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« Protagonism | Ra

Don't quip until the quarry's dead.

It's one of the first things Exa learned. Exa isn't short for "Alexander", or at least it wasn't originally. It's "Executor", the one who carries out instructions. If a person's existence and interference need to end, Exa's job, typically, is to bring them to that end. Quips are a distraction and a delay. They're also bad manners. If somebody's going to die, their last thought might as well not be "Dear God, that was the best you could come up with?"

It's December 1969 in the replay and he's sitting down for a meal of rare, Platonically perfect steak. There is salad involved, the most divine salad which could ever exist, but an article of jewellery on his wrist chases away extraneous sodium and replaces it with effortless muscle, so the greenery is window dressing, so why bother? Others around him have opted for more elaborate preparations of dishes generally considered theoretical, and of animals and vegetables which no longer exist, but Exa is coming out of the far end of a long and bitter struggle, and is tired, and wants food which will not challenge him.

There's a pecking order at the table, and Exa is most of the way up it.

"Who were those two?" somebody remarks. "What are they up to?"

"Busy," somebody else guesses, his mouth already full. "Getting, I mean."

The Wheel Group's members change appearance frequently enough that not everybody always recognises everybody else. This fact keeps Exa mollified for a few seconds. Then his head snaps up and he scans the table and the remaining diners.

"Something wrong?" King asks him.

"The table's full," Exa says. "They didn't have seats allocated."

"That's impossible," King says. "Our whole operation is provably impregnable."

"It isn't," says another diner, whose name is Ashburne. "And I wish you hadn't announced it as such. No operation can prove itself impregnable. That, itself, was proven about a million years ago. Do you even know who Kurt Gödel was?"

"I'm reading no intrusion," reports the castle-in-the-cloud's security expert, Casaccia.

"Even if they've inserted themselves into the records of this event, that's a bad sign," says Arkov. "It means the records aren't going to stay sacrosanct forever."

Exa downs his wine. "Signal upwards," he says, standing up. He storms around the table towards the doors, turning several heads. Some of the men, who know what Exa does, get up and move to follow him. They are quietly hoping for a show.

"I want one of them alive," King calls.

Exa kicks the door out, making a noise and a mess, and receiving a panicked response from the two interlopers. They have separated across the room. The man is nearby on the right, the woman far away on the left.

Which one is going to freak out the most if I kill the other?

The man shouts "Eject!" at the woman. This suggests that the man is leading, and the woman is subordinate. That's good enough.

Exa shoots the man. The man drops. But then he vanishes.

This changes Exa's plan. Akashic hackery is indeed taking place. If both of the interlopers escape, then he and his party have no data. His only hope is to kill the second interloper before she ejects too, then excavate the needed information from her dead brain. He turns the gun on her and fires. The bullet is around nine-tenths of the way to her when Exa's thought patterns flip texture and he becomes real.

*

In the next place he freezes absolutely solid. He catches the wall and a railing to stop himself from falling, doing so completely silently. Night vision activates so quickly that he doesn't even perceive the darkness, but the very fact that night vision has to come online at all takes him by surprise.

This is the real world.

This is cause for deep alarm. Cracking the akashic records open is one thing. Pulling physical objects back from them, however, speaks to a serious and dangerous breakdown of world order as it was originally implemented. Who did it? A rogue Wheel member? Unthinkable. Or was somebody new inducted? That should be impossible, the privileges aren't even hereditary. How did they get access? Is this really where they staged their attack from?

For that matter, where is he? How far in the future?

Below, he hears his quarry moving. No confidence, no night vision. He hears a spell: "Dulaku surutai jiha, seven hundred en em", followed by a panicked half-gasp. So: all three of them were bounced here. And the man is still dead.

Exa rounds the corner, descending into hellish red light. The woman is kneeling. She has switched outfit. A grey armour suit. What part of the glitch caused that?

"I don't understand," the woman says to Exa, surprising him. He was thinking exactly the same thing.

She continues, "Why does this part have to be real? Nothing else is real. Magic isn't real."

So the secret's out. It was out for a moment, at any rate. It could be all-the-way public. It was obviously news to the woman, but if the man knew already, he could have spread it unimaginably further before he died.

What a mess. At least Exa is only responsible for its physical end. Information hygiene is not his game. Perhaps it was hubris to think that magic could stay a secret for the whole of the future. Perhaps, as time goes to infinity, all truths come out.

And there, very obviously to Exa, is the quip. But he holds it for long enough to fire a nine-millimetre round into the woman's right eye.

She falls.

Exa says, "Gotta wake up some time."

But the echo of the gunshot has filled the stair tower with thunder from top to bottom, and nothing else is audible. Exa puts his gun away. First he'll check the bodies over, then contact the authorities. He'll probably have to merge experiences with his older, real-world self. He wonders how much time has passed. He wonders whether his real self has picked a different look.

When a mage is killed in the midst of casting a spell, or while acting as an active conduit for mana, the spell ends within the first few seconds of brain-death. Not that this has ever been observed in reality before, ethics being ethics, but there is firm hypothesis, and it happens to be essentially correct. Exa knows it. Or, should.

The woman's light hasn't gone out.

*

With his kara figuratively redlining, the most effective way to actually kill Exa Watson would be to take a 1018-watt laser and fire it directly into the top of his head from orbit. This level of power would be just about enough to completely vaporise both Exa and his kara too quickly for the kara to detect the damage occurring and start actively rebuilding him.

Exa's problem is that he doesn't leave his kara amped up to full power.

Because he shouldn't have to. It would be like walking down the street in plate armour. This is his world, he owns it. No single person or weapon in the whole world, as far as he knows, represents a credible physical threat to him, and if it did, he'd respond to the threat. Right? His response would be almost instantaneous.

And the world, as far as he knows, has been cleansed of evil.

Let's see where Laura's coming from.

Almost four years ago, four men tried to kill her. One stabbed her in the kidney. She fought them off with improvised magical weaponry, killing one of them and severely injuring two of the others.

She then turned herself into a fortress. "Fuck improvisation," she said, and began developing personal shield technology and dedicated tools for hurting people who would try to hurt her. She bargained for, and sometimes stole, time in the university's engineering workshops. Later, she did the same at Hatt Group's impressive fabrication facilities. She miniaturised the results, trading reduced complexity in the spell wording for increased complexity in the thaumic machinery and mental load. A girl only has time for so many syllables.

Laura's coasting on residual self-image from Tanako's world. She originally arrived there looking like her default self: black top, dark jeans, almost no other descriptive words at all, barely even shoes. If she'd bothered to examine herself, she'd have found a little more detail: the correct hair colour, the kidney scar, the usual few rings.

The suit of armour, she copied from Tanako-while-he-was-wearing-Nick. She laid it over the top of what she was already wearing. Flat polygonal plates, completely functional, no concession to cool style, not even a lick of polish. Rubbery articulation at the joints and neck. A full helmet. The suit is intended to keep a hostile, poison-filled environment and a pitifully fragile human being completely separated from one another.

"Who are you?" she had asked him.

"Who do you think?" Tanako had replied, turning around and turning his helmet transparent.

Not retracting it. Not removing it. Because in T-world you can just have whatever you want to have.

Laura Ferno could have come back to the real world in the unobtainable dress. She could have spawned looking like whatever it is that comes next after "supermodel". But she didn't, and it wasn't luck.

No amount of bullet proofing can cancel out a bullet's momentum-- her head is thrown back and right by the shot, and Laura lets herself fall. She falls away from the gunman, turning so that he can't see the side of her head which he supposedly shot a hole in. A white dot is left in the glass. Or the transparent diamond polycarbonate, or whatever it is. God knows where the ricochet ends up.

The noise of the shot is incredible. Laura knows she's got rings on her left hand, under the armour. The gunman is saying something. She can't hear it over the boom. That means he won't be able to hear her own hissed response.

She just cast a spell, that was smart. She can reuse the True Name drop.

"Look at their wrists, that's where their immortality comes from."

"Sedo. Anhtnaa vaeka."

Eyeball tracking was too hard. She'd have needed a month to work with anonymous recursion. Laura has to shoot from the hip, and hope that she misses her own toes. She aims her left index finger somewhere above and to the right of Exa's head. Her left middle finger, she aims down, at his dominant hand, where he wears the bracelet. The projected scything plane cuts through his hand and wrist, divides his forearm in two lengthwise, then carves through his shoulder and up through his throat and face. There is an audible choink as the kara snaps in half. There's a worse noise where the field meets the black metalwork of the stairwell, and bites deep, but doesn't quite cut. As for Exa himself, he parts easily, into two pieces of fresh brain and some sliced dinner jacket.

Laura unfreezes slowly. She waits for a minute, in thick darkness and gradually returning silence, for shock to kick in.

In her mind's eye she can see Nat, arms folded, expression held steady at "stony disapproval".

Most people go their whole lives without killing anybody.

*

"'Immortality.'"

Laura scrabbles through scarlet gunge. She separates the two slices of Exa's corpse's wrist, and retrieves the two pieces of metal. Two arcs of circle, thin and richly decorated with mana piping of a complexity seen nowhere else in magical science. Laura brackets Nick Laughon's wrist with the pieces and holds them together tightly, as if waiting for glue to dry.

"Please work please work please work. Wake up, ring. Wake up, Nick. Come on."

Another minute passes, during which nothing detectably happens.

Laura pulls the pieces apart and tries connecting them together on bare concrete. Because maybe it's a biological thing? Too much information for the ring. The two fragments need time to boot up and mate again before trying any healing. That makes sense, right?

"You need to wake up now. Because I need you. Really. COME ON!"

The kara is dead. It's a first-generation medical ring, built just minutes after the beginning of time. From a standing start, with a figurative full battery and five figurative bars of signal, it can, indeed, resurrect the dead. But dead gadgetry can never resurrect itself.

Laura feels a blackened pit collapsing open inside her, yawning all the way down from her throat to her chest. It casts a weird and fearful shadow which calmly engulfs all of her thoughts. Laura sits down and huddles into one corner, taking Nick's hand again. Maybe the ring needs a healthy human as a pattern? She puts the pieces over her own wrist and waits one more minute, praying.

Nothing happens.

The kara is a manufactured object. Someone made it. Someone could fix it. And Laura knows that she can do anything. Therefore, if anybody could fix it, she could. But she doesn't know how. Nobody ever taught her and she doesn't know how to find out.

Laura stares into a future in which Nick Laughon is dead. She stares at it for a long moment and it stares back at her.

No.

She stares into T-world at the stored mind-state of Nick Laughon, a frightened and lonely ghost with no earthly form to pilot, trapped forever in timeless glass. She put him there for safe keeping and now she has no way to bring him back. Is that better than murder, or worse?

"No," Laura says to him, although he cannot answer.

She rejects that future. She has to finish the mission. At the end of the mission is a day when death is an anachronism.

Kazuya Tanako was teaching her things while they were journeying through T-world. Tanako was reminding her of things which she had already been taught, but which she had forgotten. Now she remembers. She remembers sitting in lectures at the Chedbury Bridge Institute, taking notes as Tanako and the other grim mages of his resistance movement laid out the fragile few known facts for her.

Laura has woken up, and now she stands up.

None of this matters as long as she wins.

*

In the beginning there was magic. Not the "high-level" magic stumbled over by Suravaram Vidyasagar. In the beginning, the very beginning, there was real, deep magic. Godhood. Māyā.

Māyā was simply incalculable. Māyā demolished limitations to human capability. White magic, the spontaneous creation of complex new mass/energy from empty raw form. Black magic, the absolute reverse: total destruction without backlash. Māyā permitted death to be reversed, wishes to be granted, continents to be lifted and shifted, castles to be built in the sky.

Some time after the beginning, there was the group now known as the Wheel. These people were, and still are, the custodians of māyā.

It's impossible to know how the Wheel Group got to their position of power. Until very recently it was even impossible to know that they existed, because perfect and experienced control of a godlike power like māyā makes it extraordinarily simple to stay covert. A world which has discovered that the Wheel are real can be eternally reverted to a world which has not. Words aren't necessary, and nor are training or clarity of thought. They just ask, and the field answers them, creatively and correctly. "Do What I Mean".

It's also impossible to know when the Wheel came to power. But māyā has been around since the very beginning of time, and the Wheel are most likely to be the people who got to it first. It's conceivable that, at that time, "wheel" was the best term that humans had for "extremely advanced technology".

The Wheel Group doesn't rule the world; they don't need to; they already own the world. No amount of tedious political responsibility could grant them powers they don't already have. Physical appearance, wealth, IQ and mortality are all entirely discretionary. Where do they live? Anywhere they want, real or imaginary. What do they do with their lives? Everything imaginable, except take responsibility. They, alone, possess limitless power. And they use insultingly little of it.

Evening passed and morning came and that was version one.

Māyā was rediscovered in 1697 by a Portuguese explorer called João da Nova, on a minuscule, flat island in the western Pacific. There, Nova discovered a particularly disgusting sixteen-legged black myriapod, one of the only non-microsopic living organisms in the world to have evolved the ability to tap māyā. Its spell was uncomplicated, and was used to confuse its predators, mainly birds, with green sparks. Nova was bitten almost to death by an ambush of the creatures. So the legend goes, one even crawled down his throat and lodged there, constantly flaring māyā energy off into his belly. But he survived, and when he woke up, he found he had the same myriapod power, magnified by his own human intelligence.

Nova destroyed the island as his first conscious act, rendering the horrible bug extinct. He was moving to crack the firmament and to blot out the very stars before the Wheel Group intercepted and ended him.

Māyā was also discovered in 965 CE, by the ancient Khazars, an obscure nomadic race who ruled much of southwest Asia during the second half of the first millennium. The discoverer was a nameless Khazar silk trader who moored his boat in a cave off the Sea of Azov, a cave which - modern science can now prove - was flooded with periodic clouds of hallucinogenic radium-tinged gas. That nameless man, mutated without realising it, passed the power genetically to his two sons, who killed him.

The Wheel Group took care of it. Khazar civilisation evaporated under poorly-understood circumstances somewhere around the turn of the second millennium CE, dispersed across Eurasia and became... history.

Once, māyā came to a Russian man named Ivan Shevelev, in a dream. On waking he detonated in the air over his homeland with the force of an impacting asteroid. Having released tens of megatonnes of explosive power just from waking, he was still accelerating skyward when the Wheel caught up. Layers of fictitious meteorite were distributed, realigning the evidence, joining up the dots for future scientists. And that was Tunguska.

It couldn't be helped. One theory was that māyā simply wanted to be used. Imagine the planet Earth as the gradually fracturing seal over a pressurised oil reserve, and humans as the fractures. Māyā was discovered over and over again by the increasingly numerous and educated people of the world. Managing the outbreaks became a full-time job for the Wheel. Māyā became a problem.

Magic was their solution. Magic releases the pressure. Magic keeps the world sane and protects people from themselves.

"Magic" is a totally artificial and arbitrary system of words, symbols, requests, responses, resources, services, rates and limitations. It is a collection of difficult hoops through which the common people must jump in order to get what they want. Mana is meted out to whoever asks for it in the correct way, with an upper limit set by what one human can hold in their head at one time.

The Wheel Group built magic to its own specifications. The Wheel Group has a fifty-generation head start. Everything that magic can do is something which the Wheel implemented deliberately. From thin air, they produced and concretised the equations which baseline humans, mere children, have spent lifetimes labouring to reverse-engineer.

Here's what Laura knows:

Māyā has existed forever. Māyā is a fact of the world. Māyā is the birthright of all living humans. Correction, of all humans: living, unborn and to-be-resurrected.

Magic became live at midnight and zero seconds, Coordinated Universal Time, on Thursday the first of January, 1970 CE.

*

No machine - or rather, no finite machine - can completely store itself in its own memory.

The listening post is a black-shelled chittering beetle/asteroid, as tall as Manhattan is long. In T-world, from a sufficient distance, it can been seen in its entirety with a single glance.

In reality it cannot be seen by any means, because it is buried in the continental crust of Western Australia, so deeply that some of its roots reach magma. It's far too deeply buried to show up on seismic recordings or gravitational surveys, let alone reach with a simple drill. Its shape and size, though, are the same.

The bulk of the listening post consists of active magical machinery. It's filled with cubic kilometre after cubic kilometre of dense, black-hot sharpened metalwork, and deafening noise, and blinding radiation. It is a practical and actual Hell. The machine rooms are inaccessible to humans, to say nothing of uninhabitable. On the increasingly rare occasions when a living human's hand is needed, the maintenance engineer teleports alone into one of the hermetically sealed machine spaces, carries out his tasks in pitch darkness while wearing the magical equivalent of a lead overcoat, and teleports out again.

This is a machine which tracks and records, as close to live as makes no difference, the position and status of every magical particle of every variety in the whole world.

Laura stares up the stairwell, as far as her light will illuminate. The structure goes up for kilometres.

Running between the vast machine spaces are the habitable veins. Some are corridors and some are stairwells; most, though, are diagonal passages, climbing at punishingly steep angles. It's a labyrinth built from echoing, constantly buzzing steel. There is absolutely no light, anywhere. There are no maps or signs. There is no water. Its temperature alternates between sweltering and freezing. The fact that the air is breathable at all is almost anomalous. It's as if, thousands of years ago, the crack structure was intended to be somewhere safe and pleasant to live... but the "terraforming" task was immediately discovered to be thankless, and abandoned after only the first basic step had been carried out.

There are no monsters. It's a place which kills simply by being what it is.

If Laura were to head upwards-- that is, if she were capable of climbing stairs for thirteen vertical kilometres without dying of exhaustion-- she would eventually reach a concealed exit to the Western Australian desert. This would be an improvement. She would still be more than a hundred and sixty kilometres from civilisation, but it would be more hospitable, and she would stand a better chance of survival.

Laura knows this.

She aims her light downwards instead. She steels herself and starts to descend.

 

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