Chapter 10:

Contact

Challengers


A Cyclad raider, the one whose leg I’d crippled earlier, gripped my ankle. Because he’d been prone when Aiko triggered the Claymore mines, he’d escaped the fate that had destroyed most of his comrades.

He levered himself on top of me, drawing one arm back as he prepared to strike. A long dagger sprang out of the monster's wrist and he drove it with all his force at my throat.

Even using both hands the best I could do was divert the thrust past my head. The tip of the dagger slashed my cheek and ear before burying itself in the deck.

The blade was sunk deep enough into the Mistral’s hull that the raider had to twist it free. I took the opportunity to snatch my pistol from its holster and jam the barrel up against the raider’s metallic skull.

Gritting my teeth, I pulled the trigger.

The roar of the gun and the muzzle blast were close enough to stun me momentarily, even though my headset had a noise suppression feature. Tiny particles embedded themselves deep into the skin of my face.

My opponent's head snapped back from the bullet’s impact. He tottered to one side, retracting his blade to get better purchase on the deck. I pushed as hard as I could and the Cyclad fell completely over. He swung his head from side to side, trying to shake off the effects of a heavy slug being fired into his skull. But he still wasn't out of the fight.

I brought my weapon up for another shot but my opponent's vision had cleared enough for him to see what I was doing. He grabbed my pistol and wrenched it from my grip.

Desperately, I looked for any openings, anything I could use to my advantage. I yanked my utility knife from its horizontal scabbard on the back of my belt and stabbed at the raider’s eyes, only to have my wrist grabbed by his free hand. He dropped my pistol with his other hand and seized my throat.

He dragged me closer, close enough to feel the hiss of air coming from his artificial lungs and hear the background chatter of his tactical radio. The few words I caught were in Russian.

My vision started to go dark as he tightened his grip. The dead, black eyes seemed to grow larger, and I felt like I was being drawn into them as my life force ebbed.

As I struggled for air, my hand brushed against my commando dagger. I clutched the handle and fumbled the knife out of its leg sheath.

Holding it hilt up, I drove the point downward into the back of the cyborg’s skull where it joined the neck. Fueled by desperation and adrenaline, the reinforced tip sliced through the artificial skin and buried itself deep into whatever passed for the raider’s brain.

The Cyclad spasmed once, then relaxed his grip on me. I yanked myself free and fell onto my back, gasping for breath. To my shock, a pale, amber liquid oozed out of the damaged skull. There was no blood.

With a shaking hand I picked my pistol off the deck and looked around the remains of my crate wall. Sure enough, the noise of my close encounter had drawn the enemy’s attention. The five remaining Cyclads were approaching, guns raised.

One of them saw me moving and snapped off a shot. The green particle bolt missed me by a few bare inches and scored a groove in the deck. I grabbed a grenade off my belt.

Before I could pull the pin, my headset crackled to life. “Challenger Alpha-Three, advancing to contact.”

What? “Negative, Alpha-Three! Do not engage in close combat!” As I’d just discovered, it was far too dangerous to fight these monsters hand-to-hand.

My warning went unheeded. While the enemy’s attention had been focused on me, Aiko and Tama had come up behind them on one of the smaller corner lifts to do what ninja excel at:

Sneak attacks.

A coughing snarl that could only have come from Tama echoed across the deck. I saw a black streak race forward and the rearmost raider went down under a flurry of claws and teeth. Tama seized the Cyclad by the back of his unarmored neck and bit down hard. I heard a sickening crunch.

At least it was quick.

Before they knew she was there, Aiko leaped into the center of the enemy, her katana whirling in a loop that lopped off the first combatant’s head. What kind of edge does she have on that sword? I wondered. Once again, no blood poured out of an obviously mortal wound. The headless body toppled and fell.

Long daggers seemed to grow from the wrists of the remaining three Cyclads as they turned to face the new threat.

One of the raiders leaped forward and slashed sideways at Aiko. She stepped back to avoid the attack but tripped over the outstretched arm of her first opponent’s body and fell on her side.

The Cyclad’s dagger swept downward and I shouted a warning. At the last moment, she brought her katana up, catching the descending blade on her sword.

I had a clear shot and fired. The bullet ricocheted off the back of the raider, causing no damage. He never even looked my way.

Until I corrected my aim and emptied the rest of the magazine into his skull. My target’s head jerked with each bullet impact like he was getting punched by a heavyweight boxer.

It didn't do much damage. But it did get his attention away from my teammate long enough for her to jump to her feet.

When I stopped to reload, the Cyclad I’d been wasting ammo on swiveled toward me and sank to one knee, scooping up his CPB rifle with an inhuman snarl. It was a frightening growl that wasn’t all that different from Tama’s. I guess getting shot five times in the head dried up all his good humor.

He should’ve kept his eyes on Aiko.

Just before the raider fired at me her katana came down in a swift chopping motion, beheading him as surely as a guillotine. Never a good idea to kneel down in front of an angry ninja, I thought as I watched the head roll away.

The fight wasn’t over, though. Two cyborgs still remained.

Aiko jumped to one side to avoid a lightning-fast blade strike, a tactical move that put her opponent in between her and the remaining Cyclad. For a brief moment in time, she only had to battle the one raider until his squadmate could bring his weapons to bear.

A fraction of a second was all Aiko needed. She neatly parried a thrust, then took out her enemy with a powerful cut through his throat. The body collapsed onto the deck as the severed head arced through the air, bounced, then rolled over the side of the ship.

The last of the Cyclads charged forward, desperately trying to land a blow. But his opponent was a blur of motion, moving almost faster than the eye could track. I heard the ringing of steel on metal as Aiko blocked each of her enemy’s slashes. Deep notches appeared on the Cyclad’s blades whenever her sword blocked a stroke.

Finally, she drove her katana through the raider’s breast plate. A single, unremarkable buzz sounded from her defeated opponent, followed by several thick sparks shooting out from the chest wound. His arms dropped limply to his sides, and he slid off of Aiko’s sword to join his brethren on the metal surface of the Mistral’s upper deck.

In spite of the gaping chest wound there was still no blood. Only the yellow liquid I’d seen earlier stained Aiko’s sword. I lowered my pistol as she flicked the oily matter off her katana.

From the time that Tama attacked to the moment the last raider fell to Aiko’s sword, the entire fight with the last five Cyclads had lasted less than a minute.

But the battle was over. We’d won.

Aiko took several deep breaths, then sheathed her sword and looked away from the dead Cyclads scattered around her. Just then, she noticed me lying prone, blood dripping from the side of my head.

“Peterson!” Her shout came over my headset as well as across the deck. She switched her microphone off and ran over to where I lay next to the ruins of my demolished box fort. Unsurprisingly, she made very little noise in her form-fitting ninjawear.

She pulled her black mesh gaiter down from her face and kneeled next to me as I sat up. “You’re bleeding! Are you okay?” The concern in her voice was just as surprising to me as the worry on her face.

“I have a new ear piercing, but I’m good. My allergies are acting up, though. You?”

She drew a deep breath in through her nose, then shook her head. “No injuries, minor or otherwise. I have sent Tama out to scout the battlefield for survivors, but he has reported none so far.”

Minori interrupted our conversation. “Challenger Alpha-Six, this is Mistral Sierra-One. We’ve been hearing a great deal of gunfire and explosions! What is your status?”

I spoke into my microphone. “Mistral Sierra-One, this is Alpha-Six. Thirty enemy KIA, no wounded, but we’re reassessing. No severe friendly casualties. Six out.

“Roger, Alpha-Six.” Minori’s relief was evident. “Good work, Alpha team. Time to come home. Sierra-One, out.” Before Minori signed off, I heard Rio cheering and clapping in the background.

“Please stop smiling, Lieutenant Peterson,” Aiko said. “It will make the gash along your jaw bleed more. Hold still, I will need to treat the wound.”

She moved behind me and removed my headset, then soaked up the blood with a cloth before pulling antiseptic pads out of one of her belt pouches and pressing them against the wounds.

I’d thought that if Aiko had been feeling any aftereffects from the fight, she didn’t show it. But her hands were trembling as she patched me up. Only a little, but it was nice to know she was still human enough to feel fear.

While she worked on my cuts I let my breath out all at once, then sucked in another. My heartbeat started to spiral back down to something near-normal, and I tried not to shake too obviously in front of Aiko. She wasn’t the only one with post-battle jitters.

I glanced at the dead cyborg I’d fought with. I’d never been that close to a living Dreadnought before. It was luck as much as anything else that let me walk away from a hand-to-hand encounter with one. My throat, wrist and leg still ached from the vise-like grip of the monster’s hands.

Aiko finished my treatment with a few sprays from a bottle of liquid bandage. She lightly ran a finger across the cut. “You’ll have an impressive scar, Peterson. But it should be easy to remove with reconstructive surgery.”

“I’ll think about it. But hey, thanks for the first aid.”

I felt a soft weight settle against me as Aiko sat down and pressed her back against mine. For a moment, we enjoyed a quiet respite.

White, puffy clouds I hadn’t noticed before rolled slowly across the late afternoon sky overhead, and an orange tint glowed behind the tops of the palm trees that were almost level with the Mistral's deck. Both Aiko and I would live to see another sunset. It was a glorious feeling.

A gentle breeze blew along the deck, dissipating the smell of burnt propellant and the ozone tang of charged particles. The wind wafted some of her soft hair across my shoulder, touching the undamaged part of my face.

Aiko cleared her throat. “I must confess something, Lieutenant Peterson,” she said. “Like Rio, this was my first time in combat as well.”

At that point, I should have reminded her how well she performed. Instead, I said “No wonder you attacked five combat cyborgs single-handedly. With a sword! And you had the nerve to call me insane?”

“I fought only four. Tama accounted for one, and your pistol distracted another long enough for me to dispatch him.” A note of confusion entered her voice. “Why are you angry?”

“I told you not to go hand-to-hand! You should’ve engaged at range!”

“I thought I would have better results with my sword since your bullets did not seem to be effective. But, as you are the more experienced warrior, I promise to listen more closely to you next time.”

I noticed she didn’t say she’d follow my orders, though. Fair enough, I wasn’t her commanding officer. I let my temper cool and wondered why I’d gotten so worked up in the first place.

Maybe I just didn’t want to see her get hurt.

“Lieutenant Peterson.” I felt her fidgeting, as if trying to work up the nerve to say something. “I, uh, have a favor to ask.”

That didn’t sound like the Aiko I knew. I became concerned. “Yeah, go ahead. Ask me anything.”

“I -- I would greatly appreciate it if you told no one that I, the most accomplished shinobi of my family, tripped and fell in front of multiple armed adversaries.”

My mouth fell open. “That’s it? That’s what’s on your mind? You fell on your butt in a fight and don’t want anyone to know?”

She stiffened. “It is a matter of great importance to me. My reputation as a warrior would suffer if --”

“You just fought and defeated four armed cyborgs in single combat. Not bad for your first battle. Your ‘reputation as a warrior’ isn’t going to suffer if anyone knows you tripped while doing it.”

A few seconds of silence dragged by. Finally, I gave in. “Okay. Consider it done.”

“Thank you.” Aiko brushed her hair back into place and changed the subject. “Your plan worked after all, Lieutenant Peterson.”

In a second I was back to my usual cocky self. “Of course! Was there ever any doubt? Never mind, don’t answer that. Didn’t I tell you I'd survive the Claymores just by keeping low?”

“You did indeed. But I would expect nothing less than exceptional performance from my future husband.”

“Oh, give it a rest -- wait, did you just give me a compliment?” I turned around with a huge grin stretching across my face. “You did, didn’t you?”

But Aiko had already risen to her feet and turned to leave. Tama, who had been nosing around some of the debris, ran over to join her.

“Come, Lieutenant Peterson. You have gloated long enough over our victory today.” She stepped onto the lift I’d been using as a fighting position. “Keenan and his engineers will be up here shortly to pick up the pieces.”

“Yeah, let’s get out of here.” I dusted myself off and went to stand next to her. The lift shuddered to life and started its descent, taking us out of sight of the battlefield.

“You did well, Aiko,” I said. “Tama too.”

She gifted me with one of her enigmatic smiles before bending over and stroking Tama’s fur. The big cat closed his eyes and rumbled contentedly.

Time to come home, Minori had said.

I rolled the words around in my head like a connoisseur swirling a glass of fine wine, inhaling the aroma and admiring the color.

It had been a long time since I’d been any place I could call home.

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