“We’re being attacked by what?” I asked.
“They’re known as ‘Cyclads,’” Aiko said. “It’s short for ‘cybernetic steel-clad.’ They’ve attacked outlying settlements recently, taking whatever they wish, setting fire to the buildings, and then…”. She glanced at Rio and cut herself off, as if she didn’t want to go into the gory details. “But we don’t know where they come from. Or where they disappear to.”
“Think of them as pirates, Lieutenant,” Keenan said without a trace of anxiety. He could have been commenting on what a fine, sunny day it was. “Mindless brutes that are almost completely cybernetic, with no shred of humanity left in them and no fear of death. The Cyclads will kill or capture everyone on board the Mistral Challenger, torture the survivors to death, then steal our ship.”
Rio gasped and held a hand over her mouth.
“You could have sugar-coated that just a little, you know,” I said with a frown.
“Sorry,” he replied. He didn’t look the least bit remorseful to me. “I’ve been constructed to always stay upbeat and informative.”
One of Keenan’s monitors was displaying what looked to my ancient 20th century eyes to be a radar display. I pointed at a group of blips moving toward the center of one screen. “Are those the enemy troops?”
“Yes.” He tapped a time display in a corner of the monitor that was counting down seconds. “On their current heading they will land on the Mistral Challenger in as little as three minutes, depending on their rate of descent.”
“Do we have any ship-mounted armament?”
“It’s been disabled for our training cruise, sir. That’s why Lieutenant Asakusa let you sit in the gunnery command station.”
“Any chance of bringing it back online?”
“Sorry, sir. The unlock codes are back at base.”
I groaned, then turned to Minori. “I need my weapons, now!”
“Lieutenant Asakusa?” Aiko said. “Lieutenant Peterson and I can defend the ship while you and the crew attempt to bring the engines back online.”
I could see Minori running options through her head, like any commander under fire, before giving a quick nod. “Do it.” She pulled a key on a cord from around her neck and tossed it to Aiko. “Master key,” she explained to me. “You’ll need it to get full access to the armory. If you can keep them off our backs for just a few minutes, we should be able to get the Mistral back in the air.”
A worried expression appeared on her face as she glanced at her youngest officer. “Are you alright, Rio?”
Rio was starting to hyperventilate. Her eyes flew over her monitors without comprehension. “I’m -- I’m fine. I just need to, to…”
As I looked at her, I saw myself in my first battle: frozen with terror, unable to speak, trembling violently. I’d been seventeen at the time.
“Hey.” I put a sympathetic hand on Rio’s arm. She flinched, then turned frightened eyes on me.
“First time in combat?”
She gulped and gave a quick nod.
“Don’t worry. Aiko, me, and that four-legged meat grinder of hers can take care of anything topside. Everything will be fine.” I patted her shoulder, hoping I sounded more sure of myself than I felt. “Stay frosty.”
Keenan rose to his feet. “Lieutenant Asakusa, I’m heading below to assist the engineering team with repairs.” He plunged out the exit, followed by Aiko, Tama, and me.
“Be careful, you three!” I heard Minori shout behind me as I ran after Aiko.
We bypassed the lift and ran down the stairs in the conning tower. I couldn’t see outside, and it gave me cold sweats knowing that there were enemy soldiers coming my way and I didn’t know how many there were.
Minori had anticipated that. She used the call sign for the Mistral’s tactical team -- Aiko, Tama, and me -- for the first time. “Mistral Sierra-One to Challenger Alphas,” I heard over my headset. “Thirty Cyclad warriors on rapid approach.”
That many? Crap, that was a full platoon. I concentrated on keeping Aiko in view as we dashed through empty corridors.
We finally came to a halt in front of a reinforced steel door. Above it was a sign with one of my favorite words, written in English and Japanese:
Aiko held her key up in front of some kind of scanner, which blinked green. She pushed the door open with her shoulder and I followed her in. Tama stayed in the hallway, his tail lashing back and forth.
Overhead lights came on, illuminating a wall of weapons stored in racks. Aiko punched a button on the key and metallic pops sounded throughout the room as locks on the racks snapped open.
I scooped up my rifle and pistol, then buckled on my web gear which, thankfully, was still combat loaded with grenades and ammo. While doing this, I passed greedy eyes over the newer weaponry and promised myself I’d be back for more later.
“So, do you have an SOP for this?” I asked.
“SOP. Standard Operating Procedure. In this case, one for repelling boarders.”
“That’s great!” I could feel hope spring to life inside of me.
“However, it involves using the ship’s defensive weaponry, which is disabled.”
“Oh. That blows.” Hope withered and died a miserable death. So much for an easy solution.
Aiko equipped herself with something that looked like a mini-Uzi with a suppressor and electronic sighting gizmos of some kind. She’d been watching me while I’d belted on my equipment and seemed to have made some kind of decision.
“Lieutenant Peterson, look here for a moment.” She punched up a screen that took up the entire surface of a nearby table. The armory apparently doubled as a tactical planning center. A top-down map of the Mistral Challenger appeared.
Aiko toggled the screen until the upper deck was displayed. “We can go to the uppermost deck on personnel lift B, over here. It is the closest to us and the superstructure holding the ship’s control center. We must keep the Cyclads from breaching the entrance to our bridge.”
She tapped a location on the map. “Once we reach the upper level, we can engage the enemy here.” Her eyes met mine. “And sell our lives dearly.”
I shook my head. “That’s a non-starter for me.”
“There’s an alternative.” Aiko plucked something that looked like an oversized grenade from a rack. “This is a coring charge used for demolition. As a last resort, we can each fill a backpack with these, rush directly into their formation, then detonate the charges.”
“You’re not really sweetening the deal, you know?”
“Very well.” She crossed her arms. “Your thoughts?”
I stared at the map for a moment. “How many of these lifts go to the upper deck?”
“Six, of varying sizes.”
An idea popped into my head. “How about this?” I quickly sketched out my approach.
Aiko remained silent throughout my explanation. When I finished, she stared at me as if I’d grown another head. “You’re insane.”
“I jump out of airplanes for a living. Deal with it.”
She stopped arguing and changed the subject instead. “Do you have much combat experience?”
“Yes.” I’d been in several major battles across Europe during World War Three and countless skirmishes behind the lines. “The plan I just outlined came from a battle I was in.”
Aiko nodded, as if answering some question inside of her. “Then, this is our best option. Just remember, the fate of the Mistral Challenger lies in our hands.”
“No pressure, then.”
“None at all.” She glanced down at the map, then back at me, her lips pressed tightly together. It must have taken all of her determination, and no little loss of pride, to say what she did next.
“Tama and I are at your command, Lieutenant Peterson.”