The Autumn Fortress of Sekai stands one hundred and ninety-nine stories tall. Only the glittering crystal spire beside it, the palace of the Pine Tree Empress, is taller. Between their tops slants the Generals' Bridge, a single brush-stroke in the sky. Its width is but an armspan, and it has no railings: those who advise the Empress and command her troops must possess both courage and prudence.
Space-admiral Moto, lean and badger-grey, approaches the forcedoor at the lower end of the bridge. Sensing no weapon beneath his dark-blue robes, the door shimmers and dissolves. He walks out into pale sunlight and begins the ascent to the palace.
Mid-span, he pauses and turns to face the Grey Mountains. There, legend says, live the spirits of those who fall in battle. He has never quite believed those tales… nor totally disbelieved them. Tomorrow – tomorrow I shall know for certain, he thinks, then walks on.
As he reaches the bridge’s upper end, the door to the Imperial Audience Chamber slides open. Inside, court musicians are playing the anthem of the planetary defense forces, and the Pine Tree Empress sits on her throne of priceless wood and glimmering tseta bone. He steps onto the square wooden dais and he bows deeply; the music falls silent.
The Empress acknowledges his presence with the barest of nods. "The battle facing us is dire, admiral," she says. "The invaders are less than a day's hyperspace flight away… and their ships outnumber ours three to one."
"Our strategy has excellent odds of victory, Your Magnificence."
"At too high a cost, admiral! No - there is a new plan.” She leaned forward, ever so slightly. “As you recall, five years ago I ordered the brains of my senior commanders to be nanoscanned."
"I remember," he says. The process had been lengthy and unpleasant.
"Using the scan of your brain, my scientists have created a robot from your scan, with your expertise in space warfare. It has, they say, all the tactical skills that you exhibited in your prime, at the Battle of the Three Suns – and with photonic matrices replacing human neurons, it is faster by far. It shall be the one who commands our fleet tomorrow; you will stay here."
"Is this wise, Your Magnificence?" he asks.
"Your strategy gives you, personally, a seven percent chance of survival,” she says. “We cannot afford to lose your experience. Your family’s honor must take second place to Sekai's safety."
For a moment, he lets himself picture a peaceful old age among his grandchildren… but only for a moment. "Where is this robot?"
She gestures toward the crystal wall behind him. "It comes, even now."
The admiral turns. A figure dressed in robes identical to his own is ascending the narrow arc, moving with the smooth athletic gait of his youth. He watches it reach the end of the bridge, then turns back to the Empress.
"Then, with permission, Your Magnificence, I shall leave your presence."
"You may go, admiral," she says softly.
"May your new admiral serve you well, Magnificence." He bows again, and walks through the door onto the bridge.
The robot looks up at him. It slows its steps, and they meet midway. He studies its face: though a rigid mask, it is undeniably his own.
"It is a strange thing to meet one's own ghost, one’s nochi-jite," he says.
The robot nods slowly, gravely. Shifting shadows cloud its mask, suggesting sorrow. "I regret usurping your rightful place in the battle. But my experience is yours, admiral, my skill is yours: the honor will be yours and your family’s."
The admiral gives a single nod. "Then before we part, let us view the mountains together."
They turn, boot-tips the same arm’s length from the edge, and face the misty peaks. The admiral puts one hand on the robot's shoulder.
What does it feel? he wonders. It must remember every battle I have fought, every book I have read… doubtless it remembers my pilgrimage to the Moon Temple after the Battle of the Three Suns, and the poem that I wrote there at sunrise. But does it understand why I wrote those words? Is it a warrior? Or only the reflection of one?
He clutches the lapel of the robot’s robe, thrusts his foot between its legs, and throws himself toward the bridge deck in vicious sacrifice – pain lances through his shin and the smooth fabric almost slips from his fingers.
He hits the bridge deck clumsily - but the robot is off balance now, toppling toward the edge. It twists, catlike, and one hand finds the edge of the bridge. Plastic fingers scrabble on smooth metal, but find no grip; the robot falls into emptiness.
The admiral raises himself painfully to his hands and knees and looks over the edge. Far below him the nochi-jite drifts like a falling petal, dwindling to a point. He pulls himself to his feet, bows solemnly towards the Grey Mountains, and walks back to the audience room, forbidding himself from limping.
The musicians and guards are whispering among themselves. Unbidden, the admiral addresses the Empress. "Your Magnificence, the project has failed. The robot, while no doubt a strong tactical theorist, did not grasp the Way of the Void – of readiness for the unforeseeable."
The Pine Tree Empress nods.
"Then with your permission, Your Magnificence, I shall rejoin my fleet." Space-admiral Moto bows once more and, without waiting for the word of dismissal, turns and walks back across the Generals’ Bridge.