Chapter 5:

Fighting a Challenger

Challengers


After being shown my palatial living arrangements, Aiko and I met Minori in the Mistral’s surprisingly well-equipped gym. While Minori spelled out the rules for our “friendly competition,” I looked around at the weight stacks, workout machinery, treadmills, and full-size boxing ring.

It made sense. If you had a mission that lasted a long time, you’d need to keep your people in top shape and free from boredom.

After changing into the gym shorts and tank top I usually slept in, I went over to my side of the ring to prepare for our little mixed-martial arts exhibition. As I strapped on my padding, I felt a presence loom over me.

Annoyed, I looked up, expecting to see Aiko. “Look, I only need a few more minutes -- whoa!”

A very tall… humanoid… was standing next to me. About two meters high, he had the appearance of a distinguished looking gentleman in his fifties or sixties, with brushed silver hair and an elegant mustache. He was smartly dressed in tailored pants and shirt, two-toned oxfords, and a checkered vest. Either he was off-duty, or JAXA dress codes were really lax.

But his irises were silvery pools of mercury. In spite of the attempt to make him appear as human as possible he was obviously not human. He wasn’t a Dreadnought either, but I still felt my skin crawl as I remembered my encounters with the heavy cyborgs of the Soviet military.

I paused in the middle of pulling on a padded vest. “Uh -- who are you?”

“Hello,” the being said in a cultivated baritone. “I am Ensign Keenan, acting ship’s engineer. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Peterson.” He bowed politely, then held out a pair of padded gloves. “Lieutenant Asakusa has asked me to assist the combatants. May I help you with your protective gear?”

I gave a slow nod while keeping a wary eye on him. “Sure. So, um, Keenan. Where’re you from?”

I slipped on the gloves and he helped me with the laces. “Since time is short, I hope you will be satisfied with an abbreviated explanation. I am from the future, around 2500 AD. As you can no doubt see, I am a manufactured human.” So that’s what they call androids in the future, I thought.

“In my time, I was tasked with the maintenance of a water- and food-processing plant. It was my job to keep the machinery working and the buildings spotless.” A corner of his mouth quirked up, just like a real human’s would. “I guess you could say I was the janitor.”

“A janitor? From the future? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No, sir. I am quite serious. I was actually one of the first non-human intelligent beings -- well, artificially intelligent, if you wish to split hairs -- discovered by Japan when they began to explore anomalies. My plant had been destroyed by one of these bothersome ‘rips’ so I had nothing to do but repair machinery and mop floors with my housekeeping automatons until I was found. How tiresome.”

He checked my headgear for fit, and nodded in satisfaction. “Since I came aboard, I’ve been studying this ship’s systems, airframe, and engines, but…” He slowly shook his head.

“Pretty hard to understand, isn’t it?” I said. “I can sympathize.”

“Oh, no sir, I didn’t mean it was too difficult for me. I meant that it is taking me some time to get used to the obsolete technologies of 2123 AD.” He paused, a look of wry humor on his face. “It would be similar to a naval engineer from this century trying to maintain a nineteenth-century steamship.”

Just then a crewmember came up to Aiko’s side of the ring, where she was doing splits to warm up. He said something to her in a voice too low for me to hear, then left.

Aiko motioned for Minori and Keenan to join her. They conferred in her corner for a minute while I tried to eavesdrop.

They were drowned out by an announcement coming over the ship’s loudspeaker system providing updates on shift changes, work schedules, and other minutiae that reminded me I was on a warship. Some things were still the same in the 22nd century.

I slumped back in my seat and wished for some Blondie or Journey to come belting out through the speakers instead. You’re about 140 years too late, pal, I thought.

Finally, the group broke up. Keenan returned to my side of the ring while Minori climbed through the ropes and joined Aiko on the mat.

“What was that all about?” I asked Keenan.

“Oh, nothing much, sir. We were just discussing some rules and safety issues.”

I was about to ask more questions when I heard Aiko shouting. “Mister Peterson, are you finished yet?”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get your boxer shorts in a bunch,” I grumbled under my breath as I climbed into the ring.

“Oh, one more thing, sir.” I hear Keenan say. I propped my arms on the top rope and leaned over to hear better.“I think I should tell you. Ensign Kinoshita has had a… very difficult life. In spite of her superhuman strength she has suffered terrible mistreatment in the past, and tends to be particularly defensive of the women on board if she feels they might be taken advantage of. Please don’t take her attitude or insults personally.” He gave me a quick nod. “Good luck in the ring.”

“Wait, what do you mean, ‘superhuman strength?’” But Keenan had already stepped away to stand by the bell, leaving me wondering. I glanced at my opponent, who was punching the air with a few practice strikes while waiting for the referee to start the bout.

Minori made sure we were the right distance apart and stepped back. Keenan rang the bell and round one started.

The match was… not what I’d expected.

The first round was supposed to be unscored and used for warming up, but I still took a beating. I remember one hit in particular. Aiko punched me -- or kicked me, I’m not sure -- so hard I lost several seconds of my life. One moment I was looking at her, the next moment there were stars and blackness.

When my vision cleared I was looking down at the mat with blood and saliva dripping out of my mouth and a ringing in my ears. I have no idea how I stayed standing, but Minori ended the round.

I glared at Aiko while wiping my mouth. “I thought we were only supposed to spar. But you’re not holding back, are you?”

She gave me a look of honest surprise. “Mister Peterson, I am holding back. Do you wish to stop now?”

“Hah. I’m not finished with you yet.” I made it back to my corner and spat blood into a bucket Keenan politely held out, then nodded my thanks.

Okay, you want to go all out, huh? So much for this being a “friendly match.” I had the impression that I was being drawn out, tested, so that Aiko could see what I was capable of.

Anyway, we were wearing padding so a few taps wouldn’t kill me. I hoped.

Aiko didn’t even have the common courtesy to be out of breath. She flashed me an encouraging -- and unbearably smug -- smile as she waited for me in her corner of the mat. “You are doing well, Mister Peterson. Few have been able to come this far without losing consciousness or dying.”

In spite of my irritation, I was forced to admit that she looked really cute when she smiled. Her eyes sparkled, her lips curved gracefully… I shook my head and reigned in my libido. Aiko was far more dangerous than her pet panther.

Round two started.

I managed to catch onto her fighting style in the second round but still caught more than my share of kicks and punches. Although I connected a few times, I was beginning to feel like a double for the punching bag hanging in a corner of the gym.

By the end of the round I was wobbling a little and occasionally seeing double. No doubt about it, Aiko was not normal. I should have let the presence of a telepathically linked apex predator give me a clue.

Minori shed more light on that when she came over to my corner of the ring to talk. “Lieutenant Peterson, I wanted to tell you earlier. Aiko is not only descended from a long line of shinobi, but she is also a transhuman. She was genetically altered for greater strength and speed than a normal human being. Don’t you think you should stop?”

“Nope.” I was completely unsurprised that Aiko was a genuine ninja, but was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that she was stronger than me. No wonder she hit like a freight train.

I took a short swig of water and grimaced. Even my lips hurt. “I’m Airborne, lady. A paratrooper. I don’t quit.”

“What does that mean, ‘airborne’? ” She shook her head in bewilderment. “Does ‘airborne’ mean you’ve lost your senses and feel like you’re floating in the air?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just watch me.”

“Good luck, Lieutenant.” Keenan retightened the fastenings on my headgear, which had been battered loose, and gave me an encouraging pat on the back. “Try not to die.”

“Thanks, Keenan, you’re a swell guy.” I staggered back onto the mat as round three started. Go out in a blaze of glory, I thought.

I stepped forward to meet my opponent, somehow managed to block her kick, brought my right fist around like a rocket --

-- and connected with Aiko’s head. Yes, it was a lucky punch. But I hit her really hard.

It dropped her like a rock. Blood flowed from her mouth and nostrils as she lay on the mat.

I was horrified. “Aiko!” I fell to my knees next to her as Minori rushed over. Keenan jumped into the ring and followed her.

Aiko was breathing regularly, but her eyes were closed. Keenan stripped her gloves off, while Minori carefully removed Aiko’s headgear.

I couldn’t believe I’d let my anger get the best of me, letting my pride -- no, my arrogance -- take me to the point where I had injured a young woman.

I am the lowest form of scum, I berated myself. I am lower than the scum at the bottom of a pond. No, wait, pond scum floats. I am even lower than --

Just then, Aiko coughed and breathed in deeply. Minori and I supported her as she sat forward.

“Aiko! Aiko, are you alright? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you! Are you okay? Aiko, please say something --”

She covered my bruised mouth with her hand as her eyes fluttered open. I breathed a sigh of relief past her fingers. Turning to Minori, she asked “Is the match over now?”

“Huh? Oh, yes. The first round was for practice and didn’t count, you won the following round, but you did get knocked unconscious in the third round, so -- I’m calling it a tie. You each won a round.”

“I agree.” She turned her attention to me. There was a glint of some type of emotion in her dark brown eyes. Was it anger? Curiosity? Desire? Who knows what ninja women think? “It seems we have both won. Lieutenant Peterson.” She withdrew her hand from my mouth. Was it my imagination, or did her fingers stroke my lips as they moved past?

I awkwardly patted her shoulder. “Look, just call me ‘Peterson’ or ‘Jim.’ It’ll save us all a lot of time.”

Her eyes never left mine as she tucked her legs underneath her and leaned forward. “Lieutenant Peterson. No one, no one, has ever been able to defeat me in unarmed combat. As you agreed earlier, and in accordance with the customs of my village, you must now take me as your wife.” She looked 100% stone-cold serious.

To my shock, Minori agreed with her. “This is true, Lieutenant Peterson. Aiko’s village decides marital arrangements through trials of personal combat. I did hear you agree to marry her earlier.” Her eyes twinkled merrily. “And you did promise to grant her request, right?”

While I gaped open-mouthed at this statement, Aiko circled her arms around my neck and drew closer.

“Uh, Ensign Kinoshita,” I said while trying to keep my voice steady, “I was joking earlier when, uh, I said you’d be eligible to be my wife if you won --”

“Lieutenant Asakusa, as acting ship’s captain you have the authority to perform the marriage ceremony,” Keenan interrupted. “I’ll go ask Ensign Akayama to record the proceedings.”

He clapped me on the back, then rose to his feet. “Let me be the first to congratulate you, Lieutenant Peterson. You’re a lucky man!” He started to walk away.

They weren't kidding! “Keenan, wait!”

Aiko closed her eyes as her lips sought out my ear. Her soft, dark hair brushed my cheek and I could feel her breath on my skin.

“Lieutenant Peterson,” she whispered. “I have honored your request. Now, it is your turn to honor mine.”

I swallowed hard. What kind of horrible, awful task would Aiko force on the young and innocent Jim Peterson, I wondered? Would she demand that I marry her?

“My request is this: from now on, you will call me Aiko.” To my astonishment, she released me and flashed a mischievous smile that seemed totally out of character. “I was joking too, Lieutenant Peterson. My village has no such strange customs regarding marriage.”

She started laughing, and Minori and Keenan joined in.

My mouth fell open as I realized what had happened. “Wait a minute!” I said. “So this was all a setup? All three of you were in on this?”

“She really had you going, Lieutenant!” Minori said. She was laughing so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes. “You should have seen your face when Aiko said you’d have to marry her.”

“Indeed!” Keenan added. He was laughing just as hard as Minori, proving that androids really did have a sense of humor. Although a twisted one, to be sure.

Finally, Aiko settled down long enough to explain. “While we were preparing for the match, I received a message which I shared with Minori and Keenan. The U.S. Army has confirmed that your commission as an officer still stands. JAXA concurred, and has permitted you to be temporarily assigned to the Mistral, effective immediately.”

My jaw dropped. “What? Why didn’t you tell me before the match?”

“Why, you might have canceled the match! I wanted us both to share in the joy of battle.” The mischievous smile reappeared. “And I also wanted to see if my future husband would be a capable warrior.”

“Welcome aboard the Mistral Challenger!” Minori said. She reached out and shook my limp hand. “We’re glad to have you as part of the crew.”

I gave a long, sincere sigh and slid onto my back.

Big mistake. I blacked out on the spot. 

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