Chapter 4:

To Challenge a Challenger

Challengers


Minori left to go prepare for the match between Aiko and me. “I’ll meet you in the gym after you’ve finished settling in, Lieutenant Peterson. I have to say, it’s been an interesting day.” She gave me one of her heart-stopping smiles, then left me alone with Aiko in the brightly lit galley.

I sighed as I watched her go. That didn’t go unnoticed by my new escort, who was watching me with narrowed eyes.

“Mister Peterson. You are attracted to Lieutenant Asakusa?”

“Who, Minori?” I brushed imaginary dust off my sleeve and checked my watch as if I’d lost interest in the conversation. “I suppose she’s okay. Why? Has she already fallen for someone?”

“You should ask her yourself, I believe.” She gave me an almost imperceptible sniff of disdain along with a look that plainly found me wanting in some capacity or another, then walked off with Tama padding along at her side. “I will show you to your quarters. You may bring your backpack and gear with you.”

I hoisted my ruck onto my back and adjusted the straps as we went down a set of stairs. “What about you, Miss Kinoshita? Is there anyone here you’re attracted to? Present company excluded, of course.”

“Ha.” I had to admire her economy of words. Aiko had tried, sentenced, and condemned me with a single syllable.

She didn’t bother looking behind her. “Please keep up, Mister Peterson, or I shall lock you in here with the rest of the cargo.”

I hurried to catch up. “The rest of the cargo, huh? Keep it up and I might forget to go easy on you when we spar. In fact --” I stopped talking trash as we stepped through an opening into a cargo bay, the companion to the one I’d been held in.

What caught my eye was the girl.

She was floating twenty feet up in the air on the far side of the hold, apparently searching for something on a shelf stacked with supplies. The seat she was in had a solid, round base with no wheels or propulsion devices that I could see. A flying chair, I marveled.

“Rio is another of our officer candidates,” Aiko explained. “She does not have the use of her legs, but as you can see her hover-chair uses an experimental type of…I believe it’s called a ‘small form-factor contra-gravity engine.’”

Upon hearing voices, the girl looked up from her task. Her expression brightened when she saw my escort. “Hi, Aiko!” She dropped down a few meters, then zipped toward us, stopping a few feet away. Other than a small humming sound, her chair made almost no noise.

“Tama! Here, kitty, kitty.” She giggled as the big panther trotted over, tail waving, and put his paws on an arm of the hover-chair, lowering his head to make it easier for her to pet. The chair canted slightly under Tama’s weight before quickly bobbing back upright.

Aiko watched the two like an indulgent older sister, then seemed to remember I was there. She waved a dismissive hand at me. “Ensign Akayama, this is Lieutenant James Peterson of the United States Army of 1983 AD. He is probably no longer an active duty soldier. However, he seems to feel the need to be addressed as one.”

“You really suck at introductions!” I huffed.

She continued without a pause. “Lieutenant Peterson, allow me to introduce Ensign Rio Akayama, our electronics and communications specialist.”

Rio beamed with pleasure. “Oh, it’s a thrill to meet you, Lieutenant! Minori was telling me about you earlier.” She reached out a hand and we shook.

Like Minori, Rio wore the teal-and-gray Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency uniform. Dark brown eyes on her angelic face were brimming with sunshine and positive energy. She had long blue hair styled in bangs, with two long ponytails. But instead of hanging down, the twin tails curled and floated around her head, swishing and whirling like goldfish in a bowl each time she moved. It was mesmerizing to watch.

Before I could start a conversation, Aiko hustled me along. “Regrettably, Mister Peterson and I have business to attend to. We shall meet you later on the bridge.”

“I hope to see you again soon, Lieutenant!” Rio called from behind us, before I was pushed through another hatch. Aiko slammed and locked it after we’d stepped through, then we continued on our way.

I stumbled along behind her in the poorly lit storage bay, staying close as we threaded our way around racks and pallet loads of neatly organized supplies. “Hey, why the rush? I wanted to talk to Rio a little more.”

“Rio-chan is under my protection, Mister Peterson. I felt the need to remove a bad influence from her presence. And your behavior since you came on board has been questionable at best.”

I heaved a huge sigh of frustration. “When are you going to believe that I wasn’t threatening Minori?”

“You did more than that.” We were walking along a narrow aisle when Aiko came to an abrupt halt in front of a curtained alcove, then wheeled around to face me. Tama, who had been following several meters back, closed the gap between us, his tail lashing as he sensed the tension in the air. I was boxed in between the two of them.

“Did you not also trap Lieutenant Asakusa in your rolled-up parachute? Trick her into feeding you by hand?”

“The first incident was an accident. The second was payback for my ill-treatment.” I chuckled at the memory of Minori feeding me yakisoba while I was cutting my ropes, then continued my defense.

“I’ve got nothing to apologize for. I’m a military officer from a friendly nation and yet I was rendered unconscious, confined, and treated inhumanely.” I gave her a pointed look. “With minimal courtesy, I might add.”

“Mister Peterson.” Aiko had a very direct way of looking at me, as if she was trying to lay bare all my hidden secrets. “If I had my way, you would still be detained.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Consider this: a modern Japanese grav-carrier passes by where you just happened to appear, quite literally out of nowhere. You were heavily armed and carrying enough explosives to cripple or destroy this vessel. And you tell us that you were part of an assault unit tasked with freeing a captured Japanese island. But you could just as well have been on a mission to destroy the Mistral, could you not?”

“Yeah, it might look suspicious except for a couple of things.”

“Oh? Please, illuminate me.”

“According to your own records, I’m from 140 years in your past. How would I even know you’d be here?”

“And your second point?”

“I’m assigned to a Japanese military unit!” I shouted. I made a quarter-turn and pointed at the 1st Airborne Brigade patch on my shoulder.

She circled around to my other side. “But there is an American flag on your other shoulder.”

“I was assigned to the Japanese SDF as a liaison between them and the U.S. Army. What’s your point?”

“My point is that the United States is our ally here in the year 2123. But what was the relationship between our two countries from your time? In your reality?”

I threw my arms up in frustration. “We were allies! F’r cryin’ out loud, what do I have to do to prove that I’m one of the good guys?”

Aiko didn’t show any sign she’d been listening. I might as well have been talking to Tama. “Your quarters are here.” She held up the curtain to let me view my new digs.

I stared. “A cot and a chair behind a curtain are quarters?” Oh well, I’d seen far, far worse. With the shipping containers stacked around my sleeping area it actually felt more like a cozy room. I dropped my pack on the cot and began rummaging through it.

“You will find everything there except for your weapons and explosives, Mister Peterson.”

“I know, I’m just checking to see if you swiped any of my underwear for souvenirs.”

Aiko didn’t dignify my jab with a response. She knelt down next to her panther and softly stroked his head. “Tama, remain here until I return. Peterson, once you’re satisfied that all your panties are accounted for, please come with me.”

Tama yawned, then curled up on the floor by my cot after circling a couple of times. I was eaten up with curiosity. “Okay, I have to ask: how do you do it? How can you give a panther orders? And why does he obey you?”

“Ah. I am what Lieutenant Asakusa calls ‘telepathically linked’ to my Tama. And Tama obeys me because Tama is wise.” She gave me a cryptic smile as I scratched my head. I realized that was all the explanation I was going to get, so I dropped the subject.

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