"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?"
"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.
"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
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?"
"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."