by David Wright
"But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world." Romans 10:18
While life, death and the temporal paradox waged silent desperate battle within the narrow confines of my cranium, Mariko and Izumi lay on the mat beside me, their voices animated, energetic, alive. For two years, I had known of their deaths, the circumstances, the time right down to the second. Yet in those two years, when they had treated me like a sister, shared their blanket, their house and even their food, with me, a stranger, I had not tried to save them or even warn them. I was not their friend. I was their Judas.
Izumi: "The city, it's not so good."
Mariko: "When the men come home, we can move back to the rice field."
"I'm going to grow other stuff, not just rice." Izumi huffed. "Bamboo chutes, a cherry tree."
Izumi: "One time I told Murasaki she has to bend her back. She can't pluck the rice without bending her back. But 'No,' she said. 'Then you won't eat,' I said."
"Maybe her back hurts," offered Mariko. Izumi huffed.
"Maybe she's saving it for her husband, you know, to look pretty." I sat up, straightening my back with an exaggerated gesture. Izumi broke out in unrestrained laughter. Mariko, who was also laughing, not giggling, laughing, instinctively tried to conceal her open mouth with her small hand. As Murasaki's vastly repulsive face drifted into my mind's eye, I caught the humor of my own joke and laughed as well. No amount of back straightening could save that woman's beauty. "It's a lady's number one job to look pretty for her husband," I continued, "even if that means she has to stop eating."
"You don't." As if Izumi had just played a wrong, painfully discordant note on the samisen, the laughter stopped.
"She means, because you are already pretty, Sei," Mariko hastily intervened, "not because your husband's ... she didn't mean..."
Self-consciously, I fingered the stone pendants around my neck.
"It's so late," whispered Mariko. "We should sleep."
I didn't want them to sleep. I wanted to hear their voices, full of character, full of life, to the last second. But they would not speak anymore tonight, and soon they would be silent forever. Soon they would be dead.
Careful not to wake them, I slipped out from under the coarse linen blanket and walked towards the translucent rice paper window. The moon, barely visible, just a faint sliver of white, peeked into the room as the window slid in jerks and jumps along its wooden runner.
Why didn't I shake them awake ... tell them to run to the hills while they still had the chance and to not look back? They knew the missionary stories: Noah and the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah. Even if they didn't believe me, I had to warn them. 'Remember Lot's wife and the pillar of salt and don't look back.'
My grip released from the pendants. I gazed at the worthless black stones worn smooth and shiny by my constant rubbing. They were beginning to warm to my touch and the colourless black was shifting to a gentle shade of blue. Again my fist tightened around them.
At the funeral, they cried. They cried as if it had been their own husband burning in that box. I had been the lucky one. I had seen my husband's body, taken the pendant from around his neck, kissed his cheek one last time. At least I could grieve, while they were still cursed with hope. At home, I would not have cried, but here, with my friends, my sisters, I cried. For that brief moment, I was not their superior; I was truly one of them. But that moment had faded, and now I would go home alone and with a cool, scientific pen, I would give my report.
The stones were now hot and glowing a bright green. Holding up my thick black hair in a bun, I slipped the two chains off my neck and placed them on the windowsill. A warm breeze carried the hot scent of jasmine tickling up my nostrils.
"Hiroshima, August 6, 1945," I said into the night and my voice was cold. The stones flashed to white as an equally cold voice radiated from them.
"Sister Sei Horikawa, are you alone?"
"Your husband has not reported."
"His Zero was shot down in the Pacific last year."
"You saw the body."
"His Chronos stone..." The cold voice heated. "Is it lost?"
"I have them both. What about the others?"
"Forty-three missions were completed. Five ... six were unsuccessful."
"And my sister, Helen Alenas, Pompeii mission, year..."
"Alas, we lost contact with the Pompeii mission."
"You leave in two hours. Make sure you are wearing both stones. Make sure you are alone. And Sei..." The signal was fading. "I'm sorry to hear about your husband. He was a good and faithful ambassador of our Lord Jesus Christ." The stones went black and cold.
Now I was alone. My eyes burned. The reasons why we came -- to save the lost, to share the gospel with those who had never heard, who had never been given a chance to put their faith Christ -- had at one time been the most important purpose in my life. In the fourth millennium, time was truly the last missionary field and the pursuit of time's lost souls was worth any sacrifice. But after the unexpected death of my husband after only a few months on the mission field, those glorious, romantic ideals became hollow, vain, even cruel in my eyes. I'd hated them, as I'd hated God for taking my precious Toshiro from me. I stopped being a secret ambassador for the Lord. If it hadn't been for the comfort of my adopted Japanese sisters and the hope of seeing my real sister soon, I would have ceased to live at all. But now she was gone too, and my Japanese sisters soon would be, and I hadn't told them a thing.
The moon's knife-edge outline hazed over until it was nothing but a fuzzy white blob. Stupid girl! She knew this could happen. My husband knew it. I knew it. It was the most dangerous job in the world, not only for us but for the future humanity. We could never tell them who we were or why we'd come because it would change the future. It was the classic paradox of time travel. But we could tell them the gospel before they died because this wouldn't change human history, only the destiny of their souls. It was risky. Things could go wrong. The Chronos stones could be lost. Time could be irreparably altered, but we'd all thought it was worth it.
Sliding the window shut, I walked towards the mat with the pendants in my hand. Izumi was snoring and Mariko had meekly fallen asleep with her hands against her ears. They were all the family I had left. If they were to wake up now, see my tears and gently touch my shoulders, my cool, scientific heart would melt in their hands. I would break my oath. I would tell them everything.
I closed my eyes wet and did not open them again until they were dry. There was only one fixed, absolute answer to the temporal paradox, and I knew it as well as, better than any time-traveling missionary in the field. But maybe there was more than one solution. The stones were already beginning to warm again. Soon it would be time.
Bending down on my knees, I gently moved Mariko's hands from her ears. Slipping one of the pendants around her head, I kissed her smooth, tender lips. She did not waken. Slipping the other necklace around Izumi's head, my dry lips gently touched against her pouting cheeks. Her snores continued peacefully. The stones glowed white hot. Lying down between them, I closed my eyes.
A loud knocking, knuckle against wood, pried my eyelids apart.
"Mariko, Izumi," raked a hoarse voice. There was no answer. Murasaki's straight-backed outline was so distinct in the rice paper wall that my imagination immediately filled in the details of the ugly face on the other side. Soon that silhouette that was beaming through paper, would be permanently blazed into a brick wall.
"Go away," I yelled. "We're sick."
"Sei," Murasaki continued unabated, "you are not in your garden anymore. You can't do what you want. We're in the city. We have to work for the army, tear down houses, build walls."
"Go away!" My voice rose almost hysterical as I struggled to fight down a wave of emotion beyond my control.
When they again did not answer, Murasaki gave up her nagging and left.
I passed an hour or two in silence, my arms outstretched to the two empty spaces on either side of me. Would they hate me for what I had done, for not warning their families, for snatching them like a twig from the flames and sending them to a strange place, beyond their wildest imaginings, where they would be foreigners, isolated and alone? But at least they would have a chance, a chance that I hadn't given them. Someone there would tell them the truth that I had kept from them and then they would be saved. And then I would see them again. I would see them all again.
I could hear the planes passing overhead. My eyelids shut involuntarily as a blinding light filled the room, burning fiery holes in the windows. In another second, a massive mushroom cloud would sprout, overshadowing the city, and shock waves would demolish stone buildings, obliterate the delicate wood and paper houses, and leave over a hundred thousand people dead and dying. It was a long second.
(This story originally appeared in "The Sword Review", February 2006.)
© 2006 David Wright
Bio: David Wright's stories have appeared in over a dozen publications, including Antipodean SF, Martian Wave, Aoife's Kiss, Anotherealm, Flash Me Magazine, Alien Skin, The Sword Review, Forgotten Worlds, Planet Magazine, Atom Jack, and Neo-Opsis. Another of his stories will be published in Mindflights Issue 1 this winter.
E-mail: David Wright
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