Chapter 3:

The Ninja Challenger

Challengers


The panther knocked me flat on my back then stood over me, making no further move to attack. It just growled, like a subwoofer on max volume. I could feel the rumble through the metal floor I was laying on.

“Back, Tama,” I heard someone say.

Slowly, the panther moved out of sight. Seemingly out of nowhere a katana blade appeared, its tip hovering a fraction of an inch above my throat. The toe of a boot pressed down on my forehead until the back of my skull banged against the deck, bringing my assailant into view.

She spoke in clipped tones. “Drop. Your. Knife.”

“Uh, yes, I was just going to do that.” The sword tip never wavered. I let my knife fall out of my hand.

She stared down at me past the katana, her long ponytail swaying slightly. I was able to take in a few more details now, but from a ground-level perspective.

Like Minori, the swordswoman had dark hair and eyes, although she wasn’t wearing the JAXA uniform. Instead, she wore sheer, dark tights tucked seamlessly into soft boots; a dark leather belt supporting several mysterious-looking pouches; a dagger strapped to one thigh, out of sight under the dark gray tunic; and red-striped panties. The latter I accidentally discovered with my peripheral vision. I know if I’d looked directly at her underwear I would have been insta-killed.

Cold, expressionless eyes bored into mine. “Did he harm you, Minori?” She had the low, sultry voice of a villainess in a gritty crime drama.

“N-no, Aiko. He was just about to help me up. Please put your sword away, Lieutenant Peterson is from a friendly nation.” Minori herself seemed startled by the panther’s sudden attack.

“He will live, then.” I’d swear that she sounded disappointed. The ninja sheathed her sword and stepped back. I let out a sigh of relief.

This time it was Minori’s turn to help me up. Aiko was still staring holes through me, although the panther had lost interest and was merely sitting on its haunches and looking bored.

I stared at it, fascinated. I’d never seen a panther before, much less been attacked by one.

Minori offered an awkward introduction. “Lieutenant Peterson, this is Ensign Aiko Kinoshita, our acting head of ship security. Aiko, has his identification been authenticated?”

Aiko stared at me a moment longer before answering Minori. “Yes, his credentials have been confirmed by headquarters. Otherwise I would have him returned to his cell.”

She turned back to me. “A question for you, Mister Peterson…”.

“No, it’s Lieutenant Peterson, if you please. Mister Peterson is what my high school principal called me when I was in trouble.”

She didn’t change expression or even crack a smile. “I heard you speaking to Minori about ancient masters of ninjutsu you claim to have learned from. I would like to hear more about their ‘secret techniques’ at a future date. It seems you still have much to learn from them.”

***

As I’d suspected, there was no interrogation room or brig in the ship. Instead, I was escorted to the ship’s galley for a debriefing. On the way, Minori and Aiko spoke to each other with an easy informality that I found appealing, maybe because of the years of harsh discipline I’d endured.

We picked up my rucksack and gear, then headed to the galley. The crew members we passed along the way barely glanced at me before going about their business. Maybe they were used to strange visitors? They certainly didn’t seem surprised to see a sword-wielding warrior walking the corridors with an adult panther at her side. The Mistral Challenger was definitely no ordinary ship.

In the debriefing, I answered all their questions as best as I could. Why not? My mission’s deadline was at least a century overdue. While I sipped on my first cup of real coffee in, literally, over a hundred years, I wondered how much back pay the Army would owe me.

But what Aiko found almost impossible to believe wasn’t that I was from 1983. It was that I had been ready to parachute out of my C-130 before it was destroyed.

“Wait a minute, please.” Aiko stared at me. Disbelief was written all over her face. “You were about to depart your transport while it was still in the air? Did you have previous knowledge that it would be destroyed?”

“Nope.”

“Then why were you prepared to leave your aircraft before its destruction?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Did you plant a bomb?”

“No. It’s normal for paratroopers to use parachutes to leave a fully-functioning aircraft in flight. It may not be sane, but it’s standard procedure.”

Thankfully, Minori backed up my story. “That’s true. In 20th century warfare, specially trained parachute units were deployed out of the aircraft of the period to land behind enemy lines.”

Aiko was stunned. “You mean to say, Mister Peterson, that you and your unit parachuted out of airplanes on purpose?

“Yep. Strange way to earn a living, isn’t it?”

Aiko gawked at me, then made a few frantic entries in her electronic notepad thing to cover her loss of composure. While she was doing this, Minori leaned across the table and whispered to me. “Aiko is afraid of flying, Lieutenant. She’s also afraid of heights.”

And yet here she is, volunteering to be a crewmember on a flying ship. My opinion of the acting head of ship security went up a notch.

Finally, Aiko ended my interrogation -- pardon me, my “debriefing” -- by lecturing me like an old-time preacher dressing down a particularly shameful sinner. I nodded at all the right parts as if I was listening.

“Mister Peterson,” she concluded, pointing her index finger at me, “although you are a guest of Japan, you do not have free run of this ship. Until command authority decides otherwise, when you are not escorted you are restricted to your quarters, the galley, and recreational facilities.”

“I don’t have any quarters. I’m new here, you know.” I smiled at my little joke and took another gulp of coffee.

She squinted at me in an unfriendly manner. “You will be given living space in starboard cargo hold Two, Mister Peterson.”

I set the mug down. “Once again, that’s Lieutenant Peterson, Ensign Kinoshita. First Lieutenant Peterson.”

“It remains to be seen if your commission is still valid after 140 years. Until then, I will accompany you whenever you are in restricted areas.”

“You will?” I crossed my arms, flexing my biceps and assuming my favorite tough-guy look. “Why? Are you afraid I’ll blow something up? Start a mutiny? Check out a library book with no intention of returning it?”

“Mister Peterson.” She gave me a disparaging snort. “You look ridiculous when you try to appear threatening. Your expression was much more open and honest when you lay helpless at my feet.”

Minori stifled a laugh while I reddened. “That was your furry sidekick that took me down, not you!”

Aiko continued to regard me with a cool contempt I found uniquely irritating. “I believe your fighting abilities to be negligible. But with considerable practice, it’s possible you could improve.”

I knew I was being provoked but after my recent treatment I couldn’t keep from getting angry. “Oh? Are you trying to start a fight, Miss Kinoshita?”

An expression of delight appeared on her face, taking me by surprise. “Why, I think I might enjoy sparring with you, Mister Peterson. Are you feeling well enough for a friendly match in our ship’s gym?”

I had a flash of inspiration. Maybe it was time to show these people I wasn’t to be taken lightly.

“Okay, then. If you’re so tough, why don’t you and I have a little hand-to-hand practice? Unarmed, no weapons, and --” I gave Tama a stern glare “-- no savage felines.” The panther was lying curled up under an adjacent cafeteria table and didn’t even bother waking up. Lazy cat.

Aiko slowly nodded. “That will be acceptable.” I looked closely and thought I detected the barest hint of a smile. Have I stepped into a trap? I wondered.

“Cool! You’re on then, sister. If I win, you have to start calling me ‘Lieutenant Peterson.’ How’s that?”

“And if I win? Mister Peterson?”

“Then you’ll be eligible to marry me,” I replied without missing a beat. This time she did smile, the kind of overconfident smirk you see on the face of professional wrestlers going up against a vastly inferior opponent.

Minori set her elegant china cup down and leaned forward. “However, Lieutenant Peterson, I think you should know that Aiko --” She glanced at her subordinate, who gave a small shake of her head. “Never mind. We still have some time before we resume our trip, so I’ll sanction a demonstration match.”

Something didn’t smell right, but I couldn’t back out now. What was it Minori had wanted to say to me?

Aiko stopped smiling and became very serious. “First Lieutenant Jim Peterson.” She addressed me with my full name and title as she issued her conditions. “If I win our match, you will grant me one request.”

I stared back at her, equally stone-faced. “Amazon ninja Aiko Kinoshita. That will be acceptable.” I was confident in my boxing and martial art abilities. Being a liaison to the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force had its perks. I’d participated in the best unarmed combat training in the world.

Or so I thought.

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