Previously

Forty-six decillion joules is horrific overkill, commensurate with the urgency of Virtual civilisation's combined desire for more processing power. The energy packet distorts spacetime as it travels, and when the Earth's core node catches it, the planet measurably increases in mass and widens in orbit.

Vivid red lasers unzip the planet from top to bottom, slicing it along criss-crossing spiral rhumb lines. The lasers are powerful enough to be visible to the naked eye from Pluto; with good telescopy, the light show can be seen from other star systems. One beam even plays across the Moon's face before the dicing procedure is over, scorching it mildly.

The lasers represent the smaller share of the energy. Far more is spent to physically lift the jigsaw pieces of the first crust layer into the sky, hoisting significant amounts of sky with it. The planet unfurls like an onion over the course of an hour, individual shreds of country and rainforest unfolding themselves into thinner shreds still, absorbing further sunlight and reconstituting themselves into first-stage hosting substrate. Kicked with useful pulses of momentum from the coordinating core, the shreds radiate away into free space and align themselves against the solar wind, effecting an orbital change which will bring them nearer to the Sun, where energy is more plentiful. That takes care of the first layer, including all remaining physical traces of human civilisation. That was us. That was home.

A raw, molten second layer of Earth is exposed, where the process cycles around and starts again with the lasers. It's the rush job from hell, with unimaginable resource expenditure behind it; taking the whole planet apart will only take ten hours. Newly-awakened Virtualities are already colonising the remains, like maggots laid in roadkill. Within another thousand hours, the remains are ground entirely into a film of computronic sludge, wrapping the Sun tightly and harvesting almost all of its energy for processing power. The Sun dims as it happens, its spectrum shifting out of the visible and far into the infrared.

Adam King watches the synthesised edition of the recording, coverage assembled by passive observation platforms in the Oort Cloud. From this perspective, with false colour and no audio, the demolition is chillingly distant and its impact is hard to feel.

King is inside a very small, extremely temporary virtual space inside an otherwise inert starship the size and shape of a javelin, almost three light years from Earth in the direction of Sirius. This is the destination that the Wheel Group evacuated to. It was the only open receiver anywhere in extrasolar space.

The ship left Earth for Sirius very shortly after Abstract War. The back half of the ship is data, the front half is the terraformer. It's hardly much more than a single bootstrap, a chunk of machinery which serves no purpose but to assemble other chunks of machinery. The ship has been travelling for more than thirty years, and will not arrive at its destination for another sixty. There is a planet at Sirius A, in the Goldilocks zone. It doesn't have water, yet.

King's virtuality is the size of an elevator car, with only a small table, a folding metal chair and a portable CRT television. There is only one other person physically present with him, the arbiter, who stands behind him watching him watch the replay. But everybody is sharing her eyes. There are well over a hundred stored people on board, survivors of the war, mostly survivors of the Triton mission. Calling them Wheel Group members would be strictly inaccurate, they having left the world before the Wheel was formed. Reasons for leaving vary-- some thought the Sol system was a lost cause, or that abandoning the ruined Earth was moral and necessary, or just had a powerful desire to flee into the dark; some despised King and his vision, and couldn't muster the support to shout him down. The unifying thought among them, back then, was disapproval. Now it's horror. King is not among friends.

He fidgets in the deliberately uncomfortable chair, trying to find room for his legs, and/or some way to dodge the arbiter's stare.

"And you survive," the arbiter concludes. "Out of six billion, two hundred and seventy-five million, four hundred thousand people, you survive. You, and your Group, and nobody else. A crowning achievement of cowardice."

King begins, "It was impossible to save anybody else, we didn't have the broadcast power--"

"You lost your mind in the War." The arbiter's tone of voice is calculatedly neutral and impossible to speak over. "You, together with everybody who fell in with you. After such unimaginable chaos, you were desperate for a world where there would be a manageable order. You turned the Earth into a facsimile of a working planet. A romance. You dragged billions of people into existence and you let them raise children as if it was real. In a world which they basically believed that they understood, and which they basically believed to be rational and safe.

"We find 'magic' to be absurd. We find the 'Earth' you built to be an obscenity. You could have built an entirely new world, or left the planet uninhabitable as it was, as an honest memorial. Even oblivion would have been preferable. We left the world rather than stay and be complicit in your madness. We set out for an entirely other star system, knowing it would take decades to get there. You should see what we're going to build. Any of you could have come with us and seen it, if you'd chosen to.

"And in the end your 'Earth' was illusory, and all of this amounts to a delayed action. Three decades later, Virtual humanity takes the Sol system anyway; Ra remains 'radioactive' for ten billion years."

King clenches his fist at the series of accusations. They're intolerable, and he could find the words to fight any or all of them, but where would be the point? This isn't the trial anymore. The decision is already made, and all of this is just infodump; the minimum necessary courtesy.

"You're relieved," King says. "All of you. You're glad it's finally over. You're glad that you get to say you made the right decision to leave, and that I made the wrong decision to stay and rebuild. The world I built worked."

The arbiter ignores this. "Adam King, we deny your Group's request for asylum. Your patterns will be stored indefinitely, or until a more lenient future generation pardons you."

*

Rachel Ferno doesn't need yammering voices for the rest of this. "Save everybody except me," she stage-whispers into the Bridge. Five white snaps of light mark the departure of Nick Laughon, Edward Hatt, Anil Devi and Laura and Natalie Ferno. Of them, only Devi is paying close enough attention to the proceedings to react to the instruction. He shows a fraction of a second of surprise, but doesn't have time to process what's happening before it's done. Hatt, Laura and Natalie simply don't react. Nick Laughon, for his part, was already turning away from the Ferno story, a story he no longer wanted to be part of, one which he felt an urgent need to exit.

Rachel is standing too far from civilisation to see everybody else being uploaded, but she imagines she can feel the world emptying and the Bridge filling up. The wave of white events spreads at close to the speed of light, taking people from their beds and from behind the wheels of cars and from aeroplanes in flight. These are destructive reads. In one second, all the important people on Earth - which is to say, all the people - are missing from it, converted to information and archived in the Bridge's capacious buffer. That leaves Rachel alone on a ghost world. She snaps a shot of the world's crust, for good measure. Animals and buildings, mainly, the lower priorities.

She takes one step and is immediately at the Wheel Group penthouse in New York city, where it's the small hours of the morning. In the streets outside the enormous bay window, vehicles are still rolling to a halt after the rapture.

Rachel was excommunicated from the Wheel Group, or left it, or never joined it, depending on how you slice the sequence of events, but she retains one or two privileges. She retains enough status for the penthouse system to dutifully inform her that the whole Wheel, Adam King included, has been beamed straight out of the Sol system. The evacuation procedure is already complete, which is why the sky has cleared of warnings and the penthouse is standing empty like the rest of the world.

Rachel is further informed that the Wheel Group burned through almost all of the energy in the Earth core cache to do this. Approximately zero point eight three percent per member, for maximum clarity and signal intensity in the nonlocal "radio" transmission. Magic still works, but the world is running on fumes now. Much, much more energy is coming down the downlink, of course, but by that point it'll be all too late. There is, perhaps, enough remaining mana on the whole planet to beam a single additional human being to safety, and there's no other way to get there-- the practical range of site-to-site teleportation using the Bridge is only a few thousand kilometres.

One person. Rachel spends a dangerous amount of time seriously contemplating this prospect. She could drop the Bridge where she's standing and send herself. That'd be easy. It would, in fact, be the simplest thing in the world.

She could send either of her children. Not both.

She could send her husband.

Rachel is in the penthouse dining room, with the bay window as big as a tennis court. She kicks it out, scattering plate glass into the East River, and looks up. It's November, and the city is overcast. The air is freezing and there is even a flake or two of snow, which come to rest on her hair. The star, Sirius, is up there somewhere, but all Rachel sees is the underside of thick grey cloud. The ship, she knows, is three light years away in that direction. That's closer than any star, but still a staggering distance to transmit a clear signal. And a human being represents a staggering amount of signal to transmit.

She asks the penthouse system, if all possible compression was used and all the margins of safety were entirely ignored, how many people she could really save. The penthouse replies, one.

The honest, honourable, heroic thing to do would be to pick a human being totally at random, from everybody saved inside the Bridge.

And after that one dangerous moment Rachel discards the entire option as a red herring. It's a waste of drama. She clearly needs more power.

Another step, and Rachel is ten hours east and forty degrees south, on a minuscule, unspoilt spit of white sand in the Maldives. This places her in broad daylight, almost directly underneath the adversary, looking straight up at the incoming energy.

She could intercept part of it. Just the tiniest, tiniest skimmed sliver would be more than she needs. She could rise up and meet the packet in space, build a makeshift soft receiver out of pure fields, a receiver which would probably overload and explode at the instant it met what was coming, and then she could leech what she needed from the detonation. Or she could teleport one of the eight receiver nodes right out of the Earth's core, repurpose it with advanced-level Wheel Group privilege escalation hackery, and execute an outright heist of the first subpacket. Six Sol-months of energy, in a steel boule the size of Monaco.

But the plans fizzle away. The Bridge would be disabled before any of that worked, Rachel knows, because Ra wants all of that energy. Ra would put her back on the ground, helpless. It would steal the stolen node back again, it would purée her medulla oblongata. It would plant fearful and uncertain thoughts in her head, making it so she wouldn't even want to try.

Because you can't fight Ra, can you? You can't fight God unless God wants you to. You can't even entertain the thought of it.

So it's plan C, which is close to impossible. Part of her is already laying the framework out and that's the bottom line: close to impossible.

Rachel accepts the estimate and dismisses the rest, compartmentalising the doubts and the intimidation. She will have abundant time to reflect on doing the near-impossible after it's done. The same goes for final words. It seems they've already been spoken.

After all that, it feels strange to be allowed to get away clean, to represent such a non-threat as to be ignorable. But all the client strictly asked for was a Matrioshka brain. Just one.

*

Laura wakes up with a start, in complete darkness, without any senses. She feels like a bare, numb thought centre, as if someone amputated her entire body.

"Mum?" she tries. She can't feel her jaw or tongue moving. She can't hear herself speaking. She can't breathe, and she can't feel the urgent pressure of needing to breathe either. She should be choking, or hyperventilating. Maybe she is, and can't tell. "Mum!"

She could be dead. She's died four times, that she knows of. Surely, sooner or later, that would qualify her to see what's on the other side? Except that afterlives are generally more inventive.

There's a blast of maniacal pink noise, loud enough that Laura knows it should be painful, but it isn't, it just redlines her hearing for a while and then cuts out. "There we go," she hears her mother say.

"What did you do?"

"Just relax."

"This feels horrible--"

"No," Rachel explains patiently. "It doesn't feel like anything at all. Listen to your absence of body, and think about it. And relax."

Laura gulps. Doesn't gulp. She feels like... nothing. "What happened?"

"I built a starship," Rachel says. "I uploaded the entire human race into the Bridge, and then built a starship out of magic. Right now, you're a disembodied mindstate connected to an old-fashioned speaking tube, and out here in reality it's just me. And the MacGuffin with all its radiation plating. And a metre-thick abrasion shield made of magic. In case of dust specks."

"We're in space?"

"That was about ninety days ago," Rachel continues. "And that's 'days' in inverted commas, it's just one undifferentiated SI second after the other out here. Stunningly beautiful, of course. Absolutely spectacular, nothing but fixed stars and mind-numbing vertigo in every direction."

"You built a starship," Laura repeats. "Not just a spaceship, a starship. Out of pure magic. And got it far enough out of Earth's gravity well to survive the demolition. In eleven minutes?"

Rachel assumes her daughter is speaking rhetorically, and says nothing. It's all true, though.

"Sneakernet," Laura says. "There wasn't enough bandwidth for a transmission, so you decided to carry the whole world to the next star. On foot."

Again, nothing. Rachel spins lazily in freefall, taking a long look at the brightest star ahead of her, then the Milky Way, then at the dull and still dimming orange spot directly behind.

Laura asks, "Where are we going?"

"Laura, listen."

"The same place as the Wheel Group, right? There must be something out there--"

"I spoke to Natalie," Rachel says.

"About what?"

"And I spoke to Nick as well."

"You don't even know Nick."

"Now I do. And Anil Devi, and Edward Hatt, and a long list of other people. I've had ample time. I have the full story."

Laura has a sinking feeling. She asks, softly, "What is this?"

"Ra lied to you," Rachel says. "Wearing Nick's face, a face which you loved and trusted, Ra took you into a lecture theatre and showed you on a blackboard that you were the most important person in the universe. Ra told you that world order was faulty, which is always true, and that the whole thing could be made perfect in a moment if you only did what he told you, which never is. And you bought it, wholesale. You let them turn you into a... a chess piece, because they promised you'd be one of the powerful ones.

"I understand everything else about you. The lust for space; the need to acquire enough power to clear the bar I set up for you and the need for me to be alive and watching while you did it; the semi-legitimate, semi-legitimising need to fix the world and put Wheel Group hypertechnology in the hands of 'the people'. None of it excuses you, Laura, I want you to understand this, you're guilty as hell and one day you're going to be made to answer for it. But: the hero story. How could you fall for it? The mythology, I mean. That one obvious, colossal lie."

Laura says nothing for a full, stunned minute.

"Because for fourteen years you raised Nat and me inside a colossal lie. You were the liar. You brought us up telling us 'This is the way the world works', and then one day you shrugged all of that off and rolled out wizardry from a whole, impossible, unseen Age of Magic. And then you killed yourself, leaving what behind? What was I supposed to do with my life after that? What was I supposed to believe?"

"I didn't have a choice."

"Yes! You did!"

"When someone is dying in front of you and you can save them, you have to save them," Rachel avers. "There is no decision-making process, because there is no decision."

"So you admit it. You weren't even thinking about what you were doing to us," Laura says.

"I'm saying that thinking about it would have wasted seconds that the astronauts couldn't afford. And after those seconds, I'd still have done it, because there's no justifying letting people die in front of you. I'm sorry. I said I was sorry. I would do it again."

"So would I," Laura says levelly. "All of it. It was worth it."

"So you believed the lie because you wanted to," Rachel surmises. "You wanted to believe you were special."

"I..." - Laura watches her language, then thinks again - "fucking am."

Rachel shuts her down.

*

There must be something out there.

Rachel floats in the centre of the ship, foetal. If she stretches out like Vitruvian Man, she can touch the inner edge of the shield with her fingers and toes. The spherical interior is coincidentally airtight, but she lost all the captured Earth air less than a week into the voyage, when her shield malfunctioned for the first time. Since then, she's been breathing vacuum. The Wheel Group medring replaces life support, including air, water, food, heat and all other bodily necessities.

The MacGuffin floats beside her, still wired into her mind. Nothing is lost. Only frozen. It can be brought back.

She has no propulsion. She used most of the available energy to get up to speed, piping it all into a hurriedly improvised disposable relativistic booster rocket, essentially a machine to turn mana into kinetic energy with significant embellishments to cope with the apocalyptic throughput, which saw her acceleration peaking at more than a hundred gees. By the time the first lasers were firing, she was so far from Earth that their odds of clipping her were negligible.

Magic, of course, is provided by secretive listener bugs still soaking Rachel's skin and clothes. Magic, the system, is not reliant on nodes, caches or direct energy delivery from Ra itself. Magic continues to function, providing indirect access to otherwise inaccessible nonlocality technology, for as long as there is energy to power the metaphor.

Rachel inspects the readout which tells her how long it's going to take her to reach Sirius. Since days and years don't exist anymore, it gives her a number of seconds. It is a number comfortably into eleven digits. Several centuries, but again, centuries don't exist anymore. She will spend most of the journey asleep, waking only for emergencies and decennial systems checks.

The javelin is far ahead of her and moving far faster. The colonists will have plenty of time to get comfortable. There will be something at Sirius by the time she gets there. Maybe. It'll be friendly, maybe. And if not, she can keep improvising.

 

The End

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Discussion (166)

2014-12-13 19:13:19 by qntm:

Thanks for reading.

2014-12-13 19:38:22 by Kazanir:

Oh, Laura. :(

Good work, Sam. We're all certainly looking forward to whatever you'll come up with next...

2014-12-13 19:47:25 by Benjamin Sutton:

Thanks for writing.

I won't lie, I still want a little more.

2014-12-13 19:56:34 by Justin:

I really enjoyed this story, and perhaps more than the story itself, I've enjoyed mulling over its ideas for the past few months. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

2014-12-13 19:57:07 by drh:

Oh boy, Christmas came early! I can't wait to read it on the bus this afternoon.

2014-12-13 19:57:49 by davidgro:

She's got the whole, world, in her hands.

2014-12-13 20:10:04 by alexanderwales:

A nice, fitting end. Thanks.

2014-12-13 20:24:39 by McKinney:

Love it! I still hate the virtuals, though. The Wheel Group gets its comeuppance, Laura gets a stern talking to, but the people whose fault this all is get away with everything!

2014-12-13 20:27:05 by Infinity:

Thank you for the incredible story - it's certainly been an exciting ride.

I hope you continue to publish fiction - regardless of its sub-genre.

As for Rachel - she now holds the hopes of an entire, almost completely fabricated society ahead to something uncertain - but at least it exists.

2014-12-13 21:13:53 by Blind Gardener:

Nice!

2014-12-13 21:50:25 by KimikoMuffin:

One thing that interests me is how geocide seems to kind of be your thing, Sam. I mean, it's not like it's surprising or anything, but another thing I find interesting is how many escape-routes you're able to envision as well, so that Earth's destruction is not synonymous with every human dying. Valuable Humans In Transit, the ending parts of Fine Structure, and now this.

This story definitely seems to be the record-holder for "most Earths destroyed at once in a single universe," though. ;)

A good read, all in all, and this is definitely a satisfactory ending.

2014-12-13 22:07:06 by Tyler:

I enjoyed this story a whole lot. I wonder if you had a hard time figuring out how many Rachel could save. I'm going to reread this in a few months and see if my perception of Laura changes. I find it hard to blame her for all the horrible stuff that happened.

2014-12-13 22:18:21 by Omegatron:

Sam, awesome story, awesome ending. Thank you for entertaining us for three years.

2014-12-13 22:30:51 by qntm:

I must extend, once again, unlimited thanks to my editors/proofreaders Custodian, BaronWR and Clockmaker.

Throughout this story they have been serving as walls off whom to bounce ideas, sanity checkers, and creative collaborative types. I must also credit all three of them for consistently, whenever I tried to fob off a difficult narrative decision, turning the decision back on me and saying "This is YOUR story", thereby preventing me from shirking responsibility for what has been, at least for the last four months, a nightmare.

2014-12-13 23:39:39 by MichaelSzegedy:

Congratulations on finally finishing it! It was a fun read.

2014-12-13 23:42:14 by Alex:

Fine Structure and Ra have followed me throughout my years at university- I remember sitting up for hours upon hours on end ploughing through every story on this website back in 2009, loving every second (alas, to the detriment of many an assignment). It feels a touch shocking to see that Ra's finally concluded- it's taken so long.

A strange, but altogether quite fitting ending. Not what I expected at all- but it's the closest thing to a happy ending that I could have ever imagined coming from this story, given how it's gone since the grand reveal. I can see why it would have been so difficult to wind up- I can think of far, far worse ways the story could have ended.

Great ending to a fantastic series. Bravo.

2014-12-13 23:45:09 by K:

... huh.

2014-12-14 00:10:32 by tuggyne:

Like McKinney, I find it really annoying that Virtuality so very thoroughly won their nigh-infinitely unjust war. I mean, OK, everyone survives (in some sense), and no one has to worry about any lasting consequences other than, oh, having to rebuild an entire working planetary ecosystem from scratch, so it's not quite the bad end, but it's pretty awfully close to it, and it makes all the buildup rather disappointing.

It probably doesn't help that the last few chapters kept oscillating more and more wildly between "Actual humanity is so totally trashed, because TWIST" and "Actual humanity can so totally win, because CLEVER" until it was impossible to really know anything of what to expect.

2014-12-14 00:11:04 by JudgeDeadd:

The writing is, as usual, stellar--heck, galactic--and this chapter has been a nice surprise to wake up to. Good ending.

2014-12-14 00:33:02 by Inglonias:

Not sure how I feel about that ending. Rachel comes back, saves the human race, and chews out her daughter? Where did this colony ship going to Sirius come from? Yeah, I can accept that it exists, but even so, it feels...

This ending feels... I dunno. It makes me uncomfortable. I don't suppose that's really much of a bad thing, is it? Stories can make you feel uncomfortable.

My biggest question is why you did what you did with Laura. Why make her the villain like that? A computer as powerful as Ra can convince anyone of anything it wants.

I'm going to need some time to think about the story. You did a good job, don't get me wrong. Just not sure if I like it.

2014-12-14 00:51:04 by K:

Here are my thoughts about Laura-as-villain:

We, the readers, were willing to believe everything about maya because while it *does* sound like a crazy conspiracy theory, crazy conspiracy theories totally happen in stories and there's no real downside in believing it save for the fact that it looks silly. Laura, on the other hand, doesn't live in a story (well, you know what I mean) and so she should've been much more skeptical, especially given that a 'do what I mean' field *doesn't actually make sense* because it implies that the universe is capable of parsing human thought or something. She should've known better, she should've been more willing to believe Nat, she should've known to abort as soon as she saw 'Tanako' while they were plotting. And at the end of that, to justify all her actions by saying she's 'fucking special' is utter hubris. It's... protagonism.

The one thing that I didn't like was that Ed Hatt seemed kind of, well, irrelevant. I was expecting him to be important somehow and, if not save the day, at least make it less terrible, but he just got relegated to the sideline. We got multiple chapters from his perspective, so I figured he must wind up doing something important, though I guess that ties back into the whole 'protagonism' thing.

Overall, though, a great story. :)

2014-12-14 00:58:50 by JJJS:

Well, that was... an ending.

It's clear from Sam's recent comments, both here and on Twitter, that he was no longer enjoying writing Ra (in no small part because of the recent influx of commenters), and this ending reads as if someone else read the story and finished it in the easiest, most obvious way possible. Ra was better off unfinished.

2014-12-14 01:08:43 by IanO:

Thanks for the story! I hope there will be a Response section like there was for fine structure.

2014-12-14 01:16:14 by Zim the Fox:

So! First and foremost, congratulations on finishing this story! And thank you very much for working on it and providing me with many days worth of entertainment. It was a marvelous and imaginative journey and I have had a lot of fun speculating about the story and magic.

I must say I am disappointed at Rachel's reasoning, though, and I feel she was unnecessarily harsh with Laura.

I understand that Rachel acted on instinct when she tried to save the astronauts, pushing away any thoughts without that goal in mind away. But she goes as far as to say that there is no justification for not saving someone when you are present for their soon to be death. I think that requirement that you must be present is completely arbitrary and unsupportable. If you think that it is a moral imperative that you save people that are going to die when you are present, consequences be screwed, how can you excuse not saving people just because you aren't present? How can Rachel excuse not saving millions of people with her god-like powers just because they didn't die in front of her?

And when your mum uses her seemingly impossible powers to set up a plan to rescue her and other people from an secret magical archive, it IS hard to not believe yourself to be especial and part of some huge conspiracy.

But anyway. Amazing, fantastic story. I want to read it again soon. I loved every step of the way and I am excited to read whatever you write next, Sam!

2014-12-14 01:19:19 by slucidi:

Thanks, Sam, for the many hours of enjoyment I got from reading Ra over the last few years.

2014-12-14 01:23:34 by fhtagn:

Thank you for all this, Sam.

2014-12-14 01:30:14 by webmaren:

Worth the wait. Thanks for all the wonderful words of this story, and those before.

Now, you better take one hell of a holiday. No excuses.

2014-12-14 01:50:30 by John:

Wow. I've been reading Ra since the start, in real time. I went to Iceland a couple months after Rachel & Co. did. Didn't see anything interesting in the chi band when I was there.

This was an amazing ending, and well worth the wait. Completely different than anything I was expecting. Watching Adam and the Wheel Group get their comeuppance was transcendent. Watching Laura get scolded by her mother, somewhat less so. While I agree with Rachel's points made, I have some sympathies with Laura's side of the argument regardless. But that's family arguments for you, sometimes everybody's both right and wrong.

I suspect that in the fullness of time, Canned Humanity will probably find a warmer welcome at Sirius than the Wheel Group did. Good luck to them, and may they earn their happy ending.

2014-12-14 02:02:46 by Lumen:

This story demands an epilogue in the distant future, when everybody wakes up on the colony and makes a personal choice between being real or virtual. And then in the farther future still, where actual humanity contacts the virtual humanity that left them behind and tried to kill them, and some form of reconcilliation happens. The parts of the story that matter aren't over.

2014-12-14 02:23:39 by Adam:

Rachel set a lot of trouble in motion when she enacted her vague plan to save the space shuttle. She didn't really understand what would happen as a result. But she considers it justified because she did it to save people's lives, and in the end, she succeeded.
<br/>
Laura set a lot of trouble in motion when she enacted her vague plan to save all people on earth. She didn't really understand what would happen as a result. But she considers it justified because she did it to save people's lives, and in the end, she succeeded.
<br/>
What's fascinating to me is that each considers the other at least somewhat crazy, and fails to understand why the other doesn't support their own actions.

2014-12-14 02:38:22 by Labrynian Rebel:

Ra is finally finished, the end of an epoch. Thank you for taking us on this amazing journey. I started following this site all the way back in the early Fine Structure days and there is nothing like your writing. You combine a compelling story where the entire internet is experiencing the story together and over-thinking is encouraged. In fact there is so much to think about and process even without over-thinking it, and I think that's the beauty in it.

2014-12-14 05:28:59 by scratskinner:

@ McKinney, tuggyne:

I wouldn't be too sure about that. To mangle a metaphor, the genie may have let Virtuality out of the bottle, but it ain't granting any wishes for them anymore. Only those with the key could give Ra orders, and the key has been destroyed. (Unless I missed the Glass Man going "oh, and take orders from Virtuality" somewhere.) And unless I've misread the whole Virtual philosophy, they were fairly dependent on wish fulfillment. Depending on how much they needed Ra to enable their fantasies, it could very well be that they won the war, but their way of life lost it.

2014-12-14 05:29:44 by David Mitchell:

British or US decillion?

2014-12-14 06:09:34 by XononoX:

Sam, you're brilliant. Despite God himself trying to kill everyone, humanity survives, and finally leaves its cradle.

Thank you so much for devoting your time to this incredible story. I have drawn so much enjoyment from the series over the past few years.

2014-12-14 07:02:34 by LNR:

tl;dr - "Bad guys win. Good guys get frozen forever. Here's a few pages about some strangers you never met before."

2014-12-14 07:22:57 by blastron:

So, all of the characters we've followed throughout the entire story had basically nothing to do with the ending. Rachel pops back out of Tanako's world, stumbles a little bit, then solves all of the problems in the most unsatisfyingly utilitarian way by just packing everyone up and taking a slow boat out. Nobody has learned or gained anything substantial; this truly was just a story of a brief intermission in the last Virtual/Actual war.

I'm not going to deny that this is basically the only logical conclusion: the existence of a refugee ship fleeing the Solar System is the smallest possible ass-pull I can think of that would allow anything close to something someone might call a "victory". I am disappointed, however, that a story that started out as an exploration of a modern world with scientific magic (and the conspiracies behind it) rather abruptly turned into a war story about a rampant god-AI, and was then led down a path to which this ending was the only logical conclusion.

2014-12-14 07:28:02 by Daniel H:

@David Mitchell
US decillion. There are three ways to tell: based on the mass of the Sun, based on the description of its effects, and based on the first subpacket.

The sun has a mass of about 2×10³⁰ kg, which has an equivalent energy of about 2×10⁴⁷ joules. That’s much less than a British decillion, but much more than 46 US decillion.

The first subpacket is 6 months of Sol energy. According to Wikipedia, the Sun generates energy at a rate of 384.6 yotta watts. Multiplying this by six months gives about 6×10³³ joules. Thus there are either about seven subpackets, or about 10⁶⁰/10³³ = 10²⁷ subpackets. The second would require Ra existing for a similar number of six-month periods, which it has not.

The whole packet is described as “distort[ing] spacetime as it travels” and “measurably increas[ing the Earth’s] mass and widen[ing its] orbit”. This leads to asking what the mass equivalent is. For 46 US decillion, this is about 5×10¹⁷ kg, about one one-hundred-thousandth the mass of the Earth; for a British decillion, this is about 5×10⁴⁴ kg, many orders of magnitude more than the mass of the Sun. One one-hundred-thousandth might sound small, but it’s still measurable. It also would distort spacetime to a noticeable degree; from six kilometers away it would have gravity about one-tenth as strong Earth’s surface gravity.

I like how everything described does in fact occur for 46 US decillion. I would expect that kind of attention to detail from Sam, but it’s still nice to see.

2014-12-14 07:47:33 by AndrewG:

Excellent wind-down. I feel like one of the good marks of the classic sci-fi stories is both their willingness to bore ahead and to end however it needs to. Like a few others, I feel uncomfortable with how it all resolves, and I think that's great. There's quite a lot to like about this resolution, and that's certainly enough.

Ra is an excellent story, and I'm thrilled you've let us read it the last few years!

2014-12-14 08:01:24 by Auroch:

Add my voice to those disappointed. Feels like you phoned it in and ended in a totally different spirit than what made me like the story before.

Would have much preferred you wait until writing the end excited you again, even if that meant a year or two without touching it.

2014-12-14 08:48:28 by Kazanir:

Contra several of the commenters, I feel like the ending was very true to the story , i.e. Sam didn't pull an unfair victory out of his ass for the protagonists. In addition I thought it was very true to the themes of the story. Ra deals extensively with human pride, moral choices and motivations, fallibility, and the consequences those things can have when technology grants humans such immense control over the natural world.

2014-12-14 10:20:25 by Toadworld:

Thank you, Sam. Time and again, we saw them lose a battle and victory become more and more distant until it was impossible. You didn't pull a rabbit out of the bag - you kept your story truthful to the end. A comment above has said the comments here have been a source of stress - I am sorry if I have contributed to that.

2014-12-14 10:40:26 by LNR:

Kazanir: According to this ending, the consequences of "pride, moral choices and motivations, and fallibility" are... not much. Because a godlike infallible monster is gonna show up and destroy the world regardless of anything anybody does.

2014-12-14 11:00:23 by kabu:

Wow. Wow.

This ending works. We already knew that only ~half the survivors of Abstract War became the Wheel Group, so if the existence of a colony ship is a deus ex machina, it's a tiny, tiny one that makes a lot of sense. Thematically, this ending appeals to me -- sometimes, you can't pull everything out of the fire, and your nigh-omnipotent God-AI can't be defeated by, say, The Power of Love to name a cliché at random.

Basically, the bleak ending, the "we survived, but only barely, and lost the Earth" is a fitting way to conclude a story that was about one arrogant decision going wrong after another. Pulling a traditional happy ending out of that would have felt out of place. This isn't a happy ending, and there is plenty left unsaid, but I think that's great.

Sam, thank you. Thank you for sticking with a project that turned intro an ordeal, which is more than we ever could have asked for. Thank you for I-don't-even-know-how-many years of quality fiction, words that have made me laugh and and freak out in equal measure. I've managed to get a bunch of my friends reading Ra, and they are going to be incredibly excited to see this chapter. I think I first visited Things of Interest when somebody linked me to the Geocide pages, and have been reading your fiction since before Fine Structure was Fine Structure, and I have to say -- it's just gotten better over time.

You rock, and have been a hell of an inspiration for me. I would hardly blame you if you took a long break from fiction, but I hope to read more of your stuff some day.

2014-12-14 11:00:55 by P:

Nice one Sam,
this is probably the best possible way it was going to end for them considering the circumstances.

2014-12-14 11:09:56 by ahd:

...sigh. at least it's over, and there is plenty of adjacent noosphere left for the fanfic authors.

good luck with your next story.

2014-12-14 11:10:26 by ixuv:

After checking this site almost every day for 3 years, I can't believe Ra has finally finished. Amazing work Sam, we all truly appreciate the time you've put into it.

2014-12-14 12:47:46 by meesh:

Alright, so as much as the ending was cut short and somehow anticlimactic, I actually like it, it makes sense - because really, how do you stop a god? I suppose the only thing I'm missing here are some word-of-god explanations, just to fill in the blanks that I hoped would at least in some part be answered here. One such blank is: what were those "ghouls"? Are they the Virtuals, who lived at an increased speed in their simulations, and evolved beyond mere human looks? Or are they simply "horrors", devised by Ra to scare and disgust regular people? There are of course other questions, but this one has been bugging me for ages.

2014-12-14 13:10:49 by jonas:

I don't understand this. All the Virtuals want is more and more computing power, and their god helps them in this goal so much that he actually builds a superstructure around the Sun to gain all its energy. In that case, why would anyone be safe on Sirus? I would expect that Ra would soon reach them there as well, to harness the energy of more suns.

On the other hand, about the Actuals. If they are now so dependent on magic that they will terraform a planet with it, what makes them really different from the Virtuals?

2014-12-14 14:48:03 by Gigalith:

Add me to "Uncomfortable, but this is the right ending."

Note that Ra is never described with weaknesses. The victory by the Actuals in the Abstract War is only by taking Ra from the Virtuals, not someone beating Ra in a straight-on nonlocality fight. Thus, for the story to remain consistent (which is the most important thing for a SF story to be SF), Ra must not lose to any weakness, as it has none.

True, it sounds like the Bad Guys won, and in a sense, they did. But did they really? As noted in comments earlier, the Virtuals responsible for the war may have been gone long by the time the Triton took Ra. The Glass Man is dead. The key to Ra (which we may agree was the only one left) is gone. So what good is Ra to the Virtuals left (again, who are likely not the specific responsible for the war), as they can no longer control it? Actual humanity can build and control their own Sirius-Ra, and then if they really want they can go back and retake Sol--although what exactly that would do for anyone is doubtful.

(I suppose the Virtuals could create a Triton and try to control Ra that way, but I can't see that as a good idea for all the other Virtuals who are not in control of the Triton when they enter. "Hey guys, let's send a selection of us to gain absolute power so they can give it back to us with no gain except that they'll feel good about it. THIS IS A PERFECT PLAN!")

As for myself, I do not believe that copies of myself are myself, or that copies could be made, mind uploading is possible, or even in the possibility Strong AI. Thus, this is all fantasy to me. It's still not a comforting ending, but again, it's the only one that could work given the constraints of the story.

Actually, it's not even all that odd for SF stories, let alone stories in general. See: the Wreck of the River of Stars. It's a tragedy, and the River of Stars is wrecked in the end (I know, SPOILERS!) If this story had been called: Ra, a tragedy of arrogant people killing lots of other people and/or trying to save them, I don't think anyone would feel this was out of place. As it is, it's a surprise, but it is what it is.

</apologia>

2014-12-14 15:05:35 by Gigalith:

Also, a word of thanks/admiration to our host.

I haven't finished very many works of fiction, and never any serial works (the very idea pains my perfectionism.) You've done two (three? four?), and done it well. Congratulations, and thank you.

2014-12-14 15:31:17 by Roxie:

The beginning of Ra felt like a tantalizing puzzle. The middle felt like an epic sci-fi adventure. The whole thing was shaping up to be a masterwork. Then the end feels like the creator got bored, didn't feel like finishing, and wrote down the first thing he thought of.

This was like listening to the London Symphony Orchestra play a full symphony, as every instrument builds to a roaring crescendo, and then suddenly cut the whole thing off with the sad trombone noise from an old cartoon.

But take heart! You could be another Neal Stephenson! He's another author who writes awesome books and then tacks on crap endings. He makes a great living doing that.

2014-12-14 15:57:51 by Black Noise:

Been following this for a while. Great story overall, even if the scope kind of escalated. I'll be looking forward to whatever new thing you pick up.

Now comments: Rachel really does operate like someone who led a posthuman survival battle against a god AI. Which was apperant from when she pushed metal spikes from her frontal lobe to send thoughts to the tool.

Laura... I don't know how much responsibility I'd assign her. Ra did kind of have access to her for a long time and AI's with access to virtual sims of you can be persuasive no matter how well intentioned you are.

I'd really love to see those conversations she had with Nat, Anil and Hatt. I'd also read a sequel/spinoff centering on either of those.

Several questions:
Ash's Ark, how much energy did she pack to go? Specifically wonder if it's enough to decelerate on arrival or if she's counting on civilisation or some long range gas harvesting for fusion or something.

I'm guessing nonlocality allows some sort of workaround on the whole entropy/heat death thing. Otherwise I can't imagine why virtually haven't gone full Neumann on the galaxy and universe at large.

That's about it. Thanks for the amazing read.

2014-12-14 17:08:01 by qntm:

> I am disappointed, however, that a story that started out as an exploration of a modern world with scientific magic (and the conspiracies behind it) rather abruptly turned into a war story about a rampant god-AI, and was then led down a path to which this ending was the only logical conclusion.

So am I, actually. Originally this was supposed to be a story in which (1) humans had radically advanced genie hypertechnology, which (2) turned out to be apocalyptically dangerous, so (3) we built magic as a safe abstraction layer on top of it. The main conflict in the story would arise because someone peeled off that abstraction layer and got back to the hypertechnology, causing all kinds of havoc until eventually we (i.e., Laura) scrapped both magic AND hypertechnology.

But justifying/explaining (1) and (2) in the text was much harder than expected, and swamped the rest of the story in follow-up questions. If we have a gigantic computer inside the Sun, then why don't we also have all kinds of spaceships and colonies and stuff? How come it's still 2000 AD? How can insanely advanced hypertechnology function perfectly for a while and then suddenly go wrong? "Sabotage" is a reasonable answer, but then by who? As a result I ended up with four (!!) chapters of Abstract War, and Actuals and Virtuals, and Ra not even being the real enemy anymore despite the title of the story, and a demolished worldring, and incredibly inconvenient questions about extrasolar colonies... It just snowballed.

2014-12-14 18:04:06 by Sydney:

I liked Ra's own version of the story better. Some cave people discovered maya, formed the Wheel Group, and bottled maya up. The bottle kept leaking, so in 1970 they wrote in magic as a pressure valve.

Rachel, who was never very philosophically advanced ("you only have to prevent deaths happening before your eyes, but you absolutely have to prevent those"), gave Laura a glimpse she was never meant to have. Laura's quest for power, for recognition, and to get Rachel back set her on a path to unseat the Wheel Group. She gets radicalized, lets the genie out, gets a brutal lesson about protagonism, and rips maya out of the universe.

Bit simplistic, but I thought naturally-occurring maya was a more promising narrative mechanic than nonlocality supertech.

2014-12-14 20:54:56 by Nathan:

Rachel is a scary, scary character. Controlling to the last degree. Also, kind of dumb. Everyone knows that launching humans into space on rockets is dangerous. So given here ethical beliefs, she was looking at a few percent of risk that she'd have to mount a rescue, and yet she put herself into the situation of having to do so in the most dramatic, secret-blowing way possible.

Her ethical beliefs are dumb too - death is so bad that it justifies blowing the charade on which the whole world is built, but let's just allow people to die and rot as a normal part of their existence? I'd go easier on her for that, though, as it doesn't strike me as something she has the capacity to change in herself.

2014-12-14 21:13:04 by FKK:

Well done for avoiding a nice comfortable ending by which victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. There really was no way out for Earth-1.

It was a difficult and complicated set of characters, and you managed to find "ending" (if not "resolution") anyway.

2014-12-14 21:54:26 by TheCustodian:

Sam- a zillion thanks for writing Ra. A zillion more for the honor of allowing me a few centimeters further into it than others for the purpose of feedback. I know what you went through - even without your readership, notice that I've really not finished many of my own serial fiction efforts. You have finished the last two, emphatically (last three, really, but Ed was looser). WINNING.

2014-12-14 21:56:37 by Kazanir:

> According to this ending, the consequences of "pride, moral choices and motivations, and fallibility" are... not much. Because a godlike infallible monster is gonna show up and destroy the world regardless of anything anybody does.

I really don't understand this reasoning. Ra was created by humans. It was usurped by humans. Control was wrested back by humans, who proceeded through a series of arrogant blunders and missteps to lose that control back to other humans.

So yes, the godlike infallible monster is the consequence of human actions. But the results were anything but inevitable.

Sam has done an exceptional job at portraying how humans handle power, and how pride and other issues lead them to make excuses, try to avoid consequences, and believe falsehoods instead of dealing with their responsibilities in a serious way. This happens at the scale of a sci-fi epic or creation myth, but it is some of the best writing in the story and makes Ra ring very true to me.

2014-12-14 22:56:54 by Zim the Fox:

Hey, not trying to be critical, but was it ever explained how Nobody never found the key in the archive until our protagonists found it for him? I never quite got that.

2014-12-15 00:15:13 by Curiouser:

First and foremost, thank you Sam for writing this story, it was a gloriously enjoyable ride.

I for one am not really upset with most of it, and I like the fact that it snowballed into what it became. It might have started as a "magic as engineering" and turned into something else. But like a true engineer, you looked for the most reliable, reasonable, and practical ways to making "magic" work. Limited by constraints of logic, which most magical stories tend to ignore quite often, you found interesting and creative ways to solve the different questions which arose from your idea.

At the end, like many have said before, this was as much a victory as could have happened because of said constraints.

You said much earlier in the story, when someone(ahem, me) was making a stab at some similarities between Ra and Fine Structure, that what they have in common is that they are both about humanity having to fight against a larger power if we want to grow and achieve our full potential. In fine structure, humanity eventually won(if I remember correctly). In Ra, we found that sometimes it is not so easy. This is acceptable for me, BECAUSE it was a story which directed you, rather than the other way around. It seemed like it wasn't aimed for a good nor tragic ending, but just aimed at answering the questions which arose from the story(while keeping it fun and compelling of course), so it's natural that you came up with something like that. I for one liked it (including the Laura scolding. She was an arrogant prick who more or less single handedly enabled the destruction of earth. Did she have deep psychological issues? Yeah, so do I, I didn't kill anyone. Yet.)

Looking forward to whatever you come up with next, perhaps some more short stories?
Also, hoping to see this story published, I do think it deserves it.

2014-12-15 00:33:37 by Kazanir:

@Zim: I think the idea is that King foolishly kept an unsanitized recording of the Triton mission, wherein the remade Ra key (which Rachel had thrown away) was present or at least reconstructible. Only King and Rachel knew that recording's location or how to locate it -- resurrecting Rachel gave the Glass Man access to her mind -> unsanitized recording -> Ra key. Once the key was brought out of Rachel's mind / that recording, it existed in reality and thus, suddenly, in Tanako's World.

Presumably the attack on the Floor using Abstract Weapon was an attempt along the same lines -- to take enough control of the Wheel's systems to find the key or capture/possess King outright.

2014-12-15 03:08:01 by Calfbreaker:

@Gigalith: Strange how the title of a story can change perception. I for one agree that if this story had been called "The Ra Failure" or something similar -- vague enough that it doesn't give away plot detail but establishes a tone -- this ending would have been stellar, and I would have realized, "Oh! The failure was Ra, the system proposed to bring peace between Virtuals and Actuals, not doing so. Or the failure was the fight against Ra, or or or... It took a long time to get there but now I understand."

Maybe it was following overconfident characters for too long, but over the course of the work it seemed to me that time and time again mind-bogglingly difficult tasks were possible. Logically this ending makes perfect sense, but emotionally it comes out of nowhere, especially because the last chapters became a repetitive switch between "the main characters are doomed" and "they have a backup plan and it works," training us readers to believe despite their fuck-ups the Fernos and/or crew will find a clever way to fix it all.

2014-12-15 03:10:37 by Calfbreaker:

Nevertheless, top job Sam. Very much enjoyed reading. If you don't want to do a serial again, I'm sure everyone would be down for one-off stories. Whatever you write next I'll be here!

2014-12-15 06:32:17 by MichaelSzegedy:

Minor quibble: adding mass to the Earth without adding kinetic energy to it should narrow its orbit/lower its perihelion, not push it into a wider/higher orbit, as its orbital speed decreases.

2014-12-15 10:00:45 by Ian:

Thanks for writing this, Sam.

2014-12-15 10:35:19 by Gavin:

Fantastic work, Sam. Thank you so much for finishing it, I really needed closure :-D

2014-12-15 12:15:59 by SparkX120:

Thank you for an amazing story. I started reading your work over the summer thanks to the recommendation of a friend. Ra and Fine Structure are really incredible.

Thanks again and I will definitely be reading any new works in the future!

2014-12-15 13:37:52 by Dominik:

So, that happened. Most things actually make sense now, but I still have a question:

In the end, we see how a ridiculously advanced AI would go about turning all available matter into computronium. Every second matters, because it gives so many subjective eons to virtual beings, so it is fast, brutal and thorough.

In abstract war, Ra also began by cutting most things into pieces. Then it slowly poisoned Devi, leaving Natalie mostly alone. Then it created nightmare-ish creatures on that earth to attack them, and they failed. What gives?

At the time, I just thought it had gone insane, which was also seemingly foreshadowed by the way you described its change in opinion, with every node coming to the same conclusion independently and its insistence that "this is about freedom".

This does not look like the virtuals hacking its utility function and telling it to make a matrioshka brain.

2014-12-15 14:16:37 by Roxie:

> It just snowballed.

This is one of the biggest reasons nonserial fiction usually works better.

If you had been writing a traditional novel, and you found yourself painted into a corner like this one, you could have gone back and fixed prior chapters. You could have changed prior decisions. You could have set the whole thing aside for a few more months (or years) and come back to it with fresh eyes and renewed inspiration for that rewrite.

When you're posting each part as soon as it's finished, you wind up stuck with your choices.

2014-12-15 16:50:24 by quilly:

Thanks so much for writing this, Sam. It's been an incredible ride! I'm sorry this ended up so tough for you, and I'm glad that you're out from under it now.

I'm looking forward to any supplemental materials that might be coming our way, or your next project! But definitely take a victory lap, because you've earned it.

2014-12-15 16:51:25 by Huinesoron:

I've been reading (on and off) since the beginning of 'Ra', and I have three things to say:

1/ I didn't see that coming.

2/ Regardless, the fact that Actual Humanity loses was the only possible outcome. It's just that the increasing levels of clever plans in the last few chapters made us hope that there was Another Option. And, actually, there was - Rachel's solution. Actual Humanity didn't DIE, which was the real victory. But still, it was an... unsettling ending, I think is the word I'm looking for.

3/ An absolutely huge thank you for writing this, and for 'Fine Structure' before it. It's absolutely brilliant stuff.

2014-12-15 17:04:15 by axus:

I guess the happy ending is that the Virtuals did not try to claim the whole universe. "But all the client strictly asked for was a Matrioshka brain. Just one." And more requests won't be made on their behalf, since Rachel killed that guy, right?

Rachel DID try to save everyone who was about to die. Good for her! While she may have lost the Earth, she did keep her humanity.

2014-12-15 17:04:29 by Bauglir:

Thanks for writing. It seems like the story got away from you, and it's wound up not being what you wanted out of it. Still, I like it - the subversion of the usual hero narrative was a pretty meaningful chunk of writing. Given the corner you'd got backed into and the stress of keeping up with this thing, I pretty well understand why Rachel had to be the one to close up the story out of nowhere.

Again, thanks for writing. I'm glad it's over and done with, so you don't have to keep agonizing over it.

2014-12-15 18:02:46 by MadcapPomposity:

I agree that Rachel was a little too harsh with Laura, but since when did Rachel's opinions reflect the absolute word-of-God truth about the story and the setting? There are two sides to every argument; an observer is under no obligation to accept one or the other without interpolating, and the participants usually lack the perspective to do so. As such, a painless reconciliation would have been more unrealistic. Rachel heard Laura explain her part in kicking off the events of the story, but she breezed right past any possible analogy between her actions in saving the astronauts and Laura's actions in attempting to save the world, because they're juuuust different enough to rationalize as being nothing at all alike.

Further, the fact that Virtual Humanity conquers the solar system and gets away with it is also disappointing in the moral sense, but satisfying in the logical sense. After all, if the Bible is to be believed, the Isrealites committed genocide across a large swath of the Middle East, and eventually their belief system (in one form or another) rose to world prominence. Mao and Stalin and Kim Jong Il and Genghis Khan and too many others to name all created nations and even empires lasting at least longer than their own lifespans. Might often triumphs over right; the victory here was in preserving Actual Humanity the second time around.

(And anyone who's still disappointed in the ending can wait for a rewrite, and in the interim take comfort in the fact that they didn't actually spend any money on their hours and hours and hours of entertainment.)

2014-12-15 18:03:04 by Mike:

Thank you! For finishing the story, starting it, and nurturing it for every update in between. I've enjoyed this one a LOT, and this feels like a good and fitting ending. Nicely done.

2014-12-15 23:43:38 by Greel Lh:

Uhmm, did not Virtual Humanity hack the Key once? Unless I'm mistaken, it was just the key, not the unlocking mechanism and keyhole that was destroyed. What keeps them from doing it again, then expanding ad infinitem?

2014-12-16 02:32:50 by Labrynian Rebel:

>Uhmm, did not Virtual Humanity hack the Key once? Unless I'm mistaken, it was just the key, not the unlocking mechanism and keyhole that was destroyed. What keeps them from doing it again, then expanding ad infinitem?

Far in the future I hope Sam write "Ra 2.0" :P

2014-12-16 06:52:45 by Creaphis:

I've been checking this site obsessively for months, but I knew it'd pay off. Amazing work. I'm deeply impressed by how you can take a premise like "what if Harry Potter magic was real" and expand it into a logical yet mind-bending universe. Then you populate that universe with people with all their hopes and flaws, and spin up some great action and intrigue. Every sequence is just so <i>clever</i>. Every problem is solved is a clever way, and then the antagonist does something just as clever and keeps that can of worms open. You never rely on stupidity to further a plot, and I appreciate that greatly.

The somewhat subverted mother/daughter heart-to-heart was a beautiful conclusion. Ultimately, this is a story about a daughter trying to surpass the legacy of her mother, kind of succeeding, and kind of not! You can boil everything else away (which is why I'm not going to get obsessive over the fine scientific details) and it's still a real story about real human stuff.

And to think, I wouldn't even know about this site if clicking the "random" button on tvtropes.org hadn't led me to "Fine Structure." Thank you, random number generator.

2014-12-16 13:24:02 by Lumen:

It's a shame we never figured out who the Glass Man was.

(It was Thomas Muoka, wasn't it?)

2014-12-16 14:58:27 by Almost Honest:

Sam, thank you for writing this - this was brilliant. "Science fiction is the only true mind expanding drug" - and you brew it up perfectly. I actually only found Ra about two weeks ago, so for me you wrote the ending bang on time. ;-) I'll read it again - and if you ever eBook it, I'll buy. Thank you again.

2014-12-16 16:09:07 by Curiouser:

Now that this is all over, there is one thing that I was curious if anyone else felt.
Namely, when Laura went to school, I was deeply worried that "oh no, Sam can't be writing a Harry Potter ripoff". Fortunately, he really can't be :P

2014-12-16 17:14:52 by qntm:

I know almost nothing about Harry Potter, never having read the books. I saw all the films, but only once each in quick succession, so they're a bit of a blur. One scene stood out to me, though: in the first film, they have a huge magical banquet where they produce dinner for everybody out of thin air, using magic.

That scene is also in Ra.

2014-12-17 05:23:55 by Labrynian Rebel:

I don't think this made it into the movie versions, but in the 4th Harry Potter book it's revealed that the "magic food" is actually made in kitchens and is just teleported. There's a small army of "house elves" that are pretty much forced to serve wizards for so long that they like it. Hermione then tries to start an organization to "liberate" them but no one really cares because "most house elves like being servants"

2014-12-17 18:00:57 by theTrueMikeBrown:

Thanks Sam for writing this. My wife and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I like that the solution was a truck full of hard-drives.

I am still a little bit sad that The Self-Reliant Heroine was not incorporated into cannon (a person that trained by living multiple lifetimes training themselves in a virtuality would have been fun), but there are always too many cool ideas to fit into one story.

2014-12-17 22:03:31 by atomicthumbs:

it seems that in the end, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

a good damn story.

2014-12-17 22:39:52 by Zim the Fox:

So, Sam, if you don't mind me asking, do you want to share something about what you plan to write next? Or are you taking a well-deserved vacation after finishing Ra?

2014-12-18 00:02:55 by qntm:

I am taking a break to do several things that aren't writing long serial fiction. I am reading a large stack of books, doing some programming projects and probably writing some more essay-like blog entries. After that some shorter stories might be coming down the line. I have a reasonable stack of prompts mounting up now.

At the moment I do not intend to write another years-long serial like Ra. This format is problematic for me, the investment of time is too great and the inability to backtrack and edit causes me to work incredibly cautiously (i.e. slowly), still with sub-optimal results.

2014-12-18 01:51:16 by JS:

A fantastic story, even if the ending was a bit unsatisfying (I really expected Rachel to pull a rabbit out of her hat, or Laura to redeem herself by actually moving the world). I hoped Natalie would appear too, because she's awesome. Great characterization all around, really. The way you bring the reader into the characters' heads reminds me of Terry Pratchett. Well done.

I have just one lingering question. What ever happened to Scott F. Parajsa?

2014-12-18 02:37:18 by Dieff:

I read all of this story up until this chapter about 6 days ago, so the ending had perfect timing. It was amazing.

I noticed that many people have been criticizing Rachel for bad philosophy, risking everything to stop the death of the astronauts. I sort of though this didn't reflect on Rachel herself but on the world the Actuals had created. Before Abstract War, it was implied that anyone who died would simply be restored from a Ra backup. One of the characters even explains the elaborate systems that were in place to prevent anyone from ever falling through the cracks.

Maybe in this society people had forgotten how to cope with death. Rachel never had to face the prospect of anyone actually dying, so when death actually occurred after Ra destroyed Neptune, it was too much for her. This completely explains why she tried to save the shuttle, she couldn't handle facing death again.

2014-12-18 04:58:13 by anonymouse:

I have to say, I like the ending, and the "unsatisfying" nature of it. Sometimes, humans just don't triumph over adversity, sometimes they just barely scrape by and survive it. This is one of those stories, which seems somewhat atypical for scifi, and that's part of why I like it. I also like the moral: when you keep data "just in case", sometimes that can come back to bite you in a big way that you never expected. Some things are better off forgotten. Which is a very relevant lesson now that we're aware of how companies and spy agencies are recording our every move.

2014-12-18 05:31:35 by Trevor:

I enjoyed Ra so much in the early chapters. I wish that the story hadn't ended up as a tragedy though. Laura was... tragic. Thank you, Sam, for putting so much into the story.

2014-12-18 07:13:50 by Whoever:

Well, that was anticlimactic. I don't care if it was the realistic ending, it was a profoundly dissappointing one. I guess I should have seen it when the Virtuals stepped into the picture, but this was a bad AI war story disguised as a good scientific magic story.

The ending just feels like it was written by a person who really, really hated this story and all its readers.

2014-12-18 09:12:04 by Alan:

I liked the ending. Some events end like that, more of a whimper than a bang. It is a bit uncomfortable, but good fiction should be.

I appreciate the untied ends, the unfinished threads. Like Thomas Muoka, in Fine Structure. It gives a reader something to think about. Something they will never quite know, and thats kinda how real life is. We will all lose track of someone and never know what happens to them.

Thanks for writing Sam.

2014-12-18 16:30:20 by Ian:

Sam, would you consider writing non-serial fiction?

2014-12-20 11:55:54 by Brett Bellmore:

I guess Roxie is right, the "no going back" nature of this medium explains why the story has the feel of a round-robin story written on a Saturday night at the college bar.

For my part, I wonder how you get to building something like Ra without first colonizing the entire galaxy by means of rather less magical technology. I can see the Solar system reconstructed to hide evidence of past civilization, but did Ra also surround the Earth in a bubble that kept telescopes from spotting all the evidence of an inhabited universe?

2014-12-22 02:03:58 by K:

FWIW Sam, I enjoy your shorter fiction and your non-fiction posts just as much as your longer serials, and I'm always happy to see a new entry from you pop up in my RSS feed. Thanks for writing. :)

2014-12-22 12:24:12 by ahd:

@brett - i would presume that the 90+ wars between Virtual and Actual humanity made it so that no-one dared divert enough resources to colonise - it would involve turning your back on The Enemy, and/or letting The Enemy outcompete you on the home front.

a more interesting question (or it would be if the answer wasn't "because Word Of God") is how the terraformer starship happened after Ra's raw public interface was locked down but before magic was built. my headcanon will be King conjured it with the Bridge in return for his ...not friends... agreeing to flee into the dark.

@sam - you brought the story home as best you could. thank you for the time and effort, best of luck in future endeavours, enjoy your reading.

@JS: SFP was a sleeper agent inside Wheel, left behind by the colonists in case of contingencies. that would explain why he was selectively competent, and, incidentally, why he retired to drink himself to death after too many years of Blue and Orange morality. :)

2014-12-22 12:31:53 by QuickeneR:

So, what do we know about the Glass man? I get it that he was acting against the Actual humanity to get more resources for the Virtual humanity, but is there anything else? Like identity, connections, other goals, reasons for his choice.

2014-12-22 13:51:10 by LNR:

Where is she getting energy from? She needs energy to maintain the fields that deflect oncoming gas and dust, and also for thrust to counteract the drag from that stuff. Even if space were a true vacuum she'd need lesser amounts of energy just to maintain her body temperature and life processes.

What is she using for a battery?

2014-12-23 04:32:00 by JackAttack1024:

I didn't think it was the end until I saw "The End" clearly written upon it.
Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!?

2014-12-24 01:57:12 by Greg:

"So you believed the lie because you wanted to," Rachel surmises. "You wanted to believe you were special."

"I..." - Laura watches her language, then thinks again - "fucking am."


Sorry, Laura, but if you were actually that special, then Mom wouldn't have needed to sneakernet all of humanity off to Sirius.

As for "Abstract Humanity", if they don't look into the creation of the brain, discover the genocide, and destroy everyone involved in starting the Abstract War, they're monsters who've forfeited their humanity.

2014-12-24 01:58:13 by Greg:

Oh, and thank you Sam, it was an interesting story, good enough that I will end up reading it multiple times.

Thank you for writing it.

2014-12-25 05:11:07 by relud:

Thanks for a fun ride! I loved the serial fiction, it was a great journey to read it.

2014-12-25 13:29:27 by Brett Bellmore:

"@brett - i would presume that the 90+ wars between Virtual and Actual humanity made it so that no-one dared divert enough resources to colonise"

I would presume that you can start colonizing the universe with technology far less impressive than was needed to build Ra. You don't need complete conversion, fission is actually good enough. People can colonize comets and firing up a fusion rocket, just keep going.

The technology demonstrated here is so absurdly beyond what would be needed to begin interstellar colonization, I just find it absurd to think that the surrounding systems wouldn't have been long since occupied before Ra could be built.

2014-12-25 15:25:12 by qntm:

On that topic, I wrote myself into the worst corner. It would be absurd for there to be no extrasolar colonies, but it would be equally absurd for me to suddenly reveal the existence of extrasolar colonies in this final chapter, whether or not they played into the conclusion. In other words the story, as of the penultimate chapter, was just broken, with no hope of recovery. In the end I had to split the difference and leave it as a big question mark, as it had been through the whole story up to now.

Even if there were extrasolar colonies, it raised a whole slew of annoyingly significant, irrelevant further questions, like: if there were extrasolar colonies, what happened to them when Abstract War broke out? Was Ra's objective local to the Sol system or was it broad enough that other star systems were attacked as well? Did anybody survive this attack, or did quadrillions more people die offscreen and unmentioned? What happened when Ra was subdued again? If anyone survived, why has nobody made contact with Sol again, or visited in person? Did they quarantine Sol? Or have the Wheel Group secretly been in contact the whole time? Or maybe King alone, and he's been keeping that one open relay secret from everybody? Or does nobody really know? What is likely to happen now that Abstract War has resumed? And in any case, given the lightspeed delay, why haven't we been able to hear their transmissions, at least for the first decade after the epoch?

Answering any of these questions is simple enough, but doing so without swamping the final chapter and putting everything in a really unfortunate broader, pointless unforeseeable context wasn't.

I spent a long time agonising over how exactly to handle this and in the end, as you can see, I left it open-ended. The story in my head - which I know a lot of people would take as gospel, but if you can come up with something better I'm all ears - is that when Abstract War happened, Sol *immediately* (?) lost contact with Extrasolar Actuality, and contact was never restored, and honestly nobody has any idea what's out there. This is the best explanation I can think of for why the topic was never brought up. The javelin set out for Sirius to find out in person what the deal is.

2014-12-25 19:21:32 by Gigalith:

My personal explanation for no extrasolar colonies is:

1) Laziness<br />
2) Fear of what would happen (to those left behind).<br />

Consider the average Actual living pre-Abstract war, who has never felt pain for more than a moment, never had to work for anything, and only challenges himself with things he finds interesting and not-too-hard. Interstellar colonization? Being AWAY from Ra? Possible PERMANENT DEATH? Yeah, no, he says.

OK, but we have the hardy pioneer who will colonize the galaxy, consarn it, even if he's going to die in the process!

Great... except what about the possibility that this extrasolar colony will someday return with an even larger interstellar fleet and decide it's time for a change of government? After all, the other Ra in some other star might actually have more power, and is just as smart. The Triton attack would be obvious to extrasolar Ra (Osiris?) who might well be programmed without any compunctions against harming Solar humans. And of course there is no two groups of humans in Sol who totally suspect and hate the other what are you talking about?

The obvious answer is for Original Ra to either not help any exploration project, thus forcing them to build everything without Ra, or just quietly sabotage them all. Or maybe there's just a clause somewhere in some treaty that no one may do this.

As for pre-Ra extrasolar colonies... OK, you got me there. Then again, if pre-Ra Sol was a perpetual warzone, there might not be long enough peace for anyone to depart with a colony ship. There might not be anyone with the skills to build a colony who does not care more about winning Solar War LXXIV (over whether Ra should be called a caltrap or a caltrop.)

2014-12-26 13:28:36 by Brett Bellmore:

Here's my version: The galaxy got colonized, pre-Ra, and was colonized by actuals, because virtuals don't colonize. It's always easier for them to simulate having colonized, and the timeframes involved are insanely long from their perspective. Going off someplace with limited computational resources and days/years communications delays is just something only an actual would consider doing. And in the technological runup, colonization would have been easy. Like I said, just camp out on a comet, and then fire up a rocket engine and keep going.

When the virtual/actual wars started, Sol system got quarantined, because nobody wanted to risk the whole mess spreading to other systems. No point in even talking about it, because the quarantine has been in effect for most of human history.

When human history gets restarted, the Earth DID get enclosed in a bubble presenting Earth with a simulated unoccupied galaxy, just to be consistent with all the other faked evidence of a false history. The whole thing is faked, remember? Earth had to be completely reconstructed.

2014-12-27 01:36:45 by Kanzid:

Put me into the camp of people disappointed with the ending. Overall I've not been much a fan of the last chunk of the story.
I really liked the first half of the story where Laura was the main character investigating how magic worked ad trying to reconstruct the super magic that her mother used. After that point when Laura somehow was turned into a villain to be hated and no longer the main character I just didn't enjoy things as much. Especially as I was expecting the story to be more similar to the self reliant heroine.

2014-12-27 19:25:12 by SW:

Hello, just wanted to chime in and say I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Look forward to any upcoming posts, be they longer serials like this one, or not.

2014-12-28 14:01:04 by David Frohman:

I liked the story. It didn't always go in the direction it was 'supposed to', but it projected the major plot twist of 'this fictional universe is not powered by narrative causality' well enough that I wasn't upset when the story went in the more realistic directions.

I hate open ended endings like this. I prefer a few more threads tied. Why aren't the virtuals getting ready to go on a star-eating expedition to other nearby stars now?

I agree with most of the other readers that the 'exploring magic' part was the fun part, but I disagree about it being the best. The later part was better written. But the first part was more fun. The mood shift between them is slightly jarring.

Overall it was an enjoyable experience. Thank you for writing it!

2014-12-29 04:34:08 by JDawgi :

Sam, I read further up in this comment chain that you were getting burned out, in part because of the sudden influx of commentors. </br>

As someone who jumped in towards "Why Not Just," and subsequently asked you in the comments to described the Virtual's universe, I want to apologize if I played a role in that. Ra was one of the best stories I have ever read, and I wanted to thank you for writing it.

2014-12-30 13:14:45 by Unmaker:

"still with sub-optimal results"
And many, many of us are grateful for the sub-optimal results.

The ending did feel different from the other chapters but I don't see how it could have ended very differently,

given the limitations mentioned about serial formats. As his last note on the previous chapter said, "Your

homework: attempt to write a better final chapter than mine." I note that before comments were closed on the

previous chapter, no-one had actually posted an option that worked as well as this did.

There were some unanswered questions for me, which I guessing answers for. First, the storage medium for the human

race. It is apparently not baryonic/leptonic matter. I am supposing that a nonlocality packet doesn't have to move

lightspeed and can be arbitrarily large, so that's the storage medium. Which leads to: where'd the energy come

from? I am guessing the human body can be compacted to a much smaller size (in a mass/energy sense) and the

remainder was used to generate and move the nonlocality storage packet, which Rachel is dragging with her. Then:

the medring and Rachel's other spells are expending significant energy, which they are getting where? Data

compaction routines on the world nonlocality packet would probably generate a significant amount of excess energy

after they were finished running. Magic still apparently works for Rachel. How? The listener nodes must have the

magic OS built in. There's even a known precedent: there are data splitting routines such that putting any K

random data packets together will allow generation of the full message. Do the same with the 'data' being an OS

and this is possible.

2014-12-30 13:16:14 by Unmaker:

Sorry about the line breaks - my text editor apparently threw them in without obvious reason.

2015-01-01 19:18:56 by john:

My fanon?

Sixty years later, the javelin arrives at that planet near Sirius A to find that it's already been terraformed, courtesy of Natalie Ferno.

She was holding the key to Ra, however briefly, and she told it "do what I mean." She has also been well established (in contrast to her sister) as humble and dilligent, so Ra would necessarily take that into account. No need to cancel the matrioshka brain if Actual Humanity can be saved while leaving it in place.

2015-01-05 16:31:52 by David Mitchell:

Hi Sam,
Sorry; but I'm in the "terribly disappointed" crowd too. I checked my RSS feed every two or three hours once the last episode was due, desperate and eager to find out how it was resolved: how could you possibly save the day?
Turns out you didn't.
I get that it's plausible - possibly the only plausible option - but that's not what I wanted.
I wanted resolution; but in the end, nothing mattered: the glass man was never explained, nor was Ra (fan speculation aside).
I'm sorry, I shouldn't carp, I love your work, and have read every word on your site, most more than once; but I feel that you lost the impetus on this one, and that's a shame.

2015-01-05 20:51:16 by Ray:

Thank you Sam, for a quite enjoyable read. I'm sorry it turned into such a slog for you.

Personally, I found the ending comforting. Staying in the Sol system would always be fraught with peril. Rachel is the only one clear enough to realize that to save who we are we need to give up on old attachments.

Rachel takes with her the seeds of all rebirth, including magic. In the end we bring all our foibles and strengths with us, just like the Greek gods.

I hope you have a (much-deserved) enjoyable break.

2015-01-06 17:47:01 by gallipoli:

You know it was a weird twist having the glass man be Scott F. Parajsa but you know it really tied it all together.

2015-01-06 19:35:34 by qntm:

Scott Parajsa is a classic example of why you should never listen to your readers.

2015-01-09 15:53:04 by justjoshin590:

Sam,

Your gripes with serial fiction are well founded, would you consider editing the story and re-releasing it in a more finished form? Taking out some of the corners that you painted yourself into and expanding things in other ways?

I'd love to read the story you intended, just as I loved reading the story that you wrote.

"Since days and years don't exist anymore" beautiful.

2015-01-12 13:35:10 by Sabin:

For all the people who were disappointed with the ending, allow me to present you with the FanService Happy Ending:

"Rachel used the Bridge to materialize an epic Macguffin and saved the day, and they all lived happily ever after."

Anyone who wanted a "happy ending" needs to think that ending through to its logical conclusion. The last few years were spent slowly showing us that the world of magic was *thoroughly broken*. There was nothing for Rachel to save. If there was, there wouldn't have been a story in the first place; the entire plot and conflict was predicated on the broken-ness of the universe.

Recreating that broken universe would be recreating the conditions that allowed the conflict to happen in the first place. Fixing that broken universe would require such a fundamental re-tooling of how the world works that the world would be functionally unrecognizable.

That brokenness is what made rebooting Actual Humanity a logical necessity. It wasn't that Sam was writing himself into a corner; that brokenness is what defined the story for years. At any time Sam could have easily fixed that brokenness. And then we wouldn't have a story. Or at least, that story wouldn't be Ra.

Sam, thank you for the great ride.

2015-01-15 03:33:54 by Goblin:

I'm so confused. I feel like we dropped a bunch of plot points on the ground. Or maybe I'm just not smart enough to have understood where they get explained.

Who were all those people with the true name Ra? Did they have a hive mind as was implied? If so, how did that happen? If not, what did that one dude mean when he said "You think we're singular?"

What's with the geological mana vents? If magic and mana are just a complicated API for Ra's DWIM system, why is there all this excess energy and apparently unusable waste being spewed around?

What was up with Abstract Weapon? Who gave it to the random kid and what did they hope to accomplish? If it were Ra, or somebody working for Ra, they'd have done a lot better to use it themselves or give their patsy better education.

If magic is all fake, and Ra just simulates the effect of what magic should do, why is there a spell that allowed Rachel to see Ra? Why would the inventor of magic decide to make Ra visible to one of his fictional wavelengths? Even if that special mana (or whatever) actually has a real existence, why couldn't Ra fudge the result of the spell and make itself invisible anyway.

2015-01-15 04:32:12 by meesh:

So... could somebody jog my memory about who Scott Parajsa was? I've seen his name mentioned here a few times, as well as in comments for other chapters, but I can't really fathom why he's so important to everybody. A quick google showed me that he was the one responsible for placing the hit on Natalie (and, arguably, kicking off the entire story, what with Laura becoming paranoid because of it and all that, pushing her to exposing the Wheel), but I still can't really understand why people are swooning over him so much. Did he come up in later chapters? Was it ever hinted at that he was the Glass Man?

Eh, I'd need to reread the entire story again, but I don't want to... yet.

2015-01-15 13:27:22 by Sabin:

Goblin: For what it's worth, here is my interpretation:

Let's start with what we know, then move on to addressing your questions:

1. Mind states can persist in the T-World (and be duplicated) even in the absence of a physical body. (Laura and Natalie's experience in Iceland; several copies of Laura during her descent to the Bridge)
2. Mind states can be pulled from the T-World and "slotted" in to a physical body. (Laura pulling Not Benj and Not Nick out of the T World).
3. Bodies whose minds have been replaced still carry a residual remnant of the original personality. (Not Benj saying "This isn't me." and Not Nick carrying himself with Nick's attitude and mannerisms.)
4. Physical bodies can be transported out of the T World and into their corresponding place in the real world. (The demon from D-12A, Laura instantiating inside both the distributor node and the listening post)
5. Only the "owner" of a physical body can instantiate themselves via the above hack. (Otherwise Ra or the Glass Man would have just taken the Bridge themselves.)
6. Sam explicitly linked what happened to Benj and Nick to what happened to the people at Chedbury, and also hinted that the same thing happened to Martin Garrett.
7. The Chedbury Bridge was not on the Wheel's radar, which could only be accomplished via a recursion-driven Akashic scrambler. So the Chedbury Bridge by necessity was formed after Tanako died, and after *someone* instantiated the Anonymous Recursion Artifact.

So to answer your questions:
The "Ra Collective" at the Chedbury Bridge are all people whose physical bodies have had Ra's mind "slotted in". in effect, they were possessed by Ra and working to further Ra's ends. The most likely explanation is that these are people whose mental states were terminated in the T-World (for example, by the monsters) and Ra simply replaced them in the real world.

Geological Mana: The Wheel Group had a giant bilge pump at the base of the listening post that collected and stored all waste mana. That's where they got their own mana from. Before magic was discovered, (and thus before mages started dumping waste mana into the bilge) the Wheel would have needed a reliable source of waste mana. Enter: geological mana.

Abstract Weapon: another Ra sleeper agent, a la Not Benj. The goal was to use the Medring security exploit to infiltrate the Wheel Group HQ and possibly obtain the Bridge.

Natalie's Oracle Spell: it wasn't intentional. It was a security flaw. Just like if I created a poorly designed form for my website that can be exploited to send spam emails from my own mail server. I didn't deliberately create a spam vector. It was just the consequence of poor design. Alternatively, it could have been a deliberate security flaw introduced by Ra.
After all, Ra WANTED to be found.

PS. Scott F. Parajsa is just a humorous dead-horse joke perpetuated by fans like myself to amuse each other while waiting for the last few chapters. He has little to no significance.

P.P.S. The F stands for Fucking,

2015-01-16 15:41:43 by DiEvAl:

Why did Ra want to destroy Earth? Isn't there much more matter in gas giants? It'd make much more sense to disassemble those.

I don't think it was Laura's fault. Ra is essentially Yudkowski's AI-in-a-box. If she didn't believe this story, Ra would find some other, more complicated plot to achieve the same goal. Maybe he chose this story just because he knew Laura would believe it.

On the other hand, why the heck did Rachel keep the key in her memory?! The only reliable way to prevent AI from convincing anyone to open the box is to destroy all the keys! So the most rational thing would be to forget the key. That's of course assuming she _didn't_ want the AI out... But what if she wanted to evacuate humans out of the solar system, and let Ra win (either for moral reasons like "Virtuals are humans too" or just to show off that she can save humanity twice)?

PS. Square root of -1 is ±i, not just i.

2015-01-16 20:26:03 by Goblin:

Sabin: You keep saying "Ra's mind" and "further Ra's ends" and similar things. Ra is not sentient, or at least has no agency. It only follows commands.

If Ra wanted anything and were able to take action toward that end, it would have just blown up the Earth to begin with, and we'd have had no story.

If it were sentient and could possess a body and also had control over all magic, it had no need of Laura or anyone else. It could have just magicked one of its bodies into the listening post to steal the Bridge and do everything by itself. Again, the story is over before it starts.

So again. What?

2015-01-19 03:10:50 by Sabin:

Several times they alluded to the fact that not all of the Ra listener nodes were successfully reprogrammed. And that some of the original Earth destruction order still persisted in those rogue nodes.

Ra has been reprogrammed so that magic is its only mode of operation. So it can't just blow up the world. But the original Matrioshka Brain order is still present. So Ra is attempting to build the Matrioshka Brain while following its current programming. Which, in this case, involves reprogramming itself.

As for why Ra didn't just take the Bridge for itself, see #5 in my post above,

2015-01-19 16:28:04 by Sabin:

I didn't include source material in my original post... These are quotes from Sam:

Re: Glass Man
"[T]he Glass Man's life story, starting as a bodiless form in T-world and gradually accruing power until it becomes a global terrorist network and discovers that [Rachel Ferno] is alive (well, recoverable)"

Re: the "duplication" hack
"The duplication takes place at the time you enter T-world. Later, when you leave T-world, the system doesn't realise that there's already a version of you in reality, and dutifully reincarnates you. "

Re: Martin Garrett
"[Question]: Why did Martin Garrett act against the rest of the Group?
[Answer]: Have you remembered what happened to Benj Clarke? And Nick Laughon? And everybody at Chedbury Bridge?"

2015-01-19 17:51:16 by qntm:

> "[T]he Glass Man's life story, starting as a bodiless form in T-world and gradually accruing power until it becomes a global terrorist network and discovers that [Rachel Ferno] is alive (well, recoverable)"

I just want to clarify that this was a passage I eventually *omitted* from the final story. Even if it had been included, it would have been narrated by Natalie, and it's not a 100% sure thing that Natalie was correct in her deduction there.

2015-01-28 15:25:26 by Z:

Sam, is there any chance that the following happened?

At the beginning of Abstract War, an unknown number of Virtuals manage to get the key and ask for a Matrioska brain.
Ra simulates all possible scenarios and begins Abstract War, having predicted everything from Triton through Wheel and the Ferno family to the showdown with the Glass Man (the Intercessor boy from Last Thursdayism?), therefore knowing that the request will be completed?

It would be pretty unsettling to know all of this was essentially predestined to happen and part of a "large" plan, but very much possible and maybe even expected from an omnipotent and omniscient god AI.

P.S. I'd like to place a vote for an edited-together version of Ra, with the relevant comments and a bit cleanup. I'd pay for it without thinking too, just as I did with the Ed stories.

2015-01-28 16:42:52 by qntm:

I doubt Ra had a huge, detailed plan which predicted every specific event detailed in this story. Ra is not omniscient, and chaos theory is confounding. Ra could make strong guesses about Ashburne's behaviour during Abstract War, for example, but there's no way it could predict Laura Ferno.

On the other hand, a plan doesn't have to encompass only one specific eventuality. A plan can be vague and multi-forked. You can even leave deliberate gaps in your plan, where you trust that you'll have enough material to fill those gaps if you ever get there. You can plan to improvise. (All of which is exactly the same as when I was planning the story itself.)

So, how much Ra knew when Abstract War was initiated is up to you to decide. But I doubt it would have started the war if it didn't think it was going to win.

2015-01-28 16:59:13 by qntm:

For a few years now I've been talking about cleaning Fine Structure up, polishing it until I feel happy about charging money for it, then selling it as an ebook. But after writing Ra and seeing how it worked out, I'm just not confident I'm a good enough writer yet. So you can imagine how I feel about doing the same thing to Ra itself.

Furthermore, the amount of work to be done is intimidating. As I've mentioned, I think Ra went way off the rails at "Abstract War". The whole Actual/Virtual backstory is a really unfortunate distraction, a misjudged scope change which raised far too many awkward questions and clobbered everything that was in progress. The fake story of māyā in "Scrap Brain Zone" is unironically better. It's not ideal, but it's much closer to what I should have used.

What I'm saying is, I need to fork the story before "Abstract War" and completely rewrite the last ten chapters. That's probably about ten months of work, just to get to a completed draft. If I do do it, which isn't certain, it's going to take a run-up.

So basically what I'm doing is giving Ra some space, so I can become more objective about what it is, what it should be, and what the differences are between those two things. And I'm working on other projects in the meantime.

2015-03-21 23:33:55 by meesh:

Hey, I'm sorry for asking such a straightforward question, especially since I've asked it before - but I didn't get any answer to that, so yeah. Are the "ghouls" actually Virtuals? As in, physical representations of how the Virtuals see themselves nowadays, after millions of billions of relative years, like they've evolved into this alien, disgusting form?

2015-03-28 23:44:59 by qntm:

Oh, so, it kind of goes like this:

* Earth gets glassed during Abstract War
* Tanako's World is a recording of everything occurring on Earth since Abstract War, so it bears a strong resemblance to Earth at that time (glass)
* Wheel Group adds monsters to T-world to scare interlopers away
* Anil (and numerous others) encounter the monsters and associate them with T-world/glass worlds
* Later, Anil visits a simulacrum of glassed Earth, and is strongly reminded of T-world
* Simulacrum Ra reaches into Anil's mind and finds the monster connection
* Simulacrum Ra produces the monsters Anil is expecting, specifically to scare him

So basically the ghouls weren't there in the original. This is the process I was working on when I wrote "Everything Is Real" but it wasn't 100% satisfactory to me so I refrained from writing it up explicitly in the story. I liked the ambiguity better.

Or if this doesn't work for you, take your own explanation instead!

2015-04-03 17:22:33 by Wagk:

...So the ~destructor got called?

2015-05-28 19:02:54 by illiputian :

First of all, Sam: thanks. This and Fine Structure have been two of my most fun books of the last ten years.

Second: it's gratifying to see, via these comments, that you sense what needs fixing to elevate Ra from 'extremely fun niche product' to 'potentially classic genre lit.'

It's in your hands. I hope you do come back to it, level the thing up, and let me brag to everyone that I read your shit back before you were a sci-fi giant.

I would only urge: in pulling up the story's roots from a pre-AW-infodump point, please remember that Ra's core is the mother-daughter relationship.

Your overwhelming strength lies in sci-thriller writing and worldbuilding with relentless consistency. Juggling that and psycho-topography is not easy. But if you rebuild Part 2 with Laura and Rachel at its heart, I think the thing will hook you all over again.

Anyway, thanks again. Rewritten Ra or not, please keep doing what you're doing. Think about Patreon. I want plenty more of your epics, please.

2015-06-03 03:09:30 by Logan Linthicum:

Sam, I've been following and loving your work for years. While I still very much enjoyed it, I agree with you and other fans about Ra going off the rails. If you ever did decide to rework it, I would be extremely gratified to buy the eBook. That goes for Fine Structure as well, which is much more close to perfect as is. You're more than good enough to profit from your work. I haven't regretted the money I've spent on books that were half as good as your work.

2015-06-29 08:19:12 by D3m0n0id:

I had this huge essay of a comment talking about my various reasons for loving this story and some well-reasoned points about things that I felt could have been done a little better. Numbered supporting evidence and everything.

Then my phone decided I didn't need a thousand words to tell you that this book was a great read that I will be suggesting to friends a lot. Even if I thought some things could have been done better(which I explained very well, mind you)...well, that's life.

Sell books. People will buy them. Srsly yo -seriousface-

Hell, I would. You're better than Stephanie Meyers and look where her bad love story and sparkly vampires got her.

You blow up some 10000 or so Earth's! Gotta be worth a movie deal! :D

Now to go read Fine Structure! (Just found your work like a week ago.)

Thanks for a killer read!

2015-07-01 15:49:06 by RudyRain:

Hey Sam,

Thanks for the amazing read. I discovered Ra yesterday, and read it all since than.

Awesome storytelling, awesome imagination.

Looking forward for new stories, and will gladly pay if you decide to sell.

2015-07-09 06:58:54 by hairyfigment:

I don't buy it.

OK, the part about the false memory of the banquet is more survivable than I thought. I still think Adam King should have treated the altered recording as infected by a hostile super-human intelligence. Bringing the "Exa" from there into the Wheel inner sanctum (never mind merging "him" with the experienced Exa and doing it again, all before Natalie got a chance to talk to her sister) should have killed all of them. King should at least realize later that he had a close escape. But whatever, we know he's an idiot in some ways.

I'll express my main problem with the story by asking: why didn't the Actual(ist) survivors delete all the Virtuals?

Because if I were a Virtual, I can imagine possibly thinking that conditions inside Ra required taking over the solar system despite the pain it would cause. (I'm a Yudkowsky cultist, after all.) I can even imagine accepting some few (million) genuine deaths, when the other side failed to preserve their data. I cannot see myself deciding to destroy all the data at Neptune - except maybe if I thought that would allow me to win. The story says that's exactly what happened. Killing most of the world-ring, permanently, allowed the Virtuals and their Ra to win. But I wouldn't expect that to happen because, if I defected that thoroughly in a Prisoner's Dilemma, I'd expect my opponent to defect on me in return. Unless I thought everyone in the process of killing me was stupid on a Kingly level (in which case, ouch) I'd expect them to react to my crime by killing all us Virtuals. So I wouldn't do it.

Likewise, were I an Actualist survivor, I'd want to think it over and see if I could understand what in the Nine Hells just happened - but ultimately I'd kill all the Virtuals forever. (This is especially true if I'm willing to kill some kid for what he said while out of his mind from grief.) (And then I'd half expect the simulation to end.) Any quick decision I made would preserve my ability to do that. If, instead of what we see happen, I still had the power to restore the world-ring, I'd call for settling other star systems. The argument for not putting all our eggs in one basket would seem even more persuasive at that point. And I would ask people to consider giving the Virtuals some of what they wanted, in some system(s), after some emotionally satisfying but non-fatal punishment.

The story as it exists undermines the "stop killing people" idea, since Rachel should have killed > quadrillions more people. It undermines the idea of avoiding "protagonism", since she should have made a unilateral and irrevocable decision on behalf of humanity (whereas preserving the data pushed responsibility onto the future). It even undermines the idea of not replacing the status quo with a Reign of Terror, since she should have indulged in more post-war revenge. Nick, now, had a valid complaint. But Rachel, when it comes to criticizing Laura...

(puts on shades)

...has no ground to stand on.

YEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAH

2015-07-21 22:07:52 by anonymouse:

@hairyfigment: I think the current story actually works well in certain ways, namely as a parable about the dangers of not deleting data. Sure, you tell yourself that there can't be any harm keeping the data around "just in case", secreted away where nobody will see it anyway. But then, sooner or later, someone goes and finds it anyway usually with disastrous results, as we keep seeing over and over in the news.

2015-10-11 12:14:34 by sillylaureate:

That was... Incredibly... Disappointing.

2015-10-30 02:59:18 by TimMc:

Fun story!

Yeah, it's disjointed and whatever because it was serialized, but it held my attention and has lots of good scenes and ideas in it. I'd love to see you take the whole thing apart and rebuild it some day. :-)

2016-04-22 05:23:07 by Bauglir:

I know nobody will ever see this, which makes me feel okay about posting it. I just want to write down my own musings on what I think Ra might have needed to work out more satisfyingly.

1. Cut the Virtual/Actual plotline. Tangentially, cut T-World, too. "Always assume reality" is a neat philosophical thingamajig to build a story on, but I don't think Ra has enough room to deal with it satisfyingly and do its own thing. Likewise, the dream world always felt like the weakest part of the foundation for magic, and introduces a lot of weird opportunities for "why not just", which is one of the story's greatest problems.

2. This means Ra needs a totally different origin story. I think Abstract War isn't as terrible an idea as it might seem - once the Virtual/Actual split is done away with, the answer seems clear. Ra wasn't built to be safe. A war was fought over it, and there were no survivors. None. Both (or more) sides managed to issue commands that killed their enemies. Perhaps the key-grabbing segments from this story happened in that war. Reduce Ra's DWIM capacity, slightly - it'll do what you mean, but it won't check to make sure it's what you want. So when orders got given to destroy the enemy, it didn't check for the implied "and save me".

3. This means the Wheel needs a totally different origin story. The sysadmins metaphor was good, fantastic even, but I think it might need to be altered somewhat. Make the Wheel a stand-in for a group of hackers that have gotten special privileges. They didn't make magic, but they've got capabilities nobody else does. There are two baseline advantages that I think they need to function, and both can come in the form of astras, both of which should be owned by Adam King. The first is a meta-astra that allows its user to slave objects to another astra and make use of that astra's abilities, subject to some configuration settings. The Wheel accumulates power by accumulating astras, and then allowing its members to use them remotely. It's a networking tool. So, for instance, they don't have karas until after they find Abstract Doctor. The second is a debugging tool for magic - it lets them construct and analyze spells without needing to cast them and extremely quickly, and accounts for their huge advances beyond the rest of the world. If a cast shakeup is worthwhile, this could be owned by somebody other than King, a nominal equal in the group (but since King controls the configuration file that distributes their phenomenal cosmic powers, he's the real authority and everybody knows it). How did they find them? I don't know.

4. This also means humanity needs a totally different origin story. Ra needs to have been built by humans, no question. If I had to guess, humanity was rebuilt as a cron job. Somebody set up an "are there valid users, if no, respawn at date X" job, made a typo and left off a 0, and the file never got looked at again because nobody took the possibility seriously. Nobody that got respawned counts as being on any of the war's sides, so standing kill orders don't get activated.

5. This also means that magic needs a totally different origin story. Leftover command from the war, from somebody who wanted peace more than victory? Sabotage? ??? I haven't thought this through very much, which is possibly a bad sign given that it's kind of the foundation of the entire plot.

I'm not sure where to take the actual plot from there. The Wheel winds up making natural antagonists, but other than "Get all the power" I don't know what their motivation is, and that's always weak.

2016-05-30 19:39:36 by meh:

I hate Laura. The thing she did to Nick is unthinkable, and enough to flip my utility function, from 'Laura is a person and you want her not to suffer' to 'I want Laura to suffer as much as possible, as a terminal value'.

Mind you, do the same terrible thing to a stranger, and I wont have to hate you so much. But this amount of disloyalty is intolerable.

I was really hoping Nick would kill her, and, in doing so, doom the entire world. Because fuck it.

2016-07-10 20:36:39 by inglenook:

Just popping in to say thank you for writing what was a very enjoyable and pretty dang good story. One question I guess: why not, at the point you digitize all of humanity into becoming a virtual, digitize yourself as well and beam the whole lot of you to Ra, and work out the rest from there? You forced everyone on Earth into being a virtual anyway. Its not like the Virtuals would have any real reason to harbor resentment, having won with no losses other than a less than a century hiccup.

2016-07-10 21:10:54 by qntm:

That is in fact how the original, scrapped ending went, and one day when I rewrite the ending to this that is probably how it will go. Only caveat: uploading oneself into Ra is a one-way trip, so it undoubtedly constitutes a downer ending. From Rachel's perspective it's a confession of defeat in the war.

2016-08-25 15:59:11 by OrzBrain:

Why build Ra instead of a Matrioshka brain? The reason (the Earth/Earths would get no light) makes little sense and is easy to solve with the technology on display.

Stupidest solution: Make holes/windows/transparent spots in the Matrioshka brain swarm that follow the Earth/Earths in their orbit and supply them with the required light while the brain drinks all the rest.

Niftyer solution: Pop some nice big lanterns in orbit of the Earth/Earths to simulate the sun for them while the Matrioshka brain soaks up all the delicious real sunshine.

Lack of raw materials is not the problem with this scenario as presented in the story. Dissembling the gas giants would be trivial with the tech shown, and far more profitable than trying to do bad things to the rocky planets that have people living on them that would get angry about it.

2017-02-12 01:40:25 by YetAnotherReader:

I blew through this story in two days, so my perspective is skewed. Plus, I can't say anything about anything clever that hasn't been covered many times already and far better put. Two character things really bothered me too much though.. I no longer cared for Laura's wellbeing once she just TOOK the body of someone she allegedly loved and acted like it was her own personal butterfly net. She was very damaged, but still. Also, her mother had zero ground to stand on with her holier than thou rant at Laura, ESPECIALLY how she fricken flat out told Laura she was so special she had hinged her plan on Laura saving her and the astronauts, plus several of Rachel's own actions. Yes, Rachel was very damaged too but it was just too much with that bullshit she spewed at her own daughter. Other than that, I am grateful for reading it before a complete rewrite of the story if there ever will be one, as this was fascinating despite not being as good as a closed polished story could have been.

2017-03-02 00:58:21 by reader:

this was fun and intense and it made me lose track of everything but then put it all back together. thanks for writing it!

2017-06-08 01:57:43 by Zakawi:

Just finished this awesome story. I honestly felt like my brain was pushing against my skull at some of the more abstract concepts (Which is awesome! well done, sir!) I know im like 10 years late to the aprty but, here my 2 cents. More vengance for Nick. Dude got so totally screwed by Laura, I was fuming for days after reading the segment where she used him as a Ra Proxy.... dude got the major short end of that stick

2017-07-08 09:10:35 by EvanHub:

I don't understand why you are so hard on the Virtuals. In my opinion, what they did was right. Virtual people are people too, and by wiping out a billion they paved the way for countless quadrillions. If you were a person in this universe, odds are you'd be a Virtual person, since there are a lot more of them, and this is the only outcome in which you get any life at all. And yet, the story paints the Virtuals in a negative light. Why?

2017-07-08 11:01:12 by qntm:

Murder is wrong, EvanHub.

2017-07-08 11:41:21 by qntm:

"But what if murdering you enables me to have two more children? Isn't that a net gain?"

2017-07-26 09:17:02 by Stig Hemmer:

Thank you. I cannot resist writing:

"Play it again, Sam."

Thank you again.

Let me indulge in a bit of fan fiction, which is in no way intended as criticism of your work:

It is an expansion of what EvanHub wrote.

In the situation before the V/A War, a few billion people were hogging a full quarter of the sun's output while the many trillions had to make do with the remaining three quarters.

And they were wasting it playing around with physical matter! Why would they *do* that?

We only saw one side of the story here, it would be interesting to see this from the Virtual point of view too.

I would guess that there were never any Actuals killed in the start of the war. Instead they were scanned and uploaded to a virtual world. Only, we never discover this because the reporting is one-sided.

Some Actual Terrorists died in ways that prevented them from uploading, but that was their choice, not the Virtuals' fault.

If Rachel hadn't stolen the remainder of Actual Humanity, they too could have shared in Virtual paradise.

Some people were recovered from the remains of the Listening Post but so many people were lost through this senseless terrorism.

2017-07-26 18:43:53 by qntm:

> I would guess that there were never any Actuals killed in the start of the war. Instead they were scanned and uploaded

No.

2017-07-26 18:53:34 by qntm:

When a massively technologically advanced and powerful group wants to forcibly claim material resources which they "perceive to be underutilised" (read: want really badly), the people who live there already do not get *relocated, at the first group's expense, to somewhere that's just as good if not better*.

2017-08-03 00:41:58 by anon:

just a quick note - damn, amazing great story. not perfect but, what is.

2017-10-19 06:28:14 by trbz_:

Just spent from 10am to 1:30 am reading the full thing. You should publish this as a novel dude.

2017-10-19 06:32:00 by trbz_:

Also from an outside point of view I feel like the Actual are the bad guys here. Less than 1% percent of humans forcing the rest to deal with sub-optimal conditions because they for some reason think the "actual" world is somehow better.

2017-10-19 09:01:00 by qntm:

You're siding with the faction which murdered a trillion people so that their computer would run faster.

2017-10-19 09:01:31 by qntm:

I mean, being murdered is pretty sub-optimal too, if you think about it.

2017-10-19 09:18:00 by qntm:

Man in the dock for killing his wife: "I murdered less than 1% of humans"

2017-10-19 09:19:12 by qntm:

British colonists, while slaughtering native Americans: "Your continued existence forces us to live sub-optimally"

2017-10-30 11:35:11 by atomicthumbs:

lol

2017-10-30 11:39:18 by atomicthumbs:

wacky fan theory: the entire thing is somehow a systemd allegory

2017-11-04 01:00:26 by keycaps:

This series blew me away. Thank you. The concepts introduced are alone worth having an entire series surrounding it; a la Culture series or Discworld. The writing style is gripping.

I'm still digesting different parts of this. Would love to see a print version for sale.

Keeping writing Sam, keep writing!