In 19390, Triton's last layers of sacrificial armour are boiling away at a rate of hundreds of metres per second. In the next few minutes, the heat will reach the computation fleck at the ship's core and start to destroy it. When that happens, no matter what else has happened, the operation will be over, and the war will be over.
They have Ra's brain laid out in front of them, vivisected and still operating. The machine has been successfully attacked and subdued. In the lower three thorns, Virtual human civilisation has been frozen indefinitely. Nobody is left who could pass further judgement on them.
As for the fourth thorn, it will obey one further command, ever, and Ashburne is the only person who can deliver that command. Ra will unthread her thought processes to determine what it is she's truly asking for, and deliver that result, and then permanently disable its raw public interface.
But none of the crew are in a position to handle this decision rationally. None of them have even fully processed the magnitude of what just happened. The plan was to reassemble the worldring, restore Actual Humanity from cold storage, go home and resume life. But after the Battle of Neptune, there's nobody to restore. There is no plan. There is no "go home". Triton and its crew are in freefall, severed from their purpose.
Triton's clean Ra node is far too busy and underpowered to run time-compressed simulacra for this purpose, meaning the discussion continues urgently in real time. Ashburne surfs the crew's internal communications, flicking from one member to another. "Declarator," she says, selecting one at random, "what do you want to happen next?"
"The Virtuals have to pay," the woman says. "We're real! We matter. We hold the reins, we'll show them you don't fuck with the people who hold the reins--"
"Pay how? What would you do?"
"Shut Ra down. Exterminate them all."
"That would be a war crime," Ashburne says. "We'd be war criminals. It would be genocide."
The woman holds Ashburne's gaze. "They aren't people," she tells her. "They don't exist. They aren't human."
Ashburne switches to a different crewperson's image. "Intercessor, what should we do?"
There's black horror in this man's eyes. "We've got to roll everything back," he says. "We've got make it so that Ra can't act unilaterally anymore."
This is just the original plan. The man hasn't understood the truth yet. He's toying with the facts, weighing the prospect of accepting them against the option of just cracking up. "Roll back to when?" Ashburne asks.
"To right before this happened."
"Rebuild the worldring, and then inhabit sixty thousand empty Earths, just the two hundred of us?"
"...I don't know--"
Ashburne cuts him off, switching over again.
"What would you do?"
"Start everything over," this woman says. "Purify Earth-1 and start it all over."
She's coherent. "The beginning of time. Year negative ten thousand. Or negative a hundred thousand. Go into the scientific record. Throw all our technology away. We'll repopulate the world with fire and the wheel. We'll create something new with our own hands."
Ashburne nods and switches again, to a glowering, despairing man, his hands covering the lower part of his face, pulling down at the skin around raw eyes. "What do you want?"
"I want..." The man reaches outside the camera's field of view and produces a physical photograph, actual coloured ink on paper. The photo was taken at a picnic on the exterior of a habitat over the north pole of Saturn. There are eight people gathered, all different ages. All unrecoverable.
The man just presses the photo against the screen, until Ashburne switches away. There's nothing to say to him. What he wants isn't something he can have.
Switch, switch, switch to three crew members in a row who only want oblivion: in death, or psychoactive chemicals.
Switch to another man-- he looks like a boy of twenty, but it's impossible to judge age from appearance in this era-- with his eyes closed. "And you?"
He flinches, but says nothing.
"Intercessor, I asked you a question."
The boy's eyes open and he glares sidelong at Ashburne, head trembling. "I can't tell you what I want."
Ashburne hesitates for a second, and is about to switch again, but--
"I want you dead," the boy says, "and then I want to upload myself into a world where none of this ever happened." He bites his tongue. Ashburne has the right to summarily execute him - or even erase him - for the first statement alone. The second is textbook treason. But the boy can't stop himself from plunging on. "The Virtuals won. The Virtuals were right. Reality's been burnt to the ground, and even now it can still get worse. But they can have anything they want. How is this better than that?"
Ashburne's expression is placid, neutral.
"Do you regret asking me, yet?" the boy shouts, loudly enough that Ashburne can hear it in reality as well as through the internal link.
Ashburne leaves him. She's about to ask "And you?" to the next person, but the boy hasn't stopped talking. He's audible throughout the ship, now, an echoing rant. Other heated discussions drop out in his favour.
"You lost us the war. You trusted radically malformed intel. You were supposed to save lives and you failed as completely as anybody could ever fail. Mandator, whatever happens after this, you need to die."
Ashburne summons the boy's image back, which silences him. She waits a second, making sure that she has everybody's attention. She makes a show of physically reaching for a button, so that everybody who is paying attention can see it. The boy leaves the ship, leaving behind an empty seat and a coil of humid air.
And a shared thought: He can't have been the only one.
"We're out of time," Ashburne announces. "We have no consensus. In any case, it would be tactless to build anything now. It's too soon. There must be a period of mourning.
"Ra, leave the Solar System as it is. Then, a year from now, when we come together again, we'll build a world which can't ever go this far wrong. And, Ra... give us the tools we'll need."
The command is given. Ra reaches into Ashburne's mind and carefully unwinds her words and intentions into a workable reality. It gives them all a curt acknowledgement, and peacefully abstracts itself away.
In 19391, the war is over, so it wouldn't be right to call what Watson's wearing a "warsuit". The suit is a perfect piece of equipment, protecting and maintaining him so well that sometimes he forgets about it for weeks at a time. Every now and then he'll catch his reflection in a particularly clear piece of glass, and stop. That's right, he'll tell himself, after staring for a puzzled moment at the unfamiliar man in the transparent helmet. I have skin. And that's its colour.
Watson is following the beacon home, completing the final leg of a fifteen-thousand-klick round trip. The reincarnation point, where he and everybody else started, is in the foothills of a parched mountain range on the edge of a desert. The twenty-first century called this country Kazakhstan.
What he's seen on his journey is this: planet Earth One was ruined in the war, and the only thing that's happened since then is that the temperature has dropped like a stone. Oceans are crusting over with ice. The ground is bare rock and wind-smoothed ice and, in the desert, a carpet of broken glass. There's no ecosystem, and no life above extremophile bacteria, unless you count the denatured Ra listeners. The atmosphere has been almost completely stripped, and is hardly breathable, and is radioactive. Every night and day there are the most spectacular meteor showers, laying waste to anything not already flattened by the detonations of the neighbouring Earths.
Up in the sky hangs a bitter, dim orange Sun, still clouded with Matrioshka brain matter. "Leave the Solar System as it is," Ashburne had said. At night, sometimes, Watson tries to find Neptune, but he never can. He knows it's still out there. So must be all the pieces of Neso Habitat, their orbit not likely to decay anytime soon.
Not that he wants to go back.
Watson reaches the top of a scorched ridge, now only four or five klicks from the beacon. From here he can see the whole way there, down a deep pass. He knows he's early, but he can see that he's not the first to arrive. There's a rough accumulation of large boxes there, and another man in an identical suit is sitting on one of them, doing nothing.
Watson walks down towards him, crunching glass underfoot. He's a few klicks closer by the time the man sees him and waves.
The boxes are metallic red, ranging from half-metre cubes up to one the size of a Stonehenge megalith. There are around twenty of them, haphazardly scattered, some piled up or stood on one end. They weren't there when he set out a year ago. Curious.
"How are you?" Watson asks the man. Both of them have shed their wartime designations, and the man hasn't named himself again yet, but a few days from now he'll start to call himself Adam King. King is Ashburne's former second. Watson would have saluted, if this was still the war.
In response, King just nods. "You?"
Watson reflects. "I'm ready for the next part. I walked across two continents and I said all the words I had to say. There are two things I know after a year of meditation. One: we can't fight the war again. And: we've got to build something next. I don't particularly care what, but we can't just leave it at this."
King nods again, staring into the distance. "I know what. I've got a pretty clear idea of what I want to build."
"It's got to be something that feels like winning," Watson says.
"I've got it all worked out."
Watson regards King for a while, mulling over the post-war power structure. In Ashburne's absence, King would be running the war, if this was still the war. But it isn't.
He kicks the box that King is sitting on. "What are these?"
"These are the tools," King says. "Remember? I suppose Ra gave them to Ashburne. And Ashburne left them here for us."
"Should we open them?"
"Let's wait until everybody's here who's going to be here. You're a few days early."
A beat. What's left of the air whips past them.
"...How many people do you think are going to come back?"
King says, "Not everybody. Not by a long shot."
"Where's Ashburne? Is she coming back?"
On the ridge where Watson was, another figure appears. It's not Ashburne. Watson raises his arm. "Did she tell you that?"
In 19391, a man calling himself Scintillator is surfing an X-class flare over the Sun's thirtieth parallel, towing a star-shakingly powerful piece of equipment called bhārīvastra. He is a living ship, buoyed by fields of darkness, using the astra to alter gravity in his favour.
Above and beyond him is the final collection of abandoned, charred Dyson statites. They are two-dimensional graphene computers, averaging two thousand square kilometres each, floating on solar radiation like leaves on wind. The Group has recovered all the needed mass to recreate Triton, Psamathe and the rest. The colossal cloud of dust and unprocessed worldring wreckage has been swept away. These eight are surplus. Scin doesn't need to save and reconstitute them, he can just kill them.
Even in this actinic environment, Scin's energy shows up as a brilliant white point, as fine as a scalpel tip. He accelerates at the first statite from below, targeting its delicately curled edges. He tracks through each of the statites in an efficient flourish, cutting away significant pieces of crust. One by one, the gigantic structures list sideways, lose lift, lose altitude, and start the long fall into the fire below.
Scin feeds them extra gravitational mass, so that they fall faster. With extra senses, he can see their systems frying from the edges inwards, ceasing to process. There's even a detectable wisp of magic smoke.
Those are the last eight. The face of the Sun has been wiped clean, so that it shines. Scin has lived in this environment of plasma and magnetic flux for months, and his brain has adapted, changing into something wild and instinctive, preying on the wandering statites like a hawk. But it's over now. He can go home, and walk on the ground.
Scin rustles his fields and uses the astra again, negating all of his gravitational mass. He shoots out along a tangent away from the Sun, towards Earth-1.
In 19391, the whole crust of the world is being torn up in squares, flipped and relaid. Fresh rock and replenished fossil fuels are topped with half-destroyed rainforest and national parks, all conforming to the most accurate available historical and scientific record. "Flat", the man operating the strata machine, is one of the fourteen who survived through unimaginable luck; combatant mind-states beamed to Triton directly out of the closing microseconds of the Battle of Neptune.
There's a zigzag advancing over the face of the Earth, like mismatched colours on satellite photographs. Behind the line, cities are rising.
Historical figures are being resurrected from guesswork, famed quotations and the multidimensional physical fingerprints they left on their world. Where the records run out and lack clarity, the human drivers of the engines tell the engines to choose what works. Hyper-advanced narrative astras are procedurally generating people in their billions - all frozen mid-step or mid-dream, and waiting to be animated. Waiting for a certain particular clock tick.
Kilometres below the Western Australian desert, in a deep black bunker, Adam King is working at the controls of Metaph, the forge of new physics.
"We have to judge the difficulty curve of Seventies science," he says to himself. In English, because he's chosen his new name and language now. "If it's too easy, the technology explodes, and we run into anthropic principle exposure. If it's too hard, they drop the thing.
Alath menaremba baltakrilakta cho malatha."
He rubs a painful eye and yawns. He fidgets with the unfamiliar ring at his wrist. "Something you can build a society on. Something... attainable. We'll need to shepherd them, to begin with. We'll need to be able to track everything. Damn, how do you work this thing?"
In 19391, which is also 1969, there's an invisible penthouse above the East River, a castle in the sky with a council of wizards, and King is speaking to them:
"I don't want to waste too much time. So I'll use as few words as I can.
"We came within minutes of extinction. To survive, we had to travel through Hell itself. But through Hell we travelled. And, thank God, home we came. Survivors.
"Magic is our victory. We have proved it to be perfect. It'll stand forever. I don't want to call our accomplishment - your accomplishment - a miracle, because that would deny you the credit that you deserve. It was work. Nothing but work.
"Trillions died because the power existed to kill them. Magic is a more disciplined power. To use it requires dedication, and character. And who knows what they'll build on top of it? I, for one, can't wait to see.
"So thank God. And thank you all. And: to the beginning."
"Demigods drifting over the face of a formless Earth. World-shaping tools from before the dawn of time, provided by a literal sun god. This," Anil Devi remarks, "is a pretty decent crack at some creation mythology."
"You hesitated," Adam King explains to Natalie. "You're sceptical. You have more questions. Which is fine, but we're on a clock. We want this resolved or on its way toward resolution within the next thirty real-time seconds. So we're here, at two thousand times normal speed, just for as long as it takes to convince you."
They're ghosts again. The three of them are standing behind the simulacrum of Adam King as he eats at the head of the Wheel Group's dining table. He and the hundred and twenty or so other simulacra have begun their own conversations, historically irrelevant ones which the "real" King has kindly tuned out.
Nat takes in this last scene in the historical montage. Rich carpet with interlocking golden and red spiral patterns. Dark wooden furniture, silver cutlery. A glass window so huge that it could be mistaken for the sky. A view of the skyline of the city of New York which, strictly, shouldn't be possible.
Nat is too exhausted to be dazzled anymore.
"Still frozen," King says. "They can stay frozen for a billion years for all I care. It's better than what they deserve."
"You each walked the Earth alone for a year," Natalie says. "And then, you all came back together--"
"Not all," King corrects her. "Not by a long shot."
"What happened to the others?"
King studies the city skyline, as an alternative to meeting Natalie's eyes. "They left the Group. A lot of them, let's say, left the world entirely. One way or another. For one reason or another."
"Which left everybody in this room. You invented magic and you invented Anil's and my world from scratch. You reset the whole solar system back to the 1970s to make the story fit."
"Exactly 1970. Midnight G.M.T., January first. It was a round number. Before the Information Age, right after the peak of the Space Race. Exactly the right place for magic to fit. You see, it wouldn't be right to say that we run your world. We ran it, by which I mean we set it running."
Natalie has a slew of exceedingly obvious follow-up questions, starting with Why?!, but she senses that there's no way to fire them at King right now without coming off as adversarial, which would be equally exceedingly counterproductive. She catches Anil's eye for a moment, imploring him to do the same, hoping that the instruction can just jump straight from her mind into his. Amazingly, it works. Anil gets it.
"What did you call it?" Natalie asks King.
King holds his answer for a long time. He seems distracted by his other self, who has just lit a cigarette. "We called it Abstract War."
"And what happens if Laura wakes Ra up again?"
"Abstract War. Imagine all of what you've been through, again. Except for the part where we won."
Natalie pauses for what she estimates to be a plausible length of time, giving the appearance of thinking it over. She paces over to Anil and gives him a meaningful look. He returns a faintly perplexed smile. She turns back to King.
"Alright. I'll do it. You need me to intercede that desperately, I can hardly refuse. But first, I want to talk to the other one. The one who brought us here." She points at the simulacrum of Watson, who is also at the table, dining on rare steak. "Him."
King agrees, and disappears.
There's a long moment of silence.
"Anil," Natalie says, still watching the gap in the air where King was standing, "drop something on the floor where you're standing. Between your feet." She removes her earring, and does the same.
"I bought us a few seconds. Call it a minimum of two seconds, from his perspective, while he fetches the other one. When he comes back, if he hasn't realised his mistake, we mustn't tip him off. We need to be in the same positions, as if no time passed."
Anil grins, getting it. He does what Natalie suggested, using some pocket change.
"Now," says Nat. "We have at least an hour. Where do you want to start?"
"Where do I want to start? Oh my God." Anil kicks the window, causing a loud bonggg to which none of the simulated people react. "This story is close to unfalsifiable. It's literally the God-damned Omphalos hypothesis. If these people think we're going to believe it, they must be insane.
"But... we've seen teleportation, and advanced simulation. And Ra is a factual object. There's enough circumstantial evidence that I almost do believe it. And that makes me feel insane. And if all of this is true-- then-- they really built magic." Anil claps the simulacrum of King on the shoulders. The simulacrum notices nothing. "He built magic. We just saw him doing it. Alone. This whole thing is his idea; he said he had it 'all worked out'. I bet when the rest of them came back in 19391, they were overruled. Or their ideas were just folded into his.
"It's as if our world is King's sandbox. He took what, by all logic, should have been a hypothetical role-playing scenario - a Virtuality! - and made it concrete in reality, and fabricated billions of breathing people to populate it. It's ghoulish. It means everybody 'born' before 1970 is fake! Including my parents!
"And if that's what really happened, then these people really are insane.
"When you come out on the losing end of a nightmare like Abstract War, the last thing you need is to wander a scorched Earth by yourself, stewing. You need help. You need counselling. I don't care what the human psyche has evolved into by that era. We won't have evolved beyond having problems.
"This man, Adam King? He is not okay."