This Can't Happen

Previously

Laura doesn't have time for disorientation or indecision. The universe is half black and half red, rolling around her like some demonic Macintosh mouse ball, furious wind is rising in her ears, there's an organ-rearranging urge to vomit-- all of this is irrelevant. "Tanako" got the drop on her, again. The last time, she vows. It's the end of the world. Plan A. Beat the Glass Man.

She powers all the way up to her phoenix form, full aerospace mobility with a twelve-metre wingspan. Dynamic pressure hammers into her wings, slowing her corkscrew roll. Purple crosshairs flash across her HUD, highlighting the mana output from Nat, Anil and even Nick. Far below them all, Rachel Ferno is a paralysed, dying blip, and the Bridge is outputting a weird alien helix of red and blue. But all the blips are dwarfed by the tornado of leaky force shields which represents the Glass Man.

Laura folds her wings around herself, aims her engines at the sky and dives. One second and she's past the other three. One point five and she's through the peregrine falcon's record, officially the fastest-moving animal on Earth.

The Glass Man looks up. Laura is the brightest thing in the sky, unmistakeable in both the optical and thaumic spectra. He raises a hand to fire. But Laura's coming back to the fight with the bones of a plan, which starts like this: He's human. Humans need to see. She beats him to the trigger, blinding him pre-emptively with magnesium-white light. His first shot misses. It's a drill spell, pushing a rifled cylindrical force field through the air, a gunshot minus the gun and the bullet. It cracks the air open like a hollow thunderbolt. Laura vectors sideways as hard as she can while still closing the gap. Closing his eyes and going thaumic, the Glass Man fires twice more at the luminous being bearing down on him. The second shot grazes Laura's hull, doing no obvious damage but sapping almost all of its structural energy. The third punches directly through her left wing, destroying it and gouging a channel of flesh out of her physical shoulder. Laura howls, more in shock than in pain, as adrenaline cushions almost all of the injury. She staggers in the air, losing her streamlining and starting to roll out of control. She fights it with thrusters, but it isn't enough to recover.

The Glass Man shrugs, scolding himself lightly for wasting time on pointless projectile combat. He reaches out with his other hand, forming a claw grip, as if grasping some invisible throat. Then, he simply teleports Laura into the appropriate gap, discarding her hawk form and all of her momentum.

Laura chokes. At this heart rate, the lack of oxygen is immediately life-threatening. She feels pressure in her head rising, as if blood is about to start forcing its way out of her tear ducts. The Glass Man's "glasswork" follows the contours of his face so closely that Laura can almost see the curled lip, the single eyebrow raised in grudging admiration. The Bridge, floating obediently behind him, simmers down from the sudden activity, fading in colour from actinic purple to nominal dull red.

"Back from backup, hmm?"

Laura manages to grind out an unintelligible sound. She latches onto the Man's wrist with one hand, pulling futilely. Charitably, he relaxes his grip by just a fraction, granting her enough air to spit out an epitaph.

"Anhtnaa vaeka."

Her self-defence spell fires from the hip, scything up from her other hand into the Man's midsection, crossing his armpit and face. There's a screech like steel across granite across glass. The Glass Man turns his head aside for a second, as if in a light breeze. Then he turns back, unscratched.

And now, says the smug little voice in Laura's head, which is even starting to sound like the Glass Man, it's over.

Laura begins to black out. She relaxes and lets it happen, because whether she's won or not isn't up to her anymore.

And the Bridge, with its braid cleanly severed, falls out of the Glass Man's control.

He notices, after that one moment. He even starts to turn. Too late.

It's Anil who catches the Bridge, landing on it at a relative speed of more than a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Without shock absorption, the impact would break him in half, but he's wearing a shield which Laura - through half-closed eyes that are rolling back - recognises, one she wrote herself years back, EPTRO. The Bridge plugs itself enthusiastically into Anil's brain, and he disappears, too quickly for the Glass Man to loose a shot at him. For a second, there's no further movement.

"What--" the Glass Man begins.

A Montauk ring clunks into existence around his neck.

His firestorm of magic caves in on itself. The mana is all sucked into storage. His shields collapse, including the reinforced armour field which was gripping Laura by the throat, and the light-negative layer. Behind it, he's just another immaculately-suited Wheel Group-esque male, same ideal jawline, same piercing blue eyes. His flight spells evaporate and he and Laura fall away from one another. He clutches the ring at his throat with both hands, but it's too small to come off. His face is a picture of perplexed shock.

Laura, rubbing the circulation back into her own throat, thinks he looks like he doesn't understand how the fight ended this way, so soon. Like he wants more time, to work those seconds out again.

*

They materialise on the emergency runway at Cape Kennedy, with a nominal flash of blue-red lightning. Anil immediately drops to his knees beside Rachel Ferno. She has arrived lying down, with enough metalwork embedded in her head that it props her up. Blood, black under the pervasive red light of the global warning signs, is pulsing weakly out of the fresh wounds in her skull and dribbling down the wires. Some of it begins to spread across the runway surface. Her fingers twitch.

Anil summons Ed Hatt's kara and slots the ring over Rachel's right hand. "There is no reason why this shouldn't work," he says, the closest thing he has to a prayer. Nick kneels alongside Anil and feels for Rachel's pulse, the rest of his limited first aid knowledge effectively useless here. Natalie and Laura hang back. Laura is dealing with her own injuries, and Natalie can't stomach the sight.

(Thousands of miles away, Hatt clutches at a sudden empty spot at his wrist. He is standing dumbfounded at his office window, staring at the impossible red holograms which tessellate across the entire sky. He knows what the warning signs signify, but he has no idea how to react to this information. High energy magic? How high? Is something going to explode? Is it the world?)

"Are we absolutely sure that this is a Wheel Group medical ring?" Nick asks.

"One thousand percent sure," Anil says. "Ed Hatt wasn't Wheel, he didn't know how to use it. But she does."

"But she's nearly dead. Seven-eighths dead."

"Doesn't matter. It can work. It has to work." Anil stares into Rachel's pierced, blind eyeballs for a second. He curses sharply and checks his wristwatch. "I lost track of time. It must have been sixty seconds already."

The ring evaporates. A thin wisp of smoke curls up in front of them all, glittering red, then dissipates into the breeze coming off the ocean.

Rachel Ferno exhales, and that's the end.

Laura blinks. "What just happened?"

"I. I don't know," Anil says. He invents hopelessly, not daring to turn and look either Ferno sister in the eye. "A permissions issue or a s-special case or something. You said she was ex-Wheel, she never had a ring? Maybe she was never meant to have a ring, maybe they set it up so that she-- couldn't ever use--"

Nick drops Rachel's wrist and instead feels at the side of her throat. There's nothing there either. "She's dead."

There's a long, chilly, bitter silence.

Now.

"So what else was there?" Anil asks anybody who's listening, trying to conceal his cracking nerve. "Because, ah. With fifteen minutes left to work, I was really banking everything on Rachel Ferno magically fixing this for us, if you'll excuse the expression."

"You said something about moving the Earth?" Nick offers, desperately.

Anil glances at Natalie. She is shaking her head, and without any verbal communication the two of them arrive at a solid shared conclusion: for mundane mages, with mundane amounts of mana, under such absurd time constraints, it's absolutely futile.

Now. Do it.

Laura shakes herself free of Natalie and takes the Bridge. A rectilinear chunk of dark metal, it has off-puttingly little mass, as if made of steel-plated helium. Eager to be put to work, its connecting cables unthread themselves from the side of Anil's head and bond with Laura's once more.

"There was a Man made of Glass," she says. "He won't even have hit the water yet." She turns and strides down the axis of the dark runway, delivering two commands into the Bridge and then releasing it to take up station behind her shoulder. The deep gouge in that shoulder is forgotten. She flexes her hands.

"Laura?" Natalie turns, detecting an anticipatory growl in her sister's voice. It makes sense to her to summon the Glass Man back, perhaps there's some desperate final gambit there, an outside chance that he still hasn't destroyed his copy of the key, but Natalie realises just too late that this is not at all what Laura is thinking. "Laura, DON'T--"

Laura raises two hands high above her head and summons her mother's magic staff, a thin, two-metre rod of heavy steel. The Glass Man appears ahead of her, stumbling, suddenly reoriented, still with the Montauk ring wrapped around his neck. He finds his footing and looks up and Laura convinces herself she can see his pupils narrow to pinpricks in the split second before she brings the end of the rod down on the top of his skull.

He breaks open with a black splatter and a sick crumbling noise; he plunges chin-first into the asphalt. Laura waits a second for the corpse's limbs to settle, then pulls the staff clear from its resting place, just above the bridge of the Man's nose, and hits him a second time, scattering more matter.

"Oh, Jesus," Anil says.

"She's lost it," Nick says, transfixed.

And a third time.

"Laura, that's enough!" Natalie shouts.

Laura turns. Her eyes might as well be on fire. "She's dead, Nat."

"I know."

"He killed her. It's over. Are you happy, now?"

"No." Nat is almost unreadable; she's devoting all her concentration to not looking directly at the remnants of Laura's work, and blotting out the fleeting moment of partial recognition. She holds a hand out. "Give me the Bridge."

"We're going to die today, Nat," Laura cries. "We've got nothing else." She winces and clutches her shoulder again as the injury reasserts itself. There's blood soaking all the way down to her wrist now. She didn't notice. She drops the staff.

"Yes," Natalie says. "We lost. Now, for the love of God, give control of this thing to someone with the faintest fucking idea what she's doing."

Laura hesitates for an uncomprehending moment. She doesn't know what there is left to do. Dumbly, shaking her head, she hands the Bridge over to Natalie. Nat inspects the artifact for the first time, turns it over, toys with the cables. She seems to find it to be to her satisfaction.

Anil checks his watch again. "I give us twelve minutes and change."

Nat closes her eyes for just a second. She can see where she needs to go now, the best guess. It's not a good guess, and maybe a year or ten from now she'll wake up in the middle of the night with a stabbing realisation that there was a scintillatingly obvious route to salvation standing in front of them the whole time. But she boxes that reaction up, and stacks it with all of the others.

"When the sky clears," she says, "that will mean you can stop counting." She disappears.

 

Next: Free

Back to Ra
Back to Fiction
Back to Things Of Interest

Discussion (17)

2018-06-01 21:14:18 by qntm:

First a super quick update to the spoiler policy: please do not discuss the events of a later chapter in the thread for an earlier chapter, and also please do not discuss DRAFTS of future chapters which you may have seen. Thank you!

So! Why does Ra have a new ending?

I think most people would agree that the original ending of Ra is, at minimum, very abrupt. It comes off as rushed... which is ironic because that final chapter took four times as long as normal for me to write. I find it very unsatisfactory that almost every in-flight plot thread was summarily ditched into the ground for that ending. Only a very few characters get any kind of wrap-up or final word. And I think it's just ridiculous that the primary conflict of the story is resolved out of nowhere by someone more powerful than any of the main characters who just appears right at the end. That, friends, is one of the oldest negative tropes in the book.

It's also a downer ending, but that was less significant for me. Sometimes down is where you want to end.

The original ending is that way because I was exhausted with the story and I needed it out of my life. It was occupying a huge amount of psychological space. I've thought for a long time that I could do better if I could find the enthusiasm and line up enough good ideas. This year I finally carved out enough space and time to do it.

Many thanks to everybody who read drafts and gave feedback when I made them available. All of your feedback was heard, and much of it has been acted on. You will find that not everything is the same as it was in the drafts.

I may have mentioned once or twice that what I actually wanted to do was fork the story right before "Abstract War" and rewrite the entire second half of it, excising the entire Actuals/Virtuals storyline. This is, on current showing, never going to happen. Also, my current plan for a sequel is to never do a sequel.

So here we go again. Thanks again for reading!

What's going to become of the original ending? It's still there, you can read it!

Is the old ending still "canon"? Has it been replaced by the new ending? Well, I like the new ending better, and you'll see that reflected in the page structure here on the site. But I'll level with you: none of these events have actually taken place.

2018-06-01 22:57:02 by theTrueMikeBrown:

Sam, I am glad that you finally are ready to try at the ending of this again. I found your work in SCP to be interesting, but nothing like your work in your own worlds.

Thanks for this chapter!

2018-06-02 04:23:03 by Maca:

Is is possible to get a summary for what has happened so far? I read this story years ago and don't necessarily remember it that well, but reading previous references refreshes my memory. Don't want to re-read it either.

2018-06-02 05:32:49 by Ratherdashing59 :

I had just about given up hope that you would write fiction again. I was so excited when I saw this posted today! Can’t wait for the rest to come.

2018-06-02 07:36:02 by Lumancer:

Very excited to see you taking another stab at this. While I do think that the original ending was valuable for its... brutal dedication to consequences? I can also understand the desire to give the story an ending with more closure.

Interesting that medring rejects Rachel in this timeline. Anil's guesswork aside that's hard to grok, but I can understand why Rachel's presence would be antithetical to a satisfying solution produced by the core cast. I look forward to seeing how you wrap this up!

2018-06-02 13:45:12 by qntm:

Ratherdashing59: you do know I've been writing SCP stuff for the last few years, right? <http://www.scp-wiki.net/qntm-s-author-page>

2018-06-02 20:27:44 by Greg:

Glad to see you writing a new Ra ending! I discovered Ra and the rest of your sci-fi stories a couple years ago and enjoyed them quite a bit, but still found the original Ra ending unsatisfying. It is exciting to read the story as it is in progress now. As a former lurker, this is my first comment on your site.

2018-06-04 07:31:48 by JJJS:

I don't see Rachel as a deus ex machina. The entire story builds towards her showing up. It's less satisfying for her to appear then immediately die, imo.

2018-06-05 03:08:20 by XononoX:

As a recap: Laura has been tricked into reawakening Ra, and an exiled member of the Wheel group has brought the Bridge out of Tanako's World, which now gives him extraordinary power over matter and energy within the solar system.

In the original ending to the story, at this point, Laura wins the fight against the Glass Man and uses the Bridge to ressurect her mother, Rachel. Rachel understands what is happening to the solar system, and while they rest their hope of winning the fight against Ra on her, she knows that they pose absolutely no threat to it, and their only hope is to survive the coming apocalypse.

In the following chapters, Rachel used the Bridge to download the minds of everyone on Actual Earth and preserve them in a tiny but gargantuan computer system. She stored this system on a spaceship the size and shape of a javelin, which she then flung in the direction of the Sirius star system at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Ra destroyed the Actual Earth and used its matter to construct a Matrioshka Brain around Sol, closing it's visible light off to the rest of the universe and resuming the lives of the many quadrillions of Virtual inhabitants within it.

This time, Rachel is dead for good, and the previous ending is no longer an option for our heroes, so Natalie Ferno takes matters into her capable hands.

2018-06-05 05:47:00 by Sean:

I am intrigued by this, although I don't have much to judge at this point, since the main point of divergence here is in who does what due to Rachel's death. (Laura kills Glass, Nat is now the one with the Bridge and an odd degree of confidence, as opposed to both being Rachel.)

I will push back a bit toward one of the earlier statements here, about RA vs. the SCP stuff. I have been following your work since 2006 or so, and I think you have been improving monotonically. E.g. most of Ra is better than most of Fine Structure, and as a series, your work on SCP-3125 is best of all. (E.g. "Your Last First Day" strikes me as being the best case of you "sticking the landing" on a series, whereas Ra had an excellent start/middle, but it feels like you didn't know where to take it in the end, which is why it's interesting that you're going back to it.) Anyway, I'm interested in this, but I hope that your 5^5 series (or even some new project) still gets some love too.

2018-06-10 01:56:50 by 1:

the old ending always bothered me. at that point they weren't righting Ra or any real controlling intelligence as far as i could tell, instead they were fighting the instruction to destroy the earth and build the brain.

2018-06-12 02:28:55 by FaustoV:

In one side I love that you're giving real closure to this amazing series. On the other, I keep pressing 55555 3 to 5 times a day. Who knows why.

2018-06-13 03:47:48 by DanielH:

Oh, thank you. I loved most of the story but hated the original ending. I hope to like this one better, but first I need to go back and re-read everything.

2018-06-18 22:27:26 by MadcapPomposity:

Huh. The first time around, I didn't find Rachel Ferno's return to be as offensive as Sam finds it. From the external perspective, there always had to be some final twist or revelation to overcome a seemingly insoluble predicament; and from the internal perspective I thought it made as much sense as anything else that Rachel was the one to push them across the finish line, given that she IS near the center of all these interlocking conspiracies and most of the story HAS been Laura's quest to resurrect her. (It also helped that she was introduced as Ashburne quite a few chapters before the end.)

But on the other hand, I'm looking at the new trajectories of everybody's arcs and it does seem to make more thematic sense for Laura to fail entirely in her resurrection-quest than to succeed with a stupefying amount of collateral damage. It also seems to make more thematic sense that to whatever extent this fucking mess gets straightened out, it ought to get straightened out by Natalie, whose novel scrying spell was Wheel's impetus for the initial botched assassination attempt, and who has been chewing at this Ra business responsibly and methodically and above-all QUIETLY the whole time. In retrospect, the core of this story had been the contrast and friction between Laura and Natalie, at least until Rachel showed up being a sort of fusion of both of their strengths. I see myself liking this ending better already.

In any case, Sam, I'm always glad to see new work from you. Your anti-memetics division stuff over on the SCP wiki certainly has me anticipating more as well.

2018-06-19 15:07:46 by Silhalnor:

Wow! Hello, again! This is exciting~ (You used to have plans for a sequel? I had no idea. An alternate ending sounds better than any sequel I can think of offhand, though!)

> But I'll level with you: none of these events have actually taken place.
I’m not quite sure what you mean. Is this basically fanfiction? I.e. The original ending is definitively “more canon” than this one?

> http://www.scp-wiki.net/qntm-s-author-page
Oh wow, you *have* been writing. I had no idea! I will have to check this out sometime.


I still feel like turning Laura full villain-wannbe was unnecessary, though. I thought she was fine. Flawed, definitely, but not hopelessly so. Like, before, I got the feeling she *cared* about things but was simply extremely blunt and… not very good at it. Whereas now it’s like she couldn’t care less if everyone dies so long as she gets what she wants and the only reason she’s *not* a villain is because there’s another villain in her way.


@Sean
> the main point of divergence here is in who does what due to Rachel's death.
Y’know, that’s interesting. They both execute the Glass man. For… what may as well be similar reasons as far as I can tell. (Vengeance. What other reason could she have when imprisonment is cheap? Reformation is harder but can be delayed until a suitable time.) Both instances of murder were shocking but Laura’s act seems a lot more unhinged. Why is that? Rachel’s was cleaner and—as I recall—she monologued at people whereas Laura just gets to the point.

Heh... it's been so long I use a new name now. Will stick with the old one for recognizability's sake.
--Lemma

2018-07-02 02:20:04 by Gav:

Hi Sam,

Just for reference, I loved the original "sneakernet" version of the story, and I didn't think it came off as rushed at all.

I know Rachel was a bit out of nowhere, but I thought the ending was actually fairly "happy", as far as it went, since both the reals and actuals can _live_ and have a future.
You can't fight a star, but you can decline to waste drama, find the Venn intersection of "methods leading to things real humanity values" AND "Ra doesn't object to", and do your damndest to implement those as fast and well as possible given your resources.

Yes, Rachel originally lead the Triton mission, but that was, charitably, a fluke. Only possible due to a huge cache of energy and computronium outside Ra's immediate ability to destroy, and ready for outfitting to do a physical layer attack which could not be blocked. Reality does not hand you freebies like that often, and Rachel seems like she'd be aware of that.

(Alternately, Ra has already gotten to Rachel by the time she is deciding, and the only ideas her brain is even capable of thinking are ones it has no objections to).

2018-07-02 03:06:12 by Gav:

Also, as a hacky explaination as to why Ra or its inhabitants don't seem interested in extrasolar colonising, how about this:

The processing power of an active star near Kardashev-1 is so unimaginably greater than anything that can be crammed into a colonisation ship or probe that it supports modes of cognition we simply don't have yet.

E.g. I'm immensely enjoying the 21st century. If I get curious on something, I can go read a ton of wikipedia articles, run some python simulations, design microcontroller code to implement behavior, and sketch up a physical case layout and have a robot start making it for me within an hour or so. Although it'd be interesting, going back to the 17th century would be pretty painful. I'd have to curtail my curiosity to things I could physically look up in a library, which I could maybe get to once a week, if lucky. To say nothing of computing or creating things based on that knowledge.

If the enjoyment of cognition scales with N^2, with N being the resources available, then being instantiated or stored inside a substrate less powerful than the sun (or anything small enough to fit into a self-propelled probe or ship) might be really unappealing for any sentience above a certain point. Even if it was only temporary till a new star was colonized.

So why don't Ra's inhabitants just send probe ships full of stored data, and pause their cognition till a new Ra is made? It would be like trying to recreate David Attenborough by training a blank android on just his autobiography, and back-catalog. What results would be closer than nothing, but not something we would call a true backup, or be prepared to accept in anything other than an emergency situation.