There's an invisible penthouse in the sky over the East River in New York, New York, and more than a hundred people have just materialised there simultaneously. It's the entire Wheel.
"Give me my God-damned kara back," Adam King hisses, still pinned face down by Exa, although now in golden and scarlet deep-pile carpet.
"You're done, Adam," Exa declares. He jabs a particular bundle of nerves in the back of King's skull, and the man flops unconscious.
They're in the ballroom, with a window showing almost all of the city skyline, which is dominated by the pattern of terrifying red high-energy magic warning signs. They're holographic, tiling the whole atmosphere of Earth, and kilometres long on each side. "What's happening to the sky?" someone asks. "Is this global? Everybody in the world can see this!"
"Ra is waking," Casaccia gasps, his medring resurrecting him with all the finesse of a boot to the stomach. "This was never supposed to happen. This was supposed to be impossible."
Murmurs spread. The mood in the room starts its descent from abject panic into deep horror. The same Wheel member asks, "What do you mean, 'waking'?"
"I mean," Casaccia says, "this spell is the one which fires when someone has started giving Ra direct orders again. This is the spell which tells everybody on this planet that their planet is done for. Ra is coming. Ra is here. It's over."
There's a dead pause.
"Flatt," Exa says.
Flatt takes a second to even realise he's being addressed. "What?"
"King is out of commission," Exa tells him. "This is a live incident, operational control passes to you. What happens next?"
Flatt is silent for a heart-stopping moment, a rabbit in headlights.
"Do we fight Ra?" Exa prompts.
"Do I have to fight Ra again?"
"I-- I don't know. Caz?"
"What happens next is already happening," Casaccia says. He doesn't even need to check systems to know. "We're out of here. The emergency deep nonlocal transmitter is already coming up to power. We'll be able to boost one of us out of here every two seconds. We're leaving the star system."
"But that means--"
"Yes, it means Abstract War is over. Actual Earth is over. We lost."
Shorn of its rock embedding and raised up to face sunlight, the listening post is a twenty-kilometre tall Cambrian organism caught at the instant of self-destruction, crumpling up from below, collapsing from above and exploding red and napalm orange from the inside. Less than a sixth of its machinery is still operational, all in the top sixth of the installation. The installation's internal representation of itself stands on a thin whittled pillar of glass rock in T-world, frozen in the act of crashing and burning.
They travel there by space rocket. Laura builds the space rocket for them while they watch. None of the others are able to help, or so she tells them.
The journey is brief, but eventful. They meet several shells of airborne zombie defence, and meet them hard, with fire and kinetic projectile weaponry. For the final approach, in the absence of a functional landing pad, Laura pilots the vehicle up in a long loop, then dives down into the brilliant wound in the top of the listening post, the near-vertical magma-venting fissure.
They arrive at the akashic records office, the hypercylindrical hall from which the records themselves can be queried, with the Earth at its centre. From here, the listening post's own internal configuration and status are free to examine. The listening post reports that it will continue to operate almost normally for another zero point four seconds of real time, before the final critical power supplies are severed by creeping physical damage. At that moment, the post will instantly cease operation, and the entire dream experience will cut out and end forever.
A digital countdown of the remaining time is provided. It runs to six decimal places of a second, and for as long as Laura, Nat, Nick and Anil watch it, it doesn't move. They have all the time in the world.
Natalie takes control of the main display, and finds the scene of the showdown. There are major icons in different shades, nailed to the sky with the black Atlantic and the livid red sky as their backdrop, and numerous attendant minor particles. Nat collects information from multiple overlaid sources at once, tuning the display to show as much metadata as she thinks the others can handle without their eyes crossing. She breathes deeply.
"So here's the situation.
"This is the Glass Man, and these are his shields. He's nearly invincible, and close to invisible. He's already killed Laura once, and he defeated Mum in a straight fight, resisting a volley of energy and projectile attacks without any apparent effort.
"This is Laura's and my mother, Rachel Ferno. She is the Glass Man's most wanted, because she was the one who originally defeated Old Ra at the conclusion of Abstract War. The Glass Man has broken her mind open. She's been vivisected. What I mean is, she's alive. For now."
A third icon floats above the heads of both Rachel and the Glass Man. A blue thread links it to Rachel's head, and a green thread links it to the Glass Man's. "This is the Bridge," Natalie says. "It... seems to move information around."
"From anywhere to anywhere," Laura explains. "From reality into Tanako's world. From Tanako's world into reality. From reality to reality-- teleportation. From your mind into reality and back again. That's how I brought Mum and Atlantis back. Ordinarily, it would take an insane amount of mana to do that. The Bridge made it trivial."
Anil makes impressed sounds. "You can just bring anything out of the akashic records and into reality?"
"Yeah. Including any of the Wheel Group's destroyed astras. Bhārīvastra, Metaph, Abstract Weapon. Of course, once the records are destroyed, four tenths of a second from now, that functionality goes away, but that's why we were gunning for it, above all else. That's why it's theoretically more powerful than any other astra. That's probably why it was never destroyed along with the others."
"Adam King," Natalie murmurs.
"Adam God-damned King," Anil says, clenching a fist.
"So this is the Bridge, and the Glass Man's got it," Natalie says. She indicates a much smaller, orange piece of data which has been placed just beside the Glass Man's head. "Using it, he's gone into Mum's head and retrieved this piece of information. This is the key. Mum locked Ra away using a key. Without the key, Ra is a docile energy-production system which responds only to indirect commands made through the medium of magic. With the key in your hand, you can ask Ra to do anything. Literally anything."
"So he was invincible to start with," Nick recaps. "And then he got the Bridge, which made him invincible and close to omnipotent. And now he has unfettered access to Ra, which means he's absolutely, totally invincible, omnipotent and limited only by the speed of thought? I have that right?"
Natalie is ignoring him as she zooms out. And out. And out. The virtual Earth shrinks to the size of an apple. The orbit of the Moon contracts into view, an elliptical cyan thread with the Moon itself a grey bead threaded onto it.
Beyond the Moon's orbit, crawling through deep space towards the Sun, there's an elongated purple speck. Its icon oscillates, representing a nonlocality "radio" wave packet. Indigo metadata shows its outbound speed - precisely c - its projected time of arrival, and its payload. The payload is a request for a particular quantity of energy, but the number is unreadable. It's a nonsense number, from the wasteland beyond the reach of SI prefixes, where human notions of scale and proportion cease to function.
"And here's what he asked for," Natalie says. "Thirty-five digits. Forty-six decillion joules. That's enough energy to laser this planet into shreds. The energy packet returns to Earth in sixteen minutes and twenty-five point seven five seconds, real time. And by the way: faster-than-light travel is impossible.
"The Glass Man's had time for exactly one move. We get to make the second. We can re-enter reality anywhere in the world we want. Once we're real again we get exactly one shot at fixing this.
"And it has to be one shot, because then we're back into real time. In the next point four seconds, the listening post completes its detonation, and Tanako's world is gone forever, along with everything and everyone who was ever stored here. No more retrieving people and artifacts from the history of magic, no more accelerated planning, no more 'life insurance' safety net, no more getting out of jail free. Okay? So: go."
She folds her arms and waits expectantly. And for a long time, nobody says anything.
Anil recalls a flock of empty office chairs. "Where are the Wheel in all of this? We should have words."
Natalie locates the penthouse and studies the curious radiant mana patterns of the evacuation megaspell. "They're leaving the world. We're on our own."
"Cowards," Laura judges. "They'd better run, and they'd better hope we never catch them. Whatever happens next, this is our world. They've kept it in the gutter for long enough. We'll build something incredible."
"Can we hijack their evacuation spell?" Anil asks.
"It would need thirteen million times as much broadcast power," Natalie says.
"In that case it's simple. Escape is impossible. We're stuck on Earth. We can't exceed the speed of light. We can't catch up with the request and destroy it - if that even means anything - and we can't send a cancellation order that'll arrive before the original request does. The original request will reach the Sun, and the energy will come back down the channel. It is logically impossible, in this universe, to prevent any of these things from happening."
"So we're dead," Anil concludes.
"Ra's not going to shine a planet-destroying laser down on us," Natalie says. "The energy packet is... more like a thrown baseball, and the baseball contains all of the requested energy. There's a receiver at the core of the Earth. If the receiver doesn't catch the packet, it just keeps going, to the edge of space, forever."
"Oh? Then we have some options," Anil says, cheering up. "Can we shunt the Earth out of the packet's way? Physically?" He ignores Laura as she snorts and Nick as he gives a brief, genuine laugh, both of them failing to understand the seriousness of the suggestion. "Or just the receiver alone? How big is it?"
"Kilometres wide," Laura says.
"Can we destroy it?"
"Them," Natalie says, punching up the core node's blueprints and throwing a copy at Anil. "There are eight of them. Heavy redundancy. I told you."
"And they're made of nearly solid tungsten steel," Laura says. "And even if we could get there, there's no magic at the Earth's core. We'd have to find a way to destroy them without using magic. In less than two minutes and four seconds per receiver."
"It would be a stopgap solution, in any case," Nat says. "Ra would perceive the damage and route around it. At best, we'd buy another sixteen-minute round trip, during which Ra would certainly incapacitate us to prevent more interference."
Anil leans forward, studying the core node's engineering and lapsing into the same problem-solving thought process he uses in his aerospace work. "Okay. So let's put planetary-scale engineering in the 'maybe' pile. We can't fight Ra where it lives. Can we retask it? If we tell Ra to ignore the Matrioshka brain order, what happens?"
"Ah," Laura says, realising where this is going.
Natalie studies her version of the blueprints a little more closely. "The energy still arrives on schedule, but... as long as the second order reaches the Earth's core before the energy packet does, the packet gets cached safely. After a little while, it's deemed surplus to requirements and transmitted back into the Sun."
"Let's skip to the end. I'm going to fight this guy," Laura says. "That's how we get the key back and retask Ra. You need me to carry out forcible brain surgery on the omnipotent Glass Man. Once I've got the key, everything's fine." She cracks a few knuckles, remembering with extreme clarity the split second of red-hot agony that accompanied her death by vaporisation. The spellwork to pay the Man back is already forming in her head. "That icon is the same as Mum's. The Glass Man is physically human. All I've got to do is keep his brain intact and shield Mum from the backlash. Invincible he might be, but I bet I can find a crowbar that'll open him up."
"There are four of us here, Laura," Nick reminds her. "We can fight."
"I'm the one who can fly," Laura says, casually waving Nick away without looking, as if dismissing a fly from near her ear. "I'm the one who fights with sticks."
"I 'fight with sticks'," Nick says, "and I'm better at it than you, at that."
"But you can't fly, and you can't do magic, and I'm the one with Recursion's Big Brother on my side. It's all on me. Right? Worry not. It's easy. Once we zap back into reality, you're all going to stand on some beach in Titusville watching the fireworks, while I take this Glass Man out. Solo."
"In one second," Anil adds.
Laura blinks. "What?"
"It's his second move. It has to be. How long has this man been working up to this? Decades. He must have his moves worked out. Move one: reconstruct the Matrioshka brain. And then he needs to make as bloody sure as sure can ever be that nobody can stop it. That doesn't mean fortifications or personal armaments. This is Old Ra, he's plural, he's expendable. He doesn't care about his physical self and thanks to the Bridge he doesn't need Ra's power to defend himself if he does. Move two: destroy the key.
"He's already had all of one point four five seconds to do it, and it's a miracle that he hasn't followed through in that time. I give you, Laura, a generous further one second to intervene."
"To distract him or render him unconscious."
Laura curses. She stares at the ground, running hypotheses. "Yeah. Okay. I can do that. That means I'll have to reincarnate right there in front of the Man. In the middle of the sky. No. Behind him, and catch him by surprise... That's actually easier than a direct assault. If I can find the right spell... Hmm. One second."
"Less," Natalie says. "Potentially much less. I give you half that. He could be destroying the key already. He should be. I would be."
"Then it's a reflex action," Laura decides. "I'll be ready for it, and he won't. I can definitely hit him with something in half a second."
"And that isn't taking into account speed-of-light transit time between where we are and where he is," Anil adds. "Transmitting you from here to there takes ninety milliseconds. We also don't know how long it takes to nanoassemble a fresh human at reincarnation time."
"In fact, these displays are necessarily out of date. For all we know, the key destruction instruction is already on its way here. And there's nothing we can do about that. Your window of action could be as small as zero."
Laura slumps, angered. "Okay, you've made your point. It's worse than impossible."
"If the key's destroyed," Anil reminds her, "it becomes genuinely, logically impossible for us to win."
"Stop talking," Laura shouts, belatedly remembering that she and Anil never got on particularly well. "Shut up for one second, so I can think!"
She disappears on foot into the interior of the listening post's listening post, saying something about needing preparation time. Preparation time is abundant, so no one moves to stop her.
"I don't like this," Nick says to the others.
"Do you think she does?" Anil asks.
"That's not it," Nick says. "She can do it."
"You think so? I give her one chance in four, and that's if we can get her confidence back up to 'supreme'."
"And thank you for that, by the way," Nick says.
Anil doesn't follow. "For what?"
"She can do it," Natalie echoes. To Nick, "You're worried about what happens when she wins."
"Because then she's got the key," Nick says. "She becomes omnipotent, invincible and limited only by the speed of thought. She threw herself into this nightmare in the first place because she has serious and radical designs on the future. I don't trust her with the key. I don't trust myself with the key. Or anyone. The key shouldn't exist. You're right, Anil, and the Glass Man's right. It should be destroyed."
Anil shrugs. "We need moves of our own worked out, then. Like, a script."
"She countermands the Matrioshka brain order, then destroys the key," Natalie says. "One and two. As fast as possible, the end. Nothing else, no excuses."
"What about rescuing your mother?" Anil asks. "What if the Glass Man's still alive at that point? What about the Wheel Group?"
"There's enough material to improvise the rest of that," Natalie says. "We'll have the Bridge. We'll have a lot of options. The Wheel Group are in retreat, anyway. We can teleport Mum to a hospital."
"A hospital?" Anil chokes off an unhappy laugh. "Have you looked at her medical chart?"
Anil drags the relevant readout into the middle of the three of them, blown up to double life size. The schematic is disconcerting enough, but the full flesh-and-blood hologram is so grotesque that Nat won't look at it directly. Rachel Ferno has slots in her skull, her face and the back of her neck. There are flat metal rods inserted into the slots, running all the way through her head, and barbs spreading from the rods, and electrodes worming out of the barbs into her brain centres. The text of the pages-long diagnosis is full of frightening terminology like "nanoactive cerebrospinal contamination" and "severe hypothalamic damage", and gives her a projected lifetime measured in minutes and seconds.
"It's bad," Nick says.
"She's beyond the reach of twenty-first century medical science," Anil says. "She needs a Wheel Group medring."
"I thought she was Wheel Group," Nick says.
"Ex-Wheel," Nat says. "She never had a medring. Not that Laura and I ever saw, anyway."
"Then we can catch them before they evacuate," Nick suggests. "They'll help one of their own."
"Again, ex-Wheel. And we want to avoid that."
"Badly enough to risk your mother's life?"
Natalie says nothing.
"Hang on a second," Anil says, as a thought strikes him. He goes over to the main display and scoops up another handful of data. He hunts purposefully through it for a few seconds, then flicks the readout with a triumphant finger. "We can avoid it," he announces. "I know where there's a non-Wheel medring. Damn, that's sweet. 'Lucky charm' my lucky arse."
At which moment Natalie bursts out laughing.
"What's the joke?"
"Not what you said," Natalie cackles. She points at the display behind him. "I just worked something out. We need the key, right?"
Natalie plucks the data out of the visualisation and holds it in her hand. "We've got the key. We don't need the Bridge. We don't need to fight anybody. It's right here."
Laura overhears most of the 'confidence' discussion, and that just spurs her to keep jogging into the warren of blackness. The conversation never totally fades behind her, but becomes smeared out and unintelligible. The listening post's internal corridors are tall and narrow, with rectangular cross-sections and weak orange-yellow pinpricks of lights overhead. The floor is glossy black, reflecting the overhead lights to give a worryingly vertiginous effect.
When she realises that sounds are coming from ahead of her too, she stops walking. Conscious of the metallic clanking her armour makes even when she tries to remain still, she dismisses it in favour of the black flight suit.
A lanky young man turns the corner. His hair is black and arranged in misshapen spikes. He's barefoot, wearing a cheap, faded black T-shirt from some decade-ago rock concert, and loose shorts. Sleepwear.
"Ah, mou jikan desu ka?" he says to her.
Laura freezes, thinking six things at once.
It's impossible, one thread of her consciousness tells her. I mean, it's possible, but it's been years of real time. Subjective centuries, at minimum. Could he really have been trapped here for this entire time?
The stranger cocks his head and seems to guess, correctly, that Laura understands no Japanese. He tries a different, more common language: "
Penamba eset." Coloured specks of light float out of his mouth as he uses each syllable.
He takes a step forward.
Laura takes a step backward.
Who else could be trapped here? Laura's mind burbles. Should we try to scan all of T-world for more survivors? Imagine that! The real Kazuya Tanako!
But finally the other half of her mind, the half that's gradually bootstrapping itself out of starry-eyed cluelessness, grabs her by the throat and screams FUCKING RUN--
And she skids and finds traction on the black slab, and runs--
Natalie set herself a script, and she goes about obeying it to the letter. She closes her fist around the key, presses it to her forehead, and whispers, "Do what I mean." When she opens it, the display behind her shifts a little, displaying new icons on the far side of the world, clustered around the imploding listening post.
The holographic Earth display now shows, in abstract but not entirely unreadable terms, that the Earth-destruction order has been cancelled, and that Ra is under Natalie's effective unilateral control.
It's that simple.
"Are you sure you want to destroy the key now?" Nick says. "There's a long list of other things that you could fix very easily if you wanted to."
"I know," Natalie says. She finds the decision to relinquish the power surprisingly easy. The lack of temptation is almost eerie. "It's too bad for us. We'll have to do some things the hard way."
She looks up, hearing running footsteps, as do the others. Laura arrives at a dead sprint, and skids to a halt.
"Kazuya Tanako's here," she gasps. "What the hell's that? Is that the key?"
The being imitating Tanako is indeed there, standing right behind Laura, apparently having circumvented the long sprint.
"Oh, shit," Anil says.
Natalie closes her fist reflexively. Too slow; her fist closes on nothing, and when she opens it again there's nothing. Not-Tanako's got the key. It's luminous orange, unmissable. He didn't even need to cross the room. Nat sees it, Nick sees it, Anil sees it. Laura whirls and sees it.
Nick's the only one of them with a weapon. Laura screams, "Nick, kill him!" and he's already drawing. Natalie stretches her will out, trying to repossess the key using the same trick, but nothing happens. The order falls into blank space.
Not-Tanako reinstates the Earth-destruction order.
Nick launches himself at Tanako, sword point first. Four steps separate them. Laura dives to one side, out of his way.
Natalie shouts at everybody, "Plan A!"
By the end of "Plan" the Tanako facsimile has destroyed the key forever, with a blunt crack like a gunshot through plate glass. A red translucent X floats where the key was for a few frames, then flickers out.
At "A", still cheerfully ignoring the approaching sword, Not-Tanako is gesturing at the big seven-segment readout, and all the numbers have snapped over to zeroes.
Nick finds his mark. Not-Tanako dies cleanly, stabbed through the heart. The listening post floods with illogic and boiling magma, and expires. The ground drops out from beneath all of their feet,
and they're in freefall at nothing A.M. over the red-black Atlantic, and the Glass Man is on top of them, firing.