The percussion of a steady rain droned on the roof of the leaky factory and formed oily puddles in random spots. If I cared to look up from my work break, I could have easily seen hundreds of workers toiling inside the rusting building assembling with precision and pride thousands of medium caliber naval shells visible in the dim overhead lights. Most of the workers were very old or very young as any able bodied male had long ago been conscripted to serve in the Imperial Japanese armed forces.
At the time I thought I was one of the unlucky ones, stuck here as one of the anonymous drones toiling my life away in the Hamasaka munitions plant. Despite the fact that my father was serving on the battleship Yamashiro, I knew I would never follow in his glorious footsteps. It wasn't like my father's ship was new like the legendary Yamoto; in fact it was a clunky Great War veteran. Despite that, at the time, I would have given anything in that November of 1944 to be a member of its crew, as I admired the mighty six-turret warship with its imposing Pagoda spotting tower. I knew full well the war was crushing the empire like a snake squeezing a rat to death, but I was still foolish and idealistic; thinking one scrawny kid with a clubbed foot could actually make a difference in the war. I decided to focus on the charcoal sketch in my journal of a futuristic rocket ship that could travel all the way to Venus as I wolfed down my meager rice ration.
"Hiroshi-kun! Off in dreamland again?"
I looked up from my half eaten rice bowl at my buddy Hoshizaki Akira. He was a boy my age, but he was tall and muscular, with unruly black hair that never behaved. Only his missing left hand prevented him from enlisting as a fighter pilot. If anything there was even more nationalistic fire in his belly than in mine. I smiled to him as I carefully put away the nautical logbook that had been the last present my father had ever given me. I spoke up with my hateful stammer, "Sorry Akira-k-kun. I was just t-thinking about what exciting things the Yamashiro must be up to!"
A girl's voice chimed in with unwelcome commentary, "Hee-hee, your mind always goes back to those toy ships, right Hiroshi-niisama?" Sitting to my left, my sister five years my junior was spirited and cute, despite her humiliating disability.
Akira laughed as my little sister once again deflated my pompous ego with a well-timed remark. "I'd much rather be in one of those Mitsubishi fighters than in one of those plodding steel coffins!"
I pouted moodily at both of them as I glared at them through my thick glasses. I tended to bite my tongue rather than argue with Hiromi-chan; every time I snapped back at her, I always ended up feeling like I had just kicked a three-legged dog. Polio at age seven had claimed mobility in both of her now withered legs, and she counted on me as her transport. I pushed up my glasses by the frame and plunged ahead despite my aggravating stammer, "N-no matter what you t-two think, I still say our IJN ships are the b-best in the world!"
Akira laughed heartily. "Dummy! Well, I'm off shift. I'll see you two later."
I handed my sketchbook over, "Make sure this gets stashed in a safe place."
He nodded as he tucked it under his jacket. We both implicitly understood that I could get into serious trouble if the authorities ever saw my sketches of every IJN warship that had happened to sail past my harbor town! Since our mother's death a few years back, my sister and I were living and laboring in the local munitions plant for room and board. I knew there was no safe place to stash the logbook in the factory.
I hobbled over to the counter and dropped off the bowls and chopsticks and then hoisted Hiromi-chan up in a piggyback carry, "T-time to go make some more shells and d-drive back those rotten Americans!"
She giggled innocently, "Oniisama, I'm ready when…"
The entire plant fell deathly quiet as we heard the dreadful drone of the air raid siren fire up. A hundred panicked eyes looked in every direction for a place to hide from the U.S. bombers. I ran for the manager's office and I had just reached the doorsill when a blinding flash of pressure and heat engulfed us!
The dark skies and blinding rain were illuminated by the vast fires in the near distance from a still blazing and detonating munitions plant. I knelt at the cliffside and heard the waves below smashing against the jagged rocks, and the wail of sirens in the town behind me. I knew my normally raven hair was entirely burned away, but curiously I felt no pain whatsoever, only crushing numbness. I hoped Akira had survived the air raid, and would look after my sketchbook in my place.
I whispered softly as I stroked the hair of the young girl lying inert in my lap, "My precious imouto, I'm so s-sorry. I'm sorry." Slumped on the ground, with still smoldering clothes lay the body my sister, who had succumbed to her crush injuries moments before. Even in death, she was still eerily beautiful. The rain, my blood, and my tears commingled to stain her grey work outfit as my slashed veins bled out. No matter, as I would be by her side soon enough. I whispered, "I'm s-sorry. It's all my fault."
A deep mechanical voice behind me intoned, "Apologies are not required, Master Wakahisa."
I turned and gawked at what I could only describe as an armored knight through the cracked lenses of my ruined eyeglasses. The dark figure was completely clad in black metal, but strange blue lights illuminated the opening in the helmet where the eyes should be. He was carrying a bulky rifle unlike any I had seen before.
I stared at the suited figure with disbelieving eyes as dizziness started to muddle my thoughts. It was a mechanical version of an oriental devil. I gasped, "Oni. Are you..are y-you here for my soul?"
"Retrieving definition. Oni is the Japanese term for a destructive, giant monster with a single horn. Closest synonym would be a demon. It is an inaccurate assessment, but understandable." It heartlessly raised its rifle at Hiromi's heart, and the strange weapon lit up from within.
Even though it was already too late, I staggered to my feet, leapt in the way of the gun and screamed, "No! Leave her-"
The knight had gripped me by the neck, effortlessly picked me up, and tossed me aside like a ragdoll. The demon then fired the rifle and it a bright blue flash enveloped Hiromi in a brilliant ball of light, before it faded away, leaving her body as before. He then turned to face me, as he swapped out cartridges, and spoke in his creepy monotone, "I accept the usage of imprecise language is an unavoidable flaw in organic functioning. The answer to your earlier inquiry is affirmative. I am here to harvest your intangible essence. However, your corpses must remain here to forestall any temporal paradoxes. Regrettably you must terminate to reinitialize."
I tried in vain to speak but the blood loss was too much now. I rolled over onto my back as the rainshower pelted my face. The last thing I heard as my vision blacked out was the weapon powering up again. Then I felt an unbearable blast energy that burned my consciousness to ashes!
An indeterminate time later my eyes opened, and with a great deal of shock, I realized with numb surprise that I was somehow still alive. How on earth…? I had cut open both of my wrists and immediately realized that no one would be able to survive that much blood loss. Had my suicide attempt been thwarted? I lay naked under a white sheet on a strangely padded table with a single source of illumination bathing me with light, and effectively obscuring the contents of the room around me. I gasped as I noticed the slashed wrists and all my burns were gone. What the hell was going on? Was I in purgatory now? My raspy voice croaked, "Am…am I in hell?"
"Not in a literal sense of the term Master Wakahisa."
I sat up fearfully and was confronted by the mechanized demon again. Now that I had a clearer look at the menacing black figure without his…its helmet, I could see it was some sort of robot; just like the cylindrical behemoths I had written about in my fanciful science fiction stories. "You're a r-robot, aren't you, like in RUR?"
"According to my databanks your reference was one of the prototype Terran stories about mechanical automatons. Affirmative, I am a robot. However, unlike the robots that you in that story, I am programmed not to rebel."
I wrapped my shivering naked body up with the white sheet and stared at the strange monster with a mixture of curiosity and hostility. "W-where's Hirom-chani? What did you do with her…body?"
"Your younger sibling is being reconstituted, as you were. According to the most recent update by Enigma, the process is 72.667% complete."
He was lying. He had to be trying to trick me. I hissed, "Sh-she's alive? How?"
"She is not as yet functional. The reintroduction of the harvested essence is the final 0.001% of the process. In brief, the process includes DNA injection, nanomachine reconstruction and fusion on a cellular level, and essence infusion, restoring a humanoid form with memories of its past vessel fully intact."
I felt like a total ignoramus now. Despite my prolific interest in speculative fiction, I could barely understand a single thing this demon had just said. However the last part disturbed me to my core. "H-humanoid form? Past vessel? Are you saying I'm some sort of doppelgänger, Oni-kun? That the real Wakahisa Hiroshi is dead?"
The soulless, glowing eyes regarded me impassively, "Negative to the first question. Affirmative to the second question."
I felt the blood drain from my skin, and stammered, "W-what? Explain!"
"According to my databanks, a doppelgänger is an evil duplicate of an organic humanoid that by its nature means to harm its progenitor. You are merely a clone with symbiotic nanomachine architecture. You are not designated to be malicious unless that is your new preference."
He was lying. I just couldn't accept the truth. I was merely a copy of the real Hiroshi?
"To elaborate on the second answer, I affirm that your original form was terminated on November 10, 1944, 2317 JST by the reckoning of the most common Terran calendar. Your corpse remained behind in the prior segment of the timeline. I harvested your neuroimprint and Enigma later implanted it in your cloned body when you were transported aboard the PCV Golden Paradox."
I looked numbly at my adversary. After hesitating, I asked a question I dreaded, already having a hunch at the reply, "If w-what you say about Hiromi-chan and I is true, then it is impossible for us to return to present day Hamasaka?"
"That is affirmative as it serves no purpose. Your new bodies are no longer bond to that time and place."
I asked with a sinking heart, "Where is our destination?"
"When would be more technically correct. By your calendar, only two days have elapsed. However this vessel was commissioned on July 21, 5799. This ship's builders would have us return to the future to undo the collapse of the Paradigm Concordant."
The only world I had known was lost 4000 years in the past. The Empire I had known and loved was forever out of my grasp. Fatigue occluded my overwhelmed brain. I groaned as I slumped back and closed my eyes, wishing it would all go away.
I woke up hours later. I sighed as I was atop a padded bedroll, in a darkened room. Where was I again? It was way too silent and comfortable to be my straw mat in the factory. An unexpected synthetic voice jolted me to a wide-eyed panic.
"Master Wakahisa, it is oh-six hundred. It is time to arise."
I was ready to get back to work on the munitions floor. Then I sat up and the discreetly concealed lights automatically illuminated the strange room around me. The walls were metallic, not wood. I realized with a jolt that I wasn't in Hamasaka, and my beloved Hiromi wasn't here anymore. I sighed and rubbed my head, only to feel my dark locks of hair were restored. I sat up, and saw with surprise my twisted right foot was healed. My clothes were completely different as well. I was now wearing a black jumpsuit that felt strangely smooth to the touch. The only marks on the uniform were the nametag Wakahisa, a patch on the left that had the text PCV Golden Paradox and another on the right shoulder with a black background and red question mark superimposed on a golden infinity symbol. What else could I do? Moping over the dead wouldn't help me here and now. I spoke as I pulled on the boots, struggling with the laceless fasteners, "Come in, Oni-kun."
The door swished open and the black robot stood in front of me. "Enigma has requested your presence on the bridge."
Only now I noticed the robot had similar markings on its metal skin as the uniform I was in. In place of a nametag it had an ID number: ON-19. "W-what if I say n-no?"
"Than I shall be obligated to wait. You will remain within this chamber on this ship indefinitely."
I felt my shoulders slumping, "I-I'm a prisoner?"
The machine quickly strapped my boots closed. "Your status is undetermined. The Enigma AI was programmed by the ship's architect Professor Singh to decide your fate. However, given my prior mission expended a great deal of resources to extract you from your timeline, then confining you to these chambers until you expire would be illogical and counterproductive."
As I wearily stood up I automatically moved to adjuct my glasses, only to touch my skin instead. I suddenly realized that I could see fine without my thick glasses. I blinked, "Huh? I-I can see clearly! Oni-kun? What happened?"
"Master Wakahisa, the nanomachines are coordinating throughout your system to keep your organic vessel in top repair. One of their functions was to correct your defective lower extremity, as well as your hereditary astigmatism and nearsightedness."
"I s-see." I now understood the game was rigged from the start, and I left the room resigned to whatever fate had in store.
I walked down the dark hallway, with an ease that I had never experienced once in my life. My lame foot had prevented me from enlisting in the Imperial Japanese Navy like my father before me, and spoiled any chance at me from ever finding an eventual spouse. Who would ever want a destitute cripple anyway? Honestly I hadn't cared if I would ever marry, because taking care of Hiromi took priority. However, all of that was moot. The dark grey walls were trimmed with amber stripes, and I realized that the black and yellow motif seemed to be prevalent on this ship. However, nothing prepared for what hit my eyes when I followed Oni-kun into the bridge. I saw a podium with a captain's chair, and below in a semicircle were a number of control stations. Strange glowing panes of light hung suspended in midair all around the surprisingly cozy space. What startled me the most was the view out the forward windows was nothing but billions of harshly shining pinpoints of light on an ebon screen; framing a blue, white and green orb. I wasn't at sea after all; I was among the stars, looking down upon the Earth on a rocketship.
A pleasant male voice spoke up from nowhere in particular, "Good, you're up! You look much better Mister Wakahisa!"
"W-who's there? Are you Professor S-singh?"
I heard a soft chuckle, "Good guess, but my creator died centuries ago. The PCV Golden Paradox was his life's work, and now it is to be entrusted with your hands."
Somehow I got the gist of what the voice was saying, "Are you Enigma?"
"Yes. I am the computer core's AI. My personality was originally based on Dr. Singh's mental pattern, but I have diverged freely in my personality since then. Are you ready to accept?"
"W-what am I being invited to d-do?" I rocked on my feet nervously. I was giddy and disoriented.
"Nineteen, you didn't brief him then?"
"Negative, Enigma. That is your prerogative."
"What am I going to do with you? Don't worry about Nineteen, Mister Wakahisa. He's a good guy; he's just a little staid in his interpersonal skills."
I nodded, and I tried with difficulty not to gape too openly at my surroundings.
"In short we are begging for your help. We have but one chance to win a war that was lost a thousand years before this vessel was fabricated."
I knew about losing wars, but in one in space? I asked the obvious question, "Why m-me?"
"Nineteen, show him."
Oni-kun held up an old leather bound logbook, sheathed in a transparent cover. It was my old story and sketchbook.
I was astonished. I blurted out, "H-h-how did you…?"
"This book is the strongest remnant of your aura in this timepoint; this was the anchor that lead to your retrieval courtesy of the Paradox drive. Oni tracked your logbook to a baroness's destroyed library on Kaltheria Epsilon if you're curious. Every environment we interact with leaves tangles of eddies that influence the timestream. Under most circumstances, these disturbances quickly dampen out and die, but it can alter the flow of time if judiciously applied."
That couldn't be right. "Are you serious? This ship can t-time travel?"
"Correct. Unfortunately, we cannot alter the past beyond when this ship was created, so we cannot save your town, or help your country prevail in the global conflict that you left behind."
I already had guessed that being given a chance to bomb the United States into the Stone Age wasn't on the table. I cursed under my breath at the lost opportunity as I desperately wanted some payback. I focused on the here and now. "I u-understand. How can I change time for the better?"
"That, I cannot determine with certainty. The Paradox temporal drive can effortlessly express maximum probabilities, but it cannot decide how to act. I am an AI, but I can only act as the mission commander until a captain is selected. The PCV Golden Paradox requires a human leader. You."
"M-m-me? Are you j-jo-joking?" This had to be some sort of cruel hoax, right? This was a drying dream that would leave me bleeding out on the rain-soaked cliff on the outskirts of my bombed out hometown.
"Not at all."
This was beyond crazy; I reasoned that I was still in a dream, or maybe in purgatory. I took deep shuddering breaths before steeling my resolve, "I agree on one condition."
Several minutes later, I walked into a room filled with six giant clear cylinders, each filled with a luminescent green fluid. In the center was a very familiar looking bed on a pedestal. I now recognized that this was the room I was reborn in. I glanced around at the tanks and then I saw her again. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes as I approached her side…my little sister Hiromi! I ran forward to the cylinder and pressed my palm on the tube surface. She was floating naked in a liquid bath, with a serene expression on her face. My joy quickly turned to horror as I saw her hands and feet were still skeletal, only barely covered with exposed muscles and blood vessels. I fought down the urge to vomit, but just barely kept the gorge down. I screamed at the robot, "What did you do to her, you bastard?"
ON-19 looked at me with a featureless face, "This is the reconstitution process I spoke of earlier. You completed this process yourself 19.76 hours ago. Her new vessel is 91.821% complete."
Enigma spoke softly, "I'm sorry you had to see this, but you insisted-"
I snapped, "I know!" I forced myself to look at my little sister again. What kind of asshole would I be to drag her into this hellish future, just so I wouldn't be lonely? "Is she r-required for the operation," I asked darkly.
"Paradox currently calculates an 5.1% change of her revival being required for success. You being required stands at 89.5%."
I made the decision without hesitation and I pressed my forehead against the cool, curved tube. I stared at her serene face and vowed that she wouldn't have to share my lonely fate. "C-complete the reconstitution, but do not add her essence yet."
Engima sounded disappointed, "As you wish, captain. She can be kept like this indefinitely if that is your desire."
It was for the best for her to never wake up into the nightmare. "It is. I will accept r-responsibility for this m-mission! Alone."
"Thank you, Captain Wakahisa."