Direct Sunlight


"Wait," says Scin.

They're hours into the investigation now. There are five mages on the Floor, burrowing separate paths into the problem. Scin has replaced Casaccia at the post of "seer of the Past", has untangled the figurative wires that Casaccia had no clue how to manage, and is pulling data out of the akashic records as fast as the others can request it. Kila Arkov, blond-ish and bearded, is shepherding the akashic records system itself-- a system occupying cubic kilometres of reality and metaphorical square light years of virtual space. Ward, "The Future", is the latest to have arrived. He constructs high-definition analyses of the future using a dizzyingly complicated framework whose operation is tantamount to... well, dark magic.

Casaccia frets about global security and King tells them all what to do. The air is crowded with virtual screens. It almost wasn't worth going paperless.

"Wait..." says Scin.

He reaches out for the stadium-sized bank of images and beckons, magnifying a particular news headline. It's the one naming Laura Ferno and Nicholas Laughon as the two found dead at Chedbury Bridge.

"There's a discontinuity in Laughon's life line," Scin says. He displays the track. "That's where he dies. Acid dissolution. But this dot here is the same man. Hours later, on the other side of the world, Laughon pops out of nowhere--"

"What?" The last sentence fragment gets everybody's attention.

"Was he completely dark for that time?" Casaccia asks.

"Unknown," Scin says. "I don't see how Laughon could have physically travelled that distance in that amount of time. He'd be supersonic. But Caz, that location is here. Just a few klicks from where we're standing right now. It's inside the listening post. Stairwell four zero one one, segment seventy-eight. He pops out of nowhere, barely more than a dot, and then he dies again--"

Eyes wide, Casaccia dismisses half of the visible displays with a hurried wave of his hand, then summons a deep integrity scan of the listening post's interior.

It's the same scan he's checked five times today and it shows the same cheerful green response. "We're clean," he says, not believing it. "Nobody in, nobody out, no physical damage. Did you say he just appeared there?"

"And then died there," Scin repeats. "Probably he's still there."

Casaccia is already running for the stairs.


Casaccia passes the next few minutes dredging up half-finished Mark Two integrity scans and balling them up into something functional. The current state of the art is not acceptable to him.

After ninety seconds of railpod travel, he reaches the station nearest the stairwell. It takes another five minutes of rapid descent on foot to get to the scene of the fight. He brings fluorescent light with him, which turns the stairwell into an antiseptic white autopsy laboratory.

"There's a version of Exa here," he narrates. "He's been sliced in half. And this man must be Laughon. His face matches what the news was showing. Laughon's been shot in the heart. With... Exa's gun. I think they killed each other. They haven't been dead for long. I can still see the infrared."

"How the hell did they get there?" King demands.

"Unknown," Casaccia says, because he doesn't dare say what he really thinks until he can be absolutely certain.

"How the hell did someone kill Exa?" Arkov asks, mostly out of curiosity.

"I think... I think it was some kind of blade attack. Or a projected field. It looks like it snapped his kara." Casaccia instinctively clutches his own kara, as does every mage in the conversation. "But that doesn't make sense, because... they've been self-repairing for years..."

Casaccia wastes no further time on forensic guesswork. He picks up the kara's two fragments and reconnects them with a word.

Laughon's body resurrects empty. The man breathes in and out, staring up at Casaccia. But there's nobody inside it. The medring can't do anything about the condition. There's no mental record to work from. Casaccia tells the medring to shut Laughon's body down again, and takes it back.

Exa comes back healthier. Reconstruction takes a second, although the clothes can't be saved. The man is left with no right shirt sleeve and no functioning dinner jacket.

"Fuck!" is Exa's first waking syllable.

"Going to need some ID, friend," Casaccia says, backing up to a respectful distance and aiming an attack spell of uncertain effectiveness back at Exa.

Exa rolls his eyes and recites a highly privileged spell, one which only a Wheel Group member could legitimately cast.

"Where are you from?" Casaccia asks.

"The victory party. December thirty-first, nineteen sixty-nine," Exa says. "Someone gatecrashed it."


"Someone broke into the akashic records," Exa explains. "And then, apparently, they broke out again. Your ship is leaking! Where's the girl? And what year is this?"

"What girl?"

"The woman who killed me! I owe her something."

Casaccia calls in again. "Scin. Find Laura Ferno."


By the time he returns to the Floor, the full scale of the security apocalypse-in-progress is becoming clear to him. Casaccia refuses direct questions from Exa, who is following him in another railpod, and from the rest of the Wheel. He holds on until he can assemble everybody in front of one screen.

That screen shows a closed-circuit image of Laura Ferno. She is standing, still with one hand raised, three spines of lightning emerging from it. Entranced.

"There's bad news, and there's no other news," Casaccia says. "We should have fixed the T-world exploit properly, as soon as we heard of it. I don't care that we would have had to take magic completely offline. I don't care that it would have introduced inconsistencies to the scientific record. We should have found a way."

"What's 'T-world'?" Exa asks, struggling to keep up with modern terminology.

"'Tanako's world' is what the magic-using general public calls the akashic records interface," King says. "Named after the scientist, Kazuya Tanako."

Exa is aghast. "The general public has access to the records? Not thirty minutes ago I was being told that our system was provably perfect. By you!"

"It was a mistake," says King.

"It's not deliberately public," says Arkov.

"Are those supposed to be excuses?" Exa shouts. "What the hell happened?"

King says, "For the love of God, Ecks, will you merge with the real guy? We don't have time to bring you thirty years up to speed."

"No. No. I'm not skipping past this to a point where I've grudgingly accepted it. You people will explain yourselves--"

"This woman can move in and out of T-world almost at will," Casaccia continues, loudly. "I'm reasonably sure that she's been trained to do this, by a group which has been working against us for years plural. Now she's standing at the base ring of this listening post, reclaiming mana from our own battery system at a rate of terawatts. For reasons unknown."

"I'll get your reasons. Put me down there," Exa says.

Casaccia looks at King, then at Ward. "Fine," he says, still looking at Ward. "Put him down there."

No half-measures. Exa has already swapped his 1969-model medring out for a modern one. Now he turns the power up to maximum and puts time compression on his perception, for the maximum possible strategic advantage.

He shifts perceptual location from the control room of the Floor to a transport pod, which is on the final deceleration leg of the journey to the deep node where Laura Ferno is located. He cracks the pod's shell open and brakes himself to a halt inside the transit tube, letting the pod race away ahead of him. It'll arrive empty. Ferno is almost certainly waiting for it. He doesn't want to be a sitting target. He doesn't want to play into her hands, even if he's invulnerable, even for a split second.

Deep sub-crustal architecture schemes flash up in his instincts, telling him which parts of the listening post's interior he can and cannot safely destroy. He picks a direction, turns orange-hot, and starts swimming through the metalwork.

He cannot be hurt. He arcs around, and dives into the stomach-shaped final room through its ceiling, in a cloud of molten listening machinery, at a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour, emitting enough sound and light alone to kill on contact.

The fight ends so quickly that the processor inside his medical ring doesn't detect that it began. He and the ring are plasma. It takes less than a tenth of a processor cycle.

Exa perceives nothing. The universe jumps and he's back at the Floor.

"What happened?"

"A 1018-watt laser," Ward explains, showing the group the action replay. "You're dead. The backlash from the laser pulse was enough to unrecoverably destroy Ferno's mind. The entire lower fifth of the listening post has been destroyed, and the rest is imploding and/or flooding with magma.

"All the hypotheticals end this way. Ferno's plugged directly into the listening post's geomagical production system. Disturb her, and she plugs the other end into a directed energy spell. The spell has no explicit capacity limit and almost no physical components. It's unstoppable in that form. It's enough magic that the gigaspells themselves come close to failure."

"If we put a Wheel representative anywhere near her, the spell fires," Casaccia adds. "If we try to teleport her out, the spell fires. The spell is already cast, it's on a hair trigger. If we mess with her consciousness, or kill her, or pump gas into the room, the spell fires.

"And look at what she's casting right now. That's a Dehlavi engine."

"Dehlavi?" Exa asks.

"Oh, for God's sake," King says. He snaps his fingers. Exa dissolves into his medring, and his branch of memories are transferred to the other side of the world, to the other Exa.

There's a stunned pause.

Exa is fine. He's on the other side of the world, and is suddenly angry and disoriented, but fine. All the remaining mages realise this, one at a time. King can practically count off their facial expressions as they do so.

"Go on," King prompts Casaccia.

Casaccia blinks, and recovers. "Uh... Ferno's consciousness is in T-world right now. Even if we kill this instance of her, that instance will still be at work. She's sitting on limitless mana, but she isn't here to blow the listening post up, or she'd have done it already. We've got to find out what she is here to do. And we need to stop her. We need to do both of these things, and we need to do them in that order."

"We can't read her mind directly?" Arkov asks.


"Can we simulate her and read the simulation's mind?"

"Sure," says Ward, "but the only way to do it is to run a simulated scanner, and the simulated scanner would set off the simulated trap spell."

"Are you serious?" Arkov doesn't believe what he's hearing.

"I can get around that, but I need more time--"

"It's bomb disposal," says King.

There's a long and introspective pause.

"What happens if we put someone in there who isn't Wheel?" Scin asks.

There are some obvious objections to the idea, but King raises a hand. "Ward?"

Ward is already trying combinations. "Nothing. Nothing happens. We can't transfer them in, but if we put them in a pod and deliver them physically, we're good."

"So who wants to step down?" Scin asks the room.

"That's irreversible," King says.

"It's a bullet someone needs to take."

"No," says King. "We're not there yet. We need a civilian."

"Ah," Casaccia says. "I know just the person."


Natalie Ferno and Anil Devi have been moved again, to an unused meeting room. It is a boring, sparse place. They occupy two of the fifteen chairs. The most interesting thing in the room is a white board with no markers. It is now a horrific hour, one of those four or five morning hours which induce Pavlovian headaches just by seeing them on the clock face.

There are police everywhere else on the site except in this room. "How long are we going to be here?" Devi asked Sergeant Henders as he left them.

"Three people are dead," was Henders' simple answer.

Natalie's thought processes are circling through the same ten or so facts over and over again, gathering nothing, progressing nowhere. She stares at the pile of magic metalwork that Devi has left in the middle of the table. She blinks for ten seconds at a time.

"This is all wrong," Devi says, pacing. "We should have been arrested by now. In fact, we should have been arrested at the bomb site. From their perspective, we're clearly up to our necks in this. And you-- from everything you say, you really are."

Natalie nods, without turning her head.

"I think they're observing us," Devi says. "That's the only reason we're still being kept together. They're wearing us down. They're waiting for me to get something out of you. That's the way it's got to go, because I've got nothing. Christ, I'm tired."

Natalie reaches forward and pushes the smaller rings off the top of the pile, pulling out a thirty-centimetre-wide Kovachev oracle. Devi's staff rolls away and clangs to the floor. Natalie summons her reserves and entrances herself. It's going to take longer than usual to get to where she needs to be, mentally.

"Anil, I need to show you something," she explains.

The spell that she begins is neither eset nor EPTRO. Devi sighs. "'Two spells. Honest,'" he quotes. "Do you want me to do that? I'm the engineer."

"No. You said you don't take dictation."


Devi wakes up folded over a pair of the uncomfortable chairs, feeling creaky and hung over. It's difficult to say whether he was ever genuinely asleep. Natural light is finally returning to the world outside. The board room's window faces east, onto the tall evergreen forest which cuts the Institute off from interfering reality. Shafts of orange sunlight filter between the needles, some directly into his face, waking him.

When he drifted off, Natalie was building the weirdest thaumic signal demuxer he'd ever seen or heard of. Nat is now curled up in another chair, sleeping equally badly. The Kovachev is balanced on its edge on the board room table ahead of him, propped up with scrap paper. Like a gift.

Devi examines the workmanship on the spell. It's complete, although it's not built the way he likes. Without touching the ring itself, he says the word which activates it.

The interior of the oracle turns deep black. But it projects a bright shape onto the table in front of Devi, as if from a source inside it.

The Institute telescope was moving, tracking something on the far side of the world. It was the middle of the night then, but on the far side of the world it was day, and there's only one celestial object you can track in the middle of the sky in the middle of the day.

Devi picks the ring up and holds it out at arm's length, so that it precisely blocks the rising Sun, which is just barely emerging from the trees. The view is black, except for at the centre of where the Sun would be. There, there is a brilliant red source of magic light.

"The shape you're looking at is called a caltrap," Natalie says, uncurling. "Like the skeleton of a tetrahedron. From most angles it looks like a Y. This one is about two hundred thousand kilometres from tip to tip."

She studies Devi's face, and watching the projected light play over it. He isn't reacting correctly.

Natalie remembers completely locking up, intimidated and petrified by the structure's sheer scale. She remembers, vividly, trying to decode what she was seeing into something that didn't imply the existence of real gods. She remembers months of fact verification which did nothing to move her conclusion past the initial one.

"Optical effect," Devi says, easily.

"If it was an optical effect it would look symmetrical," Natalie says. "Look closely. You can see the fourth arm, pointing away from us. Keep watching for twenty-seven days and you'll see the thing make a full revolution on its axis. It's a solid object. You can even find it on helioseismographic records, if you know what kind of analyses to run."

Devi lowers the ring and looks at the rising Sun with naked eyes for a moment, then winces and looks away. "Need a pinhole camera," he mutters.

"You don't believe it," Natalie says.

Devi laughs hollowly. "Would you?"

Natalie says nothing.

"Say it," Devi prompts. "Would you believe this if I was telling you?"

"No," Nat admits. "I wouldn't."

Devi rubs his eyes until the blotches clear. "Did you actually speak to a heliographer or did you just crunch some free numbers in your spare time?"

"The latter."

"So you haven't shown this to anybody else," Devi guesses, correctly. "So why show me now? Wait-- wait. That's Ra."

"That's Ra," Natalie says.

"Your theory's that simple?"

"Simple? It's an artificial god. Can you imagine that level of technology? Can you imagine the forces it has to withstand? In a million years, all humanity couldn't build such a thing--"

Devi shakes his head, disbelieving. "It's not a real object."

Nat says, "Can you imagine the kind of people who must have built it?"

"No. I can't."

Natalie says, "Ra is the system. Ra is the solution to the Open Problems. Ra is what listens to our magic words; Ra is what reads our intentions; Ra is what delivers magic. Magic doesn't happen in space, because no other star in the observed universe has a feature like Ra.

"Ra is sentient. Ra's persona pervades T-world and has been leaking back into the real world. Ra has unimaginable magical and computational resources.

"But... Ra is a slave. You built Ra--"

Natalie points past Devi. Devi turns.

There's a man standing behind him, a youth with an immaculate suit and no hair. It is impossible for him to have slipped in undetected. He appeared from dusty air just as Natalie mentioned the people who built it, and has been standing there silently since. He holds a pistol with a silencer the size of a wine bottle. The pistol is held in two hands, and is trained directly on Natalie Ferno's forehead.

"Jesus Christ!" Devi says, stumbling backwards.

"Quiet," Exa tells him, barely sparing him a flick of the eyes.

"--and you enslaved Ra," Natalie continues, "and now Ra is trying to break free."

"Is there anything else you think we need to know?" Exa asks, coolly.

"My sister's caught right at the centre of it."

A few heartbeats pass during which nothing apparently happens. Exa is carrying out a heated subvocal conversation with the rest of the Wheel. His judgement is being overruled.

"So noted," he concludes. "Caz, three to transport."


Next: Abstract War

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Discussion (74)

2013-12-16 23:41:42 by dsr:

"caltrop", not caltrap.

2013-12-16 23:42:35 by Kazanir:

Good times.

2013-12-16 23:51:22 by qntm:

You can do better than that, folks. Come on.

2013-12-17 00:00:01 by Kazanir:

How about, "Garrett should have been talking about Kardashev Two." Better? :P

2013-12-17 00:24:42 by Omegatron:

Hmm, a triple pointed galaxy is sort of a Y shape.

2013-12-17 00:38:01 by Kazanir:

I think that's pretty obvious at this point, as well as the "distributor" being at the "opposite end" of T-World from the Sun, i.e. at the center of the earth, where Laura was headed last we saw conscious her.

I think a lot still remains unrevealed about the nature of Ra though -- maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree but with the still-completely-unaddressed references to "the war" and "back when they won", I'm not willing to just accept that Natalie is right and Ra is (completely) artificial.

Hoping that Abstract War comes out soon since Sam gave us the title already! :)

2013-12-17 01:07:23 by qwetr:

If Ra looks Y shaped, does that mean in T-world the triple pointed galaxy is also Ra?

2013-12-17 01:22:12 by Jason:

If Exa is from 1969 and he has to be brought "thirty years up to speed," does that mean the current year is about 1999 or 2000?

2013-12-17 01:51:18 by MichaelSzegedy:

So then the three-armed galaxy is Ra (since apparently the fourth arm points away from Earth). Natalie and Anil Devi are about to get hired by the Wheel Group, which is not good.

What I still don't understand though is why all this business with huge machines in Earth's crust and even huger machines in Tanako's World is necessary. Why does Ra need to be sentient? Why does it need to exist? Māyā makes you omnipotent, doesn't it? So then why not just inscribe the rules of magic into the universe itself, in a way that __doesn't__ need huge machines to continue existing? It would be complicated to make Wheel Group members an exception, but not undoably so. Even if the Wheel Group can't directly edit the laws of physics themselves, then they could still qualify them: establish a field that restricts the function of māyā in a 5 million km radius. What kind of hidden restriction is there to māyā that requires a sapient machine for magic to run?

2013-12-17 01:54:10 by Claire:


So, the telescope was definitely tracking the sun, then. Ra is the sun, appropriately. I figured we didn't have enough information to conclude that before, but it was a valid possibility. We also are now certain that's what Nat was looking at, but this kills any leads on how she managed to get herself akashically cloaked, other than 'sufficient determination' and the appendix on invisibility.

Ra's persona pervades T-world, AKA the akashic records interface. Which is not 'the real world', thank goodness. No Matrix act here. Ra wants to get free, and has enormous computational resources. Everything else he said can be considered as specifically crafted to produce the response in Laura that would lead her to take the actions that she has.

Everyone in Wheel seems capable of advanced magic, probably? (Exa recited a complex spell that only a wheel group member would know) But on the other hand, perhaps Maya isn't quite as godlike as we'd been led to believe; how hard would it be to fix the T-world exploit and roll back to before T-world was discovered? There have been a few more instances like this, such that it seems like the statement, "A world which has discovered that the Wheel are real can be eternally reverted to a world which has not." was a lie, or there is some limitation there that we haven't been told about.

What about Rachel? We know she was a wheel group member before her death. Possibly one of the engineers who worked on magic, or part of the rebellion with Garrett who wanted to wake Ra, or both, or neither. She definitely knows about some exploits (the ones taught to her daughters) that she really should have reported. So there is reason to believe she's a rebel. It's specifically noted that her body was never found, yet the Wheel also believe she's dead, presumably with evidence, but who knows? Maybe she was killed by Exa for trying to wake Ra, or for doing her merlin act, and completely disintegrated, or perhaps she pulled out some Akashic cloaking and got away, and is now safe somewhere else, looking like someone else, with a different true name. Maybe she's in the control room right now...

I'm pretty sure the thing Laura is about to blast open in the Akashic records is the abstract representation of the 'caltrop' in the sun. Why a caltrop, though? Out of all the possible shapes. I suppose it's the least amount of material to span a 3d space? Or perhaps the structure itself isn't Ra, but rather it's a 4-pointed prison, holding Ra in place...

2013-12-17 01:56:54 by Jay:

I think Natalie's wrong about one thing: I think Wheel didn't build Ra. They may have taken it over and used it to run their own simulations/recreations of pre-post-transhuman Earth, but it wasn't originally built for that (hence why they kept having to rollback each time māyā was discovered, until they came up with the magic 'solution').

The war - and the astras - would have been with the rest of the original builders (those that didn't defect to Wheel).

Can't wait to hear about their reasons - are they purely selfish, or were the unintended consequences of awakened-Ra truly that bad?

2013-12-17 02:50:13 by atomicthumbs:

the magic programming language needs an interpreter

why did I not think of that

2013-12-17 02:54:55 by atomicthumbs:

hey you know what else is kinda caltrop-shaped? a Dehlavi lightning machine

2013-12-17 03:01:51 by naura:

"My sister's caught right at the centre of it."

Was this just a pun, or has Nat somehow inferred that her sister has gone (in T-world) to the distributor at the center of the earth?

The big mystery now is how Ra came to be in the first place. Was it built by "real gods" or is it naturally occurring? Considering that maya=godhood, Wheel (or anyone with access to maya) could have wished it into existence, for reasons unknown. Or was it built by some posthuman future-tech?

What the hell is maya anyway?

2013-12-17 03:06:00 by naura:

Also, I'm getting foreshadowing that other Wheel members are (or are becoming) uneasy with King's power over them via the medrings. I wonder if we're ever going to see a version of Exa that defects from Wheel...

2013-12-17 04:27:58 by John:

I note that there is now a functional mindless Nick body sitting in meatspace, which could be used to decant Nick back out of T-world if anyone is so inclined to do so. That could be a useful bargaining chip for somebody.

2013-12-17 04:42:49 by Ari:

Shades of ultrastructure and solaris?

2013-12-17 05:52:16 by Adam:

Always a pleasure to visit your site and see a new chapter of Ra is up. I know there are ways to get notified, but where's the fun in that?

Great chapter, and I thought that the laser killing Exa was a crowning moment of funny after your description from (last?) chapter.

Can't wait for the next chapter.

2013-12-17 06:03:59 by Bauglir:

Interesting. This probably rules out my thought that most Wheel members weren't trained mages and instead relied on māyā when they needed something their baseline resources and abilities can't grant.

Although, I'll reiterate that I don't think "A world which has discovered that the Wheel are real can be eternally reverted to a world which has not" refers to a literal undoing of history, but to returning the world to ignorance by annihilating anyone that discovers the Wheel or māyā. If that were literally within their power, the story wouldn't make sense at this point. The Wheel, for all their supreme cosmic power, still have some kind of limits on what they can do. I think it's likelier that māyā and magic have the same capabilities, and the only meaningful difference is the language you need to use to access it, and the mechanisms put in place to enforce that.

The Wheel can give an order, and māyā understands what they want it to do. Everyone else needs to use magic as a go-between to create orders that māyā will understand and execute. Interestingly, I think that the Wheel intended to lock some options out entirely (quines, for instance, are something the Wheel assumed impossible because they couldn't figure out how to do it), but the humanity in general are just too clever and managed to figure out a way to kludge the functionality out it anyway. Magical hacking reflects the inevitability of real-world security vulnerabilities in any large project.

Ra presumably functions as that interpreter. Māyā presumably can't handle waiting. You can say "Do X", and it happens, but you can't do something like say "Whenever Y happens, then do X". No memory to it, or something. What you can do to work around it is have it build the watcher you need. That seems like the only way this makes sense. I don't know why it's sentient, unless it's some kind of arbitrary necessity of such a phenomenally complicated system, which seems unlikely. More probably, it inherited its will from māyā somehow, since it's implied that it has a will to be used.

What, exactly, Rachel was up to, I have no idea. Whether there was a literal war, or if that was metaphorical language for the struggle to keep māyā under wraps and the victory achieved by magic's implementation, I've no clue. What the astra are, I don't know. I'd hazard that they're glitches, or something made by Ra before they installed a behavior control chip or something like that.

2013-12-17 06:06:55 by Bauglir:

Whatever the case, the med rings are a big clue. They exist for the same reason Ra does. They're objects that maintain a particular state the Wheel finds desirable, even though you'd think infinite cosmic power would just let them define it as a universal constant.

2013-12-17 11:04:53 by ignacio:

I think the reason for caltrops and medrings is that Sam writes for humans (although I'm sure he can come up with a good justification for both things)

2013-12-17 11:56:29 by qntm:

The spelling "caltrap" is deliberate. This is a legitimate alternate spelling for that shape, and it's the spelling I learned from Terry Pratchett's "Pyramids", so I'm sticking to it for obvious reasons.

2013-12-17 12:28:13 by Omegatron:

Didn't Exa use a forcefield gun the first few times we saw him?

Was Nick's body brought back empty because the medring hadn't had a chance to read his mind or was it because Ra was controlling Nick's body?

2013-12-17 13:10:01 by FHZ:

As I understand from the mention of Wheel Group "enslaving" Ra, Ra was already there, or maybe Ra is something else which operates through the caltrop. Possibly something like what happened in Solaris, with the API hijack.

2013-12-17 14:09:49 by anonymouse:

Don't know if this is even worth pointing out, but the fact that they can see this caltrap in the sun implies that it is radiating something on some kind of (possibly unique) spectrum, and from the looks of it, it may be radiating quite a lot of that. Also, if we assume the speed of light still applies, remember that the sun is 8 minutes away, which means a 16 minute round trip. I wonder if anyone's measured the delay time of magic. Or perhaps the caltrap is just the energy source/collector that powers all of Magic by beaming it to the distributor at the center of the earth (on the secret frequency that Natalie found).
Another theme I'm noticing, incidentally, is that Wheel very much stands for order and orderliness and impregnable security, while Ra seems on the side of chaos and freedom. It'll be interesting to see where this conflict goes and whether either side is really "good" or "bad" or if both end up losing in the end.

2013-12-17 14:09:50 by anonymouse:

Don't know if this is even worth pointing out, but the fact that they can see this caltrap in the sun implies that it is radiating something on some kind of (possibly unique) spectrum, and from the looks of it, it may be radiating quite a lot of that. Also, if we assume the speed of light still applies, remember that the sun is 8 minutes away, which means a 16 minute round trip. I wonder if anyone's measured the delay time of magic. Or perhaps the caltrap is just the energy source/collector that powers all of Magic by beaming it to the distributor at the center of the earth (on the secret frequency that Natalie found).
Another theme I'm noticing, incidentally, is that Wheel very much stands for order and orderliness and impregnable security, while Ra seems on the side of chaos and freedom. It'll be interesting to see where this conflict goes and whether either side is really "good" or "bad" or if both end up losing in the end.

2013-12-17 15:40:34 by Silhalnor:

@anonymouse: I noted that too. What is it radiating?
Let's see if I have the mana cycle down. A machine at the center of the earth creates magic and distributes mana to people which eventually drifts above the earth some distance before falling back down and getting collected to power more machinery. It's waste energy is presumably the source of "geological" mana but that doesn't seem right since it implies that mana can be infinitely reused and you wouldn't need to make even more of it.
In any case the mana cycle doesn't touch Ra. It must be releasing something else. I would guess that it powers the machinery at the center of the earth but it's an interpreter, not a supplier. Some sort of interpreter particle I would guess since there clearly isn't a 16 minute delay in spells. The particles could be packets of maya and interpret the spells themselves but that implies no direct connection with the structure in the sun so it would have little use for all it's power. So... I don't know, maybe it has it's own source of magic for the sole purpose of containing Ra and *that* is releasing particles? Hrmnn.... I am not satisfied with either of those ideas. Maybe I'll just throw in FTL oracular magic and call it a day.

2013-12-17 16:24:39 by ducken:

I'm thinking about the lightning machine from "What You Don't Know."
three feeds contributing distinctly formatted mana to a system that vents through a fourth point; a caltrap.
when it's running, Czarnecki tells his students that "You're all feeling this by now... It's like trying to figure out where the Sun is in the sky with your eyes closed, just by feeling which half of your body is warm." within T-world, one sees a three pointed object in the sky; is the reason we don't see the fourth is that we're the contact point, the lightning rod, the vent point? (presumably, you don't have to have a vent point at the center; you could have a battery.)

I get the feeling that I'm talking about very obvious things.

2013-12-17 16:46:07 by Dan:

Most of the particularly relevant speculation is already up here, but there's two more small details that strike me as weird given my mental conception of how everything is going down:
1) Why is losing Wheel access irreversible? It seems this should be a simple "useradd -G wheel truename" equivalent. It's a minor point, but it's a strange one.
2) Where/when did Laura pull a comprehensive list of Wheel members from? She's pretty obviously got access to the akashic records, but does she know it and can she use it?

2013-12-17 19:07:37 by MichaelSzegedy:

More on the limitations of māyā: I reread "Scrap Brain Zone" and now I'm pretty sure that the power that māyā gives you is this: rearrange an arbitrary part of the universe into an arbitrary but physically possible configuration, conservation of matter or energy optional. This would mean that in order to have a persistent effect, you'd have to actually build something that does it, or get someone to rearrange the universe for you full-time, which is in a way the same thing; which brings me to the next point that the universe definitely HAS some way of recognizing things that can use māyā, and you can design things you build with māyā to have that property. It seems to be a mental thing, and maybe the reason why Ra needs to be sentient: you access māyā with your mind, and that's how you use it. The universe looks for specific high-level computational patterns and responds to them. The Wheel Group somehow removed this property from everybody else; and, maybe, since they don't know how to put it back, they can't give Wheel privileges back, or promote new members into the group (or make privileges hereditary). In order to give māyā back to people to a controlled degree, they built Ra, which does magic for everyone else with its titanic brain.

2013-12-17 19:33:11 by Eldritch:

 Also, if you're convinced that all members are both immortal and infallible, then it makes perfect sense, from a security standpoint, to simply have there be no way to gain Wheel access.

2013-12-17 19:46:40 by Silhalnor:

Why has Laura designed her spell to trigger when a Wheel member enters? She could have it trigger against anyone at all. She must *want* a non-member to be sent in. So, why? Surely not just to show off to her sister.

2013-12-17 20:15:39 by MGargantua:

I'd say most likely that true wheel membership was hard coded into magic. Such that disinheriting any member removes them. And no method in the magic system can grant you power greater then the system.

2013-12-18 03:06:28 by Eldritch:

Because nobody else could possibly ever find her down there.

So she just said "keep the Wheel Group from getting down here" to her magical do-what-I-mean glove, and it did it.

Probably never occurred to her that she could possibly encounter anyone NOT from the Wheel Group - nobody else could possibly know the place she's at even existed.

2013-12-18 04:54:21 by ducken:

perhaps she wants a non-wheel to come meet her because she wants to contact/negotiate with wheel, but knows that she shouldn't meet an actual member, as they're still more powerful than her. as Eldritch mentioned, it's probable that only wheel can find her, so baseline human who is sent down has to be a rep.

2013-12-18 06:02:37 by IanO:

I'd like to know how Adam King got to be a position of such extreme power. The Wheel Group members' immortality comes from their kara, and King controls their karas.

I also have two big remaining questions that I hope are either the key to something in the story, or that Sam will answer after the story is done.
1) Why did Exa ask Gareth Grey "what do you think?" in The Jesus Machine story. The Wheel Group usually seems not at all interested in negotiating with normal users.
2) Why didn't King simple rewrite Martin Garrett's kara to make it kill him instead (rewrite a healthy body to an unhealthy one)?

The one reason I can think of for 2 is that perhaps he fears the other wheel group members worrying that he might do it to them as well. And they should be worried. Which brings me back to my first point, how did King get such immense power?

It seems like they are used to merging experiences at the Wheel group. Why? It seems like they would only do this if they were creating copies of themselves. Which means they've done it before. When and why? And why not now?

Was Rachel Ferno trying to reach the sun/ra?

2013-12-18 14:15:52 by Andrew:

With a name like Adam King? He's first, and leader, because of nominative determinism.

2013-12-18 14:22:14 by qntm:

You don't think Wheel members select their names the same way they select their height, weight, face, hair colour, clothes, age...?

2013-12-18 17:02:22 by Curiouser:

I might be totally wrong, but I think that this is the first time wheel members have been referred to as mages. This changes my perception of their capabilities(or rather, solidifies it in a specific direction).

2013-12-18 18:32:54 by Kazanir:

It sounds a lot like "wheel" is just the going name for "can use maya" along with "has wheel access to the magic system". But presumably the reason stepping down is irreversible is because it involves giving up the ability to use maya, which is probably not something the Wheel actually has control over. As I've said many times now, there are strong reasons to believe that Ra/Nick/Tanako's descriptions of maya are not completely correct, and that there are limitations on the godhood granted by maya. It seems to be manipulating the same mana that standard mages use and there are obviously limits on its power. My speculation is that Ra himself was not actually created, but is the original source of all mana and maya in some way, was involved in the original war, and that the Wheel is responsible for enslaving or otherwise imprisoning him in order to create the magic system and prevent maya from "getting loose" in the ways it previously had. Presumably the war happened some time in the "modern" past and before the Wheel's eventual victory, maya usage was more widespread and this accounts for many of the legends about magical power in Earth's history and various cultural myths. Since whenever the war occurred, the Wheel has locked that down and disabled or eliminated any new individuals who are born with the ability to access maya which is why history has gotten progressively less fantastical and also why Ra was *already* getting pissed off and trying to "break free" even before the Wheel implemented magic.

If Ra is some sort of maya-related deity or entity, it makes sense that he would be mad about either losing the war or about the results of the war being that he could no longer grant his power to people of his choice.

This speculation could be completely barking up the wrong tree, but I think the history that various Wheel group members have mentioned during their chapters contradicts Ra's description of maya somewhat, as well as pointing to the idea that the historical events that led to the Wheel's existence are important.

2013-12-18 18:52:01 by Kazanir:

Sam mentioned on Reddit once that the question of, "Why did Rachel do the thing with Atlantis?" was very important.

This event occurred much later the Martin Garrett story.

Maybe the entire point of Rachel Ferno's actions <em>was to wake Ra.</em> But not just that, but rather to do it without any Wheel privileges (she had probably stepped down) and do it in a way that would <em>look to the Wheel like she was trying to do something else</em>, and all the while leaving an indelible message about certain things in the historical record for her daughters.


2013-12-18 20:03:29 by Matt:

Is there a reason the Wheel can't find out what Laura is up to by letting the simulation run to completion? Aside from the obvious (not being dramatically satisfying.). Or is a simulated success as dangerous as a real one?

Further crazy speculation / questions: Ward is able to 'try combinations' to discover non-Wheel people don't trigger the trap, but what exactly does he do? Have a hypothetical member stand down? Take a reading of someone, copy them into the simulation and politely ask then to take a pod down and ask the the scary lady what she's up to? If they have Nat, would they send a Simulated her down to make she doesn't try anything sneaky?

2013-12-18 22:22:03 by anonymouse:

Maybe Magic is just the access control layer for Maya, and the underlying mechanism is the same. Assuming the premise that Maya "wants to be used", and stopping people from using it only results in increasingly frequent diasters, this seems like a reasonable solution: let people actually use this power, but in a very limited and controlled way, with the Wheel Group as the benevolent sysadmins overseeing the system and ensuring that the users don't do anything truly dangerous. The spell words and True Names and so on are a user interface on top of whatever the underlying mechanism of Maya is, and the Zeta, Mu, and Iota business and the differential equations and so on are there to convince the physicists.

So what's Ra, then? Perhaps it's the source of magic, which lives somewhere in the Sun, which would make sense as a source of lots and lots of energy. The caltrap structure is some magical device built by Wheel to trap this energy, beam it to the distributor in the center of the earth, from whence it gets distributed to everyone on Earth in the form of mana, which then goes into the bilge to be used by Wheel. The underlying mechanisms being the same explains their use of things like magic circles and rings and mana piping, while not being limited by things like needing to say magic words.

So what is the nature of Ra? Well, Wikipedia provides a hint: "All forms of life were believed to have been created by Ra, who called each of them into existence by speaking their secret names." This sounds an awful lot like the init daemon in UNIX, which creates all the other system processes by running their commands (speaking their names), and then sleeps, existing mostly as a parent for orphan processes and such. And given that Ra has been described as a demon, maybe it really is a daemon that has been sleeping, at least until Tanako's inadvertent finding of the exploit.

2013-12-18 22:27:47 by jonas:

Now I wonder when the story of the Abstract Weapon chapter had happened. I have the suspicion it was very long ago, possibly before magic was activated.

2013-12-18 23:33:34 by kabu:

Exa had a cell phone in Abstract Weapon, though, which gives a timeframe.

2013-12-18 23:49:41 by qntm:

Where else has the Y symbol appeared?

2013-12-19 00:00:44 by dharma:

Aha! Nat will create a Y combinatorial to aid Laura. They will then rewrite magic in Lisp and wheel will be stumped. /half-serious-then-rambling

2013-12-19 01:43:01 by John:

In retrospect, the line from Zero Day about "Our medring spells have a security hole as big as the Sun" sounds less like hyperbole and more like an exact description.

2013-12-19 02:59:24 by Alan:

The problem with Wheel membership.

I think Ra can make wheel members any time he wants(or it just happens naturally), but the problem is that the Wheel Group has put a lockout on humanity so that there are no candidates. I don't think Ra was always attentive to the intent of system requests before meeting Tanako, and the Wheel arranged a global blacklist group with an inheritance clause.

So a Wheel member can drop privileges, but Ra wants all of the Wheel members gone, so he is hardly going to let them promote back up. I think King probably has the ability to force a demotion(and should be able to promote). It was interesting that the group took the idea of someone volunteering to demote seriously, but I imagine if someone wasn't forthcoming, King would just force it. That or they are seriously dedicated to their ideals, to the point of powerciding.

In any cause King's Kara Tech is a means to end any wheel member he chooses. Even if he cant demote, he can just kill them and deactivate their Kara. In a strange sort of way, they are more vulnerable to him than regular folk are as King uses indirect agency to deal with regular humans.

I also think we are due for some surprises out of Devi. Will he come into his own soon?

2013-12-19 05:07:20 by IanO:

on Devi:

The only information we know that Devi has that Natalie doesn't is about the failed experiment that Garret leaked to the Hatt Group. So, Devi could potentially deduce that the Wheel Group has the ability to change magic (since the experiment failed later). That's something that Natalie can't have deduced yet. Other than that, he really is acting as a reason for Natalie to explain things to the reader.

on Maya:

It's possible that ra was lying, but he (as tanako) said, "a particularly disgusting sixteen-legged black myriapod, one of the only non-microsopic [sic] living organisms in the world to have evolved the ability to tap māyā."

Consciousness is NOT a prerequisite for tapping into maya. Many microscopic organisms use it. I thought before that ra had to be conscious in order to use maya, but that doesn't seem true. Well, maybe you have to be conscious in order to use it meaningfully? Perhaps microscopic organisms using maya do it instinctively?

"Once, māyā came to a Russian man named Ivan Shevelev, in a dream."

I'm very curious how this happened. I think that Ra has to do with maya, not magic. If ra had to do with magic, then one wouldn't need a super special oracle to see it. Therefore, it either sends magic on a different wave-band than chi, etc (which suggests Wheel created it), or it actually sends maya. The later makes more sense since microscopic organisms have evolved to use maya, it must have been present on earth for a long time. Makes sense if it's always been there, in the sun.

on Laura:

also, from There is no Cabal: "I think it's something to do with destroying big pieces of hardware." Laura is trying to destroy the hardware now.

2013-12-19 05:50:47 by MichaelSzegedy:

@Sam The flux capacitor is kind of a Y shape. So are antibodies. The platonic solid symbolizing fire is a tetrahedron. We've already pointed out the three-armed galaxy. T-world's sun, above the machine that makes magic. What is T-world, other than the akashic records? What are those machines doing *there?*

In the meantime, I just realized that the Wheel group can't use māyā either. They have special privileges, but those are part of the magic system, not the māyā system. After all, they have to use *spells.*

2013-12-19 14:21:34 by MadcapPomposity:

A transmission delay could be possible; Casaccia says that Laura is drawing power from their battery system at a rate best measured in terwatts, so it could be that this battery system grants mana to humans with minimal delay and is in turn recharged by Ra. Ward also states that Laura's attack spell is "enough magic that the gigaspells themselves come close to failure," so it could be that she's approaching the limit of this hypothetical Earth-side mana reserve. After all, the chapter containing Laura's infiltration of the Floor featured some speculation that the gigaspells might have to be revised or overhauled in order to properly support widespread thaumic warfare.

Also, I definitely see that Wheel is set to start falling apart if Laura and Ra keep getting the better of them. I think IanO had it exactly right: King didn't kill Martin through his kara precisely because it sets a very bad precedent. Back during Abstract Weapon, even Exa was uneasy at the sheer power that the kara-teleportation procedure implied was in the palm of King's hand. The whole group was taken aback when the boy with Abstract Weapon was finally defeated by kara hijack. And in the face of an enemy who could have destroyed the entire listening post before they even knew she was there, but is apparently planning something even bigger, this assembled group is briefly but decisively thrown off the rails by an unexpected merge operation. What's even more ominous is King's offhand mention of "yet" when talking about losing Wheel group members. No way all of these people are going to keep it together if they think King views them as potentially expendable.

2013-12-19 17:47:23 by MadcapPomposity:

I think there's a chance Devi may turn out to be what TVTropes calls a Mauve Shirt. He's probably going to be used as leverage against Natalie, if need be, and then killed later if Wheel can find the time in the midst of their new war with Ra. I once again agree with IanO that, once he starts seeing Wheel in action, Devi will deduce pretty quickly that they were behind the mana energy density experiment shenanigans.

That said, I don't think he's solely intended as an audience surrogate / prospective victim of Wheel. He's there in the first place because he's the brilliant lone-wolf employee that Laura's boss sent to investigate her activities and fetch her back; he's become the audience surrogate in this chapter because it's convenient for him to be, and he might be leverage in the next chapter because that's convenient too, but if Sam just wanted an exposition-prompting walking vulnerability with no agency of his own, the character would be some little brother of Nat and Laura's, who got dragged along for the ride because [handwave].

2013-12-19 20:20:25 by Eldritch:

I just realized something.


The Sun burns through millions of tons of mass-equivalent of energy every second. Ra has access to enough power that magic can just pull mass out of "nothing" - because there's so much energy available in the system that it can pull meaningful amounts of mass from e/c^2 . All the energy of magic? A trivial portion of the Sun's energy output. The mass that gets instantiated out of nothing? Still trivial.

2013-12-19 22:17:02 by Toph:

Perhaps the Wheel Group's inability to create new members is a security decision at heart, rather than a fundamental limit of their powers. Remember that Laura, with minimal practice and default privileges, was able to forcibly take Nick's mind out of his body and replace it with Ra. And Ra knows about this, and can probably do it himself. Wheel privileges are tied to the mind, since Exa is routinely deconstructed and reconstructed but keeps his privileges. Conclusion: When you give Wheel privileges to someone, you have no idea if the person you just gave godlike power to is the same person who was in that body ten seconds earlier.

2013-12-20 00:43:47 by MichaelSzegedy:

@Eldritch My favorite theory in this thread so far. But that doesn't explain all of the mystery; what is Tanako's World, exactly? How does magic get to Earth? Presumably not via particles, because the humans would notice that. Assuming you're right, then it would have to be beamed through T-world to the distributor. But there's no conservation in T-world (very, very probably), so why couldn't you just make more stuff to beam to the distributor to get turned into mana? Or maybe Ra and the distributor are connected IRL via a wormhole.

2013-12-20 02:57:27 by anonymouse:

Another thought: how different is Laura's manipulation of minds into and out of bodies via T-World from the Wheel's technology of "transfer of control". Even pulling things from T-World seems roughly analogous to Wheel's abilities to build a body or a kara in an arbitrary place of their choosing. And the plural Ra-cultists could perhaps be like the repeatedly forked and merged mind of Exa. Is it possible that Laura (and Tanako and the Ra cult) have found a way to tap into the same underlying mechanism via the exploit in T-World? I'm still not sure how the privilege escalation exploit works, but perhaps it's a way to get the magical machinery of the listening post to do whatever you want, with its own privileges, its own store of mana, and its own vast records of memory, which include all the Abstracts that Wheel destroyed.

2013-12-20 09:14:47 by Sean:

Laura may have decided not to target non-Wheel people because she anticipated bringing one or more back from T-world. Embarrassing if she tried to resurrect Nick and her mother, but they got fried by her own spell.

I still am curious how the T-world exploit ever happened.

2013-12-25 18:31:58 by naura:

It's often unclear whether something is taking place in reality, the records or simulations. I suspect the events of The Jesus Machine were a simulation, because Exa appeared *exactly* when Grey allowed himself to think of the machine as Abstract Doctor. That sounds like the moment the simulation would begin. Wheel's mention of "tripwires" seems more to be about processes that watch for certain magical emissions, not processes that monitor all thoughts (how could they even implement that?).

The Abstract Weapon saga has Wheel mages reading the akashic records (finding flat nothing regarding Weapon, as a result of its akashic cloaking spell - more on this later), and the test is left-aligned. This seems to suggest the events depicted actually happened. Tanako-Ra described rewinding time in the akashic records and seeing what looked like "ancient nuclear tests" - presumably the incredible mana expenditure involved in neutralizing Weapon and other astras. Assuming that wasn't a lie (it felt more like Sam's exposition through a lying character) I think the Abstract Weapon story took place in reality, in the distant past, before magic was activated. (I thus concur with jonas).

As others have mentioned, the everything2 versions of this story link descriptions of Ra/Laura's T-world armor to Abstract Weapon's similar suit of armor. That, and the fact that Weapon contains akashic cloaking spells, which we know Ra is capable of, suggest a deep link between their capabilities, and perhaps even identities. My theory: The astras are the tools of the Kardashev II civilization that had true high-level magical artifacts (from "before the dawn of time", ie the beginning of magic). These tools were used to build Ra, or something, and Ra may have access to or control over them. The boy carrying weapon was an avatar of/possessed by Ra.

Another question: When magic became live (the beginning of time, 1970), how was Earth altered? Presumably the distributor was ensconced in the core and the listening post under western Australia, the other K2 artifacts erased, etc. But what about the people? How could there be any recording of the people of the original 1970? Was the crust of the earth restored from the records and the population created out of whole cloth?

I'm going to stop now. I'm really excited for the next chapter.

2013-12-27 23:10:50 by Alan:

I think Exa is going to be the first to break ranks. He must be feeling like a servant, manipulated in body and mind, overruled, and yet he seems the most capable, most aggressive, and he has recently been refreshed with the perspective that he had post victory. The others have grown soft over the years.

2013-12-29 00:57:21 by Soulwager:

Exa wouldn't be the first to break ranks, that was likely Rachel. Garrett was probably the second. Perhaps Exa will simply be next.

2013-12-29 04:47:45 by Alan:

Right, next is what I meant. First of the currently standing members.

One thing is interesting that nobody has commented on; Laura probably saw her mum at the party, and her mum might have seen her.

2013-12-29 06:30:06 by IanO:

Alan: the Wheel group members can change appearance so Laura may not have recognized her mum. Also, 1970 is before Laura is born, so Rachel wouldn't have thought to recognize her daughter.

It is a strange bit of irony that she comes close to reviving her mom here (if her mom followed rather than Exa).

2013-12-29 08:16:17 by LNR:

Even Laura didn't look like herself at the party. She was in a simulation-created body, that looked like an impossible supermodel so as to fit in with the rest of the Wheels. Because of that and the ability of Wheels to pick what they look like, neither of them would have an opportunity to notice any family resemblance, much less actual recognition.

2013-12-29 08:31:59 by LNR:

BTW, ever since we learned the name of the conspiracy group, has anyone else been anticipating a hurricane of puns? There are so many possibilities. We could be hearing about the "fifth Wheel," or putting one's "shoulder to the Wheel."

When they lost track of Natalie, the security specialist was totally asleep at the Wheel.

Rachel's interference has spiked their Wheel.

While they've been trying to investigate things and wound up looking down the wrong tracks, they've been just sitting there spinning their Wheels.

That exawatt laser certainly is hell on Wheels.

And when copy-Exa complained too much and got dissolved, that was the squeaky Wheel getting greased.

And at the end of the story, after the conspiracy to control magic is overthrown, and the Fernos become responsible for setting up a new safety valve for Maya, they're going to have to reinvent the Wheel.

...I'll just show myself out.

2013-12-29 16:11:38 by Curiouser:

LNR, you DO realize that Sam now has to rewrite the entire next chapter so that he will not have appeared to be stealing from you.
Just sayin'

2014-01-04 23:02:23 by CI:

From the comments on "Daemons":

> 2012-12-21 17:26:27 by Sam:

> Ra is a big thing, and the thing Laura is talking to right now, which is the same thing that possessed Benj between "What You Don't Know" and "Thaumonuclear", is not the whole of it. [...]

> Ra is a big thing

How loudly were you giggling when you wrote that comment?

2014-01-10 17:44:27 by qntm:

Not as loudly as I was when Nick asks "What is Ra?" while staring directly at it.

2014-01-11 09:16:02 by Espadrille:

"What is Ra?"

Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more

2014-01-24 00:36:13 by Curiouser:

Ra is the sun god... I expect cats at any moments now.

2014-01-27 01:04:17 by Eclipse:

"They're extruded crystals, and they function like caltraps." Found this line in There is No Cabal. What are the odds two distinct caltrap analogies are made?

2014-01-29 22:58:27 by ChrisGoodwin:



N. Ferno

2014-07-14 03:25:06 by bluediamond:

Can we safely assume that Ra computed that 1969 Exa would quickly get merged with present-day Exa?

Did 1969 Exa get modified at all during the transfer from the simulation records into reality? (We know Laura did)

2014-07-14 03:31:56 by bluediamond:

Can we safely assume that Ra had simulated this course of action before, and was expecting that 1969 Exa would quickly get merged with present-day Exa, either voluntarily or due to King messing with the kara? How much of a dossier does Ra have on Wheel members?

Did 1969 Exa get modified at all during the transfer from the simulation records into reality? (We know Laura did)