After the second resurrection, Exa's in free fall. This time he reacts quickly enough to yell a few magic words that crank his kara up to full power before impact. He lands in a field and bounces high enough to die a fourth time just from the bounce, but now his body is being rewritten from "damaged" to "optimal" on a nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis, making him effectively invincible. He lands on his feet after the second bounce, and looks up. The boy is way overhead and dropping hard, a fist raised and coming down. But that can't be it.
Exa calls out, "Show invisibles." Now he sees the orange force field wireframe with which the boy is clothed, a polygonal network making up a mechanical soldier figure easily fifty metres tall. That must be what hit him the first time. He was slapped into the middle distance by an invisible robotic fist. Looking closer, Exa sees that the sword/weapon is already harvesting and transmuting air molecules to build the machine in reality, starting with a seat and cockpit for the boy.
What weapon has all of this inside it?
The boy's motions are a metaphor informing the mechanoid's motions. The real fist that Exa needs to worry about is made of force fields and as big as a tank. With his medical ring running flat-out, Exa can soak up arbitrary amounts of punishment, but he doesn't feel like being sucker-punched again. He twists onto his shoulders and propels himself straight upwards, feet-first, punching a hole right through the fist and rising to head-height - which is to say, level with the boy's rapidly-condensing cockpit.
Exa's fight suite smoothes out the confusion of positions and angles for him. Data from his inner ear is simply discarded as useless. Upside-down and still rising, Exa turns and aims the first two fingers of each hand at his adversary. "Flurry."
Exa's go-to hand weapon isn't a gun, but the effect is similar. The spell opens a sharpened, rifled cylindrical force field out from the tip of his middle finger; an invisible four-millimetre drill-bit, punching through fresh air and solid matter alike at a few times the speed of sound. He lets loose thirty from each hand. When they hit the opposing shields of the cockpit, quantum-magical effects settle the decision as to which stands up and which collapses. With invisibles turned on, what Exa sees are yellow sparks where his drills are repelled without scratching their target. The boy's shields are stronger at the core, and strengthening by the second.
The mechanoid's other hand grabs for Exa and misses by a whisker. He's moving too fast. Fine, Exa thinks. Let's go for sensory overload. He produces a destructive charm of no particular marque and plants it on the half-mechanical wrist that is passing behind him, casually, like a sleight-of-hand artist hiding a card in a mark's pocket for future reference. Then he kicks off from the same wrist, directly towards the glass-fronted cockpit. On impact, he anchors himself, head to head with his opponent, whose face is now totally enclosed by a gas mask and gloss black flight helmet.
"Light." Exa turns brilliant white, like a portal into a star. That's enough to distract the boy pilot for a second. At the end of the second, just as the enemy weapon's filtering systems must be cutting in to deal with the visual load, Exa doubles his luminosity, blows up the mechanoid's hand and cuts loose with sonics. With its pilot overloaded with data, the mechanoid stumbles. Its armour wavers in strength, enough for Exa to get his fingers underneath the edge of the cockpit canopy. He uses both hands to wrench it off, exposing the pilot completely. The pilot is still blinded by the ridiculous light. Exa reaches in and rips the boy's helmet off too, then headbutts him.
The mechanoid falls to one knee. Its force shield presence shuts off, leaving behind only the real physical fragments that the weapon has had time to build: two-thirds of the cockpit/skull, and some basic spinal superstructure. All of this drops out of the sky like a stone, with Exa still anchored to the front of it.
The boy comes around panting, blinking huge spots away. The echo from the sonic attack is still fading, rebounding multiple times off the spherical containment spell. His eyes flick around. He is strapped into the cockpit still, but it's lying on its side in long grass. Exa is standing over him, with two fingers pointing directly into his forehead at point blank range.
"Yield," Exa says. He isn't even breathing heavily.
"No," the boy says.
"Yield control of the weapon or I will kill you," Exa says.
"No," the boy says.
The original order was to take the boy alive and the weapon intact. Exa has some operational independence, but despite everything he also has respect for Flatt's high-level perspective. Exa thinks he can resolve the situation very quickly by putting a hole in the boy's head. He waits for Flatt to tell him to do it, or else to confirm that he really does want this done the hard way.
And he waits. A full second elapses.
"Flatt?" he sub-vocalises.
Matte grey plates of armour snap shut over the boy's body and face. They are totally featureless; the colour is simply the first and least imaginative option that was available, exactly halfway between black and white. Exa's reflexive drill shot ricochets. The boy launches out of his seat. In his right hand is a black-painted Super Soaker with a hose connected to nothing. In his left is what looks like an industrial staple gun filled with coiled copper wire. They come up at Exa from opposite directions. The first weapon sprays pressurised orange napalm. The second releases an almost-solid stream of electromagnetically-accelerated razor blades.
Exa steps backwards, raising an arm to block the blizzard of unconventional projectiles. He blocks the napalm strike accurately; his suit sleeve catches fire, and won't go out for some minutes, but no matter. The flame and torn sleeve block his view of the other weapon's muzzle. The razors waft through the blind spot, tearing his suit and shirt sleeve further. The razors are small, two centimetres by one. They strike him accurately in the eyes, nose and teeth. Some become wedged. What the hell?
The boy - barely recognisable as a boy in the full-body armour, barely more than a perfectly grey Saturn-era videogame render, still rising at Exa - claps his two weapons together in front of him. They fuse with a metallic shriek, reverting to the original magic sword configuration, the heavyweight iron bar with the nominal sharp edge. Exa parries the first thrust with his flaming arm, pushes his opponent away, spits out two of the razor blades and retreats two more steps, trying to fish a third blade out of his nostril. The boy comes right back at him. The suit is clearly boosting him. He twirls the sword like a cheerleader's baton. No unassisted human has that kind of strength.
Exa is too far off-balance from this bizarre combination of attacks. He has lost the initiative. He drops into hand-to-hand mode for the next few steps, his mind with nothing but blank space where the strategic reasoning should go.
And that's the clue.
Exa fights like a chess grandmaster playing eight moves per second. His opponent has taken him apart. This is something that does not occur.
"Flatt, I know what it is," he shouts.
The boy lunges again. Exa dodges again. Exa drives the fingers of one hand at the boy's throat at superhuman speed, a one-hit killing blow. The boy is not where Exa aims. He is down, pivoting on one heel so rapidly as to be rocket-propelled. The sword comes around and strikes the underside of Exa's chin, smashing him out of the park.
Exa leaves a flaming napalm trail in the sky. This time he doesn't rise high enough to hit the ceiling of the shield. The boy chases him on foot.
"We're under attack," Exa shouts.
"Say again?" Flatt responds.
"It's Abstract Weapon. You're under attack. Give me the bomb!"
Flatt sends back a non-verbal acknowledgement. Exa is seconds from impact. Below him, he can see the boy coming at him to intercept, crossing uneven orange earth and thick grass at the speed of an Olympic sprinter. Exa doesn't bother readying anything else. He hasn't won, but this catastrophe of an engagement is all of one point one seconds from ending in the most decisive possible draw.
The best part of a kilometre away, at the precise centre of the spherical shield, an eleven-metre-wide black neutron bomb shrangs into being. It arrives completely stationary in air, then drops a few centimetres with a whump. Exa catches its arrival in the corner of one eye. The boy is a single-minded grey bullet train, he doesn't look at all. One second.
The boy cannons into Exa shoulder-first as he lands, sending him pinwheeling. No exotic attack? No fistful of ninja stars? Still not having hit the ground, Exa wonders why.
Exa realises why. Exa is two tenths of a second too late to do anything about it.
He took my medring.
It's like daylight on the Floor: the screen surrounding the remaining six mages is a complete whiteout. The thermonuclear explosion bounces off the energy shield multiple times per second, contracting and expanding again like some psychotic Cold War concept for an internal combustion engine. Other than the emitted light, the bomb's energy has nowhere to go. The absolute temperature of air inside the shield quadruples, incinerating everything that'll burn and liquefying everything that won't. Exa is instantaneously a whiff of ash. Abstract Weapon folds up and dies; it is an almost purely offensive tool and its physical and magical protective shielding, while formidable, are fundamentally second-class. As holes appear in his virtual armour, Exa's opponent, still unnamed, flash-fries. And the finely machined medical kara, which the boy has had just about enough time to fit onto his wrist, hits the ground as a scorched, warped paperweight. Then it falls through the ground, like a hot ball-bearing through butter.
King, Flatt and the others look on with dismayed resignation. "Minimal mana expenditure"? Cleaning the arena up is going to be brutally expensive. There's no salvaging the original. Too much radiation and heat. The entire interior of the shield will have to be dismantled and rebuilt from pattern.
Nobody in the room noticed the medring theft. It happened too fast.
On the Floor, Exa's discarded medical ring flips upright again. It's Flatt who first notices the activity. He assumes that it will be Exa, respawning at the most convenient location on the medring network.
Two seconds have elapsed and the supine figure is more than half-built when Flatt frowns, wondering why the secondary spells which usually build Exa's suit are instead building a washed-out bluish shirt with rolled sleeves.
At three seconds, Flatt sees the gun.
Flatt has no weapons. Nobody in the room is armed; Exa is their weapon and the Floor is almost totally inaccessible by conventional means. "Breach," he shouts. "Breach!"
At four the boy wakes up. He sits up. He's aiming at King. But King has already reacted.
Mushrooms sprout from below the boy's skin, all over his body. They sprout from below his fingernails and from his eye sockets and mouth and tongue. He drops the gun, which is a lump of green moss by the time it hits the ground. He falls back, managing one scream, then lies still. Technically, the thing that he has been turned into is still alive. It's just a plant instead of an animal.
There's a long beat of silence. Flatt looks at King, aghast. "You did that?"
King is controlling his own expression very carefully. "I overrode the ring. I told it to build something else."
King won't meet Flatt's eye. "He was trying to kill us."
The first time around, Exa found Abstract Weapon in a deep, snow-filled crevasse in the polar Urals, eighty kilometres east of a minuscule, utterly unnoticed town called Polyatsk. As long as Weapon wasn't being held or used by somebody, the use of escalated magic was considered unjustifiable; it took him two weeks to get there, and two weeks to get home.
It was covered in snow. It was formatted as a standard Big Gun, a metre-long brick of chrome with an obvious Business End. Exa sat in the snow for a long hour, relaying detailed identifying information back to the Floor and, out of caution, not touching Weapon itself.
It was one of the very few machines in all human history to have a real, dedicated self-destruct protocol built into it. Exa only had to hold Weapon for a second to decommission it, which was two seconds longer than he wanted to spend.
"It trains you," he explains. He's back on the Floor, perched in an office chair, angry at having lost even a few seconds of memories, angry at everybody's collective incompetence and angry in principle. He sips shockingly costly liquor from a small glass. "Every second you spend holding it, it's throwing possibilities at you, telling you how best it can be used. It contains every weapon ever made. It contains every weapon never made. It is the primordial destructive spell. It is the prototype for all human violence. There is a List inside it, which... I cannot describe the List.
"And every second, it's throwing opportunities at you. It asks you what you want to do. 'Try me on this person, try me on that person, get revenge. Use me.' And if you ask it, it'll give you targets. If you ask it, 'Who did this?' it'll tell you. Yeah, it knows who we are. This boy is what, seventeen, eighteen? Boy wants revenge on the world. 'Revenge on the world?' says Abstract Weapon. 'Oh. The men you want are the Wheel Group.'"
"So what actually happened in the Urals?" Flatt asks.
"You mean, what did I do wrong? You tell me," Exa replies, irritably. "I can think of half a dozen things. Maybe we misidentified it that time. Maybe we misidentified it this time. Maybe I hit the wrong button, maybe it didn't want to be destroyed. Maybe I'm not remembering it right. Maybe I'm lying? Drag out the akashic records and let's stop playing games. Except you can't. That's the point."
"I see a purge in time," Scin reports. "A ragged-edged hole where the past should be. Every time I add Weapon to the query, I get flat nothing. I'm charting the edges of the hole. But that's all I can do."
"I'm going to concede that I must have done something wrong," says Exa. "I honestly don't remember what, and nor do any of you, and nor would Ashburne. But there's a reason why we can't find out why, and it's the same reason we can't find anything on this jackassed boy wannabe.
"You hear me, child?" he angrily adds, directing this at the boy's remains. "Corpse" would be the wrong word.
Exa sips and continues, "It contains every weapon ever made. Including magic weapons. He covered his tracks. He dropped some fizzing, spitting destructo-charm directly into the akashic records themselves. He selectively scrambled history. That's why we can't find out what happened to Weapon between then and now. That's why we can't find out when this addled child got hold of Weapon, or why he did any of this. All we can do, thank you, Scin, is draw conclusions by exploring the shape of the gap in our knowledge."
"So he's smart," another mage remarks, a middle-aged, blond-haired man called Arkov.
"You'd have to be very smart to realise that such a thing was possible," King agrees. "Very knowledgeable of deep magic."
"Not necessarily," says Exa. "Hyper-advanced thaumic attacks of that kind are in the List, even if they're a long way down. You'd get there eventually if you had the patience to wait for it."
Flatt says, "So your alternative explanation is that he held on to Abstract Weapon without using it for, what, a month?"
"That seems like it would take an inhuman amount of self-control," King says.
"You're still not getting it," says Exa. "Maybe he did use it. With this scrambler charm running, we can't detect what Weapon's doing. Maybe it had already been cast when he found it. Maybe I cast the scrambler myself when I meant to destroy the thing."
"But in that case, why didn't he cover his tracks this last time?" King asks.
Exa explodes. "Because this isn't about Rwanda, you nematodes!" He stands and throws the rest of his whiskey, glass and all, at King's head. King ducks; the glass shatters out in the darkness somewhere. "This isn't about him, or what happened to his family, or some part of his country that he was trying to bring justice back to! Top story: He came after us! The opening shot against that military installation was to get our attention, and then he killed me three fucking times!"
"Calm down," Flatt tells him.
Exa wants to shout "I will not calm down" back in his operator's face, but on reflection, perhaps icy furious calm is the better way to make his point. He kicks his chair, so that it rolls away from the discussion. He takes an angry pace in one direction, then another pace back. "Alright. 'Calmly', since I was just nuked. I don't care about this kid's sob story. I don't want to wake him up and ask why he felt the need to bring his war to us. In fact, we can't. In fact, you shouldn't have brought me back either."
"Why not?" Flatt asks, tiredly.
Exa realises that he, too, is tired. His kara (salvaged from the mushroom patch) is supposed to keep him at peak physical form forever, but something in his soul knows that it's four thirty in the morning of a day that's getting longer even as he stands there.
He takes his kara off and holds it up. "The bottom line: Our medring spells have a security hole as big as the Sun."
It takes an hour to effect cleanup, then a full day to install the new yantras that will bring the medring network up to scratch. Exa fields a few calls from the girlfriend. "It's a madhouse down here," he tells her. "Crit-sit. I won't be home." No emergency means no shortcuts: it takes him another entire day to get home the old-fashioned away.
It's just as he's stepping out of the taxi at his apartment building that he finally works out what's been bothering him. He loiters in the lobby and phones King. He says to him:
"We failed. We lost."
"Boy was right there, in the room, with the gun. What if it hadn't been a gun? What if it had been a bomb? Or a spell? He could have killed us all."
King doesn't know what he means. "We won, right?"
"No, we didn't win. You won. There are still huge gaps in our information. We were thrown into a situation without preparation. A situation without explanation, or with too many explanations. You shut it all down just in time. Was this a readiness test?"
"No," says King. "It was a close call. Go home."
"I am home," says Exa.
He ends the call and boards the elevator.