Chapter 2:

Prisoner of the Challengers

Challengers


Once again, I came back to my senses after being rendered unconscious. But this time I couldn’t move.

I was thoroughly trussed up from head to toe, with my wrists tied behind my back and my ankles bound together.

Whoever was responsible had added another sadistic touch. My legs had been drawn up behind me, and a noose fastened around my throat was roped to my ankles. I was forced to keep my head up or strangle myself as I lay on the floor.

It was a classic pre-interrogation technique used to soften up captured soldiers, although knowing that didn’t make it any easier to deal with. I wondered if Lieutenant Minori Asakusa, JAXA acting captain, was exacting revenge for her earlier treatment.

I made a mental note not to piss her off again in the future, then examined my prison as best as I could.

I was in a steel enclosure that was more of a storage container than a cell. The floor was lined with cardboard and foam padding, and the air smelled strangely like tatami mats. Beyond the barred door were crates and pallets loaded down with boxes that were unrecognizable in the dim light of what was obviously a cargo hold of some kind.

These people really had a lot to learn about taking prisoners, though. They had taken my rigger’s knife, commando dagger, utility knife, and boot knife, but they’d missed a tiny blade hidden in my belt. Just how many knives do you need already? someone had asked me once. All of them was my smug reply. I think I was carrying at least six when I jumped. It’s a dangerous world out there, you know.

After a little bit of stretching and rolling around, punctuated by a few grunts and curses, I was finally able to fumble out the push blade. I hid it in my hands.

I didn’t cut myself free immediately, although early in the POW process is usually the best time to escape. But I wanted to find out more, and these people didn’t strike me as hard-core military types. Instead, I mentally prepared myself for the interrogation I was sure was coming.

The floor and walls of the cargo hold rattled slightly, and I felt a bump. A high-pitched whine in the background slowly lost volume, like the sound of a turbine spinning to a stop, and the ship became silent. The Mistral Challenger had landed.

Fifteen minutes passed.

Thirty minutes.

I coughed a little and eased my head back. While I was engaged in the fine art of not strangling, the overhead lights came on. I heard the door to the hold open with a bang, followed by the sound of footsteps.

“Lieutenant Peterson?” It was Minori’s voice. “The ship has landed for routine maintenance, so I thought I’d bring you something to eat.”

On the other side of the barred door, a pair of boots appeared. I heard a gasp.

“Oh, Lieutenant Peterson!” The hem of a skirt came into view as Minori dropped to her hands and knees, followed by her anxious face. She had to twist a little sideways in order to make eye contact with me. “I’m so sorry! Aiko had no right to restrain you like this. Hold on.” She rose to her feet and vanished out of sight to one side. I heard a key turn in the lock and the door popped open.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. She placed a tray of what looked like some really tasty food on the floor a few inches from my twitching nose.

“Is this part of my torture?” I choked out as the noose around my neck tightened again. “Putting the food out of reach? That’s just mean, you know.”

“No, of course not! Here, let me cut this cord around your throat.” The line connecting my ankles to my neck vibrated, and I felt something sawing at it. “Aiko said she had restrained you, but this is going much too far.”

The line suddenly went slack, and I did a face-plant onto the floor. “Ouch!” My abused nose started bleeding again. “Is this the part where you start roughing me up?”

“No, no! Oh, I’m so sorry! Here.” She whipped a cloth napkin from the tray. Kneeling next to me, Minori used it to wipe the blood away. I gave a long sigh of relief as I relaxed my overworked legs and neck.

“You’ll have to hold that napkin there for a minute to stop the bleeding,” I said. “Hey, why don’t you roll me onto my back? That’ll help a lot.” And it would also conceal my hands if I needed to cut the ropes binding my wrists.

She helped me turn over, then held the napkin against my nose. “Your nose certainly bleeds a lot, Lieutenant Peterson.”

“Yez,” I answered through my clogged sinuses. “Id duzz, duzzn’t id.”

She chuckled and gave me a smile that made everything I’d gone through almost worthwhile.

The nosebleed finally stopped. She delicately dropped the bloody rag of a napkin outside my cage, taking great care to keep from touching it more than necessary. A neat freak, I thought.

“Housekeeping automata won’t be happy to see another blood-soaked piece of cloth. Honestly, you’ve only been on board this ship a short time and you’ve bled all over it. It’s a wonder you haven’t died of exsanguination.”

“What’s a ‘housekeeping automata?' Never mind, how about cutting me loose so I can eat?”

“Eh, uh, no. Not until Aiko finishes searching your equipment.”

“Who’s Aiko? Is she the stormtrooper who KO’d me, then tied a noose around my throat?”

“Ensign Aiko Kinoshita is our acting chief of ship’s security. She believed you were assaulting me, which is why you were rendered unconscious and restrained.” Minori gave a small shake of her head. “Also, she’s really protective of our crew. I believe you must have angered her.”

“Oh, really? Good, I was beginning to think that getting clubbed unconscious was the normal practice for greeting allied officers. By the way, am I a prisoner of war?”

“A what? No, of course not! Japan is not at war with anyone. Aiko confined you not only because she believed you to be violent, but also because you arrived on our vessel carrying unlicensed military-grade weaponry.”

I had to admit she had a point. “Uh, yeah, sorry about that.”

I was wondering who this Aiko character was when Minori’s face suddenly lit up. “Oh, I was going to tell you. We scanned for other parachutists but didn’t find any. The rest of your fellow soldiers must still be on the other side of the rip you came through, in their own timeline.”

“What’s a ‘rip?’ And what do you mean, ‘their own timeline?’”

“I’ll explain later. It’s…very complicated. Just know that your friends are not here, and you are not a prisoner of war. Aiko is going through your equipment and identification. Once she’s convinced you’re an allied officer you’ll be freed.”

Unless she believes I’m a threat, I thought. I’d been packing a lot of weapons and explosives. Right then, I decided to free myself just in case this Aiko person decided to leave me in the cell. And I still had to find my troops, no matter where Minori said they were.

“I’ll hold you to that explanation, then.” My eyes lingered on the tray. “So, how do I eat that delicious meal?”

“Oh.” Minori fell quiet and looked away. I gave her a huge grin. She glanced back at me, startled. “What? Did I say something funny?”

“If you’re not going to free my hands, then you’ll have to feed me. I’m a helpless, injured prisoner.” I was actually starting to look forward to this. “Get moving, lieutenant. I’m starving.”

“What?” She held curled fingers against her mouth. I couldn’t help but laugh at her horrified expression.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Think of it as an apology for running me down with your aircraft carrier.”

“It’s called a grav-carrier, Lieutenant Peterson. It holds personnel and equipment, not airplanes.” Her face glowed with enthusiasm as she warmed to a topic obviously dear to her heart. “Isn’t the Mistral beautiful? She’s a contra-gravity transport aircraft, purpose-built for exploration.”

“Yeah, whatever. I’m more concerned about lunch. Just pop it right in.” I held my mouth open wide.

“But, I’ve never --”

“Oh, come on, there’s nothing to it. You just tell me to say ‘ahhh,’ I open my mouth, you shovel it in. Ready?” I looked at her expectantly.

Minori realized she was trapped. “Well, okay, I -- I guess I can.”

“Prop my head on your knees.”

Ehhhh?” Her voice rose higher, ending in a small screech. Until then, I didn’t know you could say “eh” with more than one syllable. “Do what?”

“Prop my head up on your knees. It’ll be easier for you to feed me, and harder for me to choke. If I sit up, my nose will start bleeding again.” That was a straight-up lie, but she was so embarrassed it sailed right past her.

Eventually, she gave in. I found myself with my head on her lap as she gingerly used chopsticks and a spoon to feed me. I took my time, and we kept up a steady stream of conversation throughout the meal.

Among other tidbits of information I discovered: I was in the year 2123.

“I don’t completely understand it myself,” Minori said as she fed me another bite, “but apparently there are some holes in the space-time continuum -- we call them ‘rips’ -- that link places on our Earth with other places and times. We’ve found people, animals, even landscapes, from possible pasts and futures. The face of the Earth, including the area around Japan, has changed as well.”

I nodded as if I understood, and pondered this information while chewing on a mouthful of noodles. “Who is this ‘we’ you’re referring to?”

“JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. As I’ve said, the Mistral Challenger is an exploration vessel, one of the new Challenger class of contra-gravity ships. Our mission will be to investigate those rips in space-time on the Earth.”

I politely swallowed my mouthful before asking another question. “How long have you been on mission?”

“Uh, technically our mission hasn’t started yet. A crew of trainees and I are ferrying the Mistral to the base where we’ll start our formal training. You’ll be interested to know that a couple of crew members are from different realities, like yourself.”

“Could you explain that part about realities?”

“Simply put, when you have portals linking two different points in time -- the past or future with the present -- and someone or something steps through, history will change for the current time and space. You are in the year 2123, but it’s almost certain that this is not the same 2123 from your reality.”

“Don’t be upset, but I still don’t get it.”

Minori gave a gallant shrug of her shoulders. “I’m not offended. Even our best scientific minds don’t really understand, either.”

I swallowed the last mouthful and smacked my lips. “Ah, that was delicious. Now, rub my tummy, please. It’ll help my digestion.”

By this time, she’d already grown weary of my sense of humor. She grabbed the tray and rose to her feet, letting my head hit the deck with a solid thunk.

She frowned down at me. “Why do I have this feeling that you were taking advantage of me?”

“Do you know you’re cute even upside down?” I said. Her face flushed red, and she looked quickly away. She did, in fact, look very pretty upside down but I was actually trying to distract her while I cut the last of my wrist restraints.

The bindings I’d been working on with my hidden knife fell onto the floor. The look of shock on Minori’s face when I sat up and sliced through the ropes around my ankles was priceless, a memory I knew I’d treasure for a long time.

She gave a short scream, then fell on her rump and scrambled backwards out of the cage. “What? How did you --” Her eyes widened as I stood up. I really hadn’t intended to look threatening. It must have been the knife in my hand.

At the time, though, I was just feeling rather full of myself. “It’s a secret technique taught to me by ancient masters of ninjutsu. I could show you, but then I’d have to kill myself. Or you. I can never remember which.”

I politely held my hand out to help her up while waving the other hand with the knife in the direction of the door. “So, if you could show me the exit --”

I stopped mid-sentence.

In the doorway stood a woman wearing a dark one-piece tunic belted at the waist. She was holding a drawn katana like she really knew how to use it. I’d never heard her approach.

A ninja? An Amazon ninja? That was my first impression, in the microsecond I had before the black panther at her side sprang forward with a roar. 

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