As my breath echoed harshly in the confined space, I idly wondered why it was so loud. Wasn't it time to get up and start on the Maid Café website design? I opened my eyes, and all I could see was an endless expanse of blackness sprinkled with countless slightly hued pinpoints of light. I started awake and swore, "Oh shit!" I had honestly expected to wake up from the dream of being Prince Kado Arashi; not find out that it was all real.
The girl clinging to my spacesuit-clad arm stirred awake, "Niisama, you're finally awake."
I met Ayumi's terrified gaze and a managed a weak smile to reassure her; even though I was just as scared shitless as she was. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and tried to speak in a calm voice, "Uh, yeah. I'm awake now, sis. How are we doing?"
The general spoke curtly, "The battle is over. All the intact ships near us left the area, and we have about three hours of air left. Let's find a derelict bloodhound vessel before we suffocate."
The general was the eternal optimist, I noted glumly. I stammered slightly, "R-right."
I watched as Sysverdin used a laser scanning device, now that the battle was over. He scowled at the readouts, "Nothing but debris. I knew that we were screwed."
I wasn't about to resign myself to a horrid death by asphyxiation. Hopefully my little sister's psychic powers could come in handy. I squeezed her hand and soothed, "Ayumi-san, can you sense any life signs?"
She nodded and focused her mind. After ten nerve-wracking minutes had crept by, she looked excited, "General, can I use that?" She borrowed the laser scanner and aimed in a specific direction, "I sense human emotions that way. I'm sure of it."
The General fired the thruster so we were pushed in the same direction as the laser tracker.
I gave a smile to Ayumi as I desperately hoped she could save our hides, "What kind of emotions are you picking up?"
Her violet eyes looked thoughtful as she sorted out the signals, "One…two minds. Both full of despair and resigned to a painful fate."
Gallowglass Jin added dryly, "Sounds familiar, your Highness."
I looked over to my eternally overlooked bodyguard and remembered well that she was the only one of Prince Kado's female underlings other than his sister that he had never bedded. I felt shame for how shabbily she had been treated as a tool rather than a person with feelings, even though I had not written the script. I asked, "Hey Jin-san. You've saved my life at least thirty times by now, right?"
I saw her eyes light up with confusion that I would actually talk to her instead of treating her like furniture. "Thirty six times, your Highness."
I broke out into a soft chuckle, which seemed to surprise her even further. I averted my gaze and spoke barely above a whisper, "Thanks. You've done a great job."
I could glimpse her uncomprehending stare out of the corner of my eye, "Are you sure you didn't hit your head, my Prince?"
"Maybe I did," I muttered. I was now firmly facing away from her so she couldn't see my intense blush. We stopped talking to conserve oxygen
Two hours later a dark rotating shape started to block out the stars behind it. Whatever it was, it had no energy signature or running lights. As it grew in size, I realized that the outline was unmistakably a Bloodhound brawler based both on the show as well as the line art from the Arashi Technical Reference Manual #1. My holographic HUD on my visor confirmed my suspicious as it displayed a positive ID of the ship as Obsidian Empire Bloodhound Brawler gunship, Mark VI. The General applied reverse thrust and we slowed down as our helmet lights began to weakly reflect off sections of the hull. Soon enough we could see the ship was tumbling end over end via its center of mass. The only two plausible explanations for the ship's condition was catastrophic fusion reactor damage, or it had been crippled by an Electromagnetic pulse courtesy of the Tsukiko.
Jin spoke up, "I see the port airlock is open."
After we magnetically grappled to the hull at the axis of rotation, we magnetized our boots on the hull and gingerly clambered over the surface of the dead warship.
I was getting seriously nauseous watching the stars spin around my head, so I looked down on the dull gray metallic surface instead. I shone my headlamps through the bridge window, and the beams reflected over a bridge with empty chairs and iced over control surfaces, giving me eerie chills all over my body.
I knew from the show as well as the background material that each ship had a complement of 5 crewmen with a mixture of conscripts and criminals. The enemies of the Obsidian Emperor that were not executed for treason were sentenced to 10 years of enslavement for crimes ranging from petty embezzlement all the way up to murder. In essence the Bloodhound ships were prisons as much as warships. In many ways it made a horrifying kind of sense as using the Empire's undesirables as cannon fodder served a dual purpose of setting an example and tamping down the fires of rebellion. The rest of the Brawler crew was the computer core and various kinds of combat robots who also served as wardens to the human crew. The drones also maintained the ship systems and formed boarding parties.
Jin took point, as she unholstered her sidearm and entered into the airlock.
I followed her inside, and saw to my horror that the inner airlock was open as well, leaving the ship open to space. How could Ayumi sense two living minds in this wreck was beyond me.
Sysverdin glanced over the blown out panels and noted grimly, "It was an EMP from the Tsukiko. It blew out the relays, the main computer, the robot shock troopers and the environmental controls."
My bodyguard looked gloomy and noted, "So the ship is unsalvageable?"
The general shook his head, "I don't know. Let's find our two Imperial strays. I'm guessing they were trapped in engineering or crew quarters."
We stepped over inert robotic soldiers and dodged twisting cables. I tried with all my might not to throw up! I had seen countess ships like this swatted like flies on the show, and I never once thought of the plight of enemy conscripts, or what kind of hell they experienced. As I reached the computer core I remembered something from the Arashi Technical Reference Manual #3 that I was thumbing through no more than a week ago.
For the first time since crossing over into this crazy universe I spoke up with actual instead of manufactured confidence, "Wait a minute everyone. There is a shielded deadman switch below this floor grate. It allows the backup relays to reset." I quickly fished out a tool from the kit in my waist pocket and gently pried up a secret panel that opened up to reveal an inset handle. I pumped my fist reflexively and beamed. I was in full on geek mode as I reached in and gave the handle a 180° counterclockwise twist and held it.
Ayumi looked surprised, "Niisama! How in the heavens did you know-"
There was a brilliant flash of light as the deck lights flared up, and then were promptly extinguished. Sparks showered from dozens of broken cables and damaged control banks. The red emergency lights dimly came on, and a heavy vibration indicated the reactor had reinitialized. Holographic control screens lit up and the deck lights came on at full strength. I soon felt the welcome tug of artificial gravity. I released the switch which rotated back to its original position, and neatly flipped the cover shut with a satisfying click.
Sysverdin spoke firmly, "I'm searching the rest of the ship for our two survivors."
My sister still looked flabbergasted as she gaped in my direction, "H-how did you know about that switch?"
I squeezed her shoulder as I brushed by her and gave her an enigmatic smile, "Reboot Navigation and Helm consoles, sister."
"Um…sure thing." She dashed over to the front of the bridge to follow my orders.
I urgently accessed the environmental control station and was relieved that I could make out the displays. A few quick commands sealed the airlocks, repressurized the ship, and activated the heating controls. After about five minutes, the indicator lights all finished cycling from red to green again. I spoke through my headset, "We have atmosphere, heat and lights. You can unseal your suits now." I flipped open my visor and sighed, with my breath condensing as a misty cloud in the subzero air. It was just as well, as my oxygen gauge on my HUD was down to fifteen minutes.
My gallowglass stood by my side after removing her helmet, "Well done, my Prince! Are you ready to sweep the bridge?"
I eagerly followed her to the computer core, as dealing with computers was one of the few skills I had absolute confidence in. I typed in a few override commands and found the Main Computer Unit, the MCU, was completely unresponsive, even when supplied with my suit power. I shrugged and switched to manual control as I manually undid the magnetic locks on the core access hatch. The door hissed open and a crazed older man screamed incoherently as he leapt out and plunged a knife deep into my chest!
Jin instinctively shot the man five times with her projectile gun as he crumpled to the deck, twitched twice and then fell deathly still. The sounds of the slugs impacting bone and flesh were uncannily like the sound of a pool balls striking a pillow. Once she was sure my attacker was down for good, she turned to me with horror and shrieked, "Your Highness!"
My heart was about to explode with shock as I crumpled to the cold deck. I stupidly grabbed the knife's handle and wrenched it out; finding out only after the fact that it had jammed into my environmental control center in my suit chestplate. To my intense relief I realized that only the very tip of the blade had any blood on it. I had never been stabbed with anything more dangerous than a mechanical pencil in grade school before, so I lay on the deck hyperventilating.
Jin was now frantically unzipping my suit to check the chest wound.
Ayumi ran over in a flustered panic, checked the damage and quickly exhaled with relief. "Good. It's only a nick, niisan. If he had had a bigger knife..." She hung her head and sniffled, "I'm so sorry. I forgot the MCU uses shielding that scrambles my lifesign scans. This crewman must have used it when we were boarding to spring a surprise on us."
I gasped in deep shock as no one had ever tried to kill me before. I squeezed her arm and gasped out, "T-try not to think about it."
My sister held her hand over my bloodstained chest and closed her eyes with concentration. Within seconds, her other psychic power was activated as the cut sealed itself over. She quickly wiped the blood away with gauze pads.
Jin bowed deeply, tears in her eyes, "I'm very sorry, my Prince. I just got careless. It's all my fault."
With my sister's aid I weakly managed to sit up as I expressed my appreciation, "Thanks Ayumi-chan."
She wiped tears from her eyes but stayed silent as I turned to Jin.
I already knew the answer to my dreaded question, but I still had to ask, "Jin-san, how is the enemy soldier?"
Jin's face displayed deep sorrow and spoke in a contrite tone, "I'm sorry my prince, but he tried to kill you. I had to use lethal force."
That realization finally sent my shredded senses over the edge. I shuddered and got sick on the deck much to my own mortification, as tears burned in my eyes. Jin had just executed a human being for my sake; this was too much stress for my fragile mind to handle.
Ayumi Kado gently wrapped her arms around me and spoke soothingly as she rubbed my hair, "It will be okay, niisama. I'm here. Go ahead and let it out."
I clung to her in my arms and wept bitter tears over the unfairness of it all. I knew that poor sap that had tried to kill me was only defending his ship. It still didn't make me feel any better.
My gallowglass bowed and dragged the body away, leaving us alone.
I gave up and finally let go of my pent up emotions, "I'm so s-sorry Ayumi-chan. All I wanted to do was save you; to rewrite the ending." I hung my head in shame, "I can't do this, and I don't belong here. I'm just a dateless computer dork from Osaka."
Ayumi drew me into a tighter hug and kissed my cheek.
How on earth could the canon version of the prince ever think of ending this darling girl's life? I finally reached a parody of emotional equilibrium, even though I had never witnessed violent death up close before. I felt ashamed and pitiful, "I-I'm sorry, little sis. I'm supposed to be strong, right?"
She used a cloth to wipe the tear tracks off my cheeks, "Shh. It's okay to be weak sometimes. Thank you for showing this side to me."
I sighed deeply at the futility of trying to minimize casualties while being stuck in a galaxy where death was cheap. I made eye contact with my sweet sister, "Let me guess, I showed you a side that you've never sensed before, right?"
Her eyes widened, "Wait, so my sixth sense isn't offline? I was certain you were going to kill me and commit seppuku back on the Tsukiko. But it was like your spirit skewed in a completely different direction since this morning. You chose to fight destiny instead of grimly accepting your fate."
I sighed deeply, "When you hear this, you'll surely think I'm nuts." I gently rubbed my fingers over her cheek and smiled weakly, "The real Prince Arashi would have acted exactly as you predicted. Without my clumsy intervention, we would all be dead by now."
Her violet eyes met mine with a serious expression as she asserted, "My elder brother is a great man, but he has always been fickle, cold, calculating, ruthless, aloof, and obsessed with honor."
"In other words, he's not a bit like me." It only occurred to me as I said that I didn't know if I had simply switched places with the prince, or straight up hijacked his life and destroyed his mind. I felt an immense surge of guilt, but I sternly reminded myself that the original prince would have been willing to murder his sister.
She nodded, and beamed at me, "That's not a bad thing. Who is this kind and daring man masquerading as my niisama?"
I took her trembling hands in mine and admitted, "I'm really Seki Mi-"
Jin reported back with a sharp bow, "My prince, I spaced the body with honors rendered."
"Thank you for saving my life again, Jin-san." I reluctantly released Ayumi. I was so relieved to finally unburden my bottomless pit of deception and self loathing. I reasoned that I wouldn't be able to evade my psychic sibling's inquires for long anyway as she saw a completely different soul in her brother's body. I still felt awful about the death of footsoldier, but I fatalistically realized that conducting a rebellion against a tyrannical empire meant inevitable casualties.
Soon enough, we stood in front of the locked door leading to main engineering and confronted the other crewman. A frightened man's voice came through the intercom, "It's not my fault! We tried our best to cripple the Tsukiko, but its EMP beam caught us before we could damage it."
Jin glanced at me and muted the intercom for a second, "Without the computer core override, he has reactor control. He could blow up the ship if he wanted to."
I pondered the situation, and I realized with silent gratitude that killing the second enemy wasn't necessary. I shivered inwardly as I had no wish to repeat the scene at the MCU core. I steeled my nerve and mimicked the prince's smug and assertive tone, "Not a chance, Jin-san. I looked him up the personnel file, and he is listed as Francisco Terassa. He was imprisoned for petty theft, not for any violent offenses. Also he thinks we're his superiors from the Obsidian Empire. Why not play the part?"
The general nodded in agreement and unmuted the panel, "Conscript Terassa. You are in our custody now. Open the door!"
"But sir! Just ask Mandraven about our heroic attempts to destroy the renegade Prince Kado. He was responsible for our plan as he was the conscript leader."
Sysverdin sneered, "The older gentleman, right? He tried to knife us after we boarded, with predictable results."
I heard the engineer's baritone voice waver, "Crap!"
The general took an impatient tone, "You're the only one left now. There's no way out of this except opening the door and accepting your fate."
There was a long pause. Then the door hissed open with a dull clang. Like the late Mandraven, Terassa was dressed in an iron gray uniform with red trim at the collar and cuffs. He was strapping and tall, with chocolate-colored skin, a shaved head, and luminescent pale blue irises.
I remembered with disgust from the show that all the conscripts had depigmented and glowing irises to mark them as disposable footsoldiers for the rest of their miserable lives. Even if they somehow survived their 10 year sentence, they had no possibility of social advancement once they were paroled.
"Good choice, Mister Terassa," Sysverdin noted as he quickly cuffed the engineer's wrists behind his back.
I knew I could never truly be as thoughtlessly cruel as the prince, so my best hope was to roleplay a slightly softer version of him where I had suffered a great fall by losing my ship and power. One of my fan stories had featured Arashi being humiliated and becoming wiser and kinder as a result. I decided that I would play him as trying to rebuild his shattered confidence after being thoroughly humbled in the last battle. I put on a serious expression, "Now you need to choose, Mister Terassa. Go back to your life as a convict, or experience a new life of freedom."
Francisco looked down at me, and then his eerie eyes grew very large. "P-prince Kado; it isn't possible! You died on the Tsukiko!"
I smirked, "That was a premature assessment."
The general growled menacingly, "We're taking this ship, and if it is over your dead body, so be it. Your fate will not change our course of action either way. In deference to the prince's undeserved clemency you can choose to be dropped off somewhere you can be rescued or join us."
The enemy soldier shook his head firmly, "I know my superiors all too well. If they find out I was taken alive by their worst adversary, I'll be tortured and executed for sure. My family will suffer reprisals as well." He sighed glumly, "I know there is no other way, so I'll help you. Let HQ think I'm dead."
I looked over to my faithful Gallowglass, "Jin-san, look after our newest team member if you please."
"Yes, my prince."
A few days later, I lay on the slab-like bunk in my boxers and undershirt in the cramped bedroom walled in by metallic bulkheads and brooded. I somehow knew that the weird jade ring was a big part of why I was here now. Somehow it had given me a one time chance at rewriting the series' tragic ending; however, it had not given me a hint of what to do after that. I was adrift, and left to use my insanely detailed otaku insider knowledge to desperately improvise. It didn't help that everyone except Ayumi thought I was their noble prince, instead of a hapless nobody.
I saw in the dim light that my bodyguard lay curled up on the floor nearby. There were five separate cabins and I knew with Terassa being locked in one of the rooms left enough over to avoid double occupancy. However, she had sworn not to repeat her mistake of nearly letting me get killed, and had vowed to either sleep on the floor or outside my door. After much debate, I finally allowed her to share my cabin, despite it making me deeply uncomfortable.
Even with the crew working long shifts, getting the Brawler at least functional enough to warp out was a frustrating exercise. So far we hadn't been detected by other ships mopping up the area; however it was only a matter of time before we were found out. I hated resting as it let my mind race relentlessly like a hamster on a wheel; exerting so much effort to go absolutely nowhere. When I was working at least I couldn't dwell on our predicament. I knew I had absolutely no business to think he could measure up to Prince Kado. I sighed softly out loud, "I'm screwed, aren't I?"
Jin unexpectedly sat up, looking morose, "My prince?"
I winced and slowly sat up as I rubbed at my eyes, "Jin-san, you should be asleep."
She shook her head, "Apologies sir. These last few nights have not been restful. I protected you thirty six times without fail, and then suddenly I failed you utterly. If his aim had been just a bit better, it would have extinguished the rebellion in a single strike."
I swung my legs onto the floor and stretched out wearily, "It's not your fault about Mandraven. No one knew he was holed up in the AI core, and Ayumi couldn't warn us either."
She hung her head, "Yes it is my fault. I should have taken point."
"Your suit wasn't reinforced like mine," I pointed out. "You know what that means."
"But if I had taken the blow for you, I would have been happy to lay down my life-"
My irritation of her martyr complex overtook my natural terror at physical contact as I grabbed her by the shoulders and yelled, "Don't be stupid! I couldn't bear the thought of losing you. You've my precious friend, Jin-san!"
She looked stunned by my unexpectedly bold gesture, "B-but sir!"
I forced myself to act with smooth confidence, even as my heart thudded out of control, "No buts. You're my bodyguard, but you're my ally too. Don't ever throw your life away casually." My resolved cracked, and I backed away, and took a few moments to calm down, "T-that's a order."
Her blue-green eyes wavered with emotion, "My prince, I'm so sorry."
I shook my head slowly as I leaned against the bulkhead and asked a question I already knew the answer to, "How long have you been with me now?"
"Sixteen years, my prince. I was a homeless waif in the streets before you had the general recruit me. I have devoted every moment in my life since serving you."
She had been treated like crap long enough. I would never have a chance to publish one of my insipid stories, but at least I knew that I could plot out Arashi's character arc out for real. I decided that the next step of the prince's redemption was to give Jin the respect that she deserved, "If it's been that long, you can call me Kado."
Jin gasped in wide-eyed horror, "I wouldn't dare, sir!"
That was a disappointing answer, but expected. I sighed, "So you want me to call you gallowglass again?"
She flushed all over her cheeks and forehead, "I'm just your servant. Why are you asking this of me?"
I slumped on the cold floor and leaned back against the bunk, and prayed my acting would be convincing enough. "I've realized ever since we lost the Tsukiko that I've been a sex-obsessed, arrogant ass all along. I spent all my life looking down my nose at others, and now I can see I was wrong. I want to change for the better."
She knelt in front of me and humbly bowed, "I would never call you an ass, my prince."
I broke into a dry chuckle as I knew her personality all too well. She had many talents but lying wasn't among them. I gave her a knowing half smile as I asserted, "But you've thought it, right?"
She turned away with a face of deepest mortification, "I'm ashamed to think such petty thoughts."
I burst out laughing at the fact that she had crafted the perfect response in line with her personality. Of all the ladies in the anime, I had always been the most captivated by Jin, and I couldn't help but find her earnest seriousness endearing. "Thanks for talking with me, Jin-san. We'll do our best together."
She fidgeted adorably, and then her shoulders slumped, "If you want informality in private, I would be honored to oblige, Kado-sama."
I suddenly turned a bit pink in my cheeks as I couldn't help but smile, "Jin-san. Thank you."
She gave a tentative smile back and then bowed formally again. "Goodnight, Prince Kado-sama."
"Good night." It felt like only moments that I finally fell into blissful slumber.