Like an engineer deeply in tune with his machine, Exa feels the world's component error deep in his bones, fractionally before anything has literally gone wrong. The world runs according to rhythms and tidal patterns, networks of sine waves layered on top of one other. The perturbation is subtle enough to be missable by any baseline human, particularly one on the other side of the world from the malfunctioning, invading component. But it's as clear to Exa as a high-pitched sound system whine is to a child not yet old enough to start losing his or her hearing.
He lunges for his phone and crams it to his ear just as it turns completely bright red and gives off its ear-splitting bleep. It's the first alert since he got the new phone, and the "ringtone" is like being kicked in the head.
"Short horizon," says the duty controller. "We need you now."
"Yeah yeah yeah I'm on my way in," Exa says. He falls most of the way out of bed and grabs his discarded suit trousers. It's almost four o'clock in the morning.
The girlfriend rolls over. "Are you serious?"
She thinks he's a sysadmin. It's one of those broad truths, just close enough to the actuality that it doesn't gradually erode his conscience every time he lies to her.
"They don't call me for the little ones," says Exa, pulling yesterday's crumpled shirt on and casting around briefly for his jacket. It's in the kitchen, he remembers. "This isn't happening, you're not awake, forget this."
She thinks this is a good plan and rolls back, wrapping herself over with the extra square metre of duvet that Exa just freed up. Exa slams the bedroom door. She winces, but that's it. No more noise.
Exa has already left the overworld.
Back when they won, and there was enough raw magic saturating the world for it to be a safer plan to burn it off on something wasteful and elaborate than to archive it for future generations, the Floor was built as a physical space. It is a hemispheroidal megastructure cavity in the world, tall enough to base-jump in, long enough for a drag race. Behind everything, the walls are black steel, but in front of the black steel and the HVAC control layer they are coated in person-sized hexagonal tiles with display technology wired in. On off-days they shift through modulated designs just colourful enough to be non-boring and just slow-moving enough to be non-distracting. On on-days they are a medium-sized god's own virtual reality C.A.V.E., somewhere in the ballpark of a ten-million-P picture format.
The cave floor is taken up almost entirely by a magic circle, a lengthened א**-class technically big enough to host spells cast by more than five thousand mages simultaneously. No ISO standard in the world codifies the א**-class specification, nor any pattern a tenth of its size. It's large enough to require a finely calculated deliberate warping, of just a few centimetres from one end of the circle to the other, to account for the curvature of the Earth underneath it. Bright red and green beacons mark important loci and enable the accurate guiding of energy from one side of the circle to the other. At its centre rear, where the bridge would be if the א** were laid on an oil tanker's deck, is a king-sized A-2X-class, and at the centre of that is a conventional thirteen-metre D, one of more than two hundred hidden among the whole mandala.
There are six mages inside the D, along with a collection of eye-poppingly advanced portable computers plugged into outlets in the floor and some wheeled office chairs. Also "present" in the space is a host of virtual equipment, placed there by the system, written directly into the group's retinae when they look in the correct direction, a shared hallucination of yet more information. The total surface area of the room amounts to entire square kilometres, and the men who run the thing are using a millionth of the surface area available to them. It's as if they've built an invisible wall around the D, choosing to lock off the unnecessarily grand cave which they created so that they can live in a universe that doesn't dwarf them so intimidatingly.
At the very centre of the D lies an 8-centimetre rhenium ring. It was placed there flat, but now it spangs up to be perched, wobbling, on its edge. After its motion settles, three-dimensional patterns of bone and blood vessel start to knit together inside it. The pattern spreads away from the ring down four fingers and one thumb, cloaking the work in pale skin before reaching up and over a pair of pectoral muscles and drawing the rest of a human being. The body is male, bald, about 19 years old biologically and completely inert. Additional spells not housed in the magic ring lay Exa's dark linen suit over the top of his body. Once the full complement of organs is established, control is transferred to the body's own nervous system, all of the chemical locks shut off and Exa wakes up smartly. Exa's last frame of experience was his apartment kitchen, a subjective split second ago. This is their answer to teleportation, and the very fact that this was the transport channel of choice tells Exa how royally critical today's critical situation is.
Crisis elapsed time is thirty-five seconds.
Exa sits up, orients himself and addresses the man standing at what is figuratively the helm of the D circle. "A stupid question. Did I just drop dead in my kitchen?"
The man is named King. He is a hair less than forty, stubbly, unusually tall, dressed in a similar suit to Exa's, standing with a similarly informal demeanour. He has both hands in his pockets and his gaze is fixed on the picture on the far wall of the Floor. "Worse," he reports. "You're a spinning ring on the tiles."
"I assume that you know I'm not the only person who lives in the place which I live in?"
"She's asleep. You're covered. Eyes down, Exa."
Exa rubs his wrist under the ring. He finds this mode of transport deeply unnerving, not just because it's usually an emergency measure. It reminds him that King is able to freely rewrite the baselines on both this kara and the one now resting on Exa's kitchen floor. Into anything: Exa's own body, an empty space, anything.
Exa gets up and follows King's gaze. On the far wall, pictured a few hundred metres tall, is a lanky late-teenaged African boy. He wears loose trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with rolled sleeves, which was probably pure cyan in a former life. It's mid-morning local time and he's walking away from the room's point of view down a two-lane asphalted highway, a relatively newly-laid road, one of the best in his country. Ahead of him, the road dips and then rises before turning out of sight. The country is vividly green. Hills, trees and bushes make it difficult to tell where the road goes next. There are no visible buildings or vehicles or other people. The boy is walking down the middle of the yellow line. His left hand is rubbing his neck and left shoulder, maybe scratching a bite. From his right hand dangles a magic sword.
The thing is a metre and a half long. It's thick and dull and a little bent, basically a sharpened wrought-iron bar. It seems to be a single solid chunk of metal, blade and hilt both. It has no cross guard. The blade widens towards the end and is cut off flat, with no point. The hilt melts ergonomically into the boy's hand, like a videogame joystick. The boy drags it behind him, its tip scraping the asphalt. It's obviously far too heavy to be practical as a blade weapon, but it would make an excellent bludgeon.
"This is our fellow? This is the escalation problem?" Exa asks.
"What's he holding? I don't recognise it."
Exa looks sharply at King, then at Flatt, one of the five other mages working in the circle. "Escalation elapsed time sixty seconds and we can't even tell what it is?"
Flatt is sitting cross-legged at the circle's northwest locus, a post nominally named "The Present". He's thirty-ish, with large glasses and long scraggly hair tied back. His attention is focused on a metre-wide virtual frame in front of him. He does not look up. "By a strict process of elimination based on the weapons known to have escaped erasure, been illicitly retrieved through exploits or washed up from space, the thing he's carrying doesn't exist," he says. "The world is clean. By all logic, what's happening isn't happening."
"You're a waste of mass-energy, Flatt," Exa tells him.
"You want to take my seat?" Flatt replies, evenly. Both of them know that Exa doesn't have the specialist training to sit where Flatt sits any more than Flatt has the nerve to take the emergency calls Exa takes. Flatt's role - "job" would not be the right word - is Situational Clairvoyance. He maintains the spells which run the Floor's Master Screen, which occur in two large stacks: one which remotely views the world, and the other which reproduces the video information so gathered with theoretically perfect fidelity. He is the one who is able to discover Facts about Things that are Happening. He is also Exa's field controller.
"So do I take it that it's been powered down this whole time?" Exa asks. "Did he pull it out of Hammerspace?"
"Negative identification," says Flatt.
"I remember that we cleared this world out. We won. Is a future coming in which we will, eventually, truly, have won?" Exa asks.
"You know none of us can answer that question, Exa," says King.
Exa grits his teeth. "But it is a weapon," he says. There are many other things that it could be. "And we don't know what kind of weapon."
"Confirmed," Flatt says.
"And I assume that he's used it?" Exa presses. "We wouldn't be getting the alert otherwise."
"Look behind you," Flatt suggests.
Exa turns. Some kilometres away down the road, in the opposite direction to that in which the boy is walking, a sizeable military installation is on fire. There's a pair of guard towers; one buckles and falls even while Exa watches. There's a huge amount of smoke; the screen is large enough to show the entire black cloud. The fire reaches one of the ammunition dumps, sending up a flash of light and a fireball. There's no audio.
"He did that with a sword?" Exa asks.
"Negative identification," Flatt says.
"I suppose you don't know who he is, either."
"Ask The Past," Flatt says.
The man at the first northeast locus is somewhere in his twenties, but carries himself like someone ten times that age. It's something in his bearing and the angle of his back. He goes by Scin, pronounced "sin", and leans for support on a magic staff taller than he is. Scin is a seer; his operational role is to look into the akashic records, the microsecond-by-microsecond logs of Literally Everything That Has Ever Happened. The role is brain-shredding, and bad for Scin's mental health. Simply staring at the static fuzz of the universe for an hour is enough to grind most into submission. Pulling usable information out of it is like tea-straining fog.
"...Negative identification," Scin echoes. His intonation is very different from Flatt's, and in fact different from his usual, too. Exa is too irritated to pick up on this.
"So we don't know what the story is? We don't know how he acquired the thing, who or where he got it from, who - if anybody - had it before him, what he's done, what he's doing, or what he intends to do next?"
Scin shakes his head.
"For God's sake, people, tell me we at least have a country."
"Rwanda," say three or four mages simultaneously.
There's a beat of silence.
"There's another problem, Exa," King adds. He gestures at the second northeast locus, The Future. This mage doesn't even look up to acknowledge King or Exa. He just shakes his head. King continues, "Without a high-definition reading of the present we can't put together high-definition analyses of the future."
"You don't have hypotheticals for me," Exa says, incredulously. This is close to unprecedented. No, worse: it is unprecedented. Even the hypothetical versions of himself whom they use when running the hypotheticals themselves are sent in with a forged Best Forward Course Of Action of some kind. No version of Exa, as far as Exa knows, has ever moved into the real world without perfect confidence in his approach.
"You're not going in blind," King says. "It just means we go in with low-definition analyses instead."
"The boy has incoming," Flatt announces. He flips the master video feed down the road two kilometres, now tracking an open-topped off-road vehicle screaming out of the base, bound directly for the boy. One driver, three soldiers, one heavy gunner at the emplacement at the rear.
"So by 'low-definition', you mean that we're guessing based on the video footage," says Exa.
The master screen's perspective flips back to the boy. He looks around, although he can't have heard anything. He sees the vehicle in the distance, just as it disappears behind a slew of vegetation and starts climbing the far side of a hill. Another few seconds, and it'll come down the near side, at which point nothing will separate the boy and the vehicle but about a straight kilometre of clean, clear road.
The boy slings his sword around and up to eye level, sighting along it like a rifle. The blade lengthens to a full two metres and becomes a centimetre-wide cylinder, the extra mass rippling backwards along the barrel. The grip changes shape to accommodate the new position of the boy's hands, seamlessly extruding extra sections which turn it into something more like a rifle stock. It also sprouts a telescopic lens which latches onto the boy's eye, and an infrared laser sight. The boy sights on the top of the road, waiting for the vehicle to emerge.
The weapon is behaving proactively. Its handgrips grow around the boy's hands, turning into gloves and then gauntlets. It sprays out long, thin steel legs in six or seven different directions, wedging into the ground for stability. The telescopic lens expands across the boy's other eye and starts winding itself into his ears, a full-face combat mask with internal heads-up-display. But the most alarming development is the bank of capacitor cells growing out of the boy's shoulders and upper back.
"Beam weapon," say three mages at once, including Exa.
A big alarm bell is now ringing in Exa's head. What kind of beam weapon disguises itself like that?
"He's going to kill them," says Flatt.
"I still need a hypothetical," says Exa. "I can't go out there without a first move."
"Disarm him?" King suggests.
Exa only has time to shoot a bitter look back at him.
Flatt gives King a quick hand signal, thereby officially assuming operational control of Exa's movements. Flatt is now connected directly to Exa's auditory nerve: "I want the weapon intact and the boy too if you can manage it. Containment is go, you're getting a two-klick shield. Language support is go, your routine fight suite is go, heavy artillery is standing by for your call. Minimal casualty profile, minimal mana expenditure. We'll use holographic force projection until we can build a medical kara on the spot, so there'll be lag for the first four or five seconds. Stand by for perceptual discontinuity. Another one, I mean."
On the big screen, the boy's beam weapon is lighting up like a fluorescent tube. Exa blinks. When he opens his eyes again his skin is coated in hot Rwandan air and the boy is standing in front of him, the beam weapon at eye level, firing. Exa deflects the beam upwards with one hand, on instinct, as if batting away a fly.
A kilometre back, the truck hits the shield from the outside. The shield was placed off-centre; instead of crashing straight into a hard wall at a hundred kilometres per hour, the truck glances off to the right and spirals into a ditch. Exa gets this information relayed to him by Flatt, and doesn't feel the need to look back and check. The boy, also, loses his telescopic focus on the truck. Exa is standing right in front of him at one-fiftieth of the range, blocking his view. The boy backs up a step, drawing a bead on Exa's head instead.
Freshly loaded muscle memory squeezes the words Exa wants to say into the shape of colloquial Kinyarwanda. He feels like he's lost control of his tongue. It's like driving a car on a thin sheet of slush, the body of the vehicle not quite moving in the same direction as the wheels are pointing.
"Drop the weapon," he commands, while trying to maintain his routine cool in the absence of a firm plan.
The boy's age is somewhere from seventeen to nineteen, putting him in Exa's own apparent age group. Chronologically, Exa's body doesn't have an age because it isn't even fully constructed yet; he's an apparition of force fields, with a biological self being hurriedly assembled to replace them. Mentally, Exa is substantially older, with or without the error bars introduced by his frequent forking and merging of duplicate selves. In the real world he explains that "Exa" is the only contraction of "Alexander" not already claimed by someone else.
With the same hand he just used to deflect the white beam, Exa points his index and middle fingers back at the boy's head. "Drop the weapon," he repeats. "You cannot hurt me. I am beyond you."
There's a loaded, Wild West pause. Thousands of miles away, on the Floor, Exa's second healing ring switches modes from "maintain a healthy human" back to "maintain empty air" and dissolves Exa's now-abandoned body at the molecular level. The process takes just a second. The second ring hits the D with a cling and spins to a halt. Exa is now, by most reasonable definitions, in one place only: on the road in Rwanda.
"I can't tell you who I am," Exa says, in response to a question which he has not, in fact, been asked.
"I know who you are," the boy says, and kills him.