Chapter 22:

Arrival at Chiba

Challengers


The revelation Mei Takahashi had just revealed was mind-blowing. Was there really a way to end the sudden appearance of the “rips” in time that had caused planet-wide calamity?

But I still had a few burning questions.

“Why did the Mistral Challenger get attacked by Cyclad raiders?” I asked. “And why did a horde of spider drones rampage through Kimura before heading toward the ship? Do you know anything about these attacks?”

The mayor of Kimura shook her head, but Aiko offered an explanation.

“The first attack on the Mistral could have been an attempt to capture the ship. The attack on Kimura, though? From what I could see, someone badly wanted to destroy the town as well as the Mistral.”

Keenan gave the mayor a thoughtful look. “Or its inhabitants, such as its mayor. Perhaps YFT already knew what a threat Mrs. Takahashi’s information could be.”

“That brings up another question that’s been bothering me,” I said. “Mrs. Takahashi -- are you the person who sabotaged the signals communication equipment in the Kimura community center building?”

“Yes. My apologies to all concerned, but I knew the Mistral Challenger was in the area and I needed to attract your attention without arousing suspicion from Miss Nakamura. I knew you’d almost certainly come to assist with emergency repairs.

“I’d found enough evidence of YFT wrongdoing to get seriously worried about the safety of my daughter and me. I was hoping with your help that Aiko-chan, Lev, and I would be able to leave the island under your protection.”

She pointed at the tile on the table. “With the information on that device, of course.”

“Not a problem, Mrs. Takahashi,” Minori said. She had been listening without comment during the entire meeting and I wondered what she was thinking.

“We’ll take you, your daughter, and Lev to the mainland and turn your information over to the authorities there. If it’s everything you say it is, we -- and maybe the entire world -- will be indebted to you.”

She showed us all a tight smile. "After all, the primary mission of the Mistral Challenger is to discover more about these rips in time."

“I thank you, Lieutenant. Our lives are in your hands.” The mayor slid the tile over to Minori, who looked at it closely before sealing it in a protective pouch. She picked up her tablet and rose to her feet.

“Everyone, thank you for coming. Until the typhoon has passed, I think it’s safe to say we have some time to catch up on our rest. Go ahead and grab something to eat. Rio, can you show our guests to the mess hall?”

As everyone filed out the door, I felt a hand on my arm. It was Minori.

“Jim, can you come with me to the bridge? There’s something important I need to discuss with you.”

***

I followed her out the door to the elevator at the end of the corridor. “You needed to talk to me?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen much of you since you left with Aiko in one of the Mistral’s trucks,” she said as we entered the elevator. “Oh, that reminds me. Whatever happened to it?”

“Spider drones happened to it. I saw it in flames during our return to the Mistral.” I quickly punched the button for the bridge. “But you know, we did achieve the mission goal of recovering our personnel. Plus, I found us a medical doctor! I think Benji would make a great addition to the crew.”

Minori didn’t even sigh or throw her hands up in despair, but just nodded wearily. “I’ll write the trucks off as ‘expended in the course of rescuing civilians and ship’s crew members.’”

She leaned back against the elevator handrails. I could tell she was thinking about something else, something that didn’t have anything to do with missing trucks.

The doors popped open and we exited onto the darkened bridge. Light from the instrument panels provided enough illumination to make our way to the front without stumbling. Outside the cockpit windows, the rain was so thick it was almost a solid wall. Palm trees were bent sideways under the force of the typhoon.

“Have a seat, Jim.” Minori indicated the co-pilot’s chair. “I have a feeling that you’re going to get very used to it in the near future.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” I plopped down in the chair while Minori took her normal position in the other seat. A natural pilot, she seemed far more relaxed in that chair than the one in the conference room. She leaned back and crossed her legs as we turned our chairs to face each other.

“I reviewed your personnel files while you were on mission.”

“I’m flattered.” I was about to ask her if she’d been checking on my marital status, but then I remembered what Aiko had just said about tossing Rio’s feelings aside and chasing after other women. I kept my mouth shut. “Apparently, you found something interesting?”

“I did, actually. First -- what is Project ROYAL?”

I felt my chest tighten, as if I’d suddenly run short of air. “Say that again, please?”

“Project ROYAL. It’s the only part of your personnel file that hasn’t been declassified, even after 140 years. I thought it was a mistake and wanted to ask you.”

“I can’t talk about it,” I said in a flat monotone.

Minori tilted her head to one side. I could tell her curiosity had been piqued. “Even after 140 years?”

“Even after 140 years. You’ll need to get Top Secret/ROYAL clearance from the U.S. Army, and I doubt they’ll give it to you. Until then, I can’t talk about it.”

“Oh. All right, then,” she said slowly. I felt like I had just thrown a wall up between us and cursed the military for not erasing the file from my records. I wondered if I would ever be able to get rid of the albatross named ROYAL that still, even after all this time, hung around my neck like a weighted chain.

Thankfully, Minori shifted to another subject. “So then, why didn’t you tell me you were a pilot?”

She’d just picked out the second sore spot from my past. “Because I’m not.”

“But your records say you completed helicopter flight training --”

“Not entirely. I washed out.” Just saying the words left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Minori looked startled. “What? It’s true that you didn’t get assigned to any flight duties after your training. But your file shows that you were awarded pilot’s wings.”

I shrugged. “Someone must have messed up my records. The European Theater Command sent me to helicopter school. My commanding officer thought I’d spent too much time on the front lines and wanted to get me out of combat, at least for a little while. I made it almost all the way through flight training, then banged up my aircraft on the final test flight.”

I was about to end the story there, but knew Minori deserved more. “My instructor hated my guts. I might have been able to re-test, but he gave me a thumbs-down when the school asked him for his opinion. So I was RTU'd --Returned To Unit -- and went back into combat."

Minori was unconvinced. “I don’t see that in your records. Maybe the Army had a change of heart? In any case, most executive officers in the Challenger fleet are also qualified grav-carrier pilots. I have to tell you, it’s easier flying the Mistral than a helicopter. But until we dock at Chiba, I’d like for you to sit up front with me for familiarization training. What do you think?”

I rubbed my jaw. “Well, I guess if it’ll help out, sure. I don’t mind at all.”

“Wonderful!” She gave me a dazzling smile. I thought she was going to say something else when the bridge doors slid open again. Keenan and Aiko stepped through, followed by Tama.

“You needed to see us about something, Lieutenant?” Aiko asked. She stood next to my chair with a hand on the headrest. I was relieved to see that she seemed to have gotten over being angry with me.

“It’s this,” Minori said. She brought up a personnel record on a screen and the three of us crowded behind her chair, peering over her shoulder. “Rio’s birthday is coming up.”

“Ohh…” Aiko nodded. “What should we do to celebrate?”

Minori swiveled around to face us. “I’m open to suggestions.”

“I have an idea.” I pointed at the Date Of Birth field on the record. “This will be Rio’s 20th birthday, so let’s make it special.”

“How would we do that, Lieutenant?” Keenan asked.

“I’m glad you asked.” I slid one arm around his shoulders and another around Aiko’s, drawing them closer to Minori and me in a conspiratorial huddle.

***

After the typhoon passed, the Mistral Challenger lifted off and headed to Chiba. Since the town of Kimura was nestled in a bowl-shaped valley it had avoided much of the storm’s fury, but had been badly damaged by the onslaught of spider drones.

Ominously, the Mistral had received no attempts at communication -- or even threats of lawsuit or physical harm -- from Nakamura or YFT.

I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about leaving the island in the hands of Yamanaki Future Technologies. But we needed to make sure that Mei Takahashi and Aiko-chan -- not to mention Lev -- were safe from retaliation first.

No one stopped to think that YFT might retaliate against someone else.

***

My first look at Chiba-1 left me breathless.

The entire bridge crew was present and manning their stations. I was sitting in the co-pilot’s chair, going over flight landing procedures with Minori, when the huge arcology came into view through the forward cockpit windows.

I stopped what I was doing to stare.

Minori looked out the window. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Chiba-1 was a colossal steel-gray pyramid with transparent sides reinforced with a spiderwork of golden beams, and it was big enough to contain a small city. Its base was buried under the thick tree cover of the surrounding countryside and continued several floors further down. The top of the pyramid soared above the nearby hills, and had a flattened split-level roof which acted as a landing platform for aircraft. The area underneath the main airfield, which was open on all sides, was dedicated solely to accommodating the Japanese government’s grav-carriers. It was here that we were headed.

I saw what had to be another grav-carrier, but this one was twice the size of the Mistral. It was too big to fit into the second level of the airfield. Instead, the ship was parked on the upper deck with the other aircraft.

Aiko noticed it first. “Lieutenant Asakusa. What is that thing?”

“That’s the DDC-1 Levchenko. It’s the Yamanaki Future Technologies newest vessel, and the first non-Japanese grav-carrier to be considered for membership in the Challenger project.” Her voice sounded distinctly disappointed. “It looks more like a warship, not an exploration vessel.”

“Its design looks terrible,” Keenan said. Never short of an opinion, our Keenan.

I couldn’t help but agree with him, though. “It reminds me of a kitchen knife covered with warts and boils.” The ship had a long, narrow profile more typical of a water-borne naval vessel, with metal blisters covering what had to be avionics, antennas, and the like.

“But it’s said to be crewed by the best personnel from the Russian Federation military and YFT flight staff,” Rio added.

“Why Russian?” I asked.

“You didn’t know, Lieutenant Peterson?” Minori said. “Yamanaki is actually a city inside the Russian Federation. I know it sounds Japanese, but it’s where Yamanaki Future Technologies is based.”

I had a brief flashback to my hand-to-hand struggle with the Cyclad raider during their attempted boarding action. I had been close enough to hear radio chatter from its radio and the words had been in Russian.

This is getting more and more interesting, I thought as we started landing procedures.

***

It was gray and rainy when the ship’s officers and trainees said goodbye to Mei Takahashi and her child, as well as Lev. Officers from the Japanese National Police were waiting for us at the foot of the cargo bay ramp.

The floor of the main airfield high overhead shielded us from the heavy rain following in the wake of the typhoon. Little Aiko waved back at me through the rear window of the silent black SUV as it pulled away from the ship and headed to the elevators in the center of the field. I couldn’t help but feel a little sad as I returned her wave.

Doc gave me a disapproving look. "Womanizer."

“Aw, shut up. I’m having a moment here.”

Minori was the only one of us who had been to Chiba-1 before, so she rounded up all the ship’s officers and trainees for a quick trip to celebrate our safe arrival.

Doc, Aiko, and Keenan piled into the back seat of a truck. This one had been configured like a passenger car, with two rows of seats. Rio sat between Minori and me up front as we drove to the central shaft.

I watched as the Mistral Challenger grew smaller in the rear-view mirror. “You know, every time I’ve left the ship something bad happens to me,” I said to Minori.

“I know,” she said. She glanced at me and smiled. “That’s why I’m driving. This is the only truck we have left.”

Rio giggled. I blew out a long sigh and took a look around me.

The landing zones on the grav-carrier field were divided up like pie slices, with the broader end holding the ships and the narrow end devoted to operations centers, the shaft holding the massive cargo elevators, and miscellaneous storage buildings.

Underneath our landing field, the entire floor was devoted to climate control machinery and similar industrial-oriented facilities. There were also shops, bars and restaurants for workers and aircraft crews looking to relax.

Like us.

We walked from the parking zone to a strip of pubs, restaurants, and stores. The creative use of lighting eliminated the feel of being in a building, and I felt like I was in a typical outdoor mall space.

“When we get more time, we’ll all have to go to the real shopping malls,” Minori told us. “Further down in the arcology.”

We followed her through a door into what looked like a 20th century izakaya, a casual pub that felt both informal and friendly. Since we’d arrived a bit early, it was sparsely populated with customers.

Minori went to go talk with the owner, a friend of hers, while the rest of us chose a table near the back. There was no waitress on duty, so we each took turns going to the counter and bringing back our orders.

The food was simple but mouth-watering, and went well with the beer. I was starting to relax when I noticed a large group of about a dozen men had claimed a table nearby. The newcomers all wore the same uniform: a green jumpsuit with unit patches on the shoulders and chests.

I chugged my beer while idly scanning the insignia, then choked. Doc pounded me on the back while I coughed and sputtered.

“You can’t drink and breathe at the same time,” he chided me. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

I finally got my breath back. “Doc, look at their chest patches.” The shoulder patches on the newcomers uniforms simply had “SECURITY” on them.

But the chest patches bore the insignia of Yamanaki Future Technologies.

“Perhaps we should leave, Lieutenant Asakusa?” Aiko said.

A conversation at the bar caught my attention. Rio had gone there to pick up a tray of drinks.

And three of the YFT thugs had surrounded her.

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