Chapter 11:

Aftermath

Challengers


After the battle with the Cyclads, Aiko and I joined Keenan, Minori, and Rio in the electronics lab for an after-action debriefing.

I could see projects in various stages of completion strewn around benches and worktables in the spacious room. A wide assortment of tools were arrayed on the wall, carts, and mobile racks scattered about.

Rio’s eyes grew wide when Aiko and I walked through the door. We hadn’t had time to drop our weapons off at the armory, and I’m sure we reeked of gunpowder and sweat. My face was tattooed with a black smear from the too-close muzzle blast of my pistol, and a stark, white plastic bandage covered the slash on my jaw.

As I stepped up to the raised worktable in a corner of the lab where one of the destroyed Cyclads was laid out, Rio activated her chair and floated over to my side. I noticed that she wore a white lab coat over her blue JAXA uniform. Her generous lips, usually displaying a broad smile, were stretched downward.

“Oh, Lieutenant Peterson! Are you injured?” Her chair rose slightly and she reached out a tentative hand, not quite touching my wound. “Does it hurt very much?”

“Not at all! Aiko fixed me right up.” I smiled at my favorite ninja. “Didn’t you?”

She looked away and sniffed. “It was either that or have you bleed out.”

“See?” I told Rio. “She’s not only an efficient medic but she has an excellent bedside manner as well, don’t you think?”

Before Aiko could respond, Keenan started the meeting. Unlike me, he looked very dapper in his pressed trousers and shirt, complete with bowtie, and was even wearing a starched canvas work apron for the occasion. I wondered if he waxed his impeccable mustache or if it was carved out of some kind of synthetic material that matched his silvery hair.

He scooped a shattered metal head off the lab table and examined it, reminding me of Hamlet brooding over Yorick’s skull in the Shakespeare play.

“The Cyclads are not cyborgs, nor are they human,” he said. “I would call them prototypes of a manufactured human, like myself. Take a look.”

He held the head out for everyone to see. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. Not too long ago I had blown it apart with the help of a directional mine.

Rio picked up a laser pointer and targeted a round, black box mounted inside the artificial skull Keenan was holding. “It’s this,” she explained. “One of the things that separates a cyborg from a robot is a human brain. None of the Cyclads we examined had organic brains. They have these instead.”

“But they look almost identical to the cyborgs I fought in the 1980’s!” I gestured at the inanimate Cyclad on the table. “We called them Dreadnoughts. They were a detachment within the Soviet GRU military intelligence service.”

I thought back on the last time I’d seen Dreadnoughts in action, then tried to erase the memory from my mind. “They’re heavily armed and armored, and specialized in wiping out small hamlets or villages suspected of supporting guerilla fighters.”

“Did you ever get to examine one, Peterson?” Minori asked.

“Oh yes. He not only had a brain, but a working circulatory system. And believe me, he bled quite a lot after -- well, when he was injured.” After I shot him with an anti-tank rocket,  I recalled.

Keenan tossed the broken skull back onto the table, making a loud crash. Everyone flinched. “I have no doubt your Dreadnoughts were cyborgs, Lieutenant Peterson. But these so-called Cyclads are not. And though they are completely artificial, they are not in the same league as an android like myself. Their control unit is merely an ordinary quantum computer using a ternary radix.”

“Right,” I agreed. “A ternary radix. That would have been my guess as well.” I shared a look with Aiko, who shook her head. She wasn’t following either.

Rio filled in the blanks. “Each of these Cyclads are equipped with autonomous artificial intelligence, on a humanoid combat chassis. And they’re armed with energy weapons.”

Her announcement was met with dead silence.

Minori leaned forward and placed her hands flat on the table. I’d never seen her look so grim. “So, whoever is creating the Cyclads is removing any AI restrictions?”

“Yes,” Keenan replied. “They’re a private army, unhampered by morals, with an absolute obedience to authority. Every dictator’s dream.”

“And everyone else’s nightmare,” Minori said. “It’s a clear violation of the Zurich AI Convention.”

Rio saw my blank look. “The Zurich AI Convention was created late in the 21st century, Lieutenant. There’s been several amendments, but basically it outlaws the use of fully autonomous AI's capable of using weapons. Every country in the world signed it.”

“Ah, I get it,” I said. “And it forbids killer robots. Like these Cyclads.”

“Exactly. Although it wasn’t possible to create something like this before now. The technology is still experimental and too expensive to replicate on a large scale.”

Aiko spoke for the first time. “It looks like someone made it possible. The Cyclad’s movement and combat capabilities are equal or superior to those of human soldiers. Wouldn’t you agree, Lieutenant Peterson?”

I nodded.

Minori looked around the table. “I’ll have to report this to JAXA. Rio, Keenan, good work on discovering this. Everyone, let’s get back to our stations.”

As I started to leave, Minori said, “Lieutenant Peterson, I know you’re tired but can you come with me for just a few minutes please?”

***

I followed Minori to her office near the top deck. It had a wide window that afforded a good view of the outside. Now, of course, it only showed shattered palm trees, plowed-up red dirt, and other debris created when the Mistral Challenger had made its emergency landing.

I took a seat across from her as she activated a wall monitor. As I expected, her desk was obsessively neat. A small picture frame sat on the top, facing away from me, and I wondered who was in it.

A cover page of an official-looking document appeared on the big screen.

“This is the damage report from the action you and Aiko fought in during the defense of the Mistral. I haven’t seen it yet, so I thought we could save time by going over it together.”

The report came complete with detailed photos and didn’t exactly show me in the best light. I watched Minori’s expression grow darker as each image of destruction scrolled past on the wall monitor.

The last item displayed was a table with a list of the damages. It looked uncomfortably similar to a bill of charges.

Minori’s eyes ran down the list, then she turned the monitor off and put her face in her hands.

“I had one job,” I heard her mumble. “All I had to do was deliver the Mistral intact from Okinawa to our base in Chiba. Anything else was optional.”

“But no one expected the ship to be attacked and boarded, did they?” I pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter.” She lifted her head. “The overwhelming majority of the damage was caused by you, First Lieutenant James Peterson.” Uh-oh. If she was using my full name and rank, that could only mean I was in trouble. “I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to inflict millions of yen worth of damage, single-handedly, to this ship. You did more damage to the Mistral than the enemy!”

“But --”

“No buts! Look at this.” She turned the monitor back on and brought up the list of damaged systems and hull areas. The “CAUSE OF DAMAGE” column was filled with descriptions like “penetrating bullet strike,” “depleted uranium pellet impact,” and “grenade detonation.” All courtesy of yours truly.

“Please understand, Lieutenant Peterson, that I fully appreciate the efforts of you and Ensign Kinoshita to defend the Mistral. We were in imminent danger of being captured or destroyed, and you had a very limited window of time to organize a defense. But next time, could you exercise a little more restraint so that you don’t end up being a bigger threat to the ship than the enemy?”

“Right. Understood. I’m sorry, Lieutenant Asakusa. I’ll be more careful next time.”

She nodded wearily. “Thank you.”

I stood up and started out the door. I didn’t get far.

“Hold on just a minute, Lieutenant.”

I stopped for a moment and looked back at Minori. “I’m sorry, I thought we were finished. There’s more?”

In response, she stood and walked around to my side of the desk. She sat on the edge, casually swinging a booted leg. Her entire demeanor had changed from stern commanding officer to friendly colleague. “Yes. The real reason I wanted you to come here. There’s one more piece of official business, then I’d like to talk with you about something.”

“Oh? Am I being court-martialed?”

She laughed. “No, quite the contrary. I’m putting you and Aiko up for a citation for your recent actions in defense of the Mistral.

I was completely taken by surprise. “What? Aren’t you angry about the damage I caused?”

“Maybe a little,” she admitted. “But you saved the ship without damage to yourself, or Aiko, or even Tama. We can repair the Mistral more easily than we can repair or replace people. Japan’s population has been shrinking for well over a century. One of the reasons the ship is so heavily automated is due to a lack of trained personnel.”

I nodded, wondering what she was building up to.

“So, I just wanted to personally say ‘thank you.’ You’re a valued and welcome addition to this crew.”

Then she dropped her bombshell. “But the reason I asked you here is this: I’d like you to serve as the ship’s acting executive officer.”

I blinked in confusion. “Wait a minute. Isn’t the executive officer the second-in-command?”

Her lips curved back in a winning smile. “Exactly! You have more time in military service than anyone aboard, including me. Up until recently, you were also the only person aboard with any combat experience. Honestly, I think that you showing up when you did was a stroke of good fortune for us all.”

“I’m flattered, but won’t there be a problem having someone from a foreign military in your chain-of-command?”

“It’s perfectly permissible under the military exchange program. But once we arrive back at base, I’d like for you to consider a permanent transfer to JAXA. And to the crew of the Mistral Challenger.

“That’s quite the tempting offer.” I folded my arms and quirked an eyebrow up. “Are there any other reasons you want me to stick around?”

“Other reasons? Like what, for example?” She glanced away briefly before looking back at me. Aha, I thought.

“Like, do you have personal reasons for requesting my transfer?”

“Personal reasons? What do you mean?”

“Are you going to keep answering my questions by throwing them back at me?”

“What -- what do you mean, ‘throw them back at you?’”

I pointed a finger at her. “You just did it again. You’re being evasive, Lieutenant Asakusa.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her leg started to swing a little faster and she had difficulty meeting my eyes.

“Oh, let’s just drop it.” I looked out the window while I was thinking, then turned back to Minori. “It will be my honor to accept the executive officer position for now. As for the transfer, I promise I’ll give it some serious thought. Will that be okay?”

She seemed to relax. “Yes, of course. Please let me know your decision as soon as possible. But for now…” She slid off the desk and took a beaded metal necklace off of her neck. I bent forward as she slipped it over my head.

“It’s the key to the armory. See how much I trust you, acting executive officer Peterson?" 

I fingered the key. “Does this mean we’re going out now?”

“Why, I wouldn't dream of depriving Aiko of her future husband.” Her eyes widened in mock horror.

I groaned. “Of course you'd say that.” I tucked the necklace inside my shirt and turned to leave. 

“See you later, Minori.”

“See you later, Jim.”

I was so tired that I’d taken several steps down the corridor outside her office before I realized she’d called me "Jim" for the first time.

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