An hour later, I found myself in the driver’s seat of one of the Mistral’s electric trucks with the Japanese Aeronautical Exploration Agency logo on the sides.
I’d asked Keenan earlier why JAXA was using wheeled vehicles when antigravity technology was available. He’d informed me that reliable contragrav only worked on a larger scale, like the engines that kept the Mistral afloat. Smaller contragrav units, like Rio’s “wheelchair,” were experimental and unreliable.
I remembered the spectacular failure that had occurred with one of the contragrav harnesses used by the Cyclad raiders, and made a note to ask about it later.
Rio and I waved goodbye to Tama, who was watching us from a catwalk -- how appropriate, I thought -- with his paws crossed and eyes half-shut. He responded with a slow blink and a twitch of his tail.
Since she was the acting chief security officer, Aiko had to remain behind on the ship with Minori and Keenan. I was left with the very inquisitive Ensign Rio Akayama in the passenger seat next to me.
As soon as I started the engine, Rio started with the questions.
“How old are you, Lieutenant Peterson?”
“According to the calendar I’m 163. Don’t I look good for my age?” I steered the truck down the loading ramp and across the broken ground. We were followed by an enlisted crewman driving the second truck.
“No!” she laughed. “I mean your real age.” Rio had a cheerful and breezy personality that made talking with her a pleasure and improved the mood of everyone she came into contact with. When she walked -- or floated, rather -- into a room, it always seemed to brighten up a little more.
“Well, if I were back in 1983, I’d be 23 years old right now. And call me ‘Jim,’ please. It’s a lot easier than saying ‘First Lieutenant James Peterson’ all the time.”
“You’re only four years older than me! How long have you been a soldier, uh… Jim?”
“I joined the service when I was seventeen.”
“Seventeen! Why so young?”
“I guess it all started when the third World War broke out. The Soviet Union --.”
“World War Three? When was that?”
I gave her a startled look.“You mean, the third World War never happened here?”
“The Soviet Union fell apart near the end of the 20th century,” she explained, “but thankfully there was no World War Three.”
You don’t know how lucky you are, I thought, then continued with my story.
“Anyway, I wanted to do my part after the Soviets tried to grab more of those islands belonging to Japan. At the time, the law said I was too young to join Japan’s Self Defense Forces, but the Americans were recruiting in Okinawa. So, I enlisted in the United States army when I was seventeen, after my adoptive Japanese father gave his consent --”
“You were adopted?And you were raised in Japan? No wonder your Japanese is so good!”
I thought again about my family, the one that had taken me in after my parents had died. Four sisters and a step-father. I’d loved them all, and now they were probably long dead.
I didn’t want to dwell on that, so I switched topics.
“What about you? You’d told me earlier you were nineteen years old, but you’re already an officer and an electronics engineer?”
“Yes, to both questions.”
Rio shifted in her seat so she could make eye contact with me. “Both my parents are engineers, so you could say it runs in the family. But I didn’t want to just sit around a dusty old lab or workshop, I wanted some adventure! That’s why I volunteered to join JAXA.”
Her smile faltered a little and she looked down at the floorboards. “But I didn’t do too well yesterday, did I? I mean, I panicked and I was so afraid…”
“I did the same thing in my first combat action. Don’t let it bother you. And Minori told me you did a great job of handling communications during the attack.”
For a few seconds, Rio was uncharacteristically quiet. The electric truck motors let us cruise in silence, the only sound being an occasional slap of palm frond against the side of the truck or a tire thumping across a fallen tree limb.
“I guess I just wanted to help you and Minori out more,” she finally said, twisting her hair with her fingers. “It was the first time the Mistral had been threatened.”
“You’ll get your chance to shine, don’t worry.”
I drove carefully around an uprooted palm tree lying in our path. The Mistral’s crash landing had thrown tree trunks all over the foot of the volcano but Minori’s skillful piloting had saved the ship and crew. I was going to mention her heroism to JAXA as soon as I got a chance.
I looked closely at Rio. “Did you do something with your hair? Your ponytails aren’t floating anymore.”
Her face lit up. “Oh, you noticed! I got rid of the beads and combed out my hair for our trip, since I knew I’d be representing JAXA. What do you think?” She turned her head away, but I could see her looking at me out of the corner of her eye in the reflection from the windshield.
I shrugged. “It looks cute this way, too.”
“You really think so?” she said, blushing. I noticed little dimples appearing when she smiled. I’ll bet the poor girl had her cheeks mercilessly pinched by doting relatives when she was growing up.
After bouncing over rutted trails for a half-hour, we arrived at the small town of Kimura.
The combination of the early morning and the evacuation had left the streets deserted. Only the melancholy sound of a few wind chimes dinging in the cool morning breeze broke the silence.
Our vehicles glided smoothly down the empty main street and uphill, parking in front of the community center at the top of the T-intersection. I stepped down from the cab and grabbed a box of groceries out of the truck bed.
One of the glass double-doors to the building swung inward. As I started up the steps, a familiar figure stepped out into the early morning sun and smiled at me. I stopped and blinked, not believing what I was seeing.
“Hey, Jim! You doing okay?”
The box of groceries slipped from my hands to crash onto the steps, and I stood with my mouth hanging open.
“Benji? You’re alive?”
It was Captain Benjiro Ishikawa, flight surgeon for the Air Self Defense Force. He’d been right behind me in the C-130 headed to Hachijo Jima in 1983, when the plane had burst into pieces. I’d given up hope of ever seeing anyone from my own time, much less my best friend.
But that was definitely his round, cherubic face beaming at me from behind the wireframe spectacles, trim mustache, and goatee.
He tried to give me a handshake but I swept right past his outstretched hand and gripped him in a bearhug. “Doc! You made it! You’re alive! Wait, are you okay?” I released him and took a step back. “Are you alright? No injuries, no pain?”
“What are you trying to do, take my job away?” he laughed. “I should be asking you those questions! But anyway, it’s good to see you again, my friend. It’s good to see you!”
He clapped me on the back and pointed to the trucks. “You brought groceries, I see.”
"And medical supplies, water, fuel cells for the generators --” I stopped talking as Rio’s contragrav chair came to life and lifted up and out of the back of the truck. Benji’s eyes popped as he watched the chair drift around to the vehicle's passenger side. The chair’s arms revolved out of the way and Rio slid from the truck seat onto the hoverchair.
“Amazing,” he murmured. “I’ve been told that small-scale contra gravity is supposed to be impractical and even dangerous, but this…. Just think of how many people this technology could help.”
That was Doc, always thinking of ways to make things better for everyone. Not that I didn’t do that, it’s just that my way of helping the good guys usually involved putting bullet holes into the bad guys.
While Rio was getting settled in her chair, I turned to Doc. “How did you get here? We were right next to each other when the Hercules fell apart. And the people I’m with didn’t find any other parachutes in the air. I thought you were dead!”
He raised his eyebrows. “My main chute didn’t open. I had to use my reserve and I was really low when it deployed. That’s probably why I wasn’t spotted. At the speed I was going I was lucky that I hit water, and not the ground. Even luckier that I got picked up by a Kimura Jima fishing boat and brought here.”
Rio floated up the steps and smiled at us. “Jim, do you know this officer?” Her eyes flicked to the camouflage uniform he wore that matched my own. “Oh! Are you from the 20th century too?”
“Yes, he’s from my era,” I confirmed. “And I do know him. Rio, meet my buddy, Captain Benjiro Ishikawa. Doc, this is Ensign Rio Akayama, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.”
“A pleasure, young lady.” He exchanged salutes with Rio, then shook her hand. “Are you by any chance the electronics genius we were promised?”
Rio stammered for a second or two. “Uh, well, I’m good with communication equipment, I suppose.”
I was less hesitant. “Yes, she’s definitely the genius you need. Why, what happened?”
He turned and pointed at a tall mast poking up from the top of the community center’s third story. “One of the emergency transceivers attached to that antenna went haywire during the EMP event yesterday. The technician can’t seem to locate the problem, and we don’t have replacement equipment.”
Benji noticed the raw scar along my cheek. “We’d heard you’d been in some kind of battle.” He lightly held my jaw and gave me a professional once-over. “And of course you had to get involved. Doesn’t look serious, though. Any casualties?”
“No friendlies were hurt. The other side lost thirty cyborgs who tried to capture my ship.”
“Your ship, huh? Sounds like you’ve been making friends. No surprise there.” He gestured at the community center doors. “But hey, let’s talk inside.”
“Nooo!” I heard a child shout. A little girl ran out from the community center, chased by someone who looked like her mother. The child ran into the mini-park next to the building and jumped on a swing, wrapping her frail arms around the chains.
“Ah, little Aiko,” Benji said. An affectionate look spread across his face. “A real handful for her mother.”
I swapped knowing looks with Rio. “What a coincidence,” I said. “We have an Aiko on our ship who’s a real handful, too.”
Before I could go into detail, I was distracted by movement in the trees behind the park. I couldn't quite make it out, but it looked to be about the size of a human. A very tall human.
The being stepped out of the forest’s shadows into the morning sunlight and, without hesitation, walked toward the woman struggling to get her child off the swing.
I took an involuntary step backward. “What… the…”
It was a Dreadnought.
And he was heading straight for the woman and her child.