Chapter 1:

A Rip in Time

Challengers


Consciousness returned while I drifted downward through what felt like a cloud -- misty, clammy, gray -- and emerged into bright sunlight. I looked downward, away from the glare. Below me was the tropical island my team had been heading toward.

My memory was almost as hazy as the fog I’d just passed through. I remembered a massive explosion. Being blown out of the C130. My body twisting to the horizontal as my chute deployed.

Instinctively, I checked the open parachute canopy overhead for “blue patches.” Holes, in other words. Seeing none, I shook my head, trying to clear the cobwebs from my brain, then scanned all around me.

But when I saw what was bearing down on me I came fully awake.

It looked like a cross between a transport aircraft and a small aircraft carrier. The craft had a completely enclosed top deck that seemed to be mostly flat, except for a couple of fins sticking up near the stern and something that looked like the conning tower -- the navy guys call it the “sail” -- of a submarine near the bow. I couldn’t see any visible engines.

The strange craft was flying the rising sun flag found on Japanese warships and moving about a thousand feet above the thickly forested terrain below. It seemed to be slowing down. If it kept on its current course, I might be able to land on it.

I released my tie-downs, and my enormous rucksack dropped twenty feet to dangle on a cord attached to my harness. Easier to land that way.

I put my legs and feet together, flexed my knees, and hoped for a textbook-perfect parachute landing fall. I didn’t want anyone on that aircraft to have a laugh at my expense.

But, those T-10B chutes -- like the one I was wearing -- don’t maneuver all that well.

Apparently, neither did the aircraft’s pilot.

I slammed into the front of the conning tower, spread-eagled across the cockpit windows like a bug on a windshield. Gravity continued to pull me down, and I left a streak of blood across the glass. Behind the windshield I glimpsed a multi-seat control room and the horrified face of the pilot.

Wow, she’s cute, I thought. The impact rattled my brain, leaving me in a daze. But as I continued my downward slide I could swear I saw soapy water spray onto the windshield, followed by massive wiper blades swishing back and forth cleaning the blood off.

Then I landed. Hard.

I slammed into the deck with all the grace of a sack of potatoes kicked off the back of a truck, twisting my ankle, bruising my shin, and somehow managing to crack the bridge of my nose with the rim of my helmet. That’ll teach me to fasten it better, I thought as blood poured out of my nostrils. It joined the flow coming down from my upper lip that I’d smashed on the ship’s windshield. So much for looking cool.

I straightened my helmet as I staggered to my feet, then looked all around. Where are my troopers? There had been a lot of us crammed into the C-130. My friend Doc had been right behind me. But there were no other ‘chutes in the air, no one but me on the metal surface of the… whatever it was I’d landed on. I didn’t know Japan had anything like it. Maybe it was part of some secret program?

A door was opening in the base of the conning tower, so I pulled my rifle out of the case tied to my left leg and yanked the charging handle back.

The pilot I’d seen through the windshield burst through the doorway and ran toward me. She was a short young woman with jet black hair, dark brown eyes, and -- most importantly -- was unarmed. Totally ignoring the fact that I was holding an assault rifle and draped in parachute cords and silk, she jumped nimbly over the rucksack and seized me by the arm.

“I’m so sorry I ran into you! I was trying to maneuver the ship to catch you. Oh no, you’re injured! Come with me!” She tugged on my sleeve.

I sized her up quickly. She spoke Japanese but was wearing a military uniform I didn’t recognize. It was the sort-of-dressy uniform that rear-echelon types wear when they know they won’t be asked to stay outside for any length of time. She even had a skirt on. Who wears skirts in a combat zone? I thought.

Just then, a gust of wind belled out my parachute. I hadn’t had a chance to release the buckles attaching it to my harness, you see, so it yanked me off my feet.

Right into my one-woman welcoming committee.

I knocked her off her feet then fell on top of her. The cords and chute twisted together as the breeze blew, sending us tumbling across the deck. She let out an occasional shriek as we rolled along, while I apologized non-stop. Once we’d rolled up enough of the chute to keep it from catching the wind and acting as a sail we came to a halt. That was good.

But we were fastened together. That was not good. I think. I’m still conflicted about it.

The young woman lay pressed against me, making frustrated noises. “You! Did you do this on purpose?” A series of cute little oofs! came out of her. “I -- I think I can get clear if I just move straight ahead. Hold still!”

“You know I can’t move, right? Of course I’ll hold still.”

Good or bad, anytime you make a parachute landing your adrenaline runs high. That’s my excuse for what I said next.

“Did you know you smell like flowers?” Even through my damaged nose, I could tell.

“Oh! Oh, you --” She inched forward.

“I’m sorry, it’s not my fault!” I said, this time to her stomach. “Blame the parachute!”

“The what? Never mind!” She squirmed forward. I’d like to say that I enjoyed the feel of a pretty girl pushed up against me, but her belt buckle raked against the side of my face as she crawled past, and she kicked me in the helmet several times as she pulled herself clear. I’m pretty sure that last part was intentional.

I heard her sigh in relief as she sat on the deck. She stretched one leg out and swept her mop of hair back with one hand while supporting herself with the other. If she’d been in a swimsuit she would’ve looked like a model at a beach photoshoot.

“Hey! Are you gonna help me out of this?” I was still wrapped up in a wad of cords, straps, and equipment.

She blew a wisp of hair away from her face. “Hmph. No, I think I’ll just leave you in there. You jerk.”

“Oh, thanks a bunch. Well, give me a few minutes to cut myself clear.” I unsheathed a rigger’s knife fastened to my harness that I carried just for this kind of situation and set to work freeing myself. “By the way, I’m First Lieutenant James Peterson, United States Army, liaison with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force. Friends call me ‘Jim.’ What’s your name?”

She gave me a frosty glare, then looked away. “Lieutenant Asakusa Minori, acting captain of the grav-carrier Mistral Challenger.” She announced the name of her ship with obvious pride. “Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.”

JAXA has uniformed troops? I must have heard that wrong. But I noticed a rising sun patch on her uniform, similar to those worn by my fellow Japanese paratroopers. In any case, I decided that she was a “friendly.”

“So, what’s your story, lieutenant?” I sawed at a strap wrapped around my arm. “How did you end up on this ship?”

She paused for a bit, as if deciding just how much of herself to share with the creepy soldier who fell out of the sky and left his blood all over the front of her uniform. Maybe it was our recent close intimacy that decided her.

“I’m an astronaut trainee in the JAXA space program. But I really wanted to explore something with more life on it than, for example, the moon. Once the Challenger program started, I saw a chance to discover something far more exciting.”

“Wow! You’re an astronaut?”

“I was. But now, I’m an explorer-in-training, just like the rest of this crew. There are so many new things to see out there.” She rolled over and tucked her legs underneath her, watching with a smile as I tackled another stubborn piece of webbing. “For example, I’m fascinated to see what kind of butterfly emerges from this huge cocoon.”

“You’re hilarious. I’m glad to see that Japanese starship captains have a sense of humor, no matter how stunted or limited it may be. Hold on, I’m almost out.”

I slashed through the last of the ropes and resheathed my knife. “Thanks a bunch for the help,” I said. Not my fault if it came out sounding a little sarcastic. Okay, maybe more than a little.

Minori stared up at me as I climbed to my feet. “You’re so tall!”

I helped her up. “Nah, you’re just really short.” She gave me another glare. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to give offense. You can see why I didn’t join the diplomatic corps.”

I stared at the flag fluttering in the breeze on top of the conning tower. “Since when has Japan had this kind of aircraft? But, more importantly -- where are my troopers?”

Minori gave me a despairing look. “Oh, no. There are more like you out there?”

I was about to deliver a scathing reply when she glanced past me. Hey eyes grew wide. “Aiko, no!”

Something hard smacked into the back of my head. My vision grew dark and my legs buckled. Minori tried to catch me but I slammed into the deck.

Face down, of course. The last thing I remembered was blood spattering everywhere, and thinking Someone’s gonna have to clean that up.

EliteWarrior910
icon-reaction-2
Cora
icon-reaction-1
Miao Miao
icon-reaction-1
☆Veronica☆
icon-reaction-1
Parademero
icon-reaction-3
Taylor Victoria
icon-reaction-2
swagmc
icon-reaction-1
epicene
icon-reaction-1
Momentie
icon-reaction-4
Ochroleucous
icon-reaction-1