Chapter 12:

Kimura Jima

Challengers


I was having a bad dream.

Like sequences from a movie, scenes from yesterday’s fight with the Cyclad raiders were spliced haphazardly with segments from an older battle. In my nightmare the shiny blue-and-gray top deck of the Mistral Challenger mingled with the rusty catwalks and filthy concrete floors of the abandoned East German factory. Dreadnoughts and Cyclads swarmed over everything, killing, destroying…

It was a noise from the bathroom that woke me up. I sat up and scrubbed my face with my hands, then took deep, regular breaths until my heart rate slowed down.

Now that I was a member of the Mistral’s crew I had a room all to myself, although I had to share a restroom with the resident of the adjoining bedroom. Since that was Keenan, I pretty much had the bathroom to myself as well.

Wondering why an android needed a bedroom anyway, I yawned and rolled out of bed.

“Keenan?” I walked over to the door and knocked. “Are you using the toilet? If you are, may I ask why?”

I didn’t get an answer but it sounded like he was scrubbing the fixtures. It was before sunset and Keenan was already hard at work cleaning the latrine? Nice! I popped the door open to offer encouragement.

What I saw was something out of a nightmare.

A giant white spider as big as a platter jumped down from the sink and lurched toward me.

Backpedaling as fast as I could, I raced to my desk chair and snatched the big utility knife from the web gear slung over the back. If I’d had my pistol, I would already have punched a round into the thing in the time it took to ready the knife.

The spider casually strolled into the room. I was backed up as far as I could go, crouched with my blade out, when it stopped.

May I clean your room, sir?” the spider said.

A few seconds later, it repeated itself. “Sir, may I clean your room?”

Something inarticulate came out of my mouth.

The spider tried again. “Sir, may I clean your room?”

I finally got my tongue to work. “Uhh, no. No thanks.”

“Good heavens, Lieutenant Peterson. Are you planning to start a knife fight with a cleaning robot?” Keenan stood in the bathroom doorway. I’d never seen him in shorts and a T-shirt before, and had to admit his designers had given him a good set of abs.

As casually as I could, I put the knife back into its sheath while making sure the “spider” stayed in view. Now that my initial panic was over, I noticed that it was carrying sponges and cleaning heads in slots on its broad back.

While I was watching, one of its legs reached up and attached itself to a sponge implement. The robot rotated on its axis and returned to the bathroom to continue the task I’d interrupted earlier.

I kept a close eye on it until it disappeared from sight. “So, that’s what it does? It cleans rooms?”

“Well, what else would it be doing? It was just finishing the bathroom when you opened your door, and… oh, I see now.” A slow grin appeared on his face. “You thought it was some kind of giant spider, didn’t you? No wonder you were frightened. Heh, heh, heh.”

“I wasn’t frightened! I was just reacting out of, uh, an abundance of caution. I have a touch of arachnophobia, that’s all.”

“Of course, sir.” He continued to chuckle with that annoying laugh of his.

“Hey! Don’t tell anyone about this, okay?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it, Lieutenant Peterson.” I didn’t believe an android could smirk, but he managed. “No matter how entertaining it might prove to be.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Just remember that the crazy guy with the big knife and a history of violence lives next door to you. Tell that story and you’ll never have a peaceful night’s sleep again.”

“But I don’t sleep.”

“Oh, never mind.” Neither reason nor threats were reaching him. “So, what did you come in here for, anyway? To give me a hard time? That’s Aiko’s job, you know.”

“I heard scuffling coming from your room and came to investigate, only to see our brave executive officer backed into a corner by a small cleaning robot --”

I gave him a glare so fierce it almost glowed in the dark. “Out!”

Keenan disappeared back into his room, still chortling.

***

Nursing my wounded pride, I changed into my workout clothes and padded downstairs to the ship’s treadmills. Running a few miles in the morning always settled my nerves, and between the nightmares and the spider robot, I needed some industrial-strength endorphins in my system.

As I passed by one of the empty storage bays I heard music. Curious, I peeked through the mesh-reinforced window in the door.

A dancer was performing in the bay. I looked closer and realized I was actually viewing a hologram, generated by a portable unit of some type that was also playing the music.

Although not quite a teenager, the dancer was both lithe and skilled. She moved with grace around the projected stage, a streamer of some type tied to a wand held in her hand. As she twirled and leaped, the streamer followed her movements exactly and I saw it was actually a trail of light, not a ribbon.

I rubbed my chin and frowned. Something about the dancer looked familiar.

Rio slid into view in her hoverchair, wearing a gym outfit. As best as she could, she followed the movements of the dancer on the stage. Instead of a streamer, her twin ponytails floated behind her, mimicking her movements in the same way the dancer’s light trail followed her.

The performance ended. Rio wiped her forehead with a hand towel, then started another holovideo. This one featured a young man in a tuxedo.

He bowed, took a step forward, then turned around and faced away from her. Rio moved her chair around until the two were back to back.

The music started with a blare of French horns.

The man twisted abruptly toward Rio, who snapped her chair around to face her partner. She’d rotated too rapidly, however. Centrifugal force threw her bodily out of the chair, pitching her onto the hard floor.

Instinctively, I moved forward to help. As I reached for the long door handle, a hand seized my arm.

I looked over to see Aiko standing next to me, slowly shaking her head.

“What are you doing? I have to help Rio!”

“Rio wants to become stronger, Jim. She would not appreciate your intervention.” Aiko relaxed her grip. Her opaque brown eyes, which never betrayed her own feelings, couldn’t keep from showing empathy for someone else. “It is difficult. Believe me, I know.”

Inside the cargo bay, Rio turned on her side and pushed her hair away from her face. The ponytails which had floated so effortlessly a moment ago sagged limply. The man in the hologram continued to dance around her, not caring that his partner had fallen to the floor. Even if it was just a recording, I wanted to punch him in the mouth.

Rio sat up on her elbows. Then, using only her hands, she dragged herself backwards until she reached her chair. As if sensing her presence, the hoverchair tilted forward, allowing Rio to thrust her hands through loops fastened underneath the padded arms. The arms rotated up while the chair tilted backwards, and the loops pulled her back onto the chair’s seat.

Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Rio stopped the hologram, then rewound it to the beginning. She didn’t look sad or even angry, just determined. While she was doing this, her hair reacted to the hoverchair’s contra grav field and gradually floated up, as if by magic.

The holovideo started. Once more, the elegantly-dressed man stepped forward, bowed, and the dance started over again.

As if by mutual consent, Aiko and I stepped away from the door. For some reason, I felt embarrassed, as if I’d been caught spying on someone. Actually, I guess I had.

“Want to run a few miles with me?” I asked Aiko.

“Yes, I was just heading toward the gym when I saw you here.” She glanced at the cargo bay door, then back at me. “Rio doesn’t need my sympathy. But she deserves my respect.”

I nodded. "Mine too."

As we trudged off to the gym, it finally dawned on me who the holographic female dancer was. Although the girl in the video was much younger, there was no doubt in my mind. It was Rio.

***

A couple of hours later I stepped through the door to the Mistral’s bridge.

“The interference that’s been blanketing the area has disappeared. I’ve finally been able to make contact with Kimura,” I heard Rio’s excited voice say. I went to stand next to her and Aiko.

Once again, I was in a meeting with the Mistral Challenger’s fledgling officers. This time, though, we were gathered around the holo-display in the center of the bridge. It was currently showing graphs and images from Rio’s e-warfare/communications station, floating in the air around a 3-D wireframe display of the island.

In the center of the holographic map were colored blocks representing the buildings in Kimura Jima. A map of the village showed a main street that ended in a “T” intersection, with shops and garages lining the boulevards. Real-time drone photos showed typical mixed zoning, with families living above the shops. A few scattered outbuildings on the map were no doubt schools and warehouses.

I took a closer look at the photographs. Other than a change in construction materials, buildings still looked much the same as they did in the 20th century. But power distribution and telephone poles had vanished, and the roads were paved with something that looked like plastic. Instead of painting stripes and erecting road signs, the builders had just baked them right into the pavement.

Rio continued. “Most of the village evacuated to the mainland before we arrived. A tsunami warning is in effect, so only a handful of people remain.”

“So that’s why there are so few people in the images,” Minori said. “I knew about the tsunami warning but I’d been worried that something else might have happened.”

“Like a visit from Cyclad raiders?” I said.

She glanced up at me. “That would be the worst-case scenario, but yes.” Minori cued up another image, this one from a camera in our main hold. A couple of wheeled trucks were lined up in front of the closed ramp. What looked like robots of some kind were busy loading the beds with crates. “We were diverted here with orders to share some of the supplies originally destined for our base in Chiba.”

Keenan answered the question that was probably on everyone’s mind. “We could just fly the Mistral to the village, but Lieutenant Asakusa and I think it’s best if we complete a full airframe inspection before attempting take-off. It would be embarrassing if parts of the Mistral fell off as we continued our journey.”

“Yes, very embarrassing.” Minori continued her portion of the meeting.

“The village council has also requested assistance with replacing or repairing their communications equipment that was damaged by the recent electro-magnetic pulse from the rip that appeared yesterday. So -- that brings us to the subject of the meeting: our first expeditionary mission!”

“Excellent!” Keenan exclaimed. Rio actually clapped with glee. Even Aiko pursed her lips and gave a barely perceptible nod.

“Alright!” I said as enthusiastically as I could. “Sounds great! Can someone tell me what an ‘expeditionary mission’ is and why it’s so cool?”

My statement was greeted with laughter. Minori filled me in. “It means, mister executive officer, that we can finally take some well-deserved shore leave. An ‘expeditionary mission’ is any task performed away from the ship. In this case, it also provides an excuse for some rest and recreation. Although the village is mostly shut down, we can at least get out and stretch our legs a little.”

She looked over at her electronics officer. “But let’s take care of work first. Rio?”

“Yes, Minori?”

“You’ll need to go with the first group into town. The sooner their communications are back up, the better. I’ll let our executive officer handle the rest of the details.” Minori gave me a smile tinged with relief, and I realized that I would be able to take some of the work off her shoulders.

“Not a problem, Lieutenant Asakusa,” I said. “I’ll be happy to get our little expedition organized and on its way.” I was looking forward to a little shore leave myself. 

But nothing could have prepared me for what I found in Kimura.

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