Laura doesn't have time for disorientation or indecision. The universe is half black and half red, rolling around her like some demonic Macintosh mouse ball, furious wind is rising in her ears, there's an organ-rearranging urge to vomit-- all of this is irrelevant. "Tanako" got the drop on her, again. The last time, she vows. It's the end of the world. Plan A. Beat the Glass Man.
She powers all the way up to her phoenix form, full aerospace mobility with a twelve-metre wingspan. Dynamic pressure hammers into her wings, slowing her corkscrew roll. Purple crosshairs flash across her HUD, highlighting the mana output from Nat, Anil and even Nick. Far below them all, Rachel Ferno is a paralysed, dying blip, and the Bridge is a weird alien helix of red and blue. But all the blips are dwarfed by the tornado of leaky force shields which represents the Glass Man.
Laura folds her wings around herself, aims her engines at the sky and dives. One second and she's past the other three. One point five and she's through the peregrine falcon's record, officially the fastest-moving animal on Earth.
The Glass Man looks up. Laura is the brightest thing in the sky, unmistakeable in both the optical and thaumic spectra. He raises a hand to fire. But Laura's coming back to the fight with the bones of a plan, which starts like this: He's human. Humans need to see. She beats him to the trigger, blinding him pre-emptively with magnesium-white light. His first shot misses. It's a drill spell, pushing a rifled cylindrical force field through the air, a gunshot minus the gun and the bullet. It cracks the air open like a hollow thunderbolt. Laura vectors sideways as hard as she can while still closing the gap. Closing his eyes and going thaumic, the Glass Man fires twice more at the luminous being bearing down on him. The second shot grazes Laura's hull, doing no obvious damage but sapping almost all of its structural energy. The third punches directly through her left wing, destroying it and gouging a channel of flesh out of her physical shoulder. Laura howls, more in shock than in pain, as adrenaline cushions almost all of the injury. She staggers in the air, losing her streamlining and starting to roll out of control. She fights it with thrusters, but it isn't enough to recover.
The Glass Man shrugs, scolding himself lightly for wasting time on pointless projectile combat. He reaches out with his other hand, forming a claw grip, as if grasping some invisible throat. Then, he simply teleports Laura into the appropriate gap, discarding her hawk form and all of her momentum.
Laura chokes. At this heart rate, the lack of oxygen is immediately life-threatening. She feels pressure in her head rising, as if blood is about to start forcing its way out of her tear ducts. The Glass Man's "glasswork" follows the contours of his face so closely that Laura can almost see the curled lip, the single eyebrow raised in grudging admiration. The Bridge, floating obediently behind him, simmers down from the sudden activity, fading in colour from actinic purple to nominal dull red.
"Back from backup, hmm?"
Laura manages to grind out an unintelligible sound. She latches onto the Man's wrist with one hand, pulling futilely. Charitably, he relaxes his grip by just a fraction, granting her enough air to spit out an epitaph.
Her self-defence spell fires from the hip, scything up from her other hand into the Man's midsection, crossing his armpit and face. There's a screech like steel across granite across glass. The Glass Man turns his head aside for a second, as if in a light breeze. Then he turns back, unscratched.
And now, says the smug little voice in Laura's head, which is even starting to sound like the Glass Man, it's over.
Laura begins to black out. She relaxes and lets it happen, because whether she's won or not isn't up to her anymore.
And the Bridge, with its braid severed so cleanly, falls out of the Glass Man's control.
He notices, after that one moment. He even starts to turn. Too late.
It's Anil who catches the Bridge, smashing into it from above at a relative speed of more than a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Without shock absorption, the impact would break him in half, but he's wearing a shield which Laura - through half-closed eyes that are rolling back - recognises, one she wrote herself years back,
EPTRO. The Bridge plugs itself enthusiastically into Anil's brain, and he disappears, too quickly for the Glass Man to loose a shot at him. For a second, there's no further movement.
"What--" the Glass Man begins.
A Montauk ring clunks into existence around his neck.
His firestorm of magic caves in on itself. The mana is all sucked into storage. His shields collapse, including the reinforced armour field which was gripping Laura by the throat, and the light-negative layer. Behind it, he's just another immaculately-suited Wheel Group-esque male, same ideal jawline, same piercing blue eyes. His flight spells evaporate and he and Laura fall away from one another. He clutches the ring at his throat with both hands, but it's too small to come off. His face is a picture of perplexed shock.
Laura, rubbing the circulation back into her own throat, thinks he looks like he doesn't understand how the fight ended this way, so soon. Like he wants more time, to work those seconds out again.
Edward Hatt is the first and only person on the Hatt Group site. At this time of year he manages almost an hour of work before sunrise, with his back to the window and the Venetian blinds closed to block out the rising glare.
When the warnings come, there's a palpable change in the texture of the light coming around the blinds' edges. Ed raises them to see what's going on. Then he just stands there, staring at the impossible red holograms that tessellate across the entire sky, at a loss. He knows what the warning signs signify, but he has no idea how to react to this information. High energy magic? How high? Is something going to explode? Is it the world?
Spread out below him is the Hatt Group runway, and aligned down its long axis there's a stencilled A-2X-class mandala. It's used rarely, for heavy-duty engine testing. As Ed's watching, a nominal flash of blue-red lightning passes over it, leaving behind five figures. He immediately recognises two of them. One is Laura Ferno, falling to one knee and clutching a shoulder. The other is Anil Devi, who spins on the spot, looking for Hatt's office, and then makes eye contact with Hatt himself. He points at Hatt meaningfully, then takes off at a dead run across the runway towards the factory floor entrance at ground level. This is the quickest route up.
Hatt turns from the window and bolts for his own door, aiming to meet Devi halfway and find out what the hell's happening, but after a few paces he just hits the runway.
"Teleportation unit," Anil tells him, brandishing the Bridge in one hand. It has almost no mass, as if made of steel-plated helium. He grabs for Hatt's wrist. "We need your lucky bracelet."
"It's not lucky, I just wear it for-- What is this freakshow? Hey--"
For the second time in ten seconds, Anil remembers what he's carrying, and simply 'ports the ring off Hatt's wrist. He dashes back to the mandala, where he kneels over a supine thirty-something-year-old woman with what Ed Hatt judges to be an entire mediaeval torture chamber embedded in her skull. It's enough metalwork that it props her head up like a pillow.
Hatt realises who this must be. "My God, is she even alive?" She must be. Blood is pulsing out of the fresh wounds and flowing across the mandala surface.
"How do you use this thing?" Anil shouts at Hatt, desperately.
"It's a Wheel Group medical ring! Weren't you told?"
"It's nothing! I had it tested for a straight year--"
"She knows how to use it," Nick says, kneeling next to Anil and showing serious concern. Natalie and Laura are hanging back. Laura is dealing with her own injuries, and Natalie holding Laura's hand because... well, if anybody asked her, she'd mutter something about "too many cooks".
Rachel Ferno's fingers move, spreading across the asphalt.
"She's seven-eighths dead," Anil says to Nick.
"If the ring does anything," Hatt tells them, "it works too slowly to detect."
Anil curses and checks his wristwatch. "I lost track of time. It must have been ninety seconds already. Bloody hell. Bloody everything."
Rachel inhales sharply and shifts position. With the Glass Man's influence withdrawn from her mind, a few of her senses have returned: touch, hearing, and most recently the pulverising, near-nuclear pain at each of the hundred-and-something entry wounds in her skull. She feels the touch of metal at her wrist, but she remains blind, and she can't think. Her consciousness has holes torn through it, holes so huge that they're almost impossible to perceive from the inside.
As the others watch, transfixed, she reaches up with a spasming hand and probes the metalwork. It's so dense in parts that she can't even reach though to touch her own head. She moves to her eyebrow, where a particular rod dives directly into her forebrain, drooling blood which has already begun to pool in one sightless eye. She twists the rod experimentally between her thumb and forefinger.
"I wouldn't--" Anil begins.
Rachel grasps the rod at its root in her fist, and pulls.
"Oh shit! Jesus!"
It's deeply rooted, and it'll barely move, but it'll move far enough. Her higher brain functions misfire in blotches, each tenth of a millimetre of motion leaving her with a different pattern of brain damage. Oblivious, Rachel pulls until her knuckles whiten, applying pressure until the slow-acting medring can repair enough of the tiniest, most important parts of her frontal lobe that she can line up four thoughts in a row.
She fires those thoughts at the medring.
The metalwork withdraws from her skull, forced out from inside by such intense pressure that it wails and bends out of shape. Rachel wrenches it off in a single piece, like a motorcycle helmet, and throws it aside. The wounds in her skull close up. New hair even sprouts, filling out to the same length as the rest.
She sits up and goes to speak, then stops for a second and pulls a final rod out of the roof of her mouth. It's the length of a knitting needle; its tip must have been scraping the back of her eyeballs. She flicks the needle away, and spits out some blood.
"Mrs. Ferno, it's the end of the God-damned world," Anil tells her. "Abstract War II. Ra is waking. Fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds."
"Until what?" Ed Hatt asks.
Anil blinks. "What do you mean, 'until what'? What did I just say? The end of the world!"
"Anil. Anil: What the fuck's happening?"
"It is way too late in the game to cover this for you, Ed," Anil says. "You might just want to stand back and watch."
Rachel stands. She feels like a totally fresh human being, her head as clear as a bell. She has all the energy and all of the fury. She pictures herself fighting Abstract War all over again, all by herself. She almost feels as if she could do it.
"Mum," Laura says to her.
Rachel looks at Laura, hardly seeing. Her last memory is of Laura being vaporised. Murdered. But a whole beat has to pass before Rachel remembers which world she lives in now. She spent the whole war watching people die and die and die again, and come back from backup each time, and then concatenate all of their death experiences together into life experience, and fight the war using that experience. But that war should be over, and Laura ought to be permadead. And here she is. With the same ruinous, grey fire in the eyes.
"You saved me?" Rachel asks, passing the medring over so that Laura can heal herself.
"We had a backup plan," Laura says.
Then there's Natalie. As with Laura, it's only been an insanely crowded subjective few minutes since Rachel last saw her. In that time, everything about Nat has changed. As a girl she always had a hunted, uncertain look about her, as if she couldn't tell whether she was missing something incredibly important, and the whole world was leaving her behind, or vice versa. Now she looks like she made her mind up: it's the second one. "Hello, little one."
"I know we should be doing the joyous reunion with hugs, but you've got to save the world now," Natalie says. "It has to be you, I've used every idea I had. Ra is too fast. I don't see how to fight the system while inside of it."
Rachel scans the faces of Nick Laughon, and Anil Devi, and Ed Hatt, none of whom she recognises, and none of whom really know her either, except by reputation. For a slight moment, she glances up at the sky of warnings, which cuts out almost as if responding to her unspoken instruction, leaving dull grey-blue dawn with, maybe, one remaining star. There's a little cloud, not enough to be threatening. And lastly she looks east, to where Ra is starting its climb, ascending out of red into yellow.
"Thirteen thirty," Anil prompts her.
"There was a person made of glass," Rachel says.
Anil swings the Bridge up again. "I can get him. I bet he hasn't even hit water yet."
He arrives spread-eagled in the standard parachute jumper's posture, and cracks his chin hard on the asphalt. He grunts, the wind knocked out of him, and lets the noise lengthen into a heartfelt moan of aggravation and resignation when he realises whose feet he's landed at.
"You stay down," Rachel informs him, "or I'll have to threaten you with something."
He rolls over onto his back, spreads his arms out in defeat, and laughs like someone who's got nothing left but exhaustion and sarcasm. "Metathreats, Ash?"
"This isn't history," Rachel tells him. "This is going on no record. I know who you are already, and none of these do, and I'll never tell them. I know my way through that wreckage you call the logic; your broken, cancerous arithmetic; your sick 'freedom'. We've already been through that, you and I. Do you understand? You will not be remembered for what you've done. You will not be infamous."
"I thought you had a personal rule," he says, "about not killing people slowly."
"Is there a way to undo this?"
The man grins for a second, glancing aside as if mugging for some unseen audience, as if he isn't sure what he heard.
Rachel presses, "Have you left a way out for yourself? A back door?"
There it is, and he laughs out loud. This time it's genuine, he just folds up at the waist and gives in to hysterical laughter, shaking as if electrified and almost unable to breathe through it. The irony alone might be enough to kill him. "A back door?" he manages between shrieks. "Like this whole thing, this whole thing wasn't made possible by back door, after weak hack, after Swiss cheese disaster, after, after--"
"Veleth tekhta! Mal tho ula i namamba ta'upra leth!"
The man gets his breathing under control. "Reality is a waste of resources," he declares. He sits up and, while looking at Rachel, seems to address the five people behind her. "You are so few. Only six billion-with-a-B. That you can't. Even. Matter. Not compared to the needs of the trillions of trillions who are coming."
Rachel points the first two fingers of her right hand at the man's face and Natalie has just enough time to shout, "No!"
It's deliberately an ugly death. There's a corpse with a hole in it and a spray of blood which almost reaches the edge of the mandala. Clear, so everyone can see.
Rachel spins on her heel.
"Who the fuck are you?" Ed Hatt demands. "You can't just kill someone! You've got to use that ring to bring him back."
"No," Rachel tells him. "Call the police if you don't like it. I'm sure they aren't too busy. Natalie?"
Natalie is stunned. "But you killed him," is all she can say.
"I did," Rachel says, "and I do love you, but when this is over, you can challenge my decisions again."
"That was Ra?" Nick says. "As in, that was Old Ra? That was the face of a bunch of misfiring Ra nodules that survived the war somehow?"
Rachel says, "That was nobody."
Nick just stares.
"Parental discipline and reverse Cluedo are tomorrow's problems," Anil says. "We've got to work now. Twelve minutes nothing."
"We can't stop it," Rachel announces. "The Glass Man wasn't lying. We can't stop it."
"Alright, I've heard enough," Laura says. "Mum, glad to have you back. Anil, Ed, you're going to use the Bridge to round up every black-belt mage you've ever known or heard of. I'm building a recursion spell which can harvest the entire Earth core cache, because that's the only significant mana source left on the planet. We've got a working A-2X and its vertical axis is right where we need it. We're moving the Earth."
"That won't work," Rachel says.
"It damn well will," Laura snaps, "and if you're half the mage I lived my whole life believing you to be, you know how to make it work."
"You know how the distributor works, you can get me inside. Right?"
"Ra will kill you if you represent a threat," Rachel says. "Ra would have killed all of us proactively by now if we were capable of representing a threat. We can't stop it."
"Be quiet, now. I don't have time. Anil?" She holds a hand out.
"The energy packet reaches us in eleven minutes and twenty-five seconds," he says.
"No. I mean, Anil, give me the Bridge."
Anil hesitates, then hands the machine over. The Bridge's mental connector braid ripples, waggling uncertainly as Anil did, then switches to its new host.
"Eleven minutes until the destruction of the world," Ed Hatt says. "And you're saying there's no way to stop it from happening."
"There isn't," Rachel says. "Be quiet, now."