Chapter 21:

The Calm in the Storm

Challengers


Lev unleashed a steady stream of hyper-velocity bullets into the oncoming horde of spider drones. Bursts of flame shot out of the rapidly spinning barrels, illuminating the street in front of him like a strobe light and silhouetting his massive figure as he fired.

Growing interference from the anomaly and the environment made our headsets useless, so I had to shout at him to be heard. “Lev, break contact! Three-second rushes, then cover me. Go!”

For a second I wasn’t sure if the former Soviet special operations soldier would take my orders, but he stopped shooting and took off running down the street without a backwards glance.

I turned and fired my weapon into the mass of robots, then pelted down the rain-soaked road toward the ship, reloading on the move. A moment ago the Mistral had seemed so close, but now it was impossibly far away. Lev and I were about to be overrun.

He crouched behind a bench and let loose with another torrent of fire from his minigun. I ran past him and dove behind a raised flower bed outside one of the stores. A part of my mind recognized them as blue hydrangeas, my favorite flower. I never thought I’d be using them as cover.

Fortunately, the drones were so close together they were unable to fire without hitting the robot in front of them. Lev and I were picking off the ones in the lead before they could get off accurate shots.

For each spider drone that fell to our guns, though, another crowded forward to take its place. They were so close now I could hear their servo motors buzzing and the clacking of their metal legs as they ran across the pavement.

Across the street from me, Lev ran past and took cover behind a vending machine, firing shorter bursts as his ammo supply became low. Our situation was hopeless, he knew it as well as I did. But we both fought to delay the inevitable.

The wave of spider drones was closer now. I could see individual robots more clearly, and estimated there were several hundred. Once they got within range they’d be able to use their flamethrowers and the sharpened scythes that were their front legs.

I risked a quick look behind me. Through the storm’s downpour I could make out the shapes of figures moving up the boarding ramp of the ship. Once they were inside, Minori would have to lift off and find a safe location elsewhere. The unarmed Mistral wouldn’t be able to withstand an onslaught like the one coming out of Kimura.

On the other side of the street from me, Lev’s minigun made a high-pitched whining sound as it ran dry of ammunition. Dropping the weapon on the ground, he whipped out a heavy recoilless pistol and fired several times at the closest drone, destroying it. The robot disappeared underneath the wave of its fellow machines surging forward.

I fired the last round from my auto shotgun. It was when I started to draw my pistol that a miracle happened.

A stream of hypervelocity rail cannon rounds came from behind me and smashed into the mass of drones, pulverizing the lead robots and sweeping the rest backward in a rain of shrapnel, wrecking them like so many aluminum cans. A few explosive shells were mixed in with the solid projectiles, and these accounted for the robots that weren’t directly hit by bullets the size of a chicken egg.

For a brief moment, the road was cleared of enemy robots. In fact, it was cleared of everything, including much of the pavement.

We had a chance now.

“Lev, run for the ship!” I bellowed. As one, we turned and sprinted down the street.

I saw where our miracle was coming from. Two of the Mistral’s chain railguns were firing, the barrels emitting long, thin jets of flame.

Whoever was controlling the robots had made a crucial error. With the street constricting the movement of the drones, it was easier to target them than if they’d come from several directions at once.

Lev and I made it to the Mistral and up its loading ramp in record time.

***

The ship’s guns stopped firing shortly after I made it into the main cargo bay. I found out later that all but a few of the spider drones had been destroyed and the remainder had vanished.

Once everyone was aboard and accounted for, the loading bay doors closed. The Mistral was buttoned up tight and everything secured just minutes before Super Typhoon Kujira rolled over Kimura Jima.

I spotted Keenan, wearing his trademark checkered vest and pressed slacks, picking his way through the loose straps and stray pallets of equipment in the cargo bay. “Hey Keenan!” I shouted. “Were you the one who got the guns working? They saved our butts!"

Aiko was next to me, pulling her hood and headgear off. Somehow, she’d managed to keep her long hair from getting soaked. She shook off a few drops before tying it back into its usual ponytail. “No, it could not be Keenan. Although he is a very advanced AI, he is forbidden to man weapon systems by law." She sat on a nearby crate and unloaded her weapon. "But I, too, wish to know how the guns became operational.”

Keenan looked at my dripping clothes with dismay and kept a healthy distance from me. “Actually, sir, it was Ensign Rio. Several hours ago, she sent a burst request packet to our headquarters that was able to punch through the interference from the anomaly. Lieutenant Asakusa received the firing codes in a similar manner. Quite an ingenious solution, really.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said. I spotted our electronics specialist nearby and raised my voice enough so she could hear me clearly. “Rio, you’re amazing.”

“Oh!” Her eyes seemed to light up and a pleased smile stretched across her face. “Thank you, Jim. I'm so glad you're okay.” She waved at me before drifting off to escort Doc, Lev, Mei and Aiko-chan to the ship's sickbay, which I knew Benji would appropriate for himself.

Tama jumped up on a stack of pallets and started grooming himself. Except for him, Aiko and I were alone in the massive main hold.

She slid off her crate and pressed the bolt release on her submachinegun as she walked toward me. It made a menacing shikk! sound that echoed across the empty bay. I suppressed a sigh and resigned myself to another series of threats regarding Rio and me.

But instead of describing how I was about to become Tama’s next snack, she looked me in the eye and said, “Jim, you know that girl really likes you, right?”

“Huh?” I hadn’t expected her to say something like that and was taken off-balance.

“Don’t act like you don’t know!” When Aiko started talking using contractions like ‘don’t’ I knew she was suppressing her anger. Most of the time, that was when she was dealing with me.

“Don’t know what, exactly?”

“Rio talks about you all the time. It’s ‘Jim’ this, and ‘Lieutenant Peterson’ that. And each time you flirt with her, she gets that much more attached to you.”

I held my hands up with my palms out. “I wasn’t flirting just now, honest."

"When you gave her a compliment, didn't you see the way she looked at you? Did you not see how she reacted?”

“I complimented her because she saved my life! If Rio hadn’t been able to get those firing codes, my sliced-up corpse would be cooling in the rain right now. Why are you so upset?”

"I'm not upset!"

"Oh, come on. Even I'm smart enough to know that something's bothering you."

She crossed her arms. “I’m not upset, I’m concerned.”

“About what?”

“I’m concerned that Rio may become even closer to you. And --” She cut herself off and looked away. “And then you’d leave her hanging, just toss her feelings aside like trash while you chased another girl. Or even worse, what if you caught the farm?”

“It’s ‘bought the farm.’ And thanks to Rio, I didn’t.”

“No. Not today, at least.”

We stood in silence for a moment. Aiko continued to stare at the floor while I rubbed the back of my head in confusion. It sounded to me as if she was wrestling with more than just one problem and wasn't able to explain any of them in terms I could understand.

Finally, she looked up at me. “The crew of the Mistral Challenger are not combat soldiers, Jim. We are explorers, first and foremost. Let us not repeat the events of today any time soon, please?”

I smiled and tried to make light of the situation. "Well, if I do buy the farm you'll get a cool knife, remember?"

Something inside of her seemed to break. For a moment I thought she was going to hit me. Instead, she stepped forward and gave me a fierce hug. “I don’t want your Fair Barn-Spikes dagger! I want its owner to stay alive!” She stepped back and, turning quickly, left the cargo bay. Tama jumped down and trailed behind her.

I was too stunned to react.

“It’s called a ‘Fairbairn-Sykes’ dagger,” I mumbled to the empty bay. “You’ll own it someday, you need to get the name right.”

Minori’s voice came over the ship’s loudspeakers. “Attention, ship’s officers, guests, and officer trainees. Please report to the conference room.” She repeated the announcement as I followed after Aiko.

***

The typhoon didn’t make as much noise as I thought it would. That made sense, as the Mistral Challenger was engineered to fly at speeds far greater than even those generated by a super-typhoon. Not to mention its ability to dive underwater.

Still, I could feel the floor shake from time to time when a particularly strong gust pushed against the hull, and hear the sound of raindrops hammering on its metal skin.

Although the occasional flash of lightning appeared now and then through the long, elongated windows along one wall, it felt comforting to be inside the huge ship. External security cameras and sensors were in use, but no one expected anything, not even spider drones, to be moving around when the typhoon made landfall.

Minori started the meeting. “Jim, can you do the introductions, please?”

I looked around our crowded table at the strangest group of people I’d ever encountered in one room: Minori, our captain and former astronaut trainee; Rio, our electronics genius; Aiko, the ship’s resident ninja and her panther, Tama; Doc Ishikawa, grouchy military surgeon; Lev Semenov, former Soviet Union heavy attack cyborg. Mei Takahashi was the only one present that could be termed “normal.” I noticed she sat next to the hulking Lev.

“First, let me introduce another refugee from the past: my old friend and former Japan Air Self-Defense Force flight surgeon, Captain Benjiro Ishikawa. It’s easier to just call him ‘Doc.’” I beamed at him. “You look just like a nun, Doc.”

Benji had changed into the 22nd century version of hospital scrubs, which were a blinding shade of white. He scowled at me, his eyes almost disappearing under his brows. “Well, that’s fitting,” he growled. “I’d have to be some kind of saint to put up with you as long as I have.”

“Doc came right behind me in the rip that brought me into this timeline,” I explained. “He’s actually a pretty good surgeon most of the time.”

Minori stepped in before Doc could deliver a rebuttal. “Captain Ishikawa, we’re grateful to have you aboard.”

I went around the table. “This is Mei Takahashi, mayor of Kimura Jima. The large man sitting next to her is Lev Semenov. He’s one of those Dreadnoughts I was telling you about. Another refugee from the past. But he seems to be a ‘friendly.’”

Minori nodded politely to Lev, then looked at the mayor with some concern. “Mrs. Takahashi, I understand you were injured in an accident. If you’re not feeling up to attending this meeting…”

Takahashi politely shook her bandaged head. “I am happy to be here, alive and well, Lieutenant Asakusa. Let me first begin by thanking you, Mr. Semenov, and the crew of the Mistral Challenger for your heroic performance in delivering me and my daughter to safety. But, may I request your indulgence, please? I have an urgent matter to discuss. It concerns not only my daughter and I, but Mr. Semenov and Yamanaki Future Technologies.”

Except for the rain and wind pounding the ship, it became very quiet in the conference room. She had everyone’s complete attention.

Minori finally broke the silence. “I did have some questions for you, Mayor Takahashi. But please, go ahead.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. First, you must understand that I am no longer in the employ of Yamanaki Future Technologies. I resigned from my job once I discovered that I was working for a corporation I believed to be engaging in criminal activity.

“As you may know, YFT is supposed to be engaged in researching alternative energy sources. While that is partially true, it is not the primary reason for the existence of the facilities in Kimura Jima’s old submarine base.” She stopped and shared a look with Lev.

“The CEO of Yamanaki Future Technologies is Konstantin Laskin. He is a billionaire, wealthy beyond belief, and controls much of Russia through his puppets in the government. I believe the term used is ‘oligarch.’

“It is very likely that he and his company may be involved in the appearance of these anomalies, these ‘rips,’ in time.”

I couldn’t keep quiet at that point. “That backs up the information I discovered at the base.”

The mayor frowned at me and her face tightened with what looked like exasperation. I was curious but not concerned. Many people I met looked at me the same way.

“Lieutenant Peterson, I thank you for rescuing my Aiko. But it is because of you that I had to leave the YFT compound in the dead of night, with Aiko-chan, in a typhoon. When I swerved to avoid a fallen tree, the car ran into a ditch. I was injured. My six-year-old daughter crawled out through a broken window and ran into the storm, looking for help."

I held a hand up. “Wait. Why did my actions cause you to leave?"

"After you escaped from YFT’s security forces, Miss Nakamura ordered a full search of the facility networks to see if any data had been tampered with or stolen.”

“I didn’t take any data, though.”

“No.” She dug into a shoulder pocket on her jacket and pulled out an electronic tile, which she laid on the table in front of her. “But I did. I had worked for months to obtain this information, and I had to leave before I could finish the job.”

She continued her story. “Miss Nakamura dispatched her bodyguard, Lev, to take me into YFT’s custody, and he elected to take one of the company’s armored vehicles for the task.”

To everyone’s surprise, she laid an affectionate hand on Lev’s giant arm. “Lev and I have been… very close friends for some time now. He followed me, found the wreckage of my vehicle, and took me to the community center where he knew a surgeon would be able to treat me. Then he went to rescue my daughter.”

She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “As you can imagine, Lev is no longer working for YFT either.”

Turning back to Minori, she said, “Lieutenant Asakusa. The information contained on this tile --” she tapped the small device in front of her, “-- could very well solve the biggest mystery of the past two centuries."

Minori sat back in her chair, her eyebrows raised. "And what would that be, Mrs. Takahashi?"

The mayor of Kimura stared at the tile in front of her as if it might turn into a poisonous snake.  "It could tell us who caused the anomalies to appear. And perhaps -- how to stop them.”

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