The speakers emitted occasional shuffling sounds for a couple of minutes. Then an abruptly cut off crunch. The recording ended. We sat in silence for a moment. Eva weighed in. "I think we are going to have to listen to that several times."

I nodded. "Yes, but let's discuss initial impressions."

Mr. Nakada cleared his throat. "We have given it some analysis, but we would like to hear what you think."

Eva said, "I guess the biggest question is whether this message was as he said."

"His powers would seem to indicate that he isn't completely full of bullshit." Lina chimed in.

I nodded. "Yes. I guess it seems like he wasn't aware of the backup server, so he didn't mind talking about it. It's also possible that he knew, and expected us or someone else to get this recording."

Eva returned. "Hmm. Let's assume for the moment that he wasn't just tricking us. If he meant what he said, could he be mistaken?"

Lina shrugged and fiddled with her hair. "Well, he admitted to being crazy. Maybe he was just delusional about some of it."

I agreed. "That makes it difficult. He mentions cancelling world-lines in which it rains on Sundays. So that sounds like magic. Is that a good candidate?"

Nakada said dryly, "He said the machine would break the more unlikely the event. The magic you have displayed is... very improbable. We'd have to get an expert to calculate exactly how much, but surely much more improbable than what he described."

"He mentioned that he was working on a better machine with advice from the message." I frowned and continued. "How long ago was this recording made?"

"About two and a half years." Nakada responded.

"If he was getting more of the message for two and a half years..." I shuddered. "Who knows how much he could have improved the machine."

Eva frowned. "He would have still needed resources to build this second Machine."

Nakada nodded. "Yes, he probably had to be careful in revealing just enough to Diluvian to get them to actually build it."

"He said he has already won." Eva sounded unconcerned.

Edelstein raised his hand. "There's an old concept called an outcome pump that sounds similar to the Machine. Imagine you had a time machine that would reset the timeline unless a certain outcome occurs. Let's say you always want a coin to turn up heads. If it ever doesn't turn up heads the outcome pump resets time. So it appears that the coin always turns up heads.

The problem is in designing how to trigger the outcome pump so you don't have unintended consequences. Trying to define the intent of human commands like 'rescue my mother from the fire' is a difficult artificial intelligence problem.

Maybe you try to bypass that. For instance, maybe you set it to reset if you don't press a big button labeled 'everything went well.' So of course then you die in a terrible accident, because then you can't press the button.

You predict that possibility and have it reset if you die. So then you have a terrible stroke and can't function. The point is actually using this Machine could have unintended and dangerous side effects, but the hypothetical second machine seems to have solved or bypassed these restrictions."

"If it was designed by a future super intelligence, that's not surprising." I responded.

"Just how super would it have to be?" Nakada asked.

Edelstein answered for me. "I don't know. If it was that incredible I would expect it to win immediately. So are his apparent failures part of the plan, and he's already guaranteed to win?"

Amaterasu spoke up thoughtfully. "We can't believe that we've already lost. There's no downside to thinking that we can win."

I rendered my support - we couldn't let that paralyze us. "I agree. Let's assume that he is wrong, or at least that there is still something we can do to optimize the outcome. We might as well act like we can have an effect."

There was a few moments of silence before I decided to put this recommendation into effect. "So, assume he is wrong about something. Where is this message really coming from? Who or what is actually talking to him?"

Eva stood and clasped her hands behind her. "Whatever is talking to him - we don't know it's really himself. In any case, his future self might be so changed that we can't really trust it to act human."

"Are we sure it's actually time travel? Could it be something else? Maybe someone just hacked the machine?" Lina asked.

Eva pursed her lips thoughtfully. "We do have the reaction of the psychiatrist. That indicates the meteor was there."

Nakada spoke up. "We haven't been able to confirm the meteor. It was dim lighting, so it's entirely possible there was a minor meteor event that was unrecorded."

I asked slowly, "Could someone have known there was a meteor coming? There are planet strike trackers, right?"

He shrugged equivocally. "A small meteor is well outside normal tracking capability. Maybe it passed near earth on a previous orbit and was sufficiently measured to predict its later impact."

I added, "Or it was just faked. Someone could have intentionally brought down a small satellite or something."

He spread his hands apologetically. "Perhaps. We would expect to have seen such maneuvers - everything man-made is tracked very closely. It's not impossible."

"If the message is something from the future. Or from a parallel dimension or something..." I frowned "Anyway, assume that he is correct: the message is most likely to be one that encourages its own creation. Is it sensible that this message be created by something?"

Eva was sketching something on a sheet of paper. Absentmindedly, she said, "Most messages are sent by something, yes? The one who can send a message back first, or prevent others from sending a message would win."

I tried to glimpse what she was drawing. Loops and branching lines. I agreed. "He mentioned monopolizing the world-lines. If you think of it as a replication - the message that replicates itself, and prevents any other message from replicating will become the most common. I would think an intelligence would be the most likely to succeed in replicating itself."

"A virus." Eva sounded calmly afraid.

"Yes." I let that sink in for a moment. "Why the magical girls though? Surely there are more efficient ways to take over."

"Something else involved? A sense of playfulness? Maybe it is the best way to take over, and we just don't have enough insight." Eva frowned, apparently unsatisfied with her explanations.

Amaterasu spoke up. "Mechaner was crazy right? He was obsessed about magical girls before all this."

"Good point. Maybe the message needed him, and the easiest way to manipulate him was to convince him live out his fantasies."

Eva brought up another point. "How does the machine determine if a world-line needs to be 'pruned?' If you want to keep Sunday from being rainy you could hook it up to a weather feed or something.

If you want a blast of light to go out when Amaterasu says 'Red Rainbow Resonance' how do you detect worlds where that doesn't happen? A bunch of video cameras? Someone in the future checking a box? For that matter why do our abilities work beyond Tokyo, but Mechaner's demons don't?"

"The S-curve." I said, smiling.

"Eh?" Lina grunted.

"Maybe Mechaner has a detector of some sort with a limited range - the constructs get worse and worse because the detector stops filtering out all the worlds where they don't work."

"So why do our abilities work?"

"Maybe we have a detector with better range? Mechaner has been gradually introducing new constructs. Maybe he has to design them on his own? Or needs Diluvian's support and resources to make magical girl level effects?"

"Would Diluvian make magical girls?"

"Maybe. Maybe he could push them on that path. Some of it definitely makes sense. The activation phrase..." I trailed off, then began again excitedly. "You would want an activation phrase long enough that it wouldn't go off accidentally, but you wouldn't want it to be interrupted. So you make it impossible to interrupt!"

"Could Diluvian have created a detector that runs our abilities? Where is it? Why hasn't Mechaner taken control of it?" Lina asked.

"Could the detector be in the future? The machine needs to be here, now. If they can infer the past sufficiently, then the detector could be in the future."

"Do you know of a machine that could qualify?" I asked the spook.

He nodded gravely. "We found a machine in the wreckage of the fire. We have been trying to repair it. We have made some progress, but I am afraid we are missing vital components. We have not had much luck inferring their nature from the existing remains."

"Can you tell how old this machine is?

"At least five years, from some of the components. I suspect this was the original machine Mechaner mentions."

"So the new machine - or machines - could have been stolen by Mechaner? Could he turn off the magical girls' powers?"

"We don't know. The most likely location is somewhere in the center of Tokyo, I expect. We have something along those lines. This morning we discovered a device. It was hidden in the sewer near the facility Mechaner escaped from. When the investigating officers approached, it self-destructed. We haven't been able to gain anything substantial from the remains."

"The construct at the facility. It was an outlier on the distance scale. Could this device - or its vicinity - have been responsible?"

"That is what I have been wondering."

I thought for a minute. "How long ago was this?"

"A few hours. Why?"

"Amaterasu, do you think you could Solid Light Reform it?"

She looked excited at first, but shook her head slowly. "I doubt it would make more than a twisted lump. That far back... it doesn't come out right."

"Let's try it anyway. Nakada, can you retrieve the remains as possible?"

"Indeed." He stood, bowed, and walked briskly from the room.

Ten minutes later Amaterasu stood in front of a substantial pile of dust inside a cardboard box. She took a deep breath and touched the pile.

Nakada raised his hand. "Wait, this won't make it start working will it?"

I shook my head. "It replicates bulk structure only, so no complicated fine structure will work."

"Ah, please continue."

Amaterasu nodded and nearly shouted, "Perfect Solid Light Reformation!"

Streamers of light gradually rose from the pile and wove together into a misshapen cylinder the size of a hot water heater. Amaterasu stepped back heavily, trembling slightly. I checked that it was just exhaustion, and not some hitherto unknown side effect, then nodded to the technicians. "You have about five minutes at most."

They rushed forward and started cutting the cylinder apart. "Sir, we can't use our usual tools on this. X-ray scanners work, but our chemical analysis, electrical circuit profiling and so forth don't work at all."

I tried to be helpful. "Try to get the bulk properties at least. Strength, density, basic structure and composition. You should be able to get that with mechanical tests."

"Yes. Thanks." I couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic.

The results didn't seem very useful at first. I scanned the list, noticing an interesting phenomenon. "Iridium. A lot of iridium. Several other trace elements. This much iridium would cost a lot of money. Should be traceable, too."

Nakada nodded. "We can check on the iridium and the other rare elements. Mechaner would need suppliers."

It took three more days, but we traced an unusual quantity of iridium deliveries converging on a flexible display factory in downtown Tokyo. While this was hardly unusual, the lack of other necessary components was. It wasn't within range of Mechaner's likely position, sadly.

A military strike team was going in first. We weren't supposed to interfere unless Mechaner appeared personally. I still gathered a substantial drone force. The strike force entered from three directions simultaneously. A dozen drones crashed through various windows. Two sets of opposing doors were blasted off their hinges, allowing nearly a hundred scout drones poured in. They fanned out ahead of a well armored mixed force.

Five minutes later they cleared us for entry. The leader of the strike force met us at one of the assembly lines. "Well, it was cleared out. My engineers tell me that some of these lines could work on items shaped like that cylinder. It wasn't a display factory at least."

"When was it cleared out?"

"A week ago? We'll have a better idea soon."

I made sure I was transmitting to Jackson and Nakada. "This wasn't just a front that pretended to be a factory. It was an actual running factory, making those cylinders."

That threat was enough for us to begin war preparations. We planned to invade Mechaner's core territory and search every building. If the cylinders did what we thought, we couldn't risk Mechaner spreading them around.

I hadn't realized how seriously these preparations were being taken until I was introduced to the military force commander. In a very secure room with no electronics he explained that they had several bombers on call. More troubling, the Americans had a ballistic missile submarine off the coast. They were taking the risk of Mechaner expanding his campaign worldwide very seriously.

The inner war council included myself, Jackson, the magical girls, Mr. Nakada, the governor, an army general, an American military representative, and Father. He had insisted on attending this meeting. Considering his previous uncharacteristic lack of interference I was hard-pressed to deny him. Oddly, the other representatives took this development in stride.

We hammered out the basic premise. Our job was to distract Mechaner. His obsession made us uniquely suited for this task. Hopefully he would be happy to have a protracted, thematic battle while the special strike force searched for his base.

I decided to interrupt the chatter. "The month is nearly up, we don't want to wait for Mechaner to make his move. If we are forced to respond to his plot, we lose the initiative."

The American representative shook his head. "We would be going in blind. What is worse, we would be warning him something was coming. Parading around with a big 'Mechaner show your face to get it punched' sign? He would sense a trap a mile away."

"I am confident he will come. You have to understand - he thinks in terms of magical girl tropes. The villain won't turn down a confrontation. He'll think it is a trap, but he'll show. Or at least do something."

"Yeah, something. What something?"

"Is it any better than waiting for him to implement his own plot?"

The American representative, a Captain Rodriguez, turned to the rest of the table, spreading his hands. "We don't have the infrastructure in place. We won't be able to evacuate the whole area we have to search. That's almost an entire district. Let's wait. If he overreaches with his next plot, we'll take the opportunity. If he doesn't then we prepare for next time. We can come up with a method to evacuate the area for one thing."

The arguing began again, but this time I could see my side was going to win. The governor and Rodriguez were against an early strike, but Nakada and Father were in favor.

I pulled Nakada aside afterwards and entreated him to get me the contents of my cut-off phone call. He actually looked uncomfortable for a moment. "I don't know what is in it. My superiors are very wary of giving it to you though. Can you guess why?"

I frowned. "It's either something dangerous or useful. Something that they think they can use, or that they are afraid to let me use." He nodded slowly, but didn't stop me. "The end of the world. Maybe the call indicates I will help the magical girls end the world. Or something along those lines. So they don't want to give me the call lest it cause the end of the world."

Nakada nodded. "That matches my speculation as well. I assume there is more to it than simply that, or they would have killed you already."

I raised my eyebrows. "Good point."

He continued. "There's also the question of Mechaner's interference. He claimed to be saving the world. He arranged to stop that call to you, by inserting banned phrases. Why did he do that? Could he be trying to save the world?"

I hummed. "He implied that he was saving the world from eldritch abominations. The ones that would have come to exist if he hadn't decided to take over the world."

"Yes. Perhaps that is all he was referring to. Perhaps he saved the world twice. Perhaps you and the magical girls would become or cause this eldritch abomination."

"Huh?" I snorted. "Surely it is parsimonious to believe that he is referring to the same event when he twice references saving the world."

Nakada shrugged guilelessly. "I am not saying I believe these suppositions, but it may be something along those lines. Regardless, you are not getting the contents of that call. My apologies."

Ah well. I nodded and walked out. The girls and I returned to the warehouse. We began our part in ten hours. I felt like we should do something appropriately clich├ęd before the battle. It wasn't quite appropriate, but we ended up playing a game of risk. We didn't finish before it was time to sleep - at least for me.

We all had cots in the warehouse at this point. It was necessary with the unusual hours we kept. I lay awake, contemplating the difficulty of sleeping when you needed to. At some point Dinah came to my bed. She didn't say anything, just crawled into the sheets fully clothed. We slept.

~~~~

Chapter 17: The Beginning of the End

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