Directly under Tanako's world's three-pointed Sun there's a hulking hemisphere bunker which grumbles electronically, like a mosquito whine slowed down ten thousand times. Its exterior is black body black. It pulls at space around it, as if it has its own gravity.
Laura Ferno (LF-4) discards her final pair of spent SRBs, and once her still-unnamed orbiter runs dry she kicks away from it too, crossing the final distance on an unpowered flat trajectory. This part of T-world is daylight, pure white glass desert with light from Ra hammering down on every square centimetre from directly overhead. Laura's far too far beyond the sound barrier for there to be sound. She catches a shape out of the corner of her eye and swivels in the air to look at it. It's her shadow, streaking across the ground directly below her. As she gets closer to her destination the glass desert clears and the shadow becomes a reflection. She sees herself as a brilliant figure suspended in the sunlight, glowing like a dust speck.
A green slot opens on the bunker exterior, welcoming her visit, guiding her to the correct room.
Two objective seconds later Exa arrives, alone. Natalie and Anil are back in their positions and waiting. If Exa senses that anything is off, he doesn't show it.
Natalie starts: "Where are we?"
Exa says, "Some years ago you wrote a spell which, let's say, showed you the world you weren't supposed to see. You saw three artifacts. What were they?"
"There was a star-sized caltrap-shaped object inside the Sun."
"The Ra nonlocality engine," Exa says. "We covered that. And?"
"...At the core of the Earth," Natalie says. "I gather the technical term is 'peach stone'."
"The distributor. Earth-1's local Ra shard and energy cache," Exa confirms. "Left over from Abstract War. Nobody goes there. And?"
"There was a smaller structure. Roughly ellipsoidal. Like a subcutaneous implant injected into the Earth's crust. Ah..."
"The listening post. That's where we all are right now. We built this after the war to serve as our base of operations. Unlike the distributor it has the advantage of being physically connected to the Earth's surface. The 'room' we're in is the control room. It's where we run magic from."
Natalie and Anil both nod.
With a whole free hour, they've long since worked all of this out. Still, the appearance of disorientation needed to be maintained.
Nat pushes on into relatively unknown territory. "And who are you?"
"We're the Wheel Group."
"No. Who are you? What's your name? Your real name. If you have one."
Exa shrugs. "The realest name I have is the one I was born with, Kalathkou Ouatso Neso. 'Kalathkou' was given to me by my mother, 'Ouatso' was inherited from her, 'Neso' was my place of birth. By the time of Abstract War I was going by Ack Ouatso for most purposes. When I joined the war, I relinquished my chosen names in favour of the title and designation Intercessor EB460890-7409-11E3-981F-0800200C9A66."
"So you are the one who rescued us," Anil says. He and Natalie never met 200C9A66 face to face, but Anil has had a lingering suspicion for some time.
"Strictly speaking, no. But if you really had been stranded in suburban Qaaliqat during the real Abstract War, I probably would have been the one."
"Well. Thanks, anyway."
"You're welcome. After the war I abandoned my intercessorship and went between names for a while. Somewhere around the middle of the year of silence I started thinking of myself as Watson. When King laid his plans out, he had a new role marked out for me, Executor. I accepted the offer, which made me Executor Watson. Very quickly people started cutting that down to 'Exa'. Then when I decided I needed a real life, I inflated it back to Alexander."
"So what do we call you?" Natalie asks again.
"Don't call me anything, you'll only get attached," Exa says. He switches gear. "Look:
"I need to warn you about Laura. She's inside the listening post right now, on a restricted level that she's booby-trapped so we can't get into it. She broke in, we don't know how, and we don't know what she's trying to do now that she's here. But what we do know is that on her way here she saw this recording. She's been to this thirty-course victory meal. Except that she saw a different version of it. One with different attendees, and a different speech by King."
"How different?" Anil asks.
Exa grimaces. "I'm still working through it. I haven't had enough time to work my memory over with conflict resolution tools yet. All I can tell you for certain right now is that someone or something was, or is, lying to her. She's being led."
"Radicalised," Natalie says, puzzling privately over the strange reference to Exa's memory.
"Very probably," Exa says. "Was there anything else?"
"Only one thing," Natalie says. "In reality, I'm still carrying the gun you handed me, correct?"
"Laura's not going to respond positively to being threatened at gunpoint. Can you get me a staff?"
Exa raises an eyebrow. "...Consider it done."
"Then I'm ready."
Exa nods. "Very well. Re-entry on one. Three. Two--"
"No, wait," Anil says.
"This doesn't add up. Laura can't wake Ra. That's according to your own story. Ashburne locked Ra up and threw away the key. It's impossible to wake Ra. Right?"
Exa says nothing for a significant moment. "Yes," he says. "It is."
"So what's really going on here?"
In his heart, Exa is secretly holding out hope that this is all a preparedness drill. But he can't tell them that.
In fact, there's nothing he can tell them. He can't even tell them how little he honestly knows. So he says:
The God-hardware starts six thousand, three hundred and twenty-eight kilometres below sea level, in an environment of such intense temperature and pressure that mere materials science just up and quits. This is the Earth-1 distributor node, a piece of equipment which even by the standards of the hundred and ninety-fourth century qualified as medium-to-heavy engineering. The thickest outer layer, taking up about half of the machine's volume, is given over to physical and active nonlocality-based shielding for the rest. The inner portion is divided up into closely packed spherical units. Eight of them redundantly handle the energy downlink from the Sun; a hundred significantly larger units actually cache the energy for redistribution to the surface. Six more host the "gigaspells" - the vast and cataclysmically complicated machines which tell the planet-saturating network of Ra listener bugs precisely what to do to simulate the (still not wholly uncovered) fundamental field equations of magic.
The gigaspells aren't magic. The Wheel Group as an institution is deliberately almost completely self-hosting, using admittedly stupendously advanced magic at times, but still staying within their own rules as far as is ever practical. But somewhere down the line, abstraction runs out and a machine has to execute an instruction.
And so this is null country. There's conventional technology here (and even nonlocality, or "māyā" as Laura was taught it, counts as "conventional"), and basic physics, but no magic. You can bring as much mana as you like. You can bring all the Montauk rings and a four-metre staff of bronze and mercury. Down here you are behind the scenes, and there are no special effects.
At the very core of the core is a final spherical unit, a lutetium steel beachball more than a kilometre in diameter. Inside it in turn is a solid block of considerably harder material, three quarters of a kilometre on each side. There's something about the block, or there would be if it could be extracted whole from its container and examined alone; there's something about its proportions, its matte grey exterior and its rounded edges. It looks like a safe.
Building and emplacing this entire unit was a contradictory and paradoxical effort. If you have the capability to drill a hole all the way to the core of Earth, and then through tens of kilometres of active protective shielding and hard refined metal, and you have arrived at this place still alive and able to make operational decisions, there is no power in the universe that can stop you from tearing open the final three hundred and something metres of solid rhenium diboride and finding out what's in this box. But, so King told himself, signals have to be sent. A message has to be made clear.
"Yes, you've made it this far, and yes, there is nothing I can do to slow you down. Pay attention to the symbolism of this gesture. I'm not kidding about this one. Do Not. Do Not. Open. This. Box."
At the very, very, very centre of the safe is a tiny, doorless, airless room, perhaps half the volume of a phone booth. Floating weightlessly inside this innermost room is a God-artifact, the last astra, a reality-warping tool of such brain-breakingly colossal destructive potential that even destroying it "on camera" was deemed too risky, and of such wonderful Get-Out-Jail-Free power that destroying it at all was a step that King in all his bet-hedging glory felt uncomfortable taking. This machine is a black and chrome and blood-red brick of metal, with a recognisable handgrip and trailing tendrils intended to plug into the user's forebrain. No one has seen it but King, who immediately hid it. No one knows it exists but King. It's not in the akashic records. Anywhere.
Laura crowbar-teleports in-- there's so little room that the molecules of the walls have to be physically shoved aside to make room for her to materialise. Having placed her precisely where she asked to be placed, the distributor's router shuts off, and will respond to no further instructions. The exploit is over. The trapdoor is closed.
The artifact rests in a corner, up against one wall and the "ceiling". Laura reaches for it, but can't get there. She's stuck in the wall up to her waist.
The room is hard vacuum and the ambient heat is so intense that even her near-indestructible nonlocality warsuit can't handle it. Flashing red warnings multiply across the lower half of Laura's HUD. Laura dismisses them with an irascibly waved hand. A countdown replaces them. It counts in luminous orange-white seconds and hundredths of seconds.
Laura pushes against the wall. She can't move. She can't reach the objective. She shifts position slightly and reaches again, further, this time. She falls millimetres short. In one paralysed microsecond she sees herself frying alive, still in the suit, trapped further from help than any human has ever been.
The suit informs her that its outer layers are bonding with the metal. As if reacting to Laura's immediate thought, it further informs her that it has burnt out its capability to safely shift shape-- for example, to extend its fingers, even by a little.
Laura swears at the countdown. There is an answer to this. She would have the answer by now if the epileptic rushing digits weren't pressuring her so hard. Ten seconds. No magic. No magic. Fucking think.
She holds her hand out again. She just reaches for the astra, and waits. She waits for a full forty percent of her remaining life.
The machine twitches. It swings gently around, its handgrip coming to point at her.
Three point five. Laura stretches one final time. Her fingertips brush the thing, and it moves as if suddenly magnetised. The Bridge leaps into her arms, and she clutches it to her chest, curling up around it while its plugs stab happily into her brain.
Natalie zaps back to real-world consciousness inside a travel pod, decelerating into the listening post's deepest terminal. She discovers a blob of putty in her ear, a simple radio transceiver. There are less crude ways for the Wheel Group to communicate with her, but Laura Ferno's tripwire is too dangerous to risk that kind of advanced magic.
The pod halts at its destination, deceleration smoothly trailing off to zero with no jolt. Unseen by anybody, Laura's pod has folded itself away to make room for Natalie's.
Natalie climbs out and takes in the arrival hall, a monumental steel-lined cavity in the world, huge and dark and girdered for extreme physical strength. She knows where this installation fits into the body of the world; she knows how many kilometres of listening post are above her and how many kilometres of solid rock are above that.
Laura (LF-3) is at the far end of the hall, glowing like a firebug, bottom-lighting the colossal Montauk ring whose energy she is leeching. Laura's back is to Natalie, and her fist is raised, with three long, narrow diamonds radiating from it, Dehlavi lightning indicating a deep T-world dive in progress. Blanketing Laura's other arm is a gauntlet of gold, which seems to be made of slowly undulating flames.
Natalie walks forward silently, assembling the staff from its two pieces. She stops at the halfway point and waits, thinking.
"If you disturb her mental state, she'll blow this entire installation away," King reminds her through the earpiece.
Aloud, Natalie asks, "What are you doing?"
Nothing happens. The gold wavers, the lightning fizzles quietly. The cavern's air is completely dustless, sterile. The question echoes away.
"Laura," Nat says. "It's time to wake up. ...Laura."
The lightning fades, one strand at a time. Laura unclenches her fist, and her posture shifts as she recovers from the trance state. She turns and looks.
Nat holds her staff ahead of her, assuming a textbook defensive stance.
Laura snorts. "Are you serious? You haven't taken a day of bojutsu in your whole life."
Natalie holds Laura's gaze. "Try me."
"Do you know where I am right now?" Laura raises her golden-gloved left hand and emits a single magical syllable. Natalie winces at the released mana, then howls and bends double clutching her ears at a series of horrendous metallic shrieks. When she looks up again Laura is holding aloft a black metallic magic staff, standard bo length. She wasn't carrying the pieces; cylindrical chunks of metal have been wrenched wholesale out of the nearby girderwork.
"I could deck you with one hand," Laura declares. "That's without magic, or the suit, or the gauntlet. Unless you're actually proposing a magical duel?"
"What if I am?"
"Then 'outclassed' is too small a word."
Natalie holds her position and her stony expression and says nothing for a long moment. She sags, and sighs, and throws the staff aside with a clanging. "Okay. You're right. I can't fight you or threaten you."
"Did they send you?"
"How did you get this close to me without tripping the laser?" Laura tucks her bo in one armpit and studies the palm of her gauntlet hand. She pokes at it with her other hand, as if pushing unseen beads around, and seems to be speaking to herself. "Ah, I see the problem... The tripwire spell only detects Wheel members... because... Kazuya was supposed to be with me..."
"Don't disable it," Nat tells her.
King, audible in Natalie's ear, has a similar reaction.
"Don't disable the tripwire," Nat says. She holds her ear. King is yelling at her. "We need to talk without interference. (King, shut up for a second.) Laura, what are you trying to do? What was that name you said?"
"Do you know who these people are?" Laura asks.
"There's a magic far beyond magic," Laura says. "There's a power so great that nobody should ever need to eat, or hurt, or die. The Wheel got to that power first, and locked it up, and the so-called 'magic' that they replaced it with amounts to stolen crumbs. They forged this whole world.
"Today the power balance changes. We're all going to become immortal. And after that... we're going into space."
"Who told you all of that?" Nat asks.
"Kazuya Tanako died in 1995," Nat says, in unison with Anil Devi, Adam King and several additional Wheel members. Anil is back on the Floor, watching with the rest of them.
Laura shakes her head. "Kazuya Tanako was murdered by the Wheel Group. The Wheel Group uses this place, the listening post, to monitor all magical usage everywhere. The data they capture is stored as records, the akashic records. Only the Wheel is supposed to have access to those records but there's a fault in the system-- all you need is a trained mind and enough magical flux. Tanako was the first to discover and seriously explore the fault, and he was killed for his trouble because he discovered the truth. But his mind stayed in the system. And I brought him back to life. He is Ra. His True Name was
"No it wasn't," says King.
"No it wasn't," says Natalie.
"Kazuya Tanako's True Name was
penamba," Natalie says.
"You don't know that," Laura says.
"Yes. I do. Kazuya Tanako's True Name was
penamba. Laura, you've been lied to. Do you have any idea what happened last time the power balance changed? Millions of millions of people died, the Wheel Group were the only survivors. This is the best world they could think to build afterwards, and I know it's not perfect--"
"You have been lied to," Laura says.
Natalie shakes her head, not so much to show disagreement as to throw Laura's doubts on top of an already-huge pile of her own. "Fine! But Laura, we're really here. And this is really happening. What are you trying to do? What did 'Tanako' try to get you to do?"
"Nothing that I wasn't already trying to do by myself," Laura says. "He helped me."
What does Laura have that Ra wants? Natalie thinks. It's an old thought, one she last had what feels like a lifetime ago. What does she have access to, that nobody else does?
"Mum," Natalie realises.
"No. Not just Mum."
It's stupefyingly early in the Eastern Standard morning and something noisy and unauthorised is flashing intermittently in the sky over the Florida coast. Each time the light comes back there's another abbreviated BOOM, like a long rumble of thunder delivered in discrete slices. The phenomenon is giving off intermittent radio signals on bands no civilian is cleared to use, and its focal point is ascending and moving out to sea, rising so fast and accelerating so hard it can't possibly be a conventional aircraft.
This is where we came in--