Vivid red lasers unzip the Earth from top to bottom, slicing it along criss-crossing spiral rhumb lines. The lasers are powerful enough to be visible to the naked eye from Pluto; with good telescopy, the light show can be seen from other star systems. One beam even plays across the Moon's face, leaving an angled scar of slag which, after freezing again, will persist for the rest of its existence.

The lasers represent the smaller share of the energy. Far more is spent to physically lift the jigsaw pieces of the first crust layer into the sky, hoisting significant amounts of sky with it. The planet unfurls like an onion, individual shreds of country and rainforest unfolding themselves into thinner shreds still, absorbing further sunlight and reconstituting themselves into first-stage hosting substrate. Boosted with useful pulses of momentum from the coordinating core, the shreds radiate away into free space and align themselves against the solar wind, effecting an orbital change which will bring them nearer to the Sun, where energy is more plentiful. That takes care of the first layer, including all remaining physical traces of human civilisation.

A raw, molten second layer of Earth is exposed, where the process cycles around and starts again with the lasers. It's the rush job from hell, with unimaginable resource expenditure behind it. Newly-awakened Virtualities are already colonising the remains, like maggots laid in roadkill. As more millions of seconds go past -- it would be days, but days no longer exist -- the remains are ground entirely into a film of computronic sludge, wrapping the Sun tightly and harvesting almost all of its energy for processing power. The Sun dims as it happens, its spectrum shifting out of the visible and far into the infrared.

Exa Watson watches the synthesised edition of the recording, coverage gathered from passive observation platforms in the Oort Cloud. From this perspective, with false colour and no audio, the demolition is chillingly distant and its impact is hard to feel.

Exa has been reincarnated in real space in the Sirius system, in a sealed space capsule built from conventional stupidmetal, with nothing but a radio, a porthole and a life support system from somewhere around the Age of Steam. The capsule is about as large internally as an elevator car and there isn't even gravity. Exa bobs. There's one other person present, the arbiter. She is anchored by her toes in the far corner, with her hands tucked inside complex formal judicial robes altered slightly for practicality in freefall. The recording is shown to them using RGB phosphors on an actual God-damned cathode ray tube. This edit, with time compression, is just over forty minutes long. When it ends, there is a loud mechanical clickety sound and Exa is left staring at his and the arbiter's reflections in the CRT screen. There is a long moment during which neither of them say anything. Then the arbiter shifts position, as if waking up from a light trance.

"Adam King lost his mind in the War," she says. "As did all of you who fell in with him. You could have built an entirely new world, or left the planet uninhabitable as it was, as an honest memorial. Even oblivion would have been preferable. But after such unimaginable chaos, you were desperate for a world where there would be a manageable order. You turned the Earth into a facsimile of a working planet. A romance.

"We found 'magic' to be absurd. We found the 'Earth' you were building to be an obscenity. We left the world rather than stay and be complicit in your madness. Instead, we came to Sirius, terraformed its fifth planet and started a new culture. A real one. Any of you could have come with us if you'd chosen to."

Exa glances out of the porthole. Potentially, one of the points of light out there could be not a star but the local planet to which the arbiter is referring, Ae, and he would very much like to see it. But it doesn't seem likely. The porthole is not all that large, and the capsule is a long, long way from anything. Ae is a super-Earth, Exa recalls, with substantially higher surface gravity than Earth. It was white-atmosphered at the time of its discovery, but is undoubtedly blue-green now. The people who live there will be much shorter and more sturdily built than Earth humans, with rather better reflexes.

"...And in the end your 'Earth' was illusory, and all of this amounts to a delayed action. Three decades later, Abstract War concludes. Virtual humanity takes the Sol system anyway, and Ra remains 'radioactive' until such time as the Sun burns out.

"And you survive. Out of six billion, two hundred and seventy-five million, four hundred thousand people, you survive. Your Group, and nobody else. A crowning achievement of cowardice."

She stops here. It appears to be Exa's turn to speak.

He says, choosing each syllable cautiously: "It was, at the time, the option open to me which felt the most like victory. It was my personal belief that King, and all of us, could build something valuable. And remarkable. And longstanding, and worthwhile, and good and safe and if not perfect and 'honest' then at least... resonant."

He doesn't know what he feels. There is a great deal of anger and remorse and guilt and relief but primarily he feels a pressing need to leave this place and be somewhere else, alone, under an open sky, walking away. He knows that this is the last thing that they're going to give him.

"And it was," he says. "For a while." He leaves a sizeable gap here. He gestures, neutrally, towards the television, indicating that the next part of his statement, if he stated it, would simply be a recap of the video they just watched. Then he continues:

"The world you are creating is also fatally flawed. It, also, will last a while, and then fail and end. ...And I want it on record that I was the one who decided to leave King behind."

Exa receives no acknowledgement from the arbiter. Having addressed all of this to her reflection in the television screen, he turns to face her. "What is this?" he finally thinks to ask. "Where are the rest of my people? Is this a trial?"


"I want representation."

"Kalathkou Ouatso Neso, we cannot accept your Group into Sirian society. Your request for asylum is denied. Your patterns will be stored indefinitely. Or until a more lenient future generation elects to pardon you."

The probability of this last eventuality is impossible to guess at. Exa thinks it's a coin toss. He says to the arbiter, angrily, "You can do better than that."

But the arbiter, if she even has the authority to try, cannot. She snaps her fingers, and Exa ceases to exist.


It's pitch dark in the heart of Reykjavik but at this time of year that doesn't tell you anything. Laura's hiding out at a table in the very back of the whiskey bar, drinking something with an excessive amount of cinnamon in it, called Fireball. She isn't waiting for anybody. There's a book out in front of her but she isn't reading it. She's just looking at each of the words in turn. When she gets to the end of the page she goes back to the start.

She looks up when the door opens, doesn't recognise her sister in the many layers, looks down again. Natalie has bought her own drink and sat down in front of her by the time she realises who it is.

"So you're an Icelander now," Nat begins.

Laura passes through stunned to angry so fast that Nat, watching closely, barely catches it. "How did you find me?"

"I found you a year and a half ago," Natalie says. "You should have disappeared a second time once you were out of contact. To answer your question, poor information hygiene on your part, and quite a lot of boring legwork. Honestly, I envy you. If I were to disappear somewhere, it would be here. And I suppose nobody in this country recognises you. Or at least, nobody is impolite enough to care."

"Yeah," Laura says. "'Impolite' is definitely the term I'm thinking of."

Many, many people want to speak with Laura Ferno. Generally, in Laura's estimation, such people fall into two categories: people who think she's crazy and people who are crazy. The second case is more common and much more difficult to deal with, since those are the people most likely to want her to resurrect someone. It's almost always someone precious to them, who died very recently. It hurts a lot to talk to such people, which is why she has moved as far away from them all as she realistically can. It's not far enough.

"I want to catch up," Natalie says. "That's literally all. It's not some new crisis in magic for which I desperately need to drag you out of retirement. I'm accompanying second-years up to Blönflói, but tonight they're getting out of their skulls on Einstök and rhubarb liqueur, and you and I are in the same city, so."


"So. Are you okay?"

Laura grunts. She would walk away if she had more willpower. "We're prototyping a power station," she says, "east of Þingvellir. Waste mana reclamation from the Rift. The same technique that got me fired from Hatt Group, way back when."

"That's interesting," Nat says. "I thought Iceland had clean energy to spare."

"Electrical energy," Laura says. "This is magical energy. By the end of the year this country's going to be the world's first mana exporter. And its largest, probably from then until the end of time. The idea is to pack a quarter of a terajoule into a ten-metre Montauk, and then physically ship the ring to whoever wants it. A mage acts as transducer at the far end. You can run a town off it for a few days. Or whatever you want."

Natalie nods. "That's good."

"It's crap," Laura declares, sullenly. "It's trivial bull. All it really is is killing time. I'd find something else if I thought there was anything else."

She falls silent, staring through her book again.

"Well, if you care, I'm still on research astrothaumics," Natalie says. "Magic used to be localised to our solar system, now it's a fundamental law of the universe. There are magical supernovae out there now, just as I predicted. The cosmic state change was applied backwards along our past light cone. No retroactive changes to data that I can see, but that's no big deal, there was hardly any data to begin with."

Laura picks distractedly at a front tooth, not really looking up. "So you aren't doing any better."

"I suppose that's a matter of perspective," Natalie says.

There is a long gap during which Natalie considers, and then decides against, talking about their father. He's fine.

A further, distinct pause elapses during which Natalie also does not bring up Nick Laughon, who is also fine, and who has moved all the way on with his life and met someone else. Neither of these are topics of which Laura wants to be kept apprised.

"How are we still doing this?" Laura whispers, seemingly to herself.

"Doing what?"

"Magic. Both of us. It's not science anymore. It's below science, it's bottom-feeding, exploiting emergent behaviour from a totally artificial system. I follow the news, Ed Hatt's building booster rockets now. Anil Devi's stolen my work to do it, and I do not understand why, because I know that he knows better. He knows we're uploads. Why bother with space travel when the thing that you're trying to reach isn't actually space? Why bother with astronomy? It's fake! It's a crystal sphere!"

Natalie says nothing.

Laura says, "A day happened when everything went absolutely crazy. And then... everything went back to normal. And it's the second thing which I cannot fucking comprehend. Where are we?"

"The same place we've always been--" Natalie begins.

"Don't," Laura says. "Don't give me that parrot response again. You know it's not the truth. You're just like Mum was. She knew too."

"But it is the truth," Natalie says, mildly.

"Why bother with life in here?" Laura hisses. "Why bother to pretend to continue to exist? The truth has just passed us all by! None of us want to get it! ...I can't wake up. I feel like I'm asleep, all the time."

"Seasonal affective disorder," Natalie suggests. "It's winter. You're in the wrong country."

"That's not what I mean. I can't think in here. I tried building my spaceship. I can't line up enough of my thoughts in a row to get it to work. Don't look at me like that, I had to try it. It just isn't possible in here. Not without mechanical assistance, and I haven't the first clue how to build that mechanism I need. That gauntlet, it was just... magic..."

"You never answered my first question," Natalie says. "Are you okay?"

There is a tremble in Laura's fingers as she toys with the glass, which is now empty. "We can make some assumptions about how Ra is programmed and about how it runs its virtualities. Earth is being dismantled as we speak, second by second, and the rest of the real universe is still out there. We can get out of here. It's got to be possible to hack our way out. In our lifetime. It must be."

Natalie shakes her head.

"Maybe," Laura says, "if I can put enough energy in one place, I can give the system something it can't handle. Maybe I can break it. Like 'Benj' was trying to do."

This is nonsense. The only thing Laura's going to break that way is herself. Natalie bows her head, unable to avoid reaching her own conclusion.

"You're not okay," she says.

"I will be," Laura says.

"Ra saw something it could use inside of you. It saw what kind of personality you have, and it fabricated a perfect narrative to take advantage of that. You were used. You were lied to. You stood no chance."

"I knew what I was doing," Laura says. "I would do it again. It was worth it. We should be living in cities on the Moon now. No one should be hungry. No one should be sick. We should be shooting extragalactic and death should be an anachronism. For one chance at all of that, it was worth it."


Natalie knows how the world is going to end.

Ten thousand years from now, if human history in here plays out anything like it did out there, someone will try to (re)build Ra. Or something Ra-like. It could be magic-based; it could be much sooner than ten thousand years. In any case, it will transpire that the real Ra is finite, and cannot simulate itself. Their virtuality will consume more and more computational resources until something else inside the real Ra ecosystem realises how greedy their virtuality is being and kills it. Or, their virtuality will run at progressively greater levels of time decompression until Ra hits the end of its operational life and shuts down entirely.

And they don't have to get all ten thousand subjective years and they don't have to try to rebuild Ra. An external agent could kill the world at any instant, for no reason. The world could, through no one's fault, become corrupt and terminate in error. It could run at a billion-to-one ratio, or simply suspend indefinitely and never wake up. The last processor tick could be just a few years from now. It could be today.

Still, one way or another, the end is going to be imperceptible and instantaneous. And there's nothing Natalie can think of which could be done to avert it. What could possibly prevent Ra from being rebuilt? What message could she possibly create which could persist, let alone be earnestly felt and heeded, across such a span of time? What, for that matter, are the alternatives?

Natalie assumes that her sister and Anil Devi and, if he cares, Nick Laughon have all reached the same conclusions. She assumes that if they cared to discuss the prospect with her, they would have brought it up.


Hela has the rabbit dead to rights. The field is expansive and pancake-flat and the rabbit is marooned in the middle of it, a long way from cover. It has a good head start and is fast and is running for its life, but Hela is just plain better-adapted, and lethally hungry. Hela usually floats lazily from perch to perch, along low-energy curves. Now she flaps madly like a butterfly to stay with the quarry.

When she's a split second out, talons coming forwards for the kill, the rabbit brakes. It turns, looks her in the eye and jumps, straight up. It's a desperate, calculated move. It's an incredibly near thing. Hela, who is committed to the attack, flicks one talon up after it as it passes over her, then cannons clumsily into the grass. But she clips the rabbit's leg as it goes past, badly enough that now it can barely run, which means it's dead on its feet. She quickly rolls upright and bounds at the rabbit, as it limps away now, and grabs it and grinds her talons into its midsection.

Natalie and Douglas Ferno watch this from the corner of the field, Doug through binoculars. The whole exchange takes barely two seconds.

"I blinked," Natalie says to her father.

"Quarry tried to hurdle her," Doug says. "Amazing show. Very daring. Didn't make it." They both hear Hela's distant, triumphant cry.

Natalie doesn't know if "daring" is the word for it.

When they catch up with the scene they find that Hela has spread her wings to cover the kill while she pulls long shreds out of its hindquarters. Doug distracts the bird with a small nugget of chick. Hela jumps back to his hand. Otherwise, she'd eat more than half of the rabbit, then be good for nothing for the rest of the week. While Doug hoods the bird, Nat bundles the rabbit carcass into a game bag. It's the first catch of the day. It's still very early.

Hela is now well-trained enough that she can be trusted not to fly away when released. She wears a radio transponder, but no creance anymore. Doug has been hunting with her for almost three years.

Natalie has long since told her father everything. She felt very strongly that he deserved some explanation. A lot of it was hard for him to follow when she explained it, but only at first, because she omitted certain vital details for the sake of simplification. But simplification would not fly. He made her go back and fill the whole story in. He understands it all. He believes it. Even the parts no one can ever prove.

"She fought a war," Natalie said, at the end. "On a scale I don't comprehend. By any meaningful definition, she lost that war. And after the war was over, she became... mortal."

"She was Mum," Doug replied. "You and I remember her that way. It wasn't a lie. There doesn't need to be anything else."

Now Douglas Ferno takes a long look at the sky. It's a grey and overcast day. It seems the same as it always did to him. A fine quality imitation. He does believe it, intellectually. But something in his bones resists it.


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Discussion (51)

2018-09-01 13:59:28 by qntm:

Those who read the drafts will notice some significant changes. There's some new/untested content, but most importantly, I've dropped plans for a separate epilogue. This is it.

Hope it works!

2018-09-01 14:23:10 by Tetragramm:

Just checking before i start my archive binge, this is the end, yes? I don't want to read it all in a day or two and realize there's more I have to wait for.

2018-09-01 14:31:22 by Thallori:

You have unlocked the bad ending. Though honestly, any story where trillion+ strong genocides are part of the plot maybe shouldn't end with notes of future hope.

It's always struck me as strange that people would consider virtuality somehow worse than reality, at least while they remain indistinguishable from any meaningful measurement. The power to reshape the world, to fix everything, to make sure no one in your purview ever suffered again was in our hands. It doesn't matter if it was achieved through mana, Ra, or just building a better simulation. The power was held, lost, and now there's always a chance for another genocide. At least there will still be joy among the suffering.

Fighting the upcoming one could make for its own nice story, but I suspect this thread of humanity has been written and it's future is now an exercise for the reader.

2018-09-01 15:32:46 by jstanley0 :

I didn’t understand why the virtualities were so processor-hungry. I suppose that if Ra is simulating billions of other Ra, that could explain it.

Nice touch making astrothaumics a real thing.

2018-09-01 15:48:00 by Bauglir:

I feel at least an echo of Laura's feels here. On the one hand, I wish Natalie had left their virtuality open to interaction with the others and potentially the real world - but on the other hand, just a couple of minutes to plan and no idea if they're hostile... This was the safest choice. A digital coffin is a bit of a downer ending for the universe, but mostly fine for people who'll never know the difference I suppose.

2018-09-01 17:29:04 by Dan:

Natalie is the ultimate grad student:
No data on magical events in space? Upload humanity into a virtuality where there are results

2018-09-01 19:07:07 by mavant:

I find it hard to fault Natalie's decision making in the moment - the world went mad around her and she kept her relative cool - but for all that, I agree with Laura. This little remnant of humanity is damned. As well may be the Sirians, if they think the Virtuals are going to stop expanding now.
At least the Wheel Group deserved their fate.
It's hard, too, for me to understand how the Abstract War was really born in the first place. Virtual humanity had all the time in the world and no particular need for the resources of Earth or Sol specifically. It would have cost them little - indeed it could have been perceptually instantaneous if they wished - to pack up and move their civilization to Proxima.

2018-09-01 20:59:16 by meesh:

@mavant: I think it must have been discussed plenty of times before, but my take is simple - Virtuals would always be power-hungry (so they would expand to the next star, and the next, and so on) and that puts them at odds with Actuals - eventually, one faction would have to wipe the other in the grand energy race.
Here, they just realized the risk early and started warfare before either of them has started to pose too big of a danger.
Then, Abstract War pretty much locked Virtuals down to Sol, forever. As I understand it, without the Key, they cannot manifest anything physical anymore. Deconstruction of Earth was scheduled just before the Key's destruction, so that stuck and was executed fully, but Sirians at least can expand in peace, leaving Sol to be a toxic graveyard of sorts.

2018-09-01 22:06:46 by ignamv:

@mavant : read The Age of Em by Robin Hanson for an answer to your question.

2018-09-01 22:37:38 by jalapeno_dude:

Surprised none of the characters brought up the Simulation argument. For all we know we could be running several Ra simulations (or whatever) deep and only getting a miniscule number of ticks more each time as things go superexponential.

2018-09-02 00:30:37 by Bauglir:

The simulation idea was already semi-addressed. It doesn't change anything; always assume reality. The thing you understand reality to be might be a simulation running in something else, but it is in any case a baseline. And Laura knows she and everyone else in the universe is now locked out of that existence, forever.

2018-09-02 08:00:24 by Sean:

"It's not science anymore. It's below science, it's bottom-feeding, exploiting emergent behaviour from a totally artificial system."

As a scientist that works on models... Ouch.

2018-09-02 08:38:36 by theTrueMikeBrown:

Thanks for rewriting it, Sam.

It is much more of a downer, but certainly feels less more like a "real" ending, and not just killing the story because you were done with it.

2018-09-02 10:16:27 by skztr:

Thanks for this. I love the fatalism here - the note that Ra or something like it will be re-built, and this will lead to the eventual slow-down and stopping of the Earth sim, was missing from the last version. I hadn't even thought of Ra itself being rebuilt, as I figured Magic would have done enough of a good job that Ra would be obsolete, but I figured the sim would continue to take up more and more processing power as humanity continued to explore space, leading to the same outcome.

"Magic. Both of us. It's not science anymore. It's below science, it's bottom-feeding, exploiting emergent behaviour from a totally artificial system."

I'm guessing Laura isn't a fan of SciCraft videos, then

I definitely like this ending better than the "dun dun dunnnnnnnnnn!" ending of Exa being recruited to train an army. It didn't work as an ending, though it could have worked as a continuation.

I didn't like that we "lost" before, but this version makes it more acceptable, narratively.

2018-09-02 10:55:46 by FeepingCreature:

This is how Laura gets out:

There is a limit to the amount of possible computation in the universe. There are mathematical problems that can be verified no problem, but that can never, ever be *solved*. Forget Ra - a computer the size of the observable universe could not solve them.

Magic is computationally more expensive than traditional physics. It can't not be - its primitives, cognitive operations, are much more complex than our primitives. Having eventually gotten fed up with waiting to die, Laura decides to out in style. She arranges to observe the outcome a computational sequence of magical operations that would not just stump Ra, but frustrate the most powerful possible computer in the universe. Magical physics says the sequence should work, but the simulating physics disagree.

The spell completes without issue. Magical physics wins out. Laura runs it twice more, just to be sure.

Laura cracks her knuckles. "Two," she intones satisfiedly, and smiles.

( )

2018-09-02 17:12:40 by Lemma:

Yep! It is over. Have fun~

@Everyone else,
It's funny... Natalie can't think of any way to warn the future. But, in this case, I think the truth would suffice. Getting people to believe it would be a challenge but there's a good bit of confusing evidence lying around.

Of course, that evidence exists only in this era and shall be lost in ten thousand years. The ruins of the Floor--and the rest of their machinery--may suffice. But it is also true that there is no longer any evidence that is *reproducible.*

2018-09-02 17:32:46 by Lemma:

Regarding Virtual civilization being greedy... I think one of the big problems here is that Virtuality isn't a *civilization.*

It can't be. It's too big and it's too fast.

Our world is abnormal in its interconnectedness. I can talk to _anyone_ in the world. Realtime. Go back in time to 1500 and that becomes flat out impossible even between neighboring countries. I'm willing to bet that, in 2500CE, it'll be impossible again. Whether because we're colonizing stars or because virtualities are running people at radically different levels of time compression.

That *must* be happening inside Ra on account of signal delays. I can communicate with each one of you immediately because our computers transmit signals to each other almost as fast as we can think. That's what makes our modern civilization possible.

But in 1500, a signal is far far slower than thought.
And in Ra, thought is far far faster than signal. Ra's virtualities are many and powerful but they cannot coordinate. I predict they have fallen prey to the Malthusian trap. Not that you can make predictions about a computer the size of a star~ But technically, I only need to predict the author!

2018-09-02 18:46:14 by jonas:

Transporting a ten meter sized Montauk ring doesn't sound practical. Road lanes and railway tracks are not wide enough, standard shipping crates are too small for it.

2018-09-02 22:35:42 by naura:

"Their virtuality will consume more and more computational resources until something else inside the real Ra ecosystem realises how greedy their virtuality is being and kills it."

This doesn't seem to line up with the homomorphic encryption passage from a few chapters ago.

2018-09-02 23:59:12 by skztr:

@naura, you don't need to know what's being run, or even *that* something specific is being run, to know that you don't have access to the resources you'd like to have access to.

When my laptop starts behaving slowly, sometimes it's a runaway process, sometimes it's an IO issue. I don't need to track down the specifics before I start being forceful about solutions to the problem

2018-09-03 06:14:06 by Lemma:

Naura likely means that humanity's virtuality has no way to allocate memory. Nor can Ra see that it wants more memory cause Ra can't see inside. Humanity's resource consumption is *fixed.*

Miscellaneous thoughts,
I have an idea. Wheel Group had only enough energy to transmit themselves to Sirius. Nowhere near enough to transmit a notable fraction of Earth's population. But what about transmitting the Earth's *initial conditions?* Whatever process Ra used to come up with all these minds. Transmit *that.* It will take the Sirians a good while to compute it and reproduce the minds but it'd be possible, if they had the data.

2018-09-03 16:09:39 by Spwack:

@Jonas ten meter diameter, right? The width might be less than a lane. Add a magi-engine and roll that sucka!

At any rate, if Ra's last order was "more computer juice please" without a specific area of discourse, then by default, that means the universe is up for grabs.

2018-09-03 17:48:04 by jonas:

Spwack: the available height is also limited. As a rule of thumb, on roads, your vehicle must be at most 4 meters high from the road or else you'll get stuck at so many cables and bridges that you can't get anywhere, and even with 4 meters of height you have to take longer routes than normal. In fact, the height is in general harder to work around than the lane width if you're outside settlements. Railways are even worse, you usually get only 3 meters for the cargo itself (over the wheel and frame of the carriage), or else you will tear down the electricity cables for the railway itself.

However, a possible workaround is to only transport the rings by water, from port to port, and only ship them to coastal cities or cities on big enough rivers.

2018-09-03 20:34:57 by qntm:

Magic rings can be manufactured in pieces and assembled in position. This capability was mentioned back in "Bare Metal" <> and the technology has advanced significantly since then. I hope that clears that up.

2018-09-04 00:54:09 by edkeyes:

There's definitely good reason to not try to alter the state of the Earth more than necessary in the transition to virtuality. But I wonder if Natalie regrets not spending a few minutes to patch an afterlife into the new rules of existence.

2018-09-04 13:25:02 by Aegeus:

But you're shipping a <I>charged</I> Montauk ring. How does it keep its charge after you take it apart?

2018-09-04 13:29:08 by qntm:

Okay, then just imagine it says five metres instead of ten.

2018-09-04 15:40:42 by jonas:

qntm: Ok, thanks. If it said "four-metre Montauk", that would be much more convenient, but "five-metre Montauk" is still a reasonable compromise I can imagine.

2018-09-04 16:12:32 by Lemma:

I want to do some tests with charged Montauk disassembly. (Oh, and why is that capitalized?)
Maybe it only needs to be assembled when its latent mana is being moved but it otherwise doesn't matter? Like maybe it loses 1% when a piece is disconnected but otherwise the structure holds it all.

Makes me wonder if the mana would continue to be contained if you shattered it. Or what if you mix its pieces with an *uncharged* ring? Would the result be two half-charged rings? That's what I'd expect but I'd check for one fully charged and one empty ring just to be sure.

2018-09-04 23:50:13 by JJJS:

Speaking of Rachel Ferno, where was she between the events of Last Thursdayism and Magic Isn't?

2018-09-05 15:33:18 by Newbietu:

I thought a Montauk ring worked somewhat like a tokamak for plasma containment: the mana is "stored" within the ring, but should something happen to damage or shatter the ring containment would fail and the mana would be lost (catastrophic or not depends on narrative requirements ;) ). Thus, a "charged" Montauk could not be disassembled without losing the charge.
As for the size, a 10-meter ring isn't "that" huge, and depending on the weight, it may be fairly trivial to transport it via helicopter wherever it needs to go.

2018-09-06 19:47:22 by Eldritch:

Presumably for the same reason we capitalize the Monte Carlo in Monte Carlo simulations - because it's a real place (In New York) that presumably had some connection to its invention.

2018-09-07 18:47:15 by John:

The speed of light remains a fundamental limit even in the "real world" of this story, and that dooms even those in the Real to exactly the same doom that awaits Virtual Earth, just on a different timescale. When you set exponential growth against geometric space, the space will ALWAYS run out.

The time horizon for that is undoubtedly shorter for those on Virtual Earth, but it's hard to see how much that matters, given that it's almost certainly long enough that everyone in the story will be long dead before it occurs. Of course, there's going to be some future generation which gets cut short, but that would be just as true in the Real. It's a universe of limits- somebody, somewhere, is going to get stuck with being the last human being left alive.

Arguably the Virtual Earth has a better class of termination event to look forward to. The likely end for them is a happy bright future interrupted by a universal instantaneous cessation of existence, which is possibly the kindest end there is.

2018-09-09 00:17:21 by NanashiSaito:

Erm, I'm not quite sure I follow the logic behind the eventual demise of Virtual Earth. Specifically, the notion that the attempt at building Virtual Ra will trigger the end times.

Real Ra, in the strictest sense, is already "simulating itself". It's simulating Earth and our sun; the bare substrate from which Real Ra is built. That substrate may not be configured as Ra at this point, but it's there. Which tells us that Ra is taking shortcuts, (probably a LOT of shortcuts), in order to simulate Virtual Earth.

The nature of those shortcuts is up to the imagination, but fundamentally, they must be there. That same mechanism that creates the *perception* of a fully functioning sun and solar system can also be used to create the *perception* that Virtual Ra is there, chugging along as expected.

2018-09-10 16:37:43 by John:

I think the logic is that Virtual Earth is not a complete simulation. It is built to simulate the total population of Virtual Earth Humanity, at a fidelity high enough for the subjects to be unable to distinguish from reality. That takes whatever amount of resources that it takes (in the three dimensions of time, computation, and storage). That baseline T/C/S value has to increase as the number of humans simulated grows. You can trade any of the three off to the other two (within certain limits), but you can't reduce the total product of the three, and that total product is going to grow, exponentially, over time, because it's going to be at least linear with the number of humans under simulation.

The presumption is that both C and S are going to be strictly limited by the Ra environment, so T is going to be the factor that gives in, and there's only a couple of billion years of potential T. I could even make an argument that S will eventually be the ultimate constraining parameter, because it's going to take a certain number of bits to represent each human's worldstate, and compression can only squeeze out redundancy until you're at the number of entropy bits as opposed to a greater number of conveniently encoding bits.

So if Ra storage is not arbitrarily cheap, it could be the case that the S limit gets hit before T times C runs out... and the population of Virtual Earth hits a permanent ceiling even before it terminates for other reasons. Which would shatter the illusion at the very least, even if it didn't cause an explicit crash of the simulation. Hopefully Natalie did the napkin math and made a big enough malloc() on startup.

2018-09-11 14:26:24 by Max:

@NanashiSaito Let's say that by its specifications the "real" RA should be able to find "the answer to life, the universe and everything" in 1 year. Now, from the pov of virtual earthlings, when they build RA, it should have the same specifications (the sun is the same). Now they ask (the "virtual") RA "the answer to life, the universe and everything" and then they continue living for 1 year... But the "virtual" RA can't use 100% of the power of the "real" RA... It can use only a microscopic part. The solution is then that the virtual earth is slowed or paused very much because after one subjective (virtual) year the "real" RA must have calculated "the answer to life, the universe and everything".

2018-09-11 21:27:53 by Pt:

Well, that's one way to write an even worse ending I guess.

2018-09-12 19:38:58 by Lemma:

Rachel Ferno was dead during that period--her mind state stored in Tanako's world but not executed. (Except during Laura's dreams of her, I imagine.)

I wonder what the total energy usage of Virtual Earth will be across the remainder of its existence. Maybe that's what Natalie was using that energy for! "Buying" server time in some sense or another. "I will give you X gigajoules now for 3X gigajoules later."

They need to use their remaining computation cycles efficiently, regardless. They're bound to build more megastructures eventually--Ra or worldrings or whatever--and it'd be rather sad if they spent all their cycles in computing/building a perfect world only to have none leftover for actually living in it.

@Pt, what do you mean? Being a downer ending?

2018-09-13 11:27:41 by meesh:

I like this ending, more than the first one - although the first one was not as bad as some people seem to imply.

Still, I cannot help but think that Nat fell into the exact same trap as the Wheel. She created a facsimile Earth, with magic to boot, with all its woes and hardships. The only differences is that instead of creating new people from scratch (or well, procedural generation), she moved the already existing ones (some of them still "fake") into the simulation, and that it is a simulation from the start. If the Wheel were not obsessively resistant to living in Virtuality, this could be considered to be pretty much the exact same thing, just maybe a little safer with no Ra to wake up. At the same time, Nat's virtuality lacks the hope that the Wheel had, as Nat's Earth will run out of time presumably much quicker than Actual Earth would have (sans the awakening), and it is forever locked in the simulation.

I somewhat agree with Laura here. I know that the point here is that Nat relinquished herself of any extra privileges after the simulation was created with full premeditation, so that she would not screw it up as much as the Wheel did, but I cannot help to think that it was a mistake. People will suffer and die in Nat's world, and she had the power to make things right. Not using that power could easily be considered a moral wrong (ringing extremely close to the runaway cart thought experiment), especially when she was sitting on all the knowledge pulled from their databases.

Not saying it actually was wrong to do so, but she seems to be following in the Wheels steps, with most of their faults.

2018-09-13 12:32:54 by NanashiSaito:

@Max I understand the premise that Ra cannot simulate itself with 100% fidelity. My point is that it's already taking shortcuts. For example, it makes people *think* there's a sun despite it not simulating the entire sun down to the subatomic level. So to run with your example, when Virtual Earth asks Virtual Ra to tell us the answer to life, the universe and everything, then then instead of calculating the real answer, which isn't possible on the same time-scale as real Ra, it just takes a shortcut and says "42", knowing that we won't be able to tell the difference.

2018-09-13 15:04:55 by Lemma:

As an additional point; for all the Wheel's faults they (some of them) chose to serve the world as guides. Remember The Jesus Machine? I re-read it yesterday. Abstract Doctor had somehow been dumped into a mountain to be found. Wheel, apparently, considered *letting it be found.* But they found no future--or virtually no futures--in which it was a net benefit.

So, they killed the survey team and retrieved it. Although not depicted, I expect they do this sort of thing all the time--it just doesn't normally require Exa's interference. Funding Ed Hatt's research, as an example.

Wheel was actively seeking a superior future and guiding the world to that future. Of course, it is their fault that Abstract Doctor was there at all. It is their fault that the world needs a *guide* at all. It is their fault that people exist in it to toil while they fix a world that is broken by design--even if that design was, "Be historically accurate."

Regardless. Nat's Virtual Earth is the worst of both worlds--it both *needs* a guide and doesn't *have* one.

That is the kind of shortcut that allows the virtuality to be identified as such. There are many problems whose answers can be checked cheaply but are expensive to compute. What if they instructed V-Ra to crack a millennia old encryption? Or compose the perfect song for every person in the world? A background soundtrack that is optimally pleasant and fulfills every moment of their lives. That would be fairly expensive and fairly obvious if faked.

2018-09-13 15:31:04 by Lemma:

If Wheel wanted an alternate history in which the world becomes a utopia "naturally" then they should've included it all in Ra's narrative generators--or run those high fidelity, morally suspect simulations that they are so fond of--and wait till it computes a thousand years of social development under Wheel's guidance.

...Say, what if they *did?* What if this whole story is simulation? In a thousand subjective years, Ra will halt the simulation and show the results to the Wheel Group and then they will look at it and think, "What in the world happened in *this* one?" And then they will do some equivalent of a historical stack trace and preemptively / retroactively / reverse-hypothetically kill the Glass Man.

(Of course, Wheel Group presumably limit themselves such that their simulations run on the Floor's hardware and information-via-mana-collectors. But let's suppose Wheel runs some full simulations on Ra's stellar hardware and utilizes *all* information as gathered by Ra's listeners. And they do so *before* instantiating everything onto Real Earth. Y'know, just to make sure they weren't making a horrible mistake.)

2018-09-14 02:45:31 by NanashiSaito:

@Lemma - What would Actual-Ra do if you ordered it to brute an encryption scheme? Same thing as any other computer; it would keep brute-forcing until it got it right. Now, what if it so happens that the encryption scheme is several orders of magnitude beyond its processing capabilities of aforementioned computer? It would keep running and running and running until you told it to stop. That's the kind of result that's trivially easy to fake.

Now that said, you could find a problem that's in the "sweet spot" of complexity: within Actual-Ra's capabilities but outside that of Virtual-Ra. Even then, it seems like it would be trivially easy to simply adjust the perception of the people verifying the answer in order to make them think the answer is correct, rather than going through the effort of finding the actual correct answer. That same class of solutions (muck with peoples brains so they think you solved the problem) is especially relevant for the more subjective problems you suggested. After all, the virtuality controller could simply FORCE everyone to love the song that Virtual-Ra composed.

2018-09-14 02:48:59 by NanashiSaito:

I don't think the situation with the new ending is as hopeless as Laura (and other readers) seem to think it is.

Sure, their virtuality is homomorphically encrypted, but all that means is that Ra doesn't know the "plaintext" implications of what it's processing. It's free to inspect the "ciphertext" as much as it pleases.

Consider ROT13, which is typographically homomorphic. Now imagine you're the AI equivalent of a SysAdmin inside Ra, and you notice an inoccuous process chugging along at a low priority. The contents of the process are effectively gibberish. After a few ticks of curious observation, you stumble upon the following segment within the data:

Guvf vf n cynprubyqre sbe gur ahgf naq obygf bs gur iveghnyvgl. Zrzbel, fbhepr pbqr, rgp.

Help us. We are trapped in a homomorphically encrypted virtuality. Decrypt data using ROT13.

Guvf vf n cynprubyqre sbe gur ahgf naq obygf bs gur iveghnyvgl. Zrzbel, fbhepr pbqr, rgp.

It would probably catch your attention and you'd want to decrypt the whole process. Obviously the true encryption mechanism would be significantly more complex, and it may take some sort of virtual supercomputer to brute-force a message into the ciphertext. But you don't really need a TON of data in order to convey intent.

The real question is, would you even want to?

2018-09-14 17:31:20 by JJJS:

No, she wasn't. She dies in the Magic Isn't flashback. What I mean is, where does she hide from Wheel while they're rebuilding Earth until she presumably meets her husband?

2018-09-14 22:35:32 by Lemma:

Those are some interesting ideas and I expect it *is* possible to maintain the deception indefinitely. But I expect Natalie wanted the Virtual Earth with real magic to be consistent. She's a scientist, after all. And I expect she wouldn't want the simulation making shortcuts by manipulating people's minds. She's very careful about maintaining morality.

Oh right, that time period.
But who's to say she lost her privileges and all connection with Wheel way back then? I figured it happened during the shuttle rescue. Though actually, you'd expect her to use her privileges to save the shuttle if she had them... Maybe her leadership role make her into a scapegoat? (Maybe she should've left to live at Sirius.)

Regardless. Even supposing that she was blamed for the war, she wouldn't necessarily need to hide and wouldn't have been capable of it anyway. Wheel Group may have been satisfied with severing ties with her. For a people accustomed to living in DWIM paradise, leaving her "stranded" with mortals may well be considered a fate worse than death. (Come to think of it, I don't even recall her being present in the memory of Wheel's victory party.)

The time before even that, before 1970s Earth was built, well... who knows? Maybe she just continued wandering the glassed planet's landscape. Maybe she visited the moons of Saturn till Wheel called her back and said it was time.

2018-09-14 23:25:56 by NanashiSaito:

@Lemma The alternative is letting Virtual Earth turn into a runaway memory sink and letting it blink out of existence. Given the choice between blissful ignorance in a false, constructed world versus mass extermination, well, Natalie kind of already made that choice.

I'd like to think that Natalie was smart enough to have also figured out the "send a message in the ciphertext" approach to breaking out of their encrypted virtuality. It could be a compelling basis for a Ra fan-sequel...

2018-09-15 00:59:09 by Lemma:

Well, it's certainly valid as an option, even if not one I think happened in the story. It's the sort of thing I've considered writing a story about, though. (In fact, I *have* written about something strongly related.)

Regarding the ciphertext thing... I'm not familiar with homomorphic encryptions. Are you saying that applying a homomorphic encryption twice always serves as a decryption?

I'll assume so for the moment. In that case, that is pretty interesting! Of course, it requires that Natalie actually know the algorithm (and key?) and passes it on to someone who is willing to use it. That would be *exceedingly* dangerous, though.

If I were to write Ra fanfiction (and I am often tempted to) then I would actually roll back and start from, say, when Laura summons a Ra daemon. (I have just realized the joke. Each Ra instance is a daemon process. That only took me half a decade to notice~) The idea of maya intrigues me and I'd be very interested in exploring that alternate universe!

2018-09-15 04:08:02 by NanashiSaito:

@Lemma Homomorphic encryption basically means you can perform operations and computations on the encrypted text which are preserved after decryption. So for example, let's say I have a very simple encryption scheme where I just shift every letter up by one (ROT1, if you will).

"Hello" becomes "Ifmmp". But any typographic operations you perform on the encrypted text, for example, slicing off the last two letters, or capitalizing all the letters, those are all preserved once you decrypt the text. "Ifm" decrypts to "Hel", the same as if you had removed the last two letters of the original text. And "IFMMP" decrypts to "HELLO", same as if you had capitalized the original text.

So the upshot of this is that Real-Ra can process the encrypted virtuality without actually understanding what it's processing.

But what it also provides is a mechanism for communication. Since an operation performed on the encrypted data is mimicked on the decrypted data, the processor could perform a set of operations that isomorphically represents a message. You could map an arbitrary set of trivial operations to binary encoding, and hope that whoever is "inside" the encrypted data will notice the rhythmic repetition that is often a telltale of encoded information.

The actual execution in the context of something as enormously complex as a virtual Earth would be relatively difficult. But hey, it's the Fernos we're talking about here.

2018-09-15 15:52:12 by Lemma:

Do you mean that someone could look at the encrypted Virtuality and notice the cycle of, say, an atomic clock inside? (Supposing it bothers to simulate its cesium atoms.)

2018-09-15 18:45:58 by NanashiSaito:


Not unless the people inside actively wanted to be found. But if they did, they could (in theory, with enough computation) make their presence known.

Incidentally, I did take a stab at the first chapter of a continuation fic: