There are no half-measures in space combat. There's no sideways lurch when a lucky shot gets through. There's no "shields at sixty percent". If the concept spacecar's systems had been late to respond to the shockwaves, the passengers would have been pulped. If one millionth of the arriving energy had actually made it through the car's shields, the entire vehicle would have been atomised.
And so Natalie and Anil are barely alive, but it's impossible to actually feel that way. The opening salvo of Abstract War saw the simultaneous destruction of sixty thousand Earths, but for them it was just a light show, experienced passively from the other side of a windscreen. The car never even rattled. The car is completely silent in all its operations, and its interior remains as pristine and precise as its exterior. It manoeuvres like soft cream.
It's been twenty minutes since War began. They're actually behind the expanding wreckage shell now, watching Earth-8162's pieces spread away into space. Anil turns them to face the Sun, and takes stock.
"So we didn't get evacuated," he says. "I guess we were missed, because we don't count. I don't feel like signalling for rescue, not with that thing there pervading this whole system."
Natalie says nothing.
"If Ra wants us dead, we're dead," Anil continues. "There's nothing we can do to defend ourselves from a berserk AI of that size and power. So let's assume it doesn't. Yet. We could be contaminated by whatever madness has gripped the thing, in which case we're also, definitely, dead. Let's assume we're clean too. Let's assume we're under Ra's radar and we can stay that way. So we take the necessary precautions. We cloak, if that means anything, and act inconspicuous and harmless. We find shelter, somewhere we can hole up safely."
"For how long?" Natalie asks. There's barely a question there. She barely cares.
"For as long as necessary," Anil says, asking the local slave AI to suggest flight plans through the maelstrom of detonated planet husks. "This has to blow over some time. We need to stay alive for that long."
Anil looks sharply at Natalie. "What do you mean, 'why?'"
"Maybe it doesn't blow over until we're dead," Natalie says, distantly. "We've been brought here for a reason. Maybe that's it. We're here to die."
Anil stares at Natalie for a moment. He puffs dismissively and turns back to the controls. "But then, we already knew that, didn't we?" he says. "That's just the same as reality. You live until you die: the end. I don't have a hard time dealing with that. You shouldn't."
The concept car angles out along the shattered course of the worldring and starts to accelerate. A mild pressure pushes the passengers back into their seats, not out of necessity, but just to give them the assurance that acceleration is taking place.
After a long minute of silence, Anil adds, "You broke character again."
"That's what you meant, right? By 'break and reset'? You're fine," he explains.
"You can hack this. I don't even know why you're trying to give off any other impression. I've known you for about a day altogether and I can see this about you: you're calm enough under pressure that it actually frightens you more than the real situation at hand. I don't know if the nihilism is just because you feel guilty for being so cool?"
Natalie is more than a little taken aback. "...I was in tears, earlier. For real."
"Oh, certainly," Anil agrees. "That was necessary. That would have needed to happen, regardless of who you were. But other than that, you are completely handling this. You know what I think? This is the you story. The reason you're here is to kick this rogue star's ragged arse and return home with some blessed confidence."
Natalie shakes her head, slightly disbelieving. "And why are you here?"
That's easy. "Perspective."
There was a city at the north pole of Earth-1. It was the size of modern Paris, far too massive to have been built directly on top of a floating ice sheet, and so was built on stilts, with its foundations all the way down in the Arctic Ocean's bedrock. A hardened plateau of artificial glass spread horizontally underneath the ice, serving as a building platform for the rest.
At the very pole was a sky tower, constructed from the same scrithlike material as the neighbouring Earths. It reached up far beyond the Kármán line to a captured asteroid, balanced at the top like the bud of a one hundred and fifty-kilometre-tall flower.
The city was called Qaaliqat, and the asteroid was XE171. The city is flattened wreckage now, and the asteroid is gone, along with the top two-thirds of the tower, leaving a blackened, jagged break. The asteroid landed somewhere in Greenland.
The original Greenland, that is. Earth, the original, was the only full-bodied physical planet in the worldring, and therefore the only structure robust enough to survive the opening attack largely intact. It is the last remaining halfway-habitable space in the inner solar system, and its poles are its least damaged areas.
Natalie and Anil aerobrake in over Qaaliqat's wreckage, dredging the compression heat out of the air in front of them and channelling it into their clean energy reserves, for a final approach so gentle and unfussed as to be eerie. It's local night; they navigate in using night vision and microwave radar. The city partly resembles scattered building blocks and churned icing, but thanks to the exposed glass it mostly resembles the back of a compact disc.
"Why?" Anil asks aloud, speaking of the sky tower as they coast in past it. It is kilometres thick, woven from nine thick braids. It splays out like a redwood tree at its base, for support, but even so there's no explanation that he can work out. "Why put a space elevator there, of all places? Even if you have the materials for it to be genuinely free-standing, what does it give you? It's not favourable for orbital insertion..."
"I don't think these people cared about favourable," Natalie says. "This is just the architectural style. The 'Because We Can' movement."
They steer in to a controlled landing on the edge of the Arctic suburbs, an area which hadn't been developed even before the attack. There's no surface ice here, just blank bluish glass with a grid of scrithwire inside it for strength. There should be cottages, lit with warm firelight from the inside. There should be a few full Moons' worth of artificial light cast from the top of the XE tower. Deep, cosy winter in the shadow of extreme technology. Everybody in this future lived permanently on holiday. But there's no village yet, and the tower's gone dark. The inner system has been completely evacuated of all humans, living and dead. The sky is absolutely clear except for shooting stars.
From Earth-8162-as-was to Earth-1, door to door, took a little less than twelve hours. They took a route computed to minimise transit time, which meant maximum acceleration followed by maximum deceleration. It was risky, and brutally expensive in delta-vee, and left an extremely slim margin for error. But the alternative was to linger in the 1-AU belt, a zone of space now swarming with fast-moving pieces of disintegrated artificial planet. "Asteroid belt" wouldn't do the cloud justice; there's enough material in it for a Saturn-like ring.
Once their vehicle is on the ground and motionless, Anil checks the dashboard. "That takes care of our entire delta-vee budget," he announces. "We've enough for a few emergency kicks. Reactionless kicks, I mean, if we need to zip straight upwards in a serious hurry."
"Could we get to orbit again?" Natalie asks.
"Not even close."
Natalie gets out. She doesn't need to stretch her legs; the suit takes care of every bodily need, from impact protection to scratching her nose when it itches. She wants to see the lay of the land. She climbs onto the car roof and scans the horizon. The car's headlights and interior lights cast a small circle of yellow on the ground, beyond which there's almost nothing to see but darkness. The tower can only be made out from the stars it obscures. In infrared the world only makes a little more sense.
It's night, and it'll stay night for the next four months. From this spot, the Sun will just travel around and around below the horizon, never rising. Hiding from the light in this way was instinctive. Whether line of sight with Ra would genuinely put them in more danger is anybody's guess. It could well be that they're constantly mobbed in danger. The world is still soaked in Ra's listeners.
Natalie and Anil have worked rules out. The suits don't come off, not for anything. The suits protect them at the atomic level.
"That said," Anil continues, prodding more readouts, "we still have bottomless chemical/electrical/heat reserves, and we can transmogrify the car into anything we need. Something which actually pushes against the universe to move, I mean. Old-school. Third Law-style."
"You mean a car."
"Something like that."
Shooting stars. As Natalie watches, a forty-kilometre-long fragment of Earth-5 re-enters. It burns for long enough to light the entire tower up as it passes. "We should find cover," she says, jumping down again. "This planet's being bombarded. And it's going to continue being bombarded for at least another million years."
Anil looks out of the vehicle window and straight down. A readout on his suit helmet tells him that breaking a hole in the reinforced glass would be possible, but prohibitively expensive in energy.
"We should try for the tower," Nat says, just as he's coming to the same conclusion. He gives a curt command, and the vehicle bulks up into a new configuration, rising up on fat new wheels.
They've been driving across ice slush for ten minutes when Natalie spots the first figure through her window. She writes the first one off as a trick of her eye. The second one gets her attention. She calls for Anil to stop the car. Anil is caught slightly off-guard by this, having assumed that Natalie was the one driving. Apparently, the car had been cheerfully guiding itself.
They're just inside the limits of the wrecked city. Underfoot there's slush and refrozen ice, with patches of exposed glasswork. The figure Natalie sees is at the top of a listing four-storey building. The building is darkened, but seems designed to be aesthetically pleasing even deep in the polar night, half-buried in snow. There are strange extrusions, as if the building had been connected to others, or part of a much larger structure. Maybe it's a snapped-off piece of sky tower.
"They still use... buildings?" Anil wonders aloud.
Natalie spotlights the figure, which immediately disappears. She switches from simulated sounds (the suit adding effects for boots crunching, and so on) to genuine external audio, but is rewarded with nothing but roaring wind.
The building shimmers in the spotlight. It appears to be made of thick, dark crystal.
"This part of the planet wasn't hit as strongly by the attacks," Natalie says, apparently to herself. "A glancing blow."
"I wonder what the equatorial belts are like," she says. "The Sahara must have been glassed."
"If there are people left, we should--"
"There aren't any people left," Natalie says quickly.
"Okay?" Something bleeps urgently in Anil's ear. He checks his wrist. "We need to get going."
Natalie returns to the car, and they drive on. The road becomes choppier, but the tyres simply expand until they can retain the required grip, sometimes raising the body of the car up to make room. They have to skirt more fallen chunks of detonated skyscraper, and overcome snowdrifts.
After a few more kilometres, they sight a figure in the middle of the road. The car cruises directly for it, oblivious. Anil is about to shout something about forward radar and Natalie is making a futile request for the car to stop moving when the figure opens fire, spraying them with a cocktail of ionising radiation and electromagnetic interference. The radiation is invisible, but the car exterior lights up urgently where the radiation is absorbed. The interference was already intense enough to impair the car's distributed brain. Within another half-second the vehicle is totally corrupted, and ceases to exist, obeying malicious external orders.
Anil and Natalie are dumped into the snow at fifty-some kilometres per hour, and roll hard. Anil skids to a halt at the feet of the figure. It's tall like a rake, with illogical bones and huge fingertips instead of arms or legs. It--
With a heart-stopping jolt, Anil recognises it. It's the dead ghoul from D12A. It's a particular nightmare that was made real, and has now been made more real. He can smell the thing, even hermetically sealed into the suit. He recognises the odour very clearly. It smells like unwashed skin from inside a newly-opened plaster cast.
Is that just his brain filling in the extra detail? Or is the thing already inside his suit systems?
Anil flails, and makes it to his feet. Natalie's standing too, but is looking in every other direction.
"We're surrounded," she reports.
"Car systems just collapsed like a damn soufflé," Anil says, holding onto Nat as they back away.
"I'm intact," Natalie says. Her active radar enumerates a hundred and ten shadows closing on them. She reconfigures her right forearm into a heavy silver beam weapon and vaporises the first ghoul.
Anil's suit shows him nothing so useful. Everything he calls up arrives in the form of opaque black squares on his helmet HUD, which he can't dismiss. They progressively obstruct more of his vision. "I'm not. I've got an issue. Nat, I recognised that thing."
Natalie sweeps a foot through the light layer of snow, exposing the carpet of sapphire underneath it. "Ra's onto us. We should have stayed in space."
"Me," Anil corrects her. "Ra's onto me. You might have a little more time. I think it's inside my head. Nat, look where we are."
Natalie grabs Anil by the scruff of the neck and pumps clean energy into his suit, burning out the invading Ra nanites. It takes more than half of her own clean energy reserves, and as soon as she lets go, Anil is infected again. She can't do anything about the corrupted programming.
"Anil," Natalie says, "when did you make your personal energy cache?"
"We-- Just after the laser pass, right? Only a few seconds after Ra went berserk."
Natalie hesitates for just long enough to make the next sentence significant. "I made mine earlier."
"You-- We have separate caches?"
"I thought something was going to happen. I built my own portable Ra. I'm paranoid. I try to step ahead."
"You did that before the attack?"
"About sixty seconds before," Natalie says. She pushes Anil to the floor and projects vertical slicing fields out in all directions, one through the cranium of each encroaching horror. This incapacitates about half of them. She goes to the long list of weapons and rifles through the rest of it like a Rolodex, looking for something effective and chemical.
"I've been contaminated this whole time," Anil realises. "And you--"
Natalie scatters metallic pink gobbets of something furiously dangerous on the floor around them. As the gobbets begin to smoke, she commands "Jets," and hoists Anil out of the arena on a pillar of flame. The ghouls follow them with laser beams and conventional projectile weapons, which Anil and Natalie's suits are just about able to turn away. They land heavily, another kilometre closer to the tower, but still hopelessly far from it. Natalie gets up immediately, Anil stays kneeling. More ghouls start to gestate under the snow around them.
"I don't think I can sterilise you properly," Natalie says, flicking through still more options on her suit HUD. "We're still surrounded with Ra particles, and both our systems are running flat out to keep them at bay. Your suit AI is twisting inside-out, it's going to turn against you any second now. I don't think I can even get a clean copy of your mind-state."
"If you're that far ahead of all of us," Anil shouts, "why do you even need me alive?"
"That's a stupid question!" Natalie shouts back.
Anil's suit helmet turns totally black, and he screams like someone who knows exactly what is happening to him.
Short of other options, Nat broadcasts a radio mayday. It is an act of absolute desperation. It could bring all Ra down on their heads, but how could that make things worse? She's starting to understand now, what Anil was saying before.
Somebody answers. Immediately.
"Intercessor 200C9A66 to idiots with no callsign! Do you have the faintest idea the stunts I'm pulling to grab you two? Stand by for extraction in thirty-five seconds, mark! This is going to be incredibly fucking ugly!"
Natalie whirls around, sighting an honest-to-god rocketship rising over the southern horizon towards them. The rocket is fat and brightly-painted, with three fins, something from Forties pulp. But all she can see of it is the blast from its single huge chemical engine, aimed almost directly at them as the thing decelerates in. She shouts into the radio, "Prove you are not Ra!"
Red dots flick up behind the lone engine, identified by a data feed provided to her by the intercessor. There are enough of them to coat the whole sky in that direction. They are kinetic harpoons and minuscule, artificially intelligent nuclear submunitions. They are not decelerating. All of them are converging on the intercessor, and the first of them will arrive at ground zero less than a second after the intercessor itself does. "That's Ra," the voice informs her.
This is still not enough proof.
Nat accepts it anyway. "My friend doesn't have thirty seconds. He needs immediate nanotechnical support. His suit's chewing him to pieces!"
"Acknowledged," the intercessor replies. The tone is flat.
"Don't just acknowledge! He's going to die!"
"Friend, I died sixty-eight times to get here and we're all going to die more times than that on the way out. Stand by."
"What do I need to do?"
Anil falls onto his side. He is convulsing and clawing at his helmet, and can no longer be heard.
The intercessor repeats: "Stand. By."
A split second before impact, just as Natalie is beginning to convince herself that she can feel the heat of the rocket's engine, it cuts out. A familiar red cutting laser spits out and back, in a practised flick-knife-like move which slices a fifteen-metre-wide circle around her and Anil. A controlled pulse of downward and lateral momentum shoves the circle of glass out from under their feet. There's an air gap between the underside of the glass plateau and the surface of the Arctic Ocean. They drop like stones into the darkness.
The rocketship follows them at a shallow angle and fifty times the speed, slipping through the gap with a clearance of millimetres. The ship just misses the two falling suited figures, hitting the water first and much harder. The cut circle is flipped back into place, and the same laser seals the glass behind them. The engine bell shrieks as it flash-chills.
Nat hits the water. Anil hits the water. The rocketship wraps them all in concussion shielding. Ra arrives.
There's another light show, bright enough to turn the bottom of the ocean into daylight. The layer of scrith-glass doesn't even crack.
Anil floats above Natalie. She is face-up. He is face-down and inert, silhouetted in the light, his suit helmet still black.
200C9A66, in the pilot seat, considers his options. Playing against Ra at such close quarters is like five-hundred-dimensional chess. Still, he's made it across the board.
He brings the interlopers aboard with a whump of matter transmission. He digitises their patterns and makes their corporeal forms safe from Ra's listeners-- which is to say, he destroys their suits and bodies with fire.
Physical acquisition was a non-negotiable component of the mission profile. You can't rescue a soul from Hades with a fishing line. 200C9A66 had to descend into the gravity well in person, and fight hordes of daemons on the way.
Physical extraction, meanwhile, was never even on the table. Anil and Natalie and their shepherding intercessor bounce across the Solar System as signals, mast to dish, asteroid to probe to numberless space rock. 200C9A66 splits himself up, one version going ahead to secure each receiving installation while the other defends the transmitter from Ra's nuclear/electronic attack. They cross the asteroid belt five times trying to lose the pursuers, which are able to corrupt and repurpose the captured transmitters to follow the trail, and sometimes to anticipate future destinations. From 200C9A66's perspective - that is, from the perspective of the sole instance of 200C9A66 who lives all the way to the end - extraction takes around eighty fraught, subjective seconds. Natalie and Anil, travelling as data, perceive nothing. From above the system, using false colour, an observer would see red and blue packets flitting across space from node to node, like some interplanetary hacking minigame, and it would take about six real-time days.
They finally lose their tail at a minuscule cubewano, forty-something AUs distant from the Sun and far above the ecliptic. The rock having no name, 200C9A66 - its first human visitor - decides he gets to name it. He names it "Cubewano". He breathes for a luxurious second, and transmits them all home.
End of the line is Psamathe, which orbits almost as far out from Neptune as Mercury does from the Sun. Psamathe is a bustling metropolis compared to the rest of the route, but still not much more than a worthless pebble in the grand scheme of the Solar System. On the list of the system's most notable moons, it just about scrapes into the top hundred.
Natalie's signal is sent to the lab. They slot her genetic particulars into a vat, clear the expenditure with the War Office, and start the cloning procedure. It'll take a few hours to build something mature enough that she can live inside it. They're running at a level of technology not far above the butter churn.
200C9A66 slots back into his original body, and goes for a shower.
Every time he splits himself, he runs a fifty percent chance of being the one who dies. That means that he - the one in the shower - is the one who won the coin toss two hundred times in a row. This is impossible, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. He is alive and he doesn't have the mathematics to explain how.
And then he's needed again, and he jumps back into War.
Natalie wakes up in a cell on the edge of the base, strapped to a bunk.
She struggles against the restraints for a panicky second, but they just give way when she pulls. They're supposed to be opened. They aren't there to prevent her from escaping, only to prevent her from drifting away in the almost non-existent gravity.
She sits up. Groping around the room, groggily, she finds water in a squeeze bottle. She drains it without thinking. Her suit is gone, replaced by shapeless grey clothes. Magic's still gone, and Ra is long gone, and any personal nonlocality tech she was carrying is confiscated. She runs her hand through startlingly short, baby-soft hair. She is completely new.
There's a porthole, only reachable by standing on the bunk. Natalie spends a long time staring out of it, at a sterile, crater-pitted grey landscape. It could be Luna, but honestly, it could be anywhere. She's no connoisseur. At first glance, there's nothing in the sky that could narrow it down.
The straps aren't to prevent her from escaping. That's the purpose of the locked, dark grey metal door.
An hour later, as Natalie is beginning to run out of square centimetres of cell to examine, the door clacks and opens. A woman and a man file in. Both wear heavy total-purpose protective suits, much like Natalie's missing one. They keep their helmets on, but the helmets are made of transparent material so thin that Natalie doesn't realise this at first. Natalie backs up and sits on the bed. There is no room for her to be anywhere else.
The woman is two metres tall and of a blended deep-future ethnicity that Natalie would never have heard of. Even in a cell with standing room for at most three people, she commands a space around her. The man follows her. He is her follower. He is darker in the skin, lighter in the eyes and hair; fractionally shorter, but still much taller than Natalie. He carries a folding rectangle of extremely thin, transparent plastic. The plastic is completely inert. It just serves as a focal point for his displays, which Natalie cannot see.
The woman speaks at length, in a language which is totally alien to Natalie's ear. The woman introduces herself, and then introduces her comrade. She explains that the telepathic language dongle provided by Natalie's onboard copy of the pre-war Ra intelligence has been stripped out of her mind and shredded, and that Natalie can't be allowed equivalent technology because she's a prisoner of war. She indicates that the man to her left will now attempt to work out Natalie's native language from scratch, after which an actual conversation will take place.
Natalie listens attentively. Although she understands not a single word of what the woman says, she is actually able to correctly guess almost all of it from context.
The man selects selections from his display. He speaks a few words of his own. There is silence while all of them wait for something to happen, which it doesn't. He speaks a few more, different words. Natalie listens blankly and patiently. The man is working his way through a list.
"Are we seriously going through every greeting in every human language in recorded history?" Nat says. "I speak UK English, circa 2000 CE. This is going to take an eternity. Would it help if I just spoke back to you in my language until you have enough data to work it out?" She holds fingers up. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Come on, dictionary system."
The man likes this approach. He motions for her to keep going. Natalie picks more simple words.
"Up, down, left, right, forwards, back. Woman, woman, man. Eye, nose, mouth." She points at the dim blue dot in the otherwise black sky outside. This is the only other significant fact that she has deduced in her free hour. She says, "Neptune."
"...Got it," the man says. Only two syllables, but still faultless English, even matching Natalie's own local accent. He presents the woman with a virtual object which Natalie is not able to see. He essays a kind of informal salute to them both, and departs.
Natalie looks up at the woman. First things first. "Where's Anil? Did he die?"
"Why do you care?" She speaks with the same accent too. For Natalie it's disconcertingly like speaking to a slightly older version of herself.
"...He was... I was trying to save his life."
"You failed. He was unrecoverable," the woman says, flatly.
Natalie hangs her head, and grips the edge of the bunk until her knuckles start to whiten, and grits her teeth.
She understands now.
She was put here to learn. Anil was put here to die. As motivation for her.
"Go right back to the beginning," she says. It's the only thing left to happen. "And tell me everything."