Chapter 17:

Aiko's Tale

Challengers


Aiko Kinoshita
A.D. ???
Sapporo, Japan

“He’s too fast!” Rio squealed as she ran after Tama.

Aiko’s young panther bounded through the snowdrifts in the Akayama’s large backyard, a furry splotch of black against the sunlit white. He kept just out of reach of his pursuer, taunting her by staying just one step ahead.

Aiko watched from the low porch, composed and tranquil, with a serene smile on her face. Training and upbringing had given her the ability to hold still for hours at a time and resist the cold. The iron discipline she’d learned had also helped her gain the top position in her high school kendo club, she thought with a touch of pride. A far cry from stalking dangerous beasts.

Exhausted, Rio finally gave up. She crunched through the ice on the sidewalk and plopped down next to her friend. The elusive Tama jumped up on the handrail of an arched bridge and casually licked a paw.

“One of these days, big sister, I want to have my own Tama,” Rio said. Her brow was furrowed with determination.

“And what will you do with him once you get him? Hunt monsters? Track prey?”

“Doesn’t matter!” She tightened her small hands into fists. “I just wanna do it!”

Although she wore the same school uniform as Rio and was a permanent guest at her house, Aiko was far away from her own people. She was grateful to the Akayama family, however, who had been kind enough to take her in when she’d popped through a rip in their Sapporo facility, surprising all the researchers there.

Maybe she’d never see her own family again, Aiko thought, but she’d gained a friend who treated her like an older sister. And Aiko had always wanted a younger sister.

It all started with the missing child….

Other than the Kuga panthers which her clan had forged a bond with, there were few predators near Aiko’s village. On rare occasions, though, something else would appear that required the combined efforts of the transhuman Kinoshita warriors to defeat: Huge lizards that walked on two and four legs. Snakes that could swallow a man whole.

The worst, though, were the demons, monsters in human form that kidnapped children. Some of the victims would be found later, dazed and wandering, with no recollection of what had happened to them. But many never returned home.

As the preeminent tracker in her family, Aiko was asked by her father to join the searchers.

In a short time, she and Tama found indications of the child’s passage through the forest. It had taken some effort, since even small shinobi children learned early on how to move without leaving tracks.

But the child’s signs had disappeared, replaced by someone -- or something -- that left obvious footprints in the soft earth that Aiko could easily follow, even after she broke into a run.

Whatever had left the footprints had taken the child.

And as she’d feared, the tracks led to the demon’s cave. Quietly, Aiko walked up to the huge, square entrance that was obviously manmade. At her side, Tama growled softly.

It was rumored that her entire tribe had emerged from this cavern centuries ago after fleeing some kind of cataclysm, and that the demons now lived in its furthest reaches. The elders had marked the cave as taboo and forbidden anyone to enter. There was no need to enforce the decree, since it was also rumored that shinobi foolish enough to enter were never heard from again.

Aiko looked behind her, uncertain as to what her next step should be. Should she wait for the other searchers to catch up? Go back for more help?

But the child was in the demon cave now. And he could be dead before help arrived.

With Tama beside her and her sword at the ready, Aiko plunged through the cave opening…

***

An automated gangplank extended from the Mistral. With a groan, I clambered over the balcony railing and fell onto the ramp’s hard rubber surface. Holding my side and trailing blood from my wounded leg, I climbed to my feet and limped across to the hovering ship.

Aiko stood at the end of the gangplank. “Where’s Rio?”

“She’s still in Kimura. We’ve got to --”

“You left Rio in Kimura? You left her by herself?” The look of horror on Aiko’s face changed to fury in a heartbeat. For a moment I thought I might have been better off turning myself in to Miss Nakamura.

“No, she’s not by herself! She’s with someone I’d trust with my life. Come on, we’ve got to talk to Minori.”

She glared at me for a second, then roughly threw my arm over her shoulder and helped me walk to the conning tower hatch.

I gritted my teeth as we stumbled along. The pain from my side increased with each step. “How did you guys know I needed help, anyway?”

For a minute I thought she wouldn’t answer. “Your headset,” she finally replied. “The Mistral received a few transmissions from your transceiver, but they were fragmented. This is likely the result of anti-espionage devices used by Yamanaki Future Technologies.”

She paused to help me over the lip of the conning tower hatch, then slammed it behind us. Hydraulic clamps pressed against the hatch with a solid thunk, sealing it airtight. “When we picked up the sound of gunfire and explosions from your microphone, Minori elected to err on the side of caution by going to your last known coordinates.”

Aiko helped me into the elevator and punched a button. The doors closed as I leaned gratefully against a wall. “The submarine base has been known to exist for centuries, so it was relatively easy for a ship such as the Mistral to find the underwater cavern.”

“Well, I’m glad you finally got clearance to use the ship’s weapons.”

“I still do not have the access codes to fire the guns, Lieutenant.”

“Huh? But the silos opened, the turrets deployed…” It finally dawned on me what had happened. “So, you just ran the gun motors like you were about to fire? You bluffed YFT’s security?”

“Yes. I only pretended to deploy our weapons. I shudder to think what would have happened if they had decided to fire on you. On us.”

I noticed that the elevator was dropping, not rising. “Aren’t we going to the bridge?”

“No. I was ordered to bring you directly to the conference room. Once the Mistral exits the base, we will be joined by Lieutenant Asakusa and Ensign Keenan for an emergency meeting.”

“But…” I ground my teeth in frustration. “We need to get to Rio as fast as we can!”

“She is supposed to be with you!” Aiko said. Her emotionless facade cracked to let anger show through. “Minori chose to use the Mistral to rescue two of her ship’s officers, aborting the repairs from our crash landing. But since we subjected the ship’s hull to immense pressure when we went underwater, the Mistral’s environmental integrity must be verified or we could destroy ourselves the instant we lift off. It will take a few minutes for the crew to complete.”

She glared at the elevator numbers as they counted down. “A few precious minutes that could have been put to better use. YFT may be retaliating against Ensign Akayama as we speak, Lieutenant. Thanks to your recent actions.”

The elevator doors opened. Aiko supported me again, more gently this time. “But I am glad that you were not seriously injured, Jim.”

***

Aiko was still so angry with me that I was afraid she’d bite my leg rather than bandage it, so I used my own first aid kit to clean and wrap the wound. Apparently, the injury had been caused by a steel splinter kicked up from the walkway when the YFT guards had fired at me.

Minori and Keenan walked into the conference room. No one said a word as I finished patching myself up and slipped the torn trouser leg back over my calf.

“Are you badly injured, Lieutenant?” Minori asked as she took her seat. Her expression was as serious as a judge in session.

The conference room atmosphere felt tense. I decided against making my usual wisecracks. “No, not at all. Just a scratch.”

Except for the tinny sound of background radio chatter on Keenan’s headset, the room was completely quiet. He took a seat across from me next to Aiko.

I broke the silence. “I didn’t know the Mistral was also a submarine,” I said. “But I was sure glad to see you show up when you did.”

“The Mistral is an exploration vessel, Lieutenant,” Keenan said. “She’s designed to survive many types of environmental hazards, including total immersion.” His mercury-pool eyes seemed to harden. “But she is not a spy ship.”

“Is that why you guys are upset? Because I went off on a spy mission?”

“In part,” Minori said. “But that’s not the whole reason we’re meeting.”

She swiveled her chair to face me. “Lieutenant Peterson. Where is Rio? As commander of the ground mission, you’re responsible for her safety.”

“Which is why I left her with my best friend.”

Everyone looked confused. “Could you explain that please?” Minori asked.

“Look, I was about to do something really dangerous and didn’t want Rio to get directly involved.” I quickly filled the bridge crew in on how Doc Ishikawa had managed to end up in the same time as me.

“I’ve known Benji for years, ever since we were kids. I’d not only trust him with my life, I’d trust him with the lives of this entire ship as well.”

“We lost contact with you almost as soon as you reached Kimura.” Minori’s voice was still frosty. “So can you explain, in detail, why you took on a risky covert mission on your own authority? You had no official sanction yet you risked yourself, the ship and its personnel, and potentially even abandoned one of its officers.”

She rubbed the back of her neck, and I noticed some concern in her expression. “Jim, let me be clear. Unless you can produce actionable intelligence that was worth the risks, it is likely you will face a court-martial for espionage.”

“Oh, it was worth it, all right. I’ll show you. Uh, but first, can someone help me get my recording out of this headset and onto a videotape?”

“Videotape?” Keenan asked.

“Yeah, where’s the VCR?”

His eyebrows drew together in a frown, then relaxed. “Oh, I see! You want to transfer your recording to a different media. Well, then…” He tapped a few keys on the virtual keyboard in front of him, and a few seconds later a recording of my recent activities appeared on the conference room holoscreen. “Your video has been downloaded to our network, Lieutenant.”

“Thanks, big guy.” I took over the controls and fast forwarded to where I entered the chief researcher’s office. When we got to the part where I recorded the whiteboard, I paused. “Here it is, folks. This is what will make everything worthwhile.”

I unpaused the recording and watched as my holographic 3-D hand drew the curtain to one side, displaying…

… dark splotches and bright spots appearing randomly. The writing on the whiteboard, the intricate drawings taped to its surface -- it was all blurred beyond recognition.

I was completely dumbfounded. “But -- what happened? What’s wrong with the recording?”

Aiko folded her arms and scowled at the holoscreen, then me. Minori closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.

Keenan, who had been watching closely, gave a sharp nod of his head. “CCD scrambler,” he said. “It transmits a signal on the same frequency as most charge-coupled devices -- that’s a chip that substitutes for a camera lens, Lieutenant -- and prevents sensitive material from being recorded.”

He waved a hand at the blurred image. “There must have been one in use near this scientist’s whiteboard. I find it interesting, however, that they knew what frequency to use for scrambling a military CCD.”

“Oh. I see.” Rio had given me a device that did the same thing to security cameras, so for once I actually understood what Keenan was talking about.

I slumped back in my chair.

“What was on that whiteboard that was so important?” Minori asked.

“YFT isn’t researching alternative energy sources. They were doing research on rips.”

Aiko snorted. “There are several labs around the world doing just that, Lieutenant Peterson. One of the reasons this ship was built was to support research efforts.”

“Yeah, but how many labs know how to predict them? Or maybe even create them?”

The stunned silence was telling. “None of them right? This whiteboard --” I stabbed a finger at the holoscreen “-- had coordinates, a date, and a time for a rip to appear tonight. Right about the time the typhoon will be washing over the island, in fact. I did memorize the coordinates, though. Hold on just a second…” I changed the holoscreen output to show a map of the island and input the rip's location.

“There!” I said. “Do you see now why we have to get moving?”

A bright red circle marked the area on the map where the anomaly would show up.

It was right over the town of Kimura.

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