Scrap Brain Zone


Don't quip until the quarry's dead.

It's one of the first things Exa learned. Exa isn't short for "Alexander", or at least it wasn't originally. It's "Executor", the one who carries out instructions. If a person's existence and interference need to end, Exa's job, typically, is to bring them to that end. Quips are a distraction and a delay. They're also bad manners. If somebody's going to die, their last thought might as well not be "Dear God, that was the best you could come up with?"

It's December 1969 in the replay and he's sitting down for a meal of rare, Platonically perfect steak. There is salad involved, the most divine salad which could ever exist, but an article of jewellery on his wrist chases away extraneous sodium and replaces it with effortless muscle, so the greenery is window dressing, so why bother? Others around him have opted for more elaborate preparations of dishes generally considered theoretical, and of animals and vegetables which no longer exist, but Exa is coming out of the far end of a long and bitter struggle, and is tired, and wants food which will not challenge him.

There's a pecking order at the table, and Exa is most of the way up it.

"Who were those two?" somebody remarks. "What are they up to?"

"Busy," somebody else guesses, his mouth already full. "Getting, I mean."

The Wheel Group's members change appearance frequently enough that not everybody always recognises everybody else. This fact keeps Exa mollified for a few seconds. Then his head snaps up and he scans the table and the remaining diners.

"Something wrong?" King asks him.

"The table's full," Exa says. "They didn't have seats allocated."

"That's impossible," King says. "Our whole operation is provably impregnable."

"It isn't," says another diner, whose name is Ashburne. "And I wish you hadn't announced it as such. No operation can prove itself impregnable. That, itself, was proven about a million years ago. Do you even know who Kurt Gödel was?"

"I'm reading no intrusion," reports the castle-in-the-cloud's security expert, Casaccia.

"Even if they've inserted themselves into the records of this event, that's a bad sign," says Arkov. "It means the records aren't going to stay sacrosanct forever."

Exa downs his wine. "Signal upwards," he says, standing up. He storms around the table towards the doors, turning several heads. Some of the men, who know what Exa does, get up and move to follow him. They are quietly hoping for a show.

"I want one of them alive," King calls.

Exa kicks the door out, making a noise and a mess, and receiving a panicked response from the two interlopers. They have separated across the room. The man is nearby on the right, the woman far away on the left.

Which one is going to freak out the most if I kill the other?

The man shouts "Eject!" at the woman. This suggests that the man is leading, and the woman is subordinate. That's good enough.

Exa shoots the man. The man drops. But then he vanishes.

This changes Exa's plan. Akashic hackery is indeed taking place. If both of the interlopers escape, then he and his party have no data. His only hope is to kill the second interloper before she ejects too, then excavate the needed information from her dead brain. He turns the gun on her and fires. The bullet is around nine-tenths of the way to her when Exa's thought patterns flip texture and he becomes real.


In the next place he freezes absolutely solid. He catches the wall and a railing to stop himself from falling, doing so completely silently. Night vision activates so quickly that he doesn't even perceive the darkness, but the very fact that night vision has to come online at all takes him by surprise.

This is the real world.

This is cause for deep alarm. Cracking the akashic records open is one thing. Pulling physical objects back from them, however, speaks to a serious and dangerous breakdown of world order as it was originally implemented. Who did it? A rogue Wheel member? Unthinkable. Or was somebody new inducted? That should be impossible, the privileges aren't even hereditary. How did they get access? Is this really where they staged their attack from?

For that matter, where is he? How far in the future?

Below, he hears his quarry moving. No confidence, no night vision. He hears a spell: "Dulaku surutai jiha, seven hundred en em", followed by a panicked half-gasp. So: all three of them were bounced here. And the man is still dead.

Exa rounds the corner, descending into hellish red light. The woman is kneeling. She has switched outfit. A grey armour suit. What part of the glitch caused that?

"I don't understand," the woman says to Exa, surprising him. He was thinking exactly the same thing.

She continues, "Why does this part have to be real? Nothing else is real. Magic isn't real."

So the secret's out. It was out for a moment, at any rate. It could be all-the-way public. It was obviously news to the woman, but if the man knew already, he could have spread it unimaginably further before he died.

What a mess. At least Exa is only responsible for its physical end. Information hygiene is not his game. Perhaps it was hubris to think that magic could stay a secret for the whole of the future. Perhaps, as time goes to infinity, all truths come out.

And there, very obviously to Exa, is the quip. But he holds it for long enough to fire a nine-millimetre round into the woman's right eye.

She falls.

Exa says, "Gotta wake up some time."

But the echo of the gunshot has filled the stair tower with thunder from top to bottom, and nothing else is audible. Exa puts his gun away. First he'll check the bodies over, then contact the authorities. He'll probably have to merge experiences with his older, real-world self. He wonders how much time has passed. He wonders whether his real self has picked a different look.

When a mage is killed in the midst of casting a spell, or while acting as an active conduit for mana, the spell ends within the first few seconds of brain-death. Not that this has ever been observed in reality before, ethics being ethics, but there is firm hypothesis, and it happens to be essentially correct. Exa knows it. Or, should.

The woman's light hasn't gone out.


With his kara figuratively redlining, the most effective way to actually kill Exa Watson would be to take a 1018-watt laser and fire it directly into the top of his head from orbit. This level of power would be just about enough to completely vaporise both Exa and his kara too quickly for the kara to detect the damage occurring and start actively rebuilding him.

Exa's problem is that he doesn't leave his kara amped up to full power.

Because he shouldn't have to. It would be like walking down the street in plate armour. This is his world, he owns it. No single person or weapon in the whole world, as far as he knows, represents a credible physical threat to him, and if it did, he'd respond to the threat. Right? His response would be almost instantaneous.

And the world, as far as he knows, has been cleansed of evil.

Let's see where Laura's coming from.

Almost four years ago, four men tried to kill her. One stabbed her in the kidney. She fought them off with improvised magical weaponry, killing one of them and severely injuring two of the others.

She then turned herself into a fortress. "Fuck improvisation," she said, and began developing personal shield technology and dedicated tools for hurting people who would try to hurt her. She bargained for, and sometimes stole, time in the university's engineering workshops. Later, she did the same at Hatt Group's impressive fabrication facilities. She miniaturised the results, trading reduced complexity in the spell wording for increased complexity in the thaumic machinery and mental load. A girl only has time for so many syllables.

Laura's coasting on residual self-image from Tanako's world. She originally arrived there looking like her default self: black top, dark jeans, almost no other descriptive words at all, barely even shoes. If she'd bothered to examine herself, she'd have found a little more detail: the correct hair colour, the kidney scar, the usual few rings.

The suit of armour, she copied from Tanako-while-he-was-wearing-Nick. She laid it over the top of what she was already wearing. Flat polygonal plates, completely functional, no concession to cool style, not even a lick of polish. Rubbery articulation at the joints and neck. A full helmet. The suit is intended to keep a hostile, poison-filled environment and a pitifully fragile human being completely separated from one another.

"Who are you?" she had asked him.

"Who do you think?" Tanako had replied, turning around and turning his helmet transparent.

Not retracting it. Not removing it. Because in T-world you can just have whatever you want to have.

Laura Ferno could have come back to the real world in the unobtainable dress. She could have spawned looking like whatever it is that comes next after "supermodel". But she didn't, and it wasn't luck.

No amount of bullet proofing can cancel out a bullet's momentum-- her head is thrown back and right by the shot, and Laura lets herself fall. She falls away from the gunman, turning so that he can't see the side of her head which he supposedly shot a hole in. A white dot is left in the glass. Or the transparent diamond polycarbonate, or whatever it is. God knows where the ricochet ends up.

The noise of the shot is incredible. Laura knows she's got rings on her left hand, under the armour. The gunman is saying something. She can't hear it over the boom. That means he won't be able to hear her own hissed response.

She just cast a spell, that was smart. She can reuse the True Name drop.

"Look at their wrists, that's where their immortality comes from."

"Sedo. Anhtnaa vaeka."

Eyeball tracking was too hard. She'd have needed a month to work with anonymous recursion. Laura has to shoot from the hip, and hope that she misses her own toes. She aims her left index finger somewhere above and to the right of Exa's head. Her left middle finger, she aims down, at his dominant hand, where he wears the bracelet. The projected scything plane cuts through his hand and wrist, divides his forearm in two lengthwise, then carves through his shoulder and up through his throat and face. There is an audible choink as the kara snaps in half. There's a worse noise where the field meets the black metalwork of the stairwell, and bites deep, but doesn't quite cut. As for Exa himself, he parts easily, into two pieces of fresh brain and some sliced dinner jacket.

Laura unfreezes slowly. She waits for a minute, in thick darkness and gradually returning silence, for shock to kick in.

In her mind's eye she can see Nat, arms folded, expression held steady at "stony disapproval".

Most people go their whole lives without killing anybody.



Laura scrabbles through scarlet gunge. She separates the two slices of Exa's corpse's wrist, and retrieves the two pieces of metal. Two arcs of circle, thin and richly decorated with mana piping of a complexity seen nowhere else in magical science. Laura brackets Nick Laughon's wrist with the pieces and holds them together tightly, as if waiting for glue to dry.

"Please work please work please work. Wake up, ring. Wake up, Nick. Come on."

Another minute passes, during which nothing detectably happens.

Laura pulls the pieces apart and tries connecting them together on bare concrete. Because maybe it's a biological thing? Too much information for the ring. The two fragments need time to boot up and mate again before trying any healing. That makes sense, right?

"You need to wake up now. Because I need you. Really. COME ON!"

The kara is dead. It's a first-generation medical ring, built just minutes after the beginning of time. From a standing start, with a figurative full battery and five figurative bars of signal, it can, indeed, resurrect the dead. But dead gadgetry can never resurrect itself.

Laura feels a blackened pit collapsing open inside her, yawning all the way down from her throat to her chest. It casts a weird and fearful shadow which calmly engulfs all of her thoughts. Laura sits down and huddles into one corner, taking Nick's hand again. Maybe the ring needs a healthy human as a pattern? She puts the pieces over her own wrist and waits one more minute, praying.

Nothing happens.

The kara is a manufactured object. Someone made it. Someone could fix it. And Laura knows that she can do anything. Therefore, if anybody could fix it, she could. But she doesn't know how. Nobody ever taught her and she doesn't know how to find out.

Laura stares into a future in which Nick Laughon is dead. She stares at it for a long moment and it stares back at her.


She stares into T-world at the stored mind-state of Nick Laughon, a frightened and lonely ghost with no earthly form to pilot, trapped forever in timeless glass. She put him there for safe keeping and now she has no way to bring him back. Is that better than murder, or worse?

"No," Laura says to him, although he cannot answer.

She rejects that future. She has to finish the mission. At the end of the mission is a day when death is an anachronism.

Kazuya Tanako was teaching her things while they were journeying through T-world. Tanako was reminding her of things which she had already been taught, but which she had forgotten. Now she remembers. She remembers sitting in lectures at the Chedbury Bridge Institute, taking notes as Tanako and the other grim mages of his resistance movement laid out the fragile few known facts for her.

Laura has woken up, and now she stands up.

None of this matters as long as she wins.


In the beginning there was magic. Not the "high-level" magic stumbled over by Suravaram Vidyasagar. In the beginning, the very beginning, there was real, deep magic. Godhood. Māyā.

Māyā was simply incalculable. Māyā demolished limitations to human capability. White magic, the spontaneous creation of complex new mass/energy from empty raw form. Black magic, the absolute reverse: total destruction without backlash. Māyā permitted death to be reversed, wishes to be granted, continents to be lifted and shifted, castles to be built in the sky.

Some time after the beginning, there was the group now known as the Wheel. These people were, and still are, the custodians of māyā.

It's impossible to know how the Wheel Group got to their position of power. Until very recently it was even impossible to know that they existed, because perfect and experienced control of a godlike power like māyā makes it extraordinarily simple to stay covert. A world which has discovered that the Wheel are real can be eternally reverted to a world which has not. Words aren't necessary, and nor are training or clarity of thought. They just ask, and the field answers them, creatively and correctly. "Do What I Mean".

It's also impossible to know when the Wheel came to power. But māyā has been around since the very beginning of time, and the Wheel are most likely to be the people who got to it first. It's conceivable that, at that time, "wheel" was the best term that humans had for "extremely advanced technology".

The Wheel Group doesn't rule the world; they don't need to; they already own the world. No amount of tedious political responsibility could grant them powers they don't already have. Physical appearance, wealth, IQ and mortality are all entirely discretionary. Where do they live? Anywhere they want, real or imaginary. What do they do with their lives? Everything imaginable, except take responsibility. They, alone, possess limitless power. And they use insultingly little of it.

Evening passed and morning came and that was version one.

Māyā was rediscovered in 1697 by a Portuguese explorer called João da Nova, on a minuscule, flat island in the western Pacific. There, Nova discovered a particularly disgusting sixteen-legged black myriapod, one of the only non-microsopic living organisms in the world to have evolved the ability to tap māyā. Its spell was uncomplicated, and was used to confuse its predators, mainly birds, with green sparks. Nova was bitten almost to death by an ambush of the creatures. So the legend goes, one even crawled down his throat and lodged there, constantly flaring māyā energy off into his belly. But he survived, and when he woke up, he found he had the same myriapod power, magnified by his own human intelligence.

Nova destroyed the island as his first conscious act, rendering the horrible bug extinct. He was moving to crack the firmament and to blot out the very stars before the Wheel Group intercepted and ended him.

Māyā was also discovered in 965 CE, by the ancient Khazars, an obscure nomadic race who ruled much of southwest Asia during the second half of the first millennium. The discoverer was a nameless Khazar silk trader who moored his boat in a cave off the Sea of Azov, a cave which - modern science can now prove - was flooded with periodic clouds of hallucinogenic radium-tinged gas. That nameless man, mutated without realising it, passed the power genetically to his two sons, who killed him.

The Wheel Group took care of it. Khazar civilisation evaporated under poorly-understood circumstances somewhere around the turn of the second millennium CE, dispersed across Eurasia and became... history.

Once, māyā came to a Russian man named Ivan Shevelev, in a dream. On waking he detonated in the air over his homeland with the force of an impacting asteroid. Having released tens of megatonnes of explosive power just from waking, he was still accelerating skyward when the Wheel caught up. Layers of fictitious meteorite were distributed, realigning the evidence, joining up the dots for future scientists. And that was Tunguska.

It couldn't be helped. One theory was that māyā simply wanted to be used. Imagine the planet Earth as the gradually fracturing seal over a pressurised oil reserve, and humans as the fractures. Māyā was discovered over and over again by the increasingly numerous and educated people of the world. Managing the outbreaks became a full-time job for the Wheel. Māyā became a problem.

Magic was their solution. Magic releases the pressure. Magic keeps the world sane and protects people from themselves.

"Magic" is a totally artificial and arbitrary system of words, symbols, requests, responses, resources, services, rates and limitations. It is a collection of difficult hoops through which the common people must jump in order to get what they want. Mana is meted out to whoever asks for it in the correct way, with an upper limit set by what one human can hold in their head at one time.

The Wheel Group built magic to its own specifications. The Wheel Group has a fifty-generation head start. Everything that magic can do is something which the Wheel implemented deliberately. From thin air, they produced and concretised the equations which baseline humans, mere children, have spent lifetimes labouring to reverse-engineer.

Here's what Laura knows:

Māyā has existed forever. Māyā is a fact of the world. Māyā is the birthright of all living humans. Correction, of all humans: living, unborn and to-be-resurrected.

Magic became live at midnight and zero seconds, Coordinated Universal Time, on Thursday the first of January, 1970 CE.


No machine - or rather, no finite machine - can completely store itself in its own memory.

The listening post is a black-shelled chittering beetle/asteroid, as tall as Manhattan is long. In T-world, from a sufficient distance, it can been seen in its entirety with a single glance.

In reality it cannot be seen by any means, because it is buried in the continental crust of Western Australia, so deeply that some of its roots reach magma. It's far too deeply buried to show up on seismic recordings or gravitational surveys, let alone reach with a simple drill. Its shape and size, though, are the same.

The bulk of the listening post consists of active magical machinery. It's filled with cubic kilometre after cubic kilometre of dense, black-hot sharpened metalwork, and deafening noise, and blinding radiation. It is a practical and actual Hell. The machine rooms are inaccessible to humans, to say nothing of uninhabitable. On the increasingly rare occasions when a living human's hand is needed, the maintenance engineer teleports alone into one of the hermetically sealed machine spaces, carries out his tasks in pitch darkness while wearing the magical equivalent of a lead overcoat, and teleports out again.

This is a machine which tracks and records, as close to live as makes no difference, the position and status of every magical particle of every variety in the whole world.

Laura stares up the stairwell, as far as her light will illuminate. The structure goes up for kilometres.

Running between the vast machine spaces are the habitable veins. Some are corridors and some are stairwells; most, though, are diagonal passages, climbing at punishingly steep angles. It's a labyrinth built from echoing, constantly buzzing steel. There is absolutely no light, anywhere. There are no maps or signs. There is no water. Its temperature alternates between sweltering and freezing. The fact that the air is breathable at all is almost anomalous. It's as if, thousands of years ago, the crack structure was intended to be somewhere safe and pleasant to live... but the "terraforming" task was immediately discovered to be thankless, and abandoned after only the first basic step had been carried out.

There are no monsters. It's a place which kills simply by being what it is.

If Laura were to head upwards-- that is, if she were capable of climbing stairs for thirteen vertical kilometres without dying of exhaustion-- she would eventually reach a concealed exit to the Western Australian desert. This would be an improvement. She would still be more than a hundred and sixty kilometres from civilisation, but it would be more hospitable, and she would stand a better chance of survival.

Laura knows this.

She aims her light downwards instead. She steels herself and starts to descend.


Next: Inferno

Discussion (59)

2013-10-24 00:03:55 by qntm:

There's nothing so enjoyable as throwing something you're entirely uncertain about up in front of actual readers. Let the typo hunting commence, and the terrifying laser-analysis. Unlimited thanks, once again, to The Custodian for his input on the "māyā" passage. I feel like I could have worked on it for another straight month without getting it to a place of confidence, so this will have to do. After a while, something akin to semantic satiation sets in and I am unable to perceive my own writing as a meaningful story anymore. Thanks also to Clockmaker for his historical knowledge, most of which I unfortunately threw out of the window, except for the bit about Khazars, who are awesome. Alert readers will notice that this is the *second* time that Laura has gone into T-world, been killed in reality, then successfully exited from the dream's far end. The first was in Broken 'Verse/Thaumonuclear.

2013-10-24 00:43:41 by Lumen:

Rad. Seems like things are finally... getting real.

2013-10-24 00:47:18 by qntm:

There's a reason this chapter is named after the penultimate zone of the original Sonic The Hedgehog game.

2013-10-24 01:00:40 by Anonymous:

Well, that certainly got pretty intense. I thought your description of Maya was very well-done as far as such abstractions go - it scanned well and was very evocative. I'm looking forward to seeing where the story ends up. Thanks for writing this!

2013-10-24 03:59:45 by croikle:

"...the most effective way to actually kill _Exa Watson_ would be to take a 10^18-watt laser..." In other words, an _exawatt_ laser. Hmmm...

2013-10-24 05:31:14 by SomeoneSomewhere:

I wonder how many spotted the significance of "midnight and zero seconds, Coordinated Universal Time, on Thursday the first of January, 1970 CE"... Missed the ExaWatt laser, though.

2013-10-24 05:44:27 by Ian:

Thanks for the chapter, Sam.

2013-10-24 06:19:33 by Link:

Well. Oh boy. In some ways, should've seen this coming, what with all the symbology of dreams becoming reality and vice versa. (... so, what's with the random radiation-can-do-anything radium? :P )

2013-10-24 06:41:04 by LNR:

@SomeoneSomewhere: "I wonder how many spotted the significance..." Probably at least as many as spotted the significance of "Wheel Group" being superusers of the universe. Unix references are all over the place if you've been paying attention.

2013-10-24 06:58:03 by Eldritch:

So magic is precisely synchronized with the UNIX epoch, and access to its underlying godlike power source is apparently controlled by a very few DNA base pairs that could be flipped with radiation. (Seriously, a radioactive cloud giving anyone, no matter how unlikely, godlike mutant powers? Seriously? Maybe cut that bit out or replace it with something. A lot of the "this is how people found maya" stories seem a little silly, more like comic-book origins than the rest of the tale. One day, João da Nova was bitten by a magical spider ... They serve an actual, important story purpose - showing us how Maya can be accessed by accident, and how the Wheel group represses it, but something about that segment just feels out of place.) On the whole though, this is a really interesting chapter and I'm on the edge of my seat. It's interesting to see that Laura's gotten the hang of the True Resurrection restore-from-Tanako-backup dealio; wonder what she's going to do down in the Scrap Brain Zone down there. Presumably, something to restore everyone from backup and cure death, while simultaneously preventing the Wheel Group from just save-scumming. Tanako's goals are starting to feel even more ominous. (Especially with the "they use insultingly little of their power" part - while it's obvious that the Wheel Group are not good people and undoubtedly Bad Guys for keeping a lid on maya, arguing that we should be using more unlimited godlike power over all reality, if only we put it in the right hands of well-intentioned people with a grand goal and probably a manifesto - all of this is a little nervous-making.) Also, if Laura can restore herself from T-world, presumably in a disembodied mind-y sort of state, why can't she just bring Nick back with her in a brand-new Nick body? I don't actually understand why she couldn't just do that; can anyone elaborate? If she's been able to restore herself from a disembodied Tanako's-world mind before after her body dissolved in lava, and she can pop into and out of Tanako's world in physical form, and she was previously almost successful in restoring her mother by dragging her back with her (and presumably has learned enough to make that actually successful), it seems totally possible given what I understand for her to just bring Nick back in a perfectly usable new body. Also, who else wants to bet that whatever Laura's trying to do in the "cure death" department will be indistinguishable from an apocalypse? Radical cosmological overhauls initiated by mortals trained by malicious demons of uncertain provenance are generally villain province. Turning everyone into a sea of Tang is also a pretty good way to cure death and merge humanity together into an perfect, godlike hive-mind, but it's the sort of thing a fictional hero generally tries to stop, not cause. Chekov's guns (not yet fired) -Why doesn't magic happen in space? Maya can clearly be harnessed by non-human biological entities (see - black myriapods) and appears to be capable of being produced by geological, physical effects. (Isn't that Icelandic fault the only place magic comes out of the ground in large quantities? Maybe it isn't natural at all - maybe there's a Wheel Group megamachine below that; maybe it's where they manufacture mana out of Maya and release it into the world.) Is something special about Earth? Does Maya only occur here for some metaphysical reason? Note that while most of the Big Questions of magic have been answered (it works that way because the Wheel Group says so), there's still the question left of how and why biology interacts with magic, either artificial or maya True Magic. -Edd Hatt's kara. Dude's got a magical near-limitless healing machine (on low power), which has currently seen little use. That's almost certainly going to do something important. -What was going on with Laura's mother? That was a pretty major plot thread that hasn't been resolved yet, although a large chunk has been revealed or made obvious - but AFAIK we still don't see how it fits into the big picture yet. Was it just a way for Ra to get Laura onto the idea of resurrecting the dead? -Does the attack at the very beginning have any bigger meaning or role in events, or was it just there to incite incidents? -What was up with the kid with Abstract Weapon? That was pretty mysterious at the time and I don't think it's been directly addressed yet. (Although it was probably Ra-related and part of his scheme) -The Wheel Group's probably going to find that Exa-corpse at some point. That's going to raise Questions, the kind of very pointed questions one asks with very pointed spells which result in very prompt, bright, and hot answers in Laura's direction.

2013-10-24 09:51:48 by Sean:

Funny how many of my thoughts have already been stated (exawatt laser, 1970, and radium, really?). Some response to Eldritch: - I don't think that Laura has resurrection completely down yet, at least not to the point where she can just pop someone in from T-world. Both times when she died and came back from T-world, it seemed to be without fully intending to, and there were unusual circumstances (in particular, large amounts of mana were being used up in both the location where her original body was and the location where she returned, and she was with Ra). I think that Ra prodded her to use the listening station to pop back into the real world, but otherwise she wouldn't have been able to return (or possibly even stay lucid in T-world). Remember that she had a lot of trouble trying to resurrect her mother; since she doesn't have the power of maya (only modern day magic), and since Tanako/Ra doesn't seem to have shared the recursion artifact, she might still not be able to pull off a resurrection easily. - Maya probably does happen in space (indeed it must, if it's from the beginning of time, but Earth is not). But maybe <em>magic</em> doesn't happen in space, being generated locally. So when Natalie was looking for chi emissions from supernovae, of course there wouldn't be any; chi emissions are a feature of magic designed by the Wheel group. Here's what all I'm curious about: - What can Laura do that Ra can't do him/it/their-self? Ra has certainly gone through a heck of a lot of trouble to recruit Laura, especially if. - What is Ra? Is it an old nemesis of Wheel, or something related to the creation of magic in 1970? If Wheel designed the magical constants, and Ra is such a constant, that suggests that either Ra is a Wheel creation or something that the Wheel group explicitly wrote into the language as a sort of root user. - What were the missiles that were launched from the last story? - Why was it so important to Ra to destroy Laura's body? Is destruction of the original necessary for an ordinary human to manifest a new body, was he burying evidence, or is it just awkward to have two versions of someone who doesn't know how to merge? - Was the bomb in Laura's apartment supposed to help preserve Natalie and Anil in the akashic records as it killed them, or was Ra just trying to stop them from interfering, without really caring what happened to them, or is it all irrelevant because with maya you would just be able to resurrect everyone regardless? - Given that there's no literal time travel so far (just jumping in and out of records), but there's tons of technology that's too advanced for humans so far, is Wheel replaying an era of Earth's history from their own past (but replaying it in real life rather than as a record)? - Since it seems like Wheel actually cares about some arbitrary rules of magic circles and mana usage, doesn't that mean that they are choosing to constrain themselves to obey (some of) the rules of magic, though possibly just to tighten security? - Was Ra the invisible person guiding Laura's hand in Iceland? - Assuming that Laura's mother was not an incarnation of Ra, where has she been? If she was part of Wheel, you'd think she'd just dip into T-world before death, then do whatever she needs to to escape, as Laura has twice. - How long has Ra been grooming Laura for this role? Is it just since she brought it into Nick's body, or was she the target of Benj-Ra's actions, or did Ra engineer the attack in Thaumic City, or does it go way back to Laura's mother?

2013-10-24 09:52:58 by qntm:

The chemical symbol for radium is Ra.

2013-10-24 10:17:58 by Alan:

Two things Eldritch: Magic doesn't happen in space because magic was designed just for humans. Māyā should exist there, but Natalie wasn't looking for Māyā. Next: I suspect the Wheel Group, as a whole, is rather disorganized. Any given member doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on who comprises the membership, how many there are, or how to recognise them. "The Wheel Group's members change appearance frequently enough that not everybody always recognises everybody else". So no true sight type effects or shibboleths. Exa has to use deduction to realize that Ra and Laura don't belong at the meeting. "Signal upwards" said Exa, but perhaps the bystander effect will come into play. Everyone else might assume that someone else told management. Overall I don't think the Wheel Group is very innovative or fast moving. Quick responsea were Exa's job. After all, it took till 1970 for them to decide to create magic as a distraction. "They, alone, possess limitless power. And they use insultingly little of it." As far as bringing Exa back, there was an interesting passage about that: "He'll probably have to merge experiences with his older, real-world self." The Exa that died isn't the real world one, and that one should be lacking in knowledge of what just happened. I don't imagine he is kept active all the time. There was a suggestion in his introduction that he spends much of his time living a more mundane life. Its not like there are daily threats. Karas aside, the Wheel Group are very human. Exa makes some mistakes, both against the boy and now against Laura. I think Laura and Ra just "gained a tempo" as they say in chess.

2013-10-24 10:33:58 by Alan:

Ack! Sam, bad mistake! Kurt Gödel was not dead in 1969 when Ashburne says Do you even know who Kurt Gödel was?". Gödel lived for another 9 years, dying in 1978.

2013-10-24 10:35:13 by CitrusBolt:

Didn't Laura lack a helmet last we saw her?

2013-10-24 10:41:39 by qntm:

CitrusBolt: she appeared to lack a helmet. In fact, she was still wearing one, it had just been turned transparent.

2013-10-24 12:42:04 by jonas:

Oh no! This is now more similar to Fine Structure than it used to be.

2013-10-24 15:34:13 by David:

Sean: I think that "missiles" was a figurative way of referring to Laura and Ra.

2013-10-24 15:54:41 by Kazanir:

jonas: The similarities are probably even less similar than you think. I'm assuming that you're referring to the "goal" of the story, which Laura understands to be unlimited power and a "science fiction future" as the immortal birthright of all living humans. But remember two things: 1. Laura has been, as Natalie put it, radicalised. We don't know who or what Ra really is and the Wheel Group /do/ know. They presumably beat Ra once (probably around the time that he got that name in ancient Egypt or before) and they are pretty upset about the idea of wakening him again. (Notice how none of the historical examples Laura has been taught at the "resistance movement" go back as far as ancient Egypt?) Whatever Laura is working towards, presumably Ra has other fish to fry once she accomplishes some of her tasks. 2. Secondly, thematically speaking, this is the least similar similarity that one could pick. That isn't because the stories are dissimilar, but just because this element of the story is *universal* to human mythology. Every religion or mythology concerns the story of humanity's destiny and hope for immortality and control over their own future. Many of our epics touch the same themes. Sam touched these themes in the original Ed Stories also. That doesn't make them any more similar -- this is the way a mythological epic is going to go.

2013-10-24 16:57:36 by naura:

"No operation can prove itself impregnable. That, itself, was proven about a million years ago. Do you even know who Kurt Gödel was?" It's ~1 million AD, and the supposed present has been recreated from the akashic records. all the advanced tech the wheel group has (computers and so on) are from posthistory, that is, after the present day but before the date when history was reset.

2013-10-24 17:30:26 by M:

naura: It also says that the kara was "built just minutes after the beginning of time", even though Humans wouldn't have existed then, which would support that theory.

2013-10-24 18:32:40 by Link:

Well. Oh boy. In some ways, should've seen this coming, what with all the symbology of dreams becoming reality and vice versa. (... so, what's with the random radiation-can-do-anything radium? :P )

2013-10-24 18:32:52 by Link:

"The chemical symbol for radium is Ra." ... that was bad and you should feel bad, so why am I laughing so hard?

2013-10-24 18:33:10 by Link:

Ack, duplicate, sorry.

2013-10-24 18:44:40 by qntm:

Laura's on a mission to steal fire from the gods. I wanted to work the line into this chapter but somehow it got lost in the shuffle. It looks like people have spotted the theme, anyway. :)

2013-10-24 19:05:09 by Link:

On a random note - I'm trying to remember/track down what the "Seven Impossible Things" are and I'm having trouble finding them. (On a side note, if Laura ever duplicates Rachel Ferno's personal spaceship, she needs to name it <em>Prometheus</em> :P)

2013-10-24 20:41:18 by Liam:

I *think* the Radium giving gee-whiz magic powers is a retroactive cover-up on the part of the Wheel group, in the same vein as faking the Tunguska impact. Either to explain away any anomalies that stayed around in the historical record, or to prevent people in the future from venturing into the caves.

2013-10-24 21:06:37 by LNR:

FTR, the "exawatt" reference is even more explicit if you read the version of "There Is No Cabal" posted on Everything2. In that chapter as formatted there, when we see Al**exa**nder **Wat**son's name, the letters I've bolded are clickable links to 'exa' and 'watt'.

2013-10-24 21:49:00 by qntm:

Honestly, you could probably make do with 10^15 watts, but I couldn't resist going the extra three orders of magnitude, just for the pun.

2013-10-25 01:26:27 by naura:

I like the way Laura's plan to resurrect all humans who have ever lived is casually dropped in there. Radicalised indeed. So, the physical structure of the listening post is deep under Western Australia. Was this what the downward-pointing telescopes at Chedbury were looking for? Or was that something else? I'm not clear on whether Maya requires mana or not. From this chapter it would seem not, that is, that anyone who can access Maya can have whatever they want for free, without reference to their own personal or any external "store" of mana. In Maya, there is no conservation law that says you need to "use up" mana to get a result. If that is the case, why is Wheel trying to minimize mana expenditure, etc? Why do their karas work off mana (of incredible complexity) rather than Maya? It doesn't make sense. Exa reflects that Laura bringing things back from the records is a major privilege violation. He dismisses the idea of Wheel inducting a new member, and says the privileges aren't even hereditary. How then can Laura do what she does? It must be connected to Rachel, which means it might be connected to Nat as well. Does he have these abilities, even in latent form? Another possibility is that no one new was inducted because Rachel (who was already a member?) and Laura are one and the same, at least as far as the system of magic is concerned. If minds are just information, perhaps that information can be duplicated and placed within another's mind... aka Laura has shell access under her mother's account. RAchel/LauRA/RA - this is just a bit of wordplay and not a huge clue, right?

2013-10-25 01:30:48 by Stewie:

I was under the impression that as human science developed, that discovery of Maya would be more likely. Therefore the Wheel group invented a completely random system of magic, incorporating mana usage etc in an attempt to disway humans from discovering Maya.

2013-10-25 01:36:11 by Stewie:

Uh. Kind of rushed when writing that last comment. It seems as if the wheel group is attempting to minimise access to Maya, and in doing so they would have to limit access. With the invent of magic they filter wheel group technology through a privileges system. If they allowed other members of the wheel group access it would probably jeopardize what they are trying to do.

2013-10-25 02:29:48 by Ashburne:

So. There's some crazy shenanigans regarding "when" this story is happening, but I wonder: in reality as Laura/Rachel/Ed Hatt understand it, do the similarities between CS and magic (UNIX time, anonymous recursion, allocation, other terminology) exist? If so, has anybody noticed? Or is this more of an it's-clever-just-go-with-it thing like the exawatt laser or RAdium? (Not that I'm hating on it's-clever-just-go-with-it things, I'm just curious.) My WMG theory is that the Wheel Group seized power in our reality and used CS as a basis for their name and magic system for funsies.

2013-10-25 03:16:35 by LNR:

So the more I think about the background information we learn in this chapter, the more it reminds me of a story called "The Metamorphosis Of Prime Intellect." Possibly this is just because both plots involve godlike Singularities with many references to real-world computer systems.

2013-10-25 10:08:13 by Wanderer:

Reporting a typo for correction: "...from a sufficient distance, it can been seen in its entirety a single glance."

2013-10-25 10:36:13 by jonas:

Kazanir: no, that's not the similarity (with Fine Structure) I'm talking about. The similarity is how in both stories, we first learn about humans discovering magic (teleportation and sub-eta signaling in Fine Structure), then later we found out that an external entity much more powerful than the humans had been rewriting the rules of magic with the specific intent that humans can't use it much.

2013-10-25 13:29:33 by qntm:

> RAchel/LauRA/RA - this is just a bit of wordplay and not a huge clue, right? Sure. Also, SuRAvaRAm and RAjesh Vidyasagar. The sequence of letters "ra" is quite common in English words as well. Now, if something or someone had the initials "R.A.", that might be significant.

2013-10-25 17:51:27 by Mike:

Sean & David: The precise reference is "The launch is complete and the human weapons are away;" most specifically, the missiles are Laura AND the many copies of Ra, including the one with the magic bomb and the "six...maybe seven or eight" passengers in the police van that Devi read as Ra with his True Name scanner. I'll be very interested to know how much of Ra's instruction to Laura was true, and how much was exaggerated or completely incorrect.

2013-10-25 18:06:20 by McSweaterman:

Sam, S looks like 5. In gemetria(Hebrew letter based math) the equivalent of M(מ mem) equals 40. R(ר resh) = 200 and A(א alef) looks somewhat like a multiplication mark. Therefore Ra(we keep the a because it's not used as a number. I'm onto you Sam, or should I say, Ra?! Also, if Maya allows for anything to be done by anyone who has access, then what is the significance of the abstracts? Giving abilities to users with no privileges? In that case, what makes them abstract when the kara isn't?

2013-10-25 19:51:01 by naura:

How does Laura plan to resurrect everyone who has ever died when only people who are "remembered with sufficient fidelity to effect a reconstruction" can be brought back? The listening post and the akashic records only store records of magical events, which it seems like wouldn't give sufficient fidelity to reconstruct every human mind ever.

2013-10-26 02:19:02 by naura:

>Now, if something or someone had the initials "R.A.", that might be significant. like, say, the Recursion Artifact that Must Not Be Named?

2013-10-26 08:53:50 by Sgeo:

Here's another UNIX reference: uum probably is a reference to true (do nothing, successfully). Doing nothing, successfully, is pretty much what uum does.

2013-10-27 00:43:00 by OvermindDLone:

Seems obvious that magic incantations is just programming, what with naming of procedures and so forth, so uum being true makes sense. I have been making a record of incantations and what they did and the state and all sorts of things, but not enough examples yet for me to know if it is for certain, or just random with structure as defined by Sam, perhaps something like, say, a functional language, pure expressions, or say something pure stack based like Forth. Based on the hints given I think it is like Forth. I could of course be completely wrong too, but as a programmer I am biased. :-)

2013-10-27 04:52:51 by OvermindDLone:

Hmm, a meta Forth? A Forth like language for defining the instructions of some other language level?

2013-10-28 02:34:59 by MichaelSzegedy:

Radium decays into radon, anyway, so "radium-tinged gas" is a half-correct representation of a common thing. I think that the usage of the stupid "the superpowers were a mutation!" trope is appropriate here, since it enforces that the idea that māyā wants to be used, and will bend random occurrences to its benefit.

2013-10-28 08:33:31 by Ben:

Some thoughts on fixing the kara by pressing its pieces together: 1. Laura's "scything plane" weapon probably cuts on the nearest approximation of a mathematical plane that atomic matter can embody, given that making non-planar forcefields requires significant effort ("Magic Isn't," "Ragdoll Physicist"). The cut surfaces of the kara's pieces are thus the two sides of an ideal plane. 2. The Wheel Group's standard-issue kara is a "slim, solid band, undecorated" and composed of rhenium ("Bare Metal"). Information about obscure, practical properties of rhenium, such as how quickly it tarnishes in air, is harder to come by than this comment is worth, but rhenium is in the same group as manganese, which tarnishes slowly. The exposed surfaces of the kara had very little time to begin slowly accruing a coating of rhenium oxide before Laura pressed them back together. Exa's body presumably expelled a large quantity of electrolyte-rich fluid as it fell apart, even a small amount of which could oxidize the rhenium on contact, but Laura's troubleshooting doesn't include any mention of having to clean the kara. 3. The real-world scarcity of matched pairs of macroscopic, unoxidized, ideally planar chunks of identical metal makes it hard to demonstrate, but it is very likely that pressing the kara back together with hand strength for half a minute actually would be enough for it to weld. See 4. But unless Laura lined the pieces up perfectly before pressing them together, they would probably fuse inseparably in some off-register, magically inert position—a worse broken state than she started with. 5. This is assuming that the ring-ness of the kara's physical form matters to the magical parts of the machine, of course. The kara lacks outwardly visible runes or other markings, which is perplexing given that even Abstract Doctor, the categorically perfect machine for doing the kara's work, requires multiple nested layers of runes to run. Karas also differ from Abstract Doctor in that they operate without input mana, however, so perhaps they run on māyā instead of magic and thus simply "do what I mean." 6. But in that case, shouldn't Laura's intent to repair the kara by pressing it back together be enough for her to succeed? Hatt's kara does what he means without his having Wheel Group privileges.

2013-10-28 18:54:25 by MichaelSzegedy:

Ben: would the molecular weathering that occurred to the kara in the meantime be significant enough to stop it from being able to be cold-welded? Also, I remain unconvinced about the tarnishing. And anyway, we don't know how the karas actually "work"; they seem to run on māyā, which, as far as we've seen, is some sort of reality-warping superpower that humans can tap into. We don't know how that connects to the kara, exactly. It's very probable that it was created by a Wheel Group member simply thinking, "This piece of metal should heal anyone who is inside the ring." No more ring, no more power. If you bring it back, that may or may not be a new ring; that is really at Sam's discretion.

2013-10-29 04:10:43 by Sysice:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah no laser analysis only aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah (Seriously though, great chapter.)

2013-10-29 05:06:57 by atomicthumbs:

the primal forces of the universe were being abused because everyone was a superuser, so the admins wrote an abstraction layer. simple enough.

2013-10-29 05:17:32 by atomicthumbs:

...are Abstract Weapon and Abstract Doctor the base classes for magical weapons and magical medical devices?

2013-10-29 18:08:35 by Matt:

"That's the word Grey is afraid of, "organic". If the artifact was grown and machined by some thrashing, senseless neural net, this is what you'd see." When it first appeared, along with Exa's talk of "high-fidelity simulations", I had always assumed that the creators of Abstract Doctor had used the same system to design it. "I want a machine that heals", and after N simulations an solution is produced. Hence "abstract" - the more abstract the acceptance criteria, the more capable the resulting artifact is. Now I wonder if Maya works the same way. "Do what I want", the caster thinks, and something happens. "That's not what I want" thinks the caster, and the whole universe is rolled back. A different solution is picked, and the caster gets to appraise the result again. N iterations later the caster finally gets what they wanted, unaware of the eons of simulated time needed to reach it. A sophisticated Heuristic Search and random guessing are equally effective.

2014-07-14 04:19:25 by bluediamond:

There's a sequence problem. Exa sees Ra disappear first, and Laura (and he) don't disappear until he's almost shot Laura. It wasn't Laura's action to bring the three of them out together; Ra brought himself out first. Conclusion: That Ra instance did not die. Corollary: Ra WANTED 1969 exa in the scrap brain zone, and WANTED him to get killed by Laura.

2014-08-05 21:13:06 by mutecebu:

If somebody's going to die, their last thought might as well not be "Dear God, that was the best you could come up with?" Exa is the best action hero. The odd Sonic reference in the title made me smile (after I scratched my head for a bit)

2014-08-05 21:15:08 by mutecebu:

"steal fire from the gods" - I didn't make that connection till I read the comment here. I know someone else mentions Prometheus, but I didn't make the connection to what Laura is doing here.

2015-10-29 19:19:16 by TimMc:

Poor Nick. First dumped into a nightmare world by his girlfriend without explanation, now possibly irretrievably so?

2015-11-24 00:36:31 by TARDISES:

Well. This is the first thing that warranted a comment from me. First of all, the chapter name. There was really only one possible reaction for me to have and that was to listen to that Zone's associated music. (Yes, I am familiar with classic "sanic".) But... Now I must read ahead to find out HOW Scrap Brain fits in with this. (And I must wonder to myself if whatever chapter reveals that would be named Final Zone) Secondly... I see what was done there with the whole exawatt thing, as well as magic going live at the start of UNIX time. The important thing now is - is whatever variable in whatever caused that to happen 32 bit or not? Because if it is, magic's gonna stop working at 3:14:08 UTC on 19.1.2038 because 32-bit UNIX time overflows then.

2016-12-21 18:56:30 by Sat:

So magic's an API for maya? > a totally artificial and arbitrary system of words, symbols, requests, responses, resources, services, rates and limitations.

2019-01-04 00:53:40 by tahrey:

So she's only going to be able to escape by jumping over a few bottomless pits, onto various oversized springs and switches that activate sliding doors, through teleporters, dodging gouts of flame, and running along multiple conveyor belts that go the wrong way? I mean, much of the rest of it adds up. Presumably the exit will be guarded by a big fat guy with a crazy mustache who has to be hit in a rhythmic fashion whilst dodging other such deadly technological traps.

2019-01-04 00:54:56 by tahrey:

Also I've *heard* of Godel, and looked him up, and I'm still none the wiser. Something to do with incompleteness theory? Set theory completely baffles me, so I'm probably onto a loser here.

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