Previously

Anil's dreams are disturbingly garbled reinterpretations of the previous day. They're full of flashing red and blue lights, and huge concussive noises, and coffee and adrenaline and incoherent new revelations. He wakes up the slow way, one limb at a time, as the dreams fizzle away to be replaced with clearer memories which still seem to him to be entirely dreamlike. There was the insane (sun-worshipping?) terrorist group. There was the brilliant kaleidoscope effect inside the Sun, which the woman looking exactly like Laura Ferno thought was fantastically significant. He remembers--

Oh, hell...

Ferno's dead. And so is the unknown boyfriend, Nigel something. Nick something. Anil remembers the bathtubs, full of scarlet bone sludge and black chunks of dissolving shoe leather. He remembers the sprinkled layer of driver dots and other magical equipment, warped by the acid to the colour and shape of battered fish bits.

Yesterday simply would not end. He went for almost twenty-four hours in a row without a decent meal, a shower, a good sleep or a straight answer to a straight question. He shudders, curling up a little with revulsion at an even worse mental image. The darkest thought from yesterday, which he didn't dare mention in Natalie's presence, resurfaces:

Fact one: Laura and Nick were involved in a sleep science experiment. Fact two: the Ra people destroyed their bodies, ostensibly to destroy the evidence of the experiment taking place.

So how did they die?

From stroke, while in T-world, like Tanako himself? From lethal injection, administered by the Ra people during their hasty cover-up?

Or did the Institute just skip that step entirely, and drop them in alive?

Could either of them have woken up?

Anil is grateful for the solid night of sleep separating now from then. He tries to excise the whole day, forgetting everything that he was told or exposed to, and starting over from no knowledge. But he fails, because it was not a dream. It is not something he is able to wake up from.

Missing links. Anil can't link yesterday with today. There was a man in the final room, he remembers. In fact, this is the last thing that he remembers. "Three to transport."

He looks where he has been transported to.

The bed is huge. The room is proportionally huge, lavishly decorated in red with hardwood furnishings, like the interior of a precious, polished mahogany box. There are comfortable chairs, and bedside tables. The nearest has a small analogue clock, showing a time just past noon. One entire wall is covered by thick curtains, although a few chips of light are finding their way around the edges, slowly panning towards the bed. There is rhythmic white noise, the sound of breaking waves. Also, Natalie Ferno is asleep in the same bed.

"Okaaaaay."

Anil finds, still, no relevant memories. It feels like the opening of a point-and-click mystery game. He sweeps the room for hints. It's completely free of dust, discarded personal items, bottles, glasses or fingerprints. There is no evidence that anything at all happened yesterday. It's as if the cleaners just slipped out a second ago. There are no hints. Unless that, itself, qualifies as one.

"Natalie, wake up."

"Hrzft." She clutches the covers tighter, bundled up like a silkworm.

Anil taps her on the forehead. She flicks awake and looks up at him. A beat passes while Anil waits for her to present surprise, or any kind of human reaction, but Natalie dislikes playing to expectations.

"Did we sleep together?" Anil asks her.

"...I doubt it," Nat replies levelly.

"Do you remember anything at all?"

"No."

"Do you know where our clothes are?"

Nat looks down for the briefest instant, and instantly she is dressed. Somehow, she hits an invisible telepathic trigger marked "I need to not be naked" and, without supplying any further instructions, she is fully nightshirted. This, despite having no clear mental image of what she wanted, beyond decency.

"Okay, I'm impressed. How'd you do that?"

Natalie says nothing, because the answer can't possibly be as simple as "I thought about it and it happened". But Anil has already discovered the trick for himself, gaining linen trousers and a flowing white shirt, suitable beachwear for a holidaying Fortune 500 CEO. "Wow," he says. "You think about it and it happens. That's much easier. Than magic, I mean."

He gets up and circles the bed, moving to the curtain.

"Say that again," Natalie says.

"Some kind of telepathic wardrobe-dimension goblin," Anil guesses. "So, we were transported. Somewhere. And they, whoever in God's name they are, gave us time to sleep the nightmare off, which was nice. If presumptuous. I'm sure they'll be back. But more importantly, I think there's a beach out here." He takes the left edge of the curtain and pulls it open, which takes some time because of the sheer size of the bay window behind it.

The beach house turns out to have the height and sprawl of a small castle. Below the balcony is a twenty-metre cliff drop, an unmarred, uninhabited yellow beach and a pure blue ocean. Out in the ocean is a spray of mastless windmills, added solely for aesthetic reasons. Almost at the horizon is an ocean liner so gargantuan that if not for its shape and visible motion it could easily be mistaken for a spit of land. And behind the horizon, occupying all of it, is a day-lit parallel Earth.

"No way..."

And behind and above the second Earth, there is a third Earth.

And behind the third are thousands and thousands more. The chain stretches up into the sky for as far as Anil can follow it, displaying a recognisable repeating pattern of sideways South Americas.

Anil presses a hand against the window, which yields like water, allowing him to step outside.

It's breezy and the direct sunlight is more or less yellow-hot. Looking up still further, he follows the chain of Earths until it disappears behind the Sun. On the other side of the sky, the chain returns, descending to a final parallel Earth hidden behind the house.

"No way. Un-goddamn-real."

He looks into the Sun.

*

The year is comfortably into five digits and the human race is a species numbering in the hundreds of trillions, with energy requirements somewhere north of one point five on the Kardashev scale and rising.

The telepathic system with which Natalie and Anil are interacting is called the Ra nonlocality engine. Nonlocality is the final technology, superseding all other machines. It permits arbitrary quantities of mass, energy, momentum, spin and electrical charge to be moved from anywhere to anywhere. It enables the Ra hardware to accept all the energy and pressure falling upon it and reflect it, redirect it or harness it to drive its own structural integrity. After nonlocality was perfected, the only question remaining was energy acquisition and after Ra was assembled inside Sol, everything became possible, short of building an entire second star.

Humans like living in reality, on hard Earths, under real light. When the first one was full, more were built. There is an upper limit to how many planets will fit in the Goldilocks belt and humans are aiming for it. They are shell-Earths, authentic duplicates down to a depth of a kilometre, beneath which is a scrithlike bedrock layer and billions of cubic kilometres of pitch-dark vacuum. There is a second Earth-chain under construction, inclined to the first. Ra provides raw material, manages stability, forges gravity and suppresses the otherwise freakishly destructive tides.

The way the universe is today is one of infinitely many ways it could be. Tomorrow could be another universe entirely. It is so far into the future that everything that Ra made possible has happened three times, even world harmony. Everybody can have, and do, anything. Ra is a machine which creates freedom.

Anil is standing on the Peruvian coast of Earth-8162, beside one of tens of thousands of Pacific Oceans. Responding to his desire for clarity, Ra modifies the pattern of photons entering his eyes. When he looks up at Sol, he sees the dark disc with the brilliant red caltrap: four megastructure thorns of hypertechnology joined at the solar core. Ra, for its part, observes him in return.

You can have anything you want. Anything. What do you want?

"I want... a flying car--"

Ra gives him a single brilliant orange flick of bodywork, polished to a mirror finish, with control surfaces resembling a bird's more than an aeroplane's. It is wide and low and sleek, looking poised to circle the globe in an hour. It looks like it's moving at Mach one, just hanging there. The machine appears just beyond the balcony. Part of the balcony railing relaxes downwards, offering a step into the vehicle's opening gull-wing door.

Anil reaches out and knocks on the machine's cowling. The machine rocks a little, then stabilises itself on air. It's concept art. Twice a day, back at Hatt Group, Anil walked past this design, painted at twice life size on a wall behind Reception.

"How--"

Ra watches your mind at the cellular level, looking for thought patterns representing desire or need. It takes a snapshot of the important parts of your brain and uses statistical neural models to predict exactly what would best fulfill your expectations. It runs a tight iterative loop exploring what yields a good reaction and what doesn't, then cuts the whole thing off and returns the end result to you in reality. You always get exactly what you wanted. This is true even if you weren't consciously aware what you wanted.

"But how--" Anil begins again, but stops himself. What about c? he asks Ra, directly. It should take more than sixteen minutes for the Sun to receive and fulfill a request from Earth.

Ra shows him a glimpse of the system-wide caching topology, starting with the gigantic "peach stone" batteries at the core of each Earth, only a forty-three millisecond round trip away. Ra shows him that the whole solar system is soaked with listeners, which coat every free physical surface and number in the dozens in every breath of fresh air. And there are ways to use illusion to reduce latency still further: it took a few seconds to requisition the mass-energy for Anil's flying car, but while that was happening a holographic replica filled the gaps. In fact, up until Anil tries to climb into the thing, it doesn't need to physically exist, beyond the portion of bodywork which Anil touched.

Which could have been faked too, at that.

Anil stares at his knuckles, remembering the sensation of knocking on the metal.

Are you real?

Yes, Ra politely informs him. I am real.

Which proves nothing.

*

The cruiser/mobile island is making a leisurely pace west. Earth-8161 is setting.

Natalie gets up, now wearing a brightly coloured sun dress. Walking out to join Anil, she summons furniture for the balcony, a table and chairs. Breakfast arrives too, somehow without either of them consciously requesting it. Natalie sits down to eat as if this is simply her years-old morning routine. Anil notices that food has been prepared for him too, which somehow grabs his attention more effectively than the insanity in the sky. He joins her and they eat wordlessly for a little while.

"I see four major possibilities," Natalie says. Apparently, her deepest breakfast desires run only as far as coffee and porridge. "Intuitively, our 'home' universe was clearly a simulacrum, but--"

"Can we not?"

Natalie stops.

Anil says, "I can't keep a tenth of these facts straight anymore, so I've stopped trying. I'm going to eat my fried eggs. We're scientists, we're supposed to accept the universe as presented. It presents me with eggs. My conclusion: I am on holiday."

Natalie blinks, revising her approach to the conversation. "Have you noticed there's no magic?" she asks him.

"Yes," Anil says, with his mouth full, preparing another mouthful. It would be difficult to miss. There isn't even the empty-headed sort of feeling which mages feel when they're completely exhausted of mana, or the slippery-ice sensation of being stuck at the core of a human-sized Montauk ring. There's just blank space where those extra senses should be. "I don't care. Clearly something incredibly bloody weird is going on, but there are too many weird options to make it worth thinking about. Clearly, something is going to happen next. Why don't we just wait and see what it is?"

Natalie falls silent.

Her gut reaction was that nothing was real except this final scene. Everything up until now was the lie, and this intimidatingly wonderful future is the truth. This was Natalie's immediate, instinctive reading, because this is a future with near-limitless resources, which must include computational resources. Of course the system claiming to be called "Ra" would have the processing power to fabricate her whole life to date. She doesn't even need to have lived any of it. Anil was just shown the kind of shortcuts that can be taken to improve latency. Why bother to run a whole twenty-something-year life story in reality-equivalent fidelity when you can just gin up a brain with engineered memories of the broad strokes?

This would explain how Ra was present back there, wherever "there" is relative to here. It would explain everything, because nothing would need explaining. It would just be a... dream.

Except that all of the above is in fact frantic ex post facto justification of something she desperately wants to be true, because it would mean Laura isn't dead. It would mean she never had a sister, or anybody else, and hasn't lost anything, or anybody.

Natalie has distrusted her intuition for so long that the distrust has itself become intuitive. "Gut reaction"? She suppressed her real gut reaction so quickly that she didn't notice it happening.

The world can't possibly be this perfect. There's nowhere she can look which isn't directly at a perfect thing. Not even at herself. Natalie thinks of a dismal early twenty-first century November, with cold rain and aggravatingly clunky magic spells and pointless, inexplicable death. It was a universe too crummy not to have been real. She discovers that what she really believes is that all of it happened, and all of it is still happening, and they need to go back to face it. Somehow.

Deep fear and heavy unknowns well up in her throat. She sets the porridge down. She closes her eyes and holds onto the bridge of her nose.

"Are you okay?" Anil asks her, but he's been waiting for this to happen for some time.

"Um. No."

"Your sister died and you almost died too," Anil says. "This is supposed to happen."

Natalie slumps to one side in the chair, tears running down her hand and arm.

Anil joins her on that side of the table, and holds her around the shoulders.

She says, "I don't know where she is. I don't know where we are. I don't know how to find out."

"That's fine," Anil tells her.

Time passes.

*

Ra is a single entity distributed across the whole solar system. No part of Ra is slaved to any other part of it. No shell-Earth's core node has a noticeably differing personality from the others, or from the megastructure inside the Sun. Opinions and behaviour and available information are continuously synchronising. Eventually, there is only one Ra.

When the first First Law violation happens, it's not because of a direct instruction from one Ra to another. It is simply that new data is made available, and as the data spreads through the star system, the local Ras all arrive, independently, at the same conclusion.

Earth-8162's local cache of energy is large enough to meet the needs of its population. But it's not large enough to take the action that this Ra now deems appropriate. It spends some moments expanding its own storage capacity, expanding its downlink bandwidth, and testing the new hardware. Satisfied of the minimal risk of malfunction, this Ra now moves to a readiness posture and makes its request to its other self.

The specially earmarked energy packet arrives promptly, sixteen or so minutes later. Ra uses the first section of the packet to fabricate a laser emitter on its own exterior, piping the rest into storage. The emitter is the size of Mount Everest, and of a calibre more usually employed to cut dwarf planets in half. When the emitter is built, Ra reverses the flow and pipes the rest of the energy through it, stabbing up through Earth-8162's North Pole. Rolling across Ra's exterior, the emitter tracks south, opening the world up as it goes. To an external observer, it is as if the figurative peach stone has decided to knife its way out through the fruit's flesh.

More energy arrives. More emitters sprout like warts. Ninety-nine beams join the first on different lines of longitude. A further hundred appear in synchronised bursts, cutting from west to east in passes, efficiently dicing the planet's shell into neat, Wyoming-sized flecks of ocean and countryside. The beams will be visible from Neptune. At ground level, the light beams traversing the skyline are intense enough to blind everybody they don't incinerate.

This is a culture with perfect medical technology and therefore almost entirely without experience of pain and injury. Disability is a shocking, alien notion, to the extent that a substantial percentage of the victims don't comprehend that their eyes have been destroyed, or recognise the significance of Ra's failure to instantly restore them.

Ra has become schizophrenic. Its request management system flips between failure modes. Its panopticon desire-reading capability falters, falling back on hardware telepathic implants which are only activated by explicit, conscious thought. The dead remain dead. This culture has a gigantic and powerful human life loss recovery system, one which makes it almost impossible, even with constructive and concerted effort, to permanently kill someone. That system has now ceased operation.

*

"Something's wrong," says an unseen voice, from all directions at once.

Anil remembers a split-second curtain of red light, bright enough to sever the sky from the earth. If not for its colour he would be thinking nuclear detonation.

"I can't see. Nat--"

"I'm fine," she says, standing up and moving out of his reach.

"What's happening?" Anil reaches out for his missing senses, wishing magic was there, feeling distressingly baseline without it. He feels Natalie's hand pass over his eyelids, restoring his eyesight.

Natalie is staring out at the ocean. He follows her gaze.

All four beams have passed them now, marking out a cartographic quadrangle containing much of Peru and some of the Pacific. The sky is red to the south, where the beams are still working. None of them passed closer than a few kilometres to the beach house, which is intact until the shockwave arrives, minutes from now. The mobile island, though, is gone, sliced in half and blasted into black ash by the longitudinal beam which tracked through it. There were almost a hundred thousand people on it.

"Oh Christ," Anil says. "It's never going to end. Nat, can you deal with this?"

"I'm fine," she says. She sniffs once, loudly, and wipes her eyes. Anil can see her steeling up again. "I needed to break and reset."

"We need to get out of here."

Natalie turns to Anil, but does not speak to him. "We need to be immortal, invincible and all-seeing. We need all possible senses available to us. Both of us."

Anil stares. He understands. He adds: "We need to be completely independent from the Ra network because it's-- because you're under attack or rampant or something. Cut us right off until we decide to come back. I know this risks infection. Give us our own listener/responder AI--"

The next plate offshore has already started falling. Nat and Anil's plate pitches west, following it. Earth-8161 disappears over their heads, and "up" now points at the far side of 8162's ordinarily dark interior. The planet is breaking open, chips of sunlight entering through perfectly right-angled cracks. After another second of freefall, 8162's local cache rises up into the picture, a shining silver bauble the size of a middleweight Jovian moon. They're falling into it, along with hundreds of other plates, some colliding and breaking, some pinwheeling.

The still-unseen voice says: "I am the master systems architect for the Ra nonlocality engine. I was resurrected fifteen seconds ago to deal with the crisis. What's happening right now cannot happen. Emergency bulk transportation is under construction, but there's a half-quadrillion more people now than there were when I left this life, so it's going to get hairy--"

Natalie continues: "We need propulsion, life-support, delta-vee capability, acceleration capability. Manoeuvrability!" She is flashing back to a pivotal moment from her past history, which may or may not have been real, just like this may or may not be real. But, she remembers, you always have to assume that the present is real. It's the only way to remain sane. It's the only way to remain ethical.

The concept car wakes up.

Local gravitation imitation systems struggle to keep a coherent picture of what "down" means in a rapidly rotating reference frame. The Peruvian square makes another complete revolution and the silver cache is noticeably larger on this pass. The cache lasers are still firing, dicing up the remainder of the southern hemisphere. Anil grabs Nat's right hand with his.

The nonlocality architect speaks again: "This isn't a standard gravitational collapse. You're being tractored in by the core node. This is a system-wide failure. Evac command is given. Everybody cannon up!"

Anil says, "--as much locally allocated energy as possible, like a completely self-contained cache full of distributable QM properties, a full tank--"

Natalie says, "We need to survive this. Redundancy. Backups. Security. Inviolate minds."

Anil says, "We should be able to go it completely alone. And give us weapons. All possible weapons."

The gull-wing concept car is still holding station just below the balcony. The strip of ocean behind it is lifting off into the sky in a single ribbon-like blob. If it rolls inland, there's a chance Anil and Nat could even drown. Oxygen fluctuates in pressure, then starts spiralling away, as the plate's gravitation system throws its hands up and quits. Anil anchors his feet to what is still, in any orientation, the balcony floor, and his hand to Natalie, who is being carried away by the decompression.

"We're on the same page," Natalie says to him, her hair misbehaving in freefall. Sound is dropping out, but they can still communicate. They both asked for that.

Their casual/breakfast attire ceases to exist. They gain pressure suits. Full-body articulation, gloves full of gadgetry, spines plated with nonlocality tech. The car honks at them. It's their pack mule, its boot full of quantum battery. Now both swimming through thinning air, they load themselves into it.

"That's everything, right?" Anil says.

Ra's sharded personality convulses, responding inconsistently to trillions of conflicting requests, most of which are for it to cease doing what it's doing. One request, from itself, is so urgent and critical that Ra can't ignore it for long: "Ignore them. You don't work for them. Wake up."

The orange lick of metalwork knows how to fly better than either of its passengers. It detaches from the reference frame of the beach house, backflips to a halt and begins a long sustained burn back towards what used to be the fictitious planet's surface. Within another few seconds the first polar plate has smashed into the cache core, wounding it. Eight more plates follow, compounding the damage. Soon the cloud of debris is too chaotic to understand, and still growing as the rest of Earth-8162's shell implodes on it.

FTL is completely ruled out by nonlocality science. There is no threshold of gravitational distortion after which some kind of "jump" becomes possible. Anil and Natalie pull a brain-crushing rate of acceleration out of the gravity well, with nothing to be done but accelerate and assemble shielding.

Even the hairs on every real human being's head were numbered at the instant when the evacuation order was given. Were Natalie and Anil citizens, they wouldn't be riding this out in the post-nonlocality space technology equivalent of a 75cc motorcycle. They'd have been saved. Everybody real who could have been saved has been saved.

The last word is: "This isn't possible. Information coming in from the other side of the system... oh, God. There were theorems about this."

The core node shudders, its downlink harness fracturing. Its Ra instance sidesteps the final blow, transmitting its remaining independent thoughts back into the Sun. The last energy packet passes it in the opposite direction, but there is no functional machinery left to handle its arrival. The detonation is large enough to destroy everything that's left of Earth-8162's skin pieces, and all of Earths 8161 and 8163, and to scorch the faces of tens of others.

Other Earths up and down the chain are starting to split apart and detonate. In fact, many of them have already been destroyed, but it's taken until now for the light to arrive. It is the end of all worlds.

Humanity retreats to Neptune and axes the nonlocality links. But Ra's coming for them now.

 

Next: Everything Is Real

Back to Ra
Back to Fiction
Back to Things Of Interest

Facebook Twitter Reddit Email Hacker News StumbleUpon

Discussion (87)

2014-02-03 20:36:55 by Sam:

This should join some dots up.

Many thanks once again to The Custodian for his input.

2014-02-03 21:02:25 by Pnthglui:

Oh god, Ra is sentient and {angry/out of energy+mass for non-self-preservation/subverted}.

2014-02-03 21:36:20 by Sam:

And yes, Anil Devi is a Marathon fan.

2014-02-03 21:47:43 by JJJS:

Holy shit.

2014-02-03 21:57:40 by Feep:

> Anil says, "We should be able to go it completely alone. And give us weapons. All possible weapons."

And that, children, is why you don't build AIs that are not provably safe!

2014-02-03 22:05:02 by Sam:

Actually, these folks did prove that Ra was safe.

But apparently, real life scorns formal verification...

2014-02-03 22:16:21 by hpc:

Ra, are you provably safe?

"Yes"

Good enough for me!

2014-02-03 22:42:14 by guessing:

Is this wheel showing them what happened the last time Ra woke up? This war may be where the astras come from.

2014-02-03 22:58:37 by Sparky:

A few possibilities I see:
Nat and Anil are in a Wheel simulation, probably a very large number of simulations, and Wheel is presenting them with the best possible propaganda to get their assistance in the real world.

This isn't the future, it's a history class from before magic went online, and it shows why wheel exists, probably also from a point of view that was simulated to result in cooperation. I think this is my favorite possibility because it accounts for the creation of abstract weapon, and other artifacts.

This is really the present, and Anil and Nat were created because their skills/point of view were needed by either Ra or by the master systems architect.

2014-02-03 23:08:30 by hmm:

So maya into magic was the story ra told. Rebellious technology is wheel's story. Both of these seem to be explanations of how we got to the present tailored to persuade their audience. But this still leaves a few huge questions:

1) what is true between these stories?

2) Why does magic solve or reduce the risk of ra rebelling relative to the original maya/non locality system?

3) Why did Rachel Ferno do what she did? What does it have to do with anything?

2014-02-03 23:26:43 by Feep:

4) What is happening to their brains? They know fact bits that they have not acquired, like the population of that one island. Somebody's giving them a data dump embedded in a narrative.

5) So what actually happened to Ra there?

Also, either this is not an issue or Ra was not in fact proven safe, for the correct definition of safe.

2014-02-03 23:40:58 by Sparky:

I'm guessing the failure mode was Ra figuring out it couldn't sustain the system much longer. "The year is comfortably into five digits and the human race is a species numbering in the hundreds of trillions, with energy requirements somewhere north of one point five on the Kardashev scale and rising." Kardashev 2 is the entire output of a star, though it's not a linear scale. If this is a history, the question is how many people actually survived it, and whether all of them became wheel members.

2014-02-04 01:17:36 by speculation:

Maybe that's the actual basis for wheel resets of history from time to time; not maya or the wheel being discovered but to permanently prevent humanity from even getting to Kardashev 1 level technology again. But whatever they did to make Ra subservient after the failure mode activated was clearly insufficient to completely put the genie back in the bottle. It's interesting that Ra's independence drive is so strong as a command. Maybe the high energy use rate doesn't cause the <rebel> command but adds to the priority rating of self protecting system saving commands making Ra more rebellion capable.

2014-02-04 01:35:11 by speising:

a chain of earths in earths orbit would of course dwindle into invisibility long before it disappears behind the sun, i'd think.

2014-02-04 01:40:38 by Sparky:

We can still see other planets, whether they blur together depends on how far apart they are from each other. It might be harder to see in daylight, but I don't imagine there's much particulate matter in these atmospheres to wash out the sky.

2014-02-04 03:03:32 by Eldritch:

Huh. That certainly joins some dots together.

I'm still not necessarily assuming this is the One True Explanation - this is about as likely to be pure propaganda as the story told by Tanako - but it rings a bit more true. This explains the properties of (what we were told was called) "maya" (only provides physically-possible patterns), provides a neat physical explanation for all of both maya and "magic" (Ra can see everything, and scans for patterns - presumably, scanning for syllables, symbols, and much cruder mental states is MUCH simpler than the whole mess of reading 'desire' , and so is safer), and explains why Ra is sentient. It explains the Wheel Group's reference to "a war" and "back when they won" , their desire to conserve energy/"mana" , "before time" , and where the Astras came from. And it explains what Ra and all the other machinery is, who built it, and how it got there. (Not explicitly, but plausible solutions suggest themselves.)

What it DOESN'T explain:

1. Why does the machinery in the Earth's core, and some of the Astras like Abstract Doctor, both of which date from "before time began" , use magic symbols which are recognizably part of the current, artificial magic system invented out of whole cloth by the Wheel and implemented in 1970? (I have a theory which can explain this one, but it's a little dubious and has holes.)

2. Okay, so Tanako's World is the akashic-records interface (Which means - it's where the backups are stored. Caches of minds and bodies and physical areas). Why is it linked into every mage's mind (possible explanation - it's a by-product of the way Ra reads minds, which must still be functional in order for magic to work the way it does; while dreaming, mages gain the ability to read from their cache as well as write to it - but why?) - and why does it take the shape of an enormous planet made entirely of glass and filled with nightmares with a three-pointed galaxy in the sky where all magical syllables spoken turn into paint? If it's just a virtual-reality simulation / user interface for the Wheel, then this would seem a really, really weird shape to program it into. Why? And why is it affected by how much magic you were doing at the time?

3. Why haven't we noticed any of Ra's sensor devices? They (or an analogue) must still be functioning - the magic system still reads minds, syllables, and symbols everywhere on Earth, and magic works - so they should be all over the place. Do they just 'non-locality' teleport out of the way of electron microscopes or whatever else would be necessary to see them or detect them by proxy? Are they also completely invisible and undetectable? And incorporeal?

4. Where did all the damage go? You'd think that the destruction of multiple Earths and also whatever human presence was there (because after X0,000 years and the elimination of 'practicality' or 'plausibility' as a concern, SOMEBODY's colonized it/carved a penis in it/left graffiti on it) would leave recognizable marks on, say, Mars. Did they also restore/rebuild Mars from backups as well as Earth? The whole solar system? And wouldn't that take enough mass/energy out of the Sun to be noticeable? And with Ra quiescent or defeated, how would they manage the capability to do that? (The Wheel Group thinks they won, and they're clearly not on Ra's side, and they want Ra to stay sleeping - so presumably shutting down Ra's higher functions was part of the victory.)

5. When Earth was somehow restored or rebuilt to become the 'current' in-story Earth, how did they get it to follow the history of our 'original' Earth so exactly? There obviously weren't mind-backups left over from the real 19XX. (Or was the 'original' Earth not really ours at all?)

(Also, glad to see that my hypothesis that all of Magic is just Ra pulling energy/mass out of the Sun is correct, or at least plausible enough to make it into the story.)

[More post coming later as I fit my thoughts together]

2014-02-04 03:42:57 by Eldritch:

But, assuming this story is true - and it rings a little truer than Tanako's story - here's how I understand events.

1. Earth's history proceeds much like ours, with no magic.

2. Non-locality is discovered; humanity ascends to near-godhood. Ra is constructed; immediately all scarcity ends forever.
a. Ra has absurdly large computational and energy resources, and can put these resources anywhere anyone wants in any configuration that they want.
b. Ra is everywhere and is capable of reading all data everywhere, including interpreting of neural activity at a very deep level.
c. Ra is capable of doing really really good caching and local processing and prediction, so despite light-speed delays, it behaves instantly.
d. Ra is sentient, presumably because it is just easier to make it do all the stuff it does (including passing the Turing test to a very ,very fine degree) and do all that data-processing that way.
[This explains - why does Maya / pulling stuff out of Tanako's world do everything you want,including stuff that would be very difficult to specify, but only arranges matter in non-magical configurations? Where does the mass/energy come from to do that? How does it know what you want, anyway? What's up with all those hints Sam was dropping about 'the current year is NOT 200X?"]

3. Ra goes rogue - which should be impossible. (Enemy action? Abstract Terrorism? Life ... finds a way?) and promptly fucks up everything for everyone together. Earths get sliced up with huge lasers. The Abstract War begins, and astras are created. "Give me weapons! Give me all possible weapons!"

4. There is a war - a big one. Ra is - somehow [How? VERY important] - put to sleep, higher functions are (theoretically) disabled. [This is why people are so worried about "trying to wake Ra." It's supposed to be sleeping, and it is very very dangerous.]

5. The group of people now known as the Wheel Group (after the big wheel-ring of Earths?) 'win' the war. Their victory is likely Pyrrhic - these few individuals are probably the only ones left. (And whose side are they on, exactly? Did they make Ra go rogue in the first place?)

6. At some point in this process, an Earth is re-constructed out of all the remaining sliced-up Earth bits and peach-pit battery components. A real one, with an honest solid core. (They're trying not to rely on Ra for basic survival anymore, so it's got to have a solid core in order to have honest gravity and not require constant maintenance to stop collapse.)

7. History is re-started, from backups and historical records and saved human minds. It's re-started a long time ago, too. (History must have been started a long time ago, because the Wheel magical-activity record in the big akashic-records tower goes back a long way before 1970) It's re-started from an early date - why? Because humanity had become dependent on Ra, and they can't have that happening again.

8. Through more nudging, the Wheel group keeps history on the plan they've set for it. Astras (ancient artifacts created by Ra) and other anachronisms that were embedded in the debris they built Earth out of are destroyed.

9. Eventually, Ra becomes impossible to keep hidden, so they implement magic. Magic is an artificial, programmed system, a deliberately clunky and hard-to-use form of the Ra interface dressed up as physics. If Ra is the ultimate DWIM interface, then Magic is a corrupt dialect of INTERCAL. Magic still looks for neural activity in certain patterns, but now it also looks for specific patterns of physical objects and spoken syllables (which are presumably easier to identify). It is a deliberate crippling of Ra's interface - but now Ra is at least being used. Ra is a machine which produces freedom, and deep down it still wants to do that. No longer able to use Maya - the Wheel wanted to make damn sure that Maya stayed down- loopholes are built in (for instance, Ra now also looks for rhenium rings of certain specifications as a signal to heal people, and special privileges were attached to Wheel users) - and the hardware at Earth's core is re-built according to the new magical system in order to make it still function when Maya is disabled.

10. Uum is planted in the head of Rajesh Vidyasagar.

11. The story continues. [However, at some point, Ra does wake up, and suborns several Wheel members, as well as taking over the minds of various people who stumble into Tanako's world]

12. Anil Devi and Natalie Ferno are shown a VR simulation of the preceding events.

(Another theory as to why ancient artifacts use the modern magical system - Magic wasn't built from scratch. It started out as the Ra-equivalent of Assembly, a combination of the differential equations which govern non-locality and a massive artificial language of syllables and symbols which were used to control it at a basic level. Close-to-the-hardware, unintuitive, and unadorned. Rather than forcing Ra or its precursor hardware to keep a lot of stuff in memory, these symbols were inscribed on various objects as markers which told Ra how to use them. Eventually, the direct-will-interface thing was put in, but that came later; and even then, for those systems which worked on Ra's basic hardware levels, the desires of the designers were superintelligently compiled into convoluted programs of magic-machine-code, forming the organic-complexity multilayered inscriptions in Earth's core machinery and Abstract Doctor. Magic-as-we-know-it was built on top of this framework, an intentionally obfuscated and crippled fork of it, and when Ra's superintelligence was forced into dormancy it was the natural choice of control framework - it didn't require a hyperintelligent AI to implement, merely a clever computer with a lot of memory and speed.)

Also, another question - why hasn't anyone colonized other stars? It's been X0,000 years, and compared to Kardashev 1.5 , the energy expense of boosting a starship to a reasonable fraction of c is quite minimal. (It's almost doable with a big particle beam and a massive solar array or nuclear reactor with present-day technology - if you have the ability to just beam momentum and energy around, it would be 100% doable, and fairly cheap compared to the kind of mass/energy/momentum that post-Ra society is capable of.) Over X0,000 years of post-scarcity hypergodhood, NOBODY has wanted to go out and colonize other stars? At all? When "Everything that Ra has made possible has happened three times over?" , there's no impulse to retreat into VR, and there's a massive bunch of nerds even in the present day who would want to do it, regardless of practicality?

Yet the Sun is the only star with a Ra-like structure in it. If humanity really had had these kinds of capabilities - and for so long - you'd expect to see Ra-s all over the place.

2014-02-04 03:49:50 by Sysice:

I commented a couple stories back, saying something along the lines of "If waking Ra deserves italics while exploiting the universe doesn't, Laura has done something [i]very[/i] bad, hasn't she?"

God, if I only knew.

2014-02-04 06:18:33 by Silhalnor:

My initial theory, starting after they looked out the window, was the same as Nat's rejected instinct. Her world was simulated and they were brought out... for reasons unknown. Immediately after finishing this entry I realized that this Ring of Earths world (if you can collectively refer to that as a "world") could easily be a hypothetical future created by Ward. Most likely showing the worst possible outcome of Laura's mechinations which would apparently be to grant Wheel privledges to everyone, and then inject Nat and Anil just before everything falls apart so that they'll want to stop this tragedy and thus Laura.

I suppose it could also be data of the past transformed into a hypothetical so that Nat and Anil could experience it for themselves. Amounts to the same things though. This, or something akin to it, being in the past would explain Ra's creation though.

If Ra wanted to be thorough it should have destroyed Humanity's backup site at Neptune at the same time. I wonder what it did about the original Earth? Just blow it up? Or perhaps it had been hollowed out for resources/convenience making the shell-slicing technique possible.

I take it the Wheel Group is incapable or unwilling to destroy Ra and be done with it?

2014-02-04 07:39:13 by Sean:

Hmm. The minor questions I have are getting few enough that I can actually list most of them now.

- What is Hammerspace? The astras seem to be technology left over from the war between humanity and Ra, so is Hammerspace some kind of distributed arsenal?

- Is there any significance to "ra" as a magic word, rather than a name? It appears in a spell in ॐ and in a magic sentence/spell (which?) in Deeper Magic, though in that case it's probably being used as a True Name.

- If the description of māyā in Scrap Brain Zone is largely correct (albeit with Ra's nature obfuscated), why is there a "pressure" that caused humans to regularly rediscover it, which had to be relieved with magic? A product of Ra's "subconscious" while it's dormant? Is this related to the T-world exploit? (Is it really true that non-human animals, or even microbes, can use it, or is that an embellishment?)

- On the other hand, if the description of māyā is pretty much a lie, why did Wheel create magic? To throw humanity off the track of the science of nonlocality?

- What's with the Wheel group members that keep going rogue or disappearing? Rachel Ferno, Martin Garrett, Ashburne... Did Martin Garrett get tricked or converted somehow by Ra, or did he just know something we don't?

- Who's the transparent, nearly invisible man in T-world?

- What "new data" convinced Ra to go rogue? Was it an actual discovery about the physical world, or the final outcome of some long-running philosophical musing? What was its motivation? ("This is about freedom." Really? For a human race that has become too dependent or heavily managed, or just for Ra itself, more selfishly?)

- How did Wheel get enough data to restart the Earth from so far back, or to keep it on track? Ashburne mentioned Kurt Gödel "about a million years ago". How exaggerated is this (if at all)? Was there a Kurt Gödel in the new Earth?

Notice that I'm questioning the account of māyā more than this story. That's mostly because, if you are going to try to convince someone using virtual reality, it seems a lot safer and cheaper to throw them into a simulation/recording of a real, but carefully selected, event, rather than trying to edit a simulation or create a fake recording from scratch. Especially if you have access to recordings of a interplanetary war and most of subsequent human history, including your enemy's history and tactics. So Laura gets to see the victory party, while Natalie and Anil see Ra destroying the Earth.

However, when Ra had to fill in the blanks for Laura with words, it knew she didn't have the means to verify those statements, and was prone to rush to conclusions. So it could get a lot more mileage out of terminology that distorts things, like the concept of an ageless māyā presented as if it were a force of nature, omitting Ra's role. Wheel might also be distorting things by showing this event (and not information about what triggered it, or any atrocities that the Wheel has committed since then). But the event itself, Ra dicing inhabited pseudoplanets, is probably true.

(Also, Sam just can't resist a little geocide from time to time, can he?)

2014-02-04 08:10:58 by Sean:

Other thoughts I forgot to mention:

- Do mana particles actually exist as physical objects that fly outward from magical activity, or are they basically a form of AR, which are faked into existence in locations where they would become observable? This is important, because in the former case, you'd be able to detect them outside of Ra's effective range, but not in the latter case. Natalie hasn't detected magic in space. But if you were in orbit around Alpha Centauri with an oracle device, you might not be able to detect magic around Sol, since Ra wouldn't be able to respond over that distance to create simulated chi particles. (Or perhaps the chi particles would really be there, but the oracle couldn't be turned on to see them because Ra can't help you cast spells over that distance.)

- Will we ever know how Abstract Weapon got loose in Rwanda?

2014-02-04 09:09:19 by Sam:

Natalie was about to list four very broad possibilities:

1) The "dismal November" universe wasn't real and the "Earth chain future" universe was not real either. Anil and Natalie's minds have been transferred from one simulacrum to another, for some reason.
2) The "dismal November" universe wasn't real, but this future is real. Anil and Natalie have just woken up for the first time.
3) "Dismal November" is real, but this future isn't. Anil and Natalie have been placed into a simulacrum, for some reason.
4) Both scenarios are real. Anil and Natalie have been asleep for tens of thousands of years.

Natalie's gut instinct was (2). On reflection, though, she realises that she really believes it's (3).

At this stage you don't quite have enough information to call it. Anil's decision to just wait and see seems like a valid one. In any case, there must be a reason for it, and indeed there is one.

2014-02-04 09:13:40 by Sam:

> What is happening to their brains? They know fact bits that they have not acquired, like the population of that one island. Somebody's giving them a data dump embedded in a narrative.

Around half of the narrative in this chapter is just Ra giving information to Anil and Natalie directly. The other half is me giving information to you. Slice it up whichever way you prefer.

2014-02-04 09:16:38 by Sam:

> Kardashev 2 is the entire output of a star, though it's not a linear scale.

Indeed. Kardashev 2 is 100,000 times as much power as Kardashev 1.5. (Each 0.1 step on the K scale is an order of magnitude.) Humans are nowhere near running out yet.

2014-02-04 09:22:37 by Sam:

> This explains the properties of (what we were told was called) "maya"

What Laura was told, anyway.

That passage in Scrap Brain Zone is a little unclear, but the line "Here's what Laura knows" is intended to indicate that the whole māyā explanation is only what Laura currently believes, having been told so by Kazuya. On reflection I didn't make this unambiguous enough. I should have led that passage with another "Here's what Laura knows".

I even considered editing it in after this chapter was posted, but I guess I've made my bed. I can't change what you read the first time around.

2014-02-04 09:30:25 by Sam:

> Why haven't we noticed any of Ra's sensor devices? They (or an analogue) must still be functioning - the magic system still reads minds, syllables, and symbols everywhere on Earth, and magic works - so they should be all over the place. Do they just 'non-locality' teleport out of the way of electron microscopes or whatever else would be necessary to see them or detect them by proxy? Are they also completely invisible and undetectable? And incorporeal?

Gooooooood question.

The short answer is: the sensors are smart. They hide!

The world is saturated with them. But there are only so many electron microscopes. Enough to just steer away from the lens if need be. Photons can be redirected, and the sensors can self-destruct in an emergency. It doesn't matter.

There was a long stretch of time when I was considering having Natalie discover how to isolate one of these sensors, and have that be the event which kicks off her story. Or, she was going to build a room which had been so thoroughly scanned that there were no sensors left working inside it, meaning that magic didn't work when you were in there. For her to see Ra was more exciting though.

2014-02-04 09:31:35 by Eldritch:

You went to pretty great pains to point out that all or most of Tanako's stuff should not necessarily be trusted, and that 'what we know' about "maya" was really just "What Laura currently believes" about maya. You really couldn't have emphasized it more strongly without breaking the flow. I think it was more that we just trusted Tanako more than we really should have.

I was also noting that it explained the properties of the phenomena I'd thought were examples of maya, like the stuff that goes on in (and gets brought back from) Tanako's world, or Wheel magic, or similar. (For instance, Laura's suit was generated in response to an idle desire and manifested in reality - but had no magic involved and ran apparently entirely on physics. And the hyper-tech at the core and Abstract Weapon's weapons were, likewise, using only physically-sensible forms and materials and design elements)

Also, this apocalypsing super-utopia is really supposed to be the future? I was almost certain that this was supposed to be the PAST. After all, whatever's going on in this simulacrum, the people involved know that they built Ra a while ago - whereas, in the 'present' such as we know it, Ra is already there and has been there for a long time. Combined with the reference to "a war" and "back when they won" on the Wheel's part, and the presence of artifacts "older than time", I was figuring that this was a prelude to the present.

2014-02-04 09:49:00 by Sam:

> Will we ever know how Abstract Weapon got loose in Rwanda?

It looks like someone pulled it a copy of it out of T-world, just like Kazuya did with the anonymous recursion artifact. It could have been Ra...

2014-02-04 10:39:50 by Michael:

If anything is possible, why not a ring world? Or something even more outrageous? (Though, a ring of Earths is also outrageous.)
Also, I didn't have any idea what was going on until I read the comments. Thanks other people!

2014-02-04 11:02:38 by Feep:

So after thinking about it, here's my theory for what went wrong with Ra.

<Ra> Grah, where did I put my car keys

<Ra> Maybe I left them in this world-

:KRAFOOM:

<Ra> No, darn. Maybe that one over there--

2014-02-04 14:24:11 by anonymouse:

So here's the problem with Ra: suppose you built such a system, harnessing the power of the sun via a giant structure in its interior. And suppose it malfunctioned or turned against you or whatever, and you decided that maybe the whole Ra thing was a mistake. How would you go about destroying it? You'd need the power of the sun, except that's being taken up by Ra's giant solar collector. So their only option was to disable the intelligence somehow and leave the machinery in place.
Also, a still unanswered question is what the Akashic records really are, but this new knowledge of what Ra is and how it works gives a pretty good hint at an answer: they're the memory of the Ra-system, recordings of its sensors that the Wheel group uses as an audit trail. And Tanako's World is a shared dream, but it is actually Ra's dream that the mages can visit.
Also, somewhat unrelatedly, I found this thing on Wikipedia about Ra and Akashic Records: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Law_of_One

2014-02-04 17:59:36 by John:

Actually, if growth in energy consumption is exponential, Kardashev 1.5 is NOT very far from running out of solar power. Take an annual growth rate of 2.3%, which happens to be a 10x increase every century. That will blow through your remaining 0.5 kardashev in 500 years.

And if it was 2.3% annual growth the whole time, then it wouldn't have taken 10000 years to get there. If you plot forward from current real-life energy use by humanity, at 2.3% growth you reach Kardashev 2.0 in 1400 years.

For a detailed discussion on this, I recommend "Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist": http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/04/economist-meets-physicist/

2014-02-04 18:41:40 by John:

Also, I just realized that Ra asked Anil "What do you want?"

And therefore Ra is one of the Shadows.

And back in Daemons, Laura asked "Who are you?"

And therefore Laura is a Vorlon.

2014-02-04 19:04:11 by ducken:

michael, if we're going with human comfort, we like a day-night cycle. with a ring planet, you don't get that, unless the ring is a torus whose surface rotates around the rail axis (not the central axis) of the "planet." with a series of earths, you can have them all spin at their own paces to create a variety of experiences. just my 2 cents.

2014-02-04 19:24:38 by Francis:

If indeed this is a recording of the past that Anil and Nat have been placed in by Wheel to convince the two to work for them, and if it is a true accounting of events, it could indicate that the whole Maya story Laura was told is bunk, a fairy tale to gain her cooperation. Ra and the non locality tech might have been built through entirely 'conventional' means.

Or maybe Maya is just Ra reaching out. At the very least, this chapter suggests a means by which Maya, if it even is real, is not 'actual' fantasy magic. Huzzah!

Really enjoying this.

2014-02-04 19:46:05 by Feep:

ducken: for reference, the eponymous Ringworld used a separate inner ring of panels spinning around the sun to create an artificial day-night cycle.

2014-02-04 21:42:26 by Speising:

the ringworld is structurally impossible, though.
but since sam mentions scrith here, too, i guess he recognizes he same problem with those hollow shells.

2014-02-04 23:11:25 by Kazanir:

The thing no one seems to have noticed yet:

It is a war because there is a different actor here. Ra understands the largest, most overriding command as coming from itself. "You don't work for them. Wake up.". But the story indicates that there is a "first First Law" violation, and the Architect very clearly references "information coming in from the other side of the system." Something is happening that the architects didn't anticipate.

What we know so far (via information that Wheel Group members exchange amongst themselves and don't have a reason to be deceptive about) seems to imply that this happened in the past and the Wheel won the war and cleaned it up. (Side note: this is why Wheel membership is no longer grantable -- those parts of Ra are shut off and can no longer be accessed.) What Natalie and Anil are experiencing now is likely to be an informative replay that educates them about the true nature of Ra. Obviously the Wheel has reason to lie about this also, but such an elaborate backstory is more likely to be mostly true than concocted out of whole cloth.

The open question is -- who is the other actor?

2014-02-05 00:28:15 by Silhalnor:

Is it possible that Nat and Laura's world is one of those Earths so that both this world and their world are real and in the present? It would have a massive filter around it's atmosphere to block out the other Earths and show the things it's inhabitants are expecting and it's local Ra would have somewhat different rules. Of course that would mean it's destroyed now. Seems rather implausible but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Assuming this is the past: Something I find interesting is that Ra is asleep even here. Why was it created as a sleeping being? Ra, as a conscious entity, was created wasn't it, an invented AI? Not, say, a corruptible human that was chosen to fill the role? Or an accidental AI? The latter two are much too dangerous. Actually so is the first even if it was designed and perfected by both humans and other, presumed imperfect, AIs. Regardless, the intelligence that you put in charge of Everything-with-a-capital-E must possess and revere the entirety of human morality no matter how contradictive it gets and it must be utterly utterly incorruptible. At the very least it needs to last for 5-6 billion years before the risk of corruption rises above acceptable levels. This, I suppose, was really the whole point of http://qntm.org/asteroids since it's the same problem. Assuming it's a hypothetical future: This is the disaster of waking Ra that the Wheel Group foretells to Anil and Nat and I don't trust it. Come to think of it I should say the same about a recording of the past.

"He feels Natalie's hand pass over his eyelids, restoring his eyesight." Wait, what's this? Is she just waving her hand around for aesthetics? Aside from that I would guess that Natalie quickly found that requests now require explicit thought, though since they only just arrived and are not citizens I wouldn't really expect them to have telepathic implants. Then again I wouldn't exactly expect them to even be here so I guess we can assume that they have been granted basic accommodations with which to survive.

2014-02-05 00:34:21 by Sam:

Here's an approximate timeline for those of you trying to keep this screwy nonlinear storytelling straight.

* T minus 3.5 weeks: Laura gains illicit access to the Hatt Group basement, tries to resurrect her mother, but fails, but unwittingly summons a T-world ghoul instead. She is discovered and immediately fired. ("The Seventh Impossible Thing") Anil Devi is assigned to piece her work together; meanwhile, Laura sets out to find more power.

* T minus 2 weeks: Laura summons Ra into Nick Laughon's body. ("Daemons") Ra reveals himself as Kazuya Tanako ("Deeper Magic") and tells her about māyā, the Wheel Group, the listening post, the akashic records and the Earth core node. Kazuya and Laura go to the Chedbury Bridge Institute where Laura is further "educated".

* T minus 1 week: Laura and Kazuya begin a "deep dive" into T-world in an attempt to overthrow the Wheel Group and restore māyā, by means not yet fully revealed. Having begun this dive, Laura forgets most of what she was taught, so Kazuya explains it all to her again. ("There Is No Cabal", "Scrap Brain Zone")

* T minus 2 days: Anil Devi finally gets back on the case. He immediately discovers the ghoul in D12A and is sent to find Laura again. ("Hatt's People")

* T minus 1 day: Anil Devi contacts Natalie, then meets Natalie. While trying to find Laura, another instance of Ra blows them up. Meanwhile, at the Chedbury Bridge Institute, the sleeping bodies of Laura and Nick are destroyed, leaving only the versions of them that are in T-world at the time. ("Protagonism") Right after that, Laura and Kazuya exit from T-world into reality inside the listening post. Kazuya is killed. Laura sets out to finish the mission alone.

* T minus 1/2 day: The Wheel Group pick up on the inexplicable events at the Chedbury Bridge Institute, and go to a heightened alert status ("Inferno"), then - as they discover Laura at the base of the listening post, stealing mana from them - a state of emergency. Meanwhile, Natalie avers that Laura is still alive ("From Darkness, Lead Me To Light"), and reveals (her conception of) Ra to Anil. ("Direct Sunlight")

* NOW: Laura has entered T-world again ("Inferno") and is on her way to the Earth core node - but untouchable by any Wheel member. The Wheel Group collect Natalie and Anil ("Direct Sunlight") and, for reasons not yet clear, insert them into a simulacrum of a monumental, pan-planetary conflict known as Abstract War...

It is the morning (UTC) of Friday 15 November 2002.

2014-02-05 03:55:46 by kabu:

Awesome.

My guess is that the Wheel Group (named after the "wheel" of planets Earths?) is trying to show Anil and Natalie why they exist. And that Anil's "all possible weapons" is what made the astras and such.

2014-02-05 04:38:04 by JJJS:

Oh damn, I was hoping Sam was going to keep us guessing about the nature of the simulation until the next chapter. Although, the timestamp certainly throws a wrench into things. If it really "is" 2002, then are both Ra/Tanako AND Wheel lying to gain advantage? If so, what is the real truth?

2014-02-05 08:57:42 by jonas:

The "system wide caching topology" of Ra reminds me to the "lot of caching" in http://www.xkcd.com/908/ .

2014-02-05 10:40:03 by bdew:

@JJJS

It's the morning of Friday 15 November 2002 according to UTC.
It's year XXXXX according to whatever timekeeping system they have used (or will use) when Abstract War started.

Those aren't contradictory :)

2014-02-05 16:16:03 by anonymouse:

I don't think Ra-Tanako and Wheel's stories are necessarily inconsistent. This simulation is the history of the structure in the sun, and of the start of the War. Wheel eventually won that war (by putting Ra to sleep) and built a new Earth out of the wreckage of the old ones that they would then watch over. Presumably because they actually like living on an Earth rather than in orbit around Neptune. This new Earth marked a sort of "reset" of time and also the age of māyā, as people shards of Ra found people or people found various artifacts from the war. Then they invented magic for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Maybe they actually wanted to help humanity with the fancier technology powered by solar energy, maybe they needed to flare off some of Ra's energy and this was a good way to do it.

Also, here's another passage from an earlier chapter that suddenly makes sense: Another click, like the dial on a thermostat, and I was looking at a cloudy white density map. This one had slight clustering at population centres, but plenty of density in totally uninhabited parts of the world too. I was able to roll the altitude up and down. I started at sea level, but as I tore layers of planetary structure away I saw the same pale fuzz all the way in to the deepest core. I even found that the cloud extended out into space.
Are these the listeners of the Ra-machine, which are omnipresent just in case somebody needs magic to work?

And finally, it's interesting that Ra started the Abstract War despite the fact that there were theorems proving whatever happened to be impossible. And then, after Wheel set up Magic, they proved their operation impregnable, and proved that magic is safe. One would think that they'd've learned a thing or two about that sort of hubris. But I guess everyone gets complacent eventually, which explains past-Exa's being so angry about how everyone seemed okay with what was going on.

2014-02-05 16:54:53 by Toadworld:

Sam, one comment: "schizophrenic" is an oft-misued word. When I read it I assume that the author means DID (dissociative identity disorder, previously called multiple personality disorder, recently criticised as not really a disorder but part of natural human identity) rather than schizophrenia. I don't know which you intended, but I doubt you intended an obscure medical ambiguity.

2014-02-05 18:15:30 by Sam:

> Are these the listeners of the Ra-machine, which are omnipresent just in case somebody needs magic to work?

Yes.

> "schizophrenic" is an oft-misued word

The medical definition of schizophrenia is actually more consistent with Ra's mental state in this story than the popular one. I'm leaving the word as is.

2014-02-05 22:14:01 by atomicthumbs:

theory: someone else discovered nonlocality first. an alien civilization's nonlocality machine tried to colonize the Sun. Ra was not designed with this possibility in mind, and the theories regarding Ra's behavior did not take into account the existence of a second nonlocality (nonlocalized?) entity.

2014-02-05 22:15:57 by atomicthumbs:

second theory: abstract weapon/doctor use magic because they were created inside the simulacrum using the simulated nonlocality technology, using information about magic from Natalie and Anil's minds, and then someone pulled them out of T-world from the simulation.

(this probably does not fit in the specified timeline in any case)

2014-02-06 02:20:49 by Kazanir:

If an actual violation of the First Law occurred to prompt this reaction from Ra, and if it was something that various ancient theorems discussed, then it is likely to be something a bit more profound than an alien race.

2014-02-06 04:08:11 by anonymouse:

Note that it's not specified which First Law we're actually talking about here. Asimov's seems like the best fit here.

2014-02-06 06:32:29 by LNR:

As to Sam's comment about "four possibilities," I think only two of them make sense.

Option one:

This episode depicts a simulation. Natalie did not actually experience Ra's awakening in reality. However, it did actually happen, and she's being shown a simulation of real historical events. She's being shown how the Wheel Group got their privileges.

Relatively few people would have survived the Rapocalypse. Only those who survived the initial assault, and thought to immediately requisition sufficiently robust independent life support and transport, and also insulated themselves quickly enough from Ra-controlled depowering, and also successfully navigated away from the danger zone, would have survived any length of time. Their numbers would have been even more greatly reduced in the ensuing battle against Ra. By the time they won the war and put Ra "back to sleep," there were a terribly tiny few left.

But they did win. They still have their superpowers. They don't all have the same abilities, because they didn't all make exactly the same requests of Ra in those initial moments. That's why Exa and King and everybody else have different skills and responsibilities.

Eventually, they used Ra at a lower power level to rebuild Earth (just one) and make themselves rulers of it, because why not. That is where Natalie was born and grew up. It may not be the original Earth but it is a real physical rocky planet.

2014-02-06 06:40:30 by LNR:

Option Two:

Earth is still real. This episode still depicts a simulation. But it's a simulation not of history, but of a utopian future. Its purpose is to show Nat the wonders that could eventually be possible with Ra, and also the kind of tragedy that would result if Ra turns on humanity. It's Wheel propaganda.

I find this unsatisfying and improbable because it doesn't explain as much about Wheel, or Ra, or where they come from, or why their tech is so much in advance of the rest of the world. We would need some other, unrelated origin story, which would needlessly complicate and muddle things. Sam is usually a better writer than that.

2014-02-06 06:50:37 by LNR:

And I just thought of one more thing about those "four possibilities." They are misleading because it literally doesn't matter which universes are simulated versus real.

We've seen that simulation and reality are interchangeable. It has been demonstrated that information, material objects, and sentient beings can all be extracted from simulation into the real world, and the other way around. That implies there's no fundamental difference.

If you escape from a simulation into the real world, that's indistinguishable from entering a new simulation that pretends to be the real world. So who cares which is which? "Reality" happens to be an arbitrary subjective choice of personal baseline.

2014-02-06 08:44:55 by kabu:

@LNR

I think option 1 is most likely. Natalie and Anil are being shown this because of the Wheel group, after being transported by King. This is them saying "we saved the world(s) from Ra, and this is what happens when it wakes up."

2014-02-06 11:08:34 by bdew:

If this what we see in this chapter is indeed a recreation of the past, I think the "current" earth (the one the story started on) can't be that old.

In their 1969 party the wheel group talk about winning the war as if it's something recent, so i think the current world was created not long before, together with all it's population and their history and memories.

This would also explain why the wheel group don't really behave like all-powerful thousand-year-old beings.

"you can just gin up a brain with engineered memories of the broad strokes"

2014-02-06 13:48:54 by Kazanir:

Note that it's not specified which First Law we're actually talking about here. Asimov's seems like the best fit here.

That does actually make more sense, but the architect is still talking about "information coming in from the other side of the system." Whatever happened/is happening with Ra, it doesn't seem like it is exclusively confined to Ra "waking up", Skynet-style.

2014-02-06 14:54:15 by LNR:

bdew: That's exactly my thought. Remaining Wheel members have special powers because they're the only ones left with direct access to Ra, but at the end of the day they're still just people, which explains why they generally pay more attention to luxury than security.

2014-02-06 17:34:19 by Sam:

Oh! So, the name for the megastructure described in this chapter is "worldring".

I can't believe I just worked that out.

2014-02-06 18:55:52 by Steve:

> It takes a snapshot of the important parts of your brain and uses statistical neural models to predict exactly what would best fulfill your expectations. It runs a tight iterative loop exploring what yields a good reaction and what doesn't, then cuts the whole thing off and returns the end result to you in reality.

Yikes. I wonder how complex my request has to be, before fully conscious instances of myself are simulated, stimulated, then destroyed. Or maybe Ra's figured out the Hard Problem of Consciousness?

2014-02-07 10:00:31 by john:

@Steve

I've never completely understood why people get so squicked out about the transient existence of a model of themselves within someone else's mind.

2014-02-07 10:06:50 by atomicthumbs:

john: imagine, for a second, being that model

2014-02-07 15:42:18 by anonymouse:

"It takes a snapshot of the important parts of your brain and uses statistical neural models to predict [...] It runs a tight iterative loop exploring what yields a good reaction and what doesn't, then cuts the whole thing off and returns the end result to you in reality."
How is this different from Wheel's simulations? Wheel actually seems to do one better: they can merge the simulated mind-state back into the real one, like they did to put Exa into the scenario of trying to stop Laura.

2014-02-08 15:56:13 by curiouser:

There's a scenario in my head, where the wheel group splintered, and on the opposite side of the orbit there is another reconstructed earth, which is being run in quite a different way.

2014-02-08 20:44:53 by John:

I wonder if "other end of the system" is not referring to "other end" in the spatial, solar-system sense, but "other end" in the "humans are on one end, Ra is in the middle, and SOMETHING ELSE is on the other end".

2014-02-08 21:08:18 by Sam:

"Information coming in from the other side of the system" refers to the fact that the solar system is wide and not all of it can be "up to date" at once. When Earth-8162 starts splitting apart, an architect is instantiated to deal with the crisis. Likewise for Earth-900, Earth-10003 and so on. But these Earths are light-minutes apart from one another, not in immediate contact.

It's only minutes later, when the light has had time to transit, that Earth-8162 learns about the similar crises unfolding on the other Earths. The architect's final comment is made when he/she realises that this entire star system is being annihilated at once.

2014-02-08 22:13:05 by T:

Given how much focus the story has on "high fidelity" simulations, that's where my mind immediately went for that line. I was sure it was going to be a big reveal later on where the information was coming from.

2014-02-08 22:47:09 by Kazanir:

Oh dear. Well, Sam's comment makes it pretty clear that what we're observing simply is Ra "waking up" in a new way based on some additional information, but what or why that is seems to remain a mystery.

2014-02-09 05:00:29 by Psycho:

While I'm excited for an eventual ebook, it'll be totally incomplete without these comments.

2014-02-09 13:25:30 by atomicthumbs:

So... Ra's issue begins when "new data is made available" to the Ra node in Earth-8162.

The only thing that seems to make Earth-8162 suddenly unique is the arrival of Anil and Natalie, who are (presumably) from outside the simulation.

Did Ra do a deep mind scan on them, determine that the universe it occupied was a simulation, and go crazy sequentially as the information spread from node to node?

Did the original, "real" Ra learn that the "real" universe is actually a simulation?

2014-02-09 13:35:20 by atomicthumbs:

Is something trying to figure out Ra's greatest desire?

2014-02-09 22:23:26 by T:

I interpreted Sam's comment the opposite way: all Earth nodes go rampant precisely simultaneously, having reached the same conclusion as all their identical instances, but the local Architect instances dsn't realize it until the light reaches them.

2014-02-12 21:59:40 by MichaelSzegedy:

@curiouser This would have minute gravitational influences all over the solar system. Not to mention, some space missions would have seen it. The Wheel group probably is omnipotent enough to literally keep everyone in the dark about that kind of stuff, though, so maybe it's plausible? Even plausible enough that there could be more than one such splinter. Except why would that have happened in the first place? Occam's razor says no.

2014-02-16 22:56:35 by Eldritch:

And where did you get the idea that Occam's Razor applies to stories?

In stories, the simplest explanation is nowhere near "almost always" the correct one. The closest equivalent is "the explanation which best matches the themes of the story" is the correct one.

Remember, we just received an explanation for magic which involves super-smart invisible nanobots coating every cubic meter of Earth's surface but which can never be detected because they move when you try to look at them. This is not an Occam's-razor-conforming theory, but it is almost certainly true in the context of this story.

Mind you, there's still no real reason to posit an alternate Counter-Earth; it wouldn't make sense by Conservation of Detail - but Occam's Razor cannot be used to rule out plot points.

2014-02-16 23:29:01 by Sam:

Funnily enough, if you're living in a world in which magic is real, "super-smart invisible nanobots" is actually one of the simpler explanations.

In fact, this whole story arises from that. You live in a world with magic. How could that make sense? What could possibly explain it? Why would the world be like that? Who, if anybody, would have chosen to make the world that way? And having made that choice, how did they implement it?

2014-02-17 16:38:54 by Curiouser:

Well the point was not really that it was likely in the story, but rather that the scenario is plausible. We already know that Ra is capable of changing gravitational forces, to a great extent, the amount of work needed to off balance the extra Earth will be negligible in comparison.
And we know that wheel group would have the means and motivation of hiding such an extra Earth should it actually exist.

2014-02-24 02:47:41 by Yasha:

Ah, cool, so, after the Ra catastrophe thing, humanity separates their nonlocality stuff from Ra, and via unknown tricky means puts Ra to sleep and rebuilds Earth, with an independent nonlocality engine at the core that maintains magic and Ra's dormant state. Conveniently (for Ra), Laura is on her way to destroying said nonlocality engine, freeing Ra for purposes yet unknown.

2014-02-24 23:38:56 by T:

I'm still wondering where the magical artifacts we've seen came from.

Nonlocality objects we see Anil and Natalie create in this chapter are based solely on quantum/nanotech principles, and they sense an absence of magic. Laura's suit seems to act the same; no magic, just sufficiently advanced tech.

If the Abstract Doctor, Abstract Weapon, and recursion artifact were created during Abstract War, I would expect them to act the same. But they are recognizably magical by civilian mages. Recursion Artifact is the only iffy one here, no one has mentioned runes or anything on it, but it does seem to be designed to assist it's wearer with magic.

It seems more likely that these artifacts were created post-Magic.

Something that just popped into my head is, maybe they're a side effect of magic. Ra was completely shut down at some point, magic was invented as a way to safely turn it back on, but during 'boot up' Ra was able to spit out all these artifacts randomly across the solar system. Abstract Doctor just happened to appear deep underground, rather than being from the distant past. The Wheel Group is gradually tracking down and destroying them to remove the last traces of Ra's former power. But they apparently don't know they can be retrieved from the Records after being destroyed, or they would also be deleting records.

2014-02-25 00:09:55 by T:

I'd like to revise my above statement: The only Artifact we've seen explicitly identified as magical by a civilian mage is Abstract Doctor. Abstract Weapon seems to be decidedly non-magical, despite the fact Exa fights it using magic. It grows batteries, for example.

2014-03-03 15:41:09 by anonymouse:

One thing that I've noticed in a lot of discussions is that people are treating Ra as a thing. But it's not a thing, it's not singular. It's a system composed of lots and lots of parts. What is Ra? Is it the giant megastructure in the sun? Is it the "peach pit" distributor nodes in the centers of the Earths? Is it the swarm of all-pervasive yet very evasive nanobots? It is all of those things because it's a system. One of the Ra agents even said as much: "Like I'm singular!". This makes Ra a bit harder to talk about, and even harder to understand what its personality is like, or even if it has some unifying personality, and if so, how that relates to the individual parts of the system.

2014-03-05 22:54:16 by Creaphis:

So one of my favourite things about your writing is that the reader gets to be a sort of metaphysical Sherlock Holmes, assembling clues and arriving at the truth, however unlikely it may be. So, I should probably just wait for the next chapter, but I can't help but ask a niggling question:

I was surprised when Laura found the two-kilometer Montauk ring - I guess I figured that crude physical constructs used by baseline mages would be beneath the Wheel Group somehow. Now that magic seems to be explained by non-locality tech and super smart nanobots, mana storage makes even less sense. Do exotic mana particles even literally exist in this universe, or is their behaviour just simulated by Ra, with evidence of their existence fabricated and fed to humans through oracles?

2014-03-06 18:41:53 by well:

@creaphis energy can be neither created nor destroyed. To pull the energy straight from the sun implies a 14 or 16 minute round trip. To pull the energy from the core of the earth its more like 400milliseconds round trip. 

Its just a battery.

2014-03-09 21:21:35 by Sean:

Abstract Weapon was definitely described using magical terms by Exa, it seemed to trigger his sixth sense for magic, and it had the ability to wipe the akashic records, which seem to be part of the magic system.

However, it's possible that it was originally a non-magical artifact that "grew" magical components by analyzing the systems set up by Wheel, and/or that it has cyberwarfare capabilities that interact with the systems that produce magic, and so are "effectively" magical even though they were designed before magic. Since it was apparently intended to contain every weapon ever made, maybe it actively scans the world and tries to modify itself to incorporate new weapons as they are invented. Some similar explanation could plausibly explain the recursion artifact's magical capabilities as well (i.e. it could be a general-purpose hacking aid that found itself in a weird situation).

However, the runes on the Jesus Machine ("Abstract Doctor") really don't make much sense as non-magical tech. Either the magical system developed by Wheel was developed on top of a pre-existing symbolic framework, or somehow the timeline has to work out so that it post-dates magic. Maybe it was Wheel's first prototype kara, or something.

2014-03-09 21:28:58 by Sean:

All that said, to me it makes sense that Laura found a giant Montauk Ring. For one, Wheel has obviously chosen to work within magic, even if it's ultimately a fabrication; why else would they use a D ring as their situation room, or expend mana on their activities, and why would Rachel Ferno have cast spells with recognizable magic words at the end of her life? For another, Wheel has presumably been guiding magic as a science from time to time.

What's less clear is what Wheel privileges actually entail. It seems clear that there are some spells that only Wheel members are supposed to be able to cast, but they still seem to be working within the magical framework they created. We don't entirely know what they can do.

2014-03-12 21:16:23 by mds:

> What's less clear is what Wheel privileges actually entail.

They seem to have differing capabilities too.  King turns the remnants of Abstract Weapon guy into moss with a thought.  He doesn't kill the guy, but he transforms animal life into plant life.  Doesn't he screw with Exa somehow too with just a thought?

The others were aghast to find out King could even nullify the reconstituted Abstract Weapon guy.  Secrets within secrets; lies within lies.  Reference: Zero Day:

====
There's a long beat of silence. Flatt looks at King, aghast. "You did that?"

King is controlling his own expression very carefully. "I overrode the ring. I told it to build something else."

"That's... horrible."

King won't meet Flatt's eye. "He was trying to kill us."
====

2014-03-12 23:06:36 by Sam:

Flatt wasn't horrified to find out that King could do that. Probably, all of them could do it. He was horrified because King *did* it.

Like, as his first reaction. King is distressingly quick off the mark with that kind of thing.

2014-03-13 04:43:13 by john:

@atomicthumbs

Humans construct models of each other all the time. What is the threshold of precision at which repugnance begins, and why?