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 couldn't believe my own brother had been that stupid. "What the hell were you thinking, agreeing to that?" I demanded.
"I was thinking the bonus would be almost enough for my fare off-planet," he answered instantly.
"Almost enough," I repeated.
"Yeah, almost," he said, and I could see he was getting angry -- partly with me, but partly with himself. "I knew they were keeping it just a little short of what I'd need. IRC isn't a charity; they want me to stay here until everything cooks. I figured it would help. I wasn't going anywhere for awhile anyway, so I'd have time to find the rest somehow. I didn't know my kid sister was going to show up with a magic carpet to whisk me off to Prometheus."
"It's a ship, not a magic carpet, and getting you and Dad out of here with it is part of my fee."
"What the hell, Carlie -- who agreed to that? Whose ship is it? Since when do you take anything but credits?"
"When I don't want the job and the client needs to come up with a way to make me take it anyway," I said. "A way I'm having second thoughts about the more I look at you."
"I didn't ask for your help!"
"Neither did Dad. I'm here anyway."
"You can leave any time, then. I'm stuck here until my contract is up. Come back for me when the sun's up."
"The offer isn't good that long. The client wants me now, and I wouldn't work until he got you two out of here."
"He's willing to piss off IRC and Sixth...Seventh... the dreamtankers to get you?"
"Yes, he is."
"I hadn't thought my little sister was as special as all that."
I was getting annoyed, but 'Chan had always been able to hack my code, and he was angry enough himself that he didn't mind doing it. "Now you know," I said.
"I know it, fine, but who knows it who doesn't mind risking a stay on IRC's blacklist? You never used to operate at that level."
"I told you, I've done all right on Prometheus."
He looked at me, and I could almost see the screen flash. "You said Sayuri Nakada's friends and family -- you're working for one of the Nakadas, aren't you?"
"None of your business. I'm here to get you off-planet, not tell you my life story."
"That's it, though, isn't it? And I can guess what the case is, and why they aren't hiring one of the big firms."
"What are you talking about?"
"Someone hired you to investigate Yoshio Nakada's murder, didn't they?"
I stared at him for a moment, then said, "So Grandfather Nakada's been murdered?"
"Of course. Don't try to tell me you didn't know. The family tried to hush it up, but it's all over the nets. And whoever hired you didn't go to one of the big firms because they don't trust them -- they know those people will switch sides and back the highest bidder if the money's big enough, and the killer may be one of the big heirs. You, though -- you're old-fashioned. You stay bought. Especially when they're paying you with me and Dad."
"Lovely theory, 'Chan," I said, but what I was thinking was that he'd come closer to the truth than I'd wanted.
And it was... interesting to know that everyone on Epimetheus thought Grandfather Nakada was dead, that the assassination had been successful. I wasn't sure whether it was going to make my job easier or harder, but it definitely pulled up some new menus.
"You aren't denying it," he said.
"I'm not confirming it, either. I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to get you out of here -- you and Dad both."
"I'm not convinced."
"Look, I'm going to have almost enough money when my contract's up -- why don't you just leave me here until sunrise, then loan me the difference out of all the fat fees you're collecting?"
"You know better than that. Once the sun is over the rim of the crater the fare off-planet is going to be everything you can afford, no matter how much that is. It'll leave you broke. If I try to contribute, it'll leave me broke."
He tried to look as if he didn't agree with me, but it didn't work. He shifted aps.
"You can't get me out, all right? Don't worry about it. Do your job. Get Dad out if you really want to, and if you can, then go back to your magic spaceship and fly back to Alderstadt. I'll be fine. I may be broke when I land on Prometheus, but so what?"
"So I'd prefer you to not be."
"If I break my contract with IRC, I'll be worse than broke. Come back when it's run out."
"I can't come back."
"Why not? Make that part of your fee."
I looked around, wondering just where the cams were, and what software would be processing this scene. Then I turned back to my brother.
"Break your contract," I said. "The fine's limited to a million credits, and I can cover that."
He stared at me as if I'd been pixelated. "How did you know that, and where would you get a million credits?"
"Well, your client must know that whatever the official fine is, IRC isn't going to be content with that."
I couldn't argue with that -- unless 'Chan was under someone's protection, someone like Grandfather Nakada, IRC was likely to be vindictive. I knew that from first-hand experience.
"Why can't you just wait for me? What's the rush?"
I wished I knew who or what would be reviewing the recordings of this conversation, but it seemed a pretty safe bet that Yoshio Nakada wouldn't be on the alert list; after all, if 'Chan was right, everyone in Nightside City thought he was dead, and the old man himself had said he had no reliable communication with anyone on Epimetheus.
"'Chan, I made a deal to get you out as my down payment. I don't start the investigation until you and Dad are on Prometheus. You think my client's willing to wait until sunrise?"
"So put it on hold! Go ahead and do your job, then come back for me."
"You really think I'll be able to find Nakada's killer?"
That stopped him dead.
"Oh," he said. "I assumed... I mean, I thought... I always thought you were pretty good at what you do."
"I'm not bad," I said. "But think about it -- someone went after Yoshio Nakada. You asked me when I started working for people who have their own ships, and I tried to click past it, but you had a good point. I'm a widget. I'm going to try, I'm going to put in an honest effort, but I'm just an ordinary detective. I can't hack the universe's code. Anyone who could get past Nakada's security can probably hide her tracks well enough that I'll never find her. My client's playing a long shot, hiring me. If that long shot comes in, if I find whoever's behind it, then we're smooth, I get paid and you get a free ride to Prometheus, but 'Chan, what if it doesn't pay off? I can't ask for a fee I haven't earned."
"Well, you could ask," he said wryly.
"But I wouldn't get it. But if I get you off Epimetheus now, that's my deposit, I can keep that. Get it?"
"I get it," he acknowledged. "And I appreciate the try, Carlie, but it's not going to work. I'm stuck here. Find Dad, take him back to Prometheus with you, do your job, and if you pull it off you can come back for me, and if you can't, hey, I'm no worse off than I was an hour ago."
I sighed. I wasn't ready to give up, but I also saw I wasn't going to convince 'Chan of anything unless I could bring something new to the conversation, something I hadn't thought of yet. "Fine," I said. "Can you help me find Dad?"
He shook his head. "No. I didn't even remember the name of the company. I don't know anything more than you." He glanced at the wall display. "I need to get back to work."
"When do you get off? In case we want to talk."
"Midnight. But I'll probably be too tired to do anything but sleep, and what is there to talk about?"
I grimaced. "Probably nothing," I said, "but I'm keeping an open mind."
"You do that, Carlie." He headed for the door. "And see if you can find out who killed Yoshio Nakada. Do that, and we're all set."
"Yeah. I'll try. Good night, 'Chan."
Then the door closed behind him and I was alone in the break room.
I looked at the wall. The hype for Seventh Heaven was still displayed.
"Locate nearest human-operated office for Seventh Heaven," I said. I thought I'd do better persuading a human to cooperate than software.
The hype vanished, and a map appeared, with directions. I snorted.
Seventh Heaven had an office directly under the Ginza. Very handy for the gamblers whose luck ran out. All I had to do was go back up the service corridor and out into the lower level of the casino, then take an elevator down two stories into Trap Under and follow the signs. I trotted out the door and headed for the casino.
When I reached the turn where I didn't head for the door I'd come in through, a voice said, "You are not authorized beyond this point."
"I'm heading to an office down on B3," I said. "Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery. Nothing to do with IRC or the Ginza." I kept walking.
For an instant, it didn't reply. Then it said, "If you diverge from your announced route, you will be escorted from the premises and risk trespassing charges."
"I love you, too," I said. "I won't diverge."
And I wouldn't. I wasn't giving up on my brother, but I wasn't going to be able to fly him away as easily as I'd hoped. For now, I was going after Dad, and once I had him, I would worry about 'Chan.
I told myself I should also look into this story that Yoshio Nakada was dead. If I could trace it back to its source, that might tell me something useful. I didn't really think I could clean out the conspiracy; I'd told 'Chan the truth about that. I was operating far beyond my specs, and I knew it. Grandfather Nakada must have known it, too, but hiring me hadn't cost him anything he couldn't easily spare, so why not? Play enough long shots, and eventually one of them will come in.
I wondered what other programs the old man was running. Surely, I wasn't the only one.
But whether I was the only one or not, I'd been hired to do a job, and I was going to do my best to do that job.
I wished I had my old office com, in my office out on Juarez; it had all the software I'd need to root through half the data on Epimetheus. I'd brought a selection of my best wares with me from Alderstadt, but that wasn't the same as having the network I'd spent years building up here in Nightside City.
I swung open the door and stepped out onto the casino floor, where a flood of sound and color flashed over me. The slap of cards on felt, the buzz and clatter of a hundred different randomizers, and the hum of voices filled the air. So did glittering visual come-ons of every sort, stardust swirls and images of naked women and flashing holograms of personal cards showing million-credit balances, bouncing balls and playing cards and tropical beaches.
It made me homesick. Oh, Alderstadt and American City had their share of advertising, but it wasn't the same as the Trap -- Alderstadt closed down at night, and American City seemed to do everything in pink and silver. Nightside City had its own style. I'd had a glimpse of it during the cab ride from the port, but it hadn't really sunk in the way this view did. The casino was like a miniature version of the view of Trap Over I'd had from my old office.
But I wasn't allowed to diverge from my route, so I couldn't stop and take it in. I couldn't poke around. I kept moving.
As I made my way toward the elevator I wondered what had become of the place on Juarez after I left.
Then I told myself I was being an idiot. I knew what happened to it -- nothing. Juarez was in the burbs west of the Trap, and sunlight was already crawling down the western rim of the crater that sheltered the city. Most of the west end was already abandoned and empty. There was no way my old landlord had found another tenant.
I stopped in my tracks as a thought hit me.
There was no way my landlord had found another tenant. My old office would be standing empty. Had he even bothered to change the codes, or clear out my old furniture? That com system I had been missing might still be there. Oh, I'd shut it down when I left, but I hadn't taken the time to wipe it properly; there wasn't much on it I'd cared about enough to make sure it was erased.
That was something I might want to check out while I was in town.
Right now, though, I was headed down into Trap Under to find Seventh Heaven and my father's still-breathing remains. I started walking again, ignoring the floaters that were starting to cluster around me, offering free drinks, or a buy-in bonus for the tables, or discounted admission to the private shows.
The elevator was feeling chatty when I stepped in, but I didn't listen as it started telling me about all the delights Nightside City had to offer. "Down," I said. "Level B3."
The doors closed, and once it heard that I was headed lower the ads changed mood. "Rough night?" the elevator asked. "We've got options -- credit on easy terms, service contracts, a dozen ways to get back in the game."
"I'm here on private business," I said. "Shut up."
"Yes, mis'." Then it shut up. Some places the elevators would have kept talking, but the Ginza was a class outfit.
The door opened on a quiet corridor carpeted in a restful shade of blue, with walls that shimmered gently. A display hung in the air, directing me to the Ginza's financial center and personnel offices, an organ broker or two, and Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery. I reached up and tapped that last one, and it turned orange; orange arrows appeared in the carpet, as well.
I followed the arrows, and found my way to a door that showed a scene out of some ancient fantasy, with men and women wearing wisps of pastel gauze as they cavorted amid white marble columns and red and gold tapestries. The name "Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery," in golden letters, drifted through the sky visible between the columns.
I walked up to it; the images faded away, and the door slid open. I stepped through into a sunlit forest glade, and a gentle voice said, "An attendant will be with you shortly. A bench is available to your right."
Ordinarily I don't need to be told where the seats are, but the bench was half-hidden by the images, which covered every available surface. Knowing where to look saved me a second or two. I took a seat.
Birds flitted through the trees, green and red and blue amid the golden sunlight and green leaves. It was pretty, but I wasn't in the mood to enjoy it.
"Seems to me it's bad psychology, doing the waiting room up like this," I said. "Doesn't it remind customers that they can live in whatever setting they want without having the whole thing fed straight into their brains?"
"Oh, no," that soothing voice replied. "These are just images. You can't touch them, or smell them, or taste them, and your options are limited to what's already in memory. They're nowhere near as immersive as the dream experience we offer. A quick sample will demonstrate the difference; just five minutes and you'll see just how unsatisfying these mere images of colored light really are. Shall I set a trial session up for you?"
I shuddered. "No. I'm here on family business, I'm not a customer."
"I see. Here's Mis' Wu to help you."
A handsome young man appeared, striding through the trees toward me, with a unicorn close on his heels. His deep-gray worksuit looked incongruous in that fantasy setting, so I wasn't surprised, when the image skipped slightly as the real Mis' Wu stepped through the projection into the room, to see that he was really wearing exactly that suit.
That skip -- you'd think they could avoid that, adjust the image on the fly so that it matched the real man. Maybe they just didn't care about such details; after all, everyone who came here knew perfectly well these trees weren't real, the sunlight wasn't real, the birds and unicorn didn't exist.
In fact, I wondered whether they left that tiny flaw in there deliberately, just to remind you that this was a cheap illusion, and they could sell you a much better one.
"May I help you?" Mis' Wu asked, smiling.
I stood up. "I'm looking for Guohan Hsing," I said.
"I'm afraid I don't recognize the name."
"Mis' Hsing is a long-term customer," the office voice said. "He has been with us almost twenty years."
"Ah, that was before my time," Mis' Wu said.
In most businesses, I'd expect a front-office type like this to have the complete client specs somewhere in his own head. For a dreamtank, though, what was the point? Generally once someone bought a permanent contract, the only people who had to worry about her were the techs who maintained the tank and kept the customer's body alive. The salespeople didn't need to know who was stashed away in back.
At least, ordinarily they didn't, but here I was, looking for my father.
"What's your interest in Mis' Hsing?" Wu asked.
"It's a family matter," I said. "I'm his daughter."
"At the time of his contracting with us, Mis' Hsing had no children on record," the office said.
I sighed. "He emancipated us," I said. "Genetically, he has three children."
"Legally, he has none."
"This isn't a legal matter; it's a family concern."
"Mis' Wu?" the office said, indicating that it had reached the limits of its programming.
"A family is a legal entity," Wu said.
"A family is also a genetic network," I said.
"What do you want with Guohan Hsing?"
"I want to be sure he's all right. Certain... genetic issues have arisen."
"Mis' Hsing is in perfect health," the office said. "His life chamber is functioning properly in every way."
"I'm sure it is," I said, smiling. "But as I say, we have reasons to be concerned about his continued health that have nothing to do with Seventh Heaven's no doubt excellent service."
"Are you saying there's some sort of hereditary defect involved?" Wu asked.
"There might be, yes."
"I believe we test our customers for such things," Wu said.
"Indeed we do," the office agreed.
This was not going as smoothly as I had hoped. I thought for a moment, looking at Wu's manly face, then decided that it might be worth giving the truth a try.
"I'm also concerned," I said, "about what's going to happen to him once the sun's above the crater wall, and Nightside City gets bathed in hard ultraviolet."
"Oh," Wu said. "Well, as you can see, we're safely below the surface here. We'll continue our operations uninterrupted."
"You're sure of that?"
"Of course! We have contracts."
"You won't transfer your clients to Prometheus, or one of the mining colonies?"
"We have no plans to do so. Seventh Heaven is based right here in Nightside City, in Trap Under, and we expect to stay."
"Do you, personally, intend to stay?" I asked.
Wu looked uneasy. "I... haven't decided," he said.
"I don't mean any offense, Mis' Wu, but my brother and sister and I would feel more comfortable if our father was housed on Prometheus, rather than here in Nightside City. We would, of course, be happy to pay the cost of transferring him."
Wu's uneasiness turned to misery. "I'm sorry," he said. "We can't do that."
"Under the terms of his contract, Seventh Heaven Neurosurgery is Mis' Hsing's legal guardian," he said. "We are obligated to ensure his safety. We cannot entrust it to anyone else."
"You don't have a branch on Prometheus? Or Pandora, or out-system?"
"I regret to say we do not. All our life chambers are right here in Trap Under."
"Can't you transfer guardianship to us?"
"No, Mis' Hsing, we can't. Our contracts are very firm about that; many of our clients are quite insistent on it. The idea of being passed from hand to hand -- they find that very disturbing. Our guardianship is non-transferrable."
"But we're his family!"
"Legally, you aren't."
"Can't you wake him up and ask him if we can move him to Prometheus? I'm sure we can arrange matters with a company in Alderstadt, and do it in such a way that Seventh Heaven doesn't lose any credits."
"The potential liability in a situation like that -- no, we can't. We can't wake him without a court order, in any case, and even if we did, he wouldn't be legally competent."
"I don't believe this," I said. "There must be some way he can be moved."
"No, I don't think there is."
I stared at him for a moment, and that handsome face of his seemed much less appealing than it had when he first entered.
"Fine," I said at last. "I'm sure he'll be safe here with you."
"I'm sure he will, Mis' Hsing. Honestly."
"Could we at least get a tissue sample to check for genetic disorders?" I didn't really have any use for one, so far as I knew, but I thought I might as well maintain my cover story.
"I think we can do that. Give us forty-eight hours, and we can bring it to you. Where are you staying?"
I grimaced. "Never mind," I said. "Thank you for your time." I turned to go.
"I'm sorry we couldn't be more help," he called after me as I stepped out of the glade and back into the corridors of Level B3.
"So am I," I said.
Because it didn't mean I wasn't going to get Dad out; it just meant I wasn't going to do it legally or easily.