I healed myself once more, then crawled to Lina's side. I used the healing power on her. I really hoped there wasn't some terrible side effect that I was ignorant of. When it was clear Lina was out of danger, I began administering to Amaterasu.

She held the shield for ten more seconds before dropping it and falling limply to the ground. A wave of heat blew in. The Retrograde Entropy Sanction didn't seem to affect Amaterasu's tiredness, though it closed several of her wounds.

The wind carried dust and smoke in as the heat sucked everything into the sky. The crater was ten meters deep and extended for about thirty meters in every direction. The concrete we were sitting on was a smooth hemisphere resting slightly askew at the bottom of the crater.

The Machine was about eighty percent intact. It gleamed in odd contrast to the blasted land around. Eva stood, checking on Mechaner's head. I jogged over and tried a Retrograde Entropy. A little blood returned to his head, and the burns smoothed, but the rest of his body didn't return. Had the atomic bomb simply scattered it too effectively? Was there some other limitation? "Lina, can you freeze Mechaner's head please?"

She looked at me oddly. "Why?" I shrugged. "Just in case we can do something later. Freezing can't make it much worse."

She didn't seem convinced, but did as I asked. I finished healing Eva. Her hands didn't return. I asked Amaterasu for her cellphone. She had seven missed calls from Jackson. I looked at her, questioningly. She shrugged, exhausted. "I silence my phone during combat. Haven't you seen a movie where the cellphone rings inconveniently?"

I returned the call. Jackson answered. "Thank God! I thought you were dead. Can't you answer your damn phones?"

I coughed. "I didn't have a phone. Thanks for the morse message. Without it we would be dead. Why did they nuke us? We needed to force Mechaner to call off his constructs. Now he's dead. Not to mention, we could easily have been killed."

Jackson responded slowly. "They didn't. Mechaner's constructs took over a ballistic missile submarine off the coast of Japan. It launched three missiles at you, but our ABM took out two."

"The constructs nuked us? Why? It killed Mechaner."

His voice lowered. "I assumed he wasn't there. The constructs have intensified their attacks. Previously they were focusing on subverting military units, and ignoring civilians. Now they are converting everything."

"When did this start? At the same time when the nuke was launched?" Eva asked urgently.

Jackson responded. "Yes, I called you as soon as the missiles' destination was calculated - about ten seconds after they were launched." Right when Mechaner sent the message.

I continued, slower. "The constructs didn't obey Mechaner's order."

Eva asked with a worried tone, "Are the constructs fighting well? Reacting to new threats?"

"Yes. As much as they were before, anyway. They've adapted pretty well to our orbital weapons, and we only wrangled the mass drivers into the correct orbit a couple minutes ago."

I cursed. "Well, damn. I don't think Mechaner was ever Pando. He might have sent the message, but he was tricked into it by something else. What did the message lead to the creation of? The wire constructs. Have you seen any of his other minions? The plants or bugs? His constructs are all that's left."

Eva was skeptical. "They're good at fighting, but they're still limited in range."

I was getting more worried. "They were using guns for the first time. They used tools. They destroyed your phone when it rang. Was that a random reflex or were they actually trying to keep us from knowing about the missile?"

Eva frowned, but nodded. "We'll watch them carefully. For now, we need to see what Mechaner sent with the Machine."

Jackson asked, "Where are you? You aren't still near the Machine are you?"

"We haven't moved. The constructs were destroyed by the blast, and haven't returned."

"You are sitting in the middle of a recent nuclear strike? Are you crazy? The radiation will kill you. Get out, and don't breathe the dust!"

I blinked. "Um. Good point. Though I took Mechaner's powers. We should all be more resistant."

I still covered my face with a improvised scarf, and gestured to the girls to do the same. Jackson asked wryly. "Did you ever do those hard radiation tests?"

"No. Alright, we'll go, but we can't leave the Machine. It's too valuable."

Lina limped over. "Isn't it a bit late for that? It's not in great shape."

"I might be able to repair it," I responded thoughtfully.

How did Mechaner's powers work? I could tell he had two powers, but each had two variations. The entropy power could effectively run entropy backwards or forwards. It could restore a touched area to its previous state or turn it into dust.

The other power created a potential: either gravitational potential or electrical potential. Could it create a potential in the other two forces? I wasn't sure what that would do, and wasn't eager to find out.

I could try to restore the Machine to its previous state, but that might be more difficult later. "Jackson, can you get a heavy lift helicopter here?"

"No, I'm afraid not. The most I can send is a deep penetration drone. There's too much anti-air firepower in that area."

"Lina, can you lift the Machine?"

She shook her head. "Doubt it. Maybe if I really whipped up a tornado, but it would be a rough ride."

"Hmm. Maybe I could lift it with the gravity power? Let me try it on something else."

I tossed a rock onto the ground and focused. I raised my hand and clenched it while shouting. "Cardinal Impulse Augmentation!" The rock shot off at a thirty-five degree angle, nearly clipping Lina. "Okay, maybe I need to practice more first."

Eva took the phone. "Jackson, what's the largest parachute you can get here?"

"Hmm. Just a minute."

I raised my eyebrow at Eva. She smiled. "Lina carries stuff with wind, so a parachute will allow her to carry more. Plus, it will automatically stabilize the load."

I nodded. Jackson came back on the line. "We have parachutes used for dropping main battle tanks. Think that'll do?"

I nodded, watching the area around us. With the heat and wind from the bomb dying down, would the constructs return? Or nuke us again? I wasn't sure Amaterasu could block another one.

Remembering that the phone didn't transmit nods, I spoke. "Yes, send the parachute in the scout drone. Where should we go?"

"Head towards your grandfather's island retreat. I'll have a ship pick you up partway there. How long can Lina stay aloft?"

She looked exhausted, but quickly forced a smile. "I'm good. I'll get us where you need us."

"How long?" Eva asked gently.

"A couple hours? Maybe less."

"Okay. The parachute will be there in fifteen minutes. Sit tight, and don't breathe the smoke. I need to coordinate the evacuation."

It was fifteen tense minutes. I practiced the gravity and entropy powers. I was hesitant to try the lightning form around the Machine. Fortunately, Retrograde Entropy Sanction restored the Machine to its pristine state.

I was about to read the surprisingly short message Mechaner had sent when Eva stopped me. "Are you sure you want to read that? It drove Mechaner insane. Mechaner claimed that this message is designed or evolved to replicate itself. Can you imagine how manipulative someone with future knowledge could be?

How about something much smarter than you with future knowledge? You wouldn't be able to trust any conclusions you came to from reading it. Worse, we wouldn't be able to trust that you weren't being manipulated."

I grimaced. "That's a good point, but if it's that powerful aren't we already screwed?"

"Maybe. Is it a good idea to risk it? You should keep as much causal distance from that message as you can."

"We have it right here. Maybe scaring us into blinding ourselves is the real manipulation. Besides, Mechaner could have simply told me the message if it was so damaging."

"Or maybe the phrase would work better if you read it here, while you are desperate. Remember, this could be sent from the future."

"So if I don't read it, it wouldn't be dangerous, but if I do read it then it would have a trap."

"Maybe. Which path do you prefer?"

"Hasn't Mechaner already sent the message? He didn't have any future knowledge relating to now when he sent it."

"Maybe he sent part of the message now, and part will be sent in the future. Or maybe he was tricked into thinking he had sent the real message. After all, the ritual message we sent was different than the one we received. Maybe this works the same way - increasing the probability of the world-lines where that message appeared."

"We don't know that the ritual worked. That was why I had Amaterasu promise to send a different message to herself - so the ritual wouldn't work if Mechaner was somehow actually sending the original message."

She blinked and tapped her lips. "Hmm. Does that mean we could still send the original calls?"

Our conversation was interrupted by a fixed-wing drone dropping a giant bundle in the crater. I jumped down and, with Eva's help, heaved it to the Machine. We hooked the parachute to the Machine after battening everything down as much as possible. We separated the Machine from the concrete and held the parachute partially unfurled.

Lina called a gentle vertical wind. The parachute fluttered in the air for a moment before expanding with a loud snap. The Machine creaked under the jerk. I winced and nodded to Lina.

She increased the wind. Around us the dust started to rotate, becoming the walls of a giant twister. The parachute strained, lifting one corner of the Machine into the air. I darted forward and stabilized it. The new strength was heady, though strangely easy to forget about.

Amaterasu perched on the Machine. I joined her, ready to repair the Machine if it showed structural weakness. Eva was left with the unenviable task of bagging Mechaner's frozen head.

We flew for over an hour. Most of the time was over water. I was beginning to seriously worry about Lina's endurance when I spotted the flashing lights in the distance. It was a large civilian yacht.

We set the machine down. It didn't quite fit, but it dropped with enough force to make the needed space. I kept a nearly continuous Retrograde Entropy active on it. Hopefully that would keep it together.

The trip back held a surreal pall. The commandeered yacht's civilian captain cursed and drank. Lina joined him.

Eva planned obsessively. I joined her for a while, but we kept going in circles. We were too close to the moment. I left to find Amaterasu. She was huddled on the roof of the yacht, shaking slightly. I touched her back gently. She raised her head, and her face was dry. She was laughing, not crying. I started to ask her if she was okay, but she raised a finger to my lips. "Not now. Just not quite yet."

I nodded and sat with her quietly, one arm over her shoulder.

One way or another it was the end of the world. I felt a curious blankness. Some people responded with rage, some with depression, some with apathy, some with laughter. Was it just the stages of grief, or something more personal?

I sat on the roof with Amaterasu, watching falling stars. The war in space still raged. From a distance it was beautiful.

The island was pretty much how we left it, except the practice defenses had been replaced with real ones. Jackson and Father were waiting at the dock. Father nodded politely at the girls. They still looked slightly put out at his presence.

Amaterasu came to stand very close to me and glared at him. Lina seemed to be contemplating how far into the ocean she could throw him; once that came up disappointingly short due to her exhaustion she slumped grouchily.

Father shrugged and waved a group of mercenaries to unload the Machine. First things first. I asked, "How secure are we here?"

Jackson responded. "The oceans are still humanity's. The land is not. We are trying to thin the constructs' nuclear capabilities, but a significant arsenal has been captured. So far they've only launched a few nuclear strikes. This may be because our orbital defenses are sufficient to intercept most ICBMs."

"Who are 'we,' exactly?"

Father answered this one. "A few loosely coordinating military leaders from several countries. You've already met most of them, though we've had a few additions. Of course, 'we' represents humanity in some contexts."

"Any casualty estimates?"

"Unknown. They haven't been outright massacring civilians, but they've stopped ignoring them too. Even with just the collateral damage and the disruption to normal services? Casualties are going to be high, but not catastrophic. Yet."

"How much time do we have?"

Jackson cut in. "Enough that you should get some rest before continuing - all of you. We'll wake you if you are needed."

I suddenly realized how tired I was. The girls looked worse. Amaterasu was almost nodding off while we walked. I agreed. "Okay. Our old rooms? Oh yeah, Eva: give Jackson Mechaner's head."

He took it with a bemused expression. "Trophy of victory?"

"No. I tried to heal him, but it didn't work. In case I find out why, I figured we should keep his head frozen. He probably knows lots of useful things."

Jackson blinked. "Okay." He drawled. "Well, I'll just put it in the deep freezer with 'do not eat' on it."

I shrugged. Until I could get some liquid nitrogen that would have to do. We had been evicted from most of our old rooms. The island was basing too many people to give everyone their own bedroom. The girls shared a room, while I bunked with three Australian mercenaries. I was asleep before Jackson closed the door.

I woke some time later and went to check on the Machine. The girls were already there. Three technicians were trying to wire the Machine up. I considered trying to help, but frankly I hadn't been paying much attention to how Mechaner had set it up.

Instead, we decided to test my powers. It was a beautiful morning. The cheerful bird calls and blue sky seemed out of place. It was still refreshing. We started practicing on the field the main road ran through.

I soon learned that the gravity power could only pull in three different directions. A little head scratching showed that these directions corresponded to the earth, moon and sun. The strength of the effect was less for the sun and the moon, but not actually proportional to the existing gravitational pull.

The lightning was a similar effect. It preferred to flow from preexisting charges. This usually meant clouds, though I planned on experimenting with powerlines and large capacitors.

Retrograde Entropy Sanction and Progressive Entropy Sanction spread from a point touched. They seemed to have no effect on gases, though it was possible that the effect was non-obvious. Both could vary in intensity.

Generally speaking, Retrograde Entropy Sanction returned the touched areas to a previous state, while Progressive Entropy Sanction disintegrated or burned the same.

There seemed to be some odd safeguards. For instance, using Retrograde Entropy Sanction wouldn't wipe a memory card, even though it would repair corrupted sectors. Furthermore, it would only work if you had 50% or more of the original mass, so Mechaner's head was out.

I tried the longest test by touching Eva's stumps while repeating the incantation over and over. The longer ago something had been damaged, the harder the repair was. Sitting in one spot was difficult, even with my super toughness. The effect seemed to be magnified by uninterrupted application, so I couldn't move much.

After two hours her hands finally began to reform. The process only took five minutes once it started. She stared at her fingers, slowly closing them. She wasn't smiling, but there was a strange quirk to her lips.

She laughed suddenly and ran around the room, touching everything. She ran up and hugged me tightly. She even kissed me on the cheek on the way in. She hadn't ever shown this much affection to me. It was a bit uncomfortable, especially since Amaterasu was looking in from the door.

I looked at Amaterasu guiltily. She teared up. She waved off my transparent concern with a laugh and jumped on Eva. "Oh Eva, I'm so happy for you. Let me see them."

She laced her fingers in Eva's and pulled her into a little dance, literally glowing. I hadn't seen this effect before, but couldn't bring myself to interrupt them. Lina joined us, but refused the dance invitation with a snort.

I slipped out and went to my brother. Father had brought Jacob here, of course. He was lying pale and emaciated - barely visible under the machines keeping his body alive. His brain was long gone.

I took a deep breath and prepared myself. Five hours should be more than enough based on my calculations. I had seen to various necessities, and was ready. I began. Thirty minutes later Father entered. I looked at him but didn't try to communicate. He stood unmoving and impassive.

Seven hours in, I stuttered and coughed. I tried to make up for it, but I knew it was too late. I raised my eyes to Father. He still stood there - emotion showing on his face now, but I didn't know how to interpret it. He knew it would have worked by now if it was going to.

Dr. Edelstein had followed us during the tests, eagerly taking notes. Even he had enough social sense to stay quiet during this test. He cleared his throat nervously. We looked at him. He quailed for a moment under our gaze, but rallied. "If this functions as Mechaner described then it will probably be unable to return to a state that existed before the pump was instantiated."

Father nodded once and touched my shoulder. Not quite a squeeze. He spoke to the quietly crowded room, and his voice was as controlled as always. "Council in three hours. Get what rest you need."

"Not quite defenseless." The Russian general smirked. "We can get much more material into orbit than you'd expect."

I raised an eyebrow at the translation. "There are, what, 1000 people in orbit? Half of them tourists. How much material can you have up there?"

"It was kept secret from the public. Mainly because even we have anti-nuclear lobby."

I blinked. "No way. You don't mean Orion?"

He laughed, showing his teeth more than necessary. "No, not Orion." He waved his hand at the screen. It changed to display a gigantic concrete cylinder, emerging at an angle from a calm bay. How far the cylinder continued beneath the waves was unclear. "A nuclear cannon. Good for one shot each. Each one will deliver 10000 metric tons to orbit."

I blinked. "Damn. How many do you have?"

"We have seven built. They'll be firing later today. If we can hold out for another month we will have ten more ready."

"Surely you can't launch people in that."

He shook his head gravely. "The acceleration is too much. We will run the civilian launch fleet as fast and crammed as possible. I expect two thousand more bodies in orbit within a week."

Father rumbled. "Worst case scenario. Can we launch enough for a self-sustaining settlement?"

The Russian grimaced. "Difficult to say. It has never been tried. Let us hope we don't have to. Our advantage in space is the best edge we have. Three nations have orbital anti-ballistic missile satellites. Combining those installations we have pretty damn good ABM coverage, but if we want to strike back we are limited. If we launch war material from these cannons I hope we can beat back the constructs. At least retain control of the sea."

Amaterasu asked, "What about the civilians on land?"

The Japanese general answered. "There's only so much we can do. Any hardware we send inland gets converted or destroyed. We can bomb them, but that doesn't help the civilians much. The constructs themselves simply reform after being shattered.

They've assimilated every high-level piece of technology left. We have been forced to use nuclear weapons on several space launch facilities lest the machines capture an intact launch vehicle. Fortunately, the low-tech transportation systems are still intact so most people aren't starving yet."

I nodded. "We can't kill the constructs without wide-scale nuking. Even that wouldn't exterminate them. So we launch the war material, but also send enough supplies to attempt an space settlement. In the meantime we..." I gestured at the girls and me, "will try to figure out the Machine, and see if we can strike at the root cause of this."

The Japanese general asked the room, "What is your opinion? Is this just Mechaner's creations running along haphazardly without him at the reins? Or is it more?"

Dr. Edelstein spoke. "I have studied the constructs closely. They have acted with increased intelligence over time. This process has continued, even significantly accelerated, after Mechaner's death. I don't know if they are 'Pando,' but they represent a huge threat."

I thought aloud. "They started out assimilating anything and everything. Later they all had computers or cell phones. Could they be using the computational power of the devices they assimilated?"

Dr. Edelstein hummed, apparently excited to be puzzling out a strange problem. "Possible, but I don't see how. Or why for that matter. They work just fine without them."

Eva interjected. "Maybe they just work better with the help. It seems awfully complicated to design, though."

Edelstein stood and paced. "More importantly, why has the improvement continued after his death? Surely they haven't reached the point of self-improvement - they've been getting more intelligent, but not that much."

I felt like this was familiar. "What happened to the first machine? It malfunctioned because it was more likely to malfunction than work. What if the same thing is happening here?"

I continued with growing dread. "Mechaner, inspired by Pando, programmed the outcome pump to make the constructs act in certain ways. They acted intelligently because he could force the outcome 'act intelligently.'

The simple things they were doing, like recognizing enemies, are actually really complex actions that took our scientists a long time to solve. Mechaner cheated, getting results without doing the dirty work. Those results are more likely in worlds where the constructs are actually intelligent.

So it's been forcing the constructs to adapt, to evolve at light speed. The most likely path to intelligence would be randomly interfacing and reprogramming existing computational systems. So the process of randomly assembling an actual thinking structure accelerated when there were more constructs."

Edelstein nodded excitedly. "A billion billion possible worlds. One of the worlds in which the construct acts as commanded randomly. One in which it acts as commanded because a primitive logic circuit was randomly assembled."

I asked grimly. "Is there an upper limit?"

Edelstein pursed his lips and drummed his fingers. "I suppose when they would always follow the outcome forced by the pump anyway. Do they have any capability that could be improved upon without bound?"

I shook my head. "There's lots of possibilities. Vision? Abstract combat capability? Assimilating technology?"

"So we might have a time limit." Eva said grimly.

Mr. Nakada spoke up. "We definitely have a time limit. The constructs are approaching this island. We are engaged in a fighting retreat across the ocean."

"How long?"

"I expect they will reach the island in three days."

"Will we be able to get the material launched in time?"

"Yes. Baikonur just launched their last vehicle and is evacuating now. That should be sufficient manpower to assemble the mass drivers at least."

Lina raised a lazy finger. "How are the constructs attacking? I mean, how are they getting here?"

The Japanese naval commander answered. "Mainly with converted civilian vessels. They are surprisingly tough to put down."

Amaterasu asked, "So what can we do? We can fight in areas where regular weapons would be converted."

Nakada shook his head. "It's not worth it. Your abilities are unique, and may still prove important to solving this at the source."

I nodded enthusiastically. I didn't want us to fight the whole construct army with no support. Would asking about getting a seat on those space launches be considered poor form? I resolved to ask Father. Surely he had an in. "Okay. Let's see if we can get the Machine running before then. If we have to evacuate we'll be set back."

We broke up the meeting. Everyone had things to do.

The invasion began shortly before dawn two days later, a little after we had finished fixing the Machine and right when we determined that it wasn't sending us any messages from the future.

Sadly, Mechaner had only repaired the components necessary to transmit. We mainly acted as Edelstein's sole assistants in this endeavour. There weren't really any qualified scientists or technicians available. My Retrograde Entropy proved invaluable, as it still malfunctioned at every opportunity.

Since it still couldn't manipulate electron paths I think the Machine was simply insufficiently recovered from its many traumas. Could we send messages to the past, perhaps warn Mechaner or another Diluvian employee? What would happen if we tried to change the events we already knew had happened? I could guess - no one would find our messages, or the Machine would be destroyed in a freak accident.

I didn't read Mechaner's message, but I was running statistical analysis on it. Hopefully, that wouldn't provide enough of a vector to infect me.

The Machine was established in the giant central cavern dubbed The Vault. Near the end of his life my grandfather had converted the ceiling of The Vault into a giant planetarium of sorts. I had updated the huge hidden projectors to display the view from a high quality camera at the top of the small mountain.

The projectors displayed a 360 degree view with carefully sculpted distortion. We could watch the weather, the stars, and the satellites. We could watch the war.

Reconnaissance drone feeds showed flotillas stretched out across the horizon. From military destroyers to tugboats to fishing trawlers, they were all burdened with constructs.

The inaugural missiles flew from both sides. Interceptors and lasers downed most of them, but a few slipped through. The fleet pulled closer. Stars fell from the sky, each impact destroying at least two ships. The Russian launch cannons had delivered the mass drivers as promised.

The fleet still advanced under the bombardment. It made sense - retreating would not reduce the losses.

Jackson was with us. He took a wide view of the battle. Despite his military training he didn't have a place in the command structure of the established military units. He did direct my few remaining drones and Father's mercenaries to secure the mountain fortress.

He kept up a terse commentary. The long-range air forces were engaged now. Fringes of vast forces clashed in distant flashes. The orbital bombardment still took a terrible toll on the approaching ships.

Amaterasu suddenly asked Jackson, "Yuriko? Where is she?"

"Last I knew, she was taking a helicopter to Diluvian. Trying to get a good view. She promised to watch from a distance, but I didn't hear from her again."

The bomb. Or caught by the constructs on the way. Amaterasu looked down. "Oh."

Jackson watched his screens. "Launches. From all over the world."

"ICBM?" I asked, tautly.

"Yes, but high apogee. The constructs are trying to take out our orbital stations."

"Can they?"

"They'll get a few rockets through, but probably not enough."

We watched the status report. Simple numbers blinking down. Indicating distance, and number of targets. Despite our remote location a dozen thin lines dove for the heavens on the ceiling projection. Eventually most of them winked out in dim flashes. There were a few moments of silence. "Damn. Some of our largest stations are going to be hit."

"The mass drivers?"

"About a third of them. We should still have enough."

On the screen a misshapen nickel iron asteroid floated, dozens of foil mirrors orbiting it slowly. Reflected sunlight melted one section of the asteroid. A fragile wire frame stretched for kilometers, pointed towards the slowly rotating earth below. The frame would have been invisible if the sun wasn't at the right angle to reflect off of it.

A speck of light approached, growing with frightening speed. It had nearly reached the asteroid when it winked out. I waited for the collision, or the blinding light. Nothing happened. I breathed out. "Did it miss? Or get shot down?"

Jackson shook his head, frowning.

The light reflected from the asteroid dimmed subtly. I looked closer at the screen. The texture changed, complex swirls branching out. The surface shuddered and wires extruded. We all fell silent.

The constructs had created more observation devices. They could spread their influence anywhere. There was no refuge in space.

More stars fell. This time on our forces. The stone shuddered underfoot with each impact.

~~~~

Chapter 21: Falling Stars

Vote for on Top Webfiction

Purchase Complete E-book