Chapter 6:

Raiders of the Mistral Challenger

Challengers


I sat back in my cushioned chair on the bridge of the Mistral Challenger, one leg comfortably crossed over the other, and spoke into my headset. “Lieutenant’s log, star date oh-three point eleven point 2123.”

As I spoke, my voice was transcribed to text, which scrawled across a holographic screen projected in the air a few inches from my left eye. The headset not only took electronic photographs, it also recorded my voice and linked to a miniature telephone/computer which was small enough that I could hold it in one hand. Without needing a floppy disk or cassette tape for data storage!

Minori, who had issued me the new tech, had promised me that when the Mistral returned to base she’d show me how to use something called “social holomedia.” It sounded risque’ so of course I was on board with the idea.

Several days had passed since my “friendly match” with Miss Kinoshita -- pardon me, Aiko. Both of us had recovered from our bruises, and I was relieved to find that Aiko’s attitude toward me had improved somewhat.

I thought for a minute while chewing on a thumbnail, then continued my journal entry. “I have made contact with the inhabitants of this strange alternate reality. Currently, I am being escorted by an Amazon ninja and her trained panther around the control cockpit of an anti-gravity aircraft floating a thousand feet above the surface of an alternate Earth.” I looked in wonder at all the strange controls and flat-screen color displays around me. “Lieutenant’s log, supplemental: I have not been drinking.”

“What is an ‘Amazon?’” I heard Aiko ask. “You have referred to me by that name ever since you came aboard.”

I glanced over my shoulder at my escort. A slight frown creased Aiko’s face as she tried to figure out if I was insulting her. Tama watched me as well, probably hoping I’d try something and he’d get an early snack.

Although I was now free to roam the ship, I found that Aiko would still accompany me whenever possible. She may have still been suspicious of me, but I thought it was more likely she was just bored.

“Relax,” I told her. “An ‘Amazon’ is an endearing term used to describe a strong female warrior. I know better than to try and offend you with that fur-covered buzzsaw at your side.”

“Peterson, aren’t you tired of playing with your phone yet?” my fellow lieutenant said. Minori was back in the pilot seat of the Mistral Challenger. She sat in a well-padded couch with her hands on a steering yoke, her attention focused on her instruments and the blue sky outside the wide, wrap-around cockpit windows.

“Sorry, I just felt like I was on the bridge of a starship and thought making a log entry was appropriate.” There was enough advanced technology within reach to change the face of 1983 Earth if I ever made it back. Although, maybe 1983 would be better off without it, my conscience told me.

The control deck of the Mistral Challenger really did look like the bridge of a spaceship. In front of me were the two side-by-side pilot chairs; to my left the electronics station; to the right, some kind of engineering console. The center of the bridge was taken up by a holographic projection which was currently showing the terrain we were traveling over.

I’d claimed the gunner’s seat at the rear of the bridge. But Minori had already informed me that the ship’s defensive weaponry hadn’t been activated yet, which put a damper on my enthusiasm.

I climbed out of the chair and turned my attention to the communications/electronic warfare station, operated by Ensign Akayama. She’d brought her own seat, the same hovering chair I’d seen her flying around in previously in the cargo hold. The two long tails of hair still floated around her head like aquatic sealife.

I cleared my throat. “Uh, Ensign Akayama…”

She turned her chair around and gave me a warm smile. “Yes, Lieutenant Peterson? Please, just call me ‘Rio.’” She folded her hands in her lap and focused every bit of her attention on me.

“I’m sorry if I sound like a moron, but -- how do you get your hair to float like that?”

“Oh, this?” She grabbed one of the blue ponytails out of the air and held it out for me to examine. “I just use off-the-shelf c-magnetite beads fastened to a few strands of sheathed monomolecular filament wire woven into the tails. The beads react with the contra-grav field in my chair, which makes them float. And I’ve designed them to never obscure my vision!” She giggled and glanced down at the deck before giving me a shy look through her long eyelashes.

I returned her smile with one of my own. “Rio. That’s a pretty name. Please, call me ‘Jim.’”

I gently stroked the soft hair of her ponytail with my fingertips, looking for the hidden filament wire she’d mentioned. When I did, Rio took a deep breath, then covered her mouth with both hands. Her eyes locked onto mine, the pupils growing large, then she turned quickly away with a nervous smile.

I guessed she hadn’t expected me to do a hands-on inspection. “Oops, sorry, I was just searching for the wire. I didn’t mean to startle you --”

Suddenly, I felt the ominous presence of Death draw near. Aiko’s lips almost touched my ear, and the words she spoke were more chilling than the air that spills out of a coroner’s body locker.

“Lieutenant Peterson. If you ever harm our Rio in word or deed, I shall feed you to Tama. One slice at a time.” The grating sound of a katana slowly coming out of its sheath added emphasis to her remarks. And I’m sure it wasn't a coincidence that Tama noisily licked his chops at that moment.

So much for a friendlier attitude. I gulped and dropped the ponytail like it was on fire.

Rio crossed her arms and pouted. “Aiko, I’m 19 years old. I don’t need a guardian anymore!”

The Right Hand of the Devil was completely without remorse. “Around Lieutenant Peterson, even I might need a guardian, young Rio. We must be wary of him at all times.”

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded. Aiko merely put on her mysterious smile and gazed at me through slitted eyes, managing to look both sexy and menacing at the same time. I had a sinking feeling that I had become her new favorite plaything.

Minori laughed. “Rio, I have to agree with Aiko. Lieutenant Peterson assaulted me within seconds of landing on our ship.”

“Hold on, that’s going too far!” I plopped down in the unoccupied co-pilot’s seat so I could make eye contact with my accuser, who spared a moment from her piloting to wink at me. “It was an accident, and you know it!”

“He also threatened Minori with a knife,” Aiko added.

Rio’s jaw dropped, then she noticed that Aiko was still smiling at me. “Is she joking, Lieutenant Peterson?”

“Yes, she’s joking! It was a big misunderstanding. Minori had just finished feeding me while I was tied up --”

“Ohhh!” All the air left Rio’s lungs at once. “Minori! I didn’t know you were into that kind of thing!”

“No! I’m not!” Minori looked at me in horror.

I grinned and seized my chance at revenge. “Yes, you are! You refused to untie me, and I had to free myself. That’s when Aiko came into the hold --”

“-- and I saw Peterson standing over Minori, waving a knife,” Aiko interrupted. I could tell she was trying hard not to laugh out loud. “Fortunately, Tama brought him down before he could do any harm.”

Everyone started speaking at the same time.

“Oh! Lieutenant Peterson, did you really --”

“No, I wasn’t waving a knife --”

“I’m not into that kind of thing, Rio, I swear --”

Keenan’s calm, cheerful voice broke through the pandemonium. “Please, everyone, let’s settle down. This is a control bridge for a Challenger-class exploration vessel, not a fish market.” In spite of the admonishing tone of voice, the only adult in the room wore a contented smile as he monitored his systems displays.

“It’s okay, Ensign,” I said. “I’m sure that Lieutenant Asakusa is sorry for causing all this commotion. Ow!” Minori punched me hard in the arm. I didn’t think she could reach me from her station. I moved out of range back to the safety of the gunner’s chair, rubbing my shoulder.

The android’s serene expression never changed. “I will have to admit, Lieutenant Peterson, that things have been livelier ever since you came aboard the Mistral Challenger. The young ladies especially seem to appreciate your presence.”

“Keenan!” Minori gasped. Aiko stopped smiling and looked like she’d eaten a rotten turnip. Rio’s cheeks flamed a bright red and she turned quickly back to her workstation. Tama yawned.

“Nice going, Keenan,” I said, looking around the now-silent bridge. “I take it you have difficulties with social skills?”

“More like a crippling disability,” Minori said under her breath. She was focused on her instruments as if the fate of the world depended on it.

Keenan was completely oblivious to the emotional havoc he’d caused. “Lieutenant Peterson, have you considered volunteering to become a Challenger?”

“Huh? That came out of nowhere. What do you mean?”

“A Challenger is not only the class name of the ships, but also for the crew manning them,” Minori said, obviously glad to change the subject. “Everyone on board is preparing to become a crewmember on a Challenger vessel. Every Challenger goes through extensive training in technical skills, shipboard operations, survival -- and not everyone who completes the training is assigned to a ship. When we return to our base, you’ll probably be given a chance to volunteer.”

Keenan gave a sharp nod of his head. “And since you’re already commissioned, you can skip the officer training. Which we will complete at the end of this trip, except for our acting captain Lieutenant Asakusa. Like you, she’s already a fully-commissioned officer.”

“Oh, yes !” Rio seemed to perk up at the thought. “Lieutenant Peterson,” she cut her eyes over at me, “you can transfer directly into JAXA. Then we can all go through Challenger training together! Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Before I could answer, Minori spoke up. “I hate to interrupt, everyone, but we’re almost at our rendezvous.” The holo-display in the center of the bridge was showing a bright red outline of the Mistral Challenger coming over the rim of a volcano. A blue dotted line connected it with the outline of several buildings just coming into view on the display.

“Who are we rendezvousing with?” I asked.

“The village of Kimura Jima. As part of our training cruise, we were on our way there to deliver supplies when we picked you up. We’re flying across the island now.”

She turned to Rio. “Can you raise the village on comms?”

“Actually, Minori, I’ve been trying for the last few minutes.” Rio touched her headset and tapped on her keyboard. A look of concern appeared on her face. “There’s an unusual amount of interference across all frequencies.”

“That is… very unsettling.” Keenan swiveled his chair to face her. “Which frequencies did you use?”

“I’ve been transmitting on all expeditionary and JAXA bands. Voice, text, coded and open transmissions -- I’ve received no replies.”

Rio turned worried eyes on her captain. “That much interference out of nowhere… oh, no! You don’t suppose…”. She swiveled her chair back around and frantically checked her screens.

At that moment, an ear-splitting klaxon rang throughout the ship, making me jump. Bright red lights flashed on the walls and some of the monitors -- including the one in my headset -- displayed a pulsing “PROXIMITY ALERT” message in an ominous shade of crimson.

“A rip’s opening nearby!” Rio shouted.

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