out; I had wanted to see the situation first-hand before I hit enter. Now I had to decide what I would run at the Ginza. I looked out the window, hoping for inspiration, but just saw twenty-meter ads for nude dancing at the Jade Club.
There was something oddly comforting about those glimmering holographic ecdysiasts glowing against the dark sky. I couldn't have told you just how they were any different from some of the ads in Alderstadt or American City, but they were. They meant I was home.
It was a home I could never live in again, I knew that, but it was still home.
Once we were in the Trap I spotted the Ginza, with its distinctive bronze-green tower and dragon banners, but the cab didn't head for the fancy overhang; I'd told it the service entrance, so it looped around and dived down through the traffic, almost hitting a knot of giggling pedestrians as it veered into a tunnel mouth and jigged its way into Trap Under.
When the cab finally settled to the plastic flooring I still hadn't debugged anything, but I paid the fare and a fat tip -- it was Nakada's money, not mine, and the cab hadn't bothered me -- and got out.
The Ginza's service entrance was one level below the streets -- technically, the top level of Trap Under. For all I knew, my father might have been just the other side of a wall, though it was more likely he was somewhere deep down, a hundred meters or more below anywhere open to the public.
I still hadn't come up with anything but the obvious, so I walked up to the door and told it, "I'm here to see one of your employees, Sebastian Hsing. It's family business."
"You know you aren't welcome here, Mis' Hsing."
I should have realized it would recognize me. IRC obviously still hadn't forgiven me for my moment of folly a few years back, when I'd given a welsher a chance to get away from them. Their software wasn't inclined to be helpful where I was concerned.
"I'm not here to play or solicit customers," I said. "I just need to talk to my brother. It's a private matter."
"Is he expecting you?"
"No," I admitted. "I haven't been able to reach him by com."
I hadn't actually tried, since I assumed IRC was monitoring everything he saw or heard.
"I can give him a message," the door said.
That was probably the best I could hope for, so I said, "Tell him Carlie needs to talk to him about an urgent family matter."
"He will receive the message at his next break."
"I'll wait." Human croupiers only did half-hour shifts -- the casino didn't want them getting distracted, thinking about the hot player a few seats down, or when dinner might be, or a full bladder. Even more important, they didn't want them watching enough play to start noticing bias in the equipment, so every table changed staff every thirty minutes, and 'Chan would have ten minutes to play his messages and get a drink and whatever before heading to his next position. I could wait that long.
The door didn't say anything.
"Should I wait, Mis'?" the cab asked from behind me.
"No," I told it. I almost started to explain that I didn't know how long I'd be there, but then I remembered it was a cab. It didn't care why.
"Thank you," it said, and then it was gone, swooping away at an acceleration that would have been nasty for a human passenger.
I leaned against the wall by the door; the plastic was warm against my back.
I didn't like that I hadn't done any planning. I should have skimmed background from the nets before I landed. I hadn't because I was used to having the data I needed right there waiting any time I bothered to ask for it, but this time I couldn't trust everything I pulled down. I didn't have my old office com that knew everything about Nightside City anymore. I didn't have my new office com from Alderstadt, either. All I had was the public nets and what I carried with me. I wasn't carrying much, and if Grandfather Nakada was right, I shouldn't believe everything I found on the public nets.
So I was scrolling blind, seeing what came up the screen.
I wasn't really looking for Nakada's conspiracy of assassins. I had to assume that if they'd gotten at the old man's dreamware, they were smart enough to spot anyone who went poking around after them. I was just running my own errands, and keeping all ports open for data about the Nakada clan. If anything beeped, I'd take a look. If it all looked smooth, then I'd go back to Prometheus and work that end.
For now, though, it was all family. With Mis' Perkins waiting for me on the ship I could get 'Chan and our father off-planet without any tickets -- if I could get them to the port. 'Chan shouldn't be too much trouble, but pulling a wirehead out of the dreamtanks was another program entirely. The only way I had ever heard of a wirehead coming out of the tank alive was if the cops needed her as a witness -- city cops or casino cops, either one. If the wirehead survived, she went back in the tank afterward.
I'd seen vid of a wirehead witness once. She looked like walking gritware, and wanted nothing more than to get back to her dreams. She told them whatever they wanted to hear, so she could get it over with and climb back in the tank, and the whole time her eyes were flipping back and forth, trying not to see boring old reality.
If I did get Dad out, the kindest thing I could do would probably be to plug him into a new dreamtank on Prometheus. If Grandfather Nakada froze at paying for that, I'd call it a medical expense.
I didn't think he'd freeze.
But first I had to get Dad out, and to do that, first I had to find him. The location of a particular wirehead was confidential information, not something Seventh Heaven gave out to anyone who asked -- an amazing number of wireheads had left enemies behind who might like a chance to cut a few leads on a particular dreamtank, just for old times' sake. After all, people who had a happy life and a lot of friends in the real world didn't buy the dream in the first place.
'Chan might know something. We might be able to run the family pack on some flunky, even though the law said we weren't family anymore.
The door suddenly said, "I have a message from Sebastian Hsing for Carlisle Hsing."
"I'm Carlisle Hsing," I said. I held up my card where the scan could read it.
'Chan's voice came from the speaker. "I get off after my next table. I can meet you in the employee lounge. This better be important, Carlie."
The door slid open. "Please follow the blue light to the employee lounge, Mis' Hsing," it said in its own voice. "Do not attempt to visit other areas."
"Thank you," I said. You never know whether software's advanced enough to appreciate the niceties, and it doesn't cost to use them.
Beyond the door was a drab corridor that led to a door a dozen meters away; a ball of blue light hovered in the air a few meters in. I followed it in.
It led through the door, which opened ahead of me, then around a corner to the right and down another corridor, then up a ramp to another corridor, but this one had thick red-and-black fixed-color carpet and better-quality doors opening off it. I could hear voices, human ones by the sound, somewhere.
Finally the blue light stopped in front of a door upholstered in red vinyl. The door didn't open for me, and at first I thought something had gone wrong, but there was the light, and it looked like a lounge. I pushed on the door with my hand, and it swung inward.
The room beyond was littered with discarded plates and teacups. The red-and-black carpet was the same as in the corridor, but more worn, and with several old, dark stains. One wall shone with the gentle blue of a welcome screen. Two tables and a dozen chairs were randomized; I settled onto a chair, let it fit itself to me, then waved at the screen.
"Tell me about Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery," I said.
After all, if I was going to have to wait, I might as well put the time to good use.
Half a dozen images appeared, waiting for me to choose -- an ad for their services, a financial statement, customer reviews, and so on. I pointed at a newsy.
At least, I thought it was a newsy, but it was hype. "There are many companies offering neurological services," it told me, "but one stands out from the crowd. The name may be Seventh Heaven, but these dreams are second to none."
It went on to tell me that Seventh Heaven had been around for over a century, and was based on Mars, in Sol System. I asked a question at that, and found out that the operation on Epimetheus was a franchise operated entirely by local talent -- they leased the name and the equipment from the parent company.
So when Nightside City fried, what would happen to their tanks? These people didn't even own them, and somehow I doubted corporate back on Mars was going to come reclaim them if the locals packed up and left when the sun rose over the crater rim.
The com I was talking to didn't have any data on that, of course. I was trying to decide what I could ask that might be useful when the door opened and 'Chan stepped in. He glanced at the screen, blinked, then looked at me.
"Carlie," he said, "what are you doing here? I thought you were on Prometheus!"
"I was," I said. "I came back."
"Why? Why would you do something stupid like that?"
"Two reasons," I said. "First, I got hired for a job that includes poking around the old place a little. Second, I wanted to get you and Dad off-planet before the sun comes up."
"Me... and Dad? Carlie, he's in a tank. You know that."
"Yeah, I know that, but what I don't know is what Seventh Heaven's going to do with the tanks when the dawn comes. So I want to transfer him to somewhere on Prometheus."
'Chan stared at me for a minute, and even though he's my brother I couldn't read his expression. "Seventh Heaven?" he asked. "Is that the company's name?"
"Yeah," I said. "You don't remember?"
"I don't care," he said. "Carlie, they dumped us, remember? They didn't want us anymore."
"He's still our father. Genetically, if not legally."
"Even assuming he is, which I would not be too sure of, so what? He threw us away. We don't owe him anything."
This time I could see the hurt on 'Chan's face just fine. I'd seen it there before often enough. I'd thought he'd be over it by now, the way I thought I was, but I'd obviously misjudged.
I wasn't going to say that directly, though. Instead I said, "I know. I want to get him out anyway."
He stared at me for a few seconds more before he answered, but eventually he said, "You're more generous than I am. Go ahead, if you want, but it's got nothing to do with me."
"I was hoping you could help me find him."
"Me? You're the detective, Carlie. I'm just a croupier."
"But you know people here. I don't anymore."
"Carlie, I'm glad you're free, and I'm happy to see you again, but I'm under contract to the Ginza. I can't go anywhere or help you with anything if it would interfere with my job."
"That's why I came to get you off Epimetheus."
"And how were you going to do that? I can't get a ticket."
"You don't need one. I have my own ship."
"The hell you do!"
"Fine, I don't. I have the use of a ship. My client owns it, but he's back in American City, and I'm here in Nightside City with his ship and crew, and they're under orders to do what I say. I intend to get you and Dad aboard, then get the hell off Epimetheus for good. Are you coming?"
"Who the fuck is your client? Since when do you work for people with that kind of money?"
"Since I moved to Alderstadt. Sayuri Nakada may not have been happy with me, but some of her friends and family thought I'd done a good job. Good word of mouth means I get work."
"Come on, Carlie. Anyone with his own damn spaceship can do better than you! I know you're smart, I know you do an honest job, but you're just a widget. Someone with that kind of money can hire one of the big investigation firms."
"He has reasons to keep this off the nets. You come on, 'Chan -- you think I'd come in here and tell you this if it weren't true?"
"I don't know, Carlie. It's crazy, and sometimes you can be crazy."
"Fine, then, but give me this much -- come to the port with me and take a look at the ship yourself. If there's really a ship, and the captain says he'll really get you off-planet, will you come?"
"Of course I will! You think I'm an idiot? I don't want to fry. I saw what you looked like after your little stroll on the dayside; Nightside City's going to be a fucking microwave in a couple of years."
"Then come on to the port with me and I'll show you."
'Chan hesitated, then admitted, "I can't."
I didn't know what he was talking about. I thought he was just being stubborn, playing the big brother who doesn't want his little sister taking charge. "Why not?" I demanded. I remembered that IRC was almost certainly listening, given where we were, so I added, "I'm not asking you to skip out on your contract. Just come out to the port, so you can see I'm not crazy. Then you can come back here, and when I'm ready to go you can buy yourself out, nice and legal."
"I can't," he repeated.
"I'm on call," he said.
"It means I agreed to accept an implant. I can't go more than ten minutes from the casino or my legs shut down. I can't go as far as the port to check out your story. And I can't buy out my contract -- that was part of the deal, too. Like it or not, I'm here until sunrise."