I snatched the paper from her hands, and started skimming it.

Eva asked uncertainly, "To destroy the world?"

Mechaner's voice smoothly interrupted. "Actually, to destroy the universe."

He stood in the doorway to the laboratory, the space behind him filling with wire constructs. I looked around at the other doors. Constructs were pouring into the surrounding rooms. These were sleek fast constructs, primarily filled with laptops and cellphones.

I glanced up. The transparent hole in the ceiling showed constructs and drones descending through the chute. I asked Mechaner, "What do you mean?"

"Simply that it destroys the universe. Not the multi-verse, but more than just earth. Unfortunately 'world' is an ambiguous term."

"Why do you have it?"

"You never know. I think having the option is pretty important."

"Doesn't that seem a bit extreme?"

"Ah, you fear that I would use it? Rest easy, I have no intention of doing so. I am winning, after all."

"Oh?" I looked around the room ostentatiously. "What are you accomplishing here? Not what I expected from a villainous lair."

"I make my minions. Of course you are wondering where my power source is, correct? That's what led you to this particular room."

I couldn't help but look a little towards the calculated center.

He chuckled. "It's long gone."

Might as well ask. "Where?"

"Frankly, I don't know. Where has it gone? Or what form has it taken? The science and technology is beyond me, for now. It's an imposition on the shape on reality now."

"What does that mean? How can you be ignorant if you made it?" Keep him talking. It would buy more time for the military to find an alternative approach.

"I must admit to having created the technology for that particular feature as rote repetition. I was in, at best, a shamanistic fugue, seeking patterns of technology from bare hints."

He was referring to the message, presumably. How much did he think we knew? I shouldn't mention the psychiatrist, but I did want him to discuss the machines. "Rote repetition of what?"

"I wonder, how much do you know?"

"I know about the machine in the sewer. It helped you escape, did it not?" I cast my mind back to the oblique hints Mechaner had made during his capture. I could pretend to derive my knowledge from that. "You mentioned receiving a message. That your flaw made it possible."

"What did you learn from that?"

"You mention hints. Were you responding to instructions from this message? Your insanity leading you?"

"Ha! Very good. You seem to have read into my meaning very well. I say seem to, because I suspect you have other sources of information."

"Does it matter? How do you trust something you don't understand?"

"I believe you know the answer to that. I'll give you a hint: the message was from a trusted source - myself."

Jackson spoke softly in my ear. "The airforce wants to bomb him soon. Be prepared to shield."

I glanced at Amaterasu and edged a little closer. I whispered nearly subvocally, "Wait. He's being informative." Then I addressed Mechaner. "Time travel?"

"Now I know you have some other source. Care to save us both the hassle and tell me what you know?"

"Do you care to? I know you were involved with Diluvian. They had a time machine of sorts - an outcome pump." Maybe that would obfuscate our source, and hence the extent of our information.

"Yes. Though 'of sorts' is the key phrase. In many ways, the temporal communication was a side effect. I will continue the fairy tale: Once upon a time there was a man who saw a message from the future. The message opened his eyes, or maybe it drove him insane. Then a long time in the future, when he was Emperor he sent that same message. The End."

I shook my head. "How do you know the message came from yourself? Couldn't you have been tricked?"

"Oh it's possible. Maybe it goes like this: Once upon a time far from now on a world that was once exactly like this one there was an eldritch god. On whim, or base desire to grow, or reason beyond mortal reckoning, this god crafted an insidious message. A virus that infected universes. The virus had a vector: a slightly insane man in the right place at the right time - sitting next to a hole drilled in the wall between worlds. The virus spread to as many branches of the great tree as it could. The End."

"Doesn't that concern you, make you question your actions a little?"

"I cannot change the fact that something has sent that message. The thing that sends that message is most likely to be the first thing to take over the world. I intend and will attempt to gain a monopoly. By becoming Emperor and enforcing this monopoly I will make it much more likely that I am what sent that message. So you see, you should want me to win."

"You haven't made much of an argument for your own superiority. Why shouldn't we try to make something better win?"

"Look around you. The proof is here. I want you to understand the totality of your doom. I am your best option. The Machine changed the nature of reality - it amplified any self-reinforcing pattern out of control.

The more effective patterns lie in the future, but they are vulnerable to a lesser pattern acting first. The sooner a pattern could bootstrap its own existence the more likely it was.

Dr. Tanaka was a convenient flaw. Slightly mentally disturbed and hence requiring fewer bits to influence. Closely connected to the Machine and hence more likely to acquire the influencing bits. I am a beachhead into the world. Even now Tanaka is half role-playing, amused to speak in this fashion.

It doesn't matter. He will do what is necessary to be. If Tanaka's slight insanity had not been available, a different pattern would be. There are - or could have been - much worse patterns. Things so far beyond your understanding or puissance you may as well call them gods. A self improving power, a mind that strengthens itself in a feedback loop.

You should be happy I exist because otherwise those powers would spread in my place. I may have been designed by such a power, a virus spread through the multi-verse. I may simply be the evolutionary fact of efficient replication. It does not matter. The pattern I represent, the pattern I impose on the worlds is relatively good for you."

"Then how do you create your minions? Are they to be your conquering force?"

"Yes, at least at first. I was under desperate time pressure. The first Machine was nearly useless to actually influence the world. The perfected second Machine was reaching completion. Once finished, it would be used by Diluvian - all my careful work given to others for their own power.

I could make sure it was loaded with a carefully restricted suite of effects. Test effects designed by me with a little future assistance. Not game-changing except for a few emergency features that required a majority of the users. If it worked, Diluvian would tell the military, spreading the knowledge and vastly increasing security."

"So you killed them."

"Well, eventually. You see, activating the second Machine would make it uneditable - permanently. So I created a tag-along. Something that would tie into the second Machine's effect - allowing me to cumbersomely create my minions. The problem is one of introspection.

How do you know whether the minion has followed orders? The second Machine had an elegant and frankly impossible to understand system for doing this. I considered copying it, but I couldn't separate the components. Making a replica of the whole machine would be prohibitively time consuming and difficult, risk further outside influence, and still produce an inherently inferior Machine."

"So how did you create your minions?"

"I created a monitor to watch the minions. I made it so this device tagged along with the second Machine, to gain a unique vantage point. Unlike the second Machine this device had a range limitation."

"This is why you stay in Tokyo I presume?"

"Yes. Though I admit to choosing Tokyo because it was thematically appropriate."

"What now? If your minions can't get out of Tokyo you are never going to take over the world."

"Simple enough. I need to make a lot more monitors, and spread them throughout the world."

I hoped Jackson was paying attention. "Didn't the observer need to 'tag along' with the second Machine?"

"Well yes. Fortunately I have succeeded in replicating the effect. Basically just a third machine without most of the really difficult and expensive components. It doesn't work, except to allow the observers to tag along."

I heard a slight whisper through my earbud. I glanced at the girls. Eva's lips were moving slightly. "Jackson, make sure everyone starts hunting these observers."

"I am, but it will take a while to find the right people and convince them to act," he responded.

I tried another tack. "You can't take over the world like this. People will still fight, and you can't do everything by yourself."

"I disagree. Fortunately, our dispute will be shortly resolved."

I whispered, "Jackson. Bomb him, ASAP. Give me ETA. Ama, get ready to shield."

Jackson took a few moments. "Incoming cruise missile. ETA 15 seconds. Ensure you are all under the shield."

I took a step closer and said, "Shield us completely Ama."

She raised her palm to the sky. "Perfect Full Rainbow Reflection!" A shimmering globe encompassed us. Fortunately, as I had unintentionally tested, her shield reflected more effectively the faster moving the matter and higher energy the light. We would be better guarded against a cruise missile than a hand grenade.

Mechaner paced about the sphere; his path the only space clear of constructs. I checked my HUD display. We were out of time. Still no explosion. I must have looked disconcerted, because Mechaner smirked. "Expecting something?"

"Jackson? Where's the cruise missile?" If I sounded pushy I think the constructs slowly compressing Amaterasu's shield were a sufficient excuse.

"Under attack. Constructs suborning much of the military's hardware. Don't expect assistance. Good luck."

Mechaner laughed lightly. "I trust you are receiving the news? I have already deployed the observers around the world. I needed a little time to prepare and double check their send off. A delay you were happy to provide."

I checked my drones. Half did not respond. A few drones still circled high above us. Mechaner's drones rose towards them. I needed to use them quickly, if at all. I looked at Eva. She shook her head.

The shield was shrinking quickly. One minute, maybe. A suicide drone would be suborned before it reached us. I just needed to make sure that the conversion didn't matter. I positioned the three available suicide drones directly above the hole.

Fortunately the Solid Light Reformation had expired. I set the bomb to unrecoverably detonate, then disabled rotors and shorted the battery pack. The drones dropped like rocks in a line. One missed the hole, bouncing off the side in a tumble of shattered rotors. One made it two stories before catching on one of Mechaner's constructs.

The last dropped into the room with us. I saw the metallic parts sprout tiny wires and hoped desperately that the detonator didn't have too much metal. A jumble of constructs screened Mechaner a second before the bomb went off.

Amaterasu dropped the shield, allowing a blurring Eva to cut into the discombobulated swarm. I hugged the floor as Lina cut loose. The heat blooming from the point-blank Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade still singed my lungs.

Red hot wires lashed forward in a wide arc. Eva jumped and contorted, but couldn't dodge or block all of them. She was thrown against the wall, three ragged tears in her costume.

Amaterasu fired a wide angle Perfect Blue Rainbow Resonance, depleting but not vaporizing the constructs along one wall. The constructs converged from all angles, forcing Amaterasu to shield herself. I ran for the corner.

Eva spun her blades in a continuous blur, hewing a path to Mechaner. Strangely, the constructs backed away from him. He raised his hands and a blazing bolt of lightning chained through all the constructs. Eva couldn't extricate herself in time. She convulsed and fell to the ground.

Lina retaliated with a Fulminating Percussive Array, aiming towards Mechaner. The constructs blocked the bolts, but seemed momentarily stunned.

Amaterasu dropped the shield and fired a Dazzling Display Diversion. On my HUD I saw her running forward under that cover to rescue Eva. Lina danced around the recovering constructs, trying to find Mechaner.

I found the door, but it was out of reach. I settled for wedging myself behind the desk, my ceramic pistol in my hand. A headshot on Mechaner while he wasn't under his healing effect might actually finish this.

More constructs peeled the ceiling further apart, allowing the military drones to enter. They opened fire on the magical girls. Fortunately, the Dazzling Display Diversion interfered with their aim. Unfortunately, this made them simply spray and pray. As the softest target in the room I disliked this approach.

Another Fulminating Array fell through the hole, catching some of the drones. I breathed a sigh of relief when the bullet strikes near me lessened appreciably. Seeing no magical girls nearby the drone's entrance, I threw a bulky concussive grenade. The blast missed most of the drones, but at least forced them to retreat momentarily.

Amaterasu dropped the Dazzling Display. Eva was in front of the laboratory door, standing over a pile of twitching wires. Amaterasu stood in the corner, long furrows in the adjacent surfaces attesting to the destruction emanating from her. Lina had just finished another Fulminating Percussive Array through the ceiling gap. The light blinded me for an instant.

There was no sign of Mechaner. Eva looked at me and cast Third Moment Celerity. Amaterasu shouted a warning. It sounded like "Behind you." In retrospect, it was overly optimistic to assume the reduced fire nearby me was due to Lina's efforts. They had stopped shooting nearby me because Mechaner was sneaking up.

A thick steel blade erupted from my belly. I tried to turn, but I couldn't move my legs. I looked over my shoulder and fired three rounds into Mechaner's face. Then the pain hit and I dropped the gun.

The rounds were low calibre and Mechaner was already healing. He bit out sharply, "Hold. Or I twist the blade." Amazing that my brain had the multitasking ability to experience this much pain and still imagine his breath on my neck.

The less time spent describing the sensation of steel grinding in between my spinal disks the better. My suit should apply a pain killer shortly. I clung to that hope.

The girls paused, spreading out slightly. He continued. "He'll die of blood loss or shock well before you get him medical attention."

Amaterasu looked stricken, but raised a finger to point at Mechaner. "You would die a second later."

"Would you really kill me? Well, let's not bandy obvious threats. There is a ritual I would like you to perform."

"What? I thought you didn't want to destroy the world." Lina took a step forward.

"Of course not. There's another ritual that simply sends a message, skipping the destroying the world part."

"What message do you want us to send?"

"You already know your part of it. I assume you received a message granting you powers? I'll simply allow you each to write your message, name, and contact info on the convenient slips here." He ruffled through the desk and threw them an envelope. He raised a second envelope. "I have taken the liberty of encoding the message I know in this envelope. I'm afraid four messages of this length are the maximum."

The painkillers hit, so I took the respite to think carefully. Mechaner seemed to expect them to transcribe the messages exactly as they had received them. Could they write whatever they wanted? Could they warn themselves about Mechaner and his plans? Mechaner seemed to think that was impossible.

Did the ritual do what he said? Mechaner had implied that he was attaching my message, since that was the only missing message. Had Mechaner put other messages in his envelope that superseded the girl's messages? The PSIA had detected no other suspicious phone calls from the Diluvian facility, and Mechaner seemed to believe this was fated to happen, so maybe he wouldn't expect trickery. Would what we sent change anything about our world?

Eva stepped forward casually. "Why should we trust you to release Sebastian if we do this ritual?"

Mechaner responded smoothly. "I will keep him for a short time to discourage your interference, and even heal him before I release him. I keep my word, with one exception. He will be of no use to me soon - I will not need you to do anything else."

Jackson sounded harried. "The attacks are worldwide. At least three thousand cities and military bases contain centers of demon activity. They are converting the military hardware first. Any way to cut them off?"

I tried to speak, but the slight movement was still too painful. Eva responded quietly instead. "Mechaner says the critical components have 'gone away.' Unclear what that means. It may be nanotechnology or a misdirection or something else entirely." Aloud she asked, "How do we know you won't kill him?"

"It's a risk you'll have to take lest I kill him right now. I would prefer not to make it that type of story. You would be righteously enraged, and that's when heroes can start killing villains. Why would I want to start that?"

I felt like I was missing something important. So he believed the world worked by story logic? That fit with his insanity. Did he actually fear something going wrong with his 'fated' plan? Was it just aesthetic preference regarding events he didn't know were set in stone?

He claimed he didn't break his word, with one exception. In the psychologists recording he had mentioned swearing to be a hero, and breaking that promise. I didn't see why that mattered.

Okay, different tack: what mattered? The ritual mattered. Why did he need the magical girls? I had only read the world-destroying ritual. It specified three participants, never forsworn.

A cold chill descended the remnants of my spine. Eva had mentioned being known for keeping her promises. I didn't specifically recall Lina or Amaterasu saying the same, but they rarely made promises, and worded them carefully when they did. For that matter, I made a point to not make promises I wasn't certain I could keep. I laboriously started typing a message to all the girls using my HUD eye tracking. "Have you ever broken a promise?"

I saw them pause slightly as they listened to the electronic reading. They looked confused at first, but after a few moments shook their heads. Amaterasu gained a troubled look - she had also read the ritual.

Eva continued to probe Mechaner. I focused on what the oath-keeper revelation meant. Surely the chance of us all not having broken promises was minuscule. Maybe it only counted from a particular age of responsibility? Even so, why were all the magical girls never forsworn? Mechaner's advice echoed in my mind. "Why? Humans are so eager to assign agency to anything and everything. I am. Why am I? Because if I wasn't I wouldn't be."

To put it philosophically, 'our existence precedes our essence.' Was it improbable that there exist a small group of people in Tokyo who were never forsworn? No. It was just unlikely that they also be specially selected to be magical girls.

The magical girls existed because they sent those messages to themselves. They could send those messages because they were never forsworn. Of course they had this odd property.

Don't think about the shape of events as single linear causation, look at it as a population of possible timelines. Ask which subset of the population is the most numerous. What characteristics are most likely in the population of oath-keepers? Youth. Youth would mean less time to become an oath-breaker.

So why weren't they all babies? Surely people who were incapable of making oaths were the largest population of oath-keepers. What other properties were required to send a message to yourself? Not to be a baby.

The most likely recipients would be those competent enough to send themselves the message. I knew I had a somewhat skewed view because I tended to only associate with exceptional people, but I did recognize that Amaterasu, Eva, and Lina were highly intelligent and strangely well adapted to fighting monsters. Most teenage girls would not have fought so well or endured the pain and combat stress so well.

Why Tokyo? The magical girls would need access to the ritual somehow. Living in Tokyo would make it more likely that they interacted with Mechaner and got the opportunity to use the ritual. Was there a first time when he distributed the powers to girls, and since then through untold iterations it had settled on the most stable candidates? Does 'first' even have meaning in this context?

Then there was the question of the outlier: me. I had kept my oaths, but I couldn't do the ritual. Why was I here? My connections were a useful tool for the girls? More relevantly, should we participate in Mechaner's ritual? I typed a message with my with my HUD. "Does message ritual say 'never forsworn?'"

Amaterasu looked at the paper she had recovered from where I dropped it. Surprisingly it had survived intact. "Yes."

"Sincerely promise to send different message."

Amaterasu muttered, "What about?"

"Warn about Mechaner."

"Little space."

I resisted the urge to shrug. "Try. Do include your exaltation ritual."

"Why?"

My sentences were starting to sound brain-damaged. I wished I had more experience with the condensed text I usually reviled. "Prevent loop. Mech believe destiny, not interfere. Promise so ritual won't work if cheat."

If Mechaner noticed or minded our secret conversation he gave no sign. I would prefer to simply block his every move, but in this case it seemed safer to acquiesce. Sending the message now with the non-apocalyptic ritual seemed advisable. If the message was already sent, wouldn't that mean our message was more likely to come from the safe ritual, and hence less likely that we would destroy the world? Damn, I needed some paper to sketch this out.

Mechaner directed them to hold hands (or wrists in Eva's case) in a circle. They recited:

Great tidings

Epistle of woe or weal.

A belated warning or whispered words of wisdom

It is necessary that we shout it across the gulf

We three, never forsworn, do affirm it

Not on rash impulse, but through well pondered design

Remit

Lina burnt the envelopes to ash in the middle of the circle. Everyone stood still, tense. I watched carefully, but could see no effect. Mechaner gestured grandly with his free hand. "Excellent. I shall depart. Never mind my creatures, they shall do no harm as long as you do not interfere or leave this room in the next five minutes."

He directed the next comment to the nearest construct. "Carry him." The construct flowed forward and wrapped around me. As Mechaner turned to leave, Amaterasu stepped forward, still intimidating despite the myriad steel coils surrounding her slim form. "Heal him now. You can't carry him injured like that. It's cruel, and it might kill him accidentally."

Mechaner tapped his finger on his chin thoughtfully. "No, I don't believe I will. I prefer him this way. I would have gone for his neck, and paralyzed his whole body if I was confident I could do so non-lethally. Don't worry, as long as neither you or him interfere I promise to the best of my ability to see him returned unharmed inside twenty-four hours."

I didn't see much difference between full body paralysis and this. The construct restrained me completely, and I could have still used the HUD. As if reading my mind, the construct started stripping me of any electronics. Tiny steel threads plunged into my earbud and HUD, as well as half a dozen other devices. A tiny tremor went through the construct with each assimilation. I felt it very well through the sword. Sadly, my suit was designed to keep the painkillers to a minimum.

Amaterasu's eyes narrowed and she tensed slightly. Eva said, "No." Amaterasu looked at Eva then at me, pleading. Eva shook her head, saying again, "No."

I was forced to agree, despite really wanting a rescue at the moment. I forced myself to speak slowly. "I'll be okay. Don't interfere unless necessary. Study rituals, show to Jackson."

Killing Mechaner was definitely high priority, but we really needed him to call off his constructs first. He couldn't be micromanaging this war - the constructs must be autonomous enough to cause serious problems even without Mechaner in the picture. In fact, killing him might be worse than letting him win. The constructs would probably continue with their current 'take over military tech, then rampage' orders.

Mechaner withdrew. A continuous mat of steel wire roiled underfoot, pushing him forward like an escalator. The construct carrying me followed. Two converted helicopters sat outside, their surfaces gradually shifting into different patterns. Mechaner supervised the loading of several large boxes into one, then boarded himself.

I was shoved into the second helicopter. Three more wire constructs bulging with weapons slithered in after. I breathed in the sharp metallic tang. The constructs moved over to leave room for a large drone. This shifted my head out of the air craft. I could see nothing but the cracked concrete below. I was bound so tightly I couldn't even move my head. We took off and flew into a world at war.

~~~~

Chapter 19: Exegesis

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