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
A casino cop was waiting for me in the elevator, ready to escort me out of the Ginza. She didn't seem particularly hostile about it. I wasn't being thrown out; IRC was just keeping an eye on me.
I couldn't blame them. After all, I had tried to steal one of their employees. I went peacefully.
As I walked I thought matters over, and wondered whether I really had any business here at all. Mis' Wu and the office AI had seemed pretty confident that they could keep my father alive and well in his tank after the sun rose, and maybe they could. Up until Grandfather Nakada had made his pitch, I'd been perfectly willing to leave Dad in their hands. I tried to remember just why it had seemed so urgent to get him and 'Chan out.
Well, 'Chan -- he did need to get out. I knew how to do it, too, though I hadn't said so where IRC could hear me. I'd need to do it quickly, and it would leave a mess for Nakada to clean up, but I didn't see that as a real problem.
The need for speed did mean I had to leave it until last.
I had come to Nightside City with three jobs to run -- get 'Chan out, get Dad out, and see what I could learn about Nakada's assassin. As I told 'Chan, I hadn't really thought I would get anywhere with that third one, but unless I thought of a better algorithm I had to leave 'Chan until last, and getting my father out wasn't running smooth, so maybe I should take a look at the Nakada case.
'Chan thought Yoshio Nakada was dead. That was interesting. Did everyone on Epimetheus think so? I wanted a com. My wrist terminal didn't have enough screen space for some of what I wanted to do, and I didn't entirely trust the systems on the ship -- the ship was Nakada property, and even if it was old Yoshio's personal yacht, that didn't mean his family couldn't have tampered with it. I didn't know exactly what I was going to be doing, but I didn't think it was all going to be stuff I wanted the entire Nakada clan to know.
I tapped for a cab before I was even out the door of the Ginza, and one was waiting for me, door open, when I reached the street. I gave my cop escort a friendly wave, then climbed into the cab and told it, "Juarez."
The old neighborhood had dropped a few bits since I left, and it was easy to see why -- sunlight was glinting from the upper floors of the taller buildings, which just looked wrong. The streets were mostly empty; I guessed some people had already managed to get off-planet somehow, but that most were crowding over to Eastside, deeper into the shadow of the crater wall.
The door of my old building let me in, no questions asked -- as I suspected, the landlord hadn't bothered to wipe my access. After all, I'd left Epimetheus, and why in the galaxy would I ever come back? I went up the one flight to my office.
It was just as I'd last seen it. I walked in and sat down at my desk, and it was as if I'd never left.
Except I had left. I'd wiped most of my files before I left, so I knew I couldn't just plug back in and ride the wire. I'd brought copies of my office software, but I didn't have any of the local updates, and I hadn't kept all the data I'd had when I lived here. I hadn't thought I would ever need it. I could get on the nets, I could function, but I wouldn't have everything I used to have.
On the other hand, I had stuff now I'd never had before. I had some access codes Grandfather Nakada gave me. I had information about how Nakada Enterprises was set up here. And I had a spaceship waiting for me at the port.
I booted up my desk, fed in the software I'd brought with me, and ran a few checks. When I was satisfied, I jacked in and started to dig.
'Chan had been right; the stories about how old Yoshio Nakada had died in his sleep were all over the nets, and there were rumors that it hadn't been a natural death. People didn't believe that his symbiotes would have let him die without setting off a dozen alarms.
They didn't know what I knew, that he gave the dream enhancer partial override authority that got it past his defenses. Hell, they didn't know a dream enhancer had anything to do with it; they just didn't believe he could die of natural causes without warning.
And of course, I knew something else no one on Epimetheus knew. I knew that old Nakada was still alive and well.
So why did everyone in Nightside City think he was dead?
Because they had been told that he was. A report of his death had been received from American City, back on Prometheus, and it had been verified.
But who had sent that report? Who had verified it? How was it done?
Most importantly, why was it done? Why did someone want everyone on Epimetheus to think that Nakada was dead? Who did it benefit, and in what way? The Nakada family holdings in Nightside City weren't that extensive. They did own the New York -- the New York Townhouse Hotel and Gambling Hall -- which was a mid-range casino in the Trap, catering to both tourists from off-planet and miners from elsewhere on the dark side of Epimetheus.
But that was most of their property here. They owned some unremarkable real estate, and a few small businesses, but nothing else major.
The New York was managed by a man named Vijay Vo. He had been with the Nakadas forever, and had run the New York since it first opened. He ran it well. There wasn't a hint that he might be involved in a plot to murder his employer; the rumors all seemed to take it for granted that the killers, whoever they were, were all on Prometheus. No one had suggested any local ties -- but they didn't know Grandfather Nakada was only dead on Epimetheus. I did.
Was Vo a candidate for my assassin?
I didn't see it. He had been loyal for my entire life and more, he was coming up on an honorable retirement soon, the New York was presumably going to shut down at sunrise -- why would Vo suddenly turn on Yoshio?
And how would he benefit from the old man's death? He already had a free hand in running the New York, all the more so since Sayuri Nakada got shipped back to Prometheus.
That brought up a possibility -- when Sayuri got sent home, who replaced her as the family's representative on Epimetheus? I didn't know, but I thought it would be easy to find out.
It wasn't quite as simple as I thought. There hadn't been any official announcements. I had to poke around a little.
Officially, no one had. Which did make sense. Sayuri had been sent to Nightside City in the first place largely to keep her out of the way after she'd made a mess of things back on Prometheus, and she had been given control of everything the Nakadas did here except the New York, since that was the only thing that really mattered. The position she had held had been created for her; it wasn't really necessary. Vijay Vo wasn't a Nakada, but he was still capable of running everything here himself.
There had been a few visits by one of Yoshio's granddaughters, though, a woman named Rumiko Nakada. She was Sayuri's first cousin once removed -- not a very close relationship. She seemed to have been responsible for making sure Sayuri hadn't left any awkward programs running, and also for seeing that no one on Epimetheus realized just how stupid Sayuri had been, or why she got called back to Prometheus.
Did she gain anything from the reports of Yoshio's death? Nothing very obvious, certainly.
Sayuri herself wasn't mentioned anywhere in connection with the supposed death, and hadn't set foot on Epimetheus in almost a year. She might have been involved in the attempt to kill her great-grandfather -- she wasn't clever enough to have done it single-handedly, but she could be part of a conspiracy, perhaps even its instigator -- but I couldn't see any reason for her to have sent a false report of his death.
There wasn't an obvious beneficiary. I couldn't see any way in which the fake death changed anything in Nightside City. Whether Yoshio Nakada was alive or dead, Vijay Vo ran the New York; whether Yoshio Nakada was alive or dead, Rumiko Nakada was just the family's troubleshooter, not directly involved in anything of consequence. And Sayuri didn't have anything to do with Nightside City anymore.
So what did the alleged death change? It didn't change anything in law enforcement, since it had supposedly taken place on Prometheus and it was officially due to natural causes, and not a murder at all. It didn't change anything financially, so far as I could see. It didn't alter the power structure.
I thought at first that it meant any instructions he sent would be ignored, but I quickly realized that was buggy -- if instructions got through, that would start an investigation and the whole program, whatever it was, would crash. If someone was trying to prevent the old man from intervening on Epimetheus, faking his death was exactly the wrong way to go about it. Using whatever software had faked the death reports to block the incoming orders made far more sense.
His actual death would have had immense effects, but they would all be back on Prometheus, or in the struggling colony on Pandora, or in other systems entirely. Nothing obvious would change here on Epimetheus -- but so far as I knew, it was only on Epimetheus that he was believed to be dead.
The whole thing was glitched. After all, sooner or later someone from Prometheus who knew Grandfather Nakada was still alive was going to show up and debug the system, so any changes in ownership or control or cash flow would be rebooted. Whatever our mysterious gritware wanted, it had to be something that didn't need to be permanent. I tried to think what that could be, and the screen kept coming up blank.
So I almost missed it. I almost just let it go right past me. Finally, though, a passing mention in one report reminded me of something, and I realized what would be changed by Yoshio Nakada's death that would not be changed by illness, or a trip out of the Eta Cassiopeia system, or bankruptcy, or anything else. I still didn't see why it could possibly matter, but there was one thing that his death brought about.
It meant that his in-the-event-of-death files were opened.
Anyone in any sort of high-risk occupation maintains ITEOD files, of course -- all the secrets that you wouldn't want anyone to know while you're alive, but which you don't want lost if you die. Everyone who might want you dead, everything you've hidden away that you want your heirs to have, it all goes into the ITEOD files, tucked away behind the most ferocious security possible. Anyone cruising the net who gets too close to the ITEOD files gets warned off; try to touch them and you'll get the most horrific feedback you've ever experienced. Go in on wire, and it's like monsters screaming inside your brain, like blinding light and the stench of death. There are layers of software that hate each other guarding it. Nobody has ever cracked an ITEOD file.
But when a death is reported and verified, the file is delivered to the city cops and read by both a human and an artificial intelligence. It doesn't all become public, but it all comes out from behind the firewalls and encryption.
Did Yoshio Nakada have something in the ITEOD files in Nightside City, something that someone else wanted a better chance to hack? He undoubtedly had terabytes of juicy goodness in ITEOD files back on Prometheus, or whatever the Promethean equivalent of ITEOD files was -- I hadn't happened to have any reason to check out whether cities on Prometheus had the same system Nightside City did, but I guessed there was something similar.
The first question was whether Yoshio Nakada even had ITEOD files in Nightside City. He'd never lived here.
But he had visited here, he had business interests here, and he struck me as the kind of person who'd want offsite back-ups, so I was guessing he did have something here. And if someone had wanted something in that file, faking the old man's death was probably the best way to get at it.
If that was the motive for the bogus reports of his death, then was it the would-be assassin who was responsible for it?
Whoever reported the death must have known about the attempted murder; the supposed death matched the failed assassination perfectly, and I couldn't buy that as mere coincidence. Did that mean the liar was the assassin?
Not necessarily; it might be someone else who had been part of the conspiracy, or it might have been someone who found out after the fact, perhaps while spying on the old man. But it certainly might be the same guy.
I began to wonder whether I might actually crack this after all, and earn my five million bucks, and get 'Chan and our father safely off-planet. Tracing back the fake death report might not be possible, since the party responsible would have expected that and would have covered her tracks as well as she possibly could, but if the motive really was something in the ITEOD files -- and I couldn't think what else it might be -- then I might catch her by checking everyone who had accessed those.
In fact, maybe that was why someone had tried to kill Grandfather Nakada in the first place. Maybe the would-be killer didn't really care one way or the other about the old man's death, but was absolutely desperate to get at something in the files.
That was, I admitted to myself, unlikely, but I couldn't rule it out completely.
This was all lovely in theory, but I didn't yet know whether it had any link to reality. I had some investigating to do, and I did it.
Sure enough, Yoshio Nakada had established standard ITEOD files here in Nightside City fifty or sixty years ago, and they had been updated regularly whenever he visited, and sometimes by encrypted uploads from Prometheus, as well. Those files were turned over to the city cops about an hour after the report of his death was verified.
I went to take a look at them.
I don't mean I left my old office; I didn't. I was still jacked in to my old desk, dancing the nets on wire, and I went looking for the files on the police nets. I didn't have legal access, but I've never worried much about details like that.
I hadn't made up anything special for this sort of cracking, since ten minutes earlier I hadn't known I was going to be trying it, but I had my standard collection of watchdogs and retrievers, and I put them to work. I cruised the cyberscape around the police nets and launched little exploratory jabs into the cracks and crannies, and at the same time I was scrolling through all the public data, looking for anything that might seem relevant and incidentally keeping some of the cops' software occupied.
I focused most of my attention on that, but at the same time some little corner of my head had already moved on to the next question about the falsified death report. I had a theory as to why someone sent it, but I didn't have a clue as to how.
Grandfather Nakada's floater back on Prometheus had said the old man didn't trust anyone on his staff in Nightside City anymore, and that he believed his family's software had been seriously compromised. I wondered whether he had actually been in contact with Epimetheus at all. Whoever faked the report of the old man's death had somehow controlled communications between the two planets so completely that nothing and no one contradicted his story; in fact, he'd faked official verification of the original lie.
That shouldn't be possible.
A human being couldn't do it unassisted, I was sure of that; some pretty powerful software would be needed to monitor and control all the communications between Epimetheus and Prometheus well enough to catch any reference to whether Yoshio Nakada was alive or dead. Software that powerful was more likely than not to be an intelligence in its own right.
Maybe there really was a conspiracy here, and maybe some of the conspirators weren't human.
And there I was, with my brain plugged into the nets, my consciousness roaming a domain where software was more at home than we mere mortals, poking into places this theoretical intelligence probably did not want me poking.
I had just had that unpleasant thought when one of my retrievers came buzzing back to me to say that it had found Yoshio Nakada's ITEOD files, including the access records, and was fetching me a copy of everything. I just had to keep it active long enough.
I called my watchdogs in to guard it, let my other retrievers shut down one by one as they reported in, and waited.
And I saw it coming, saw it and felt it and heard it through the synesthetic web link, I even smelled it, and tasted smoky copper. Something big and blue-black and screaming was searching for... well, I didn't really know what it was searching for, but my best guess was that my retriever had disturbed it, tripped some sort of warning that had brought this thing swooping down on me. It felt like hot melting velvet as it flashed past me down into the police records, and smelled of vinegar and burning styrene.
Three of my watchdogs just vanished, erased down to the last bit. I erased the retriever myself, to reduce the chances of being traced, and then got the hell out of there. I pulled the plug from the back of my neck and was back in my office on Juarez, sitting in the dark -- I hadn't reactivated the walls or lights, only the desk. The windows faced east, and I had them dimmed but not opaque, so I could still see the seething, squirming colors of the Trap, but that was the only light in the room -- the desktop had gone dark.
I rebooted the desk and took a look. The retriever had downloaded 93% of Yoshio Nakada's ITEOD files, including the complete access log; the odds were that I had gotten whatever was there that I wanted to get.
There was a lot there to get; the desk had partially crashed because it had run out of memory and hadn't been able to swap data offsite fast enough. It would have been fine if I had let it slow down, or if the security had been a bit looser.
What the hell was in there, that took that much memory? That desk could hold a dozen human minds without straining, right down to suppressed childhood memories, but Nakada's files had filled every last gigabyte.
If I could have talked to the old man just then I would have had some pretty pointed questions to ask, but he wasn't even on the same planet, and communications between the two were not to be trusted.
I had some other questions I didn't think Nakada could have answered. For one, what was that thing that chased me off? That wasn't standard cop security. That wasn't anything I had ever seen before. I didn't know what it would have done to me if I'd let it, and I didn't want to find out. I'd had hostile software in my brain before, and had no interest in repeating the experience.
Did the cops even know it was there? To have the effect it did that thing must have huge bandwidth; it would be hard to miss. Whoever programmed it hadn't been going for subtlety. But if the cops knew it was there, wouldn't they do something about it?
Had it been prowling the nets at random? Was it guarding the old man's ITEOD file? Had it been looking for me? It might be doing any of those, or it might be something else entirely. Maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe it was guarding something else, or chasing someone else. Maybe it was after something else in the police net.
Lots of questions, not enough answers.
I had to admit, though, that it looked as if I was onto something. Whether it really was a conspiracy to murder Yoshio Nakada I didn't know; why anyone would want to murder Yoshio Nakada I didn't know.
But I was definitely onto something.