I could feel my adrenalin starting to spike as I readied myself for a fight.
“Don’t,” Minori whispered. She made eye contact with Aiko and me, knowing full well we were about to rush to Rio’s defense. “This feels like a setup.”
The men wearing Yamanaki Future Technologies uniforms at the table next to ours had stopped talking and were watching us closely.
Two security troopers from YFT had taken a position at the bar on either side of Rio, where she was picking up a tray of drinks for our table. A third goon, the biggest of the three, stood in front of her. Rio was effectively blocked from moving.
She boosted the height of her chair a little so she could look the big trooper in the eye. “Excuse me, please. You’re in the way.”
“Why don’t you come with us to our table, miss?” he said. I didn’t need to see his face to know he was leering at Rio.
“Yeah, we’d love to talk with you. I’ll buy you a drink,” one of the other thugs said.
“Me too. I’d like to get to know you better,” said the third.
Rio repeated herself. “Excuse me, please. I have people waiting for me.” She indicated our table with a nod.
One of the thugs at the bar sneered at us. He reached out and seized the backrest on Rio’s gravchair while his partner grabbed Rio’s shoulder. They started to pull Rio away from the bar.
“That’s assault,” Aiko said calmly. It was the same kind of calm I'd seen on Kimura Jima before a super-typhoon had hit.
She glanced at Minori, who nodded and shrugged her shoulders.
“Don’t kill anyone,” was all she said.
That was all the encouragement Aiko needed. One moment, she was sitting next to me, the next she was across the room before her chair hit the floor.
The trooper with his hand on Rio’s shoulder was hurled to the ground, clutching his wrist in agony. His partner tried to come to his aid and ended up on his back with the breath knocked out of him.
In the meantime, I helped myself to the big thug who was punching and kicking ineffectually at Aiko while she was taking out the garbage.
I spun him around so he could see what was coming, then let him have it. Two head punches and a kick to the abdomen later, he crashed backward into the bar and slid slowly to the ground. After fighting heavy cyborgs and spider drones -- not to mention Aiko -- ordinary humans were a welcome relief.
The YFT table came to their feet, shouting. But before things could get really interesting, something unusual happened.
Tama shot through the doorway, snarling and swatting at anyone wearing the YFT uniform before jumping onto the bar. Turning to the stunned crowd of patrons, the panther roared.
The effects were instantaneous.
Green YFT uniforms clogged the doorway as the troops and ship’s crew stampeded out. The thugs Aiko had been reasoning with picked up their groggy companion and followed the panicked mob out of the restaurant.
The chef, who was also the pub owner, rushed out of the backroom as soon as she heard the ruckus. She was just in time to see the last of YFT exiting the building at high speed.
Tama sat down on the bar, growling softly with satisfaction as Rio threw her arms around his neck and laughed with relief.
After checking to make sure no one was hurt and there was no damage to her establishment, the owner came over to our table and asked Minori, “Who were those men? I’ve never seen them before.”
Lieutenant Asakusa hadn’t even bothered getting out of her chair. Nor had Keenan, although Doc had jumped to his feet. If anything, he looked put out that he didn’t get a piece of the action.
Minori finished her beer and stood up. “Judging by their insignia, those were crewmembers from the Levchenko and airfield security troops. My apologies for the disturbance.”
She stood and passed a tile across a scanner at the table. “Dinner’s on me, everyone. Let’s head back to the ship.”
As we walked back to the parked truck, Rio floated in between Aiko and me, linking her arms through ours.
“Thanks for looking out for me, guys. Did Tama follow us to the pub?”
Aiko gave me a knowing look. “Yes,” she answered. “Jim and I thought it might be a good idea. Of course, no one ever saw Tama until he was needed.”
“Those YFT people are lucky,” I said. “Tama chased them away before Aiko could finish them off.”
“Mm. This is true.” Aiko said, stroking her panther’s furry hide. Tama merely paced steadily at her side, his eyes half-shut and looking very pleased with himself.
In the Mistral Challenger’s electronics lab, Keenan was showing Minori, Aiko, Doc, and me his latest discovery while Rio was on bridge duty.
“It’s a powered exoskeleton,” he said with a touch of pride. “It still has flaws, but the energy supply --” he pointed to the experimental fuel cell “-- is not entirely stable.”
“The Army was experimenting with these back in the day,” I mused. “They called it ‘power armor.’ Of course, that was in my version of the 1980’s.”
“Indeed,” Aiko said. “The chances are good that they were using parachrono technology, too.”
Minori answered my question. “‘Parachrono’ refers to technology or ideas from outside one’s current reality that came through rips. For example, Lieutenant, the contra-gravity devices keeping the Mistral in the air are likely the result of parachrono technology. And Keenan is a walking example of it.”
“True.” Keenan waved at the exoskeleton hanging between two floor-to-ceiling pillars. “And this uses technology taken from the remains of the Cyclad raiders that you and Ensign Kinoshita littered the upper deck with during their attempt to seize the Mistral.”
“So it's a parachrono exoskeleton,” I said. “What did you do, just grab an expired Cyclad raider and hollow him out with a spoon, the same way you would a pumpkin? Until you were left with this?”
Minori made a face. “Ew, that’s gross.”
“Heh, heh, heh,” Keenan laughed. He obviously appreciated body horror humor. “That’s funny, Lieutenant Peterson. No, I just took the framework off the existing body, with Dr. Ishikawa's assistance.”
“Isn’t that the same as taking a spoon and scraping out the insides?” I persisted.
Doc did a facepalm. “No, Jim, take a closer look. It really is an open framework. Whatever form it surrounded was either human or human-like.”
“But it’s still not ready for testing,” Keenan said. “Why, it could even explode if not used carefully.”
Minori groaned. “That’s all the encouragement I needed to leave. Come on, everyone, it’s almost time. Let’s get moving.”
“Ensign Rio Kinoshita, please report to the main cargo bay,” Minori announced over the PA system.
She motioned to Aiko. “Kill the lights!” We were staying off the internal communication channel to keep from alerting Rio, so everyone was using hand signals.
A moment later the entire cargo bay went dark.
Doc, Minori and I crouched on the bridge that connected the port and starboard catwalks. I leaned over and whispered, “I feel like a student back in high school pulling a prank on the teacher.”
“You did that to your teachers?” she whispered back. “You must have been a real delinquent.”
“And he only got worse.” It was dark but I could tell Doc was grinning at me.
“You’re one to talk!” I hissed back. “I still haven’t forgiven you for that time --”
Aiko waved frantically at Minori. “Shh! Here she comes!”
The elevator doors opened, spilling light onto the bay floor. The main cargo bay had been swept and mopped shiny by Keenan’s cleaning robots. Anything in there had been relocated to the smaller cargo bays, except for a long table, chairs, and -- most surprising of all -- a raised DJ station, which Keenan was lurking behind.
Rio floated out into the darkness. “Hello? Anyone here?”
Aiko flicked the lights back on as Doc, Minori and I loosened restraining straps. A huge banner displaying Happy 20th Birthday, Rio Akayama! unfurled and hung over the table with the birthday cake.
At the same time we all screamed “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RIO!”
“Oh!” Rio gave a little shriek, her chair bobbing slightly backward as Aiko and Tama emerged from hiding. She blinked rapidly, then regained her composure. “Oh, how sweet! Aiko, thank you so much!” She gave Aiko a huge embrace, then Minori, Doc, and Keenan. She had to raise her chair a few inches to give Keenan a hug, then drop back down to give me one as well.
“Jim, this is so wonderful!” She spun around. “Everyone, thank you!”
I opened the big cargo bay doors, letting in the fresh evening air. Since the bay was facing out from Chiba-1 it also gave a breathtaking view of the forested hills and urban ruins, now covered by moss and vines. The setting sun cast a mellow amber tone across the landscape.
“Let’s blow out your candles!” Minori said, and led us to the table.
22nd century birthdays were pretty much like they were in the 20th, I discovered. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Rio after she blew the candles out and, to my surprise, not a single one of us was off-key. Talk about a crew that functioned in perfect harmony.
Then we sat down for cake. Keenan had drawn on his hospitality management background to bake a gorgeous 3-tiered birthday cake right in the Mistral’s kitchen.
While the cake was being served, Keenan assumed the role of disc jockey. The big android took his post at the DJ station and queued up the first song. It was “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, an old ‘80’s tune.
Minori laughed at my shocked expression. “It’s in honor of you and Doc. Aiko and I combed through the databases and found songs from bands in the 1980’s for tonight’s party. You’ll be happy to know we have plenty of City Pop music from the era as well.”
Benji’s jaw dropped. “Do you have any Yamashita Tatsurō?”
“Of course!” Minori looked offended. “What do you think we are, barbarians?”
Doc leaned back in his chair and gave me a look of total contentment. “This is going to be a great party.”
“I agree!” Rio said. She turned and waved at Keenan. “This cake is delicious! Thank you!”
“It only gets better from here, Rio,” our DJ said over the loudspeakers. He turned the lights down low, then switched on a portable holoprojector. A huge disco ball hologram appeared over the cargo bay floor and started to revolve. “Everyone, get ready to dance!”
I restrained the urge to roll my eyes. It may have been cheesy, but Keenan's gesture was from the heart, even if he didn't really have one.
And this was the moment I’d been waiting for. I took a deep breath, then stood and bowed to Rio.
“Rio, I have a confession to make,” I said. “I saw you practicing your dancing down here before, and thought it was wonderful. But you only had those holograms to dance with.
“So, we -- that is, everyone here -- have been learning to dance, using your holovideos as a model.” I couldn’t help glancing at Aiko, who’d made bootleg copies of Rio’s dance holos for us to practice with.
“So, uh, we’d like to -- I mean, if it’s okay with you, of course…” I took another breath, wondering why I was getting so nervous. “Rio, we’d like to dance with you.”
I held out my hand.
Rio’s lips parted slightly and the cheerful expression she usually wore seemed to slip a little as she dropped her eyes.
Had I screwed up? I lowered my hand. “If you’d rather not, I understand --”
She looked up at me with a fierce joy I’d never seen on her face before. Her eyes locked onto mine. “Of course I’ll dance with you, Jim! But, you said ‘we.’ Did you mean everybody?”
“That’s right.” Aiko left her chair and stood next to me. “The Lieutenant here made us all practice wheelchair dancing. We wore bruises for days. Some of us --” she gave me an accusing look “-- are not natural dancers.”
“You can say that again.” Doc had to add his two cents worth. “I didn’t know dancing was a full contact sport. I even treated some minor injuries.” He sighed like he’d just finished all twelve labors of Hercules. “Thanks for the extra work, Jim.”
“We were all involved, Rio,” Minori said. She pointed at Keenan, who waved at her from his station. “Including our DJ. But the idea came from that gentleman standing in front of you.”
I thought I could see tears forming in Rio's eyes before she covered her face with her hands. She started to sniffle. Aiko took Rio in her arms and Minori laid a gentle hand on her shoulders. I looked at Doc, who shrugged and went back to eating his cake.
“It’s okay, little sister,” Aiko said. “Did the bad man make you cry?”
Rio giggled, then sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Of course not.” She swiveled around and took my hands in hers. “Which dance would you like to start with, Jim?”
“Do you remember the holovideo with the guy who looked like Michelangelo’s statue of David, but with clothes on?”
“Oh, do you mean Vincent?” She sighed and gave me a teasing smile. “Isn’t he just a dream?”
“Yeah, him. Let’s do that dance. And by the way, Vincent’s no good for you. Just so you know.”
The sunset gave way to a crescent moon.
Everyone took turns dancing with Rio and each other. When we weren’t dancing we were shouting out songs for Keenan to play, taking over as DJ, or grabbing the microphone and turning the cargo bay into a karaoke parlor. We held an arm-wrestling contest, and -- to no one’s surprise -- Aiko emerged as the ship's champion. My arm throbbed for days.
To be honest, we had a lot to celebrate in addition to Rio’s birthday. We had survived combat with Cyclad raiders, robotic spiders, and the guns of a YFT security force, not to mention a typhoon and a crash landing.
The Mistral Challenger and her crew had lived up to their ship’s name, meeting all the challenges thrown at them and triumphing over them all. I was proud to be counted as part of the crew.
At the end of the party I danced with Rio to a melancholy song about how radio music stars had been replaced by videos. When it ended, Rio tugged my hand and led me down the cargo bay ramp where we could get the best view of the outside.
The crescent moon was starting to wane, but the sky was filled with stars. “It's so pretty tonight,” she said, craning her neck to look overhead. “Do you know the names of any of the constellations?”
Knowing the constellations had helped me navigate at night more than once, so I was able to pick out a few. I grabbed a chair and sat down next to Rio, pointing them out to her.
I found my favorite. “See that? It’s Orion’s belt. Those are the Pleiades next to it, those seven stars there.” I recalled a quote my father used to say. “‘Who can bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?’”
“That’s so pretty.” Rio said. Her face was very close to mine.
“It’s poetry!” I exclaimed. “My biological father used to quote stuff like that all the time.”
“Fascinating.” Her eyes seemed to glisten in the thin light of the moon.
I had a feeling it didn’t really matter what I said at that point and stopped talking. For a moment, the only sound I could hear was her breathing as we looked into each other’s eyes.
A figure materialized out of the darkness. “Ah, there you are, Rio. I have been looking all over for you.” Aiko stepped over and touched Rio’s shoulder. “The party is over and everyone wants to give you their final good wishes before stumbling off to bed.”
“Okay,” Rio said, rather reluctantly. “I’ll talk to you later, Jim. And thanks for everything.” Suddenly, she threw her arms around me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “This was the best birthday party I've ever had. Goodnight.”
I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or not as Aiko and Rio headed back inside the Mistral. But as she left, Aiko glanced up at me before turning quickly away.
Usually, I couldn’t figure out what Aiko was thinking just by her expression, unless she was angry.
But as I looked at her face, I was pretty certain that, somehow, I’d ended up hurting her.