Anil Devi jolts awake on the floor of the locked, guarded meeting room, back at Chedbury Bridge. He awakens poorly-rested, creaky, cold and late. He checks his watch and checks his timekeeping arithmetic and discovers that nearly an hour has elapsed since the last thing he remembers; it's long past the scheduled demolition of Earth. Outside the window, the sky is clear of Dehlavi warnings and the Sun is still rising. The sunlight has just crept down far enough to reach his eye, waking him. There are blackbirds cawing. Everything is fine.
He stands. Natalie is seated at the far end of the table, slumped over with her head on folded arms, snoring gently. "Nat!" Anil says. "What did you do?" He says these things very softly, so as not to wake her, hard-wired courtesy overriding the need to make sense. She doesn't stir. Anil checks the wall clock in the room; it agrees with his wristwatch to within a few seconds. T plus thirty-nine minutes and change.
Natalie's Kovachev oracle is still there, between them, balanced on its edge on the table, and still functioning. There is no bright spot on the table in front of it. Anil reaches for it, hesitates for a moment, then picks it up. He holds it up to the Sun again, looking through it. There's nothing there.
Still looking through the oracle, he looks down. There's nothing there. Clear carpet and, beneath the carpet, empty Earth like a void, all the way to its core and beyond. No peach stone, no listening post. Anil tests his footing and jumps, once, landing heels-first with a clack. The Earth does not explode. Voracious microscopic disassemblers do not swarm into being, blanketing every surface, chewing furniture and flesh alike into thick black dust. Anil exhales. He realises that he is hungry. Ra is gone.
"It was all a dream," Natalie says, behind him.
Anil boggles, too anxious to laugh. "Yeah. Whatever you say." He turns around. And then turns around again. He doesn't know where to begin. He doesn't know what happened. He doesn't know how much of what just happened still happened. "What did you do? Upload us?"
To an external observer, Natalie explains, their virtuality looks like a box of brightly coloured static. Homomorphic encryption means that even Ra itself doesn't "know" what the instructions it's executing signify. To actually find out what is happening inside the virtuality, or even to determine that a virtuality is what this energy is being expended to simulate, would require an impossible dedication of resources even by the standards of a G2V-type stellar computer. Even in the one hundred and ninety-fifth century, it's still quite simple to set an insurmountably harder problem than any computer can solve.
Being encrypted makes it impossible for any external force to materially interfere with the running of the virtuality, short of introducing wild corruption and causing a fatal crash. A crash is not impossible, if some heavyweight and hostile pre-existing denizen of the Ra ecosystem were to come gunning for the processing resources their virtuality consumes. But why would it? It's running in the deepest available background, at the lowest possible priority, there are trillions of parallel processes to choose from, and meanwhile there's an entire unclaimed frontier of free solar power out there, unfolding minute by real minute.
The Bridge was not able to supply Natalie with detailed information about their virtuality's placement or the specific level of time compression allocated to it. Apparently, this latter factor is prone to some fluctuation. Their virtuality can even suspend completely for long periods of real time, as a form of camouflage. Natalie's guess is that it averages out to somewhere within six orders of magnitude either way of real time. But, she hurriedly clarifies, that's simply a guess.
No one is coming for them. They can't. Natalie explains this as clearly as she can: they are bricked up in here, and there is no key.
She consciously resisted the temptation to spend more than the bare minimum amount of time rearranging the universe for neatness or personal benefit. It's a decision she made knowing that she and others would pay for it, but also knowing that a handful of minutes is no amount of time in which to fabricate a consistent replacement backstory for an entire planet. Ra is gone here and magic is real, but other than that, there is almost perfect continuity from Actual Earth. Essentially everything is as it was, including the recent past and everyone's memories of it.
To begin with, nearly every waking human being in the world saw the holograms. Here, less than an hour after they disappeared, most people are still reacting to those holograms, terrified and paralysed, or trying to figure out how to react, whom to try to contact, how to contact them, what to say, what to ask. Most people either did not recognise the (internationally standardised) sign of the high energy magic warning, or recognised the sign as some kind of warning but did not understand its meaning. A significant fraction of all phone services in the world are down. The internet is dead on its back.
There was, for a few minutes, a shining edifice, floating like a U.F.O. out in the air above the East River in New York. A small thing, relatively, and it's gone now, but thousands of people saw it and filmed it. There were people visible inside it. There is no explanation.
There was an earthquake epicentered in the crust beneath Western Australia, geologically anomalous but not inexplicable; but it was accompanied by a magical shockwave which was felt simultaneously by every attuned mage worldwide. The shockwave booted all the mages in Tanako's world at the time safely out and home again, and Tanako's world, as the magical community will piece together very quickly in the ensuing weeks, is gone forever, starting now.
STS-77, fully crewed and intact, has hit the dead centre of a completely blank, unprepared runway in Florida. The Atlantis orbiter is in good enough condition to be relaunched and so are all the crew. They want to know what caused the engine failures and they want to know who that was who rescued them, and someone's got to tell them what year it is now. And yet, dredged wreckage of the same spaceship is in storage at NASA, precise duplicates of the same individually numbered, shattered ceramic panels, pulverised spacesuit helmets--
Laura Ferno and Nicholas Laughon are alive. They were dead. They are dead. Their acid-blackened remains are still right there in the baths, four hallways over. But they're here, alive, respawned at the focus of the half-disassembled sleep science research gymnasium at Chedbury Bridge. Nick's trying to leave the scene, it's all over for him and he wants to go home, but the police are stopping him and in any case, they explain to him, his home has been bombed to pieces; there is nowhere for him to go. Laura's being held by police too, on the other side of the room, bleeding, and she's screaming at him:
"This isn't what I wanted! Nick, for God's sake, just listen to me!"
All the Ras are dead. Their hosts' original minds had long since been evicted, jettisoned into T-world and fed to the horrors there, leaving only Ra. But in the new world there is no Ra, and the people are left with nothing; no original owner, no occupying possessor, just brain-death. The aftermath, in the holding cells, cannot be productively described, and is more than the police officer who discovers it has been trained to deal with.
And as for Natalie Ferno and Anil Devi: they were physically missing from their room for barely thirty minutes of real time, and were never missed. But someone will be coming to get them very soon. Something gigantic has happened. There's got to be a reckoning.
"Please stop," Anil says.
Natalie stops. In any case, she was at the end.
Anil is still at the window, watching the birds. He does some mental arithmetic, juggling people and places. Too many things have just happened to him and Natalie's narration and educated guesswork have compounded on top of those events. "We--" he begins, then looks down and literally counts on his fingers, just to be sure. He finds the most important thing. "The runway."
"What about it?"
Anil chooses his words carefully. "Is there anybody on the runway?"
Natalie shakes her head.
"You left all of that back in reality."
She nods. The alternatives were too convoluted to contemplate.
"Your mother," Anil says, nerving himself to say it. "She was there on the asphalt in front of us, with... metal spokes in her skull. Two going in through each eyeball, I remember that very clearly. She was blind and brain-damaged. She never knew you were there. You didn't get a single word to her. And she's dead." He looks at Natalie, who is sitting there now with her hands folded, a picture of indifference. He holds her stare for a while, until something -- perhaps wildly arcing misplaced empathy -- seems to short-circuit in his brain and he flinches and says to her, "Why are you like this? Why aren't you reacting?"
Natalie blinks owlishly at him. She has deep and complex personal reasons for how she's choosing to present herself right now, but despite a seeming lifetime of shared experience with Anil, with this last demand, she decides that it's not worth sharing any of those reasons with him. "How would you like me to react?"
Anil shakes his head. "...What Laura did made more sense to me."
And that, Natalie thinks, would appear to be the end of that. "I'm sure it did," she says, stonily.
Anil feels a kind of motion sickness. He scrabbles for a chair and sits down heavily opposite Natalie, holding on to the lip of the table for balance.
The events he witnessed are taking on a mythic, golden quality in his mind. The Wheel and the Glass Man and the Fernos and even Laughon are all ascending to the level of demigods. Looking at Natalie, he thinks he glimpses a kind of Kirlian aura, and all he can think is: this woman created the universe.
The door opens. It's John Henders, the police sergeant who currently, still, has custody of the two of them. There are other officers accompanying him. No handcuffs are presented, but a stern atmosphere among all of them indicates very clearly that this is just a minor courtesy, a privilege which could very easily be withdrawn. Henders explains that they, Natalie Ferno and Anil Devi, are, finally, under arrest, and that they should get up.
"Wait, wait," Anil says, as one officer approaches him and gently but firmly takes his arm. He knows it's long past time they stopped talking unguardedly in front of law enforcement, but he needs this. To Natalie, he says, "Nat, what do we tell them? What do we say? I don't even believe it."
"I don't know," Natalie says. "I don't know, I don't know. Nothing."
But they get everything.
The inquiry is pulverisingly tiring and feels as if it takes years, because it takes years.
Natalie is mostly a locked box at first, impossible to draw out on anything but the most concretely documented facts, and even then rarely offering more than a nod. "My sister disappeared," she says, "and I found her."
Anil Devi follows Natalie's lead, saying very little. "Hatt Group fired Laura Ferno due to an internal matter. Later, Mr. Hatt thought better of the decision and sent me to locate her, which I did."
Nick Laughon wants more dearly than anybody for the matter to be behind him and has little inclination to prolong matters. He says, "I don't remember anything that happened in the last two weeks." Although it would be extraordinarily easy for him to add, "Laura did something to my mind," he does not.
And Laura does her damnedest to keep it as simple as she possibly can, which admittedly isn't very: "After witnessing the Space Shuttle Atlantis disaster I became convinced that the disaster could be reversed. I made contact with the Chedbury Bridge Institute, which shared my belief. And we succeeded."
And those four statements together could have been enough in some laughably simpler, more credulous world. But the public inquiry is vast, and determined, and of great importance to the world at large, and it is not being run by fools.
The inquiry determines, correctly, that Tanako's world was a virtual structure physically hosted at the epicentre of that mysterious earthquake, and that it contained records of the dead, and that Laura raided that world and blew it up in order to resurrect herself, her boyfriend and Atlantis. Pressing Laura hard for more information and then forming its own carefully informed opinions from her claims, the inquiry ascertains that Tanako's world had been built by a spectacularly powerful secret group of mages calling themselves the Wheel, and that the Chedbury Bridge Institute was the front for an opposing group, Ra. Ra recruited Laura because of their aligned goals and essentially brainwashed her into carrying out that attack, using the persona of the late Kazuya Tanako to dupe her into thinking she was saving the world.
The inquiry finds Ra to be a cult. Hence the bombing of Laura and Nick's home when anybody tried to track them down, hence the attempted (or, from another point of view, successful) double murder, hence the ritual group suicide. Laura is not to blame; all responsibility for these crimes of violence can be neatly attributed to the cooling dead.
The inquiry discovers that Laura's mother went missing on the day of the Atlantis disaster, identifies her as the apparition seen by the Atlantis crew and speculates that she, too, was likely a member of the Wheel. From interviewing Edward Hatt, the inquiry learns that Laura was fired following a botched first attempt to raise the dead -- her mother, in that case. The inquiry identifies the mysterious structure in New York as the Wheel's headquarters, now regrettably missing without trace along with the group itself and all of their fantastic, post-magical technology.
The inquiry finds nothing concrete about the true origins and ultimate fate of the Wheel. Laura admits that she must have been lied to, and the inquiry concurs, which naturally fosters unending, wildly incorrect speculation as to the truth. The inquiry also fails to uncover the true nature of Ra or the true history of the world prior to the epoch in 1970. The inquiry does not discover, nor does Natalie Ferno voluntarily disclose, that the world has been uploaded and, out in reality, atomised. This discontinuity is undetectable even to the most precise scientific instruments.
Nearly everything, then. Everything for which physical evidence exists.
And once the dust is settled and the blame is diffused, and the paperwork is filed and press interest has tailed off as low as it's ever likely to go, and every available, independently confirmable fact has been uncovered and so has every single imaginable fiction, and everybody believes half of the facts and half of the fiction but everybody believes a different half, it breaks down like this:
Laura Ferno raised the dead. It was a one-time thing. It was magic. It can never happen again.
And it doesn't change anything.