Laura is stumbling drunkenly across a world that's like the sterilised mirror underside of reality, the blue and black and silver-grey upside-down place seen in rain puddles. It's a place where nothing that happens is good; where some nightmare was uncorked and spread through the air, worming its way into people's tongues and eyeballs and alveoli, seeping into the surfaces until there was nothing but nightmare to see or eat or drink. The air is as cold as bone and seems to breeze through her instead of around her. The air has an unsettling texture, as if there are occasional invisible strands of cobweb stirred into it. There's an irritating electronic buzzing, like some combination of metal cutting devices operating intermittently half a street away. It hurts to think.
Laura blitters across the glass landscape. Nobody can remember the start of a dream. She is trudging through a black glass mountain valley with jagged glass boulders and glass shards crackling underfoot like frost. She wonders if there's a special word for a glass glacier.
The sky overhead features the familiar pale triple-pointed galaxy, the forked Milky Way, but today it disconcerts Laura for reasons that she cannot pull together in her head. It is simultaneously reassuring and alarming. Laura is asleep and not reasoning at maximum capacity. All she knows is that she wants to find shelter.
The mountain ranges on each side elongate and coalesce until the valley has become a ravine. The ravine changes direction crazily, filling space, adding to its length, so that even flicking from location to location at a wish it takes Laura hours to make measurable progress. From above, it starts to look like a white noise waveform. It must be tens of thousands of miles long. Its walls become almost vertical and totally unscalable.
The floor of the ravine sprouts tiny white daisy things, which look soft right up until Laura treads on one. They're extruded crystals, and they function like caltraps. From the ravine walls grow spider plants, whose leaves are long curved shards of broken wine bottle. Laura has to duck or turn sideways to edge past them without slashing herself open. It's at this point that she realises that the ravine is gradually narrowing, and then looks up to realise that it has begun to close up over her head. Her throat rasps. The electrobuzzing is becoming louder.
Laura has been here for a long time and is gradually coming to realise it.
The ravine becomes a tunnel. What little starlight there was fizzles out, leaving Laura picking her way through an increasingly jagged blind nightmare. She illuminates her path by creating a picture of light in her head. The picture is red. Laura doesn't perceive that there are other colours she could choose. She creates red light. It is almost worse. Now she can see some of the surroundings, but the green leaves in particular are black and too indistinct to focus on. The passage flicks from uniform deep black to a puddle of dim red surrounded by deep shadows. And the light source, for dream logic reasons, comes into being in front of one of her eyes, a LED-pure light aimed into it like an optometrist's scope. It's not quite blinding, but painful, forming a dull point in Laura's retina. She sees blood vessel patterns overlaying her vision.
It's miles further before the tunnel forks for the first time. Laura remembers her maze training - consisting entirely of her mother once telling her "always follow the left-hand side" - and goes left. The tunnel rises and falls and zags enough times for Laura to lose her bearings, before it forks again. Both forks are smaller than the parent tunnel. The plant life is petering out, but the walls are becoming blocky as they close in, as if made of thick slabs of sharp-edged glass, placed to catch her clothes. Laura goes left again.
Much later, at a 60-degree right turn, Laura spots a crack in the left wall. The unacceptable lighting conditions mean that it would have been very easy to miss it in passing. The crack is just wide enough to slide through sideways without being cut in more than a few places - definitely both elbows, and maybe a rib or two. It's dark and, looking right into it, Laura can't tell how far it goes beyond an immediate right-angled turn.
Follow the left-hand side. She must have walked past six of these side alleys without realising it.
She is lost.
The noise is driving her crazy. Considering retracing her steps, Laura turns suddenly, catching a shoulder on the wall and carving a wound all the way down to her elbow. She inhales to cry out but at that instant she sees, down the corridor, the thing which has been following her. The thing is three turns away, mostly obscured by outcroppings of rough glass, and it is wrong. It is a very young child's drawing of a man, with exaggerated features and nonsensical proportions, made flesh. It's the wrong shape, its face and teeth are wrong, its body is wrong. It's extremely dark and it's standing completely still, not looking in Laura's direction. It occupies the full width and height of the corridor. It is somehow larger than anything the corridor can strictly accommodate.
Laura holds her breath. As the thing turns and begins to glide along the corridor in her direction, Laura kills her light and tries to shuffle blindly into the side alley. It's difficult and fiddly and painful and she seems to get nowhere for a long time while the thing is moving closer. The thing is totally dark except for its illuminated eyeballs and if it makes any noise it cannot be heard over the machines. Laura forces her way around the corner and waits, eyes refusing to adjust, unable to hear anything but the mechanical grinding, and still dribbling blood from her hand, which is now soaked. Her heart might as well be buzzing.
After minutes of waiting, and very slowly, the thing puts its head around the corner. Its head is a fat balloon, a big black elongated comma. It turns to look at her with its eyeballs. It opens its mouth of teeth and tells her, I CAN SEE YOU.
It is at this point that Laura regains consciousness. Thought processes that were freewheeling wildly finally hit the road and find traction. Laura sees where she is and she sees what's happening. She realises that she is having an intensely unpleasant Tanako's World Episode. She realises, also, that she cannot wake up from it.
Is that worse or better?
"Get it together, Ferno," says the man behind her. Laura whips her head around, but does so too quickly and catches it on more glass. She flinches and ducks to clutch the new wound. This provides enough room for the other dreamer to raise a conventional sidearm and fire four conventional bullets over Laura's head and into the thing's face.
The thing tells them HAHEHAHEHEHEHE. It relaxes, rather than collapsing or dying in any convincing way. It is as if its internal supports have suddenly been withdrawn. It falls to the ground in a manner which strongly suggests that it could very easily be reactivated. Its eyes darken, but remain wide open.
Laura's heart rate levels off. She takes stock.
Not much of the man can be seen, because of the cramped environment. He is taller than Laura. He's covered head to toe in a light armour shell and carrying nothing but the gun, which he immediately dismisses. The shell is grey, and thin enough not to make navigating the tunnels impractical but evidently hard enough to withstand contact with the glass without sustaining much more than white scratches. No face is visible.
It's a really good choice of equipment. Laura immediately clothes herself in the same.
"You've gone off mission. Follow me," the man says. He starts moving down the alley. Laura follows him, gingerly at first and then with more confidence once she establishes that sharp glass protrusions can't penetrate the armour.
"Who are you?"
"Who do you think?" Kazuya Tanako turns his helmet transparent. He turns around so Laura can get a good look. "Ta-dah."
"Oh. We're back in T-world, why?"
"'Show, don't tell'," says Tanako. "The things I need to say to you could fill a book, but you'd have no choice but to take the whole thing as fiction. It's how you think. I needed to bring you in here to put your face in front of some evidence. You've found your way into something much bigger than you thought."
"This place is full of evil," Laura says. "Demons, and this noise we're having to shout over. Why wasn't this here before? You said you crossed a light-year of glass unharmed. T-world should fight you. But monsters were conspicuously absent from your story."
Tanako reaches what seems to be a dead end. He feels the tall, narrow pane of glass for a second, then summons his sidearm again and shoots through it. He steps out onto thin air, and helps Laura out too. It is a bottomless ravine with an invisibly thin glass layer supporting them. The near side of the ravine is a sheer wall of fractured glass, with the cracks from Tanako's bullet spreading across it. The far side is buttressed stone, mile-thick castle wall. Both walls go up too far for anything like a sky to be available overhead. Below them is an unholy red light and the noise of combine harvesters coming up to speed. Standing over the gap is painful, like hard radiation.
"You've got a problem with your short-term memory," Kazuya Tanako tells Laura, "so I guess we'll have to go through this whole thing again, Socratic style. Where are we?"
Laura thinks the wall ahead of them is the exterior of a deep layer of her memory palace, but that isn't the question. Tanako strides across clear glass air gap like it's just a basic pavement, unslinging a heavyweight Akira-style laser from hammerspace. He inscribes a luminous pink blob on the wall, then tears the shape out of the wall like paper, letting it whip away into the wind. A dark gap is left. Laura follows him forward, mildly concerned that Tanako broke into her palace with such ease. As they step through, the electromechanical noises tune out, muffled. It's like weight lifting off her thoughts.
Behind the paper-thin/mile-thick wall is her recurring dream-snapshot: Rachel Ferno, Atlantis, ET and full crew complement, all at the instant immediately before their simultaneous destruction.
Kazuya Tanako prompts her, "It's about two weeks since you woke me. The second time, I mean."
"We're in memory," Laura announces.
"We're in your memory palace right now," Tanako agrees.
"No?" Tanako already knows the answer, but is guiding Laura towards it.
"It's a system," Laura says. "You spoke about finding a listening post. An omega-oracle, a systematic recording of all mana expenditure across all of history. That's where we are, that's what this place is. It's that system's memory.
"This scene is formally allocated. And so are the other things I can't forget, like the eruption at Krallafjöll. And so is the incident where Alexander Watson destroyed Recursion's Big Brother or whatever you want to call it--"
"I don't want to call it anything," Tanako says hurriedly. "It stays anonymous."
"These are the events in history when huge amounts of mana were spent," Laura summarises. "These are stored here, separated by bare recording medium."
"Correct," says Tanako. "In Sanskrit these would be called the akashic records. Now, answer your own question. Why the demons now, but not then?"
Laura stares up, once again, at her mother and the orbiter. What she is really looking at is: a plan, at the instant of its fruition.
"Mum knew," Laura says. "She knew these records existed. All she had to do was get close enough to Atlantis, and spend a lifetime of magic doing it, and the whole thing would... go on record. Nobody is dead, as long as we remember them with sufficient fidelity to effect a full reconstruction."
"Answer your question," Tanako repeats. "Why demons now? And not then?"
"How much matter did you bring back for the anonymous recursion artifact to instantiate in full? A milligram? From a spell I wrote and cast in bed? If that's all it takes to trick the universe, I can bring a person back. I can almost taste it."
"I think you're falling asleep again, Ferno--"
"Your answer is Scooby-Doo. Someone built this."
They are being watched. Something is looking in at them from the ravine outside, a tumorous monkey-giant with infinitely long legs and misplaced shoulders. It is about a hundred metres tall. Only one eye and one nostril are visible through the hole. It smells like fried detergent. It grins like an exterminator, pokes two long hoselike fingers into the room, and sprays Tanako and Laura with a carpet of brown spiders.
Tanako brushes madly at his arms and head, even though his suit keeps him sealed off. He envisions insecticide, then thinks again and envisions arachnicide, if such a thing is real. It is now: his suit becomes slick with bug killer, as if he is showering in the stuff. Layers of spider shrivel up and slough off him. He wades towards Laura.
Laura has summoned a two-metre bo/engineering staff, probably intending to take on the Kong monster outside, but she can't even move it through the knee-height flood of spiders. She throws flame at them, but this is less effective. The brown fuzzy animals heat up like copper, turning red-hot while they start to chew through Laura's helmet. Laura can barely stand. "I want to wake up," she says, "or I want to go to sleep. Either is good!"
Above and behind them, the Atlantis tableau clicks forward one frame. Atlantis is rolling hard left, yawing right. Soichi Noguchi is still fighting its movement. Rachel Ferno is tossed into the orbiter's wake, no longer visible.
"We're doing something difficult but completely possible," Tanako tells her, still wading in her direction. He plays his laser over the face of the Kong monster, with no obvious effect. "You've got enough of the metaphor down to handle this, Ferno. I believe in you."
"Fuck the metaphor!"
"We're being pointed at," says Tanako. "This is the real event memory, the listening post just stores references. Follow the link back!"
Click. Smoke. Fuel trail. The tiniest fragment of flame emerging from the ET shell.
For the second time, Atlantis explodes.
The listening post:
"What?" Laura stumbles like she just stepped out of a roller coaster.
"I said, good thinking," Tanako says. "You used the environment. See down below?"
Laura almost falls onto the railing. Mapped out below is the Florida coast, picked out with lat/long lines, range boundaries and trajectory markers. One arc is Atlantis. Another, rising to meet it, is Rachel Ferno's. The map is suffused with Kanditz oracle colours. It is as familiar to Laura as her own face.
"We followed the shortcut," Laura says.
Laura is transfixed. She reaches out for the map, but her hand just obscures the view and messes with her depth perception, like a hologram.
She says, "Did you know there's a man whose job is to blow up the Space Shuttle?"
Tanako looks up. "...What? No. You never told me that."
"He's called the Range Safety Officer. The Shuttle launches east, across the Atlantic Ocean. If it stays on course, it never crosses land until the Portuguese coast, by which time it's at orbital velocity. But there are two lines," - she points - "one following Atlantic coast of the US and one through the Caribbean, east of Cuba. The areas behind these lines are inhabited. So, for those people's safety, there are explosive charges on the solid rocket boosters and on the external tank. And there's a man whose job is to push the button that sets them off."
"You mean, if the Shuttle goes off course?" Tanako asks. He blinks. "Doesn't that kill the astronauts?"
"Of course it kills the astronauts. How could it not?"
Tanako stares at her for a while, his head on one side.
"On STS-77 his name was Norman Lederer," Laura adds. "He didn't need to push the button, though. It blew up all by itself."
"...Why are we on this?"
"I don't know," says Laura. "I think it's something to do with destroying big pieces of hardware."
"Yes." This snaps Tanako back into the moment. He claps. "You're right. Now. Questions continue. Where are we?"
"We're inside the listening post. It's real after all."
"Indeed. And where is the listening post?"
"And what is T-world?"
"Memory. The listening post's own internal data bank."
"And how is that possible?"
Laura says, "Because it's a system. It's like any computer system. It's magical software. This is the place in memory where it stores its own code. We're walking around in it now."
The room is as silent as a crypt, and empty apart from the two of them and the 1:1 scale model of the complete history of the whole Earth. "How long do we have until they catch up with us again?" Laura asks.
With practiced movements, Tanako rolls the world map east to the United Kingdom, and then forwards in time to the present day. He narrows the focus to a flare in the remote hills of darkest Gloucestershire. "Do you remember this?"
"It's the facility where we're both asleep right now, in reality. These pinpricks are mages. These two are you and me. Look closely, get the out of body experience. You see? You understand?"
Laura squints. She sees hospital beds and drips. The familiar figures of herself and Nick Laughon, wrapped in white blankets and Dehlavi lightning at the core of a D, with watchful medical mages at the relevant nodes. "I don't remember," she says. "What are we doing there? Who's helping us with the experiment?"
"You'll remember when we wake up again," says Tanako. "All I need to tell you, for right now, is that this is the live copy. Call it 'production'. This is our rip-cord. If something goes awry like it did for me the first time, then exfiltration is simple: cast your mind back to this image, and to this moment in the real world. Then step into the illusion and wake up, snap."
"That'll work?" Laura asks. "How do you know that'll work?"
"I've done it before," says Tanako, adjusting the query parameters for the 4D world map a second time.
"What? How many times? When?"
"You thought my research ended just because I was killed?"
Laura stares at Tanako, or rather, at his faceless grey helmet. She's starting to put the information together, when something goes krung in her head. It feels like an anvil has fallen directly onto her deductive reasoning. She winces. The sensory overload symptoms are starting to come back: ringing noise, strobing light.
"You okay?" Tanako asks, taking one arm.
"Ow," Laura explains.
"The broad term for these things is 'intrusion countermeasures'," Tanako tells her. "We can stay ahead of them, up to a point. This is the last part of the journey, okay? This is the part where you need to pay attention. Look at the map."
Atlantic coast again. "New York City," Laura says.
"The year is 1969. And here we go."
Laura's thoughts flip texture yet again. She doesn't stumble this time, despite the new heels.
1969's recording is a vast skyscraper penthouse. It is ultra-modern and completely without dust or imperfection; habitable concept art in white, black and gold. Vatican City expensive, Mount Olympus expensive. Someone has spent a billion dollars on the most total imaginable luxury, then another half-billion just to have the gaudiness trimmed back to something tasteful.
It feels weirdly real. It's a whole different mental impression from T-world. No abstraction, no metaphor. It's a physical place that she's walking through.
Again, Kazuya Tanako catches up with her. This time he's wearing a tuxedo.
"You look different," Laura says. Nick Laughon's body has indeed been edited slightly. He's bulkier, and broader across the shoulders. His features have become artfully handsomer. His ears have shrunk. His hair is carved with product, in a way which the real Nick would never find time for. Bow tie, silver cufflinks. He still looks underdressed. Laura feels they should be in royal robes, or perhaps haloed entirely in light.
"That's the deal," says Tanako. "These guys look ideal at all times. They always look perfect. They never age, they never get ill. You should check yourself out, by the way," he adds, pointing out a mirror.
"Who are they?"
"These guys are the guys who built the system. They built the listening post, and then when it turned out that sleeping mages were able to wander right into their secure database they flooded it with monsters to scare people away. They monitor all magic usage, everywhere. And they meter it out."
Laura wishes she hadn't looked. She is unobtainable. The dress alone is unobtainable. If she spent two hours on her hair every morning and replaced every dessert with a marathon run, she could look half that good.
"Follow me," Tanako says.
"Wait. What was that last thing you said?"
Tanako opens the double doors. Noise floods out.
Laura's impression is that the next room could have been the size of a football pitch, and has only chosen to be a little smaller as a concession to practicality. Two entire walls and the ceiling are solid glass. The panorama behind the glass is unmistakeably the city of New York. They must be on the hundredth floor. About a hundred men and about twenty women are inside, most of them having to shout over one another. All of them are perfect twenty-somethings. Perfect suits, perfect teeth. Wine is flowing. There is string music of no clear origin. The atmosphere is celebratory and infectious.
"We'll get away without being noticed for a little while," Tanako murmurs. "We slipped out for a private conversation, you get me? Stay in character."
"You've dived into this memory before?"
"A couple of times."
Tanako takes two glasses of cava and hands one to Laura: camouflage. She drinks. Tanako steers her gently towards the window, avoiding eye contact with the party.
"Where are we?" he asks for the final time.
"New York city," Laura says.
The window comes right down and meets the carpet. Of course, nobody can see the body of the building they're in, not without leaning out, but it doesn't matter. There can be no building. The penthouse is half a block out into the East River. They are dozens of storeys up in thin air.
Laura fights the shock. It's too obvious a reaction. She tries to hypothesise how the structure could ever exist, but she, like the building itself, has nowhere to start from.
"This place is real, by the way," says Tanako. "In the present day as well as here in 1969. It's completely invisible in every conventional spectrum I could try. But I used a deep scanning oracle, on a collection of chi wavelengths they obviously thought nobody could ever find. I have photographs. It looks like a UFO."
"When were you in New York? Who are these people?"
"Listen to the speech," Tanako says.
Laura's next word is cut off by the tinging of a glass. She follows Tanako's gaze.
The man calling the party's attention looks-- well, immaculate, like everybody there. But Laura thinks he might be a shade older. Perhaps a little middle age, a little wrinkle and shadow. Perhaps indicating seniority.
His name is King.
"I don't want to waste too much time," he says. "So I'll use as few words as I can.
"Thank God that we got there first.
"Magic is our victory. We have proved it to be perfect. It'll stand forever. I don't want to call our accomplishment - your accomplishment - a miracle, because that would deny you the credit that you deserve. It was work. Nothing but work.
"The world needed to be protected from itself. The problem, always, is trust. If and only if you're in this room, you deserve to be trusted with that power. As for the world, they'll manage just fine with what we give them. And who knows what they'll build on top of it? I, for one, can't wait to see.
"So thank God. And thank you all. And: to the beginning."
Laura is about to drink, but Tanako nudges her again. "Watch this," he hisses.
A gap clears down the centre of the room, and a dining table appears. It snaps into existence, building itself in a tenth of a second. It is laid with fine china, silver cutlery, limitless wine and a hundred and twenty unique dishes of every conceivable aroma.
It is as if the table was being held in some higher reality, separated from this one by a thin silk cloth, and then the cloth was ripped out from under it.
Click goes the final tumbler in Laura's head.
King takes his seat at the head of the table, and the others follow suit, picking up their conversations again, not perturbed in the slightest at the flatly impossible thing that has just happened. Laura and Tanako hang back. "They can create and destroy matter," Tanako says. "Do you get it? It was so easy, you can't even be sure which one of them did it. Look at their wrists, that's where their immortality comes from. Listen to what they're saying, really listen."
"Something wrong, you two?" asks a diner, looking around at them.
Tanako looks meaningfully at Laura. Laura heard the question in Urdu. She understood it in English. Everybody in the room is speaking a different language. Even Tanako has lapsed back into his native Japanese. She didn't realise.
"Is this the dream?" she asks.
"No. All of this happened. It's the recording," Tanako says. "I have all the hard proof you could ask for, once you wake up. I can tell you who all of these people are."
Several heads have now turned in their direction. A man on the far side of the table stands up. He matches Tanako's description of Alexander Watson.
"Excuse us," Tanako announces, ushering Laura back outside.
Too much information. Laura paces away across the enormous lounge, trying to unthread the words of the speech and the evidence of her eyes.
"Conclusions?" Tanako asks.
"It's 1969," Laura says. "Everybody knows that that year number has to be wrong. There is zero evidence, zero, that anybody had magic before Suravaram Vidyasagar discovered it in '72. That's not to say that nobody found it before he did, just that there's no proof. If anybody did get there first, either they didn't write it down, or couldn't duplicate it, or... kept it a secret. But these people-- my God, based on what I just saw, and based on where we're standing right now - which is in thin air - they must have got there decades before anybody else. If not centuries."
Tanako shakes his head. "No. That was my first guess, but no."
"I just saw a council of wizards having dinner in the sky. I just saw how magic is supposed to work. How it works in lucid dreams. You just think of something and it happens. You don't even need to wave your hand. They must have limitless power. Absolutely limitless. They're the ones who built the recursion artifact?" She lowers her voice and mutters to herself. "'Magic is our victory.' No magic words. No gestures. No equipment."
"Call it deep magic. Call it wizardry, or māyā." Tanako's face is set. He stares at her across the room, willing her to come to his conclusion.
Laura says, "How many people could they feed? If they wanted to?"
"All of them."
"...Magic is the leak," Laura guesses. "The only part they couldn't hush up."
"Even that would be better than the truth," Tanako says.
Exa Watson kicks the double doors open, so hard that one of the doors breaks from its hinges and cartwheels into the room, leaving a trail of demolished furniture and decor.
Tanako shouts at Laura, "Eject!"
One pace over the threshold, Exa pulls a perfectly ordinary pistol out of his jacket and shoots Tanako in the heart. Tanako keels backwards, vanishing before he hits the ground. Exa turns the gun on Laura and fires again.
And where now?
Reality is a cramped metal stairwell, entirely devoid of light, running up and down for kilometres. It is the darkest and least interesting location. Laura arrives standing normally, but one of her feet is on a stair and the other is in thin air, so she falls into a hand rail.
She's back in the grey ceramic armour, all except for the helmet. It weighs much more here. The darkness is thick as pitch. She follows the hand rail and descends the stairs gingerly, testing each step. Her boots clang. She waits for Kazuya to find her, as he did before.
Her voice echoes, and doesn't seem to stop echoing.
After eight steps she reaches a landing. In total darkness, she explores carefully with her hands. She discovers cold concrete wall, more hand rails, and a cooling human body, wrapped in a wet dinner jacket. She immediately drops to her knees.
Dulaku surutai jiha, seven hundred en em."
In the red light of her right hand it is plain to see that Nick Laughon is dead.
She hears a soft clacking coming from above her. Smart, hard-soled dress shoes on metal stairs.
Alexander Watson appears at the next landing, moving swiftly, leading with his gun. He sees she's weaponless, and visibly drops out of firefight mode, keeping the gun trained precisely on her right eye as he descends a few more steps.
"I don't understand," Laura says to him. "Why does this part have to be real? Nothing else is real. Magic isn't real."
Exa fires. She falls.