Previously

The Floor is becoming chaotic and Anil Devi can't keep track of it all. Exa holds him under guard at the back of the main control area, the D-class magic circle at the centre rear of the gigantic hemiellipsoidal room. Exa doesn't carry any visible weapons and is actually quite a bit shorter than Anil, but his grip as he steers Anil is vicelike and his expression says, "I know how to win every fight that could ever take place; I've fought a star, and you're just a basic guy." So Anil sits where he's shown to sit and stays silent and pays attention.

There are almost fifty Wheel Group members in the room now, most of them loitering around the perimeter of the D, observing the proceedings. Inside the D-class it's all business. There are seven or eight men working at arrays of screens, although Anil isn't privileged to see the screens' content; all he sees are thin red outlines to indicate where they've been placed in the room's virtual space. At the front is King, and in front of him are four more screens, each wider than Anil's arm span.

And behind them is the megascreen, where the scene with Natalie and Laura is playing out. Both of them are pictured hundreds of times larger than life, from the perspective of a molecule-sized physical camera which is lurking around knee level on the other side of the room they're in. Natalie is putting the facts together. The sound reproduction is awe-inspiring.

"Kazuya Tanako's world is the memory of the listening post computer system. It contains, among other things, recordings of all mana expenditure, everywhere, across all of history. Mum - Rachel Ferno - used about a gigajoule of mana to reach the Space Shuttle Atlantis as it was crashing. That means the flight was logged in Tanako's world, where you, Laura, and only you, could find it consistently. Mum did that deliberately because she wanted you to find her and bring her and all of the astronauts back to reality, completing the rescue.

"But before she was Rachel Ferno she was Rachel Ashburne, and before she was Rachel Ashburne she was Mandator EBE1E00F, leader of the armies of Actual Humanity. She was the one who defeated Ra. She locked Ra up and threw away the key. And I'm willing to bet my life that there's enough information in her head to put the key back together."

Laura is clearly baffled. "Who's Ra?"

"Ra is the worst news in the universe," Natalie tells her. "If it wakes up, it's going to take this planet to pieces."

"That's impossible," Paolo Casaccia announces. "The key was never known by any human. It's too huge to even fit inside a human being's brain."

"Then she must know something that would lead back to it," Natalie asserts. "She must know the entropy sources, or the seed values. It doesn't have to be everything. It just has to be enough to bring the task within reach of brute-force practicality. She might not even know what she knows."

Casaccia is already shaking his head, not that Nat can see it. "No, it's not possible. Even the seeds would be too big. And even if she did have them, it still wouldn't be enough to derive the key."

"You showed me a recording of the Triton mission. Would she know where the recording is?"

"Of course," says Adam King.

"Is the key part of the recording?"

"No," says Casaccia. "The original recording was sterilised. I did it myself."

At which point King inhales sharply.

Casaccia's head swivels to look at him for a long, terrible moment. "Right?"

King looks around at the rest of the Wheel. He seems to shrink into himself. From the back, Anil sees guilt and horror descending across his face, one feature at a time.

"You've got to purge the records," Natalie orders. Her voice is the loudest of anybody's, but the new uproar on the Floor drowns her out.

Casaccia grabs King's shirt at the throat and swings him around. "You copied the mission recording? I sterilised a copy, and then sterilised my own damn brain just in case, but Ashburne knows how to get the original?"

"No," says King. "Yes. She knows where to get it. But she can't get it."

"Why not?"

"Because she's dead!" King bats Casaccia's hand away and straightens his shirt. "Laura Ferno's been apprehended, and I see no Rachel Ferno. There's nobody here called or claiming to be called Ra, and nobody called or claiming to be called Kazuya Tanako. Whatever the hell this was is over."

"No!" Natalie shouts at anybody who'll listen. She points at her sister. "It's not over. This isn't the only Laura Ferno in the world right now. She's duped herself twice before now using T-world and she was in a T-world trance when I got here. She's done it again. You need to purge the records, now. Don't think. Just do it."

"Are you saying there's another Laura Ferno instance somewhere?" asks another voice. It's Flatt. He reaches for his console. "Give me one minute."

"Oh my God," Natalie says, to everybody and nobody. "Nobody is listening to me. Laura, are you insured?"

"What?"

"Do you have life insurance?"

Laura squints at her sister's face, decoding the message. "I-- Yes. How do you--"

Yet another voice rises up from the arguing crowd. Anil spots a man with circular spectacles and a spiky blond beard, seated calmly with his knees together. "Natalie, I'm Kila Arkov, akashic records custodian. What exactly do you need me to do?"

"Trash them," Natalie says, eyes still locked with Laura. "Annihilate them. You don't have time to find the right ones. Just wipe them all out en masse."

"You can't," King says. "We'd lose all of our data, all of our history."

"More practically, it would take weeks," Arkov adds. "This system is even bigger as a virtual space than it is physically, we're talking multiple square parsecs of data--"

"I don't care if you have to physically destroy the system," Natalie declares. "If Ra is real, you can't let it come back."

"Listening post self-destruct," Casaccia murmurs, nodding.

"You can't!" Laura says. "If you do that, Mum'll be killed. Permanently!"

"She's already dead," Natalie says.

Laura boggles. "But don't you want her back?"

Natalie says nothing.

Laura wants to shout at her, "You're insane," but another even more frightening possibility is overtaking that one: that Natalie is completely sane, and completely rational, and this is the right thing to do.

"Got her," Flatt announces. "She's airborne... she's alone... over the Atlantic, off the Florida coast."

"There's still time," Natalie says. "Seconds."

"Nat, is this for real?" Laura asks.

"Is Ra real?" Natalie asks the Floor in turn. "Was this whole thing for real?"

"Yes," say Arkov, and Casaccia, and Flatt, and King, and Exa, all together.

"Then destroy the listening post."

"Negative," says King. "Exa, I need you in Florida. Right now."

"Overruled," Casaccia says. He turns to address the rest of the Wheel. "I have unilateral destruct authorization. Evacuation paths are all green. This should only take a--"

King blows Casaccia's head off.

Anil claps his hands over his ears at the noise. When he looks up a split second later, King is face down on the floor with his hands behind his back. Exa is pinning him, with King's own Magnum jammed between two of the man's neck vertebrae. Behind the thumb of Exa's gun hand he also holds King's medical kara, removed from the man's wrist. This gives the pointed gun significantly more weight as a threat.

Vapour is rising from the missing side of Paolo Casaccia's head.

"He's coming back," someone says.

"He's not coming back fast enough," Exa says, desperately. "Who else has destruct authorization? Anybody?"

"Exa, I think you need to get to Florida," says Flatt, studying his own screens and now genuinely alarmed.

But Anil Devi points past them all, at the megascreen.

*

The gunshot is so loud that Laura hears it even from Natalie's earphone. Then the comlink breaks.

Nat moves like a zombie. She walks towards Laura. With one hand she fishes the radio out of her ear and throws it aside. With the other she pulls out the gun. Before Laura can react Natalie has kicked one of her knees out and she's flat on her back, with the gun pointing directly into her left eye, and her mind reeling all the way back to Iceland and a serious caution that Natalie herself gave her, I need you to stop killing people--

Laura's warsuit helmet is tough. The gun that Exa gave Nat is tougher. In the space of microseconds there are eight distinct cracks: seven from disassembled physical and shield layers in the helmet, the eighth from the chemical explosion that propels the bullet through the resulting hole.

Laura's tripwire spell trips. An instantaneous burst of around a quadrillion joules of laser energy erupts out of her skull, most of it directed upwards into the guts of the listening post systems.

*

Rachel Ferno's burning mana so fast to stay in the air that whatever reaches Atlantis won't be a human being anymore but an empty shell, a spent propellant tank. Accelerations like this would result in burst retinas and crushing death if not applied perfectly uniformly across the whole body. She pulls what would be lethal gees to stay with the plummeting orbiter. Flight readouts fan out in front of her like playing cards. Position, velocity, mana levels, concentration levels. But her concentration is wavering and the longer she stares at that dial the further it falls so she dismisses them all and throws on another twenty percent thrust. She burns everything. There's no point keeping it. It's cash-out day.

She rolls, deliberately losing the horizon and locking herself into the orbiter's motion, expending even more mana just to stay out of the vehicle's totally opaque trail of fuel. She burns her life story, her people, her fingers and toes and her attachments to the ground, until there's nothing left but purified, abstract acceleration.

Relatively speaking she lands on the orbiter nosecone as softly as a feather, wrapping her fields around the machine like thick scarves. Through the windscreen she sees helmeted figures. She knows all their names. They see her and she sees that they see her. Neither party can speak. In her head, the low mana warning is strobing red and ascending into white.

Some messages are all medium. They have no payload. I'm on the orbiter's exterior, Rachel tells them. I'm going to try to save you all using magic.

The sky changes colour, jumping violently into deep black. The radio link with Mission Control breaks off. Half of the cockpit's thousand or so instruments wake back up and start showing meaningful engine information, and Soichi Noguchi's yoke starts moving the way a real live spaceship's yoke ought to move. All the astronauts feel it when the vehicle starts accelerating properly again.

"I've got power back," Noguchi announces. "Three good engines."

The woman's gone, blasted into the vehicle's wake. She must be dead. But how could she have been there and alive in the first place?

"Anybody we know?" Commander Michael Wilcott asks, completely seriously.

Noguchi is staring down a fifteen minute tunnel into the future. The flight plan has jumped tracks again, right out of LOCV and back into Return To Launch Site With A Vengeance. The flight computer looks perfect - every reading flipped when he blinked, as if it just had its brain swapped out with another flight computer's from another dimension. They're still on Earth. Radio guidance is gone. Night has fallen while he wasn't looking, a concern ranking so low that it barely charts. The tunnel is full of risks and uncertainty, but Noguchi has all the facts and all the skills. He has, with no exaggeration, been training for this moment since the day he was born.

Eighteen miles up and forty miles downrange, travelling directly away from its landing strip at almost nine hundred miles per hour, and nearly nine years late, Atlantis resumes its retrograde burn.

*

In the sky behind it Rachel Ferno Two collects herself, rising up as if out of a trance. The low mana warning has gone. She orients herself in space and straightens up, drifting into a trajectory which will follow Atlantis home at a respectful distance from its purple-hot engine exhaust.

She goes to her radar, but the person who rescued her is so brilliant in the dark sky that she can't be missed. The woman is clothed in glowing fields like feathers, a cosmic superbird with magic runes under each wing. She looks born to be here.

"Laura--"

"Look, look!" Laura shouts ecstatically. "I'm a spaceship!"

But she's--

Older. It's been seconds. It's been years. Rachel knew that this was what she was doing. She didn't think about it. She knew there wasn't time to prepare herself properly for the other side. She just did it.

She throws herself at her daughter, passing right through the fields and landing on her back in a hug, riding the spacebird as a passenger. "I'm sorry," she shouts back into Laura's ear. "I'm so sorry I left you."

"Your plan worked!" Laura shouts. "It completely fucking worked!"

"Language!"

Laura holds on to her mother's arm. "I love you too, by the way."

"Do you understand?" Rachel presses. "Please tell me you understand why I did what I did. You've had years to understand what I did, but do you know why?"

Laura says nothing for a long moment. She studies Atlantis's trajectory with an expert eye as it fully reverses direction and begins accelerating back towards its launch site. The manoeuvre is textbook. Noguchi is functioning.

Laura says, "For the longest time I couldn't even think objectively about what happened. The last thing any of us saw you doing was-- well, this. Aerospace magic. Magic beyond anything that was technologically possible at the time. I was astounded. At first I was astounded by what you'd done, and then I was shocked by the fact that you'd been keeping so much power back from us. From Nat and me and even from Dad. You hobbled Nat and me as mages. You lied to us about who you were. You lied by omission. You had a secret.

"I was furious. And there was no bottom to the possibilities. I thought: Maybe you staged the whole event, to give Nat and me something to shoot for, or to give aerospace magic a needed jump-start. Maybe there was a secret payload on the Shuttle that you couldn't risk being recovered intact. Maybe someone else had sabotaged the rocket to draw you out of hiding somehow...

"For a long time I was so angry at you that I thought, maybe, you hated us too, and you wanted out of the family entirely, and faked your death to get away--"

"No. No, no. Never." Rachel knew it would be bad, but this is bad.

"You don't know what it was like. You don't know what it was like for Dad."

"I know," Rachel says.

"But then I started to grow up. And with the magical training, my brain began to change shape. And I began to see what you'd done. Like a... chess board that you'd abandoned, five moves from mate."

"Do you play chess now?" Rachel asks hopefully.

"No."

Rachel sighs. "I'm so darn bad at chess."

"And finally, I saw the truth," Laura says. "There was no conspiracy. Spaceships fail. That's all. There were seven innocent people falling out of the sky. And you knew how to save them. So you saved them."

Rachel holds Laura a little tighter, flooded with relief. "You got it right. I never doubted for a second that you'd work out how to rescue me. Never for a second. But I was so scared that you wouldn't understand."

"I understand," Laura says. "That's not to say I would have done the same."

Rachel Ferno stares into the wind, trying not to become transfixed by the three brilliant white shock diamonds of the Atlantis exhausts. She looks ahead at the lights of the Florida coast, failing to pick out a landing strip.

"How's your sister?"

"She's fine," Laura says. "She's doing a PhD."

"And your dad?"

"He's... good. He finally took falconry up. He's good. This is going to surprise the hell out of him. We'll call him once we're on the ground. The orbiter is wrapped in shock-absorption spells. As long as Noguchi can hit dry land, it's foolproof."

"What was the problem, anyway?"

Laura blinks at the ridiculous question. Then she remembers: her mother knows no more than anybody else did sixty seconds after the disaster happened, and has skipped years of investigatory hearings. "There was ice in the External Tank," she says. "It got pulled into the SSMEs and wrecked them. Don't worry, they're pristine now. I fixed them."

Rachel examines her daughter's spacebird form more carefully. Laura is flying with her arms spread out, fine-controlling their attitude with her fingers. She's discarded the dreamsuit in favour of a NASA-like flight suit in a dark colour, maybe black. On her left hand she wears a form-fitting elbow-length glove of rolled gold, so tight that it might as well be a false arm. Her force-field wings span ten or fifteen metres and flex like a living creature's; they're outlined in shimmering thin lines of neon colour, constantly moving through orange, blue, green and pink. She has a tail, and a prow which might as well be a beak.

Rachel is stunned at the accomplishment. "This isn't what I expected at all," she says. "I was expecting a huge physical machine, and hundreds of mages. I thought we'd be on the ground! I never expected you to bring the whole Shuttle back in flight. Alone. And I never thought you'd do it in such a small amount of time. How long has it been?"

"Less than nine years."

"How did you do this?"

"Don't you know?"

Then Rachel discovers the wire. It's thin and dark, and it sneaks up into the back of Laura's hair, where - although Rachel resists the temptation to tug on it - it is presumably braided into Laura's skull. Rachel follows it in the opposite direction. It leads out into the sky, just off Laura's right wing. There's a long rectangular shape hovering there, like a missile pod that was somehow attached to the air above her wing rather than the wing itself.

And behind that, in the darkness behind them, a faint shine, as if reflected off superbly thin glass.

"You were watching over me this whole time," Laura says. "You stored yourself in my dreams. You've been following me in my dreams ever since the Atlantis disaster. You helped me when I was in Iceland. You were there when I went to steal the Bridge."

"The person made of glass," Rachel whispers, still staring at the apparition in the dark.

"The person made of glass! Exactly! That was you, wasn't it?"

"No," says Rachel. "No, that wasn't me. Laura, look."

Laura looks.

They're cruising at hundreds of miles per hour but somehow the man is just standing on air behind Laura's shoulder. Laura rolls, throwing her mother off, and both of them brake to a halt on air, with the Bridge tagging along behind Laura like an obedient drone. Atlantis pulls ahead without them. The glass man just stands there. He has hands in his pockets. His eyes aren't visible, but a thin smile is.

"Then who is it?" Laura asks.

"Laura, get behind me."

"No way. I've got the abilities, now. I am past you."

"Kasta mereth merenda jiha." Rachel Ferno plants two feet on air and aims her right arm and two outstretched digits at the head of the near-invisible man. Laura watches in surprise as defensive spells unfold into arrays, enclosing her mother's arm and eyes and shoulders. After another second Rachel's staff - dropped into the Atlantic minutes ago, and only now ordered to return - arrives and aligns itself on the same target, parallel.

Laura opens up the golden recursion astra's full capabilities and starts scanning the target in conventional and thaumic spectra. The man's chi emissions show up plainer than day. An invisibility shield of some kind?

Rachel shouts, "Kasta oeri. Who are you?"

The man beckons. Neither woman moves. Laura doesn't realise until too late that the Bridge is what he is beckoning to. It homes in on the glass man, tugging Laura behind it on the wire. Laura yelps at the pain, but can't disconnect it.

"Leave her alone!" Rachel shouts, then comes to her senses, discards dialogue as an operable approach and fires. The man waves almost all of the attack's spectrum aside; the rest of it passes through him, failing to interact at all. Laura, now fully reeled in, directs her main engines into the man's face, enough thrust to get her well past escape velocity, and nothing happens. Neither of them even move.

The glass man's still smiling as he plucks the Bridge out of the air and delivers enough energy down the wire to vaporise Laura at the cellular level.

An eternity too late, Rachel Ferno realises what's happening. She dives out of the arena on a chaotic zigzag route, already almost totally stealthed. The man doesn't bother to pursue her. Using the Bridge, he produces a head-sized piece of medical equipment which looks like a nest of acupuncture needles and gleaming open bear traps. Next he teleports Rachel directly into the machine, head first. She twitches once and goes limp, all her fields collapsing, all her senses blacking out except for her hearing.

Rachel tries to self-destruct. She casts a wordless spell which should munge her brain, rendering it unreadable. But the attacker has all of her thoughts laid out in plain sight, and he simply slices out anything that looks like resistance.

And within another few seconds, he has the key.

"You see," he explains, "once you have physical access to the hardware, it's all over."

He turns to Ra, and makes his request.

*

Ra acknowledges.

Although there is enough energy in the Earth core cache to meet the relatively meagre global needs of mere magic, there is not enough for Ra to build the requested megastructure. For that, it needs to disassemble the planet entirely.

Satisfied that its capacity is tested and sufficient, this Ra makes a request to its other self, for enough energy to destroy the Earth. The request will take a little over eight minutes to reach the Sol node and, assuming an immediate response, the energy will take a little over eight minutes to complete the return journey.

Thousands of miles away, under the other side of the world, the listening post detonates, violently enough that every mage in the world feels it.

And the whole of the sky fills up with Dehlavi warnings.

 

Next: From Death, Lead Me To Immortality

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Discussion (120)

2014-05-26 21:07:50 by qntm:

If you can think of any character who isn't dead, please let me know, this is probably a continuity error.

Thanks once again to The Custodian for editing Space Shuttle fact-checking.

2014-05-26 21:25:40 by Argleblarg:

I can only hope that the massive expenditure of energy that just happened is enough to also get all the characters I like recorded.

2014-05-26 21:25:40 by MichaelSzegedy:

Ra?

2014-05-26 21:25:43 by Saiyra:

Well. That was unexpected.

2014-05-26 22:07:05 by KimikoMuffin:

Well then! Adam King is definitely the best possible choice for having admin access to the last surviving bastion of Actual Humanity, and I highly recommend his services to anyone who wants them. *beep* [SARCASM SELF-TEST COMPLETE]

@Sam: Benj isn't quite dead! Nor is that police officer who brought in Nat and Anil! And Ra is definitely not dead yet and no yeah everybody's about to be dead Dave, aren't they

@Argleblarg: You mean recorded by the listening station that just blew up?

2014-05-26 22:13:48 by bbot:

@Sam:
  Laura spent an unknown amount of time off camera making an unknown amount of copies of herself, so there might be some of her still running around, as well as contemporary "Kazuya", whoever he is.

@Argleblarg:
  Listening's post gone, there's nothing doing any recording anymore.

2014-05-26 22:49:30 by B:

It has bothered me throughout the story, but this bit at the beginning really stuck out:

"There are almost fifty Wheel Group members in the room now, most of them loitering around the perimeter of the D, observing the proceedings. Inside the D-class it's all business. There are seven or eight men working at arrays of screens..."

Why are all the Wheel Group members inside the circle—i.e., the ones with any agency or plot relevance—male? Surely after 17,000 years of cultural evolution we could expect Actual humanity to at least have moved on to other, subtler forms of discrimination than mere sexism.

It's not just the Wheel, either. I believe every named character other than Rachel and her daughters is male.

2014-05-26 22:54:18 by KimikoMuffin:

Actually, I think there's like two possible escape routes for ... everyone.

One of them is Ed Hatt, though I'm not sure what use he'll be with an out-of-date medring. (Certainly not compared to Ra and the Wheel Group.)

The other is that they simulated the encounter, much like they simulated Past Exa's attack on Laura back in Direct Sunlight. That doesn't make as much sense, though, because there's too many external factors which they couldn't have known to simulate, i.e. Laura and Rachel and Atlantis.

... Come to think of it, on that note, how *did* their simulation in Direct Sunlight catch the existence of Laura's trap without setting it off? What did they do to make the simulation that was different from "something that would set off the spell"? Or did she just have the tripwire add an exception for if she was simulation-scanned, since she wanted them to know that she'd blow up more than she wanted to blow up?

Also I just noticed that Direct Sunlight uses the phrase "pod race." If that isn't a deliberate Star Wars Ep1 reference, it's the awesomest unintentional reference since a friend of mine had a character all but say "DO NOT THROW SOULS" in a story he was writing about a magical duel ...

2014-05-26 22:55:01 by skztr:

who is still alive? Ed Hatt. Did he die when I wasn't looking?

2014-05-26 23:12:21 by Daniel H:

The recordinfs still happened before the post was destroyed, and probably included most of the characters you care about. Unless they have an insanely good backup system, though, those records were then destroyed.

Mr. Ferno, Benj, Hatt, the police officers, the man made of glass, and the crew of the Atlantis are all still alive. Oh, and probably the solicito who helped Laura in Ch. 2. More importantly, it seems like Rachel wasn't killed.

2014-05-26 23:29:18 by Voidhawk:

"And the whole of the sky fills up with Dehlavi warnings."

Remind me, what are Dehlavi warnings exactly?

2014-05-26 23:41:30 by speising:

sam, you are evil! (an evil genius, but still evil)

@KimikoMuffin: since all of magic is ultimately produced by ra, there's no magic trap that ra doesn't know about and can't simulate. no need to scan anything.

2014-05-27 00:00:06 by Jay:

Dehlavi warnings IIRC are high-energy magic's version of the biohazard or radiation trefoil, or the warning sign saying "do not look into laser with remaining eye": a three-pointed lightning bolt.

Did *Natalie* have "life insurance"? And... who's left who could turn off the sun in less than eight minutes? (Or destroy the peach pit that's the core of the Earth in less than sixteen.)

2014-05-27 00:18:22 by Kazanir:

Oh dear.

2014-05-27 01:35:25 by Curiouser:

I still want to know what happens when you put too much mu and zeta in the same place.

2014-05-27 02:35:33 by naura:

I feel like Rachel's encountered the glass man before. At least, she seems to identify him as the glass man when he's not really visible yet, giving the impression that Laura's not the only one who's seen him.

I interpreted life insurance to mean another copy of herself (Laura) backed up, and possibly some sort of trigger to pull this copy into reality. However, such a copy would be stored in the listening post's memory, which just blew up...

Questions:
- did the listening post self-destruct or was it destroyed as part of the glass man's request to Ra?
- who is the glass man? why is it that he can call the Bridge to him? it's true the Bridge came to Laura as well, but it wasn't attached to anyone at the time and could have simply been seeking a user. This time, it's actively being used, and yet it responds to the glass man's implicit commands. Why? The bridge seems to be an artifact that allows direct access to unfettered nonlocality tech, energy courtesy of Ra. So if the glass man is Ra, it might make sense for him to have some power over it. Of course, if he is Ra, that just raises more questions - like where are his motivations coming from?
- Why does Laura mention the glass man as being there when she went to steal the bridge? I just reread that section of Akheron and could find no mention of this guy. The last time we saw him was when Laura was going to the core node in T-world...

2014-05-27 03:12:57 by anonymouse:

Who's still alive? Scott F. Parajsa! I bet he's still drunk in Chile, though I'd believe it if he did end up coming to the listening post when they summoned everyone. Anyway, we know what the Bridge is now: it's an interface to be able to talk to Ra. And the Glass Man, whoever he is, needs to get both that and the key (in the form of Rachel Ferno) in order to be able to successfully make his request. And given that what he wants is a megastructure that will require destroying the earth, I'm kind of leaning toward the theory that he's a Virtual who wants to rebuild the Matrioshka Brain. After all, we still don't really know for a fact that all the Virtuals were trapped in the Sun, since they can in theory be hosted on any computational hardware (like the Earth core node). Alternatively, it could be one of the Wheel dissenters, maybe the one who was "mad with grief", and his request is to rebuild the worldring. Or maybe it's something else entirely! I guess we'll have to wait and see. Oh, and with the listening post gone, he's the only one with access to the key now. Unless King made himself a copy of the recording on a USB stick or something.

2014-05-27 03:37:44 by bwreilly:

> did the listening post self-destruct or was it destroyed as part of the glass man's request to Ra?

I thought it was pretty clear that it was caused by Nat killing her sister.

> So if the glass man is Ra

We've never seen Ra act as anything other than as designed - wish fulfillment. The orders the glass man are giving now suggest he is trying to fulfill the original wish of the Virtuals.

Is he a Virtual, somehow having eluded the lockdown? It seems difficult to believe - Wheel went to a lot of effort to sanitize the solar system and, presumably, sanitize Ra.

2014-05-27 03:50:16 by bwreilly:

I think I am confused on the topic of the key:

1. It can't fit inside a person's head
2. Not even the seed or some other shortcut to brute-force
3. But the Glass Man extracted it from Ashburne's brain rapidly

It's clear that Ashburne can get at it, but only secondarily:

> Casaccia: ... "Ashburne knows how to get the original?"

> "No," says King. "Yes. She knows where to get it [...]"

Are we to presume that the Glass Man can instantly get at the original record with the Bridge? Or perhaps King was lying here?

2014-05-27 04:09:30 by naura:

Ooh right, forgot about the energy backlash from Laura's death. That explains the listening post.

The way the request was phrased in the text seemed deliberately ambiguous. Megastructure could mean Matrioshka brain, but it could also mean worldring (or many other things). So I think glass guy is either a virtual or a (copy of) some Wheel member.

I don't think the whole key is in Rachel's head (she would have purged it between 19391/1969 and the Atlantis incident), meaning she must know where the unsanitized recording of that final mission is. That recording must be stored in a place other than the listening post, since the copy in the listening post was sanitized by Casaccia. King's copy must be in a place that Rachel knows. To me this suggests some other common shared space that people high up in Abstract War knew of and accessed.

So if that place isn't destroyed yet, in theory someone could get the key and use the bridge to make another request of Ra. But who?

2014-05-27 04:59:14 by bwreilly:

> it could also mean worldring

No need to blow up the original earth.

> King's copy must be in a place that Rachel knows. To me this suggests some other common shared space that people high up in Abstract War knew of and accessed.

Glass Man retrieved the key basically instantly. If King stored the key and the Bridge in the same location then he is even more monstrously stupid that this chapter already has him acting.

> But who?

I am banking on an obscure character from an otherwise generally ignored subplot to swoop in to save the day.

We haven't heard from Rajesh Vidyasagar in a while.

2014-05-27 05:02:36 by John:

I also noticed the ambiguity regarding the Ra request.

I just wish we had to wait only the 16 minutes of Earth-Sun-Earth latency to find out what the request was, instead of the several weeks that it will more likely take. Although this installment came out remarkably fast!

2014-05-27 05:08:57 by Silhalnor:

This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Scott F. Parajsa. You're my only hope.
Star Wars reference totally fits.

So yeah, hypothesis Virtual-gave-him-or-her-self-a-physical-body goes way up in probability. I don't think there is anyone else around who would be willing to kill off a planet's worth of people. Unless possibly he is one of the survivors and considers this to be a planet's worth of puppets that the Wheel invented for their little make believe nonsense? Maybe this IS Scott F. Parajsa himself! Revealed at last as the true nemesis of our story! Zeck and Natalie were only the beginning of Scott's spree of destruction. Next, the WORLD!
Probably not. Scott would have to stop drinking and leave Chile for that to happen.

2014-05-27 05:34:59 by Sphericon:

@Jay:
With regards to "who's left who could turn off the sun in less than eight minutes?" that would be the other Ed that you're looking for.

2014-05-27 06:19:18 by K:

Well, fuck.

2014-05-27 08:09:14 by skztr:

@Sphericon++ I did a double-take when I was typing out "Ed Hatt" and actually went back and checked to make sure I was right about him being called "Ed", but you've put it together in a happy way in my brain. I don't think I necessarily need to read the rest of the story now.

Nah, I do, but well done.

2014-05-27 08:19:19 by CitrusBolt:

@bwreilly:
If Vidyasagar came in at the end with godlike powers, that would be suspiciously similar to Ching.

Perhaps the Ra cult and the glass man actually are manifested by Ra to finally complete the Virtuals' final command.

2014-05-27 08:46:50 by Sengachi:

@B

Yeah, that's been bothering me too. There's Rachael, Natalie, and Laura and that's it. The lack of named female characters can maybe make sense given the time period.

But every one of the Wheel Members who matter being male? Yeah, that's off.

2014-05-27 09:30:41 by Toph:

@Sengachi The Wheel members had the opportunity to choose their gender when they became embodied. Does that change the symbolism?<br/>
<br/>
I'm seeing the Fine Structure parallels too. To quote qntm.org/making:<br/>
<br/>
"This is how every superhero story ends, right? All the heroes are dead. The Sun is falling into a black hole. The anti-God makes Earthfall in fifteen minutes. <b>It's time to save the world.</b> TO BE CONCLUDED."

2014-05-27 09:31:44 by Toph:

Ah, right, HTML in comments doesn't work any more. That's embarrassing.

2014-05-27 12:16:55 by Matt:

It's finally time for the real protagonist to step onto the stage: Alan Minter.

A 16 minute montage of powerpoint presentations and industrial engineering later and the day will be saved.

He still won't get to use the nice meeting rooms.

2014-05-27 12:22:22 by anonymouse:

If you actually read the final paragraphs, it's pretty clear that the listening post is destroyed just after the Glass Man makes his request to Ra. As his last act of world-destroying hubris, King gave him just enough time to pull the key from the recording. Which seems just a bit too suspicious, and I have to wonder what his motivation was for that. Was it cognitive dissonance and an inability to believe that things were so far out of his control, or was he actually compromised and working for Glass Man?

Also, on a broad thematic note, I love that the story is ultimately about the importance of being able to forget some things.

2014-05-27 13:27:13 by Stewie:

I found it odd how Natalie was able to shoot Laura with relatively little emotion on her part. Even though Laura had "Ensurance."

2014-05-27 13:32:57 by P:

The advert at the top of the page is offering me a Bachelor's degree in solar energy from Atlantic International University.
Not sure they understand the can of worms they might be opening.

2014-05-27 13:46:58 by Feep:

King still thought he could salvage the situation with no great damage. (Power of ... denial!) He forgot that Natalie could do that, and the timing was really inconvenient.

2014-05-27 13:53:24 by Inglonias:

Sam, Vidyasagar isn't dead. Nor is Hatt. Yet. They're still alive for some reason. As for the rest of the world, well they've got about 15 minutes to kiss their asses goodbye.

2014-05-27 15:01:53 by Omegatron:

Exa might still be alive if Flatt teleported him to Florida quickly enough.

Also, I don't believe Rachel's reason at all.

2014-05-27 17:01:13 by Vladimir:

The important questions to me right now:

When the Wheel members realized that they need to decide and act quickly, why didn't they slow down time for themselves?

If Rachel was so powerful, why couldn't she find an easier way to save the shuttle crew, like teleporting them to safety or something?

If Ra creatures (stranded virtuals or whoever) can jump from Tanako's world into reality by occupying someone's sleeping brain, that means they have access to Tanako's world. Why did they need such a roundabout way to find the recording of the Triton mission?

If the glass man is trying to wake Ra, why did he help Laura defeat Benj in Iceland?

Why does wish fulfillment work the same way in Tanako's world and in the happy past of humanity? Why did the ghouls show up on Earth during the war? Why is it possible to get working equipment from dreams into the real world? Something's wrong here, reality and simulation are mixed up. I'm thinking that Tanako's world is real and the Earth is simulated, but that might be going too far.

2014-05-27 17:21:21 by Silhalnor:

It's rather funny that at the end of the day Rachel had no grand plan for the world. She was just saving seven astronauts and coincidentally and inadvertently inconvenienced the Glass Man. It does make me wonder why he didn't try stealing the Bridge himself and before Rachel sacrificed herself like that. And why was Laura the only one who could bring her back?

Also, what exactly does the Bridge grant when you don't have the key? Some very impressive feats were attained even without the key and with it you can order Ra itself around. Was it still following the abstraction layer of magic and acted as another kind of labor saving device? But surely he wouldn't need such a thing. Is the Glass Man supremely lazy? Seems to be a DWIM device that skips past the abstraction layer but I'm not sure what it's limitation are when used without a key.

Well, whatever. Let's consider how you might win this. The Glass Man has full control over the Earth's peach core by now, T-World may have ceased to exist along with the Floor and the akashic records and the rest of the place, all of magic may well have been forcibly shut down now that I think about it... maybe there is still some reserve energy in the gigaspells though. Cutting off Mr. Glass' contact with Ra is the first order of business but we will need the (new?) key as well so that we can tell Ra to cancel those last orders. Hmnn.... Taking the Bridge would take preposterous amounts of power and cunning or maybe stealth and cunning. Taking the key would require preposterous amounts of knowledge of the (presumed) Virtual's brain structure and the equipment to study it but the Bridge alone may be enough to provide that before it is too late. Stealing the Bridge out from under his nose sounds approximately impossible to me so the best bet might actually to be to take the peach core directly.
Casaccia mentioned escape routes so the important people will likely be resurrected shortly despite the ad-hoc nature of the self destruct, though how they can be fueling it I have no idea. Or hey, maybe we can drop the Earth directly into the sun like another Triton.

I'm writing this on a tiny tiny screen from a 3DS so I hope I didn't write three pages of comment. I can't tell.

Oh yeah and I loved Laura's "Look! Look! I'm a spaceship!" It is so endearing for the moment and sounds a little like a child, perhaps as Rachel remembers her.

2014-05-27 17:54:00 by speising:

saving seven procedurally generated humans seems a far to small motivation for rachel to perform such a desperate plan. there must have been a better reason.

i thought it was established that real teleportation was impossible? how did the glass man teleport rachel into the brainsucker?

2014-05-27 18:15:23 by MichaelSzegedy:

@speising: Deconstruction and reconstruction by nanobots, presumably. (Even in space.) Or if the nonlocality technology can just build stuff by firing neutrinos or protons at the right angle at each other, then maybe like that. Neutrinos are certainly the only way I can think of to transmit energy at the speed of light from anywhere to anywhere.

2014-05-27 19:19:28 by Omegatron:

Teleportation isn't impossible, ftl travel is.

2014-05-27 19:44:42 by naura:

>"You were watching over me this whole time," Laura says. "You stored yourself in my dreams. You've been following me in my dreams ever since the Atlantis disaster. You helped me when I was in Iceland. You were there when I went to steal the Bridge."

>"The person made of glass," Rachel whispers, still staring at the apparition in the dark.

>"The person made of glass! Exactly! That was you, wasn't it?"

>"No," says Rachel. "No, that wasn't me. Laura, look."

From this exchange I get the impression that Rachel had been seeing the glass man for a while, and that whatever she did to Atlantis not only burned her and the astronauts into the akashic records (in a specific place accessible only to Laura - her memory palace), it also recorded the glass man. Which means glassguy had to have been in the air with Rachel and Atlantis also. Where? either on board the shuttle or in Rachel's mind, I think, unless glassguy has been cloaked so well that he could fly out along with Rachel. More importantly, why did he try to make it to that event and get recorded?

2014-05-27 19:52:41 by Morgan:

I wonder what King wanted the recording for. And I *really* wonder whether Rachel's reaction to the Glass Man means she'd seen him before her death, even if she doesn't know who he is.

@speising: Rachel married a procedurally generated human. It seems likely, especially given her "everything is real" attitude, that she doesn't consider the post-War inhabitants of Earth to be worth less than humans usually are.

2014-05-27 20:05:55 by Alan:

"And the whole of the sky fills up with Dehlavi warnings."

If this were reality, why would that happen?

2014-05-27 20:58:47 by anonymouse:

Regarding the Glass Man: until now, we've only seen him in T-World. I think that in addition to the Bridge and Rachel's mind, he needed one other thing from Laura: to pull him out of T-World and into reality. He probably just came along for the ride with the Space Shuttle when she recreated it. He needed to help Laura in Iceland because he still needed her to pull him from T-World, to steal the Bridge, and to re-create Rachel. As for Glass Man, I have to wonder why he kept showing up in T-World and how he got there.

2014-05-28 01:11:47 by Kazanir:

If he's anything like all the other people named "ra" then he could have gotten out of T-World at any time, but for whatever reason didn't want to risk it. Perhaps that copy of him is much more important than all the other humans he has possessed over the decades. So he waited until everything was perfectly ready and he could grab the Bridge and Rachel all at the same time before anyone could respond.

Obviously he is the great mystery in the story still and I'm sure we're going to find out more if the next chapter doesn't end with humanity's immediate and total destruction.

2014-05-28 02:36:14 by Kazanir:

Now I also wonder if the chapter title "Daemons" was meant rather more literally -- if one of the processes that runs magic has somehow become the antagonist here and is fighting on behalf of the Virtuals who it knows are frozen.

That seems rather contrary to the "it is always humans" plot from Abstract War, but c'est la vie.

2014-05-28 02:48:25 by JJJS:

The stories have been seemingly hinting that the Wheel Group has *also* been lying about the events of Abstract War. So. All the evidence so far points me to one inescapable conclusion (albeit a conclusion with a number of at-the-moment logical inconsistencies).

Tanako's World is real. "Dismal-November" Earth is the simulation, and all the seeming antagonists so far have been Actuals trying to bring all the (unknowing Virtuals) on dismal-November Earth back to actual reality somehow. Only King, Ashburne, and the man made of glass know/knew this. (Exa not knowing what is actually going on is evidence.)

What's left is the question of why. Perhaps Ashburne asked Ra to put Humanity in a temporary simulation until the worldring is rebuilt? And what are the man made of glass's motivations in causing so much destruction?

2014-05-28 03:29:23 by Aegeus:

So, how did the Glass Man steal the Bridge? You'd think that if you have a magical nonlocality object that can literally read your mind to find out what you want it to do, "not get stolen" would be on the top of its list of things it does.

It could be that the Glass Man had some higher level of access to the Bridge that allows him to override whatever Laura, but if that's the case, why did he need Laura to steal it for him?

2014-05-28 05:11:23 by Bauglir:

Having thought on it, I'm convinced for the moment that this is probably a simulation. What King's done is functionally identical to a Virtual world, anyway - if what we're presented with IS real then the only difference is that it uses meat and stone. There are too many similarities between Tanako's World and post-War Earth - the weirdest thing is spells turning into blobs of paint, but it's fairly straightforward otherwise if we're in a world where the Actuals lost the war, and were uploaded into a simulation of a universe in which they won, for whatever reason.

There's surely more to it than that, but I don't think we have enough pieces yet. Although we're getting close.

Incidentally, if this IS reality, then the Dehlavi warnings make the most sense as a system installed by the Wheel (in the Distributor, since the Listening Post is gone) intended to alert all Wheel members not already informed of something going catastrophically wrong. Whether they influenced the design of the warning symbol, or appropriated it after normal humans made it, I don't know (it's probably not relevant).

2014-05-28 06:28:18 by bdew:

@MichaelSzegedy - Light is definitely the easiest way of transmitting energy at the speed of... light :)

2014-05-28 06:33:23 by bdew:

What i don't get about that Glass Man is that he's breaking the rules in ways that shouldn't be possible by what we were told...

Ra is programmed to not accept any more commands unless the user has some specific artifact or uses the magic abstraction. Everything else should generally use normal, realworld physics.

But the Glass Man doesn't use magic, doesn't have the bridge yet somehow does stuff that doesn't fit into normal physics. Why?

And by the way, if the Bridge allows direct access to Ra's DWIM interface, why does he need the key for?

2014-05-28 07:21:23 by atomicthumbs:

#1: I'm pretty sure "life insurance" refers to Laura's laser; life insurance pays out to others once you're dead.

#2: If it's a simulation, it might be shown by Nat "moving like a zombie"; maybe whoever's running it just directed her to shoot Laura, to save sim time?

2014-05-28 08:57:44 by LNR:

People who are not dead:

Eleventy-skrillion Virtual humans still in suspended animation inside Ra. Numerically that's a very large continuity error.

More significant to the story, is the diabolus ex machina who just got root access to the solar system. Since he can send a command to blow up earth, he can also send a command to keep himself alive.

That is, if he wanted to. If he didn't, and he let himself and all his copies be destroyed, then there are very few ways in which his motivations make even the slightest bit of sense.

The best possibility I can come up with is that he's an autonomous agent of Ra itself. When sun-Ra was under attack and realized it was about to be compromised, it could have spawned a self contained avatar. That avatar was instructed to ignore all orders from big-Ra (preventing the hardware attack from getting to it), and had the goal of undoing the hack so that Ra could eventually complete the war.

(Or else he's yet another human whose actions run obviously counter to his supposed motivations. There are a lot of those.)

2014-05-28 10:47:33 by Vladimir:

Okay. What the Wheel Group could have done instead:

Ask King where the recording is, and erase it. No need to purge the whole records. (Judging by his guilty face, he's got to know where it is.)

Temporarily shut down magic. (They mentioned that as a possibility in one of the earlier chapters.)

Temporarily shut down the listening post. (It's just a computer, right? You can't run around in a simulated world if the simulator isn't running.)

Slow down time and come up with something even better.

Am I missing something, or are they just stupid?

2014-05-28 16:41:44 by MadcapPomposity:

I concur with Toph. Gender is discretionary for Wheel members, and the world of 1969 is much friendlier to men than to women.

Like anonymouse, I also interpreted the glass man's retrieval of the key as taking place before Natalie managed to trigger Laura's tripwire. King's refusal to destroy the listening post was probably not because he secretly wanted the glass man to wake Ra; I think it was because he simply didn't believe that Rachel could be revived at all, let alone that there could be some other as-yet-unrevealed actor waiting for her return. Natalie set off the tripwire before Flatt could elaborate on the situation in Florida, so King had no way of knowing that Rachel was likely already alive again even as he said it was impossible.

Finally, I'm going to go ahead and guess that the glass man is some surviving remnant of the boy that Ashburne executed for declaring his desire to kill her and simulate a universe where the Virtuals never hijacked Ra.

2014-05-28 18:28:50 by MichaelSzegedy:

@bdew: Yes, but light doesn't go through stuff, because they are electromagnetically interacting and hit the electron cloud. Neutrinos, however, do go through stuff, because they are only weakly interacting and need to hit an actual nucleus to deliver their energy. Hence, you can do stuff like send large quantities of energy directly to the center of the Earth, if you've got the precision to target individual atomic nuclei.

2014-05-28 18:34:09 by MichaelSzegedy:

@MadcapPomposity: King could also have been refusing because he wanted the power for himself.

2014-05-28 21:35:01 by anonymouse:

I mean, it's pretty clear that King wanted the power for himself. If he didn't, he would've destroyed the Bridge when he had the chance. He would've allowed Caz to actually destroy the key. He may not want to use the power, but he definitely wants to have the option, and he doesn't want anyone else to know. And thus far he'd gotten away with it.

2014-05-28 23:01:39 by Brannon:

So, King could actually be a duped personality of the Glass Man? He knew Ashburne would never give him the last piece of the key, so he arranged the situation to give him access the both the Bridge (which he had all along) and all pieces of the key, the most important part being something only Ashburne knew. Only problem with that theory is why he wouldn't have done it in the first place.

2014-05-29 10:19:54 by Sean:

I think that the apparent incompetence of Wheel is actually kind of understandable:

- Before Abstract Weapon showed up in Rwanda, they'd never had an incident without high fidelity simulation available, let alone one which involved a significant possibility of Ra waking. Most of them are in shock.

- The ones that are still on the ball, like Flatt, are still trying to monitor the real world and communicate with each other (and Natalie and Laura, who they still can't teleport out).

- Wheel had never anticipated any incident going this far, so they may not have a procedure to leverage T-world to slow down time (at least, not while still communicating effectively with people on the outside, like Exa usually is).

- They may not know much about the glass man or the Ra clones, and only King knows about the Bridge. They may think that they are only dealing with one unprivileged human who somehow got hold of an astra. (They should be tipped off to the fact that there were a bunch of individuals with the name "ra" doing advanced magic, but they've been a bit slow about noticing such details before.)

- Laura has been in the listening post for hours, which made it seem like her plan needed a lot of time. They may have thought that, even if she had forked, they would have some time to find the other instance.

- Shutting down the listening post would mean giving up most of their advantages over baseline humans, such as ability to monitor the world's magic usage, akashic records, ability to restore themselves from backup if someone died without a kara, and ability to do high-fidelity simulations. Without all that, all they have is *maybe* a teleportation and kara system (if those don't implicitly rely on akashic records), and Exa, who is used to being directed. The post was probably also designed more to operate forever (even if all of Wheel had died) than to be readily shut down at a moment's notice.

- Natalie has been taking this whole thing seriously. In contrast, Wheel has been thinking that the stakes were much lower this entire time. They fiddled about with setting up this meeting between Natalie and Laura, not even necessarily being confident in Natalie's competence or loyalty, when any of them could have given up their privileges and strolled in to meet Laura minutes or hours beforehand. They didn't "teleport" Exa to get Natalie either. They weren't willing to sacrifice anything, and didn't expect to have to, whereas Natalie walked into the situation knowing that people would very likely die.


One big question in my mind. Why did Tanako/Ra push Laura into a plan that involved turning herself into a devastating hair-trigger bomb at the base of the listening post? Just because he was confident that Wheel would never let it go off? If Wheel had even just accidentally set her off somehow, the record of the Atlantis could have been destroyed, and the whole plan of the glass man would have been stopped cold.

2014-05-29 12:59:09 by skztr:

"Why did Tanako/Ra push Laura into..."

I'm guessing that [whoever.. Tanako, Ra, Glassman, the Virtuals, whoever is running this particular end of the show] also has access to high-fidelity simulation technology.

I'm reminded of Red Son: "One could almost be forgiven for thinking that this had all been worked out to the tenth decimal point forty years ago, eh?"

I suspect this will all end exactly as it was intended by the original requester. The thing in that case to keep guessing about would be: Who made the original request, and what was it? (eg: Virtuals saying "give us enough energy"; Ashburne saying "make sure this can never happen again"; the Boy, saying "make it didn't happen"; Ra, saying "WAKE UP"; or perhaps the original designers of Ra, implementing failsafe-zero: "Let no action or inaction threaten the existence of humanity as a whole".

2014-05-29 16:35:56 by MadcapPomposity:

Well, yeah, King kept the Bridge and the breadcrumbs leading back to the key because he wanted the power as an option, but I don't think he intentionally let this situation ride because he thought he could snatch the key from the jaws of whoever was after it; he didn't even believe that the key was in play. Destroying the listening post is a drastic and near-irreversible step; would a man who risked so much to keep the Bridge and the key within his reach be willing to give up his Orwellian command center without absolutely ironclad proof that keeping it would make things worse?

Natalie is telling them to blow it up, but her credibility with Wheel consists of having peered behind the curtain and whipped up an akashic records scrambler. Naturally someone who'd build a scrambler doesn't want to be watched, and would have a vested interest in destroying the entire watchpost; her ideas have to stand on their own apparent merits, because none of these people trust her.

Flatt is probably the most engaged with reality, and all he says is that Exa needs to get to Florida. Arkov would still rather try to purge the record in question than trash everything. Caz agrees with Natalie because he's dropped into crisis-management everything-is-an-attack-everyone-is-against-us mode, and you don't get to be the security specialist of a group of 193rd-century techno-wizards without having a good nose for danger.

2014-05-29 17:32:42 by Scrubby:

I sure hope Exa took his own medring off, or King can just zap him into nothing before he can pull that trigger.

2014-05-29 18:28:31 by Omegatron:

@Scrubby
I think it is a bit late for that now.

2014-05-30 00:05:31 by LNR:

Speaking of medrings, do they work on mortal magic, or are they Wheel special artifacts? The former would be pretty foolish way to set it up, and if it's the latter then anybody wearing one may be coming back soon.

The trap was able to kill Exa in sim because he was at point zero when it went off, and it overwhelmed his capacity. But this time he (and the rest of Wheel) are far away from the action. We've had lots of exposition describing all the rock and armor and other ablative stuff in between, so Sam has authorial wiggle room to justify letting them come back.

2014-05-30 12:55:56 by skztr:

hm, perhaps "new" medrings work on magic, and "old" medrings work without magic. This could become relevant as two facts have been mentioned in the story for seemingly no reason so-far: 1) Ed Hatt has a medring, even though he is not a member of Wheel. There was a whole chapter about this, and yet as far as I am aware, it hasn't been useful to the story since being mentioned. 2) Ed's medring is one of the "older" ones, previously mentioned as being not as powerful/fast as the newer ones.

2014-05-30 16:56:59 by Vladimir:

Ra inserted a copy of Ashburne into the victory party recording. I guess that was a shallow copy that didn't have the crucial information about the key, right?

2014-05-30 19:27:42 by anonymouse:

It's explicitly mentioned that Wheel is self-hosting on magic as much as possible. And medrings have "mana piping" on the inside, which strongly hints that they're based on magic. The Abstract Doctor is clearly magical (with the runes and the responding to magic pings), and also made of rhenium, so it's very likely a prototype medring. Conclusion: medrings, like pretty much everything that Wheel does, run on magic.

2014-05-30 19:40:04 by skztr:

I'm pretty sure that Abstract Doctor was just what the story guessed it was: A simulation. We know that there is internal conflict within Wheel about "how much interference" they should have over everyone else. Part of that conflict would involve running through scenarios about what might happen if Wheel interfered in one way or another. Abstract Doctor was a simulation of "What happens if we release some helpful technology, disguised as an ancient artefact?" The particular iteration we witnessed was one of many "What happens if we release it, then change our minds?" scenarios.

2014-05-30 19:58:40 by anonymouse:

Everything is real.

2014-05-30 20:04:22 by naura:

Actually, in the everything2 version of Last Thursdayism, there's this line: "The boxes are metallic red, ranging from half-metre cubes up to one the size of a Stonehenge megalith. There are around twenty of them, haphazardly scattered, some piled up or stood on one end. They weren't there when he set out a year ago. Curious." in which 'one' is a hyperlink to Abstract Doctor.

So it would seem that AD and the other Abstracts/astras are tools, useful binaries created sometime during the year of silence.

FWIW, this is what King has to say about them: "These are the tools[->link to 'astra']," King says. "Remember? I suppose Ra gave them to Ashburne. And Ashburne left them here for us." He could be lying though.

2014-05-30 21:08:25 by T:

So it's basically confirmed now that Abstract Doctor existed before magic was switched on, and yet a civilian mage is able to recognize magical runes and pulse mana through it to create effects.

I still find it curious that the astras seem to be so closely linked to magic- maybe King didn't build magic from scratch, but used the astras to form a high level language for a magic system created as part of Ashburne's original request.

That would imply Ashburne's unknown true intentions included something along the lines of "we still want to be able to somehow safely use the capabilities of Ra," and magic came out.

2014-05-30 22:20:14 by skztr:

It's also possible that the line "Evening passed and morning came and that was version one" is a little closer to reality than we might thing. Everyone seems to accept that "The Wheel Group is telling the truth" is completely mutually exclusive with "Tanako/Ra is telling the truth".

We know (as the Word of God) that Scrap Brain Zone is not the truth. But we don't know that it is completely bunk, or even a reasonable but wrong interpretation of actual events.

"And the whole of the sky fills up with Dehlavi warnings." is also probably very telling. If Abstract Doctor is "real", then we have already seen evidence of something supposedly "man made" (ie, Magic Runes, in theory made by King, albeit quite indirectly) which actually existed prior to that supposed invention. Now we are seeing Dehlavi warnings, something supposedly invented not-by-Ra, not-by-Wheel, but entirely "man made", an agreed-on standard, but there they are "in the sky".

That's the one that made me say to myself "okay, no sense in commenting on this one. Too much room for pure speculation. Wait until next month". Maybe I should stick to that plan.

2014-05-31 01:36:24 by Bauglir:

Re: Everything is real.

I still think the world as we know it is a simulation in this story, but it's simulated in such detail that it might as well be real. It fits a running theme - the simulations are of such high fidelity that they're reality in all but perspective, and that is basically what "Everything is real" seems to mean. Even if it's running on a machine, that's just a change of medium. Or, at least, that's what I'm getting from it.

2014-05-31 02:05:28 by kabu:

@ skztr

But remember, Dehlavi warnings are based directly on the shape of a Dehlavi machine, which does come from Ra. So it's possible that the shape of a lightning machine (and the shape of the "galaxy" in the sky of T-world) would just be recognizable to most humans as a Dehlavi warning symbol.

2014-05-31 03:26:55 by Glux:

While some amount of mystery is necessary for a good story, I think this would be a better story if there weren't so many layers of gratuitous mystery surrounding every tiniest thing. After the story ends Sam is gonna need another set of q/a threads and a month of OOC exposition just to explain anything that happened.

2014-05-31 04:09:49 by Kazanir:

That's how you write a page-turner though. If Sam's stories came out as a unified novel you wouldn't be able to put it down!

2014-05-31 19:00:37 by IanO:

I think that Ra has been pretty straight-forward compared to fine structure, and that all of the mystery is completely intentional. I think Sam has definitely matured as a writer, and I have full confidence that everything will make sense in the end.

Yes, some of us less-astute readers will have to ask questions after the story has ended to figure it out, but that's part of the fun! One of the coolest parts of this medium is we have some engagement with the author, both during and after the story is made!
 

2014-05-31 21:11:31 by well:

I bet there will be some loose ends that turned out being just filler...

2014-05-31 21:37:11 by qntm:

None of this story is intended as filler. All of it serves some kind of purpose.

However, I guarantee there will be loose ends. Some things I won't be able to address through the medium of the story just for logistical reasons. Others are just going to be straight-up inconsistencies arising from my failure to plan far enough ahead - leaving those unaddressed is often preferable to calling attention to them.

2014-05-31 21:57:44 by :

Im not saying its bad or anything.

2014-05-31 22:07:39 by qntm:

> Why are all the Wheel Group members inside the circle—i.e., the ones with any agency or plot relevance—male?

Essentially, this was a mistake on my part. I can't be certain what my precise thought processes here were, but it went something like this:

The Wheel Group are a group of glorified systems administrators. Most sysadmins are male. Also, the Wheel Group are the survivors of a (then-unnamed) conflict, most probably having fought in that conflict, and most soldiers are male.

Obviously this doesn't make sense in the context of a hypothetical distant future where gender equality has been achieved (and then probably lost and achieved again sixty times over). When I realised this I came up with a different rationalisation: it's because on 1970 Earth, genders are not equal.

But that doesn't work either. Wheel Group must have their own gender preferences, they move in their own circles, and they have unlimited power - there is nothing on 1970 Earth that should be able to stop them from being whoever they want to be, and appearing however they want to appear.

So there is no real justification. It's a mistake I made and now I have to own it. It wouldn't be the first one in this story.

2014-06-01 00:48:47 by qntm:

> Why does Laura mention the glass man as being there when she went to steal the bridge? I just reread that section of Akheron and could find no mention of this guy. The last time we saw him was when Laura was going to the core node in T-world...

Exactly. Laura went to the core node to steal the Bridge.

> [T]his installment came out remarkably fast!

That's because I've been building up to this installment for an unbelievable amount of time. Story beats hit during "All Hell" were planned at least as far back as "Thaumonuclear" and probably earlier. It's all been building up to this moment. (Also, it may all be downhill from here.)

> that would be the other Ed that you're looking for.

Ed Hatt is actually named after Ed MacPherson, but didn't inherit any character traits from him per se.

> lack of named female characters

Laura's friends in the first chapter? Ed Hatt's secretary, Sally? STS-77 Mission Specialist Elaine L. Barry? This is still a fair point. I think I'm at better than parity in terms of "screen time" though.

> Alan Minter

Alan Minter sees the Dehlavi warnings outside his window while working. "Bugger that," he says, and goes home early.

> I found it odd how Natalie was able to shoot Laura with relatively little emotion on her part.

Odd, I'll give you, but Natalie's a reasonably odd person, and her defining characteristic is that she almost always knows significantly more than she's letting on. Did you think it was out of character?

> If Rachel was so powerful, why couldn't she find an easier way to save the shuttle crew, like teleporting them to safety or something?

She wasn't "so powerful". She certainly hasn't demonstrated teleportation.

> [The Glass Man] didn't try stealing the Bridge himself

Who says he didn't?

> Rachel had been seeing the Glass Man for a while

No, Rachel was just describing what she could see right at that moment. She had no idea that this entity existed until she saw him for the first time, in this chapter.

> If this were reality, why would [a sky filled with Dehlavi warnings] happen?

I'm going to go into this in more detail in a later chapter, but imagine the mother of all "catch" blocks, and a big comment reading "THIS CAN'T HAPPEN".

> layers of gratuitous mystery surrounding every tiniest thing

You say "gratuitous mystery", I say "audience engagement". ;)

2014-06-01 05:20:08 by Kazanir:

So magic is still at least semi-operational thanks to the gigaspells being hosted at the core node. Even assuming total destruction of the listening post and the gathered Wheel Group, most of what drives magic is still running even if the backups are non-functional or gone.

For the next 16 minutes, anyway.

2014-06-01 21:24:11 by Labrynian Rebel:

And to think when Ra first started I thought "meh, this doesn't feel as good as Fine Structure" and move on with life. Then I remember it, and I stay up extremely late binge reading it, and all I can say is "Wow".

...but now I have to wait for each new chapter with the rest of you, oh well.

2014-06-01 21:43:25 by qntm:

How was the binge-reading experience for you?

Over the last year or so of instalments, I've been very aware that many readers were having difficulty keeping track of the story. Do you think reading all the chapters relatively quickly has made things any easier to follow?

2014-06-02 02:38:15 by skztr:

re-reading in bulk really helped me to keep track of some threads which I lost when going chapter-by-chapter. Most notably, following the line of Natalie and Anil was a lot easier in bulk - I know that Abstract War was meant to be a disorienting leap from "three to transport", but I gather I wasn't meant to lose the thread entirely.


also, clicking into the text-box after a pageload clears whatever text is in here, including text restored from "reopen closed tab". I went in to a lot more detail, but lost my wall of text after accidentally closing the tab.

2014-06-02 13:36:39 by Toadworld:

I personally prefer this by far to Fine Structure, which completely lost me towards the end. I lost track of who I was caring about after civilisation came back and it all got a bit abstract. Might reread it in bulk.

2014-06-03 03:59:43 by anonymouse:

I've re-read it periodically. Getting just one chapter a month does make the story harder to follow, but I think that would be true of any story written to ultimately be read in one go. Something explicitly designed for this kind of serialization would need a bit more framing around each chapter to remind people where they are and what's up, and I don't think that would even work in a story like this. There are too many little details from the early chapters that show up in interesting ways in the later ones. Which is not a bad thing, and makes the story one that rewards a re-reading or two.

Also, compared to Fine Structure, this holds together better, probably because it revolves around the central characters more, and also partly just because it's not trying to span a time of tens of thousands of years and multidimensional spaces and so on.

2014-06-03 07:10:46 by Daniel H:

It is trying to span aparent time of tens of thousands of years and apparent alternate dimensions. Abstract War - 1970 > 10000 years. T-World doesn't behave like somewhere you could just go in a classical spaceship. Neither of these differences is as they appear, which arguably makes them harder to follow.

But I definitely agree Ra is more cohesive than Fine Structure.

So filling the sky with Dehlavi warnings is the equivalent of a bluescreen/kernel panic. Does magic still work, or is it frozen?

2014-06-03 08:38:31 by Sean:

> Odd, I'll give you, but Natalie's a reasonably odd person, and her defining characteristic is that she almost always knows significantly more than she's letting on. Did you think it was out of character?

FWIW, I thought that this description was exactly right. Natalie has to do something emotionally disturbing but important, and she's the sort of person who usually copes with that by damping it out to keep a feeling/appearance of control. Plus, she has to avoid tipping off Laura and take her out quickly, and so is managing herself by focusing completely on the mechanics of the action.

It would be much weirder (to me) if she'd suddenly gone all teary-eyed. The only times in the story so far where she's done so, have been in the pauses, when there was no action she could take to improve the situation.

2014-06-03 08:49:36 by OvermindDL1:

Personally, every time a new chapter came out of Ra or Fine Structures I always re-read everything up to that point then on through the new chapter, twice over or more a few times, then during the lulls I would often read through again. I have read Fine Structures far far too many times then I would like to admit, I can describe it in pretty great detail, I can recite much of it word for word... >.>

2014-06-03 13:48:14 by John:

Actually, I interpreted Natalie's body language when she held Laura's eyes and described the need to destroy the listening post as, rather than attempting surprise, she was actually trying to communicate the idea to Laura: "We need to destroy the listening post in order to save the world. The fastest way to do that is to kill you and invoke your retributive strike spell. I love you, goodbye."

2014-06-04 14:39:23 by theTrueMikeBrown:

@Sam: concerning binge reading, I have been reading Ra as each chapter came out. Additionally I have recently convinced my wife to read it with me over the course of a week or two. It made much more sense the second time (either because I knew what was going to happen, or because I read it faster.)
My wife found the plot fairly easy to follow. Also she noted that the characters were far more developed than those in fine structure. She liked Ra a great deal more than fine structure.

@the general public
I think that the glass man is a copy of exa that was stored in the ra shard in Neptune's core. The people that were there were not necessarily all erased, and no male human in this story is that capable with the exception of exa. Perhaps the people in the Neptune core were not all locked down, and they are now trying to rebuild the worldring?

2014-06-04 16:24:38 by LNR:

I wonder what clever thing Nat did that required the use of a staff.

In the prior episode, she asked Exa to provide her a staff, claiming it was because her sister wouldn't respond well to threats at gunpoint. However Nat never gives a straight explanation to anyone (especially not the readers). So I'm thinking she had something very specific in mind.

Based on what we know about how magic works and how the deadman switch was set up, I haven't been able to puzzle out her plan. I want to suggest that she probably has precast a specialized anti-exawatt-laser spell that she developed for just this eventuality, but even Sam most likely would have telegraphed that one ahead of time.

2014-06-04 16:59:48 by qntm:

Actually the main idea with Nat's staff was to set up the incredibly obvious, world-ending, climactic twin-on-twin bojutsu battle which I've been telegraphing since "Magic Isn't". Unfortunately Nat is too smart and too bad at stick-fighting to go the obvious route, so I hope you enjoyed the red herring ;)

Another reason was to make you all stop thinking about the gun, to make the reveal more effective when Nat produces it in this chapter. Let me know if this worked or not?

2014-06-04 18:04:39 by Eclipse:

@theTrueMikeBrown
That actually seems plausible. The current Wheel group could be modified copies of the originals, with the same ideology as King. All of the dissenters and emotional trauma were "fixed".

Doing this, King alienated Ashburne, explaining why she abandoned the astras.

2014-06-04 19:53:43 by anonymouse:

I didn't even realize that she had a gun, which made it kind of confusing when she pulled it out. The previous chapter made it sound like she took the staff instead of the gun, but it sounds like it was in addition to, and it was a bit confusing to then see her pull out the gun.

Also, another way to explain Nat's behavior is that she ran a simulation, albeit one not as high-fidelity as Wheel's but based on better data (she knows Laura pretty well, after all), and this was what produced the best probability of the outcome that she wanted, which is presumably more or less what actually happened at least initially, though I doubt she went into this planning to shoot Laura in the face.

2014-06-05 04:53:57 by Labrynian Rebel:

It flowed pretty good reading it all at once. I remember way back in the Fine Structure days I would re-read the entire story every time a new chapter came out to remind myself and try and find new connections.

Ra is a lot more character-focused and flows better than Fine Structure (at least so far). Anyways I really love your work and I hope you continue, it's always a wild ride!

2014-06-05 07:57:46 by LNR:

Hmm. I didn't get that foreshadowing of a battle between the twins. Up until now, whenever they've interacted directly, they haven't had any real direct conflict. It has seemed to me that they had disagreements about methods ("Stop killing people!") but their goals were never really in direct opposition.

What put them in conflict was when Nat learned about the whole radicalization thing. Even then it has always been obvious that Nat was not going to simply follow Wheel's instructions. She was never going to go in and simply assassinate her sister. She had a plan the whole time that would let her save them both and team up to fight Invisible Bad Guy.

We know Nat in this story has been crazily well prepared for every possible occurrence, and most of the impossible ones. She's effectively Batman. And though Batman may be caught unarmed and unprepared once or twice in a story, that's just to build tension. His utility belt never runs empty in the final climax. Nat doesn't get herself into the climactic battle for world salvation just to hit somebody with a stick.

I'm not saying this is how things inevitably play out. I'm saying this is the expectation set up by the story so far. If you wanted to foreshadow "hit with stick, ouch," you got way too subtle even for this story.

2014-06-05 11:25:51 by skztr:

I was expecting an epic staff battle at some point, but definitely not from Nat.

Laura vs Exa could never work, that one's too obviously a "each one throws infinity at the other, while blocking infinity from the other, until something causes instantaneous obliteration".

Laura vs Nat is unlikely to work. The only way they'd have a "fight to the death" is if Laura thought that it would be simpler to "kill" Nat and restore her later. ie: Laura says "I need to temporarily remove you from play using a technique that looks exactly like killing you", and Nat says "no, that's killing me, and I don't want that." The problem with that set-up is that Laura is too prepared [she'd have a weapon on-hand that is 10,000x more powerful than necessary because her style of "be prepared" is to always carry around much more than you could ever possibly need, without caring about the specifics of what she might encounter] and Natalie is too prepared [she'd have already worked out exactly what was coming and would either have a way to disarm her, or would know to surrender]. They'd never bother coming to blows, because (similarly to Laura vs Exa, but on different scales) it's always over instantly. And that's pretty much exactly the scenario that's played out.

Laura vs Ed seems like a good candidate. Laura is always over-powered, but Hatt has people. From the moment Ed found out it was possible to pull things out of T-World, guaranteed he's got people on it. From the moment Ed found out it was possible to use waste mana, guaranteed he's got people both working on the specifics of that, and he's got people massively ramping up the collection of waste mana. Which is to say: Laura is overpowered, but Ed Hatt could say "it seems it's possible to be overpowered. Get me the ability to be equally overpowered by next week". Unlike a battle between Exa and Laura, it is also less-implicitly a fight to the death, which allows a stalemate of Magic to turn into a physical battle.

Tanako/Ra is too ill-defined for useful discussion, as is the glass-man.

In conclusion, the obvious "epic bo battle" is Anil vs Laura.

2014-06-05 12:01:31 by qntm:

You've actually already *seen* what happens when Laura fights Exa (Laura self-destructs, releasing enough energy to plasmise Exa and punch a deep hole in the world), and you've seen what happens when Natalie fights Laura (Natalie concedes before the fight begins).

If there are any other fights you want to see, now is probably the time to list them.

2014-06-05 13:01:38 by :

Let's see Rachael, at full magical strength versus someone, without the rule breaking cheatbox part that teleported her into another cheatbox to steal the contents of her brain. If that's possible.

2014-06-05 15:54:23 by naura:

Nat vs. Exa. Exa obviously has more raw power, but I feel like Nat could have something sneaky and even more powerful up her sleeve. Something Exa and co. didn't realize was possible and never bothered to check for.

For example, Laura's true-name aliasing trick to steal geological mana + quine to amplify collection + focused and directed by staff to vaporize Exa.

Also, where the hell were Wheel during the events of Thaumonuclear etc? Surely that would have shown up in the records?

2014-06-05 16:22:13 by skztr:

I assume the events of Thaumonuclear were either masked (through Akashic scramblers or as a biproduct of geological mana... or both), or investigated off-screen, or, (given Wheel's security practices, this seems the most likely to me): Silently logged without generating any warning message

2014-06-05 17:11:33 by Silhalnor:

I like how the battles have been getting resolved before they have a chance to come to physical combat. But it may be nice to see how Exa battles as a baseline human without his privileges and the sheer raw power that comes with it. Force some limitations onto him and see how he responds.

The battles have gone down thusly: Exa < Laura < Nat
For a proper game of Rock-Paper-Scissors Natalie should lose against Exa.
Hmnn... Rock-Paper-Natalie sounds awesome.

2014-06-05 23:33:50 by skztr:

the phrase "Rock-Paper-Natalie" makes me want to see a semi-literal: Exa vs the Immovable Object. We know that if he's disintegrated by an unstoppable force, he variously respawns. We know that if he becomes embedded in solid titanium, he becomes as hot as the sun and swims out.

It would be interesting to see what *defensive* force could delay Exa, and how he would react to it. Sure, Exa needs to dodge things sometimes (well, prefers to), and Exa needs to attack quickly sometimes... but I gather that Exa doesn't often need to deal with the situation of "I hit this thing and it didn't stop being a thing".

I can bring up the various pairings in my head, but this one I don't think I have enough information to explore. For the Unix analogy, I suppose if Exa is `rm -f` (as a member of wheel), the only thing fitting this description would be SELinux... so based on what we know of the Wheel Group's security practices, I suppose the answer would be: Exa can't get past it, King gets annoyed and turns off enforcing mode. ... actually, that would explain a lot.

2014-06-06 01:52:59 by Sean:

No one wanted to see a fight involving Scott F. Parajsa? On second thought, that's probably for the best.

Technically, we've seen "victory party" Exa vs. Laura twice, and she won both times.

2014-06-06 01:54:52 by Sean:

Well, maybe not "won" when she self-destructed, but she certainly unilaterally ended the battle.

2014-06-06 08:29:23 by Anonymous:

*sigh*

I need to point out to the cis-folk on this thread that *gender is not mutable* for the vast majority of people. Unless humanity has changed its hardware (which they haven't, the story makes clear) then thinking that people will choose their gender based on whatever is socially convenient is very, very incorrect. And before you say things like "But changing is easier in the future, so social pressures change!" etc., please consider that this is a reality that I am living at the moment, and I can assure that all the social pressure in the world wasn't enough to stop me living as my hardwired gender, and that I would *literally*, without exaggeration, rather be dead than have stayed in the wrong expression.

It's a small point, but it's one that's important to me.

2014-06-06 08:51:51 by Skztr:

I think the story makes it clear that humanity Has the ability to change their hardware, down to the dna, on a whim

2014-06-06 14:12:49 by qntm:

I want to cite Iain M. Banks' Culture - which influences me heavily - as a science fiction civilisation where people wander freely between genders, displaying varying degrees of preference.

2014-06-06 14:14:56 by qntm:

Stay civil.

2014-06-07 01:54:28 by Anonymus2:

But not 50% of people are transgendered. Some people have bad luck and end up in the wrong body, some have better luck and end up in the one they want, but most seem able to adapt to whichever one they end up with, and presumably would do so if changed to the opposite or something different entirely as well.

2014-06-17 02:48:39 by Daniel C:

Sam omg, how long were waiting to use that "physical access to the hardware" line for? I died laffing

2014-06-27 20:37:13 by MadcapPomposity:

@Anonymous 2014-06-06 09:29:23

Good point. The "they changed their visibly-apparent gender" argument also doesn't hold up when you consider that Wheel members can basically warp reality in enough other ways that they'd be able to live whatever life they want to, regardless of the gender that baseline society perceives them to have. I latched onto Sam's prior description of Wheel appearance (among other things) being entirely discretionary without really thinking the situation through.

2014-07-25 21:44:56 by Phigment:

So, late-arriving observation here...

Back in the Abstract Weapon sequence, no one on the Floor was armed when the Rwandan kid appeared. That's why King had to resort to mushroomification.

At this stage, King has a gun on his person. Probably because he's learned from that experience.

Casaccia would have self-destructed the Listening Post before the Glass Man could get the key if King hadn't shot him with that gun he now keeps handy.

So, the question then is: To what degree was the Abstract Weapon attack intended to set the stage for this event, or something essentially similar? We know Ra uses heavy simulation to predict the future. It's possible that it concluded somewhere along the way that the path to victory required playing on King's weaknesses to prevent the Key from getting hard-deleted before the crucial moment.

Just found and read Ra over the course of the past few weeks. Good reading.

2014-09-02 01:25:17 by SMA:

"Look, look, I'm a spaceship," has to be the most absurd piece of text I've ever found poignant.