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--
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.
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?"
"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.
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.
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?"
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.
"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.
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.