Previously

Exa Watson stands at the bay window, sipping from a glass of the finest whisky that's ever existed, watching the city of New York melt down under emergency lighting which makes it look like Hell on Earth. Every three or so seconds another whump of white light is a Wheel Group member leaving the world, being transformed into a superamplified state vector and beamed out of the Sol system towards Sirius. The energy usage is colossal; it has to be, to guarantee clear reception at the far end. The whole planet Earth is being run dry of magic to do it. There are maybe sixty Wheel members left, and they're clustered in resigned groups, mostly doing the same as Exa, sampling some final priceless vice. The atmosphere is thick and black, something beyond mere total defeat.

Exa holds his glass in one hand and with the other he frets with his kara. It would have been the simplest thing in the world to lodge all of this deeply magical medical capability directly in the brain of each Wheel member, and to forget it existed, and for all of them to just press on with a future life with no consequence or defined final destination. But the kara inherits from the Doctor and its purpose is to serve as a constant reminder:

That they won Abstract War, but not by any sensible, numerical measure. (History's written by whoever lives long enough to write the result down, and they were the only ones, and what other result would they write?) That they saved one Earth, but only its sterile ruins. That they repopulated the Earth, but only with cheap hackery and facsimile people. And that then they took their perfect second chance and, somehow, found a way to "win" all over again.

Ra is awake. Virtual civilisation has resumed. Enough energy is coming down the downlink to grind the whole planet into computronic sludge. Forty-six decillion joules is horrific overkill, commensurate with the urgency of the combined desire for more processing power. With perfect logistics the disassembly of the planet will take no more than ten hours and the assembly of the Matrioshka brain no more than a thousand, but the first new hosting substrate will be ready almost immediately and Virtuals are already swarming behind the energy packet in anticipation.

Exa thinks about the facsimile people. Nobody in the room is talking about the facsimile people.

"What if there's something else? Something we're avoiding thinking of?" he asks desperately. "What if we're not retreating because it's our only option? What if we're retreating because we're cowards?"

Casaccia turns on him, with sorrow and aggravation. "Exa, I'm going to say this for the last time. You can't fight God unless God wants you to. You can't even entertain the thought of it."

There are thirty of them left. Exa tries to entertain the thought and finds that, somehow, he genuinely can't. Furious, he throws the last of the liquor down his throat, then throws his glass overarm through the window pane, with the force of a rocket. The pane explodes along with the optical shields, and slabs of broken glass spray out over the East River. The penthouse decloaks. Everyone can see them now, but who in the screaming city even has room for it?

"We dragged them into existence," Exa shouts. "And we let them raise children, like it was real. In a world which they basically believed that they understood, and which they basically believed to be rational and safe. They're all going to die. What are we?"

"It's King's fault," says Malcolm Flatt. King is still a dozing heap in the middle of the floor, rolled into the recovery position by Exa, who still retains the man's medring.

"It is not," Exa says, "entirely King's fault. We must have taken leave of our senses. We owe the whole world an apology for itself."

"Sure," Casaccia says. "If it would be cheap and quick to do, tell me how."

Exa says nothing.

There are ten of them left. The system seems to be proceeding in approximately increasing order of seniority. Kila Arkov, custodian of the now-destroyed akashic records, goes. Scin, seer of the same, goes. Paolo Casaccia, security chief to the Wheel, sets his own empty drink down on the table, straightens his cuffs and - "Be seeing you," - goes.

Malcolm Flatt is third to last. After he's gone, Exa gets two-and-three-quarters seconds alone with King, who still hasn't stirred. Exa is second-to-last on the list, King is last.

"Here's your apology." Exa produces Adam King's kara from an inside pocket and tears it into two pieces. He drops the pieces on the carpet and vanishes, swallowed up into heaven.

And the transmitter shuts down and cools.

*

Freezing New York air rolls in through the destroyed window. Shivering in his sleep, Adam King hears or imagines he hears the lapping of the river, a few dozen storeys below him. There is a faint, unintelligible screaming from the shores.

King is wading through a dream. Not some black crystal hallucination, no one will ever have one of those again, but an honest dream, a textbook lateness nightmare. No matter what he does, he's delayed and derailed, pushed into inescapable meetings and waiting rooms. An electronic countdown is beeping at him, a racing wheedling noise.

After some minutes, the screaming begins to fade, receding into the distance along with a wave of blue and red light. In the city, cars and trains roll mostly harmlessly to a halt, headlights still lit and engines running. Overhead, jets on autopilots circle, and will continue to circle until the world ends below them, and Ra comes hunting for their silicon and aluminium.

"What's at Sirius?"

He twitches, and that slight movement causes his neck to lock up, a solid neutron star of pain lodged in the muscle where Exa struck him. He gropes instinctively for his medring, fails to find it, searches the floor around him, finds the pieces. There are no Wheel members left in the room, it's a wasteland. He tests his privileges; they're all gone, removed at the same time that the medring was torn apart.

"They kicked me out," he says. "They left me. On an exploding planet."

"Adam."

He looks up. Natalie Ferno is there, seated at the far end of the enormous dining table. Laid on the table in front of her is the Bridge, chunky, dull red and matte grey. To King's eyes it looks like a cross between an armoured 1U server and a metamaterial Weapon block, the kind with which he fought the War. Nostalgia shoots through him. He hasn't seen it in decades. The shot of nostalgia is followed closely by a stab of intense guilt.

Drooping out of the end of the Bridge are several fat cables. One of them, red, snakes up into the back of Natalie's head. Another, striped green and yellow, is plugged into a port in the centre of the dining table itself. Nat has been using the Bridge to move information from the penthouse systems into her own thoughts. She has been working.

Working quietly, by herself. It was extraordinary. Somehow, emptying the entire world of human presence gave her room enough to think more clearly than ever before, even with the enormity of the task, the significance of the historical moment, the preciousness of the payload and the immense, white-hot deadline rising up to meet her. She acknowledged all of those pressures and allowed them to pass through her. She worked dispassionately and efficiently. She has now finished, with five solid minutes' grace time. What does that remind her of?

"Sirius," she says again. "That's where the rest of th--"

King thrusts a hand out in her direction, fingers outstretched. "Threna estet au."

The firebolt punches a fist-sized hole in the back of Nat's high-backed dining chair, right where her head just was, showering her with splinters of bronze.

She dives beneath the table.

King leaps to his feet and then leaps onto the dining table itself. He adds another word of power to his spell which broadens its aperture by a factor of twenty, then sights along his forearm and atomises the entire far end of the table. The coherent energy leaving his fingers makes a sharp, ear-splitting, almost electronic noise. Seven chairs are obliterated in the attack, along with a long ellipse of red shag carpet. Having lost two of its legs, the long table tilts forward with a crunch and further splintering noises. King hooks the heel of one shoe over its back edge to remain upright. What's left is a blackened lip of burnt carpet, scorched fragments of metal and hardwood flooring, and a few items of warped ex-cutlery.

There are no human remains, nor would there be.

But there should at least be some remnant of the Bridge.

He spins, spitting the same attack spell out a second time. Natalie is standing behind him, obviously, cradling the astra, and King discovers that there is already a slim Montauk band clamped around his wrist now, which sinks all the mana he was about to project.

He throws that hand back and away from his body to minimise the ring's draining effects, while throwing his other hand forward and trying again. This time the spell is weaker and takes noticeably longer to come up to power, plenty of time for Nat to pull a second ring out of her university's inventory onto King's other wrist.

King snarls and leaps at her. She teleports him back thirty metres, to the far side of the room. King barely notices the discontinuity and gets up and keeps running. Nat teleports him back twice more.

Enraged, and still far out of range, King picks up a dining chair and hurls it at Natalie. It's a gesture, he has no chance of launching it far enough, but in any case she placidly teleports it out of the window. It drops into the river, far enough that there will be no audible splash.

He takes a step forward, she teleports him one step backward. He glances at the table again; she removes all of the cutlery too.

"Give me the Bridge," King finally barks, rooted to the spot now, clenching his fists.

"Why?"

"Bastards bailed out. I can fix this."

"How?"

"There isn't time," King snaps, but Nat was watching carefully for him to hesitate fractionally before failing to answer the question, and he did, because he can't.

"The rest of the Wheel Group have sent themselves to Sirius," Natalie says. "What's there? I couldn't find that information in the penthouse systems."

Adam King genuinely doesn't know what's there.

After the war, and the time of reflection, many of the survivors chose to leave the world in one direction or another. The majority of those who left left in Sirius' direction, aboard a probe. They knew there were planets at Sirius; none of them had liquid water, but that would change.

That was decades ago, and the journey was expected to take decades. Contact was never truly lost, but the probe and the people aboard it became deeply uncommunicative, and -- likely deliberately -- difficult to confidently track.

There is something at Sirius, he knows. Something: the old probe, or a colony, or at least an open relay to something else. Allies, maybe. It is the only safe open receiver in known space. He will find out when he gets there.

But he doesn't say any of this. He says:

"You've got no idea how to use that thing tactically. I can fix this. Kill Ra. I know what I'm doing."

"Okay. I was just curious. There's point eight percent of the Earth core cache left. That's enough energy to send exactly one more human-sized state vector to Sirius, with no margin for error. It can be you or it can be me."

King understands.

"But nobody else is going to Sirius," Natalie says. "Not you, not me. I have the equations of magic now. The true equations, given to you by Metaph. Point eight percent of the cache is enough to send all six billion of us into Ra, where--"

"No."

"--the human race will run to completion in perfect safety--"

"No. You're insane."

"--in an encrypted virtual reality exactly identical to this one. But with real magic. And without Ra."

King trembles. "You're a traitor to the keystone universe," he says. "Do you know what I-- your mother and I went through, defending you from exactly this? How many different wars it amounted to subjectively, how many times we collectively died and came back and died and came back again, willingly?"

"I went through it as well, remember? You put Anil and me there."

"You didn't see a fraction. Not a fraction of it. Reality is the only thing which matters. You've got no idea what you're surrendering yourselves to in there. Data can't defend itself!"

"...Okay, Adam," Natalie says, checking the Bridge one final time. "We're almost out of time. Final question. It seems to me that you suffered a great deal in the war. More than anyone. I think you could use some help, and I think I can help you, or find someone to help you. Would you like to come with us, into the future, and find some help?"

The sheer question insults and revolts King. How could anybody be stupid enough to ask it of him? "Listen. Internalize this," he says: "I would rather die than follow you there."

She's gone.

*

Soichi Noguchi is gone from the orbiter's controls and its flight is unstable. As it crosses the near end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway it rolls over and yaws sideways, deviating from the straight approach and then spiralling back over into it. It overflies two dark specks on the concrete, corpses, one of them Rachel Ferno, the other obliterated and still unnamed. It passes them and ploughs tail-first into the dead centre of the middle section of the runway. It explodes. The fireball is juicy and yellow-orange, and it leaves behind a vigorous fire and a stack of smoke. There's a brief rain of ceramic tiles and turbopump components.

Laura Ferno, Nick Laughon and Anil Devi are gone too, swept up. For a long few minutes, apart from the crackling of the fire and the light Atlantic breeze, there is peace, and breathing room. The sky is still plated with colossal, petrifying thaumic energy density warnings, to which a Foley artist would instinctively want to add sound: a pervasive holographic humming or a long, Earth-spanning, wailing siren noise appropriate for the end of the world. But they make no sound at all. They hang there, livid and implacable, staring down at nobody, warning nobody.

Presently, they shut off.

Two actinic pink lasers pass on either side of the runway, travelling from northeast to southwest. One passes kilometres away to the south and the other tens of kilometres away to the north. A moment later, a similar pair of lasers pass in the orthogonal direction too, describing a diamond-shaped piece of Floridian coast. There's a hard burst of increased apparent gravity as this plate of crust is kicked upwards and begins to rise through the atmosphere, unfurling into space for disassembly, pouring ocean off two of its edges.

Before it's a kilometre up, before the atmosphere has had time to thin or the plate has begun to tip over and empty its loose contents into space, the first wave of surface microbots finds both of the corpses. In an eyeblink, they are harvested and processed into mindless molecules. In another eyeblink, the rest of the runway and all of the Shuttle wreckage is consumed too.

Adam King dies under similar circumstances at about the same time. It's practically instantaneous.

 

Next: Continuity

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Discussion (21)

2018-07-01 12:36:35 by qntm:

Here is another chapter for you.

2018-07-01 14:52:25 by skztt:


Well, okay then. This is entirely unexpected and has me thoroughly excited.

2018-07-02 08:41:32 by theTrueMikeBrown:

King gets a fitting bad guy death, and Natalie is raptured with everyone else.

It would have been interesting if she had also given herself insurance by leaving alive the original copy, and letting that one take a slow boat to Sirius. (Assuming that the bridge was powerful enough to do that on the dregs of the Earth's power)

2018-07-02 19:46:09 by Zentoyo:

Man, just finished reading, Ra and now i find out its still going.

What a day to be alive.

2018-07-03 05:56:48 by Antistone:

I notice this uses some of the same lines as the other ending, but delivered by a different person in a different context. Reminds me of the movie Clue.

2018-07-03 10:11:11 by kabu:

"Adam King" is definitely one of my favorite fictional names. It sits right at the intersection of perfectly plausible and megalomaniacal hubris.

2018-07-03 11:35:34 by qntm:

You already know this, but it's worth mentioning again to everybody else that King chose that name for himself.

2018-07-03 17:34:21 by Lemma:

> Here is another chapter for you.
Thank you~

I am extremely curious what take you might have on virtual Earth. Though, Natalie seems so distrustful of human decision-making ability that she'll seriously just make a virtual duplicate of magic Earth--no embellishments, no curing cancer, nothing. Life just continues like nothing happened because--in their world--nothing did.

Which is admirable! Not many would do that, whether because they are ignorant of the risks or believe they are immune to them. Even Natalie seems to be suffering from it--I notice she didn't inquire as to why King (and the rest of Wheel Group, implicitly) believes it impossible to protect oneself from neighboring Virtuals. Does everyone have read privileges or something?

Natalie is making an admirable effort, regardless. Even I wouldn't leave the world wholly unchanged and I'm aware of our immense fallibilities! But that's partly because I don't believe it's the safest road. Whether it's a Malthusian trap or UFAI, we don't *need* ultimate power to entrap ourselves in a pit of suffering.

2018-07-03 17:50:15 by qntm:

Lemma: Natalie's hesitation, the "..." after King says "Data can't defend itself" and before Natalie continues talking, is crucially significant. (That pause was not present in the draft of this chapter which some here may have seen.) Natalie does not ignore King's statement, she considers it carefully before making her decision.

And it may still be a bad decision.

2018-07-04 10:45:00 by Actual:

Adam King did nothing wrong.

2018-07-05 00:14:24 by Eldritch:

It occurs to me that Ra is, fundamentally, a story about failure. Laura fails to save her mother, the Wheel failed to save their world the first time around, and ultimately the protagonists fail to save Earth. Not one character succeeds at their goals, not one plan works for more than a moment. There are no victories.

The new ending makes that theme much clearer.

2018-07-05 18:52:15 by John:

I was thinking about why this all wasn't over as soon as Natalie held the key and said "Do What I Mean". Because after that, everything that happens has to be viewed through the Ra lens of "Is this occurrence something that Natalie would have found an acceptable outcome of her command?" Because it beggars belief that Natalie's intention was for the Earth destruction order to be so quickly reinstated after she gave a command to prevent it. And since that was not her intention, it should not have been possible, and Ra should have prevented it as a matter of course to ensure that her command was obeyed. Saving the Earth was What She Meant, so Ra would Do It.

But that scenario is subject to induction. The Glass Man had the key under very similar circumstances, and thus Natalie should not have been able to steal it except in a fashion that ultimately ensured the Glass Man's aims.

And before that, Rachel had the key, and so the Glass Man should not have been able to access it except in a fashion amenable to Rachel's aims.

Prior to Rachel, it's arguable whether anyone ever had raw direct access to Ra. If it is the case that Rachel had the first direct raw access, I'm pretty certain that makes her commands unalterable in any material sense, ever, at any point in the future, by anyone.

I suppose there's an out in the form that Rachel may have explicitly intended to sever the omniscient analysis of direct key consequences when she gave up direct key access, and instructed Ra in such a fashion. But I doubt that the Glass Man would have been so benevolent upon his attainment of the key. Unless his key access was somehow subordinate to some prior limiting commands left by Rachel, his will becomes ultimate law as soon as he holds the key, and Natalie's theft should have been impossible, because "I lose the key and have my commands revoked" would CLEARLY not be What He Meant.

So I guess there are two hopes for the protagonists: 1) Rachel is still ultimately in charge, and all this will ultimately result in a future amenable to whatever her command was (because that's what HAS to happen as a consequence of the omniscient execution of direct key commands), or 2) the protagonists manage to somehow escape the omniscient eye of Ra to forge their own acceptable future somewhere.

I'm not certain a real path to #2 exists, but I'm not the author. I am, however, have been a passionate fan of this whole story from beginning to end, and I look forward to the new conclusion with anticipation!

2018-07-05 19:23:54 by sillylaureate:

I just finished my reread of the story due to the new ending, and I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

2018-07-06 08:24:06 by Antistone:

Ra is phenomenally powerful, but it's not *literally* omniscient. It has vast but finite amounts of sensory apparatus and computational power.

My impression was that Ra was designed to carry out immediate and concrete requests. You wish for a flying car; it considers a bunch of different models of flying car and simulates your brain to see which one you like; but "which one you like" is based on your short-term and direct reaction, not based on modeling the neighbors to predict that they're going to make fun of you for choosing pink, or predicting that the car will be struck by lightning 37 years later.

Also, importantly, it doesn't decide that you would actually be happier with a lemonade instead of a car; the search space is constrained by the general nature of your request. (Otherwise, you wouldn't need to make requests at all; it would just anticipate everything you want.)

Remember Ra was originally designed to receive simultaneous requests from trillions of humans; if it interpreted every request as implicitly and absolutely controlling every aspect of reality to the maximum satisfaction of the requester, it would be useless for this purpose.

So I wouldn't expect Rachel's instruction at the end of the war to implicitly prevent Ra's access codes from falling into the hands of some random villain decades later.

However, Ra does seem to take proactive steps to prevent interference in its immediate goal--for example, killing humans during Abstract War. So we might expect it to stop Natalie from getting the key. (Unless its Abstract War behavior was only because the Virtuals reprogrammed it? Maybe that's not part of its SOP.)

But Ra may not have been ABLE to stop Natalie from getting the key. It only had approximately one second of real time between when the Glass Man issued his instruction and when Nat got into Tanako's World; that may not have been enough time to get assets into position. (Does Ra even have sensors in Tanako's World to know what's going on there? I guess it must, if it heard Nat's request. I'm still unclear on how exactly Tanako's World is connected to Reality.)

The timing of the climax does strain my suspension of disbelief a bit. Lots of stories involve adversaries that race for days and then all reach the finale within minutes of each other, but this is the only one I know where they are synchronized literally down to the microsecond. (The six-decimal-place-seconds clock in the listening post doesn't move while our heroes are planning, but "Tanako" still manages to interrupt them!)

2018-07-06 21:00:47 by Lemma:

I notice that Ra only actually kills people when leaving them alive would interfere with its immediate goals. This remains true even when it would be more efficient to do otherwise.

Ra goes out of its way to manipulate Exa's brain so he cannot formulate plans yet does so in *just* such a way that he goes on living a not-brain-damaged life. He's not even in any pain. There are far easier ways to stop Exa from having those thoughts! Namely, by preventing Exa from having *any* thoughts.

Another example is the fact that Ra allowed Wheel to leave. The energy in Earth's core may be minuscule by comparison but it is still a substantial amount (a non-zero amount) that Ra could have preserved by preventing Wheel's members from leaving.

Given this, I am going to propose that Ra *is* actually carrying out past orders. Before Abstract War, those orders probably included, "Do not let anyone die." After the war, someone added a rule that went something like, "Allow people's actions to continue to their conclusion even if it kills someone," and that took precedence. (And could explain why Ra is allowing the key to be stolen and re-stolen?)

Now, the Glass Man has given an order to construct a matrioshka brain, which takes precedence over past orders but does not erase them. Could that, conceivably, explain all of this behavior?
Ra shouldn't let people die. But it won't go out of its way to evacuate them.
Ra should build a matrioshka brain "very quickly," but that is not exclusive to letting people evacuate themselves so long as they don't prevent construction.
Ra needs to prevent Exa from thinking of a plan, but that is not exclusive to the sub-goal of keeping him alive.

2018-07-07 04:35:35 by BravoLimaPoppa3:

I got turned onto this by SF for Nothing, Stories for Free over at Charlie Stross' blog.
And since Monday I've been reading one of the mobi versions.
Damn, that was awesome.
And it looks the changed ending will take it up a notch.

2018-07-07 05:36:18 by Lemma:

"Data can't defend itself," is an interesting point! However, what *is* data? From the perspective of Ra, all physical matter might as well be data. Things are duplicated and moved between memory and physical space at will. (E.g. Tanako's World.) It is probably less efficient but I suspect that the difficulty of interfacing with physical matter isn't that much greater than interfacing with a computer made up of vacuum tubes. Suboptimal, yes, but very much doable.

More to the point, Ra can use nonlocality tech to rearrange all the planet's atoms as quickly (nearly c) as Ra manipulates data. Even the Bridge fits this scheme. The purpose of the Bridge is to manipulate data, yet it does not appear to differentiate between atoms and bits.

Not that the Bridge is evidence that matter is information, of course. The Bridge is a tool, not an arbiter of That Which Is. But whoever designed it apparently believed that physical space was a part of its dominion.

The upshot of this is that Adam King is no less safe as data. He is (and was) incapable of conceiving plans against Ra because Ra chose to manipulate how he processes data. As long as you exist near Ra, for which data and matter barely differentiate, you are no safer than data.

PS. I split this into two posts so it'd feel a little less like a wall of text. I hope you people enjoy reading these thoughts as much as I enjoy writing them!

PPS. Why is Ra deconstructing the planet via lasers instead of nonlocality technology?

2018-07-07 05:44:23 by Lemma:

This alternate history Earth that Wheel built... the only thing that differentiates it from a simulated counterpart is... *is* there a difference? Someone living inside a simulation would only be able to know the difference if there was interference from Outside. Or if a gateway was left open.

King left behind artifacts—the key and the Bridge—for the express purpose of having a "gateway" to the outside. A way to halt the simulation—magic and the entirety of their alt-21st century—if he so chose. That "gateway" is the only hard evidence we have that this alternate 21st century does not reside directly upon computational substrate.

But yes, we can be pretty sure that this is physical space. And now that Natalie appears intent on removing the last remaining gates—the Bridge and Ra's physical presence—no one will ever again be able to infer this. Well, barring Outside intervention, of course. Which is always the concern, isn't it?

Ra, better than anyone, can protect from such intervention, though that is not an ironclad guarantee. An attacker from beyond Sol could perform a physical breach. A local Virtual could discover an exploit. The former can be protected against by modularizing Ra and expanding into the rest of the galaxy and the universe so as to remove all possible threats. The latter—an exploit—should never have happened. Under what circumstance could Ra be outsmarted?

I cannot say it is *impossible,* though. And I will accept its possibility in this universe regardless. Unfortunately, if Ra cannot solve that problem then no one can and Ra is essentially a time bomb. (Well, there is one solution that ought to work in-universe. Do not allow the existence of minds that have the capability of performing such an exploit. It limits one's capacity for personal growth but... better than falling prey to unknown whims, I guess.)

2018-07-16 05:30:17 by Jake Kline's Fancy Noises:

Lemma, what is UFAI? I cound't find it after a few searches: literary trope?

2018-07-18 21:14:24 by aitap:

“People of Earth, your attention, please. This is Ra of the Solar Virtuspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Virtuality require the building of another supercomputing core and regrettably your planet consists of vitally needed building material and is therefore scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth hours. Thank you.”

2018-07-19 00:15:40 by Casleau:

@Jake Kline's Fancy Noises: UFAI stands for 'Unfriendly AI'.

I am glad you found some time to keep writing Ra, Sam. Thanks for letting us spend a little longer in your interesting universe.

I wonder if Nick was saved.