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If shorn of its rock embedding and raised up to face sunlight, the listening post would be a twenty-kilometre tall Cambrian organism, a black beetle/rosebud with nested soft shells and creepy greebles. Laura's death-switch laser tripwire originates at its tail and fires almost directly upwards into the structure's internal organs. The quantity of energy released is unimaginable, enough to punch a hole through kilometres and kilometres of machine space, eventually emerging at a near-vertical angle from the listening post's limb and progressing several klicks further through solid rock, although not far enough to reach the surface.
The base ring room is gone, plasmised along with Natalie and Laura Ferno and the entire nineteen-hundred-metre-wide Montauk storage ring. The Floor room, a hemispherical cavity located towards the top of the listening post, is missed entirely by the laser blast.
By the time the laser shuts off, the vast majority of the released energy has been converted to heat in a plasmised column of air and metal which runs through the post like a lightsaber stab wound. Plasma floods out through the installation's interior spaces, wrecking more than eighty percent of the machinery hosted here over the course of the next second. The destructive wave propagates outwards towards the Floor and the redundant machinery hosted in the relatively few machine spaces above it.
The post's structural integrity is gone. It has seconds to live. On the Floor, which is listing at an angle now, Anil Devi levers himself up on one elbow, to discover that more distant parts of the town-sized א**-class magic circle are buckling upwards, forced apart by rising machines from below, and that the sky is caving in on him, and that all of the Wheel Group have gone.
They're gone. One eyeblink, not even a respectable flash of light or thunderclap, not a dropped spinning trinket in the middle of the D.
Anil shakes some of the stars out of his head and gets a grip. The Wheel Group's chairs are rolling away to the right, out of the main control mandala. Anil has it all to himself now. He plants one hand on the Floor directly below him, and ignores the fact that a billion tonnes of Western Australian continental crust is descending on his head, because this place is over a klick tall and that gives him the luxury of seconds, entire seconds.
Anil goes to another place in his head, to the Dehlavi lightning machine. He needs no equipment for this, and barely any words. The mandala is right there beneath him. It was Nat's idea.
They had a whole hour to plan.
Three bolts of lightning fire, and Anil Devi gets out of jail free.
"You shot me in the head."
Laura doesn't think this cuts it, either as an explanation or an apology. "You shot me in the fucking head! You killed me!"
Laura and Natalie have incarnated in classic, mundane T-world, an unbounded rolling plain of featureless, colourless marble-glass. The Y-shaped galaxy spins lazily, almost directly over their heads, with star tentacles almost reaching the horizon.
"It didn't kill you," Natalie says. "Right? You knew it wouldn't kill you. You had 'insurance'. Set up to catapult you into Tanako's world at the instant of death, no matter how you died, no matter how suddenly."
"Natalie," Laura carefully explains, "my second death-switch spell was a Death-Star-class laser. When you killed me, you blew up the whole listening post. The physical computer system which hosts T-world was completely destroyed. The insurance is void. You're a maniac, you shot me in the head, and we should be dead! I don't know why we aren't!"
"I blew up most of the listening post," Natalie says. "It's a big piece of equipment with plenty of redundancy. We don't have long in real time until the machine ceases to function, but subjective time is optional. We have as much as we want or need. Potentially lifetimes."
"You knew the listening post had that kind of physical redundancy?" Laura says. "You knew my tripwire wasn't powerful enough to blow it up entirely? And you knew you could hitch a ride on my insurance spell and regroup in here afterwards? You were certain of all of these facts?"
"Anil and I worked it out," Natalie states.
"When you said that you were willing to bet your life," Laura asks stonily, "what, exactly, were the odds of that bet?"
Natalie opts not to answer this question.
Laura is going to keep going, but just then a brilliant neon special effect scorches the glass a few steps away from them. Anil Devi arrives sitting bolt upright on the ground, like a sleeper who just reached the end of his nightmare. He arrives shell-shocked and red-eyed, and grabs hold of his casting arm with his other hand to stop it from rattling. "Mother of bloody God."
"I think that's a fair reaction," Laura says.
"It works," Anil says. "I said I wouldn't believe it until I saw it, and now I see it."
"I told you the Iceland story," Natalie reminds him.
"You told me the story," Anil says, "but I didn't believe the story. I thought you'd flipped. Right up until you pulled the trigger, I honestly didn't think you were going to do it. Mother of God. Mohit Dehlavi has a lot to answer for."
Laura hoists Anil to his feet. "Hello, Anil. How have you been?"
Anil turns three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the familiar, unrecognisable terrain. He digests the fact that one of him is dead, and meditates briefly on nonlinear lifelines. "I suppose I can't complain."
It's not safe to speak while out in the open. The usual electrical buzzing has already begun gathering around them, although corporeal monsters haven't put in an appearance yet. Laura leads them for her memory palace. They travel by folding and unfolding from hilltop to hilltop, in seven-kilometre steps.
They've been travelling for a subjective "short while" when Laura holds a hand up. There's a reddish-blue figure at the horizon, difficult to pick out in Tanako's world's dull ambient light. He blips to a closer peak, then closer still, then before anybody knows it he's striding up to meet them.
He's a flesh-and-blood human, taller than any of them, with hair that's wandering between brown and blond, and a few centimetres of beard. He wears plate armour made of a red-brown metal which could be burnished copper, and a faded blue cloak with a ragged edge and a tear which almost reaches his shoulder. He carries a sword, which may or may not be magic. He walks with dignity and confidence and extreme tiredness. He looks like the first King of Tanako's world, a king from an era when the throne of the kingdom was the king's saddle, and the capital city was wherever the man was sleeping.
Natalie takes Anil by one arm and steers him back a few steps.
"Nick," Laura says.
"I'm leaving you," Nick says to Laura. "Once this is over I never want to see you again. Clear?"
"Nick, I'm sorry."
"No, you're not," Nick tells her.
"You're not! Don't lie to me! What do you want? From all of this, what did you really, truly want? To find out what Ra is? To converse with a demon and play your elaborate power gambit off against its elaborate power gambit? To resurrect your dear departed super-mage mother? Because all I know for certain, after waiting here in limbo for you, for what feels like years, is that the thing you want isn't me."
Laura draws herself up, clothing herself in armour matching Nick's style. Producing boots, she even rises in height a few centimetres, as if trying to meet Nick as an equal. But she produces no weapon.
"I want us to go into space together," she says.
Nick shakes his head.
"I have the ability now," Laura pleads. She gestures with her arms, demonstrating what she's become. Her stylised armour even resembles a pressure suit in its structure. "I found all the power I need. I can build a spaceship out of light and forcefields. I can take us both into space. Once we're back in reality I can take you to low Earth orbit, it'll take minutes. Seconds. We'll buzz the ISS. You just have to stay close and I'll carry you there. That's what I want."
Nick shakes his head, gently.
Laura pushes all the way through to the answer that Nick wants. "I want to go into space," she says.
Nick finally agrees. "You want to go into space," he says. "You don't care if I'm there."
"But I... No. I want you to be there when I come back."
"I'm not going to be there," Nick tells her. "I'm leaving."
"I love you," Laura tells him desperately.
Nick says nothing in response, and there is a long and bitter pause.
He looks up, acknowledging Natalie and Anil's presence now that he has spoken his piece. He walks past Laura. "Natalie, good to see you. Sorry you've been dragged into this. You too. I don't think we've met."
"Anil Devi," says Anil Devi. "I used to work with Laura at Hatt Group." Anil is suppressing a churning stomach. The only time he's seen Nick Laughon before, the man was dead in a bath of concentrated hydrogen fluoride, with flesh coming off his face in pieces.
Nick glances off into the distance. "They're amassing," he says. "We've been standing still for too long. You all need to follow me now."
They sight the towers first. Laura's memory palace is a sprawling, convoluted grey stone fortress, a senseless mess of differing castle styles. Most of its towers are too tall to be possible and some of them appear to rise forever, narrowing to wires. There are at least four walls, each with numerous sharp-edged bastions, overlapping and interlocking incoherently. The main entrance is a set of black steel double doors tall and wide enough to move an upright Saturn V through, and when Nick knocks on them with the pommel of his sword they barely need to crack to let the four of them in.
Without any further prompting, Natalie leads them across a courtyard and into the castle interior, along a scribbling warren of corridors, rapidly leaving the part of the castle which Nick is familiar with. After another few minutes of navigation Nat reaches a tall, gently winding torchlit corridor full of heavy oak doors, and one particular door, which she unlatches and pushes open.
Nick, Anil and Laura follow her into a tall, bright, echoing hall built from white stone. Nick is instantly put in mind of a cathedral interior, with the same high vaulted ceiling and supporting pillars and bright lighting, although there are no religious decorations. In fact the place is empty. Then, watching Natalie and Laura's reactions, Nick realises that a better word might be emptied. Something's not here, which should be here.
"Damn," Natalie says, under her breath.
"It worked," Laura says. "It completely fucking worked! Do you believe this, all of you? This is the empty crypt. I have reversed death. Right now, somewhere over the Atlantic, the Atlantis orbiter is burning home, and so is Mum, and so am I. This is what I've been working towards, this entire time. Thirty-three million-to-one mass/energy ratio. Four hundred tonnes of spaceship. One petajoule of mana and done!"
"You were too late," Anil says to Natalie.
Natalie nods, unhappily. "This is what Ra has been working towards, this entire time. This is what I was trying to prevent."
"This was a cooperative rescue spanning multiple decades," Laura says. "Do you know how difficult this was? Together, Mum and I have saved seven astronauts' lives. Not to mention a Space Shuttle orbiter! Those aren't cheap. Once they've got it on the ground it'll even be flightworthy."
Natalie ignores this. "Laura, how do we get to Iceland from here?"
The climactic scene at Krallafjöll is stored a few doors down from the Atlantis exhibit. This hall is much larger, and so dark that it appears to be endless. At its centre is a tableau which wavers disturbingly between life size and apparent H0 scale.
At the top of the ridge is an instance of Benj Clarke, with whom Nick is acquainted through university. This instance of Benj holds a sphere of weapons-grade plutonium in one hand and a burning hot molybdenum ring in the other, and stands like a warlock, about to end the world by bringing them together. Steps away and necessarily downhill is an instance of Laura, clothed in weighty black robes and aiming a three-metre mercury staff directly at Benj. Green laser light is crawling out of the tip of the staff and across the gap, soon to cut the ring in half and bring all of this to its well-known conclusion.
Further away is an instance of Natalie, supporting a second instance of Benj Clarke. This one is the real man, the one not possessed by a geocidal daemon.
Further away still, the mountain ridge just stops at a hard edge, and drops away. It's as if the scene is nothing more than a big square slice of a thick black cake, iced with lava and dotted with miniature edible people.
"Damn," Natalie says again, when she sees what's missing.
Nick moves through the scene, inspecting each person in turn. The frozen, noticeably younger facial expressions are all faintly ridiculous to behold, and transfixing. Depending where he looks from, his vision blurs like a tilt-shift photograph, giving bizarre depths of field and a sensation that everything he's looking at is tiny compared to him. "What, exactly, is happening here? I obviously never got the whole story out of Laura."
Natalie says, "The instance of Benj at the top of the cliff has been possessed by a hostile entity named Ra. He's trying to start a magical chain reaction which will consume all the geological magic in Iceland, first, and then the entire mid-Atlantic ridge, and potentially the world. I... am not totally certain why, but my top theory is that he's trying to overload the artificial systems which provide magic, by requesting more mu and zeta quanta in one go than they can deliver. That would, or could, crash the system, temporarily or permanently suspending standard magic, and maybe leaving the Wheel Group vulnerable.
"Obviously, what actually happens next is that Laura kills him, the reaction ends, the eruption stops and the rest of us go home."
"But there's someone missing," Laura says, staring at her counterpart. "There was a glass figure standing right here, next to me. Somebody almost invisible. The figure was helping me. Remember?"
"The glass figure was Ra," Natalie says.
"It was Mum," Laura says. "She was helping me to stop Benj from blowing the world up--"
"It was Ra," Natalie says. "If you remember, the figure was pushing your staff to the ground. He was trying to protect Benj."
"Who's Ra?" Nick asks. "What is this word that keeps coming around and around?"
"Ra is a machine inside the Sun," Anil says.
"No," Natalie says.
"Ra is Kazuya Tanako," Laura says.
"No, I told you,
penamba was Kazuya Tanako." When Natalie uses the word, she exhales greenish-blue air, which she waves away with her hands. "Ra is..."
She hesitates, marshalling her thoughts. There's a lot of data, more than she can track concurrently. Instinct tells her she can't voice this theory yet, because she doesn't have enough sigmas of certainty. Instinct tells her to keep it to herself until she can gather more evidence to support it.
She fights this instinct.
She looks at Laura and, separately, Nick. "Ra is a malevolent artificial intelligence whose goal is to dismantle the Earth and turn it into computronium. Actual human beings are orthogonal to this goal. If we all die in the disassembly, which we will, Ra doesn't care--"
"Natalie," Anil explains patiently, "Ra was reprogrammed."
"Ra is a distributed system consisting of more individual listener nodes than I can even put an order of magnitude to," Natalie says. "They saturate the whole world, from top to bottom. Something like one human out of every two trillion survived the war, against odds that were astronomical. What happens when you apply those same odds to the listeners? Even squaring the odds, how much of the original objective do you think survived? And how much needed to?
"Ra wasn't reprogrammed. Not all of it."
Nick takes them to a small, quiet, dark room with rugs and substantial chairs, and a fireplace, and fiery drinks in very small glasses. The room is not one that Laura recognises, but it is relatively well-realised and detailed. It seems that this is the part of the castle where Nick has been living.
Anil and Laura toss their drinks back almost immediately. Nick takes his sword off to sit, and sips. Natalie sits uneasily, and seems not to notice the drink at all. Unconsciously, she and Anil are developing armour matching Laura and Nick's.
"There was a war," Natalie recounts. "By the 194th century the human race had achieved near-perfect science and omnipotent technology. We had installed an energy production system called Ra at the core of the Sun, and we were using that energy to build and maintain tens of thousands of inhabited Earths.
"Towards the end of the century, the Ra system turned against its creators. There was a war, called Abstract War. The war lasted seven days, and ended with Ra reprogrammed and docile, but with very nearly every single living human dead. The survivors, numbering barely more than two hundred out of what had been millions of millions, formed the Wheel Group. The world we live in is the new world that they built, replacing the wreckage of the old. 'Magic' is a layer of abstraction which the Wheel Group introduced on top of their nonlocality technology to make it safer to use. And this year is one-nine-four-two-four."
"That's a five-digit number," Nick says.
"Yes," Natalie says, blankly.
"I'm just saying. This is word salad to me. It doesn't mean anything."
"The war was fought over processing power," Natalie says. "Ra's objective was, and still is, to dismantle the rocky planets of the inner solar system and construct a stellar engine called a Matrioshka brain. This would be a constellation of sun-powered computer processors which would completely enclose the Sun, increasing Ra's processing power by a factor of ten.
"Ra had been reprogrammed by a faction of humans called Virtual Humanity--"
"This is bull," Laura says, unable to sit still and just listen. She gets up and paces, throwing another drink back.
"Compared to what?" Natalie says. "Compared to what Ra taught you?"
"His name is Kazuya Tanako! What you're calling 'nonlocality' is just a deeper form of magic, 'māyā'. Māyā was stolen from humanity at large in the earliest days of human civilisation, at about the same time as the invention of writing. The Wheel Group stole it. They are immortal, omnipotent, lazy gods, pursuing thousand-year-long lifetimes of meaningless hedonism in a world which they deliberately fail to lift higher than gutter-level. What we call 'magic' is a single crumb from their table, and we only have it because the alternative is for māyā to run riot and fall into the hands of us baselines."
There's a pause.
"Those stories aren't entirely inconsistent with one another," Anil says.
Laura is circling the room's walls, kicking the parts which Nick has dreamt up in good detail, filling in the parts he hasn't with improved stonework and beams. By now she's behind Natalie. "He never mentioned a war to me," she says.
"Of course he wouldn't," Natalie says, "why would Ra cast itself as the aggressor?"
"This story," Laura says, "makes no more sense than--"
"It makes no sense," Nick says, at which point somebody knocks on the door, and everybody freezes.
They freeze for long enough that whoever is at the door becomes impatient and knocks again.
"I can convince you," Natalie says to Laura, who is still the only one standing.
Laura blinks. "What?"
"Monsters can't get into this place," Nick says, "the fortifications alone--"
"Monsters don't knock," Anil says.
Solemnly, Natalie picks up her drink and downs it. "It's for you, Laura. You should answer it."
"Who is it?" Laura asks her. And then aloud, "Who the fuck is that?"
Whoever-it-is tries the door handle, but the door is locked. Nick stands, unsheathing his sword. Anil searches himself for weapons, finds nothing and tries to imagine some, but gets nowhere.
"Answer the door, Laura," Natalie says, still not rising or even turning to look at the door.
"Who is it?" Laura steps forward and releases the lock, but then steps back again, aiming an armful of thaumic weaponry at it. She's in Tanako's world, magic doesn't work here. She isn't thinking clearly enough to realise.
The door opens outward, and behind it is another version of Laura Ferno. She wears a dark, form-fitting NASA-esque flight suit, and a golden gauntlet on her left forearm, and is surrounded by weak fragments of neon light, like reflections from shattered stained glass. She stands with dropped shoulders, breathing poorly. Her eyes and face are all wrong, nothing like what Laura is used to seeing in the mirror. Haggard, Laura thinks. She's haggard.
"He killed me," says the apparition.
"Whatever Nat is telling you is the truth," says the apparition. "Whatever we know is a lie. Nat is right, and we were wrong." She takes a step forward.
"Stay the hell back," Laura Ferno says, backing up, catching one heel on a rug and falling. She looks up for long enough to see that nobody in the room is moving to help her. Natalie still hasn't moved, and Nick and Anil just seem to be entranced. Furious and alone, Laura points two fingers at the alternate Laura and says "
Dulaku surutai jiha--" Nothing comes out except red and purple smoke.
The apparition strides through the smoke. It grasps Laura's outstretched hand, and vanishes.
The door closes, and there are four of them again.
"I heard the footsteps coming," Natalie admits. "I worked it out a few seconds before she knocked."
Laura gets her breathing under control, coughing at the smoke, processing the new clutch of memories. "I brought Mum and everyone back. And I brought the glass man back. But the glass man was-- He didn't even look me in the eye. It was like I didn't exist to him. He's going to end the world." She coughs again, eyes watering. "Kazuya murdered me. Fuck!"
"It wasn't Kazuya Tanako," Natalie says, for the final time. "Ra used you. And he didn't kill you. You're still alive."
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