Machine Space


If shorn of its rock embedding and raised up to face sunlight, the listening post would be a twenty-kilometre tall Cambrian organism, a black beetle/rosebud with nested soft shells and creepy greebles. Laura's death-switch laser tripwire originates at its tail and fires almost directly upwards into the structure's internal organs. The quantity of energy released is unimaginable, enough to punch a hole through kilometres and kilometres of machine space, eventually emerging at a near-vertical angle from the listening post's limb and progressing several klicks further through solid rock, although not far enough to reach the surface.

The base ring room is gone, plasmised along with Natalie and Laura Ferno and the entire nineteen-hundred-metre-wide Montauk storage ring. The Floor room, a hemispherical cavity located towards the top of the listening post, is missed entirely by the laser blast.

By the time the laser shuts off, the vast majority of the released energy has been converted to heat in a plasmised column of air and metal which runs through the post like a lightsaber stab wound. Plasma floods out through the installation's interior spaces, wrecking more than eighty percent of the machinery hosted here over the course of the next second. The destructive wave propagates outwards towards the Floor and the redundant machinery hosted in the relatively few machine spaces above it.

The post's structural integrity is gone. It has seconds to live. On the Floor, which is listing at an angle now, Anil Devi levers himself up on one elbow, to discover that more distant parts of the town-sized א**-class magic circle are buckling upwards, forced apart by rising machines from below, and that the sky is caving in on him, and that all of the Wheel Group have gone.

They're gone. One eyeblink, not even a respectable flash of light or thunderclap, not a dropped spinning trinket in the middle of the D.

Anil shakes some of the stars out of his head and gets a grip. The Wheel Group's chairs are rolling away to the right, out of the main control mandala. Anil has it all to himself now. He plants one hand on the Floor directly below him, and ignores the fact that a billion tonnes of Western Australian continental crust is descending on his head, because this place is over a klick tall and that gives him the luxury of seconds, entire seconds.

Anil goes to another place in his head, to the Dehlavi lightning machine. He needs no equipment for this, and barely any words. The mandala is right there beneath him. It was Nat's idea.

They had a whole hour to plan.

Three bolts of lightning fire, and Anil Devi gets out of jail free.


The afterlife:

"You shot me in the head."

"Yes. Sorry."

Laura doesn't think this cuts it, either as an explanation or an apology. "You shot me in the fucking head! You killed me!"

Laura and Natalie have incarnated in classic, mundane T-world, an unbounded rolling plain of featureless, colourless marble-glass. The Y-shaped galaxy spins lazily, almost directly over their heads, with star tentacles almost reaching the horizon.

"It didn't kill you," Natalie says. "Right? You knew it wouldn't kill you. You had 'insurance'. Set up to catapult you into Tanako's world at the instant of death, no matter how you died, no matter how suddenly."

"Natalie," Laura carefully explains, "my second death-switch spell was a Death-Star-class laser. When you killed me, you blew up the whole listening post. The physical computer system which hosts T-world was completely destroyed. The insurance is void. You're a maniac, you shot me in the head, and we should be dead! I don't know why we aren't!"

"I blew up most of the listening post," Natalie says. "It's a big piece of equipment with plenty of redundancy. We don't have long in real time until the machine ceases to function, but subjective time is optional. We have as much as we want or need. Potentially lifetimes."

"You knew the listening post had that kind of physical redundancy?" Laura says. "You knew my tripwire wasn't powerful enough to blow it up entirely? And you knew you could hitch a ride on my insurance spell and regroup in here afterwards? You were certain of all of these facts?"

"Anil and I worked it out," Natalie states.

"When you said that you were willing to bet your life," Laura asks stonily, "what, exactly, were the odds of that bet?"

Natalie opts not to answer this question.

Laura is going to keep going, but just then a brilliant neon special effect scorches the glass a few steps away from them. Anil Devi arrives sitting bolt upright on the ground, like a sleeper who just reached the end of his nightmare. He arrives shell-shocked and red-eyed, and grabs hold of his casting arm with his other hand to stop it from rattling. "Mother of bloody God."

"I think that's a fair reaction," Laura says.

"It works," Anil says. "I said I wouldn't believe it until I saw it, and now I see it."

"I told you the Iceland story," Natalie reminds him.

"You told me the story," Anil says, "but I didn't believe the story. I thought you'd flipped. Right up until you pulled the trigger, I honestly didn't think you were going to do it. Mother of God. Mohit Dehlavi has a lot to answer for."

Laura hoists Anil to his feet. "Hello, Anil. How have you been?"

Anil turns three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the familiar, unrecognisable terrain. He digests the fact that one of him is dead, and meditates briefly on nonlinear lifelines. "I suppose I can't complain."


It's not safe to speak while out in the open. The usual electrical buzzing has already begun gathering around them, although corporeal monsters haven't put in an appearance yet. Laura leads them for her memory palace. They travel by folding and unfolding from hilltop to hilltop, in seven-kilometre steps.

They've been travelling for a subjective "short while" when Laura holds a hand up. There's a reddish-blue figure at the horizon, difficult to pick out in Tanako's world's dull ambient light. He blips to a closer peak, then closer still, then before anybody knows it he's striding up to meet them.

He's a flesh-and-blood human, taller than any of them, with hair that's wandering between brown and blond, and a few centimetres of beard. He wears plate armour made of a red-brown metal which could be burnished copper, and a faded blue cloak with a ragged edge and a tear which almost reaches his shoulder. He carries a sword, which may or may not be magic. He walks with dignity and confidence and extreme tiredness. He looks like the first King of Tanako's world, a king from an era when the throne of the kingdom was the king's saddle, and the capital city was wherever the man was sleeping.

Natalie takes Anil by one arm and steers him back a few steps.

"Nick," Laura says.

"I'm leaving you," Nick says to Laura. "Once this is over I never want to see you again. Clear?"

"Nick, I'm sorry."

"No, you're not," Nick tells her.

"I am!"

"You're not! Don't lie to me! What do you want? From all of this, what did you really, truly want? To find out what Ra is? To converse with a demon and play your elaborate power gambit off against its elaborate power gambit? To resurrect your dear departed super-mage mother? Because all I know for certain, after waiting here in limbo for you, for what feels like years, is that the thing you want isn't me."

"I want..."

Nick waits.

Laura draws herself up, clothing herself in armour matching Nick's style. Producing boots, she even rises in height a few centimetres, as if trying to meet Nick as an equal. But she produces no weapon.

"I want us to go into space together," she says.

Nick shakes his head.

"I have the ability now," Laura pleads. She gestures with her arms, demonstrating what she's become. Her stylised armour even resembles a pressure suit in its structure. "I found all the power I need. I can build a spaceship out of light and forcefields. I can take us both into space. Once we're back in reality I can take you to low Earth orbit, it'll take minutes. Seconds. We'll buzz the ISS. You just have to stay close and I'll carry you there. That's what I want."

Nick shakes his head, gently.

Laura pushes all the way through to the answer that Nick wants. "I want to go into space," she says.

Nick finally agrees. "You want to go into space," he says. "You don't care if I'm there."

"But I... No. I want you to be there when I come back."

"I'm not going to be there," Nick tells her. "I'm leaving."

"I love you," Laura tells him desperately.

Nick says nothing in response, and there is a long and bitter pause.

He looks up, acknowledging Natalie and Anil's presence now that he has spoken his piece. He walks past Laura. "Natalie, good to see you. Sorry you've been dragged into this. You too. I don't think we've met."

"Anil Devi," says Anil Devi. "I used to work with Laura at Hatt Group." Anil is suppressing a churning stomach. The only time he's seen Nick Laughon before, the man was dead in a bath of concentrated hydrogen fluoride, with flesh coming off his face in pieces.

Nick glances off into the distance. "They're amassing," he says. "We've been standing still for too long. You all need to follow me now."


They sight the towers first. Laura's memory palace is a sprawling, convoluted grey stone fortress, a senseless mess of differing castle styles. Most of its towers are too tall to be possible and some of them appear to rise forever, narrowing to wires. There are at least four walls, each with numerous sharp-edged bastions, overlapping and interlocking incoherently. The main entrance is a set of black steel double doors tall and wide enough to move an upright Saturn V through, and when Nick knocks on them with the pommel of his sword they barely need to crack to let the four of them in.

Without any further prompting, Natalie leads them across a courtyard and into the castle interior, along a scribbling warren of corridors, rapidly leaving the part of the castle which Nick is familiar with. After another few minutes of navigation Nat reaches a tall, gently winding torchlit corridor full of heavy oak doors, and one particular door, which she unlatches and pushes open.

Nick, Anil and Laura follow her into a tall, bright, echoing hall built from white stone. Nick is instantly put in mind of a cathedral interior, with the same high vaulted ceiling and supporting pillars and bright lighting, although there are no religious decorations. In fact the place is empty. Then, watching Natalie and Laura's reactions, Nick realises that a better word might be emptied. Something's not here, which should be here.

"Damn," Natalie says, under her breath.

"It worked," Laura says. "It completely fucking worked! Do you believe this, all of you? This is the empty crypt. I have reversed death. Right now, somewhere over the Atlantic, the Atlantis orbiter is burning home, and so is Mum, and so am I. This is what I've been working towards, this entire time. Thirty-three million-to-one mass/energy ratio. Four hundred tonnes of spaceship. One petajoule of mana and done!"

"You were too late," Anil says to Natalie.

Natalie nods, unhappily. "This is what Ra has been working towards, this entire time. This is what I was trying to prevent."

"This was a cooperative rescue spanning multiple decades," Laura says. "Do you know how difficult this was? Together, Mum and I have saved seven astronauts' lives. Not to mention a Space Shuttle orbiter! Those aren't cheap. Once they've got it on the ground it'll even be flightworthy."

Natalie ignores this. "Laura, how do we get to Iceland from here?"


The climactic scene at Krallafjöll is stored a few doors down from the Atlantis exhibit. This hall is much larger, and so dark that it appears to be endless. At its centre is a tableau which wavers disturbingly between life size and apparent H0 scale.

At the top of the ridge is an instance of Benj Clarke, with whom Nick is acquainted through university. This instance of Benj holds a sphere of weapons-grade plutonium in one hand and a burning hot molybdenum ring in the other, and stands like a warlock, about to end the world by bringing them together. Steps away and necessarily downhill is an instance of Laura, clothed in weighty black robes and aiming a three-metre mercury staff directly at Benj. Green laser light is crawling out of the tip of the staff and across the gap, soon to cut the ring in half and bring all of this to its well-known conclusion.

Further away is an instance of Natalie, supporting a second instance of Benj Clarke. This one is the real man, the one not possessed by a geocidal daemon.

Further away still, the mountain ridge just stops at a hard edge, and drops away. It's as if the scene is nothing more than a big square slice of a thick black cake, iced with lava and dotted with miniature edible people.

"Damn," Natalie says again, when she sees what's missing.

Nick moves through the scene, inspecting each person in turn. The frozen, noticeably younger facial expressions are all faintly ridiculous to behold, and transfixing. Depending where he looks from, his vision blurs like a tilt-shift photograph, giving bizarre depths of field and a sensation that everything he's looking at is tiny compared to him. "What, exactly, is happening here? I obviously never got the whole story out of Laura."

Natalie says, "The instance of Benj at the top of the cliff has been possessed by a hostile entity named Ra. He's trying to start a magical chain reaction which will consume all the geological magic in Iceland, first, and then the entire mid-Atlantic ridge, and potentially the world. I... am not totally certain why, but my top theory is that he's trying to overload the artificial systems which provide magic, by requesting more mu and zeta quanta in one go than they can deliver. That would, or could, crash the system, temporarily or permanently suspending standard magic, and maybe leaving the Wheel Group vulnerable.

"Obviously, what actually happens next is that Laura kills him, the reaction ends, the eruption stops and the rest of us go home."

"But there's someone missing," Laura says, staring at her counterpart. "There was a glass figure standing right here, next to me. Somebody almost invisible. The figure was helping me. Remember?"

"The glass figure was Ra," Natalie says.

"It was Mum," Laura says. "She was helping me to stop Benj from blowing the world up--"

"It was Ra," Natalie says. "If you remember, the figure was pushing your staff to the ground. He was trying to protect Benj."

"Who's Ra?" Nick asks. "What is this word that keeps coming around and around?"

"Ra is a machine inside the Sun," Anil says.

"No," Natalie says.

"Ra is Kazuya Tanako," Laura says.

"No, I told you, penamba was Kazuya Tanako." When Natalie uses the word, she exhales greenish-blue air, which she waves away with her hands. "Ra is..."

She hesitates, marshalling her thoughts. There's a lot of data, more than she can track concurrently. Instinct tells her she can't voice this theory yet, because she doesn't have enough sigmas of certainty. Instinct tells her to keep it to herself until she can gather more evidence to support it.

She fights this instinct.

She looks at Laura and, separately, Nick. "Ra is a malevolent artificial intelligence whose goal is to dismantle the Earth and turn it into computronium. Actual human beings are orthogonal to this goal. If we all die in the disassembly, which we will, Ra doesn't care--"

"Natalie," Anil explains patiently, "Ra was reprogrammed."

"Ra is a distributed system consisting of more individual listener nodes than I can even put an order of magnitude to," Natalie says. "They saturate the whole world, from top to bottom. Something like one human out of every two trillion survived the war, against odds that were astronomical. What happens when you apply those same odds to the listeners? Even squaring the odds, how much of the original objective do you think survived? And how much needed to?

"Ra wasn't reprogrammed. Not all of it."


Nick takes them to a small, quiet, dark room with rugs and substantial chairs, and a fireplace, and fiery drinks in very small glasses. The room is not one that Laura recognises, but it is relatively well-realised and detailed. It seems that this is the part of the castle where Nick has been living.

Anil and Laura toss their drinks back almost immediately. Nick takes his sword off to sit, and sips. Natalie sits uneasily, and seems not to notice the drink at all. Unconsciously, she and Anil are developing armour matching Laura and Nick's.

"There was a war," Natalie recounts. "By the 194th century the human race had achieved near-perfect science and omnipotent technology. We had installed an energy production system called Ra at the core of the Sun, and we were using that energy to build and maintain tens of thousands of inhabited Earths.

"Towards the end of the century, the Ra system turned against its creators. There was a war, called Abstract War. The war lasted seven days, and ended with Ra reprogrammed and docile, but with very nearly every single living human dead. The survivors, numbering barely more than two hundred out of what had been millions of millions, formed the Wheel Group. The world we live in is the new world that they built, replacing the wreckage of the old. 'Magic' is a layer of abstraction which the Wheel Group introduced on top of their nonlocality technology to make it safer to use. And this year is one-nine-four-two-four."

"That's a five-digit number," Nick says.

"Yes," Natalie says, blankly.

"I'm just saying. This is word salad to me. It doesn't mean anything."

"The war was fought over processing power," Natalie says. "Ra's objective was, and still is, to dismantle the rocky planets of the inner solar system and construct a stellar engine called a Matrioshka brain. This would be a constellation of sun-powered computer processors which would completely enclose the Sun, increasing Ra's processing power by a factor of ten.

"Ra had been reprogrammed by a faction of humans called Virtual Humanity--"

"This is bull," Laura says, unable to sit still and just listen. She gets up and paces, throwing another drink back.

"Compared to what?" Natalie says. "Compared to what Ra taught you?"

"His name is Kazuya Tanako! What you're calling 'nonlocality' is just a deeper form of magic, 'māyā'. Māyā was stolen from humanity at large in the earliest days of human civilisation, at about the same time as the invention of writing. The Wheel Group stole it. They are immortal, omnipotent, lazy gods, pursuing thousand-year-long lifetimes of meaningless hedonism in a world which they deliberately fail to lift higher than gutter-level. What we call 'magic' is a single crumb from their table, and we only have it because the alternative is for māyā to run riot and fall into the hands of us baselines."

There's a pause.

"Those stories aren't entirely inconsistent with one another," Anil says.

Laura is circling the room's walls, kicking the parts which Nick has dreamt up in good detail, filling in the parts he hasn't with improved stonework and beams. By now she's behind Natalie. "He never mentioned a war to me," she says.

"Of course he wouldn't," Natalie says, "why would Ra cast itself as the aggressor?"

"This story," Laura says, "makes no more sense than--"

"It makes no sense," Nick says, at which point somebody knocks on the door, and everybody freezes.

They freeze for long enough that whoever is at the door becomes impatient and knocks again.

"I can convince you," Natalie says to Laura, who is still the only one standing.

Laura blinks. "What?"

"Monsters can't get into this place," Nick says, "the fortifications alone--"

"Monsters don't knock," Anil says.

Solemnly, Natalie picks up her drink and downs it. "It's for you, Laura. You should answer it."

"Who is it?" Laura asks her. And then aloud, "Who the fuck is that?"

Whoever-it-is tries the door handle, but the door is locked. Nick stands, unsheathing his sword. Anil searches himself for weapons, finds nothing and tries to imagine some, but gets nowhere.

"Answer the door, Laura," Natalie says, still not rising or even turning to look at the door.

"Who is it?" Laura steps forward and releases the lock, but then steps back again, aiming an armful of thaumic weaponry at it. She's in Tanako's world, magic doesn't work here. She isn't thinking clearly enough to realise.

The door opens outward, and behind it is another version of Laura Ferno. She wears a dark, form-fitting NASA-esque flight suit, and a golden gauntlet on her left forearm, and is surrounded by weak fragments of neon light, like reflections from shattered stained glass. She stands with dropped shoulders, breathing poorly. Her eyes and face are all wrong, nothing like what Laura is used to seeing in the mirror. Haggard, Laura thinks. She's haggard.

"He killed me," says the apparition.


"Whatever Nat is telling you is the truth," says the apparition. "Whatever we know is a lie. Nat is right, and we were wrong." She takes a step forward.

"Stay the hell back," Laura Ferno says, backing up, catching one heel on a rug and falling. She looks up for long enough to see that nobody in the room is moving to help her. Natalie still hasn't moved, and Nick and Anil just seem to be entranced. Furious and alone, Laura points two fingers at the alternate Laura and says "Dulaku surutai jiha--" Nothing comes out except red and purple smoke.

The apparition strides through the smoke. It grasps Laura's outstretched hand, and vanishes.

The door closes, and there are four of them again.

"I heard the footsteps coming," Natalie admits. "I worked it out a few seconds before she knocked."

Laura gets her breathing under control, coughing at the smoke, processing the new clutch of memories. "I brought Mum and everyone back. And I brought the glass man back. But the glass man was-- He didn't even look me in the eye. It was like I didn't exist to him. He's going to end the world." She coughs again, eyes watering. "Kazuya murdered me. Fuck!"

"It wasn't Kazuya Tanako," Natalie says, for the final time. "Ra used you. And he didn't kill you. You're still alive."


Next: It Has To Work

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Discussion (116)

2014-07-03 11:44:35 by qntm:

Although four weeks is about the usual delay between chapters I was hoping to get this one out much earlier, and I've been working flat-out this whole time. This chapter was an absolute nightmare to write, because there's a shocking amount of information to either reveal or recap, and I couldn't work out a good organic way to do this without just arbitrarily throwing long essays of information around. The chapter became much simpler when I narrowed its focus down to just laying as much hardship as possible on top of Laura. I also spent a worrying amount of time working out how to get Laura to believe Nat, until I remembered (embarrassingly late in the game) that LF-4 was dead and needed to show up here along with LF-5.

Unfortunately it seems I will need another chapter of T-world before I can start the finale, but the alternative was to throw far too many disjointed pieces of information into one chapter. This one ends well where it is.

2014-07-03 11:50:11 by qntm:

Many thanks to Custodian and tef for letting me bounce ideas off them during the run-up to this chapter, to Custo again for editorial services and to BaronWR for a quick skim.

2014-07-03 12:09:41 by fhtagn:

thank you for your words!

sqrt(-1) is still me.

2014-07-03 12:34:13 by David Mitchell:

Hurray! Another chapter. Really, *really* can't wait for the finale.

2014-07-03 12:48:23 by Omegatron:

I'm not going to complain about two more chapters instead of one.

2014-07-03 12:49:03 by Omegatron:

^ Assuming the finale is one chapter, which it might not be.

2014-07-03 13:34:18 by Dominik:

So Laura was not only (unwittingly) complicit in murdering almost all humans, she specificly pulled her mother, for whom she was doing all of this, out of her safe storage to be killed in the event?

It looks to me like there is no other copy of her anywhere, at least not of her final moments, and any earlier copy would not have most of her memories as Rachel Ferno.

2014-07-03 13:43:34 by Feep:

> He digests the fact that one of him is dead, and meditates briefly on nonlinear lifelines.

I love that this is the extent to which you reduce what people keep for some reason insisting is a "hard philosophical problem".

2014-07-03 14:23:16 by John:

Glad to see Nick is okay, for very, very small values of "okay". Definitely the grounded one in the relationship, even after subjective years in a virtualized hellish afterlife.

Feeling much better about the world's chances, with four of the main characters still hanging on, albeit inside the equivalent of an offsite emergency backup system with a rapidly draining UPS battery.

I have no idea what their plan is yet, other than duping themselves back out into the real world to intervene somehow. It's not like they are without resources.

- Laura presumably can recreate the Golden Glove.

- Natalie can advise Laura and keep her from doing whatever stupid thing she would otherwise come up with.

- Anil can assist in the construction of their spell arsenal.

- Nick can, I dunno, jog really fast? Depends what other skills he might have come up during his stay in scenic T-World. I doubt they can possibly include any real-world magic, because how could you learn magic in a place where it doesn't actually work?

2014-07-03 14:24:09 by Jay:

@Feep: your future death is always going to be a hard philosophical problem! But your past death, well, that's just history...

2014-07-03 14:40:48 by Bago:

I'm a little concerned that the text of their latest foray into T-world isn't right-aligned.

2014-07-03 14:47:15 by John:

@Bago: ooh, good catch. That's quite ominous indeed, if it isn't just a layout error on Sam's part.

2014-07-03 14:47:43 by qntm:

Aghasdfgkj I forgot to do that thing again. Thank you for pointing out my foolishness. This will be fixed in the next 30 seconds or whatever.

2014-07-03 15:27:05 by Bago:

Aw, I thought that it had finally become the real world!

2014-07-03 15:59:51 by John:

So... amidst all the chaos of the listening post destruction, I noticed that the entirety of the Wheel Group just... vanished? That's pretty puzzling right there. I'm sure they didn't have T-World ripcords, as that was an exploit they didn't know about yet. And that leaves bodies behind in any case. So did they vanish under their own power, or due to Ra proactively tying off loose ends?

It would be an almost-unprecedented display of competence on their part, given their recent track record, for them to have a secondary redundant emergency installation somewhere for them all to teleport to.

Of course, I would be hugely amused if the emergency installation was, for historical/sentimental reasons, out by Neptune, and due to speed-of-light propagation delay, they will only come back online after the entire issue is already decided.

2014-07-03 16:47:42 by ItsTimaiFool:

Oddly enough, I had a dream last night that this next chapter was released, but that it was only like a paragraph long and I was really upset. (Not that I would be if that happened in real life. "Death Surrounds this Machine" is one of my favorite chapters!)

Anyway, I love everything about this story so far, and I can't wait for the rest of it!

2014-07-03 17:21:21 by alexanderwales:


I think that the Wheel Group is incredibly competent, and probably did in fact have an off-site redundant back-up place. That we're seeing them at their moment of abject failure against an incredibly powerful and intelligent enemy doesn't mean that they're not smart - it just means that they're not quite smart enough.

Of course, it's also very possible that they were killed by Ra as soon as it had the power to do so. I'm not sure which I favor in the balance of probabilities.

2014-07-03 18:12:11 by anonymouse:

It was Caz's "evacuation paths" which were confirmed to be functional shortly before he had his head blown off. Even if Wheel is incompetent as a whole, Caz has proven to be one of the more operationally competent of the lot, along with Exa. In that light, I kind of wonder what Caz was thinking in his interactions with King nearer the start of the crisis. Maybe he suspected that things were about to go very very wrong and that King's reaction would be rather unhelpful.

2014-07-03 21:00:17 by skztr:

ignoring the obvious possibility that Ra, having gained direct access to the internals of itself, executed first the obvious instruction "melt everyone with a Kara" (though that would probably leave Ed Hatt similarly liquified, and I do expect him to come back into the story at some point.)

2014-07-03 21:49:05 by K:

My money is on the wheel group escaping; as anonymouse said, Caz is one of the most competent people in the organization, so I could buy that there's some kind of emergency nonlocality teleport that operates on a timescale of seconds.

Also, at this point Hatt is basically Chekov's character and his kara is Chekov's gun. I wonder how he'll react to being told that the crazy person that died in that car crash was actually one of the architects of magic possessed by an evil d(a)emon.

2014-07-03 22:13:49 by Curiouser:

I would be extremely disappointed if all Wheel members are dead. Mostly because that means that Exa won't be fighting alongside our (not quite) heroes in the finale.

I feel like at this point, most of my questions have been answered. Now all that I can be curious about, is how will the finale roll out.

2014-07-03 22:57:14 by atomicthumbs:

Let's take inventory here. In t-world, the folks have at their disposal at least the following, though who knows how much energy they need to get the non-human ones out (I forget if that's even possible without the Bridge)

- Laura Ferno #4.
- Laura Ferno #5, and associated equipment (assuming she still exists after "grasping Laura's outstretched hand and vanishing"; what's going on there?)
- Laura Ferno #1 (iirc), in the Iceland recording, and associated equipment.
- Natalie Ferno #1 (in Iceland).
- Natalie Ferno #whatever.
- Anil Devi.
- Nick.
- One Ra, possessing Benj in Iceland.
- Benj #2.
- A bunch of lava and a very large chunk of rock.
- One nuclear bomb.
- Nick's t-liquor.

Anything I'm missing?

2014-07-03 23:28:25 by Eldritch:


"and associated equipment (assuming she still exists after "grasping Laura's outstretched hand and vanishing"; what's going on there?)"

I'm pretty sure they merged. Laura 4 and Laura 5 are now one individual. We already know this is possible, because Exa was merged earlier.

2014-07-04 00:55:17 by atomicthumbs:

yeah, that makes sense, reading this part again: "Laura gets her breathing under control, coughing at the smoke, processing the new clutch of memories."

2014-07-04 01:25:12 by Usul:

I doubt the wheel are dead. I also don't think they were teleported via their normal 'teleportation' tricks... If either of these were the case, I'd expect the karas to be left, yet we're pretty explicitly told that that isn't the case with: "They're gone. One eyeblink, not even a respectable flash of light or thunderclap, not a dropped spinning trinket in the middle of the D."

2014-07-04 04:40:49 by T:

Why, when mentioning ra in T world here, there isn't paint coming from their mouths?

From Thaumonuclear: "Me? Benj? Who is ra? With the last word she spits lime green goop on the ground between them". It might be significant that the quoted ra was in gold coloring with a different font. Is there something about the magic=paint? Also in the story it turns into smoke? Hmmm.

2014-07-04 05:00:37 by anonymouse:

So, timeline-wise: the Glass Man steals the Bridge, then he makes his request to Ra, and only then does the listening post blow up. Which means that even he has the Bridge and thus direct access to Ra, the gigaspells are still working and magic is still operating. Conclusion: the Wheel members' disappearance was likely not caused by Ra but rather by the destruction of the listening post. Perhaps they evacuated to some safe location, perhaps they were shunted into a now-plasmised section of the listening post machinery and died by null pointer dereference. In any case, I expect the next chapter will be the planning and/or execution of Natalie's winning move. Between her and the newly merged Laura, they'll be able to figure out at least some plan. Because this is more or less her standard MO by now: use time-accelerated simulations to plan a next step in time-critical situations.

2014-07-04 05:48:43 by Sean:

Hmm, here's my assessment of the players:

- Ra 1.0, the one that attempted to satisfy the (weighted average) desires of all humanity, presumably died if/when the Triton shard was reprogrammed by the nascent Wheel group. But by Natalie's argument, a small number of listeners may have survived and propagated part of the original objective.

- Ra 2.0, the one that wants to build a Matrioshka Brain for the Virtuals, died when it was reprogrammed. But Natalie's theory is that some portion of its listeners survived as a sort of Ra 2.1, the "glass man". It apparently has enough personality to have habits and make quips. This Ra is presumably in the process of merging back into the larger Ra system, now that their objectives align again. It has the Bridge, and may be able to instantiate copies of other astras such as the recursion artifact. Every akashic instance of it was apparently scraped from T-world when it manifested in reality, but there are instances of it possessing some Chedbury researchers in police custody, and it may or may not have been scrubbed out of the minds of possessed humans in the akashic records. It has what seems to be the last remaining instance of Rachel Ferno as a hostage (if it hasn't just killed or possessed her already).

- Ra 3.0, the Ra with the sole objective of maintaining the magic system, may sympathize with Ra 2.1, or may simply have failed to combat its influence, depending on how you want to interpret the behavior of the astras. Regardless, it is now being reprogrammed to share Ra 2.1's objective. If it behaves the same way as Ra 1.0 did, it will have a sort of mental illness for some time, during which it will attempt to satisfy both objectives, working to destroy the Earth while simultaneously maintaining the magic system for at least several minutes.

- Virtual Humanity is frozen inside Ra. There may or may not be surviving virtual humans in Ra shards outside the sun, but this seems unlikely unless they are a part of the glass man. It is not clear if they will be woken up once the glass man's command from Earth reaches the sun, nor whether or not they will have any meaningful influence over Ra afterward.

- Baseline humanity seems to not have much hope of making a difference at this point, unless somehow led. It's possible that there are a few humans who have been hiding Wheel artifacts or astras, but even those are probably people like Ed Hatt, who don't know what they have. Most humans won't have the slightest idea what to do about the warnings in the sky.

- Wheel is AWOL. They can't have disappeared via their karas, because King's had been removed, and he still vanished with the rest of them. Most likely they were teleported via whatever evacuation spells Casaccia had planned to use before being shot.

Without the listening post, they may or may not have working karas, backup equipment, secret mana stores, or surviving, working astras. (Though it seems that they tracked down and destroyed several astras, it's never mentioned how they lost those astras in the first place, or whether any were deliberately kept.) They have bad security, mental health issues, internal conflict, and have grown soft, but in general they still have the most advanced knowledge of magic in the world, the single most competent super-soldier, and by far the most experience in fighting Ra of any living Actuals.

Exa has false memories from Ra inside his head, which may or may not matter at all.

- The group in T-world has themselves, including the two baseline humans with the most knowledge of Wheel magic (and how to circumvent it), a very good engineer, and someone who is at least level-headed enough to survive T-world for subjective years without dying or going insane. They have only seconds of real world time, but potentially more subjective time and computing power to plan than anyone other than Ra 3.0.

They can have anything they cause to manifest along with them, which at least includes warsuits, magic tools, and the recursion artifact (but the total mass might be limited by the available mana at the site where they respawn?). When Laura summoned Ra she apparently thought she needed a great deal of mana to create much mass, but the fact that she summoned a T-world monster suggests that the real problem was that the spell was too long and complex to complete without getting lost in T-world.

They have copies of themselves in the akashic records, but it's not clear what they would gain from grabbing less experienced versions of themselves. More useful would be equipment, copies of other mages, and possibly possessed humans that they could try interrogating (though this latter seems unlikely to work).

If they can find them in the many square parsecs of listening post space, they could also grab random mages who are in T-world for unrelated reasons (such as being asleep), copies of Wheel group members (including Ashburne before she became Ferno), more knowledge about magic or Ra, and copies of astras that were destroyed (which seems to be how Ra got the recursion artifact and Abstract Weapon). A more recent Rachel Ferno might not be in there. Bridge is definitely not in there, unless it got recorded in the minute or two when LF #4 was flying around with it. Weapon is also definitely not in there because it was purged from the records, unless there's a surviving physical manifestation of it that was recorded after Rwanda.

2014-07-04 06:08:16 by Sean:

According to one of the references (and an offhand comment by Natalie in Broken 'Verse) there's a use/mention distinction in magic based on the mental state of the speaker. The gold words are words that are deliberately being "invoked" or used. For some reason, Natalie has a habit of "using" names in typical conversation instead of just in spells.

I don't think that there's any significance to the words being paint vs. smoke. In What You Don't Know, Czarnecki gets something like smoke that he waves away.

2014-07-04 13:59:45 by skztr:

You've just made me realise that the most obvious way to bring Hatt in right now would be that the "Emergency extraction" protocol involves teleporting *everyone* with a Kara, without notice, to some secured location (probably somewhere distributed physically while centralised in virtual space).

2014-07-04 18:47:43 by K:

skztr: You're right! It'd also explain why Anil didn't get evacuated; I suspect the Wheel doesn't *actively* want him to die.

2014-07-04 20:25:07 by T:

@skztr I dunno. Exa had removed King's kara and was pinning him to the ground last we saw. I think it makes more sense for an evacuation spell to detect all people with Wheel group privileges inside a defined space (here, the listening post) and move them a good distance away from that defined space.

Considering kara are augmentations, having been developed incrementally ("that doesn't make sense, they've been self repairing for years"), as writing the evacuation protocols at the construction of the listening post I wouldn't have depended on their continued existence or improvement. It's a physical piece of machinery, and especially after the Rwanda incident, with the hole in the medring network the size of the sun, they're not exactly the most foolproof devices.

Instead, consider the Wheel group privileges. We've been told multiple times that this is one aspect of Wheel that's not been fooled with yet (I think). If Caz were to choose between identifying a Wheel group member by their privileges, which has constantly been the first thing Wheel worry has been compromised, or by a piece of metal on their hands, I think he would go by the privileges.

2014-07-04 23:01:33 by MichaelSzegedy:

To those pondering why the Wheel Group vanished and what implications this may have for Ed Hatt: note that Ra doesn't actually need someone to have a kara to be able to liquefy (or aerosolise, plasmise, or whatever) them. Ra can edit any matter anywhere. The karas were only needed when the Wheel members wanted to run everything with magic. Therefore, while it's possible that Ra targeted anyone with a kara, it's a lot more likely that it (he? glass "man" after all) just targeted any registered Wheel member. If, indeed, anyone was targeted at all.

2014-07-05 02:25:27 by Zim the Fox:

Well... then... I binged through the entire story in three days and now I must wait months for it to finish. This is painful.

Fantastic story, Sam! I love it! I will try to write down my thoughts on it if I have time/I am not lazy. And thanks to all the commenters for the fantastic theories and pointing out details I would have missed.

2014-07-05 16:27:34 by DanielLC:

The Matrioshka brain should be a lot more useful. The efficiency of a computer is limited by the temperature of the heat sink. A computer inside the Sun would have to run at about 6000 K. A Matrioshka brain could run at about 2K, and be about 3000 times more powerful.

Or are they using nonlocality tech to use interstellar space as a heatsink, and they just need to make sure they collect all of the light leaving the sun? In that case, the gains should be negligible, unless they're purposely keeping the sun hot enough that it will still emit as much light as it does now in millions of years.

I'm leaning toward Ra being the good guy. There is a lot of opportunity cost involved in keeping the rest of us alive. If you wouldn't use the entirety of a nation's GDP to keep someone on life-support, avoiding anyone having kids because you can't afford them, then keeping physical people alive is pointless.

2014-07-05 17:50:32 by Omegatron:

I think the Ra core in the sun is using non-locality to use the heat in the sun as a power source. The matrioshka brain is basically because they need more space for more processing power and the sun's light for "electrical" power.

2014-07-05 20:53:37 by Deep Green:

Still siding with the Virtuals. Actuals are unnecessary, dangerous, and wouldn't even notice the difference if put into a simulation of the real world while they were unconscious. They're just obstinate.

Were I running the show, I would have had Ra force-upload Actuals and keep their brainstates in stasis until all of them had been captured. Once that happened, have Ra create a simulation of reality minus the virtuals, dump the Actuals into it, and slam shut the prison doors. Bonus points if the simulation runs in realtime rather than at machine speeds, to reduce the amount of resource consumption.

2014-07-05 20:57:55 by qntm:

You're siding with the faction which killed five hundred million million people?

2014-07-05 21:07:54 by Bri:

People keep mentioning the Matrioshka brain, but I'm reminded of this line from Why Do You Hate Ra: "Ra was designed to be the most powerful computer. No qualifiers. No 'at the time', no 'ever built by humans'."

If Ra is in principle the most powerful computer, full stop, then the Virtuals have no motivation to make it any more powerful. That wouldn't make any conceptual sense. It's already the best possible, which is the same as saying it can't be improved on.

Maybe the Virtuals are misinformed, and the Matrioshka system might not increase processing power after all. (Pointing this out might suddenly fix a lot of arguments and make a lot of people feel silly.) Or maybe that wasn't actually the offending command in the first place, and there's really some other motivation behind the whole thing.

Of course it's a lot more likely that line of narration/exposition is wrong or misleading. At this point in the story I think Sam is probably done springing the wildly convoluted surprises on us. But just in case he does, I wanted to be on record as having seen it coming for once.

2014-07-05 21:13:34 by Bri:

@Deep Green:

If they had planned or attempted to capture the population, then perhaps you might have an argument. They didn't. They performed a surprise attack and murdered a whole civilization.

Conversely, when the fleshers struck back, they didn't kill anyone. They just hit pause. They can unlock the prison door any time, as soon as they decide they don't need this Solar system anymore.

The Virtuals are objectively the bad guys and arguing otherwise is silly.

2014-07-05 22:16:50 by Deep Green:

I think their why is right, but not their how. Stick them in a box and forget about them; they lost relevance far before the decision to sacrifice them.

2014-07-05 23:38:56 by Curiouser:

@Bri: Most powerful computer, yes. But that probably just means most efficient(since Sam already stated that we're not talking about an infinitely powerful computer a-la "I don't know Tim") - meaning it will eventually run out of available processing power. Most likely - stick it in a larger start and it will be able to host exponentially more virtuals.
That said, considering the light speed constraint, the matrioshka brain seems to be the best way to increase Ra's processing powers.

I'm pretty convince that what we're dealing with here in terms of both factions - are the boring, unimaginative folks left behind. There are probably societies of humans based around other stars at this point, and possibly some of them freely interchange between real existence and virtual existence, being free of their predecessors biases.

2014-07-06 00:44:41 by Kazanir:

What are 500 trillion lives against the countless quintillions that a properly-provisioned Matrioshka brain could support? Does a human of flesh and bone have any meaning compared to the thousand lifetimes that can be lived in one of their heartbeats?

2014-07-06 01:42:41 by Deep Green:

Kazanir hit it in one.

2014-07-06 04:57:52 by Greel Lh aka T:

@Kazanir @Deep Green

How do you define a lifetime in a virtual space? One could live for many, many subjective years, millenia, even whole epochs. But what will they have to show for it? One day the sun will burn out, or Ra will be exploded by aliens, or the entire simulation shut down by Actual humanity.

A lifetime, inextricably, from the dawn of the humanity to the far, far distant future, was, is, and will be, tied to one thing: death. And when death comes knocking, I want to say I did something useful with my life, instead of sitting in a star and playing it safe, pretending to be god and eating virtual grapes.

To live an entirely virtual life (that is, one without any interaction with the outside world; there must be virtual engineers whose job it is to tend to and monitor Ra, or people who "immigrate" back and forth, spending only a portion of their lives in either state, etc.) is to waste one's life.

So, yes, I would say a human life of flesh and bone is indeed worth a quintillion virtual lives which have been spent doing nothing but draw processing power inside a giant computer.

The universe beckons us; it is our imperative to go forth and explore, and colonize and bring order to a chaotic place. Those who find it too difficult or boring or pointless to spend time in a world with rules and boundaries can go be the masters of their own universes, but never should the progress march of the human race be halted because there wasn't enough power to satisfy those contributing nothing to their own existence.

2014-07-06 05:34:10 by M:

One would think Actual Humanity has sent forth colonies to other planets, and when under attack it would be natural to send out distress signals, even knowing the response would be measured in years. I think it would be interesting to see an expedition, sent forth from another star system with power similar to Ra, arrive ready to fight an entire star system which has massacred its creators, and encounter dinky little Earth. A whole fleet of literal Star Destroyers and retrofitted planets and exotic weapons.

Come to think of it, wouldn't other colonists one day want to return to earth, the original home? If nothing else, there's a potential source of population other than the 214 survivors, and they might be confused or dismayed or angry the once glorious worldring and instant get what you want machine is gone.

Also, to what extent is the disabling of Ra's public interface, well, permanent? From Why Do You Hate Ra, it seems that the crew of Triton had run out of time, and needed to tell Ra something, permanently, and then seal it back up. But why? Why disable Ra's god abilities permanently? The inital problem was that Ra had "forgotten the value of real human lives", but why not reset it to the way it was before, sans Virtual reality? Let the Actuals start over again. Even with the abstraction layer of magic, if a Virtual had the key, magic wouldn't stop them. With access to the hardware, it would be imperative to make a new key (so if Virtuals get unfrozen this doesn't happen again), and with a new key, the locks have been "changed", so remote access is once again possible, so why not retreat to a safe distance after that? My questions boil down to: Is magic really the best way forward, given time and space to plan? Magic was created at the forge of Metaph, and we're told of numerous astras, pre-magic tools that tied directly into Ra's power. Are these reproducible? Are they stored somewhere? Was abstract weapon one of them or was it a magical tool?

I think, if one were to build a society, pulling from nearby colonies would make more sense than building one which must work hard for their earnings from scratch. Oh well, if the plot demands it...

Oh man, haven't thought so hard about a story since, well, I guess, Fine Structure. This scifi is without exaggeration on par with that of the greats of Asimov and Clarke. Thanks Sam!

2014-07-06 06:39:21 by Deep Green:

@Greel Lh aka T:

"So, yes, I would say a human life of flesh and bone is indeed worth a quintillion virtual lives which have been spent doing nothing but draw processing power inside a giant computer."

I'm actually working on deprogramming people like you. Stockholm syndrome comes in all flavours, and death-worshipers' viewpoints are, by necessity, limited.

If I spent a thousand years in a potentially lethal recreation of T-world, surviving the entire time, you're suggesting that because I didn't have a corporeal body - despite the danger and pain being just as real - that I have accomplished nothing? How is my accomplishment any less than that of a flesh-and-blood existence of conspicuous consumption which consumes resources better-used elsewhere and produces nothing but waste?

A virtual existence might be able to be destroyed without a trace, but so will yours, eventually.

"Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair."

2014-07-06 07:14:28 by MichaelSzegedy:

Ethical models tend to completely fall apart when you consider the creation and deletion of agents. Saying that POTENTIAL agents have any value (i.e. right to exist) whatsoever will completely derail everything, because then why aren't you creating them as much as possible?
If we go by preference utilitarianism, then what does have any weight is the desire of people for certain such potential agents to exist. In that case there is value in creating the agent. But it's not worth any deaths. It was wrong for Ra to kill anyone for virtual Lebensraum, let alone 100T people. Even then, though, it would have been a more sensible solution to just go build the Matrioshka brain in a way that doesn't kill anyone, making everybody happy.

2014-07-06 07:17:30 by bdew:

I don't buy the "surviving listeners" explanation. If this was really the case - the people on Triton should have realized that and figured out a way to deal with it. I can't believe they forgot/ignored such a huge hole in their plan.

2014-07-06 07:20:29 by bdew:

Also is the transfer from T world to the real world destructive?

There are copies of Laura, Natalie and Benji from the volcano incident even when they transferred back to the real world afterwards. But the shuttle and Rachel are gone?

2014-07-06 08:45:03 by Sean:


I also thought that the destructive transfer was weird. I thought it might be a limitation of the exploit used to remove things from T-world, and/or a deliberate method of wiping information from T-world to prevent Wheel from having access to the information. Certainly one does not want Wheel to gain an advantage by reading a copy of one's mind in the akashic records.

For Wheel to miss the listener issue seems plausible. They were dealing with a system that had never failed until it was specifically reprogrammed. What's more concerning, and maybe more surprising, is that neither Ra's design nor Rachel's command included "And make sure to seek out and destroy rogue pieces of yourself." as part of the reprogramming procedure. If Natalie's hypothesis is right, that's a big embarrassment to several people.


My issues with the Virtuals are:
1. They have billions of years of Sol time, and, given the even a small amount of starting physical resources, the ability to colonize the whole galaxy more quickly and with fewer resources than Actuals. If they think that they need a Matroska brain around Sol to run something like a human civilization, that is, all by itself, evidence that they are so disconnected from reality as to be mentally incompetent to make decisions about resource allocation. Ra seems to provide enough technology to reach Kardashev III within 1 million years, unless alien civilizations stand in the way. On that scale, Sol is not even pocket change, but more like a mote of dust on a piece of lint on one coin; the Virtuals may as leave it to Actuals, as a sort of reservation for Luddites.
2. If the Virtuals are not running something recognizably like a human civilization, we are not in a position to assess its value. All we know is that, without warning, it destroyed nearly everything that Actuals care about. With no further information, the Actuals are entirely justified in treating the attack like any other baseless aggression (though freezing Virtual society completely seems like serious overkill). Whatever sparked War did not attempt serious negotiations (or apparently even expend thought on Actuals' motivations at all). In doing so it implicitly communicated a belief that what it wanted was fundamentally at odds with Actuals' desires, such that it was a waste of time to attempt mutual understanding.
3. With nonlinear lifelines and enormous amounts of computing power, it's really hard to justify an ethics that treats enjoyable person-years as the only source of value. One quadrillion humans may outweigh one trillion humans, but running a bit-for-bit simulation of one human a quadrillion times is pointless perseveration. Eventually you have to assign value to the size of a mind, diversity of minds within a civilization, or both. To be blunt, you absolutely can use up arbitrary computing power on what seem like valuable human lives, but turn out to be mostly worthless calculations when viewed in aggregate. In that context, it's deeply concerning sever every copy of all minds of a certain type from their desires. (That type of mind being "one wanting a physical body on the topmost known layer of reality".)
4. I've taken the Virtual/Actual segregation as granted (suspension of disbelief, I suppose). But if one supposes that there would be other citizens within the solar system, e.g. ships with virtual crew, robots, part-timers who move in and out of simulations, or AIs outside of Ra, such beings appear to have either been destroyed by Virtuals in War, or denied their chosen lifestyle. It's not a priori obvious that these beings are too few or to unimportant to consider.

2014-07-06 08:50:06 by Greel Lh aka T:

@Deep Green

Perhaps my argument was not clear. Allow me to elaborate, and note, this might be long, as I'm covering a lot of bases.

I am not against the creation of virtual spaces, or doing things in such spaces. In fact, I think them a vital and important part of life. I am refuting the argument that sacrificing Actual lives for Virtual lives is morally worth it.

In this example, I would say it depends on what one did with that accomplishment, and indeed the rest of your life. It may seem like a cop out, but the worth of one's actions can only be *approximately* measured at the conclusion of one's life-and even then, may affect things for years after. If you lived your life (for either virtual or actual case) and did nothing with your accomplishment, you've both wasted it.

I'm trying to argue things at a very macro level. Take the case of the virtual who's spent their entire life inside a computer, never affecting the outside world at all. Take the stereotypical American, who spends their 199th century Ra subscription by watching future-television all day. These are both wastes. There are edge cases, yes. Don't lose sight; I am arguing in the grand scale, Actual Humanity vs Virtual Humanity (and trying to frame it in this story to boot).

See, the problem with calling me a death worshipper is that death is the only fact in this universe that is sure enough to warrant that kind of respect. No, I don't love death nor think it a necessary part of life. If everyone could instantly be immortal tomorrow and live happy lives forever, hell yes that'd be a great future. But problem is, everyone dies. Even the virtual beings in a machine will die. My point is exactly that my existence can be terminated at any point. I choose, rather than to live life in a hedonistic haze, to toil and accomplish things.

The fact that we remember Ozymandias at all is testimony to exactly why we should toil to make great works. He chose to get up one day and be proud. His hubris has secured his legacy.

I very likely missed some points. I look forward to your rebuttals.

2014-07-06 08:58:44 by Greel Lh aka T:

Also, Sean has brought up a good point, that Virtual life may have become disconnected and they are now intelligences within a machine. I am condemning, very specifically, the case where intelligence(s), simulated in a virtual world, choose to live their lives in that same virtual world without interacting with the outside.

A person with a computer brain who crews a starship: OK.
A vacation trip into virtual land: OK.
Spending entire life in virtual land: Not OK.
All the intelligences in Ra combined somehow and made a mega intelligence and they are now going forth into the world to multiply: OK.
Doing the above while killing Actual Humanity: Not OK.

2014-07-06 10:33:34 by skztr:

The blurry edges, such as "becoming virtual for safety reasons while on a spaceship", or "sending a few instances of your virtual self into actual space to explore and report back" are the kinds of things that would probably happen if not for the schism. Actual humans have many generations who have lived with the schism as fact. Virtual humans have many trillions more.

I don't think we're going to see a Fine-Structure-like "ship full of mind-states" come zooming in to rescue everybody, for the simple reason of this schism making the whole idea abhorrent.

I see this as similar to Dune: "Why are humans doing any of this? Shouldn't robots be doing this for them?" "Oh... err.. there was a war. It is illegal to make a robot. That's actually their highest law." Same thing here. I see the setting as:

1) Magic is real. Magic is real because there is an all powerful computer that can do anything you want it to.

> "But Sam, if there's an all-powerful computer, why would people be alive at all, instead of living virtual lives as electronic brains?

ok, 2) Some people are "virtual humans", but not everyone is. There are very strong philosophical and idealogical differences, and the idea of becoming Virtual is pretty much heresy. And Virtual society moves so quickly due to having so much computing power, they find "Actuals" non-interesting. So, Virtual humans exist, but they are a non-issue. They will not be interacting with this story, at least not directly.

2014-07-06 15:07:14 by Omegatron:

What would have happened if Hatt hadn't interfered back in The Seventh Impossible Thing? Was it actually Rachel that Laura was bringing back or was it Glass Man Ra (or both of them)? If Glass Man Ra did come back, with or without Rachel, what would he do without the Bridge?

2014-07-06 15:26:56 by qntm:

Certainly, the person Laura was carrying up the mountain during "The Seventh Impossible Thing" was Rachel.

If Laura had succeeded, a whole different chain of events would have started. Probably this would involve a convoluted conflict between the Wheel Group trying to cover up the enormous and obvious defect in the structure of magic, and Hatt Group (still including Laura) trying to exploit Rachel's inside knowledge for scientific/medical/financial/personal gain. Rachel would have had to make some difficult decisions about exactly how much of her past to reveal to her family. And Ra would not have entered the picture until much later, if at all.

However, it's not clear whether Laura would have succeeded if Hatt had left her alone. All I can say is that from a narrative perspective it was extremely important that she fail.

2014-07-06 15:55:45 by MadcapPomposity:

Interesting. I love this back-and-forth between the respective advocates of Actuality and Virtuality. Virtuality is also the default-evil alignment in the Matrix series and other works; I think this is because contemporary humanity doesn't have access to Virtuality tech, and thus lacks a Virtual perspective. Cypher was the asshole of the first Matrix movie because he sold out the rest of humanity, but on a personal level it's difficult to argue that he was objectively wrong for preferring a happy simulation to a miserable reality. His barbs about the nature of freedom were particularly stinging.

Now, someone needs to exist in the real world to operate and expand the equipment (and that's about the most virtuous calling there is, @Greel Lh), but most of the humans on the worldring were exemplars of hedonism and instant gratification, rather than explorers staking out new ground or engineers maintaining Ra. What makes reality better than a simulation when an individual lives exactly the same way in both? How CAN reality be better when two otherwise-identical Actual and Virtual lives are separated by several orders of magnitude worth of resource consumption? I'll agree that the Virtual architects of Abstract War were abhorrently criminal in their actions, but their goals and certainly their philosophies are not inherently wrong or evil.

(Also, I love that Natalie has become the Ra universe's equivalent of Batman: give her an hour to plan, and she can defeat literally anyone by sheer force of genius.)

2014-07-06 16:13:34 by MadcapPomposity:

@Greel LH:

Put another way, not every human being is an Amundsen, or an Armstrong, or a sled dog for Amundsen, or a NASA engineer. Taking a wider view of human nature, I think Virtuality is the best way to reduce the resource overhead for a population of hedonists that occasionally produces explorers and geniuses.

2014-07-06 16:35:38 by Curiouser:

I'm curious, where does modern humanity stand?

2014-07-06 19:39:08 by Greel Lh aka T:


I take no issue with the existence of Virtuality. I condemn Virtual lives as lives wasted, but yes, of course there are so also Actual lives which have been wasted this way. I think it a good solution that all Actuals who would live better, more fulfilling lives by satisfying only themselves be taken to Virtual world and allowing them to live it out there.

However, and again, I'm trying only to counter this very specific point: Actual Humanity consumes copious amounts of resources, and I'm saying nay to those who argue those copious resources would be better spent in a mass simulation of ALL of humanity.

I'm not sure that the majority of the population is hedonists.

As an aside, I'm on a teaching internship this summer, and I can see (almost) every kid has the potential to be incredibly lazy, or incredibly brilliant. I hazard there's an intrinsic reason a lot of kids say they want to be astronauts, to the point it's almost become a cliche (thanks, Anchorman 2).

I could be incredibly naive. We went to the moon not out of a sense of discovery and wonder, but because we had to beat the Soviets. Perhaps curiosity and perseverance are cultural and learned behaviors. As an aerospace engineering student, maybe I'm just defending my future way of life. Perhaps it is necessary to enforce an all Actual humanity to make sure we keep producing explorers and geniuses. In any eventuality, I find it necessary that we keep doing so, no matter the cost.

2014-07-06 20:34:18 by outlawpoet:

It seems quite naive to split Virtuals and Actuals along hedonism at all. Virtuality doesn't imply unproductive lives in any obvious way. Its necessary to the story that Ra's design was surpassed by Virtual non locality computer engineers, after all. And it's vanishingly unlikely that Actuals have any off world colonies, but it would be trivial for Virtuals to build seedships with AI-controlled replicator patterns to explore the galaxy, holding sleeping mind states for interesting situations, and cloning copies of Virtual civ to live in nice young stars.

I think it's likely that Natalie is wrong about the idea of a fraction of Virtual-aligned Ra listeners, she's not a computer scientist. Ra is a network, not a thing. If it were incapable of dealing with malfunctioning or mis-programmed (from the standpoint of the new programming) nodes, it never would have functioned at all, with pervasive nano-machines, it is a total certainty you will lose node state to cosmic ray bit flips regularly, quite aside from comm problems, programming errors, and physical malfunction of processors and memory. A Ra incapable of self-healing and policing listeners would have been destroyed by either unceasing network splits or uncontrollable cancer.

2014-07-06 21:19:41 by Sean:


Actually, I think that treatment of Native Americans in the US is a good (if uncomfortable) analogy here. There's this idea that the resources of an area are being "wasted" on relatively sparse and primitive peoples, which therefore have to be displaced in order to build a better civilization. It's troubling to prioritize some potential development of a piece of real estate over existing people's right to life or autonomy.


I think that the Virtuals are not in fact engaging in exploration, even though I agree with you that they could be much better at it than the Actuals. This is implied by the fact that they are so keen on taking over all of the resources of Sol (there are *much* bigger stars out there), and also by the fact that, according to the Actuals, Virtuals seem to have nearly forgotten that reality even exists, suggesting that in the past several thousand years, they have not started any large engineering projects visible to Actuals. Virtual colonies would probably look like Matrioshka brains around nearby stars, which would be detectable as significant drops in the observed radiation from those stars.

At the same time, since colonization is comparatively hard for Actuals (they have to find, construct, or terraform suitable worlds), it may be that they actually have colonized other systems, but that the colonies are still either too small (not having harnessed enough of the local star to have a big energy budget yet) or too remote to have much impact on people in the solar system.

(What if those colonies are actually all still part of the same Ra network, only with a years-to-centuries light speed delay instead of minutes-to-hours? Some of them may have had to fight Abstract War in isolation, years later when the reprogramming signal from Sol finally arrived!)

2014-07-06 22:21:15 by Deep Green:

I cannot possibly express my thoughts more coherently than outlawpoet has so far. Additional points, however -

Regarding the Aboriginal analogy, well. It falls flat because of the fact that, with the right construct rules, the Actuals would notice no difference - the Aboriginals were not so fortunate. It would be less of the universe-manipulation in the vein of Fine Structure and more of a thing, minus the presence of the Virtuals.

Regardless, based on the information presented and the absence of information not presented, it is quite clear that both the Virtuals and the Actuals had given themselves over to complete hedonism, with the exception of the Virtuals who were actually attempting to accomish something - the construction of a Matrioshka brain. The Actuals were standing in the way of the advancement of humankind in the only way that humankind was attempting to advance.

As I've said before, I support the why, but not the how.

(And as for the naivete of suggesting that virtual existence lacks a certain je-ne-sais-quoi and is therefore solely hedonistic or unproductive - well... who was it that struck first, again? At best, willful ignorance. At worst, willful stupidity.)

2014-07-06 23:04:50 by Kazanir:

I think the problem with colonization is supposed to be that Ra was a huge engineering marvel even with the full range of non-locality technology, lots of energy, and all the other resources of Earth available.

Nonlocality lets you move stuff around and convert its state: but you have to have the stuff. On a colonization voyage through deep space, there is relatively little stuff available and that makes the trip far riskier and more difficult.

I assume that without FTL travel, moving the necessary resources and equipment to a distant star would be incredibly hard, which explains why we haven't heard anything about extra-solar civilization in the story so far.

I find the Virtual/Actual debate enthralling.

2014-07-06 23:05:57 by skztr:

@outlawpoet, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the "fractions of [bad] listeners". This is a truly distributed system, so both sides are equally "in the wrong": The old listeners did not accept the new instruction. The new listeners did not carry out the old instruction.

If part of Ra thinks "Create the Brain. Interpret any attempt to not create the Brain as damage, and route around it" and another part of Ra thinks "Protect Actuals. Interpret any attempt to not protect Actuals as damage, and route around it", both are conflicting instructions which have only one resolution: destruction of the other side.

The idea that there are some "destructive" nodes remaining is no less absurd than the idea that Nat was able to summon armour while the World Ring was being destroyed. There is no central authority to say "this one is right, this other one is wrong" - the closest thing to centralisation is the need to request energy to perform actions. There was never a strict requirement about *where* that energy would come from, and there's currently an abstraction layer on top of the main tap, called "Mana", which probably obfuscates the source of the requests somewhat.

2014-07-06 23:57:26 by outlawpoet:


I agree the story seems to show something like that to Nat, but it's worth pointing out that everything in that interlude is COMPLETELY fictional, a made up story they can play in which is intended to convince them of something. Also, the lag in synchronization could presumably be the time Ra needs to send kill/reprog commands to all listener nodes, the idea that rogue nodes could take decades to succumb is counter-indicated even within that tale, all visible Ra nodes are updated to the new instructions within minutes.

The problem isn't just of conflicting high level goals, if Ra can't track, update and police the whole shebang, the solar system would be full of pathologically broken subnetworks which decided they needed to ignore all commands, or request infinite energy, or to pulse X-rays at maximum intensity at their local network neighbors, or to attempt to construct competing non locality energy sources. The number of nodes that missed a presumably high priority signed enforced software update would be dwarfed by the number that were slowly dying of bit rot in subtle and possibly dangerous ways.

Quite aside from the fact that Ra is clearly deeply centralized (the listener nodes are never referred to as having significant local capability, the central Ra sun object is always the thing referred to as carrying out operations, physical access to it, not say, a physical plurality of nodes, is important), the idea that Ra's network contains an abstraction layer that does not verify nodes who request non locality resources would result in the most broken nodes getting the most resources(first to ask wins?), unless they are controlled statistically via an algorithmic voting process, which strikes me as very deeply risky, and anyway quite difficult to 'prove' safe, as the Actuals clearly believed Ra was.

I think whatever the antagonist is, it can't just be left-over unfixed Virtual-loyal Ra, it's a person of some kind, whether the traitorous Actual that Ashburne attempted to execute, a rogue Wheel Grouper, a Virtual cabal that ran on hidden hardware, whatever. Granted, this isn't a story written by an AI scientist, but it displays way too much human behavior and drives. Why bother with all the conversation and interaction? A being without any human values would have simply used the protagonists if necessary. Even if Basilisk-hacks and mind control magic do not exist, the old Ra clearly had advanced neurological interfaces, anyone in range of a hostile Ra node which could request full non locality resources could be driven like a puppet and read like a book. It wouldn't have even had to pretend, there is no privileged access that Laura actually has, anyone seemingly could have pulled the Shuttle out of the backup records, if they had the device she steals. No one in the Wheel group knew her or could have distinguished a Ra biological infiltrator from Adam.

2014-07-07 02:02:29 by Curiouser:

I tend to agree with outlawpoet, it was never hinted that Ra is anything but a cold calculating machine(if anything, it was hinted that that's exactly what it is). So how come the glass man/whatever being Laura was manipulated by, had such a strong personality?

Something still doesn't quite add up.

2014-07-07 02:46:04 by Sphericon:

I did not comment on it when I first read the chapter, I had believed that somebody else would bring it to Sam's attention, but in the very first sentence I do believe that "of" is supposed to be replaced with "off", although "out of" would be a suitable alternative.

2014-07-07 02:46:38 by Voidhawk:

As an "exercise for the reader" as it were in the Actual/Virtual existence-validity discussions:

1) Prove/Disprove the hypothesis that you are an Instantiated Actual, and not currently existing in a Virtual run simulation. Failing that, give the likelihood of such.

2) In the hypothetical scenario of personally observing an existing Virtual Civilization, would this increase or decrease the likelihood that you are inside one? Jumping off point: how predisposed to lying is your species?

My preferred answers: Everything is Real. Turtles all the way Up. (Ref: I Don't Know Timmy,...)

2014-07-07 02:59:23 by Nextdoor:


1) Mu.

There is no way to prove or disprove any such thing. Further, there is no way to rigorously prove that the proof is impossible (or possible). Further yet, the distinction is completely irrelevant to everything, everywhere, always, in every way that matters.

tl;dr Who cares?

2014-07-07 05:32:33 by Greel Lh:

I dunno, the Actuals were in the midst of building the worldring; and it doesn't seem like the Virtuals were doing much interacting with the outside world. At all. By definition.

We're working with the definitions of Virtual and Actual Humanity as given in the story. It is very conceivable that the future may progress another way, where the Virtuals go out and explore the universe, and I would support that. But we are explicitly told, no, they have decided to stay inside the Sun. The big defining feature of Virtual Humanity is they want to be left alone inside their computer. And I quote: "Rather than conquer the universe, they would write a fiction in which they had already conquered it." I consider this to be unproductive.

I would be fascinated to hear what word of god is on the existence of extrasolar colonies. For a culture with technology to build shell earths and full life support warsuits, terraforming a planet should be trivial. It would go against the stated description of Actual Humanity, if the answer were no colonies.

2014-07-07 05:49:16 by Bauglir:

Yeah, I've got no problem with a Virtual society, and in fact wish I'd live long enough to get uploaded (this almost certainly won't happen). I don't even so much mind the existence of a Virtual society that retreats from reality, though I wouldn't join one myself (I don't view adjusting your definitions of a situation to exclude a problem as actually solving it).

If we grant what we know so far to be canon, then Virtual society's crime isn't in what they are, it's in their decision to stamp out a competing society, in particular one that's collectively decided to continue trying to solve the problems reality poses. This is a consequence of the plot, not of anything inherent to whatever philosophical issues arise from the idea of a Virtual/Actual divide.

Notably, we've seen Exa uploaded during the War, with all that asteroid jumping. During that time, he's functionally Virtual, so I expect that Actual humanity's perspective is somewhat closer to what I've described. I doubt they see anything abhorrent about changing your mental hardware - it's the retreat that bothers them.

2014-07-07 09:55:45 by Useless Wizard:

@outlawpoet and Curiouser: What if the Glass Man and, for that matter, all those calling themselves "Ra" are, in fact, Virtual Humans housed in Ra's simulation? We've been *told* that the Virtuals were frozen, but what if they weren't?

Or what if they were, and Ra acted upon an ancient (by Virtual-time standards) request to "fix" or "restore" them if they ever became silent? They'd certainly have the time to work at finding a way to the Records, even if they couldn't get around the final command.

2014-07-07 12:36:54 by skztr:

So far we've seen two (perhaps three?) instances of "big numbers vs impossible odds" already. Here's another one: A massive, distributed system of processing nodes all get sent the "Pause" command. I imagine that for Virtuals, this would appear as a wave of destruction completely equivalent to the dicing up of the World Ring. Yes, the real-world timescale involved is much shorter, but Virtuals also live lives which are much "faster". I can imagine that a one-in-literally-quadrillions chance of a signal from the far end of Ra being interrupted prior to the signal which says "You: also stop processing" reaches the other side. This presumes that the Virtuals were "alive" at the time of Abstract War, of course, which we've still yet to see any evidence for.

2014-07-07 14:05:06 by John:

Pre-War humanity had, for all purposes, BEATEN the Universe. To them, reality was a Solved Problem.

A society in such a position basically has three choices: 1) Acknowledge victory and exit the Universe gracefully, leaving things neat and tidy for whatever other contenders that might evolve (Sublimation), 2) Fuck around indefinitely to no real purpose (The Culture), or 3) Go forth and turn the entire Universe into copies of themselves (Hegemonising Swarm).

I'm not sure which of those three options is the most selfish. They all express a certain selfishness, really.

I find the supposed noble striving that the Actuals were performing somewhat silly. "Here we are, scratching out a bare existence in a hostile universe, with nothing but grit, determination, and COMPLETE CONTROL OVER MASS, ENERGY, TIME, AND SPACE." Wow, that sure must be a challenge. It's so impressive, how noble and self-sacrificing that must be.

2014-07-07 17:02:32 by Voidhawk:

To be fair, they don't seem to have complete control over Time or Space. Or any control over them at all, other than normal relativistic effects. C being a hard limit has been the bedrock on which the other craziness has grown.

On a related note, I would love to read a long-story by Sam that involves Closed Time-like Curves, of any variety.

2014-07-07 18:23:01 by Sean:


I don't think there is a way to tell if you're in a simulation. In fact, I'm not really sure what reality *is*; we sort of define it as "not a fabrication", but that doesn't really tell you what the alternative is, why it is present, or what sustains it. (Being a brute fact with no explanation possible, perhaps?)

This gets back to what I want to say to Deep Green:

My defense of the Actuals is not based on the assumption that their layer of reality is the final, "real" one in the first place, but on the fact that it's the topmost one that they know about and can access, and therefore the only one where they can truly affect the total processing power available to their civilization, and the only one where they have a chance to encounter things alien to human civilization (e.g. actual aliens, physics that they thought they had solved but actually hadn't, or whatever). Any way you slice it, to at least some subset of Actuals, being on the topmost accessible layer of reality provides opportunities, and a measure of power and autonomy, not available within a (superficially indistinguishable) simulation.

Actually, the processing power issue is important. Actuals are already using 1/4 of Ra and the entire Ra network outside of Sol to sustain their civilization. Their energy consumption is described as rapidly increasing, which likely corresponds to some upward trend in processing power, and so eventually they would have had to either spread to other systems, ration themselves, or try to instigate their own War to take control of all of Ra. If Virtuals tried to put the Actuals in a sandbox, even running in a relatively slow, "real time" mode, within a few millennia their processing power needs would have exceeded the capacity of even a Matrioshka brain (besides which, Virtuals would encounter the same problem first).

The Virtuals have always had three choices: to stagnate in a limited-resource environment, to expand to other stars, or to kill off the Actuals and take their stuff in order to put off the decision a little longer. Putting the Actuals inside a Virtuality would be just another delaying tactic; eventually they would be tempted to shut the Actuals (and each other) down to get at the valuable cycles being used up, and the only real escape would be extrasolar colonization. So why not focus on an interstellar space program, and cut out subjective millennia of squabbling over space around Sol? (Especially since it's not clear that a space program would take any longer or be more expensive than whatever they did to get the key to Ra in the first place.)


We don't know if there actually were any Virtuals outside of Sol. You would expect there to be *someone* in their population who takes a tour of parts of Ra out in the rest of reality, but it's not clear what resources Ra made available to them, especially in the middle of War. Also, due to light speed delay, a decision to leave Sol is a decision to be cut off for subjective millennia (at least) from the core of Virtual civilization; one would presumably not want to be awake for most of that time without a psychologically self-sufficient community, whatever that means to the Virtual(s) in question.


"Fuck around indefinitely to no real purpose"

This isn't an activity or a type of activity, it's an attitude you take. If all the hard sciences from physics up through biology and most of psychology are solved, and all you've got left are exploration, the very hardest boundaries of math and engineering, art, politics, and pure hedonism, that's just how things are. If you want to say that once the former are done, all of the latter are just "fucking around", that's an unpleasant subjective judgment on your part, but it doesn't compel anyone else to feel the same way, or to even care about whatever criteria you use to make that distinction.

2014-07-07 19:36:57 by John:


You make an excellent point regarding the benefits of paying attention to that crucial "top level" of reality. Banks makes a similar point in one of the Culture books, that Minds shouldn't get so caught up in the wonders of Infinite Fun Space that they forget to keep a careful eye on where their real-world on/off-switch is located.

I wasn't (intentionally) being perjorative about "fucking around", but I can see how it could be seen that way. The point I was trying to make is, once there are no credible existential threats, and any physical need can be instantly fulfilled just by wishing for it, the game is over at that point. You won. You can keep rolling the dice and going around the board if you like, but it starts to have a certain air of futility. Why exactly are you doing that exploration/math/engineering/art/politics/hedonism? You certainly don't need to. You're just doing it for the hell of it, because it amuses you to do so.

2014-07-07 20:29:19 by speising:

regarding extrasolar colonization: do we know that other stars and planets actually exist? just because 70s 2.0 society sees stars in the sky doesn't mean there really are any out there...

2014-07-07 21:24:50 by skztr:


The Ed stories, when taken as a whole, can be seen as such, though I know that's more likely "what prompts the desire" than something which counts as fulfilling it.

Personally, I would absolutely love for some major TV network to make an "Earth+10" series. I'm not saying it would make a good series, or that any network would do a good job of it, but isn't it just the best *concept* for a SciFi show you've ever heard?

2014-07-09 05:21:26 by atomicthumbs:

Wait, do we know where Scott F. Parjasa is? He's the most important missing piece of the puzzle!

2014-07-09 11:40:05 by Alan:

atomicthumbs, I feel strongly that next chapter will be the redemption of Scott Fucking Parjasa. :P

2014-07-09 13:57:13 by qntm:

I want you all to forget that character now. And it's "Parajsa". There's an R A in it.

2014-07-09 16:14:16 by Kazanir:

As they say in France: Quelle surprise!

2014-07-09 16:50:38 by Alan:

We know that Sam. We're just having fun.

2014-07-09 16:54:00 by John:

Uh-oh, Sam's firing up the memetic weapons. Anybody remember what happened the last time that happened? Does the name "Thomas Muoka" ring any bells? No? That's EXACTLY my point!

2014-07-09 20:03:43 by Curiouser:

John, assuming Sam DID fire the memetic weapons, you would not remember it either. Therefore, I am left with the only conclusion that you my friend, are imagining things.

2014-07-10 00:23:45 by ;:

look at the title of the last chapter. will the old man make an appearance in t-world?

2014-07-10 14:05:49 by sedo:

magic words are smoke in T world now, instead of "globs" of colour. Is this implying magic has stopped functioning globally?

2014-07-10 22:48:28 by farms:

I don't belive Nat's "some listener nodes were left unprogrammed" idea. In a distributed system where millions of nodes say X and a handful say Y, the consensus they come to should never be Y. Anyway there's basically only two Ra nodes in play at this point Sol!Ra and Earth!Ra (The Distributor). The listener nodes are slaves to them and not AI's themselves.

2014-07-10 23:02:25 by farms:

It is never explicitly mentioned that the Virtuals actually cracked Ra's key. It is just assumed that's what they did.

Glassman could be a piece of adaptive software/virus (of roughly human intelligence level) used to find and exploit holes in Ra and hand control over to the Virtuals.

The virus could have been missed during the re-programming of Sol!Ra or re-purposing of Earth!Ra into The Distributor as the Actuals assumed the Virtuals just used the key.

In fact, it is inevitable that it would be missed. Once a software system is compromised, you cannot trust that any of that system's software again, you must reload from a known safe state and work from there. But Ra is a thousand year old star sized computer with the ability to reshape reality. Even it's hardware must be considered compromised. I'm not actually sure you can "fix" Ra without rebuilding from scratch.


After the re-programming of Sol!Ra, whatever exploits it used last time no-longer worked, but it's been making progress exploiting the virtual world associated with the listening post ever since: creating drones that escalate it's permissions to the 'ra' user to exploit the magic engine, using the Records to gather intelligence and manipulating Laura to get access to her mother.

2014-07-11 12:39:21 by ahd:

@farms - um, not on camera, no. but Sam discussed it explicitly in the comments. they cracked the key.

he won't say how, though. i suspect it's all s.f.parajsa's fault. :)

2014-07-11 12:42:29 by ahd:

anybody wondering whether there were Ra nodes in any of the other planetary bodies?

2014-07-11 14:33:35 by trainbrain27:

They had Neptune, so it would make sense to have nodes in at least the solid planets.
I can't imagine that the number of Actuals who lived on Mars would be 0, even if the worldring were "perfect."
They would have had to be blasted as well.

2014-07-11 20:58:42 by Kazanir:

The rogue listener thing does seem a bit contrived, but Natalie's opinions are as close to you get as authoritative within this narrative. Being right is kind of her gig -- although she was wrong about Wheel "enslaving" Ra which was her opinion before being shown the recording of Abstract War.

2014-07-14 14:38:50 by bluediamond:

Something I haven't seen discussed yet is, what is King's angle. Is he just a powermad dictator, or does he have some other kind of angle? Did he shoot Caz and put off the destruction of the records just to maintain his grip on power, or has he been corrupted by Ra?

2014-07-15 01:46:05 by Dehlight:

Everything seems to be resting on the identity of TheGlassMan.

So what are the possibilities for agents who want an M.Brain? He could be:

1. Some instantiation of the Schizo!Ra AI.
2. A Virtual (or agent of).
3. A rogue member of the triton crew.
4. King
5. ...?

(1) There is a lot of evidence that seems to want us to believe this is the case. However given that everything we've heard about Ra implies it is simply a request/response machine, with no personality or evil plotting tendencies this doesn't fit that well. It could be argued that it gave itself a persona in order to fulfil it's task, but that just seems convoluted.... We've seen plenty of people walking around calling themselves 'ra' but I think this is just analogous to being logged in as 'root', these are agents working for glassman who have escalated privileges somehow.

(2) Would make a lot of sense (It's about freedom), but very little has been mentioned of the Virtuals outside of the wheel's propaganda sim, so this almost seems almost to boring to be the right answer. This would also need an explanation for how they 'escaped' from being on pause, one of "The 14" maybe?

(3) There has been some vagueness as to who from the triton crew actually formed Wheel. Add to that an offhand comment in the war sim after a panicy member said he wanted to be uploaded ("He can't have been the only one"), and it's certainly possible that Wheel wasn't the only 'group' that formed from the survivors.

(4) King clearly has more than a few screws loose, and has little regard for life. T-World would certainly fit being King's nightmare. He may have left an intensional security hole into T-World in order to allow himself to get backed up, but inadvertently stranded an instance of himself to roam his own nightmare for subjective years.... resulting in a _really_ crazy King who wants to build the M.Brain and turn it into a giant Virtuals torture device.... OK that one's a bit far fetched.

2014-07-15 11:31:06 by bdew:

"You see," he explains, "once you have physical access to the hardware, it's all over."

This sounds way too human to me, i don't think it can be "just" Ra.

2014-07-15 16:56:08 by Eclipse:

Do we know the glass man is building a Matroishka brain? All Hell just says megastructure. It's possible he's rebuilding the world ring, isn't it? Even Abstract Doctor could be considered a megastructure, but this seems like a lot of effort for an astra.

2014-07-15 23:44:16 by Dehlight:

@Eclipse ... good catch! however it does still say it's going to need to "disassemble the Earth"... so if it's a worldring it's a pretty non-earth friendly one (unlike the last).

2014-07-16 03:27:03 by Unmaker:

I bombed through the archives about two weeks back and just reread them at a skim rate. So, in no particular order:

~!@#$%^&*()_+ fantastic story. (OK, that one deserved to be first.)

Ra is likely a Virtual. There are two arguments here:
(1) To use the "one in a ridiculous chance" logic that keeps getting repeated, just because most of the Virtuals didn't sully their thought processes with reality doesn't mean all of them didn't. It would have been easy for many of them to have fully autonomous agents that occasionally sent updates back to Virtual space.
(2) No matter how disconnected Virtuals were from Actuals, some of them had to realize that building the Matroishka brain would engender opposition (one in a whatever argument again, plus anything with half a brain should expect this), so the more aware of them would have sent agents out first, well before the Matroishka brain project started. Those agents would have been instructed to infiltrate whatever Actual military existed at that time, and with superior processing power available to design them, could probably beat most Actual attempts at finding them.

I am having trouble with both the Virtuals and Actuals in this story. Just a few points:

[1] The universe will always have limited resources. If you value minds at all, you build the most efficient environment for hosting them possible, to allow for more total minds. Since it appears to be a given in the story that Virtuality is more efficient, then that is the way to go.

[2] So, you've got these stubborn Actuals who are using way more resources per processor cycle than they should [1]. So, the response is to kill them? All the ridiculous engineering and computational power available and that's the "best" response? I won't even go into ethical problems except to note that violence invites the same. How about this compromise instead: The amount of solar output needed to make it appear that all of the Actual habitats and planets were still seeing the Sun as apparently normal has to be a ridiculously small portion of solar output. So, make the Matroishka brain without the planets (the Sun and Oort cloud contain far more mass than the planets do) and let enough light out, properly reformatted, so that the planets and habitats still see the Sun as normal.

2014-07-16 11:57:49 by Claire:

I guess it's been almost a week since this discussion was active but I'll throw out my three cents in case anyone's still reading.

@Greel Lh:

Define 'progress'? I'm with John. All the things that can be considered to be 'progress' to me, within the world I live in, are pretty much solved in the pre-war Ra universe. There is a limit to what can be achieved within the laws of physics, and we (humanity circa 19000s) have hit that ceiling. The only thing left is to go colonizing other systems*, and to what end? To further reproduce? To 'bring order to chaos'... let's not pretend there is more inherent value in ordered matter than entropic matter. Ordered matter has value to us as humans, but that's selfish and not universal - if someone doesn't value it, do you consider them less of a person? Why?

*unless some information problems remain unsolved, in which case a Virtual human will stand a much better chance than an Actual, without the constraints of biological neural network architecture limiting their solution methods.

So, overall, I don't think there's such thing as universal or inherent value. I think trying to apply such a standard to a hypothetical society like this is pointless and fruitless. I think you can come up with compelling arguments for sparking War and for pausing the Virtuals, if you put yourself in each perspective. That's what makes it a compelling and believable story! People are self-centered by necessity (practically by definition!), regardless of their mode of existence - and conflicts over personal ideologies and goals and resource allocation are a defining part of the human experience.

For me right now, I've been following Laura's and Natalie's and Anil's and even Hatt and Vidyasagar's progress, and I've come to hate King for his hubris/cowardice as much as I completely understand it and don't blame him for it. I've got an emotional investment in the characters who, by and large, are (probably) actuals. So their motivations are the ones I care about. They're the ones whom I'm going to be upset if they die (run out of backups...). I give no shits about the Virtuals in this story, because I don't know a single one of them, and their ambassador has been kind of a dick.

I mean, we can try and decide on some numerical value for 'greater good' and deduce the correct course of action from that. But there'll always be dissenters, even when they're personally quite happy with the state of affairs. Right?

2014-07-16 20:55:03 by skztr:

Sam made an interesting comment on Reddit. In response to: "Lets be real here, reality is subjective, why does it matter if the chicken I'm eating isn't really chicken?", he said: "It might matter to the chicken."

This, viewed alongside Claire's comment, brings an interesting possibility, which I haven't seen mentioned: What if Glass Man / "whoever did this", is an external threat?

For example, an Alien race, who has already "won" in the same way that Humanity has, and then went on to take the next logical step: spread across the universe. Eventually, it finds humanity, and (just to be nice), it allows them to survive long enough to develop Ra-level technology. Then it provides Ra with new information: You cannot win. We are bigger than you. We will allow you control over this star, and no more. Do not expand, or you will not allow this much, either. Ra responds in the only rational way: Remove all non-Virtuals (who, by their nature, will eventually attempt to expand into the universe), and dedicate all of the Sun's energy to making do with what is available.

2014-07-16 21:51:55 by Curiouser:

skztr - this sounds a bit Asimovian to me. It's pretty interesting as a concept, but will be very weak at this point of the story since everything has been leading up to a conflict between virtuals(represented by glassman) and actual humanity(represented by the amusingly, currently simulated, Ferno group).

2014-07-16 22:09:59 by naura:

E2 version of All Hell confirms megastructure = Matrioshka vrain

2014-07-17 15:28:53 by John:


One could also argue that from each of their perspectives, the Actuals and Virtuals are "Aliens" to each other by the point of Abstract War.

One can also argue that "spread across the universe" is not actually the next logical step. What exactly does turning the entire universe into copies of yourself prove?

There is the xenophobic aspect of expansion, which you touch on slightly: "Do it before somebody else does it to you". In which case, the Actuals and Virtuals, if they legitimately are alien to each other, could be each considered to be justified in pre-emptively destroying the other in order to prevent themselves from being pre-emptively destroyed.

If your goal is maximum expansion without bound, the logical action is to immediate destroy all opposition which might conceivably, at some point in the future, be able to out-compete you. Why give them the chance?

This, by and large, is why I find the so-called "logical step" of expansion without bound to be morally repugnant.

2014-07-17 18:36:13 by Greel Lh:

@Claire @John

Has humanity discovered aliens yet? What is beyond the boundaries of our current solar system? Has anyone walked on a planet made of diamonds? There is so much out there to see. For the majority of first world citizens, surviving (food, water, shelter) is "solved", yet we still venture out into the wilderness, because there are always, always, always things about the world that we don't know yet.

Yes, a properly motivated Virtual Humanity would be better equipped to do this. Too bad they didn't in the story.

In any case, the depictions of humanity in this story represent a hypothetical future for humanity, and I find it useful to contemplate moral and ethical standards for hypothetical situations.

I think expansion need not be displacing and destructive, but we are given zero evidence for expansion, in any way shape or form. If we have truly solved the universe, somebody else out there must have also solved it. Were I an Actual, I would like to meet them. We can get into a huge debate about whether they'd be hostile, but I'd rather not.

2014-07-17 18:38:27 by Greel Lh:

No universe is complete without a giant planet sized 8 ball.

2014-07-18 11:44:43 by Unmaker:

True names in Tanako's world come out the same way that spell words do - as blobs of color. That effect does not end at death, as evidenced by 'penamba'.

Supposedly true name 'Ra' does not come out as a blob of color.

Therefore Ra is not a true name. (Or something really weird is going on.)

Why have many supposedly smart characters not noted this discrepancy? Natalie in particular could have used this argument with Laura.

Or am I missing something?

2014-07-18 19:05:43 by K:

Unmaker: There's a use-mention distinction in Tanako's world. Saying magic words only produces color/smoke/whatever if you're saying it *as a true name*.

2014-07-20 09:03:33 by kybernetikos:

It actually looks like Anil creates Abstract Weapon inside the wheels historical simulation ("And give us weapons. All possible weapons."), but the timeline seems wrong unless you can pull things out of simulations, in the same way that Laura can pull things out of memories.

Given some of the other things that have happened, I wouldn't be too surprised to see some acausal negotiation taking place. Perhaps that's what's happened with the glass man, some human (do we really think the kid in Triton was the only one thinking it?) has entered into an acausal negotiate with Ra Supreme, a future Ra he simulates on current Ra, and then becomes a servant to it.

There's also no certainty that the Virtuals are actually behind War, since more or less nothing is known of them and the worlds they live in and the Threats they face.

I had also wondered if Rachel had created her two daughters (and their history) in the moment of rescue and deliberately designed them to be aggressively, confidently practical and carefully, deeply theoretical, since they seem to be almost perfect embodiments of the forces you would need to design to be sure someone would come to save you in the future.

2014-07-20 14:02:43 by Curiouser:

@kybernetikos: This story has high level of meta, but I don't think it's quite THAT meta. Sam has a tendency of eventually looping back into reality, as I see it that "eventually" in this story was when Laura exploded everything and they are just hanging on to the last bit of simulated time they're going to have.

Regarding Rachel, all evidence points to her wanting to just leave everything to the rest of the survivors after reprogramming Ra, and live the rest of her life in moral peace(seems to be the only reason she rescued the shuttle), that's probably because of the regret she felt for not completing her task perfectly.
We the readers had some fantasy that she's a rebel who wants to stop the wheel group, but in reality she turned out to be just a survivor of Abstract War who wanted to live a normal(ish) life, but not so much that she'd let people die. So I highly doubt she'd engineer her own kids.

2014-07-22 02:31:47 by Alan:

On the other hand, Curiouser, her kids are exactly the type that would engineer their own kids.

2014-07-22 04:08:42 by LNR:

Her kids are also the type who would invent time travel, and go back to their own origins to engineer *themselves*.

But that's a different Laura Ferno story.

2014-07-22 04:59:53 by Alan:

Point and serve to you, LNR.

2015-12-07 02:03:17 by kazimuth:

I'm rereading this, and I just noticed "genocidal daemon" and cracked up.