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."
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.
"Bastards bailed out. I can fix this."
"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."
"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--"
"--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."
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.
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