Thaumonuclear

Previously

The citadel is as tall as a thirty-storey building and featureless as a brick. Nat walks around it once, looking for windows and gates. Finding none, she tries imagining herself inside and then "stepping into" the mental image, which is how things usually work here. It doesn't work. Abandoning subtlety, she makes one hand gluey and uses it to pull a black stone as big as a refrigerator right out of the wall. She flings it away over her shoulder. That leaves a large rectangular slot, with just enough room for her to clamber into the dark place inside.

The wall is a metre and a half thick, with nothing behind it but a half-metre gap and an identical wall. Natalie shuffles sideways along the narrow alley until she reaches the corner, where both walls turn ninety degrees. She looks up, and can't see a lot, but there's definitely clear space above her head. She concludes that what she's looking at is a second, slightly smaller citadel inside the first one.

Everything goes dark. The outer wall has repaired itself. Something throbs in Natalie's brain, the overspill from the change to the universe. Somebody did that. Natalie creates a light for herself, red so as not to ruin her night vision.

The fuzzing, shuffling background noise, which, although still soft enough to tune out, has been patiently increasing in volume since they both arrived here, ceases.

That's right, Natalie remembers. If you stay here long enough, it becomes a nightmare.

She shuffles around the corner and along the alley a little further, just on the off-chance that there's an entrance on this wall. All she finds is flat walls and an ominous silent darkness stretching away an unknown distance. "Sedo sedo sedo sedo," she says, catching the paint as it falls out of her mouth, gathering it into a squishy ball, a water balloon without the balloon. "Eset eset eset, zui zui zui."

Then she turns around and hurls the paint blob at the eyes of the genuinely horrific, wasted individual which, by all nightmare logic, had to be behind her. She throws the paint in its eyes, not at its head, which is an important distinction. Where a normal human would have a face, it has a huge vertical mouth, opening to show two rows of fangs. Where one would expect shoulders and arms, it has rows of long feely fingers, as if its whole torso was a palm for holding things where they can't escape. Most of them are perfectly normal human fingers, merely anatomically misplaced. Two of them, Natalie discovers as she turns, have lengthened and reached out, bracketing her neck and beginning to close. There are no slavering sound effects; the thing is as silent as a spider.

And its eyes are in its neck, above the collarbone. The eyes are human enough that the thing has something approximating a facial expression. The expression is near-madness.

Nat's paintbomb obliterates its vision. As it stumbles backwards, its long fingers brush across the back of Nat's hair. She grabs a finger in each fist and squeezes, snapping them like twigs. Then she places a hand on another stone in the outer wall and pulls it into the alley as far as it will go, pulling away just in time so that the stone can crush the thing flat against the inner wall with its momentum. She grabs the stone and slams it against the crushed horror a few more times, just in case. Under this light, she couldn't guess what its skin colour is, but its blood is definitely black. And runny, like wine. There's enough of it that it must be dead.

High energy magic. High energy dreams. Natalie wonders what the concrete, real-world dangers are if one of those things eats her. Laura would know.

Natalie climbs onto the stone she just produced and looks as far as she can in every direction, casting her light up and down the alleyway and even above her. There are more things coming, making no noise but a busy shuffling. It is hard to see them but they are all permutations of human bodies, with features and spindly extremities multiplied and redistributed. They are dirty, and many of them appear to be able to climb, and they are converging on her. If it was actually happening, it would be the most frightening thing to ever happen to her.

She thumps the inner citadel wall. Its stones won't move. "Let me in! I'm real." Something picks her up around the waist and begins dragging her upwards. She can't see this one clearly, but the sensation is grotesque. She flings more paint at it, then braces herself against the inner wall to kick a hole in the outer one. The dislodged stone lands somewhere outside. A little pale light floods in, but is immediately blotted out by more malformed people flooding in from outside. They wrap her in their fingers and hold her tight. They start chewing at her toes, clothes and hair. And as one final problem, off to her far right down the alley, a brilliant green-white light flares into operation and starts moving towards all of them.

Natalie sees what the light means. It's an abstract. It's not part of the nightmare. It's an agent of something else entirely. It is a sweep. While she watches (out of the corner of her eye, because she can't turn her head), she sees "people" evaporating as it catches them. The green hue represents disinfectant. The white intensity represents heat sterilisation.

Natalie wonders if it'll discriminate, or just fry her too. She wonders if it'll wake her up or just kill her. Maybe it's a metaphor for the magma: it'll wake her up and then kill her. She screws up her eyes as the light sweeps over her and she wonders: Tanako's world is a nightmare. I'm not scared. So whose nightmare is it?

When she looks again, she is inside the second citadel. And inside the third, the fourth, the fifth and the sixth citadels. It is a tiny windowless studio apartment, lit dully by an uplight in the corner. There are bookshelves and a table and a bed. There are no doors. There's a man curled up in the bed, facing the wall. His hair is all that's visible. It's slightly blond and slightly spiked.

"I'm Natalie Ferno," says Natalie. "Did you build this place? How long have you been here?"

He rolls over. "You have to believe me."

"I believe you."

"He's not me."

"I believe you. I'm real. I can help you."

Benj blinks. "Can you get me out of here?"

"Yes."

*

Before she gets within a kilometre of Krallafjöll, the ground beneath Laura's feet has begun to melt. Soon she is walking over alternating sections of lava and black pan-hot rock. Smirking, she cranks up imaginary protective spells using her rings and staff. She imagines invisible iron armour and big heat sink panels like wings, all weightless. She skips straight through to her planned Mark Two defensive shield, which clings to her clothes and skin at a one-millimetre thickness, but lets cool air through so she can breathe and perspire. It's much easier to build this stuff in her head. "Do What I Mean."

While walking, she keeps catching sight of something out of the corner of her eye, but every time she turns to look at it it disappears. She has the sensation that someone is walking beside her. Not stalking. Just... accompanying.

She arrives at the nearest end of the ridge. It looks the part now: active, volcanic. Half of one side of it is missing, with lava rolling out of the wound and running downhill into a substantial pool at the foot of the ridge. The pool has swollen, and excess lava has begun to flow out of it towards Blönflói.

The whole scene is almost stopped in time, just barely crawling forward if she watches carefully, like the minute hand on a clock. At the top of the hill, Benj is still standing. It seems he's not the light source that she saw from her castle. The molybdenum steel ring which he's holding, which he must have recovered, is glowing as if white-hot. The mana radiating off it is so concentrated that it stings Laura's eyes and causes jangling perturbations in her shields.

Laura quickly scales the ridge, coming up behind Benj, who is gazing into the lake of lava gathering below them. Benj turns around and smiles broadly. And it's Benj. It's really him. The face, the body language. There's nothing about him that suggests he's anybody else.

"Neat trick. Who are you?" Laura demands.

"I'm Benjamin Clarke. We have met, you know."

"Guess again."

"I'm an animate stray thought," he says. "There was an accident. You remember. You, me, Jeremy Willan--"

"Not you. It wasn't you. It was Benjamin Clarke. Who are you?"

"...You, Benj Clarke and Jeremy Willan were locked into a shared trance, this world that Kazuya Tanako discovered. And you know what happens here. There are physical risks to staying here for too long. There are things which crawl out of cracks in the glasswork, and it never ends prettily. They got to Clarke first. So he ran away and tried not to be found. And he succeeded. You and Willan and Dan Czarnecki couldn't find him. You used dream logic to cook up a cheap facsimile of him. And you brought that home instead.

"Clarke's been here this whole time. Holed up in his castle, fighting nightmares and unable to wake up. But occasionally getting messages through." He imitates mockingly: "'This isn't me!'"

"You haven't answered my question," Laura says angrily. "What does that make you? A brain-damaged version of Benj? Jeremy built your shell, I animated it. So where are your motivations coming from? Me? Benj? Who is ra?" With the last word she spits lime green goop on the ground between them.

The "Benj" facsimile shrugs. "Everything I just told you was information you already had. I've got nothing else for you. You're not actually talking to anybody right now, Ferno. You're asleep."

"No. I think you're really here. That's why we've overlapped into Benj's dream. I think you've been dragged in here with us. What are you trying to do?"

"Look." Not-Benj points down at the lava pool. She looks. There are two figures lying in the pool, face-down. The figures are wearing familiar cold-weather gear. Laura recognises herself and her sister. Of course: give or take the heat shielding question, human beings float in lava. Bowling balls float in lava. It's molten rock; it has about the same density as solid rock.

Laura wonders how closely this mental image resembles reality. If she and Natalie really are unconscious on the lava's surface, they can just get up and start running - inside their shield - to get to safety. No mucking about with the highly complex, untested tunnel boring spell. That would remove one variable, leaving - by their count - three. Provided that what's she's dreaming is also real.

But as she watches, the force field protecting the figures of her and Natalie pops, and they plop into the lava. They catch fire, melt and explode simultaneously. The organic matter produces steam, which makes the lava gulp and spurt as it swallows the bodies up. Laura stares, transfixed. The reaction seems to take a long time.

"You just died," says not-Benj.

Laura grits her teeth. It is, of course, impossible that she could be dead. Impossible and deeply worrying.

"You said this was about freedom," she says.

The imposter twirls his glowing ring around an index finger. If Laura listens carefully, she can hear its deep, quiet synthesised voice still speaking its recursive spell. He says, "Do you know what's the most mana that's ever been gathered together in one location? The mana energy density record?"

"Why, set on breaking it?"

"Breaking something. Do you know what happens when you put too much mu and zeta in the same place?"

Laura takes a cautionary step backwards. Looking back, she sees that Nat has caught back up with her, wearing a shield to protect her from the heat of the lava she just crossed. In tow, sharing the shield, is Benj. The real Benj. And beyond them, in the distance, she sees that Tanako's glass world and the two castles are gone, replaced with dark mountains. That'll work, she realises. We'll bring the real Benj home with us when we wake up. That might actually work.

As far as she understands - and she likes to think that she understands a great deal - nothing special happens at all when you put too much mu and zeta in the same place. At least, in theory. But nobody's done it. How could they? There's nowhere to get that much mana from.

Laura aims one arm full of amulets at the imposter and holds her staff out backwards with her other hand. "Last chance. Tell me what you're trying to achieve. This is a dream. I can do anything here."

"So can I."

"But I can think faster than you."

The molybdenum ring is so bright now that not-Benj's fist is glowing bright red, with dark spots where his bones are. This reminds Laura of something. She can't remember what. In answer to her question, not-Benj produces a dark grey sphere from one of his jacket pockets. It is the size of a baseball, matte and smooth, and seems to be very heavy. It's so heavy that Laura thinks she would have noticed it weighing in his pocket before now. He must have just created it. It's so heavy, as if it was made of some sort of--

dense metal--

She triggers the last three spells reflexively. By the time the words "implosion assembly" and "subcritical plutonium core" have formed in her mind, the whole thing is over.

"Dulaku ragígakal!"

The first spell is a green laser powerful enough that its beam is visible in clear air. It slices through not-Benj's magic ring with a noise like two bolts being cut. The chain reaction spell cuts out mid-syllable. Half of the ring falls; not-Benj is left holding a C-shaped chunk of metal. Enough stored mana to flip Reykjavik like a pancake crackles out of the four exposed ends, and that would be the end of all of them, plutonium or not, but Laura reaches out and catches the magic with her staff, funnelling it into spell two.

Two is the heavyweight, the figurative tank, the one she could never have built without Natalie's help. With an audible whump, the local environment out to a range of about a kilometre and a half drops in temperature, hard. The entire fissure is instantly frozen solid, including all the visible lava, which sets into rock. That's the village saved.

Laura, Benj and Natalie all have shielding against the thermal attack. Not-Benj has shields, but not the right ones. He turns blue.

Now Laura just has to deal with the newly-liberated thermal energy rushing back the other way. With another flick of her staff she pipes it all into spell three, her old heat lance. Not-Benj might as well be standing at point blank range in front of the Sun. He simply ceases to exist; he, and his half of the ring, and his plutonium baseball. All three spells are over in a split second.

Someone faint is beside Laura. Even looking right at him, all she can see is a slight crystalline shimmer at the edges, as if he was a shell of cobweb-thin glass. He puts a hand on top of her outstretched arm and gently but firmly pushes it down, safely aiming all of her thaumic weaponry at the ground.

*

They've stumbled about a quarter of the way back to the village when they meet the Jeep coming in the opposite direction. Tómas Einarsson is driving it, with Steve Aldridge in the passenger seat. It's Aldridge who jumps out as soon as the vehicle stops and rushes over. "Is anybody injured? Anybody get burned, anybody inhale any ash, any SO2?"

"It's fine, we're fine," Laura explains. "We ran for it and we're okay. I think there was a minor eruption and it's stopped now."

"Are you kidding me? You think you're qualified to make an assessment of that? Get in the car. All of you! Tómas, let's go."

Tómas has been studying the ridge through a monocular oracle. Without a word, he slots it back into his inner pocket and pulls the Jeep around to head back towards Blönflói. The road is bumpy and the ride is fast. They'll be back to the village in a matter of minutes.

"I'm not angry," Aldridge explains as they drive back. He was clearly frantic on the way up, but is now visibly cooling off. "You told people where you were going. You did nothing wrong."

"Is the village evacuating?" Benj asks.

"Yes," says Tómas. "The village is so close to the fissure that we do not take chances. The evacuation plan is very paranoid. Although, the eruption has stopped. So they will probably reverse the order in a few minutes."

"Did you radio in that we've got them?" Aldridge asks him.

"Yes. Also, this has never happened before. Krallafjöll has been inactive for a very long time."

They drive in silence for a minute. Aldridge turns around in his seat. "What happened up there?"

"We don't know," says Natalie, immediately.

"Were you doing magic?"

"We were meditating. I was meditating. The others were looking at the view. We don't know what happened."

Tómas is grinning and shaking his head at Aldridge. "It wasn't them. Everybody tries to set off Krallafjöll. It was bad luck."

Instead of stopping at the hostel in the village, Tómas turns onto Route 1 and follows several other vehicles up to the evacuation point, which is entirely on the other side of a hill from Krallafjöll and therefore - within reason - out of harm's way. There are about a hundred people there already, including all the other students and UK and Icelandic staff. They get out and gather in a sheep pasture where they can see the ridge. It's eventually revealed that since this is the first time the village's evacuation plan has been used in anger, it's being seen through to completion as a semi-live drill. There are volcanologists running around with walkie-talkies. The fissure is totally dark and silent. The air is bitterly cold but the sky is clear and starry. All they'd need is a bonfire and it'd be an event worth attending.

Natalie pulls Laura aside. "I need you to do something for me."

"Okay?"

"I need you to stop killing people."

Laura chokes. "Ah, what?"

"Benj!" Natalie shouts. Benj is nearby. He turns around. "Someone wrote QUINIO. Was it you?"

"No," he says.

"Then who wrote it?"

"I don't know. That guy."

"You killed that person," Natalie says to Laura. "You could have vented the energy upwards, away from all of us. You vaporised him and you didn't need to."

"He was threatening lives!"

"You had neutralised that threat. That makes it murder." Natalie's tone of voice isn't even accusatory. It's completely flat.

"I don't understand what you're saying. It was a dream."

"A dream that real counts as real. Any other dream, do whatever you like. But a dream with real people in it, you and me and Benj, and that much power behind it, you need to take more care. If you'd directed that thing at me, I wouldn't be here. It counts."

"It was figurative. It was metaphorical. None of it happened."

"None of it? The ridge exploded. You froze it solid. With a spell. And there're going to be questions about that, for one thing, but you did it while asleep."

"I wasn't asleep, I was--"

"So when did you wake up?"

Laura blinks.

Benj says, "I don't remember waking up."

"Me neither," says Natalie. "Laura?"

Laura steps through her memories one at a time. She remembers walking home. She walked all the way back from her memory palace to Tanako's world to the fissure to reality. It's a continuous record. "...We're awake right now, right?"

"That's the null hypothesis," says Natalie. "Until you can prove otherwise, always assume you're in reality. Now, repeat after me: 'We don't know what happened.'"

 

Next: The Jesus Machine

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Discussion (49)

2012-06-06 22:08:06 by qntm:

I was writing this and "Broken 'Verse" as a single chapter but it worked out so long that I broke it up. Then it took me literally two weeks to get the wording of the very last section here correct. I went through at least four distinct versions of the "What just happened?" conversation and I'm still not happy with how it worked out. However, real artists ship.

2012-06-06 22:43:43 by Krossfire:

I'm looking forward to seeing how this progresses!

I wanted to leave a clever comment, but I couldn't think of one.

2012-06-06 23:14:56 by eneekmot:

Wow! This is really interesting. Do you think they'll come up with Inception-style totems to prove whether they're in Tanako's World? Well, that may not be necessary, it's obvious as soon as you try to cast whether you're there or not.

That raises the question of, "what IS Tanako's World?" I look forward to seeing some more explanations of it. Going to be really disappointed if it's never explained.

And I think Natalie overreacted a bit. It wasn't murder, it was manslaughter in self-defense. Whatever entity she "killed" had attempted to kill them by doing something to the volcano.

2012-06-07 00:13:20 by FeepingCreature:

I think it's fine to outright kill people who just attempted to blow you up with a handheld thermonuclear device. I think that's an officially recognized exemption.

2012-06-07 00:31:59 by Daniel:

Out of curiosity, how is "Ra" pronounced? More generally, how are the words in spells pronounced? Does it depend on language and dialect?

To clarify what I mean, I can think of around five clearly distinct "r" sounds: r (trilled, as in the Spanish "rr"), ɹ (English "r" in American and RP dialects), ɾ (Spanish single "r" or the middle consonant in American English "better"), ɽ (Japanese "r"), and ʁ (French "r"). (There are more, but these are the ones I know off the top of my head.) Is a specific one required for a spell involving the letter "r" — in which case it seems like mages would often need to learn to produce sounds not in their native language — or will any variant work as long as they mentally associate it with the rhotic consonant sound?

2012-06-07 03:09:06 by YarKramer:

As soon as I saw the title, I thought: this'll be good. I wasn't disappointed.

I'm trying to imagine how a trial would go. "So, you're saying that my client the defendant is guilty of the 'murder' of a dream-version of Benjamin Clarke whom she'd literally imagined into existence, and regardless of how real he was, he was also allegedly trying to set off a nuclear bomb. I don't even want to hear the word 'premediated' here." On the other hand, Nat definitely has a point; Laura wasn't dead drunk this time, and she definitely had other options. Her reflex was to kill. She's got a killer's instinct, like Ender.

Hmm. I'm just basically thinking out loud at this point, but ... I'm going to hypothesize that she is *not* currently asleep because it's the "null hypothesis," both in-story (i.e. she isn't vomiting paint) and for various metafictional reasons (i.e. it's clear that the story is about more than just Tanako's world, and to *unknowingly* spend too much time there would interfere with the other elements). So, the fact that Laura evidently walked from Tanako's World to the real world sounds like a Clue. I'm not sure what kind of Clue it is, or which particular mystery it's a clue *for*, or if I'm even asking the right questions. It's definitely something there and this is something ridiculously obvious, so I'm kind of just, uh, rambling now.

One final thought: all this is still technically a result of Laura screwing up in What You Don't Know.

2012-06-07 03:15:07 by Thrack:

How did Laura channel the mana from the ring? It wasn't *her* mana, it was... "Ra's" mana I suppose. Whatever that means. I don't know what Ra is yet but since it is used in spells like a True Name it is probably valid to think of it as being capable of possessing mana. Unless I don't understand True Names either which is quite possible.

Also, didn't people, Tómas at the very least, see the flow of mana? Or if not the mana see that the magma was flash frozen? That was definitely no ordinary eruption and should be obvious even at a distance that it was artificial yet they are acting as if it were natural. Later when someone goes out to check out the results they may notice half a ring and an area melted by Laura's heat lance.
Unless of course half of that was a dream. Or all of it. Hard to say since I'm not sure how to study this properly due to the dream element. I should try simply to see how I handle it.
...At *least* some of that... battle (if you can call it that) must have been a dream though. You can't summon a sphere of plutonium out of thin air without expending enormous amounts of energy for instance. Unless, I suppose, it was an illusion? .... Yeah, 'We don't know what happened.'

2012-06-07 05:40:24 by Jake:

"You can't summon a sphere of plutonium out of thin air without expending enormous amounts of energy for instance"

Like, for instance, the energy pouring out of the earth at that exact spot?

I can't help but think we're looking at enough mana to cause dreams to become reality. In the same way that a sufficiently powerful machine "flips" matter into antimatter in http://qntm.org/destroy , so does this sufficiently concentrated mana store "flip" dream matter into real matter.

I think we're going to see a lot more blurring of the lines between dreams and reality.

2012-06-07 07:17:57 by DanielLC:

"Not-Benj might as well be standing at point blank range in front of the Sun."

The Sun's surface is only about 5,500° C. You should be comparing it to being inside the Sun.

Also, if all of the energy is going into the heat lance, and it's not pointed up, how is that any better than just letting the volcano erupt?

I don't think the risk was averted until they killed not-Benj. There does not have to be a significant chance of him succeeding on this later to make it worth killing. Once someone has shown willingness and ability to cause destruction of that magnitude, it is not worth the risk to leave them alive.

'"That's the null hypothesis," says Natalie. "Until you can prove otherwise, always assume you're in reality.'

It's easy to tell. If the text is right-aligned it's real, and if it's left-aligned it's a dream. :)

"Like, for instance, the energy pouring out of the earth at that exact spot?"

It would take about five times the amount of energy released in the 1883 Krakatoa eruption to create a critical mass of uranium, or about the same amount for a critical mass of plutonium.

Also, it would break conservation of baryon number and lepton number, but these might not be fundamental. It would break conservation of B-L, but this could be fixed by creating a bunch of neutrinos that nobody noticed.

2012-06-07 08:13:46 by DylanW:

I don't think calling on the line justification as a marker necessarily works here - remember, if they were still in Tanako's World, the spells should have had no effect - spare colouring their surroundings - but it's not until after she's done her volley that the "real world line style" reasserts itself. Perhaps she still thought she was dreaming?

2012-06-07 08:45:58 by Thomas:

"You think you're qualified to make an assessment that?"

Also, got to say I'm thoroughly enjoying this; much more than Fine Structure. Keep it up.

2012-06-07 15:19:41 by Michael:

Nice. I really got into that. I think this part of the story is better written than the previous part just gone. Keep it up.

"Until you can prove otherwise, always assume you're in reality"

Meh, I don't know if I agree with that claim though... ;). I would say, until you can prove otherwise (which you can't), always assume you are in a simulated reality controlled by a non-good entity. Not necessarily an evil entity, just one that doesn't have your best interest at heart (probably one that doesn't care about you at all). Then again, I did take too much philosophy while at uni.

2012-06-07 19:33:16 by Thrack:

Jake, I just used WolframAlpha to calculate the amount of energy it would take to produce a sphere of plutonium the size of a baseball (as described by Laura). The result was 3.595×10^17 or 359.5 Petajoules. By Laura's guess the amount of energy pouring out of the ridge at any given time is measured in megajoules. Now, there was also lot of energy stored in the ground before it escapes but I doubt it measures in the petajoules.
By the way, I don't know if there is any difference in density between a sphere of regular plutonium versus a subcritical plutonium core so I didn't take that into account in the calculations.
Calculations:
http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Convert+12.31+cubic+inches+of+Plutonium+to+mass
http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=4000+grams+*+c^2

As for Laura casting spells before she properly woke up (not that she ever did, it seems), thoughts are the same as actions in Tanako's World so I think that it may possible to think a spell, or maybe the effects of the spell, and have it occur in the world. It would have to be performed differently than it is in the real world though since attempting to cast spells normally has always failed in the past. Maybe thinking the results you desire rather than the ritual itself?
I suppose another potential problem with that idea is the fact that none of the thought/actions that we have seen people make while in Tanako's World (making clothes for yourself, jumping from point to point, pulling chunks of wall out of a citadel, creating Not-Benj, etc.) resemble known real world magic at all.

2012-06-07 20:50:51 by OvermindDL:

Perhaps their bodies being burned by the lava really happened, as such they 'walked' out of the dream world without waking up because those were their dream bodies and thus were not asleep. Consequently their 'real' bodies are destroyed.

2012-06-07 21:56:17 by Jonn:

Minor quibble: You have someone saying "sulfur dioxide" as "SO2". I'm pretty sure that most people would just say "sulfur dioxide" or just plain "sulfur". Heck, I'm smart, and I pretty much knew what it meant, and I still had to look it up to make sure.

2012-06-08 03:41:34 by Thrack:

Curious, I just noticed this sentence: "Smirking, she cranks up imaginary protective spells using her rings and staff." Provided she is doing this consciously, and it seems that she is, then it seems that Laura has visited Tanako's World often enough that she understands how to circumvent that limitation. Doesn't say if she uses incantations though. Same goes for Nat. That Laura and Nat are using these spells consciously while knowing/believing that they are asleep is important to note because they are not surprised. If they were surprised then it would indicate that something strange is going on to allow them to do this but they are not surprised so they have presumably done it before and understand how they are using spells (and even if they don't understand HOW it still shows that it has little to do with everything else that is going on).

So anyway, point is that you can apparently use spells while asleep.
...Even though that contradicts everything else that has been said about using spells while asleep.
But if it is true that you can't use spells while asleep then why wasn't Laura surprised that she was able to conjure a shielding spell? Or for that matter the spells she used to create a laser, freeze the ridge, and incinerate not-Benj? ... Afterwards Laura showed that she was confused by stating "It was a dream" and "I wasn't asleep" so maybe I shouldn't be trusting her reactions. For the record, I am hesitant to assume that those two statements are mutually exclusive here.

2012-06-08 07:21:40 by LNOr:

Thrack, I'll argue about the amount of stored energy. One megajoule per second (aka one megawatt) means one petajoule about every thirty years. Since the natural magic is a geologic process, we can assume it has been going on for at least hundreds or thousands of years, and has reserves to keep it going for as many more. So if Not-Benj has tapped any appreciable fraction of the storage at all, it's entirely reasonable that he has petajoules to spare.

For him to gather that energy up in the time he had, the flow would have to increase by seven or eight orders of magnitude. That also is believable once QUINIO gets going with its recursive exponential increase.

Of course, if they were still in dream-logic then this doesn't apply at all. He could have created it from literally nothing. We've seen ample evidence that Tanako's world does not respect conservation of mass.

2012-06-08 07:22:56 by Link:

Hmm... Maybe that's what happens when you have too much Mu and Zeta in one place. You get crossovers into Tanako's World.

... That's what not-Benj was trying to do. Get enough Mu and Zeta in one place and he can just walk into Tanako's World, taking Benj's body with it. Laura's assault made sense in dream logic, so it got transplanted wholesale into reality and worked there even though it shouldn't.

... And we know that people can survive in Tanako's World without a body - see Benj. Thus: Laura and Natalia are dead, and resurrected themselves by walking out of Tanako's World.

... Huh. It strikes me that the easiest way to check all this is to take a look at Laura's staff. Does she have her uber-staff, or not? If she doesn't, then she woke up in her body and walked away...

Hm.

2012-06-08 15:03:33 by Snowyowl:

Not-Benj didn't create the plutonium sphere by mass-energy conversion. By definition, its explosion would have to release less energy than it took to make it. If he wanted to blow the place up (and I don't understand why he did, the volcano would be deadly enough on its own), just releasing his stored energy would have been a better idea. What role does the plutonium intermediary play?

Answer: it's the best way for a human(oid) to visualise a multi-kiloton explosion. Energy is abstract; a metal baseball is a lot more "real". Even an exploding volcano is difficult to picture in its entirety. So the plutonium sphere was created by the laws of Tanako's world, but Not-Benj was going to blow it up in the real world.

It's pretty clear Tanako's world can intersect with the real world under the right conditions, which raises all sorts of questions. But it does explain how Nat and Laura escaped: They're back in reality, but they never woke up. If you were to dig in the right place, you'd find their dead bodies somewhere under the solidified lava. Their dream bodies simply crossed over into reality, in the same way as Not-Benj's plutonium sphere and in the same way (but opposite direction) as the laws of magic allowing Laura to actually cast her spell rather than just spitting paint.

I guess Laura needs to check whether her staff is still made out of solid mercury. Also whether her Mark II shield is still up, which would be really interesting since she never actually wrote or pronounced the spell for it, just visualised it.

2012-06-08 16:50:16 by qntm:

I really wish I'd called it "Tanaka's world" instead. In my head, "Tanaka" is pronounced "tah-NAH-kah" which actually sounds sensible, whereas "TAN-nah-ko" sounds dumb.

2012-06-08 17:10:05 by Aegeus:

Why not pronounce it ta-NAH-ko? That's what I think when I read it.

2012-06-08 21:18:33 by Link:

Yeah, I see ta-NA-kou too.

2012-06-08 21:48:03 by LNOr:

The scene of the bodies sinking into lava must have happened in the dream world. As pointed out in the story, lava is much more dense than flesh or bone, so the remains would have been left sitting on top. Not-Benj must have used dream logic to make it "eat" them on purpose.

The question there is, was he showing Laura a false image for psychological advantage? Or did he really destroy their original bodies? If we're positing an overlap between Tanaka's world and the real world, either way is plausible.

2012-06-09 01:35:55 by Mike:

I dunno about "Tanako". My first language is one that always puts stress on the first syllable, and uses /aː/ for long <á>, so it comes out as a clean ['taˌnakoʊz wəɹld] for me. It sounds completely okay from that perspective.

2012-06-09 03:51:53 by Scrubby:

One quibble: Not-Benj would not have had time to turn blue. The blue color in hypothermia is due to lack of oxygen in surface tissue, caused when surface blood vessels have constricted to conserve heat. That reaction takes some time to occur. Since there was only a split second between the cold spell and the thermal lance, not-Benj was vaporized long before his circulatory system even knew he felt cold.

It's a minor thing and I wouldn't even have mentioned it, except that you seem usually to really like scientific accuracy in your writing. :)

2012-06-09 15:57:42 by KingBob:

Scrubby: his skin may not have had time to turn blue in an environment where time is linear, but in the dream, time moves at a different rate. Plus if the mind can affect the dream world, Laura would expect Not-Benj to turn blue, so he does.

2012-06-09 16:34:00 by Arik:

I love the ads that come with this piece:

* Unique Jewelery Design
* Workplace Noise Reports
* Radiation Shielding
* Instrulabs Calibrations

2012-06-09 22:11:01 by Aegeus:

@LNOr: The bodies would have melted as they hit the lava, so there wouldn't have been much recognizable even if they floated. I'm not sure there will be much evidence of what happened to their bodies.

2012-06-09 22:21:55 by Jo:

This is so very enjoyable.

Reading the previous chapter, I was seeing a likeness to Earthsea. Anyone else?

2012-06-10 03:10:25 by Mike:

@Arik: Where? I use AdBlock, but I don't ever remember seeing ads here even before I started using it.

2012-06-10 03:10:50 by Mike:

Nvm, I'm dumb.

2012-06-10 06:42:54 by Sysice:

Ah, you're one of my favorite writers. "Thaumonuclear" wins the award as the best-sounding word I've heard in a long time.
I think the next story is going to be really important for the rest of the piece. Are we going to be dealing with a dreams/reality plot, or everything's okay and we learn more about the dream world, or what?

2012-06-10 08:06:16 by nosesquid:

Next chapter: The trio propose building a Mu-Zeta accelerator to experimentally determine what not-Benj was talking about, because having the LHC producing Earth-gobbling black holes wasn't enough.

Assuming OvermindDL et al are correct... Tanako could still be alive in there, too. I can't help but think he has a role beyond being the place's first victim.

2012-06-10 08:58:19 by strangexperson:

Theory: Laura's mom figured out how to go halfway into Tanako's World on short notice, using externally stored mana built up over a long period of time. Laura's visits to Tanako's World during ordinary sleep are an indirect but inevitable result of techniques and habits she learned from her mom. A buildup to half-dreaming magic fits the profile of the attempted shuttle rescue: the effects were initially explainable with extraordinary preparation, then beyond the cutting edge of application but theoretically comprehensible (curved force field), and only became impossible/wordless/effortless as she was about to leave.

2012-06-10 23:19:03 by Link:

... Rachel Ferno is lost in Tanako's world.

Possibly with the minds of the astronauts.

</wildmassguessing>

2012-06-11 02:49:03 by YarKramer:

On the pronounciation of "Tanako": Kazuya Tanako is a Japanese name, and in the Japanese language, you don't really place different stress on different syllables within the same name. It's not "TA-na-ko" or "ta-NA-ko" or anything like that, it's just "ta-na-ko."

2012-06-11 14:24:02 by Gigalith:

Technically, there is a slight pitch difference on one syllable, but not a stress difference.

2012-06-11 21:35:07 by LNOr:

nosesquid: The idea that Tanako may still be hanging around somewhere is interesting to me. We should surmise that -someone- was, because of that ghostly figure that followed Laura out.

Come to think of it, I wonder why nobody commented on that figure? Was it just because there was enough other weird stuff going on? Was Laura the only one who saw it? Hmmm.

2012-06-11 21:38:42 by qntm:

Hah, I was actually kind of pleased about that. I felt like I managed to sneak him into the story without many people noticing.

2012-06-12 12:15:15 by skztr:

I had just assumed that the ghostly figure was Benj's ghost, having become a hollowed-out form as not-benj (seemingly in benj's body, constructed or not) was obliterated.

2012-06-13 20:04:33 by Thrack:

Hahah, I had completely forgotten about that guy that was following Laura. When he came up in the story I thought about him for a few seconds and then decided to go with Laura's thoughts on the matter. He's not bothering us so leave him be and focus on our problems. Then I never remembered him.

On Tanako vs Tanaka, I also like Tanaka better because it flows more easily. Hmn, surprisingly "Tanaka" is recognized by my spell check. Looking it up I have learned that it is a very common Japanese name. Interesting!

Oh, by the way Sam. You seem to like to hide things in difficult to understand stories. The first was "Unbelievable scenes" from Fine Structure and then Tanako's World in "What You Don't Know." In both we encounter a strange environment we've never seen before and have little explanation of. I have no problem with this, I think of these strange environments as a challenge for me to understand (plus it's rare) I'm just curious if you do it intentionally as a way to hide things from the reader. I don't think I've seen the tactic in many other works.

2012-06-13 20:17:57 by qntm:

It's normal for a science fiction story to throw you into a poorly-understood universe and expect you to learn to swim in it. This lets you experience it for yourself for real in some way before any explanations are provided. Just laying everything out in clear prose is too easy and boring to read. Also, this cultivates speculation and discussion.

2012-06-13 20:30:18 by Thrack:

Ah, I probably just haven't read enough science fiction or these are more abstract than what I usually see. It's a good challenge, I should find more like that.

2012-06-13 21:53:30 by LNOr:

That's a tactic of good science fiction, and it's one of the reasons I keep reading here. I hate waiting for the reveal, but I like trying to puzzle it out ahead of time, and I love the "Aha!" moment when the whole picture at last becomes visible.

I much prefer that to having everything laid out in prose ahead of time. That can really kill the mystery and tension. For example, I'm a fan of David Weber, but in one of his early books he has to pause in the middle of the climactic space-battle chase scene, to give several pages on the history of hyperspace physics. That probably won't happen in any of Sam's stories.

2012-06-25 12:51:35 by JohnFlanagan:

As it turns out, I am going to be doing a bike tour in Iceland next month. I will let everybody know if I see anything interesting in the chi band while I'm there.

2012-07-28 03:13:15 by Crusadeone:

It's been a while since I studied this stuff, but isnt Ra the name
Of an Egyptian god?

2013-04-23 21:16:38 by Psycho:

The 'previously' link at the top is right-justified. I have a feeling it should be left.

2014-03-10 22:48:09 by Greg.B:

@Crusadeone Yes it is. The Egyptian god of the sun.

2014-07-04 21:51:05 by RMcD:

Can you bring back anything? Can you bring back clones? Can you bring back gold? I assume they must not have been focusing but seeing the sky change from milky way and glass disappear doesn't seem something you can miss.