I told them they had six months - at most a year - to bring the US to its knees, and then things would go to hell. Now, everything was going exactly as I predicted. Midway - a total disaster of blind luck. Four carriers lost. We had lost the initiative - and retaking it was a not going to be an easy task.
I rubbed what remained of my left hand on my face. That's what you're here for, I thought. I poured over battle plans for the defense of the Solomons. After ten minutes of struggle, I came to the conclusion that stress from the prior couple of weeks had clouded my mind.
I resolved to clear my head with a walk. Rabaul was not terribly pleasant this time of year - but the fresh sea air should clear my head, help me think a bit more clearly. Prepare myself for whatever was to come.
"Be aware, sir, that your flight arrives in two hours. After they refuel, you should be leaving for your scheduled inspection tour in Bougainville." An attempt to raise morale. I hoped it wasn't for naught.
I chuckled at my secretary. "Haruto, how long have we known each other? Have I ever been late for anything?"
Haruto smiled back. "Go on. I'll see you in two hours."
A salute from the door guard, and a wave of the warm, humid air of the Pacific washed over me.
The two hours had passed quicker than I had hoped - I did not feel any more hopeful than I did before.
The flight crew had just landed, and were now dismounting the aircraft. I anxiously awaited outside the hangar. I saw Haruto approaching in one of the staff cars, but it did little to relieve my anxieties.
"Never, ever late, Admiral. Oh! Before I forget. There's been a slight change of plans - you have a replacement plane, the usual had some mechanical issues. It's been modified in some way - you're the only one on that flight. The rest of us are in the other. Not sure how that happened, but your regular flight should meet us in Bougainville and the rest will continue as planned."
I frowned. Logisitics is usually better about keeping everything in order - switching the plane at the last minute for this sort of trip meant that something went seriously wrong.
Petty worries. I have bigger things to fret about. Like keeping the damned Americans out of the Solomons.
"As long as we're not late."
I boarded almost without incident; the crew, unusually, had a bit of difficulty loading my personal effects. Must be a green crew, I thought. They otherwise seemed fairly competent. A few minutes later, we were in the air. I found it puzzling that this plane did not seem very different from the usual one, but rationalized that whatever modifications it had were not immediately apparent. Poor Haruto and the others must be crammed into the other plane like a rice ration.
A crew member struggled to navigate through to the passenger compartment. "Admiral?" a rather ponderous voice spoke from around the corner. He attempted to salute, but hardly succeeded in the confinement of the aircraft. He entered the passenger compartment, frowned, and went back up the ladder into upper deck.
The din of the aircraft engines inconveniently located adjacent to the passenger compartment made keeping any sort of coherent train of thought an exercise in futility. Mercifully, the flight between Bougainville and Rabaul was comparatively short - about 90 minutes. I attempted to relax myself in what little space I had - awaiting an exit from this aerial purgatory.
I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to landing; land, now, beneath us.
The crewman from earlier rushed down the ladder, mildly injuring himself on the way down.
"Admiral! American fighters have ambushed us!" His faced was filled with panic, before rushing past me to gun station located beneath.
Within less than a minute, I heard bursts of gunfire. The plane began to swerve wildly. The initial rapid chkchkchkchkchkchk of our defensive guns opening fire marked the beginning of our engagement.
I began to reflect on my odds of survival. Japanese planes, while significant feats of engineering, were not known for their durability.
The rapid THUNKTHUNKTHUNKTHUNK of bullets hitting their mark sealed our fate. A burst seemed to rip through the left wing - but on further examination, the wing appeared mostly intact. Despite this, plane pitched steeply down. I could not see from the passenger compartment, but I knew the plane would crash any minute, giving me precious few seconds to find closure in this rather poignant turn of events. I found irony in that a pioneer of naval aviation would die in an assassination performed by naval aviators.
That was the last thought I had before I came to, still strapped into the doomed plane. A crewman jostled me awake. The panic that had consumed his expression earlier had been replaced entirely with professionalism. "That worked better than expected. Come with me, we have little time." I followed him out of the plane, which had maintained its shape remarkably well.
Before me, I saw something that I never could have expected, nor imagined.
There was a plane crash, just like mine, but far more catastrophic. The wings had sheared off. The fuselage was crumpled, and smoke poured out of the wreck contributing to an ever-growing plume rising out of the jungle.
And right in the middle of all of it, was a body in the passenger compartment. I remembered a nightmare I had at one point as a child - I looked into a mirror and instead of my own face, I saw something that looked like me, but wasn't me. All the way down to the officer's sword, the missing fingers on my hand, the stoic facial expression I tried to keep. It was an exact copy of me, more exact than human hands could craft. This particular duplicate had suffered severe bullet wounds.
I stood awestruck before my own death before reality kicked in - I was still very much alive, and this was quite obviously a very meticulous, elaborate operation to fake my death.
The same crew member from before grabbed my shoulder. "Let's have a little discussion. Please, take a few minutes to recover - plane crashes would shake anyone up, not to mention seeing one's own death before them. You seem to be holding up rather well. That's good. You have a lot to digest in the next couple of hours." He produced a small bottle of sake and offered it to me.
I declined. "I'd rather remain clearheaded, thank you. What exactly is going on?" The past ten minutes of events had blindsided me entirely. I may have been panicking internally, but I felt no need to show that.
He returned the bottle to the pocket whence it came, and rewarded my restraint with half a smile. "You're taking it better than most. As far as the world knows, you died in the plane crash. We've already checked this contingency - you will be posthumously promoted to Marshal Admiral, receive some significant commendations from Japan and Germany, of all places, and given a full state funeral." The matter-of-factness in his voice clashed heavily with the ideas he was conveying.
The panic I had been holding back rushed forth like a flood. "Who are you? What is this?"
He held up a hand. "One question at a time please." I tried to calm myself a little, but did not meet much success. I didn't even think to react to this blatant insubordination with anger.
"I did fail to introduce myself, my apologies. My name is Kenzo Ui. I am not affiliated with the Axis nor the Allies, nor the Soviets. It's a little difficult to explain who I work for. And this here is the place that the history books will recall that you died after a successful American ambush."
I found my stoicism once more. "I do not understand. Who are you?"
"It's OK, you can have a couple minutes. After that I can explain why all of this is occurring."
I thought of my family I was leaving behind. I thought of all the comrades-in-arms, whether they be the door guard I saw every day or those I sent into the Aleuts and had never met, or of Haruto, my ever-faithful personal secretary. I thought of the troops I whose morale I intended to boost, and that I had in all likelihood shattered it instead. I thought of the country I was leaving behind, and whose hands I left it in. I took small comfort in that my death would be viewed as honorable and tragic, and found some peace with that. I could process the ramifications of my 'death' later - for now I had to piece together exactly what was happening.
"Before you ask - there is no going back. Not possible."
I sighed. That question had not even crossed my mind.
"This may take a few moments to process. You are a practical man - I will not try to use weasel words and make it seem something that it is not."
Kenzo thought for a few seconds, and then continued.
"You know, I had a whole speech for this prepared - the occult, magic, alchemy exists, etc. You'd have a really hard time believing that."
"That would be a correct assumption." This felt like an elaborate prank, aside from the colossal amount of effort required for this endeavor.
"I decided I should bring proof." Reaching into pocket, he withdrew a sheathed knife. "Here's a knife. Does it look familiar?"
I frowned. "That's a traditional Japanese utility knife. So? I thought they were standard issue."
"You're correct. Pick a tree." We were in the jungle after all - fortunately the jungle lacked density, but it still gave me plenty of trees to pick from.
"That one over there. What is this leading up to?" I asked, pointing to a rather average looking tree perhaps five meters away.
"That'll work. You may want to stand back." He withdrew the knife. He prepared to strike the tree, as if he expected it cut straight through, rather than getting stuck in the bark and injuring his arm.
I watched with incredulity as he felled the tree with one strike. "I don't believe you. That was a set up."
"You're welcome to check the tree, or pick another. If you really want to, you can cut the tree yourself. Be careful though, it is quite sharp."
"Give me the knife."
I saw a smaller tree adjacent to the first one. I scrutinized it carefully - no trace of human tampering whatsoever.
I found it difficult to strike the tree as Kenzo had - my body struggled to understand that this knife differed from every other it had ever held, and that it would not injure itself while cutting down this tree.
After much effort, the tree was felled - exactly as Kenzo had demonstrated. A clean cut - not even the master sword-smiths of Japan could make something that sharp, or with that much cutting ability.
I returned the knife to Kenzo. "There's a lot more where that came from, and most of them are not nearly this mundane. Some are just bizarre - radio transmissions with disturbing content, items no human hand could have crafted. Others have the capacity to end the world, or even reality itself. Understandably, this is a little far-fetched, but I can demonstrate far more later."
I struggled to parse what was demonstrated with what I knew about the world. "Why haven't I, nor anyone I have ever met, encountered such things? Surely you cannot hide something of such magnitude."
Kenzo's smiled widened. "We do our best to hide them, and the reason you don't believe is primarily my job. I am - and now you are, too, whether you like it or not - part of an organization dedicated to isolating these sorts of things, whether they be people, places, things, or events, from the general population. I realize this may be difficult to believe. I can provide all the proof you need once we are evacuated to a safe location." A officer's staff car pulled it. It was not Japanese, nor American. It had no markings. "That's our ride. It's either this or dying in the jungle."
I obliged. The staff car drove into the jungle. "Why me? What will I do? I am an admiral, not a… whatever you are."
"Usually, we're just called agents. Me, in particular? I'm a disinformation specialist. Think somewhere between spy and Yakuza cleaner. And your skills are required."
"What could you possibly need a fleet admiral for?"
"A second world war rages behind the scenes of the one you fight. Our organization has former military men… but skilled tacticians, we lack. We've been 'poaching', for lack of a better term, from military commanders on both sides of this conventional war raging in tandem with ours. Why you specifically? William Gott asked for you by name. A British Lieutenant-General. He thinks rather highly of you. The Americans had already planned this assassination well in advance, and we found it to be an excellent opportunity to extract your for our own purposes."
"Why the hell should I work for you, or with him? Our countries are at war. You are not my country, nor do I have any other reason to assist you at all. Explain yourself."
"I am afraid I cannot. You will be briefed as fully as possible once we reach the ground, and then even further once we remove you from the island." The staff car stopped abruptly in front of a bunker that was, again, neither Japanese nor American in origin. "Ah, we have arrived. That's our safehouse - in a few hours we'll be evacuating you by submarine."
"I could name a few locations, but I would be greatly surprised if you recognized them."
"Do I have any choice in this matter? You said I couldn't go back, but can I go anywhere else?"
"There's always a choice, Admiral. I've been authorized to allow you to commit suicide. I see you have your officer's sword at hand - but I have cyanide capsules here, if you prefer."
I scoffed. Hardly a choice.
"I resent being dragooned into your war, but I fear I must accept your offer, and whatever it entails."
Kenzo bowed. "I hoped as much. Your new designation is O5-10. You will be provided with background on the other leaders, including the late -10, and whatever other information you desire that we can possibly muster. Welcome to the Foundation, Isoroku Yamamoto."