Previously

Directly under Tanako's world's three-pointed Sun there's a hulking hemisphere bunker which grumbles electronically, like a mosquito whine slowed down ten thousand times. Its exterior is black body black. It pulls at space around it, as if it has its own gravity.

Laura Ferno (LF-4) discards her final pair of spent SRBs, and once her still-unnamed orbiter runs dry she kicks away from it too, crossing the final distance on an unpowered flat trajectory. This part of T-world is daylight, pure white glass desert with light from Ra hammering down on every square centimetre from directly overhead. Laura's far too far beyond the sound barrier for there to be sound. She catches a shape out of the corner of her eye and swivels in the air to look at it. It's her shadow, streaking across the ground directly below her. As she gets closer to her destination the glass desert clears and the shadow becomes a reflection. She sees herself as a brilliant figure suspended in the sunlight, glowing like a dust speck.

A green slot opens on the bunker exterior, welcoming her visit, guiding her to the correct room.

*

Two objective seconds later Exa arrives, alone. Natalie and Anil are back in their positions and waiting. If Exa senses that anything is off, he doesn't show it.

Natalie starts: "Where are we?"

Exa says, "Some years ago you wrote a spell which, let's say, showed you the world you weren't supposed to see. You saw three artifacts. What were they?"

"There was a star-sized caltrap-shaped object inside the Sun."

"The Ra nonlocality engine," Exa says. "We covered that. And?"

"...At the core of the Earth," Natalie says. "I gather the technical term is 'peach stone'."

"The distributor. Earth-1's local Ra shard and energy cache," Exa confirms. "Left over from Abstract War. Nobody goes there. And?"

"There was a smaller structure. Roughly ellipsoidal. Like a subcutaneous implant injected into the Earth's crust. Ah..."

"The listening post. That's where we all are right now. We built this after the war to serve as our base of operations. Unlike the distributor it has the advantage of being physically connected to the Earth's surface. The 'room' we're in is the control room. It's where we run magic from."

Natalie and Anil both nod.

With a whole free hour, they've long since worked all of this out. Still, the appearance of disorientation needed to be maintained.

Nat pushes on into relatively unknown territory. "And who are you?"

"We're the Wheel Group."

"No. Who are you? What's your name? Your real name. If you have one."

Exa shrugs. "The realest name I have is the one I was born with, Kalathkou Ouatso Neso. 'Kalathkou' was given to me by my mother, 'Ouatso' was inherited from her, 'Neso' was my place of birth. By the time of Abstract War I was going by Ack Ouatso for most purposes. When I joined the war, I relinquished my chosen names in favour of the title and designation Intercessor EB460890-7409-11E3-981F-0800200C9A66."

"So you are the one who rescued us," Anil says. He and Natalie never met 200C9A66 face to face, but Anil has had a lingering suspicion for some time.

"Strictly speaking, no. But if you really had been stranded in suburban Qaaliqat during the real Abstract War, I probably would have been the one."

"Well. Thanks, anyway."

"You're welcome. After the war I abandoned my intercessorship and went between names for a while. Somewhere around the middle of the year of silence I started thinking of myself as Watson. When King laid his plans out, he had a new role marked out for me, Executor. I accepted the offer, which made me Executor Watson. Very quickly people started cutting that down to 'Exa'. Then when I decided I needed a real life, I inflated it back to Alexander."

"So what do we call you?" Natalie asks again.

"Don't call me anything, you'll only get attached," Exa says. He switches gear. "Look:

"I need to warn you about Laura. She's inside the listening post right now, on a restricted level that she's booby-trapped so we can't get into it. She broke in, we don't know how, and we don't know what she's trying to do now that she's here. But what we do know is that on her way here she saw this recording. She's been to this thirty-course victory meal. Except that she saw a different version of it. One with different attendees, and a different speech by King."

"How different?" Anil asks.

Exa grimaces. "I'm still working through it. I haven't had enough time to work my memory over with conflict resolution tools yet. All I can tell you for certain right now is that someone or something was, or is, lying to her. She's being led."

"Radicalised," Natalie says, puzzling privately over the strange reference to Exa's memory.

"Very probably," Exa says. "Was there anything else?"

"Only one thing," Natalie says. "In reality, I'm still carrying the gun you handed me, correct?"

"That's right."

"Laura's not going to respond positively to being threatened at gunpoint. Can you get me a staff?"

Exa raises an eyebrow. "...Consider it done."

"Then I'm ready."

Exa nods. "Very well. Re-entry on one. Three. Two--"

"No, wait," Anil says.

"Hmm?"

"This doesn't add up. Laura can't wake Ra. That's according to your own story. Ashburne locked Ra up and threw away the key. It's impossible to wake Ra. Right?"

Exa says nothing for a significant moment. "Yes," he says. "It is."

"So what's really going on here?"

In his heart, Exa is secretly holding out hope that this is all a preparedness drill. But he can't tell them that.

In fact, there's nothing he can tell them. He can't even tell them how little he honestly knows. So he says:

"One."

*

The God-hardware starts six thousand, three hundred and twenty-eight kilometres below sea level, in an environment of such intense temperature and pressure that mere materials science just up and quits. This is the Earth-1 distributor node, a piece of equipment which even by the standards of the hundred and ninety-fourth century qualified as medium-to-heavy engineering. The thickest outer layer, taking up about half of the machine's volume, is given over to physical and active nonlocality-based shielding for the rest. The inner portion is divided up into closely packed spherical units. Eight of them redundantly handle the energy downlink from the Sun; a hundred significantly larger units actually cache the energy for redistribution to the surface. Six more host the "gigaspells" - the vast and cataclysmically complicated machines which tell the planet-saturating network of Ra listener bugs precisely what to do to simulate the (still not wholly uncovered) fundamental field equations of magic.

The gigaspells aren't magic. The Wheel Group as an institution is deliberately almost completely self-hosting, using admittedly stupendously advanced magic at times, but still staying within their own rules as far as is ever practical. But somewhere down the line, abstraction runs out and a machine has to execute an instruction.

And so this is null country. There's conventional technology here (and even nonlocality, or "māyā" as Laura was taught it, counts as "conventional"), and basic physics, but no magic. You can bring as much mana as you like. You can bring all the Montauk rings and a four-metre staff of bronze and mercury. Down here you are behind the scenes, and there are no special effects.

At the very core of the core is a final spherical unit, a lutetium steel beachball more than a kilometre in diameter. Inside it in turn is a solid block of considerably harder material, three quarters of a kilometre on each side. There's something about the block, or there would be if it could be extracted whole from its container and examined alone; there's something about its proportions, its matte grey exterior and its rounded edges. It looks like a safe.

Building and emplacing this entire unit was a contradictory and paradoxical effort. If you have the capability to drill a hole all the way to the core of Earth, and then through tens of kilometres of active protective shielding and hard refined metal, and you have arrived at this place still alive and able to make operational decisions, there is no power in the universe that can stop you from tearing open the final three hundred and something metres of solid rhenium diboride and finding out what's in this box. But, so King told himself, signals have to be sent. A message has to be made clear.

"Yes, you've made it this far, and yes, there is nothing I can do to slow you down. Pay attention to the symbolism of this gesture. I'm not kidding about this one. Do Not. Do Not. Open. This. Box."

At the very, very, very centre of the safe is a tiny, doorless, airless room, perhaps half the volume of a phone booth. Floating weightlessly inside this innermost room is a God-artifact, the last astra, a reality-warping tool of such brain-breakingly colossal destructive potential that even destroying it "on camera" was deemed too risky, and of such wonderful Get-Out-Jail-Free power that destroying it at all was a step that King in all his bet-hedging glory felt uncomfortable taking. This machine is a black and chrome and blood-red brick of metal, with a recognisable handgrip and trailing tendrils intended to plug into the user's forebrain. No one has seen it but King, who immediately hid it. No one knows it exists but King. It's not in the akashic records. Anywhere.

Laura crowbar-teleports in-- there's so little room that the molecules of the walls have to be physically shoved aside to make room for her to materialise. Having placed her precisely where she asked to be placed, the distributor's router shuts off, and will respond to no further instructions. The exploit is over. The trapdoor is closed.

The artifact rests in a corner, up against one wall and the "ceiling". Laura reaches for it, but can't get there. She's stuck in the wall up to her waist.

The room is hard vacuum and the ambient heat is so intense that even her near-indestructible nonlocality warsuit can't handle it. Flashing red warnings multiply across the lower half of Laura's HUD. Laura dismisses them with an irascibly waved hand. A countdown replaces them. It counts in luminous orange-white seconds and hundredths of seconds.

Laura pushes against the wall. She can't move. She can't reach the objective. She shifts position slightly and reaches again, further, this time. She falls millimetres short. In one paralysed microsecond she sees herself frying alive, still in the suit, trapped further from help than any human has ever been.

Millimetres. Think.

The suit informs her that its outer layers are bonding with the metal. As if reacting to Laura's immediate thought, it further informs her that it has burnt out its capability to safely shift shape-- for example, to extend its fingers, even by a little.

Laura swears at the countdown. There is an answer to this. She would have the answer by now if the epileptic rushing digits weren't pressuring her so hard. Ten seconds. No magic. No magic. Fucking think.

She holds her hand out again. She just reaches for the astra, and waits. She waits for a full forty percent of her remaining life.

The machine twitches. It swings gently around, its handgrip coming to point at her.

Three point five. Laura stretches one final time. Her fingertips brush the thing, and it moves as if suddenly magnetised. The Bridge leaps into her arms, and she clutches it to her chest, curling up around it while its plugs stab happily into her brain.

*

Natalie zaps back to real-world consciousness inside a travel pod, decelerating into the listening post's deepest terminal. She discovers a blob of putty in her ear, a simple radio transceiver. There are less crude ways for the Wheel Group to communicate with her, but Laura Ferno's tripwire is too dangerous to risk that kind of advanced magic.

The pod halts at its destination, deceleration smoothly trailing off to zero with no jolt. Unseen by anybody, Laura's pod has folded itself away to make room for Natalie's.

Natalie climbs out and takes in the arrival hall, a monumental steel-lined cavity in the world, huge and dark and girdered for extreme physical strength. She knows where this installation fits into the body of the world; she knows how many kilometres of listening post are above her and how many kilometres of solid rock are above that.

Laura (LF-3) is at the far end of the hall, glowing like a firebug, bottom-lighting the colossal Montauk ring whose energy she is leeching. Laura's back is to Natalie, and her fist is raised, with three long, narrow diamonds radiating from it, Dehlavi lightning indicating a deep T-world dive in progress. Blanketing Laura's other arm is a gauntlet of gold, which seems to be made of slowly undulating flames.

Natalie walks forward silently, assembling the staff from its two pieces. She stops at the halfway point and waits, thinking.

"If you disturb her mental state, she'll blow this entire installation away," King reminds her through the earpiece.

Aloud, Natalie asks, "What are you doing?"

Nothing happens. The gold wavers, the lightning fizzles quietly. The cavern's air is completely dustless, sterile. The question echoes away.

"Laura," Nat says. "It's time to wake up. ...Laura."

The lightning fades, one strand at a time. Laura unclenches her fist, and her posture shifts as she recovers from the trance state. She turns and looks.

"Nat?"

Nat holds her staff ahead of her, assuming a textbook defensive stance.

Laura snorts. "Are you serious? You haven't taken a day of bojutsu in your whole life."

Natalie holds Laura's gaze. "Try me."

"Do you know where I am right now?" Laura raises her golden-gloved left hand and emits a single magical syllable. Natalie winces at the released mana, then howls and bends double clutching her ears at a series of horrendous metallic shrieks. When she looks up again Laura is holding aloft a black metallic magic staff, standard bo length. She wasn't carrying the pieces; cylindrical chunks of metal have been wrenched wholesale out of the nearby girderwork.

"I could deck you with one hand," Laura declares. "That's without magic, or the suit, or the gauntlet. Unless you're actually proposing a magical duel?"

"What if I am?"

"Then 'outclassed' is too small a word."

Natalie holds her position and her stony expression and says nothing for a long moment. She sags, and sighs, and throws the staff aside with a clanging. "Okay. You're right. I can't fight you or threaten you."

"Did they send you?"

"Yes."

"How did you get this close to me without tripping the laser?" Laura tucks her bo in one armpit and studies the palm of her gauntlet hand. She pokes at it with her other hand, as if pushing unseen beads around, and seems to be speaking to herself. "Ah, I see the problem... The tripwire spell only detects Wheel members... because... Kazuya was supposed to be with me..."

"Don't disable it," Nat tells her.

"What?"

King, audible in Natalie's ear, has a similar reaction.

"Don't disable the tripwire," Nat says. She holds her ear. King is yelling at her. "We need to talk without interference. (King, shut up for a second.) Laura, what are you trying to do? What was that name you said?"

"Do you know who these people are?" Laura asks.

"Do you?"

"There's a magic far beyond magic," Laura says. "There's a power so great that nobody should ever need to eat, or hurt, or die. The Wheel got to that power first, and locked it up, and the so-called 'magic' that they replaced it with amounts to stolen crumbs. They forged this whole world.

"Today the power balance changes. We're all going to become immortal. And after that... we're going into space."

"Who told you all of that?" Nat asks.

"Kazuya Tanako."

"Kazuya Tanako died in 1995," Nat says, in unison with Anil Devi, Adam King and several additional Wheel members. Anil is back on the Floor, watching with the rest of them.

Laura shakes her head. "Kazuya Tanako was murdered by the Wheel Group. The Wheel Group uses this place, the listening post, to monitor all magical usage everywhere. The data they capture is stored as records, the akashic records. Only the Wheel is supposed to have access to those records but there's a fault in the system-- all you need is a trained mind and enough magical flux. Tanako was the first to discover and seriously explore the fault, and he was killed for his trouble because he discovered the truth. But his mind stayed in the system. And I brought him back to life. He is Ra. His True Name was ra."

"No it wasn't," says King.

"No it wasn't," says Natalie.

Laura hesitates.

"Kazuya Tanako's True Name was penamba," Natalie says.

"You don't know that," Laura says.

"Yes. I do. Kazuya Tanako's True Name was penamba. Laura, you've been lied to. Do you have any idea what happened last time the power balance changed? Millions of millions of people died, the Wheel Group were the only survivors. This is the best world they could think to build afterwards, and I know it's not perfect--"

"You have been lied to," Laura says.

Natalie shakes her head, not so much to show disagreement as to throw Laura's doubts on top of an already-huge pile of her own. "Fine! But Laura, we're really here. And this is really happening. What are you trying to do? What did 'Tanako' try to get you to do?"

"Nothing that I wasn't already trying to do by myself," Laura says. "He helped me."

What does Laura have that Ra wants? Natalie thinks. It's an old thought, one she last had what feels like a lifetime ago. What does she have access to, that nobody else does?

"Mum," Natalie realises.

"No. Not just Mum."

Natalie stares.

*

It's stupefyingly early in the Eastern Standard morning and something noisy and unauthorised is flashing intermittently in the sky over the Florida coast. Each time the light comes back there's another abbreviated BOOM, like a long rumble of thunder delivered in discrete slices. The phenomenon is giving off intermittent radio signals on bands no civilian is cleared to use, and its focal point is ascending and moving out to sea, rising so fast and accelerating so hard it can't possibly be a conventional aircraft.

This is where we came in--

 

Next: All Hell

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Discussion (100)

2014-05-11 20:11:13 by Sam:

One of the very earliest concepts that I wanted to visit for "Ra" was that of nuclear semiotics: the challenge of warding inquisitive people away from dangerous radioactive material for up to ten thousand years into the future, beyond all modern cultures, languages and symbols. My idea was for Ra to be a colossally powerful and dangerous entity which had been locked away in exactly this way - maybe thousands of years in the "past" - and then the vault was discovered in the present day.

The implicit question being: even if it were possible to communicate in perfect <your language here> across that incredible gulf of time, is there a single thing that could be written on the exterior of that sarcophagus which would stop us, modern humans, from trying to open it?

The answer being, of course: no.

The focus of "Ra" shifted significantly from that early idea but here I finally bring it back around. It only amounts to one short paragraph overall, but there it is: my take on "This place is a message and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!..."

2014-05-11 20:13:16 by koboldskeep:

Akeron, or Acheron, was the river of the underworld that souls were ferried across before entering the afterlife.

2014-05-11 20:21:43 by Lorxus:

Ohhh boy. Does this invalidate part of the "known true names" section, if Tanako really is penamba, or is this a hint that Laura is the correct one of the two?

2014-05-11 20:51:41 by JJJS:

...as in the river that leads straight to Hell?

Oh man, humanity is so doomed.

2014-05-11 21:30:10 by Ben:

The stuttering phenomenon above Florida sounds to me like the Space Shuttle being resurrected at the last moment of its flight (the moment preserved in Laura's memory palace), then exploding and being erased, again and again.

But reconstructing someone from a memory of them exploding is, uh... not obviously productive?  I thought the plan was to rescue Rachel and the Shuttle crew *without* immediately re-killing them. 

So why is Laura-by-way-of-Ra reconstructing the whole exploding Shuttle instead of just Rachel and the crew?  Is the Shuttle itself important for some reason?  Like, is there some relevant but previously unmentioned object inside it?  Or was she only able to instruct Ra to rebuild that event's Akashic record in its entirety?  Or am I wrong to assume that each repetition of the Shuttle explosion is identical?

And what does the Bridge astra do, exactly?  An obvious guess is that it's an unfiltered do-what-I-mean link to Ra—the "key" that Ashburne supposedly threw away.  I suppose another possibility is that it's a way to contact Virtual Humanity, except that they're allegedly frozen.  I doubt that it just tells Ra to rebuild things from the Akashic records, since we've seen so much of that done already.

2014-05-11 21:45:14 by KimikoMuffin:

Well, that (mostly) answers my questions about "alpha Exa".

2014-05-11 22:18:08 by Sam:

When I wrote the "victory party" scene the first time around I tried really hard to make it so that it would work for both purposes - it would serve as the true conclusion of Abstract War as well as being suitable to push Laura Ferno in the direction that "Tanako" wanted her to go. But when I came back to it the second time around it just didn't quite fit, which was regrettable. I always had that extra ace, which was to show that "Tanako" had modified the dream a little to suit his purposes, but I'm a little disappointed that I had to play it.

2014-05-11 22:21:20 by Sam:

The other thing that I agonised over for an incredible amount of time was the fact that Ashburne is at the table in the first version of the party but not in the second. For the longest time my intention was that Ashburne had (1) played a prominent role in Abstract War, but not led it, and then (2) left the Wheel Group due to "creative differences" in the 1970s. (Probably a disagreement over how much the Wheel Group should interfere actively in world events - there was a war that they could/should have stopped - maybe Rwanda.)

By the time of actually writing "Abstract War" I realised that it had to go a different way. Ashburne had to be the leader of the war and she had to have left King in charge at its conclusion. There was no way to reconcile this with her being at the table for the victory party. Introducing this inconsistency was exceedingly painful - it still doesn't *really* make a lot of sense - and I'm sorry for the needless/wasted narrative confusion/speculation that resulted from it.

2014-05-11 22:35:27 by Sam:

Oh! And thanks to BaronWR for thoroughly sanity checking this chapter.

2014-05-12 00:59:25 by anonymouse:

"No one knows it exists but King."
Well, and presumably Laura, since she did go and try to steal it. But... wouldn't Ashburne also know about it? After all, the astras and whatever else makes up the new architecture of the solar system was ultimately a result of the last command to Ra, which came directly from her brain. So either King is playing both sides here, or Ashburne somehow set this all in motion.
Another detail: where did Tanako get his warsuit from? The description makes it sound that what he was wearing (and that Laura copied and ended up instantiating in the real world) was the same as what Wheel members wore during the war, and it's certainly an example of non-magical nonlocality technology of the sort that was presumably common before the war, but so much afterwards. And it's something Ashburne (or another wheel member) would have been very familiar with, but Kazuya Tanako would not.

2014-05-12 01:19:40 by naura:

LF-4: the version of Laura in T-world interfacing with the last astra.
LF-3: the version of Laura talking to Nat in the listening post.

so I suspect:

LF-2: the version of Laura who came back from Tanako's world in Iceland after the fight with not-Benj, and who died in the bathtub at Chedbury Bridge
LF-1: Laura, who we are introduced to in Chapter 1 and who dies in Iceland, buried by lava.

2014-05-12 03:00:41 by Phikal:

Naura, i agree, apart from the text-swap at the start. To me that implies that LF-4 incarnated into the Real when she entered the buzzing bunker in T-World. So
LF-4: Formerly of T-World, now incarnated in the centre of the earth and bonding with the Bridge (Abstract Desire?)
LF-3: The Laura currently talking to Nat, who incarnated with the NL suit, in the listening post, after the party at the end of the war.
LF-2: The Lara that walked back to the real world (how did that work again?), after the not Benji incident. Now dead in the acid bathtub.
LF-1: The original, born to real parents, Lara. Died in lava when her shield failed.

As a side note, that also means that Nat is NF-2, right?

2014-05-12 03:43:05 by koboldskeep:

The Abstract Bridge can probably pull things from Tanako's World to Earth with ease. That is Laura's goal, after all.

2014-05-12 07:01:20 by Daniel H:

The issue with the party differences (speech and Ashburne) is one of the reasons to prefer fiction which is published all at one time instead of in individual chapters.

Unfortunately, most of the good stories I'm reading/are on my to-read list seem to be in the published-in-chapters format. The stories are more important than the format, but this can cause annoyances like the ones we've seen here.

2014-05-12 07:47:32 by Sean:

@anonymouse:
There's no reason that Ashbourne would *have* to know about all of the astras. She asked Ra for tools, and Ra calculated which tools were optimal according to her desire, without necessarily enumerating them for her. She might suspect that some capability was missing, but not be sure whether it was due to a missing astra or not.

Or it might be that King is the only one who "knows"  about the artifact simply because Ashbourne is dead at the moment.

@Phikal:
I think that NF-1 died in lava, but NF-2 was deconstructed when teleported from the listening post. Which would make this NF-3 at least.


As a design pattern, a bridge connects a set of composite operations with the abstract implementation of the lower level operations that are being composed. If Metaph lets you write new physics (e.g.  magic) on top of the astra layer of abstraction, maybe Bridge lets you change the astra interface itself. Ra can't take direct orders now, but maybe it can take requests to change aspects of its "Abstract"  interface.

2014-05-12 07:56:25 by Alan:

I like the on-the-cuff story writing. It feels like things are happening as I read.

I'm tense when I read the chapters, and the comments and speculation are a big part of the fun. My heart thumps in my chest at times.

I bet Sam gets  real rush out of it too; perhaps as if the storyline is a wild animal struggling out of control, perhaps like a mastermind narrowly outsmarting its pursuers.

I'm so anxious to learn what happens next. Thanks Sam.

2014-05-12 15:54:50 by Luissen:

It's interesting that you chose 'intercessor' as a rank. quite a curious word. I'm not entirely sure why I chose to tackle something as insignificant like that while all of the other exciting things pass by...

2014-05-12 19:18:22 by John:

Well, I don't know exactly what the Wheel Group was thinking in the first place, believing that they had locked Ra down forever.

After all, how did the Wheel Group re-acquire access to Ra when they themselves were locked out by the Virtuals, presumably forever?

Physical access, that's how.

I suspect, from the description given, that whatever is in the air above Florida is heading towards space. Presumably towards the Sun. Presumably to obtain physical access to the Ra hardware again.  And presumably, Abstract Bridge is on board, and is precisely the doohickey needed to open Ra back up again.

2014-05-12 19:20:52 by Curiouser:

Nothing is lost forever," said Slartibartfast, his face flickering redly in the light of the candle that the robot waiter was trying to take away, "except for the Cathedral of Chalesm."

2014-05-12 20:00:33 by John:

The other possibility, regarding Exa's merged memory, is that it's Exa who is actually the one that's been lied to, and who has had his memory of events altered, and it's that merged, un-modified copy which will let him detect the modifications. Which makes it entirely possible that when Exa figures that out, he will change sides.  I think he's wavering already.

2014-05-12 20:38:16 by anonymouse:

Yeah, it sounds like the Bridge is the key to whatever is going to happen next, and we also have very little idea of what it actually does. But we can make a few guesses: for one thing, it allows Laura (LF-4) to either survive or escape, because she has no way back out of the rhenium boride safe otherwise: there's no magic at the center of the Earth, so her T-World tricks won't work. I suppose it's also possible that she only needs to use the thing for a very, very brief time to do whatever it is she's attempting to do before her body is cooked.
But what is it that the Bridge can do? Well, whatever it is, it needs to be plugged directly into the user's brain. So it's a bridge between the user's brain and... something. Maybe it's the last remaining key to allow reprogramming Ra even with physical access. That's as plausible a theory as any other at this point, and would certainly fit the hint of "Next: All Hell" that our host has graciously left us.

2014-05-12 22:24:11 by rootuser:

The bridge allows unfettered access to the RA hardware. Strictly my opinion, but i believe the bridge was granted as one of the tools given to Ashburne as a failsafe to retain the ability to access the nonlocality engine, perhaps even minus the interpreter.

Also what was the one thing, aside from Rachael, that Laura had access to? The ability to build a goddamn space shuttle without the assistance of the interpreter engine, strictly from her own memory.

2014-05-12 23:08:08 by skztr:

I never thought to look it up before, and I'm sure it's already been mentioned, and perhaps it's completely irrelevant, but:

in Real Life, the shuttle launch in December 1993 was for the first servicing mission of the Hubble telescope.

2014-05-12 23:12:34 by HiEv:

Something went wrong here:
He switches gear. "Look:

It should be "gears", and then the one word by itself just looks odd.  Perhaps you should just make all of that part of the next paragraph?

2014-05-13 00:25:08 by Curiouser:

I just thought of something. From what we know about Ra so far, I'm talking about the computer at the center of the sun, it seems to be a pretty neutral entity, simply fulfilling requests from the user.
If so, then who the heck has Laura been talking with??
He claims to be Ra, but we're pretty certain at this point that this guy lies a lot. So what do we ACTUALLY know about him?

2014-05-13 01:11:50 by Brannon:

I've been leaning toward the entity with the true name "ra" being some sort of avatar of the frozen Virtuals.  I could see all the trillions of separate personalities somewhat merging into some sort of command personality. 
There are flaws in this theory, of course.  Virtual Humanity is supposed to be inert at this time, and "ra" shouldn't know all the details about the magic system, and the astras.  Such detailed knowledge really could only come from someone who was deeply involved in the creation of the new reality.  Maybe there was a mole in the Wheel group from the start?

2014-05-13 07:08:21 by atomicthumbs:

ohhhh *shit*.

2014-05-13 07:16:01 by atomicthumbs:

so on one side we have the group of immortals responsible for ending an ancient future war, reconstituting humanity from Gro-your-own-Human instant civilization powder, maybe killing an entire set of virtual civilizations (a level above genocide? and only depending on your philosophical definition of "killing"), building magic, controlling magic, and bending an ancient future god-computer to their will, plus Natalie Ferno, Anil Devi, and a previous-generation instance of Laura with a recursion astra

and on the other side, you have a (possibly batshit insane by now) Laura Ferno #4, with the mother of all reality-fucker artifacts and maybe still the recursion astra, a goddamn magic space shuttle (maybe perpetually exploding), *something* calling itself Ra, a *provably unsurpassable sleeping computer-god inside the Sun*, and the civilizations locked sleeping inside it

have I mentioned I love the scope of this story

2014-05-13 07:20:25 by atomicthumbs:

one last comment:

>But somewhere down the line, abstraction runs out and a machine has to execute an instruction.

did LF-4 just find an assembler

2014-05-13 07:20:45 by Alan:

Regarding moles in the wheel: We've had it suggested that the wheel members cannot be entirely sure who each other are in Scrap Brain Zone.  Don't forget Scott fucking Parajsa either!

2014-05-13 08:56:25 by Eldritch:

I agree, the scope of the story is awesome.

And even better, this time it's actually somewhat comprehensible in scope and grounded in concrete plot territory with characters I actually care about! Great job, Sam!

I can't WAIT to see the next chapter. (And if you get around to editing this again and compiling it into an ebook, I'll drop you some ca$h money$ for it.)

2014-05-13 14:02:38 by skztr:

I would also encourage an "edited version", which cleans up unintentional inconsistencies. That said, stories evolve over time, and I do wonder if:

    "Radicalised," Natalie says, puzzling privately over the strange reference to Exa's memory.

is foreshadowing that Natalie's about the piece-together the same theory that has been mentioned in the comments: The Party simulation was tampered with by Ra. Exa's mind has been merged with someone from that simulation (the merge occurring prior to anyone knowing about the differences). And the guy's name is "Executor", on top of that. Let's put this another way:

You want to run a program on your laptop, but you lent your friend your only copy (*because you are secretly in 1997. Please don't look at the edges of the metaphor too closely). Fortunately, you know you have a copy of it on your desktop. You copy the program over, run it on your laptop... then notice your desktop's virus scanner is complaining.


All that is to say: Sam has said there are some inconsistencies that he didn't like. Sam has also said that the story evolves over time. What could be viewed as a sad inconsistency today could be viewed as a critical plot point tomorrow.

2014-05-13 15:01:41 by Toph:

Brilliant, skztr! The Wheel Group have a poor security record, that's been established. The latest version of Exa was merged with a version from a simulation that could have been tampered with.

The open question is whether Ra or its handlers are powerful/reckless enough to predict that Laura would escape to reality, Exa would follow her, and then both of them would survive the encounter. Simulations aren't perfectly accurate.

2014-05-13 15:57:51 by rootuser:

Toph, its not a question of whether RA or its handlers expected this or intended that. The simulation was compromised. Exa was merged with an untrusted copy, while live. Everything in and about that simulated recording is compromised, including mindstates. You simply must assume as much.

The whole premise of most of the story is if you can touch the metal, you own the system. Exa has been owned.

2014-05-13 19:22:25 by skztr:

Merged with an untrusted copy, while live, in a moment of frustration (ie: without properly thinking through the security considerations). I think a lot of this story can be thought of in this context: We have a system which is provably, mathematically, correct. Impossible to breach. And yet it's breached. This can be explained by a couple of different things, but there are two "zeroth rules of security": Rule 0a: If you have physical access, all bets are off. Rule 0b: Any security system is only as good as the humans involved in the process.

I do not take any credit for this theory, I'm just "bump"ing it from comments in earlier chapters, by people who put things together faster than I do.

2014-05-13 21:29:56 by T:

Small security mistakes with drastic consequences does seem to be one of the core themes of the story. I hope Sam takes the party memory conflict and runs somewhere really cool with it.

2014-05-13 23:48:27 by Alan:

A sudden thought:

What if the conflict is merely driven by stray copies of mages and rogue wheels? They are living in the shadows. "This is about freedom".

The Wheel don't seem to track their assets very well. Chi yes, people not so much.

Rachel, Garrett, and Parajsa(a black sheep with privileges!). Tanako(s) and multiple Lauras. It seems quite likely to me that there could be other stray processes in the universe.

Ashburne seems to have become Rachel somehow, which Adam King ought to have known because a sensible person would have enumerated the survivors after leaving the sun. How do you gain a Rachel and not know it? Unless Ashburne chased the original Rachel down during the diaspora and took her place.

Natalie came to realize that a mage can do anything that the non locality gods could do, given sufficient determination. Checking other stars for magic was just a façade for her cloak spell.

Laura wants to raise the dead. Somehow the lastra ties into that, or so she believes. Perhaps it contains or accesses the n-grams of people who have died. If Ra granted Ashburne what she wanted, it seems likely that she regretted the loss of the actuals, and would want backups.

Laura learned to alias herself to use other people's mana. How does that tie in with instancing people, or resurrecting them? She needs her mom's UUID to bring her back I suppose.

So both Laura and Natalie learned to dodge chi traces in different ways, but they both learned them from Ra.

Perhaps Ra repopulated the earth by providing a bunch of minds from the virtual population. Or is the astra a UUID generator/record keeper? How would the unique identities of conventionally born people tie into that?

To quote Bubbles: "Something's fucky."

2014-05-14 04:47:42 by Sgeo:

Looks like the List of known True Names at http://qntm.org/spells reflects Tanako=penamba. As of February 9th, it read 'ra'.

2014-05-14 08:25:24 by Sean:

The astras are interesting artifacts:

1) At least some of them (the narrative astras) have a vast, brute intelligence, and even creativity.

2) They take some initiative to help/encourage people to use them. Abstract Weapon doesn't just tell you about weapons, it tells you about people you want to kill. The Bridge in this story turns itself just enough to be reachable.

3) They keep showing up in situations where they shouldn't, ending up in non-Wheel possession. The recursion artifact was supposedly destroyed, even in the simulation where "Tanako" said he found it. Same with Abstract Weapon (suspicious; did Exa deliberately let it go, and then wipe his own memory?). Yet both got into the hands of baseline humans later. Abstract Doctor was "lost", but then found suspiciously close to the surface.

It seems like either the astras have been programmed to be used as much as possible, or else they are being actively controlled by an external entity.

2014-05-14 12:10:26 by skztr:

It could be a sort of "1st law" conflict, where Ra "wants" to do something, but is somehow "forbidden" from using nonlocality tech for anything which does not follow the "rules".

It is also probably notable how little any Actual cares about the fate of the Virtuals. They've told Ra: "stop processing the Virtuals. Just put them in Hibernate mode". But it's such a racist view of them "We are are war with Virtuals", etc. Ra wasn't even asked "Who gave this order?", "How many Virtuals were involved in it?", "How many Virtuals even know about it?".

This post was originally playing to the emergent intelligence theory of Ra, but as I wrote it, even that misses a significant point: Whether or not the attack was carried out by Virtuals vs Ra is one question. If the attack was carried out by Virtuals, it could have been carried out by literally any number of Virtuals, ranging from "one" to "all of them" to "one IS all of them" (I suspect that trying to count virtuals makes about as much sense as counting the number of people in Andromeda).

The status of the Virtuals is something that we know very little about.

2014-05-14 16:26:59 by Silhalnor:

Kind of hard to infer anything when I distrust nearly everything that has been said in the story. :/ Even some of the "real" places Laura has been to, like the core of the Earth, could be fabrications. I'm guessing that they are not but I distrust it and that opens up too many alternative possibilities. "Always assume reality" but what do you do when dream and reality and "alternative realities" (lies) are mixed quite thoroughly?

Which reminds me, shouldn't Nat be in a simulation right now? If I were the Wheel group I would make sure she actually defuses the situation before actually sending her in. They may not be able to access Laura's mind state to simulate accurate reactions but they have her sister's mind state right here with all her memories of Laura. Combine that with the narrative astra and they should be able to create a decent facade even if they have no idea what she is up to.

Another thought I've had is that if you are going to freeze the virtual population with the intention of never letting them go then why don't you just erase them? Surely the two are equivalently genocidal?

2014-05-14 17:18:47 by naura:

I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that many/most of the Virtuals weren't complicit in trying to wipe out the Actuals, and that we should thus regard them as squillions of innocent people frozen in a megastructure in the sun. The Wheel Group is pretty ruthless/exploitative with their simulations, but Sam's mentioned that some Virtuals employ equivalent-or-worse tactics within their own simulations. Such an entity could have hacked Ra, etc, starting Abstract War, without consulting the rest of the Virtual population. Which arguably makes it a big ethical issue for the characters, and one that I hope they at least consider.

(Side note: how do you, a Virtual, contact another Virtual who doesn't want to be contacted? There's gotta be some Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect stuff going on inside Ra...)

2014-05-14 17:49:20 by Sam:

> many/most of the Virtuals weren't complicit in trying to wipe out the Actuals

This is certainly true. Furthermore, remember that civilisation inside Ra progresses unimaginably faster than civilisation outside of it. Even if (1) there existed a snapshot of Ra's contents at the time when Abstract War was initiated and (2) it was possible to analyse this snapshot to isolate the specific party or parties who could be responsible for beginning it, *seven full real-time days* elapsed before Ra was suspended. That's enough time for the whole structure of reality inside Ra to change, and certainly enough time for everybody responsible to be dead/unrecoverable or unrecognisable.

This is what I was alluding to when I wrote "Virtual human civilisation has been frozen indefinitely. Nobody is left who could pass further judgement on them." Bringing someone, anyone, to justice for Abstract War - for any coherent meaning of "justice", within any legal code more complex than "kill them all and let God sort them out" - is a colossally difficult task, one that would almost certainly be impossible for Actual human civilisation at its peak, let alone the 200 and change who survived.

2014-05-14 17:56:45 by Sam:

> Even some of the "real" places Laura has been to, like the core of the Earth, could be fabrications.

Everything is real.

2014-05-14 18:00:33 by Sam:

> Another thought I've had is that if you are going to freeze the virtual population with the intention of never letting them go then why don't you just erase them? Surely the two are equivalently genocidal?

No, they aren't.

2014-05-14 19:03:48 by anonymouse:

For what it's worth, I understood the "them" in "nobody is left who can pass judgement on them" to mean the Actual survivors being the target of the judgement. Having suspended the Virtuals, there really is nobody else left who can judge them or do anything to them. But the other interpretation, of nobody being left who can judge the Virtuals, makes about as much sense too.

2014-05-14 20:59:40 by skztr:

@Silhalnor: you mention "shouldn't Nat be in a simulation right now?"

from "Direct Sunlight":
> "What happens if we put someone in there who isn't Wheel?" ...
> Ward is already trying combinations. "Nothing. Nothing happens...

ie: Nat and Anil have both been confronting Laura thousands of times since at *least* the time they were transported (which would be the time at which they definitely had a complete brain scan).

Alternatively: there wasn't enough time. Several have commented on the oddity that Anil and Nat were running at such a relatively "slow" simulation speed at the party. That may be all that Wheel could manage at the time. 100% of processing power dedicated to training them for their purpose, and then send them off to perform their purpose as soon as possible.

And yet: The moment they *exited* the sped-up simulation, some simulations could have been started as the plan was being executed.

long story short: Simulations have probably been run, and at the moment we are in "reality", but either way there are so many variables involved that Wheel probably knows only that Nat isn't instantly killed prior to the unknowns becoming important factors (and that it's likely Anil *is* instantly killed prior to the unknowns becoming important factors- otherwise he would have been sent first), in the majority of simulations.

Regarding freezing vs deleting: Of course these aren't equivalent. This is how we know Ashburne is, to put it bluntly "the good guy". Ashburne realises that even if she wants them dead, it would be wrong not only to kill them, but wrong to let the current generation decide whether or not to kill them.

2014-05-14 22:48:16 by Silhalnor:

@skztr: True, it is probable that Wheel have too many variables and too many unknowns to produce a useful simulation but they should at least be able to ascertain whether or not she genuinely believes them and will help them. But I suspect they haven't even put a big effort into running adequate simulations to determine things this this and I have two reasons. First they don't know Nat very well. This alone is an extremely good reason to ascertain her trustworthiness of course but on to reason two: their proven poor human level security.

Is that the purpose behind freezing the Virtuals, to let future generations of Actuals decide what to do with them? If so then certainly freezing and deleting are different. Indeed, Ashburne does freeze them for one year to give everyone a chance to mourn and decide what to do but one of the decisions was apparently to leave them frozen, was it not? That was my take on it at least.

King, at least, has no intention of ever unfreezing them and if anyone has the power to do so it would be him.

2014-05-14 23:41:01 by Vladimir:

If "Tanako" was powerful enough to edit the recording, he was also powerful enough to avoid getting killed by Exa in the recording. So I guess Sam is now forced into saying it was done deliberately, in order to infect the real-world Exa.

2014-05-15 02:20:56 by atomicthumbs:

just another fun thought: the Wheel group is responsible for bringing thousands or hundreds of thousands (at least) of people into existence just so it can kill them to figure out the best way to do things.

whee!

2014-05-15 02:48:25 by kabu:

@Vladimir:

Not necessarily.  He could have spent a lot of time and effort creating a false record, but still have not a lot of split-second control over it in the moment.

2014-05-15 06:06:02 by yew:

ra!Tanako's behavior in "There Is No Cabal" struck me as almost intentionally suspicious - he seems *too* excited to just be trying to convince Laura, which makes no sense if his version of events is fake.

Assuming Wheel is telling the truth, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that getting killed (and all the ensuing events) was part of the plan.

2014-05-15 09:22:24 by skztr:

@atomicthumbs: I like to think that's what distinct wars 17, 27, and 33-36, were about. Possibly also trillions of wars between only Virtuals, but that presumes that Virtuals are capable of having anything resembling "war"

2014-05-15 12:21:14 by Toadworld:

I expect that Ra is thinking like a God Emperor.

2014-05-15 18:55:10 by John:

So does that make this endless series of Laura Fernos the Ra equivalent of Duncan Idaho?

2014-05-16 03:19:47 by Krel-Tal:

@John: If it does then the Wheel Group is House Harkonen.

2014-05-16 09:37:53 by Toadworld:

I feel a bit unfair for my comment, actually - I think that Ashburne's "world where this can never happen again" will involve a diaspora of humanity into space and this is what Ra is pushing towards.  This was the God Emperor's solution in the Original Dune universe - a scattered humanity is an invincible humanity.  But other than that I don't mean to draw any parallels between the stories; a good number of stories address the question "How do we stop humanity being complacent?  How do we take our place in the universe?" and it would be crippling to ask artists not to address questions that have been addressed before.

In fact it would be interesting to draw parallels and contrasts between the human's fear of Ra and the Butlerian Jihad.  But let's not, because that too might inhibit Sam's ability to write without worrying about being original.

We can all agree on this at least:  Sam's stories are much, much, MUCH better than the New Dune novels.

2014-05-16 21:21:56 by Yasha:

The shuttle isn't exploding: It's intermittently coming into existence. The BOOM is just the sound of the shuttle when it intermittently exists. That's why the focal point is moving: The shuttle is rising, but only exists in snapshots.

Now, I have no idea why Laura's whatever it is that's she's doing brings things into reality intermittently, but I guess it's cooler that way?

2014-05-16 21:31:04 by anonymouse:

Sounds more like a glitch in the Matrix to me. I think Laura has broken reality.

2014-05-17 01:04:38 by Curiouser:

Okay, this is somewhat off topic, but not really. Bear with me.

So in case you have missed it, theoatmeal.com has published a review of the Tesla Model S, which is awesome and you should read it, and I won't go into why I think it's freakin' amazing.

But there was this tiny part there that talked about how his friend uses solar power to charge it so it's powered by the sun, and I think you guys know where I'm going with this.
I couldn't resist it, I had an urge to make a stupid "internet meme".
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0HOU7vYzi-ETlZNSG4tT3liaVU/

2014-05-18 06:07:15 by Mu:

atomicthumbs: The whole "simulations = murder" thing gets brought up in the Culture series (which is referenced once or twice in Ra). The solution there is that you don't simulate accurate enough that you model consciousnesses; in the few cases where civilizations have done so, they've committed to maintaining those sims indefinitely.

2014-05-18 19:57:56 by Eldritch:

If you don't simulate accurately enough that you're modeling consciousness, your simulations are nearly worthless as a predictive tool on those scales, though.

2014-05-18 20:15:38 by although:

If when you cut off the simulation the cessation of consciousness is so complete and instant that there is no objective time for the simulated to experience or feel the end, then its not so bad. If you have no objective experience of an event, philosophically speaking it might as well have never happened.

2014-05-19 01:24:31 by skztr:

That's true of regular conciousness too. The end is no more or less instantaneous or complete. The same can be said of "pausing" a simulation forever.

2014-05-19 10:02:53 by Toadworld:

@skztr: I think Daniel Dennett thinks that consciousness is actually a spectrum rather than an on-off state.  I think that would just give the morality a corresponding spectrum, though.

2014-05-19 17:38:39 by MadcapPomposity:

@ Curiouser: YES. YES YES YES.

2014-05-20 16:48:53 by T:

So I wonder if the moral is going to be that the compromise is restricting Ra from benefiting humanity as fully as it could. The Virtuals gets 3/4s of a computer with no capability for expansion, and the Actuals only get 1/4th even though they may be in a better position to expand Ra.

And now no one gets shit.

New topic: These entities that keep taking people over and using the true name Ra... Are they instances of a single entitity? A group?

Maybe they're not really entities at all- Ra!Tanako "takes over" Nick's body, but also gains all of Nick's memories, mannerisms, and is indistinguishable from Nick to Wheel's systems (at least their baseline monitoring spells). It could just be a bundle of knowledge and access rights that can be bestowed on a person. But would Nick's motivations be supplanted so thoroughly? I don't think the story so far really hints at this.

Could also be Virtuals, breaking out via Tanako's World which is maybe accidentally tapping into parts of Ra that should be more locked down.

2014-05-20 18:31:06 by Curiouser :

Maybe the Virtuals had enough time to see that they are about to be suspended, and impregnated the Real's portion of Ra with some of their own, that would explain why Ra, a computer which basically just follows orders really really well, has an agenda.
Who knows what kind of trickery they used once they've made it in, that they'd use Ra as their real names would not be a stretch.

2014-05-20 19:20:01 by T:

My main wonder is, are these Ra-people actually avatars of Ra-the-Computer, or are they something else that wants people to THINK they are avatars of Ra?

2014-05-20 22:54:45 by Curiouser:

I know this deviates from my title, but I would venture to guess that they are the later.

2014-05-21 00:57:46 by T:

So we know that geological mana is bound to a (allegedly hypothetical) mage truenamed Ra, and even changing your own truename to the same syllable ("ra") doesn't let you use it, it just randomly tries to use either your mana, or the geological mana, failing if it accesses the wrong one. Is there a Unix equivalent to that? Two objects being distinct, but having the same name, and the system is able to "accidentally" use the wrong one, creating errors?

Since magic was *designed*, what was the design purpose for geological mana? We know it floats to space and eventually falls back down to be collected by the Listening Post, in the kilometer wide Montauk's Laura is currently draining. I think all waste mana ends up doing the same thing. Is geological mana just bunch of extra energy sent from the Sun in mana-form for Wheel to use for their own spells?

...Does a Wheel member have more mana allotted than a civilian, or do they just have ways to tap into the Listening Post's batteries? They routinely casts spells with hugely complex effects on the world: a neutron bomb created from thin air, for example. They either have ways to tap into their stored "ra" mana, or they have a way to direct the Listening Post, or maybe one the gigaspells, to use that stored energy on their behalf.

My guess is the former, since Rachel teaching her daughters "aliasing tricks" hints that there are built in ways to use mana not bound to you, maybe also to rebind mana to a new owner; this was probably a feature to let Wheel (and maybe *eventually* civilians) use geological mana. Being restricted to a daily allotment is perhaps their idea of training wheels.

Back on topic, was their a conscious *decision* to bind geo-mana to the name "Ra"? If it was a conscious decision, was it meant to signify that geo-mana "belongs" to the System, for use by daemons? Is mana an analog to CPU cycles?

If it was a decision meant to signify "system owned" energy, that means a mage able to *truly* use the truename "ra" (and not just alias to the same symbol) has basically hacked themselves into a superuser. But they don't seem to display increased capabilities- no more than civilians, and certainly less than Wheel Group. The one exception is Ra!Benj, who is able to cast a spell using geo-mana. At the time I assumed it was some sort of trick; he was using the quine to make "magic" cast a spell "by itself", but now I think it was much simpler: his truename was ra, that mana belonged to him, the quine was just a way to use it all up for some sort of nefarious purpose.

Otherwise, the fact that geo-mana is bound to a mage named Ra is some sort of unavoidable system property, which the Ra!People are exploiting.

Or maybe since they are not really "people" (they are "something" pulled out of Tanako's World), and the "mage named Ra" is a sort of null user? Except we also know that there is an *actual* null owner. A default truename? From a system point of view, every mage must have some sort of globally unique identifier, different from their truename. Two mages can use the same truename, but are still considered unique mages by the gigaspells. So the truename is just a variable that *refers* to you, as a unique mage. Non-mages may have a null or default truename, but they still have a unique ID from birth. But then these Tanako World people come along, they are from outside the system as designed, and appear without being "born", magic doesn't assign them an ID, so they all end up with unique ID 0, which is the "user" geo-mana is bound to?

2014-05-21 01:03:30 by T:

>>The one exception is Ra!Benj, who is able to cast a spell using geo-mana.

The one *demonstrated* exception, I should have said. I see no reason to believe all other Ra!People cannot cast using geo-mana.

2014-05-21 01:11:15 by T:

Why hasn't Laura wondered aloud why geological mana is apparently "owned" by Tanako, supposedly a normal, civilian mage? She knows magic was designed, even though she thinks it's powered by "deep magic" instead of technology, so why would the designer create geological mana, and allow a civilian mage to either accidentally or exploitatively come to own it?

...Having seen the distributor hardware first hand, does she now suspect maya is actually technology? Or does she just think magic was heavily influenced by the IT boom of the 60s and 70s?

2014-05-21 02:55:23 by Bauglir:

T:

I am almost certain that the daemons are Virtuals, escaping because of a glitch. Whatever happens when you tell Ra to find a person in the way that Laura has been, that creates a "fake" replacement, is likely analogous to trying to call an uninitialized variable or something. Ra gives you whatever is occupying the space you were pointing to, and thanks to its DWIM helpfulness makes sure it has all the attributes you ascribe to the person you're looking for (appearance, knowledge, memories, etc), but since your request probably didn't have an "and NOT" involved, you wind up with that slapped on top of a Virtual.

Of course, while this would explain the "You think I'm singular?", given how easily personalities can be forked, it's a little preposterous that the requested space would line up exactly with a personality, and with no way of gauging how many Virtuals would be malicious, since many to most guaranteed aren't, I can't speak to how reasonable that would be. Most likely, though, it's the same personality getting called each time, or at least once it got out it forked itself into each instance of mages named ra that we've seen so far. It may also be an amalgam of Virtual personalities, I don't know these details - just that it's almost certainly a security exploit involving access to protected memory.

2014-05-21 09:18:16 by Matthew:

The issue with the various avatars going by "ra" is that in Ragdoll Physicist, "Benj" is still able to cast spells using "ennee" as his true name rather than "ra".
The first invocation of the quine isn't in the text so it isn't clear which true name he uses then but the quine itself uses "ra" to access geological mana. Benj is actually never seen using "ra" as a true name himself.
Interestingly, I also can't find any point in the text where "Tanako" actually casts using "ra" either (only a quick look so I might be wrong). So although the avatars apparently have "ra" as their true name, there's no actual evidence of them using it to cast and they can still use the original true name.
Not sure what any of that means, but worth thinking about maybe...

As to why Laura doesn't question the geological mana being assigned to ra: she's been brainwashed. We don't see all of that: she may have been provided with a plausible explanation or she may just have been radicalised to the point where she doesn't question it any more.

I'm also not sure that "Ra as Virtuals" necessarily works. As Sam pointed out, the time between the start and end of Abstract War was long enough that any Virtuals involved in starting the War almost certainly were long gone by the time it finished.

We still don't know what Asburne and/or Rachel Ferno were trying to do and my current guess is that everything going on is more a result of the conflict between the survivors of the War than a continuation of the War.

2014-05-21 15:21:33 by Alan:

I agree with Matthew, it seems more likely to be a survivor schism than a break from virtual prison, but we'll see I suppose.

2014-05-21 16:08:28 by John:

I don't think that Ra!Benj using a non-Ra True Name is indicative of him not being possessed in the same fashion as other Ra hosts.  It has already been established that mages can bind different True Names, and also established that people knew what Benj's usual True Name was, so if Ra!Benj was trying to keep a low profile, he would have bound "ennee" as an alternate.

I don't think somebody who is Ra-possessed HAS to have Ra as a True Name, but they may routinely do so in order to have access to Ra-owned mana.

2014-05-22 03:50:17 by anonymouse:

It sounds like the whole permission system of Magic works on the basis of mindstates, which implies that there's some mindstate can bind the truename "ra". Which truename exists for the purposes of "magic using magic" as the quine spell did, because presumably the implementation of magic, or at least the listening post, needs that sort of thing.
And it seems like what happens is that this mindstate somehow got merged with Tanako's mindstate when he was killed while in T-World (plausible since we know mindstates get copied into T-World while mages are in there, at least in some cases). Then, when Laura did her trick with re-creating Benj, T-World's DWIMminess fetched this mindstate (with UID 0?), and it got merged back with Benj when exiting T-World. And then every "avatar of Ra" gets this mindstate merged in, which gives them all the knowledge that Tanako has accumulated, plus use of the "ra" truename, and results in a weird sort of collective consciousness, which is why I referred to them as the ra-cult. But none of this has very much to do with the thing in the middle of the sun, at least not directly.

2014-05-22 15:31:16 by pizza:

Ashburne's wish of "a world where this can never happen again", aka: pushing humanity outside the solar system, seemingly coinciding with her (suspected) daughter Laura who has an intense passion for space flight AND has magic know-how. Coincidence then that Ra presents Laura with this opportunity?

2014-05-22 17:04:09 by Alan:

Now that is an interesting idea pizza. Ra gives Ashburne what she wants, but it isn't instant.

That would definitely enable Ra to create agents.

2014-05-22 19:06:33 by naura:

I keep coming back to Benj!ra's line, "This is about freedom!". Freedom for who? And from what? Who is speaking?

possibilities:
- (a faction of) the Virtuals, who want to get free of their frozen state. Not as unlikely as it seems, IMO, since this faction was able to hack Ra, and could probably have left agents within it. They knew the Actuals could respond (hence the attack on the worldring etc), and could have a backup plan.
- freedom for Ra itself. From humanity? This leaves a huge question mark about who or what Ra is as an agent, ie where it gets its motivations from.
- humanity's freedom from the Wheel Group. This is possible in multiple ways discussed above, such as Rachel's long-con plan.

Now where does Atlantis fit into all this?

2014-05-23 04:34:35 by Lee:

@Lorxus

The list of known True Names has been updated, Tanako's is now listed as <code>penamba</code>. Looks like King is telling the truth, and Laura was lied to.

2014-05-23 14:49:05 by Silhalnor:

Confirmation like that is cheating. :) Personally I hope both groups are lying and we'll get some crazy third option.
Penamba sounds familiar though, has that been mentioned in the story before? A google search only brings up the Magic Spells page.
Or maybe it is only familiar because of it's similarity to the word "Penumbra" which is "the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object." It is also the name of a game that I once, well, didn't play but saw a let's play of because I can't stand playing horror games.

2014-05-23 17:05:15 by T:

I think it's pretty obvious both sides are at least heavily spinning their stories, if not outright lying. But both seem to share some common features which probably hint at the truth.

2014-05-23 18:42:33 by MichaelSzegedy:

@T: The Wheel Group's story makes a lot more sense, though; if māyā really were part of the laws of the universe, you wouldn't need machinery to do anything with it. They are probably only lying about their motivation and role in the war, or even just leaving out horrible things that they did. Their story doesn't make them look great already. I suppose there is an optimal balance between the believability of a story and the positivity of its portrayal, and it's possible that they have found it, but I think it's more likely that they're just not making an effort to disguise their instability.

2014-05-23 18:50:44 by T:

Far future quantum nanotech is definitely the more plausible explanation, but the biggest plothole in their story is they claim Ra's direct access was shut down forever, irreversibly locked down, and now it merely provides energy and computational power to the gigaspells. Obviously King thinks or knows that is not true, and everyone else must be beginning to suspect, or the very notion of "trying to wake Ra" would be ridiculous to them.

I wonder what they know or suspect Garret's actual *actions* were, in trying to wake Ra? What made them worry he might actually succeed? Or was the mere intention, even if it was truly impossible, deemed enough of a crime for erasure?

Could you use magic to build a new factory-spec Ra?

2014-05-23 19:20:15 by K:

Lee: Given that the true name list has changed once, what makes you think it won't change again as more information comes out?

2014-05-23 20:16:02 by T:

So, going back to truenames being arbitrary variables that refer to some sort of User ID, I stumbled on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobody_(username)

My bet now is that the Tanako-World-People are using some sort of exploit related to being Nobody. Who they are or why they need it, though, I still have no idea.

2014-05-25 23:35:23 by Sam:

> It's interesting that you chose 'intercessor' as a rank. quite a curious word.

I like "intercessor" because it conveys a sort of heroic role rather than a simple soldier/line of defence. An intercessor is someone who saw something bad happening - Ra attacking people, in this case - and *decided* to step in and intercede. It connotes some agency on the part of the intercessor, rather than being a passive unit who was simply directed to intercede by superiors.

Obviously the choice of title has some propaganda merit. It wouldn't surprise me if the very notion of an "intercessor" didn't even exist until Abstract War began.

2014-05-25 23:41:13 by Sam:

> did LF-4 just find an assembler

The programming metaphor here is: māyā/nonlocality technology is assembly language. Magic is C (or your higher-level language of choice).

Perhaps Laura has found a compiler?

2014-05-25 23:45:09 by Sam:

> Natalie's about to piece-together the same theory that has been mentioned in the comments: The Party simulation was tampered with by Ra

Honestly, neither Natalie nor Anil actually care about this particular plot point. Natalie has known that Laura is being misled since "Protagonism". The precise nature of the manipulation is something she'll probably get to the bottom of once they meet in person. The main reason Exa mentioned the inconsistency was so that I, the writer, could explain it you, the readers.

2014-05-25 23:51:19 by Sam:

> Exa has been owned.

This is a super neat idea, but I think I'm going to go ahead and rule it out. It would imply that Kazuya Tanako had *planned* to accidentally bring an "owned" Wheel Group member back from the "owned" victory party scene - and then planned to somehow leave him alive, or dead, but have the Wheel Group find him and resurrect him to cause trouble.

It seems like a cool thing to see the end result of - Exa suddenly goes berserk and starts tearing the Wheel Group down - but as a *plan* it doesn't make sense. "Tanako" clearly had a different plan (which Laura is now completing), and that wasn't it.

2014-05-26 00:09:23 by Sam:

> Since magic was *designed*, what was the design purpose for geological mana?

There are several possible reasons and you can pick the combination that you like the best.

One is plausible deniability. The presence of geomana makes it fairly clear that magic is a natural phenomenon which humans have only discovered recently, rather than something that was installed manually.

Another is that geomana is *literally* a natural phenomenon. It's emergent behaviour, arising from the rules of magic which Adam King chose. Either he didn't realise it existed, or he did and allowed it to stay (see point one).

Another still is that Adam King has a grand plan for the exploitation of geomana. It's present in Iceland, which already has geothermal power stations. What if you could build a geomagical power station? This is technology which clearly doesn't exist at the time of "Ragdoll Physicist" - yet. There's no evidence, though, to suggest that it *can't* exist. Maybe around 2020 or 2030 some major breakthrough is due to be made. And if it isn't, maybe the Wheel Group will start dropping hints?

2014-05-26 05:47:57 by Roy:

Why lutetium?

2014-05-26 08:47:52 by Curiouser:

Perhaps because there was a dispute as to who discovered it first? That would be a nice metaphor to the dispute between who got to the Ra toolset(devkit?) first, as well as which of the Ferno sisters actually got to the truth.

2014-05-26 11:07:40 by skztr:

One wouldn't need to *plan* owning Exa in order to exploit it once it happened. If I have left a back-door in my personal laptop, and (through various unforeseen events), you swapped my laptop with that of the head of security for your shadowy organisation, I could realise what happened and exploit that fact, no planning involved. In general we don't know *what* was changed in the simulation to get the speech to differ the way it did. Everyone in the simulation could have very different personalities, just to change the wording and everyone's reactions to it.

I will accept that this is not the way the story is intended to go, and abandon this line of reasoning, however.

2014-05-26 12:36:12 by Eldritch:

@Roy
>Why lutetium?

Judging by the sort of materials magic devices tend to be made out of, I'm assuming that the Wheel just chose the laws of magic to make use of the more neglected bits of the periodic table.

2014-05-26 18:30:09 by sprusr:

I agree with skztr. I originally brought up the theory and also did not consider the fact that exa only has certain innate abilities, the rest appear to be fed and piped to him via the gigaspells and support staff on the Floor. So exa as a turncoat wouldnt likely pose much threat to the wheel aside from his knowledge and experience.

2014-05-27 04:49:47 by Alan:

There was no indignant, "No we didn't murder him!", just a "No his true name wasn't Ra!"

Which doesn't mean they did kill him, I just thought it was interesting.

2014-05-27 14:25:35 by Z:

"This is where we came in"
Is this an intentional reference to Pink Floyd?