Nobunaga was furious when he saw the sky castle, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. He stood in the lobby, mouth agape, eyebrows knitting together as he glanced quickly around the transport lounge.
“What is this? What have you done?” He asked, examining the dark-stained wooden interior of the lounge. Two suits of samurai armour were placed either side of the exit, and his gaze lingered on the helmet of one of them. “That’s my kabuto.”
I tried to remain very still, my welcoming grin held resolutely in place.
“Oda, a pleasure once again.” We had confiscated his katana before he ascended the space elevator, but Oda Nobunaga looked ready to kill me without one. “Perhaps an explanation is in order?” I gestured slowly to the VIP tea room we had established in the corner of the lobby. The entire city, in fact, had undergone a transformation within recent memory. The whole precinct, which had resembled the Sengoku period of Japan, had just been refurbished to resemble the Edo period that we were expecting in fifty years or so.
Nobunaga strode into the tea room ahead of me, and I followed at his heels. He turned and knelt, his entourage and myself quickly arranged ourselves around him at the table. We sat facing each other on the woven floor, beneath the dark, timber beams of the roof. Nobunaga looked at me for a long time, and then tilted his head slightly upwards and at an angle.
“Your sky city, it resembles my castle.”
“Yes. In fact we’ve taken great pains to model this room very closely to your own. In this sky city, we wanted to honour your culture by replicating it here. We’ve even taken the trouble to learn your language as best we can.”
“—is just a replica. Well, that’s how I’ll choose to describe it for you at this moment. Regardless, we wouldn’t dare take the real article.”
This seemed to placate the man for a moment. He lowered himself into a seated position, legs crossed. The room around him followed his body language.
“Perhaps I can explain?”
“Several thousand years from now, in the future, humans will be able to step backwards in time. Not for fun or anything, but as a practical necessity. We will make a mistake, and invent a technology by accident: matter manipulation. I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially, we worked out how to turn dirt into food or steel.”
Nobunaga looked at me through tense eyes. He gestured to a waitress who began to dutifully pour the tea between us. I was grateful for her arms, which moved delicately between us, occasionally breaking his stare.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite grasp what you are speaking about today,” he said. He raised his cup. “Are you saying you learned how to feed and equip an army from dirt. Your clan must have been very powerful with such technology.”
“Perhaps,” I said, hesitantly. “However, it was a double-edged sword.”
“I don’t quite understand the metaphor.”
“I’m not sure I do either, it’s a relic of my previous language, pardon me. A dead metaphor, which essentially means that it simultaneously helped us and hurt us.”
“I see, perhaps the phrase ‘a sword with a sharpened hilt’ would be more accurate?”
I smiled, and nodded into my cup. Nobunaga always did have such finesse with language. I had grown fond of our weekly chats in Gifu Castle. Down on Earth, there were many luxuries that my father hadn’t known in the future. You could look out of the windows and see the forested mountainscape. It was lovely. Certainly, for me, it was the greatest benefit of moving to this new time period.
“Tenkai,” said Nobunaga, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I believe you were talking about walking through time?”
“Pardon me, I was distracted. The problem was overpopulation, Oda.” I was careful in choosing my words. “It may be difficult to see in a time of civil war, but if you have plenty of food, and you are safe enough from invaders, the result is that many children are born. So, you have to find room for these new people: you build bigger buildings, learn how to grow food faster. You have to learn how to live in locations that were previously unobtainable.”
Here, Nobunaga looked out of the viewport, at the sun cresting the curve of the earth. The sky was different this time through Earth’s history. A great tapestry of construction now filled the heavens, a three-dimensional grid of beams and walkways had been unfurled to support a bustling mega-city: my home. It was a network of synapses in the stratosphere. Clusters of plazas and living quarters, linked by tendrils of support beams, suspension cables, and walkways. It was a see-through continent above the continents, woven from steel threads. The earth was now dappled in shadow.
Nobunaga broke his gaze away from the viewport. There were tears in his eyes. “So you stepped backwards, from the future, and built a city up here?”
“Why? Why not conquer?”
“We don’t believe that’s the correct course of action for us. After all, we’re probably distantly related to everyone down there. We’ve had our turn at the earth. When we were living down there, we made a mess of things. Too many people, not enough food. No more resources. Everything sundered by war. Besides, we can’t live anywhere other than here. We tried it on the moon for awhile. So, we decided to slip backwards, and just stay out of your way. Would you like to take a look around?”
Oda Nobunaga nodded and stood. The waitress began collecting the cups as we left. The transport lounge was only a smart part of the complex situated over Japan. As I led Nobunaga to the residential zone, he took in the artificial stone walls, timber buildings, bridges that crossed perfectly flat terrain. Ramparts that all spiraled in such a way as to mimic the mountainside of Nobunaga’s home. A wide range of trees and bamboo had been planted by the landscapers.
Our forefathers and the materials they brought with them had materialised around the year 4000BCE, and they had begun construction of a city that wouldn’t interfere too closely with the people living on the surface. There were some concessions that needed to be made, however. A great support beam for this section of the city, containing the space elevator, had to be planted in the Earth. The beam they designed was the same width as a redwood’s trunk: firmly planted into the apex of a mountain.
That was our people’s first trip through human history.
We’d stuck around, collecting the near-infinite energy from the sun, until the ozone burnt away, and then we pumped that energy into the city, jumped backwards, and did it all again before we ran into ourselves. Through this method, we’d managed to double the resources available, mine the asteroids, and there was still going to be enough energy and materials to go around.
“I’d like to see this,” said Nobunaga, and struck across a courtyard to the traditional theatre house we had constructed a decade ago. The kyogen play depicted the life of one of the Japanese unifiers: Oda Nobunaga.
I stood next to the man who would help to unite Japan, the ruthless warlord, Nobunaga. He watched and listened, stone faced, as actors depict his childhood, and then his future.
The narrator stepped forward, “the deeds of Oda Nobunaga, in the past, helped shape the political and economic direction of Japan for the next few centuries. Will he still move ahead with this course? Or will our interruption in the timeline prevent him from accomplishing his goal, or even reshape it entirely? Only time will tell.”
“This is about me.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Shall we continue the tour?”
“No, I think I’ve seen enough.”
Originally, there was some concern about altering the future when we had arrived. Would we vanish? Would time erase our interruptions?
Fun fact: time isn’t sentient. No butterfly effect. No grandfather paradox. Events just always found a way to unravel in a similar way. Why get too attached to the specifics of your own timeline? Better to just be an observer and enjoy the smooth ride through a slightly-altered past.
We sat then, on cushions, looking through a perspex viewport pointed out at space. Nobunaga watched the moon for a long time. The light from its surface played along the lines, grids, and ramparts of the sky city.
“All of life is a delicate balance,” Nobunaga began. “Have you heard the tale of the kind woodcutter?”
“No, I haven’t.” I replied.
I pulled out my cultural recorder.
“Each day, a tenderhearted woodcutter would go to the forest to collect fallen branches. He chanced upon a young man who pointed to a grand pine tree, saying that he should chop it down. But the woodcutter wouldn’t, saying that no one should have their limbs pulled off. As a result, the woodcutter remained poor. However, the young man decided to rip the branches off that tree and sell them. As a result, he became very rich and powerful, like you have.
One special day, the woodcutter chanced upon that young man again, who had been killed by the forest. The trees remembered what the young man had done, and they punished him because of it.”
“What does the story mean?” I asked eagerly.
“Even when you believe you have found a way to escape, there is always a cost when you take something from nature, if you do not give back to her.”
Together, we silently watched the children running through the city, dressed in kimonos. I switched off the recorder.
“There is one thing that is troubling me about all this,” he said after some time. “Why does your civilisation match mine so closely? I was expecting that you would have a much different way of life.”
A warm sensation travelled up the back of my neck. “Yes, well, my people are big fans of your culture.”
Nobunaga stood, bowed, and left for the transporter lounge with his entourage trailing behind him. Once the warlord was out of sight, my assistant approached me from the shadows.
“How did the negotiations go?”
“Well enough, thank you. But I believe he is beginning to suspect our weaknesses. It was wrong to bring him here.”
“He would have been suspicious if you hadn’t invited him to your home, after you had spent so many months visiting his.”
“What did you speak about?”
“He insinuated that we were in jeopardy, because we weren’t paying the cost for the resources we gather.”
“It was rather novel.” I pulled my recorder out and handed it to him. “Send this to the council for me, they’ll want to be the first ones to hear that we’ve uncovered a new story.”
“How do you think they do it?” my assistant asked. “So much creativity, sprouting from seemingly nowhere?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps one day we’ll write our own stories again.”