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.
"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.