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« Akheron | Ra

The Floor is becoming chaotic and Anil Devi can't keep track of it all. Exa holds him under guard at the back of the main control area, the D-class magic circle at the centre rear of the gigantic hemiellipsoidal room. Exa doesn't carry any visible weapons and is actually quite a bit shorter than Anil, but his grip as he steers Anil is vicelike and his expression says, "I know how to win every fight that could ever take place; I've fought a star, and you're just a basic guy." So Anil sits where he's shown to sit and stays silent and pays attention.

There are almost fifty Wheel Group members in the room now, most of them loitering around the perimeter of the D, observing the proceedings. Inside the D-class it's all business. There are seven or eight men working at arrays of screens, although Anil isn't privileged to see the screens' content; all he sees are thin red outlines to indicate where they've been placed in the room's virtual space. At the front is King, and in front of him are four more screens, each wider than Anil's arm span.

And behind them is the megascreen, where the scene with Natalie and Laura is playing out. Both of them are pictured hundreds of times larger than life, from the perspective of a molecule-sized physical camera which is lurking around knee level on the other side of the room they're in. Natalie is putting the facts together. The sound reproduction is awe-inspiring.

"Kazuya Tanako's world is the memory of the listening post computer system. It contains, among other things, recordings of all mana expenditure, everywhere, across all of history. Mum - Rachel Ferno - used about a gigajoule of mana to reach the Space Shuttle Atlantis as it was crashing. That means the flight was logged in Tanako's world, where you, Laura, and only you, could find it consistently. Mum did that deliberately because she wanted you to find her and bring her and all of the astronauts back to reality, completing the rescue.

"But before she was Rachel Ferno she was Rachel Ashburne, and before she was Rachel Ashburne she was Mandator EBE1E00F, leader of the armies of Actual Humanity. She was the one who defeated Ra. She locked Ra up and threw away the key. And I'm willing to bet my life that there's enough information in her head to put the key back together."

Laura is clearly baffled. "Who's Ra?"

"Ra is the worst news in the universe," Natalie tells her. "If it wakes up, it's going to take this planet to pieces."

"That's impossible," Paolo Casaccia announces. "The key was never known by any human. It's too huge to even fit inside a human being's brain."

"Then she must know something that would lead back to it," Natalie asserts. "She must know the entropy sources, or the seed values. It doesn't have to be everything. It just has to be enough to bring the task within reach of brute-force practicality. She might not even know what she knows."

Casaccia is already shaking his head, not that Nat can see it. "No, it's not possible. Even the seeds would be too big. And even if she did have them, it still wouldn't be enough to derive the key."

"You showed me a recording of the Triton mission. Would she know where the recording is?"

"Of course," says Adam King.

"Is the key part of the recording?"

"No," says Casaccia. "The original recording was sterilised. I did it myself."

At which point King inhales sharply.

Casaccia's head swivels to look at him for a long, terrible moment. "Right?"

King looks around at the rest of the Wheel. He seems to shrink into himself. From the back, Anil sees guilt and horror descending across his face, one feature at a time.

"You've got to purge the records," Natalie orders. Her voice is the loudest of anybody's, but the new uproar on the Floor drowns her out.

Casaccia grabs King's shirt at the throat and swings him around. "You copied the mission recording? I sterilised a copy, and then sterilised my own damn brain just in case, but Ashburne knows how to get the original?"

"No," says King. "Yes. She knows where to get it. But she can't get it."

"Why not?"

"Because she's dead!" King bats Casaccia's hand away and straightens his shirt. "Laura Ferno's been apprehended, and I see no Rachel Ferno. There's nobody here called or claiming to be called Ra, and nobody called or claiming to be called Kazuya Tanako. Whatever the hell this was is over."

"No!" Natalie shouts at anybody who'll listen. She points at her sister. "It's not over. This isn't the only Laura Ferno in the world right now. She's duped herself twice before now using T-world and she was in a T-world trance when I got here. She's done it again. You need to purge the records, now. Don't think. Just do it."

"Are you saying there's another Laura Ferno instance somewhere?" asks another voice. It's Flatt. He reaches for his console. "Give me one minute."

"Oh my God," Natalie says, to everybody and nobody. "Nobody is listening to me. Laura, are you insured?"

"What?"

"Do you have life insurance?"

Laura squints at her sister's face, decoding the message. "I-- Yes. How do you--"

Yet another voice rises up from the arguing crowd. Anil spots a man with circular spectacles and a spiky blond beard, seated calmly with his knees together. "Natalie, I'm Kila Arkov, akashic records custodian. What exactly do you need me to do?"

"Trash them," Natalie says, eyes still locked with Laura. "Annihilate them. You don't have time to find the right ones. Just wipe them all out en masse."

"You can't," King says. "We'd lose all of our data, all of our history."

"More practically, it would take weeks," Arkov adds. "This system is even bigger as a virtual space than it is physically, we're talking multiple square parsecs of data--"

"I don't care if you have to physically destroy the system," Natalie declares. "If Ra is real, you can't let it come back."

"Listening post self-destruct," Casaccia murmurs, nodding.

"You can't!" Laura says. "If you do that, Mum'll be killed. Permanently!"

"She's already dead," Natalie says.

Laura boggles. "But don't you want her back?"

Natalie says nothing.

Laura wants to shout at her, "You're insane," but another even more frightening possibility is overtaking that one: that Natalie is completely sane, and completely rational, and this is the right thing to do.

"Got her," Flatt announces. "She's airborne... she's alone... over the Atlantic, off the Florida coast."

"There's still time," Natalie says. "Seconds."

"Nat, is this for real?" Laura asks.

"Is Ra real?" Natalie asks the Floor in turn. "Was this whole thing for real?"

"Yes," say Arkov, and Casaccia, and Flatt, and King, and Exa, all together.

"Then destroy the listening post."

"Negative," says King. "Exa, I need you in Florida. Right now."

"Overruled," Casaccia says. He turns to address the rest of the Wheel. "I have unilateral destruct authorization. Evacuation paths are all green. This should only take a--"

King blows Casaccia's head off.

Anil claps his hands over his ears at the noise. When he looks up a split second later, King is face down on the floor with his hands behind his back. Exa is pinning him, with King's own Magnum jammed between two of the man's neck vertebrae. Behind the thumb of Exa's gun hand he also holds King's medical kara, removed from the man's wrist. This gives the pointed gun significantly more weight as a threat.

Vapour is rising from the missing side of Paolo Casaccia's head.

"He's coming back," someone says.

"He's not coming back fast enough," Exa says, desperately. "Who else has destruct authorization? Anybody?"

"Exa, I think you need to get to Florida," says Flatt, studying his own screens and now genuinely alarmed.

But Anil Devi points past them all, at the megascreen.

*

The gunshot is so loud that Laura hears it even from Natalie's earphone. Then the comlink breaks.

Nat moves like a zombie. She walks towards Laura. With one hand she fishes the radio out of her ear and throws it aside. With the other she pulls out the gun. Before Laura can react Natalie has kicked one of her knees out and she's flat on her back, with the gun pointing directly into her left eye, and her mind reeling all the way back to Iceland and a serious caution that Natalie herself gave her, I need you to stop killing people--

Laura's warsuit helmet is tough. The gun that Exa gave Nat is tougher. In the space of microseconds there are eight distinct cracks: seven from disassembled physical and shield layers in the helmet, the eighth from the chemical explosion that propels the bullet through the resulting hole.

Laura's tripwire spell trips. An instantaneous burst of around a quadrillion joules of laser energy erupts out of her skull, most of it directed upwards into the guts of the listening post systems.

*

Rachel Ferno's burning mana so fast to stay in the air that whatever reaches Atlantis won't be a human being anymore but an empty shell, a spent propellant tank. Accelerations like this would result in burst retinas and crushing death if not applied perfectly uniformly across the whole body. She pulls what would be lethal gees to stay with the plummeting orbiter. Flight readouts fan out in front of her like playing cards. Position, velocity, mana levels, concentration levels. But her concentration is wavering and the longer she stares at that dial the further it falls so she dismisses them all and throws on another twenty percent thrust. She burns everything. There's no point keeping it. It's cash-out day.

She rolls, deliberately losing the horizon and locking herself into the orbiter's motion, expending even more mana just to stay out of the vehicle's totally opaque trail of fuel. She burns her life story, her people, her fingers and toes and her attachments to the ground, until there's nothing left but purified, abstract acceleration.

Relatively speaking she lands on the orbiter nosecone as softly as a feather, wrapping her fields around the machine like thick scarves. Through the windscreen she sees helmeted figures. She knows all their names. They see her and she sees that they see her. Neither party can speak. In her head, the low mana warning is strobing red and ascending into white.

Some messages are all medium. They have no payload. I'm on the orbiter's exterior, Rachel tells them. I'm going to try to save you all using magic.

The sky changes colour, jumping violently into deep black. The radio link with Mission Control breaks off. Half of the cockpit's thousand or so instruments wake back up and start showing meaningful engine information, and Soichi Noguchi's yoke starts moving the way a real live spaceship's yoke ought to move. All the astronauts feel it when the vehicle starts accelerating properly again.

"I've got power back," Noguchi announces. "Three good engines."

The woman's gone, blasted into the vehicle's wake. She must be dead. But how could she have been there and alive in the first place?

"Anybody we know?" Commander Michael Wilcott asks, completely seriously.

Noguchi is staring down a fifteen minute tunnel into the future. The flight plan has jumped tracks again, right out of LOCV and back into Return To Launch Site Die Hard With A Vengeance. The flight computer looks perfect - every reading flipped when he blinked, as if it just had its brain swapped out with another flight computer's from another dimension. They're still on Earth. Radio guidance is gone. Night has fallen while he wasn't looking, a concern ranking so low that it barely charts. The tunnel is full of risks and uncertainty, but Noguchi has all the facts and all the skills. He has, with no exaggeration, been training for this moment since the day he was born.

Eighteen miles up and forty miles downrange, travelling directly away from its landing strip at almost nine hundred miles per hour, and nearly nine years late, Atlantis resumes its retrograde burn.

*

In the sky behind it Rachel Ferno Two collects herself, rising up as if out of a trance. The low mana warning has gone. She orients herself in space and straightens up, drifting into a trajectory which will follow Atlantis home at a respectful distance from its purple-hot engine exhaust.

She goes to her radar, but the person who rescued her is so brilliant in the dark sky that she can't be missed. The woman is clothed in glowing fields like feathers, a cosmic superbird with magic runes under each wing. She looks born to be here.

"Laura--"

"Look, look!" Laura shouts ecstatically. "I'm a spaceship!"

But she's--

Older. It's been seconds. It's been years. Rachel knew that this was what she was doing. She didn't think about it. She knew there wasn't time to prepare herself properly for the other side. She just did it.

She throws herself at her daughter, passing right through the fields and landing on her back in a hug, riding the spacebird as a passenger. "I'm sorry," she shouts back into Laura's ear. "I'm so sorry I left you."

"Your plan worked!" Laura shouts. "It completely fucking worked!"

"Language!"

Laura holds on to her mother's arm. "I love you too, by the way."

"Do you understand?" Rachel presses. "Please tell me you understand why I did what I did. You've had years to understand what I did, but do you know why?"

Laura says nothing for a long moment. She studies Atlantis's trajectory with an expert eye as it fully reverses direction and begins accelerating back towards its launch site. The manoeuvre is textbook. Noguchi is functioning.

Laura says, "For the longest time I couldn't even think objectively about what happened. The last thing any of us saw you doing was-- well, this. Aerospace magic. Magic beyond anything that was technologically possible at the time. I was astounded. At first I was astounded by what you'd done, and then I was shocked by the fact that you'd been keeping so much power back from us. From Nat and me and even from Dad. You hobbled Nat and me as mages. You lied to us about who you were. You lied by omission. You had a secret.

"I was furious. And there was no bottom to the possibilities. I thought: Maybe you staged the whole event, to give Nat and me something to shoot for, or to give aerospace magic a needed jump-start. Maybe there was a secret payload on the Shuttle that you couldn't risk being recovered intact. Maybe someone else had sabotaged the rocket to draw you out of hiding somehow...

"For a long time I was so angry at you that I thought, maybe, you hated us too, and you wanted out of the family entirely, and faked your death to get away--"

"No. No, no. Never." Rachel knew it would be bad, but this is bad.

"You don't know what it was like. You don't know what it was like for Dad."

"I know," Rachel says.

"But then I started to grow up. And with the magical training, my brain began to change shape. And I began to see what you'd done. Like a... chess board that you'd abandoned, five moves from mate."

"Do you play chess now?" Rachel asks hopefully.

"No."

Rachel sighs. "I'm so darn bad at chess."

"And finally, I saw the truth," Laura says. "There was no conspiracy. Spaceships fail. That's all. There were seven innocent people falling out of the sky. And you knew how to save them. So you saved them."

Rachel holds Laura a little tighter, flooded with relief. "You got it right. I never doubted for a second that you'd work out how to rescue me. Never for a second. But I was so scared that you wouldn't understand."

"I understand," Laura says. "That's not to say I would have done the same."

Rachel Ferno stares into the wind, trying not to become transfixed by the three brilliant white shock diamonds of the Atlantis exhausts. She looks ahead at the lights of the Florida coast, failing to pick out a landing strip.

"How's your sister?"

"She's fine," Laura says. "She's doing a PhD."

"And your dad?"

"He's... good. He finally took falconry up. He's good. This is going to surprise the hell out of him. We'll call him once we're on the ground. The orbiter is wrapped in shock-absorption spells. As long as Noguchi can hit dry land, it's foolproof."

"What was the problem, anyway?"

Laura blinks at the ridiculous question. Then she remembers: her mother knows no more than anybody else did sixty seconds after the disaster happened, and has skipped years of investigatory hearings. "There was ice in the External Tank," she says. "It got pulled into the SSMEs and wrecked them. Don't worry, they're pristine now. I fixed them."

Rachel examines her daughter's spacebird form more carefully. Laura is flying with her arms spread out, fine-controlling their attitude with her fingers. She's discarded the dreamsuit in favour of a NASA-like flight suit in a dark colour, maybe black. On her left hand she wears a form-fitting elbow-length glove of rolled gold, so tight that it might as well be a false arm. Her force-field wings span ten or fifteen metres and flex like a living creature's; they're outlined in shimmering thin lines of neon colour, constantly moving through orange, blue, green and pink. She has a tail, and a prow which might as well be a beak.

Rachel is stunned at the accomplishment. "This isn't what I expected at all," she says. "I was expecting a huge physical machine, and hundreds of mages. I thought we'd be on the ground! I never expected you to bring the whole Shuttle back in flight. Alone. And I never thought you'd do it in such a small amount of time. How long has it been?"

"Less than nine years."

"How did you do this?"

"Don't you know?"

Then Rachel discovers the wire. It's thin and dark, and it sneaks up into the back of Laura's hair, where - although Rachel resists the temptation to tug on it - it is presumably braided into Laura's skull. Rachel follows it in the opposite direction. It leads out into the sky, just off Laura's right wing. There's a long rectangular shape hovering there, like a missile pod that was somehow attached to the air above her wing rather than the wing itself.

And behind that, in the darkness behind them, a faint shine, as if reflected off superbly thin glass.

"You were watching over me this whole time," Laura says. "You stored yourself in my dreams. You've been following me in my dreams ever since the Atlantis disaster. You helped me when I was in Iceland. You were there when I went to steal the Bridge."

"The person made of glass," Rachel whispers, still staring at the apparition in the dark.

"The person made of glass! Exactly! That was you, wasn't it?"

"No," says Rachel. "No, that wasn't me. Laura, look."

Laura looks.

They're cruising at hundreds of miles per hour but somehow the man is just standing on air behind Laura's shoulder. Laura rolls, throwing her mother off, and both of them brake to a halt on air, with the Bridge tagging along behind Laura like an obedient drone. Atlantis pulls ahead without them. The glass man just stands there. He has hands in his pockets. His eyes aren't visible, but a thin smile is.

"Then who is it?" Laura asks.

"Laura, get behind me."

"No way. I've got the abilities, now. I am past you."

"Kasta mereth merenda jiha." Rachel Ferno plants two feet on air and aims her right arm and two outstretched digits at the head of the near-invisible man. Laura watches in surprise as defensive spells unfold into arrays, enclosing her mother's arm and eyes and shoulders. After another second Rachel's staff - dropped into the Atlantic minutes ago, and only now ordered to return - arrives and aligns itself on the same target, parallel.

Laura opens up the golden recursion astra's full capabilities and starts scanning the target in conventional and thaumic spectra. The man's chi emissions show up plainer than day. An invisibility shield of some kind?

Rachel shouts, "Kasta oeri. Who are you?"

The man beckons. Neither woman moves. Laura doesn't realise until too late that the Bridge is what he is beckoning to. It homes in on the glass man, tugging Laura behind it on the wire. Laura yelps at the pain, but can't disconnect it.

"Leave her alone!" Rachel shouts, then comes to her senses, discards dialogue as an operable approach and fires. The man waves almost all of the attack's spectrum aside; the rest of it passes through him, failing to interact at all. Laura, now fully reeled in, directs her main engines into the man's face, enough thrust to get her well past escape velocity, and nothing happens. Neither of them even move.

The glass man's still smiling as he plucks the Bridge out of the air and delivers enough energy down the wire to vaporise Laura at the cellular level.

An eternity too late, Rachel Ferno realises what's happening. She dives out of the arena on a chaotic zigzag route, already almost totally stealthed. The man doesn't bother to pursue her. Using the Bridge, he produces a head-sized piece of medical equipment which looks like a nest of acupuncture needles and gleaming open bear traps. Next he teleports Rachel directly into the machine, head first. She twitches once and goes limp, all her fields collapsing, all her senses blacking out except for her hearing.

Rachel tries to self-destruct. She casts a wordless spell which should munge her brain, rendering it unreadable. But the attacker has all of her thoughts laid out in plain sight, and he simply slices out anything that looks like resistance.

And within another few seconds, he has the key.

"You see," he explains, "once you have physical access to the hardware, it's all over."

He turns to Ra, and makes his request.

*

Ra acknowledges.

Although there is enough energy in the Earth core cache to meet the relatively meagre global needs of mere magic, there is not enough for Ra to build the requested megastructure. For that, it needs to disassemble the planet entirely.

Satisfied that its capacity is tested and sufficient, this Ra makes a request to its other self, for enough energy to destroy the Earth. The request will take a little over eight minutes to reach the Sol node and, assuming an immediate response, the energy will take a little over eight minutes to complete the return journey.

Thousands of miles away, under the other side of the world, the listening post detonates, violently enough that every mage in the world feels it.

And the whole of the sky fills up with Dehlavi warnings.

 

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