I clenched my hands behind my back to reduce their trembling as I fretted on what to do.
An assertive mechanized voice echoed through the cramped bridge for the fifth time, "This is Hunter 8073 MCU. Brawler 21081 MCU please respond."
I looked over to my team and the prisoner Terassa as it took all my effort to keep my voice sounding calm, "We're going to have to answer that, aren't we?"
He gave me a solemn nod, "We will, your Highness. The Hunter hailing us will send over a couple of Brawler ships over to nuke us up if we don't answer. The Obsidian Empire doesn't leave loose ends."
That fact I knew well enough from the anime. I reluctantly took the plunge and gave the order, "Answer them, crewman Terrassa."
General Sysverdin growled, "Don't even think of betraying us, Terassa!"
The tall engineer wiped sweat from his brow, "Yes sir." He activated the communications array, "Hunter 8073 MCU, I read you."
"Acknowledged. Your AI core is not responding to our signal."
"Yes sir. We were caught by an EMP pulse. All semi-autonomous electronic intelligences are offline. I'm crewman Francisco Terassa and I'm the only crewman left."
"Are you engines functional?"
"Maneuvering affirm, warp negative."
The unfeeling machine coldly commanded, "Rendezvous at the remnants of the rouge prince's asteroid base by 2200."
"Hunter 8073 out."
The silence in the room was oppressive as Sysverdin took the helm and complied with the order. Ayumi glanced at me with wide eyes as she took the navigation console.
I walked over to Francisco, who swiveled around to face me, "How long until we get warp back?"
"Five hours. I can jury-rig something risky in three." He had trouble making eye contact as he apparently saw me as this oppressive and larger than life legendary warrior; in truth he would be in for quite a shock if he could see the geeky computer nerd inside.
I gave him a sharp look and sternly commanded, "Risky it is. Proceed."
"Yes sir!" He saluted, and then left with the gallowglass through the hissing door off the bridge.
A few hours later, the sensors picked up an energy spike amid the shredded ship debris and airless rocks. A tinny-sounding mechanized voice broadcast over the speakers, "This is the MCU of Brawler 22554. Identify yourself!"
The general spoke gruffly over the comm, "This is Brawler 21081. What is your status?"
"It is counterproductive to speak to the human crew. Link me to your MCU at once!"
Sysverdin gave a nasty smile knowing that his expression couldn't be seen by our nanocomputer adversary, "Our MCU is indisposed. It was destroyed by an EMP blast."
There was a long pause. "Understood. Do not approach my position. Unit 22554 is damaged beyond recovery. Self destruct has been enabled. It will detonate in 22 minutes and 17 seconds. You are instructed to stay clear of the blast radius."
"We will," he replied curtly as he closed the communications channel.
Ayumi blinked as she saw a sensor spike on her console, "G-general! What does this mean?"
I looked over the screen and I recognized the signal instantly, "Three short blips, three longer blips, three short blips. It's an SOS. Someone is alive on that ship and wants rescue." I almost wanted to laugh, as this situation was so clichéd.
The general nodded in concerned agreement, "The surviving human crew is using their active LADAR as an emergency beacon."
I steeled my nerve and ordered, "Let's go in then."
His…or was it my little sister inputted the course, "Yes my prince."
The general glared at me with a deep frown but said nothing as we approached the derelict. The MCU kept hailing us, but Sysverdin refused to respond. Moments later we saw the ship was riddled with holes, and it was missing its entire stern section.
Francisco and Jin ran back onto the bridge to help with the operation. The prisoner looked desperate, "Miss Kado, can you signal the human crew we're going to help them? I let the rest of my own crew die…so maybe if I save some more lives-"
Sysverdin snarled, "Be quiet! We're not risking the prince's life on enemy soldiers!"
"General, please hear him out," I pleaded as I still had nightmares over Mandraven's death. If I had the chance to save lives I felt obligated to try. "Terassa we need your help here. How do we get in?"
Sysverdin cursed under his breath bitterly at being countermanded.
Francisco grinned, "Grapple tubes, your highness. Their weapons are out, but the computer core and shock troopers will try to kill us. We also need to disable the self destruct."
I managed a smirk. Back in my other life, I knew computers inside and out. I spoke urgently, "I'll handle the MCU if others can take out the guards."
Jin bowed formally, "I am honored to be of service, my prince."
I gave a thumbs up, "Let's do it, everyone."
We all strapped into our chairs and braced for impact. The compact ship thrusted back, and then accelerated as twin angled tubes extended out of its prow like horns. The ship rammed the entry tubes into the midsection of the crippled ship with a shuddering crash sending us violently into our seat restraints even with the inertial countermeasures. Jin, Sysverdin and Terassa slid down the tubes into the main deck of the enemy ship. I counted to five and then followed suit as I knew I was useless in combat. I slid in after as my heart thudded in my chest. It was like being on a demonic thrill ride.
My underlings swept into actions as buzzing, humanoid robots opened fire. I took cover as Sysverdin slashed with his twin cutlasses leaving sparking debris in his wake. I saw Jin used her sidearm with deadly accuracy as she blasted one robotic head after another, causing our enemies to topple over. Terassa roared as he caved in the last robotic head with his powered wrench. It was all over in about twenty seconds.
I blurted out in astonishment, "Everyone, that was awesome."
The general sheathed his swords, "It's not over yet. You're on, Prince Kado."
I rushed to the MCU core, opened the door, and plugged in the control unit from the dead computer from my own ship. The screen powered up as the MCU unit protested in vain, "Cease and desist. You are all prisoners of the Obsidian throne. You must comply with your orders, humans."
I chuckled nastily, "Yeah, yeah, shut up already." I typed in a few more commands and used the viral program to shred apart the OS of the antagonistic MCU. In addition to my day job with computers and websites in my previous life, I wasn't a halfway bad hacker on the side. The detonator timer stopped at just under three minutes and then winked out. I exhaled and took a few breaths before the dizzy spell passed. I stepped back as the MCU powered down, ending its threat to blow us up into stray atoms.
Jin was staring at me with a pale face, "My Prince, where did you learn to do that?"
Shit. I forgot that I was 'on stage'. I hastily tried to brush it off as a triviality, "I-I just had some free time, Jin-san. It's a new hobby. Help me take the core with us. It'll come in handy later."
"Yes, my Prince."
Terassa reached the bridge and enthused, "All five robots are destroyed. Please, let's help the survivors."
Two wounded young ladies got up from the control banks and stumbled towards us, both badly wounded. I hadn't seen any other crew bodies so I assumed with a chill running down my back that the other three conscripts were spaced when the stern section was destroyed.
Francisco carried the barely conscious conscript on his back and the general aided the blinded crewman back onto the more intact Brawler. With Jin's help we soon removed the MCU core processor. Just before we left, I reactivated the self destruct and reset it for ten minutes. Safely back on board, our Brawler soon cleared the wreck, and not long afterwards it blew up into fragments with a blue-white flash.
After hours of effort, I finished installing the computer components and reactivated the Main Computer Unit. I was rewarded with positive indicator bars informing me that the pacified computer was integrating with the ship's systems. The Brawler computers were interchangeable after all. Everything about the Obsidian Armada was that modularity was more important than being state of the art. It's dominance of the Empire depended on its sheer numbers of warships, and not any individual's ship's lethality.
"MCU online. Vessel is Brawler 21081. I await your orders, Commander."
"Thanks MCU. I am the commanding officer, but be sure to act like you're in charge if anyone from the outside calls us."
I switched off the panel with a great deal of satisfaction at my work and wearily slumped in one of the control chairs. The shattered asteroid base loomed in the near distance. Sensors recorded well over two hundred ships nearby. The MCU busily exchanged information with other ship computers to coordinate the warp out. The asteroid had fractured in half after the self destruct had vaporized the hanger facilities. I gazed over the sad remnants of both Obsidian and the Prince's fleets. So many lives had been snuffed out and I felt keenly that it was a sad, pointless waste. I knew from my insider knowledge the destroyed Tsukiko could warp ten times faster than these ungainly, mass-produced crude starships ever could. Still I had to make the best of our fortune.
An authoritative voice came over the communications console, "All ships link MCU telemetry to Hunter 6514's MCU."
I stood up and placed a firm hand on my sister's shoulder, "Ready Ayumi-chan?"
She grinned up at me, "Yep."
"Let's do it."
The Commanding MCU inputted the rendezvous coordinates and my little sister on the Nav console manually overrid them to an alternate pathway through the badlands. The Imperial frontier was chaotic and dangerous, but we were far less likely to run into imperial patrols there.
The view out the windows vanished into the inky blackness of hyperspace as the blast screens came down. I stretched out wearily and hoped our latest gamble would pay out. "Good work everyone. I'm going to check on the wounded crewmen. Everyone, when you have some time, make sure to tailor the Conscript outfits, and hide your identity as best you can." I left the bridge with Jin on my heels. Down the corridor, I turned left and entered the crude sickbay.
Inside Terassa was tending to the recovering crewmen we had rescued from the derelict. I was surprised to note that both were petite, blond-haired young women who looked like they could pass as twins. One had a patch covering her right eye; the other had bandaged burns on her face and arms.
Francisco spoke quietly with a miserable expression, "I can't stand seeing Natsumi and Kasumi like this."
How did he know their names? All I could see was the nametags that both read "Hoshisen." I was surprised that Terassa had randomly stumbled onto old friends of his. I gave him a serious look as I asked, "Did you know them before you were conscripted?"
He turned and shook his head with amazement, "Your Highness, how could you not know who they are? They're the legendary Starlight sisters."
Who? Thankfully, Jin interceded on my behalf, "My prince, now I recognize them. They were very popular singers up to two years ago. This was before they were arrested and convicted of political agitation."
Seriously? A couple of pop singers were tossed away? For what crime…making crappy music? I tried my best to act like I knew what the hell was going on, "So what was their crime?"
Terassa looked glum, "All they did was write a song begging for the Obsidian throne to find a peaceful resolution to your rebellion. It was a smash underground hit; but look at what the Empire did to them."
All those hours of enjoying the show on my flatscreen TV without a care, yet I had no notion of the cost that ordinary people would have to bear. I stiffly inquired, "How badly are they hurt?"
"They both are stable, now that I've treated the shock. Kasumi has a damaged eye. Natsumi has electrical burns. I'm not a medical expert, but I don't think we'll be able to save all of her fingers."
As he spoke, Kasumi opened her one good eye and sat up fearfully, "Natsumi!" She stumbled over to her sister and looked at her injuries with a horrified expression.
Francisco spoke soothingly, "Miss Hoshisen, let her sleep. I sedated her so she could heal up more effectively."
The injured lady buried her face in her sister's side and cried, "Natsumi, you idiot! I tried to warn you!"
I felt the need to speak even as I did not want to interrupt the tragic reunion of the star-crossed sisters, "I'm sorry about what happened, but my sister Ayumi-san can help both of you."
She looked up with shock, her glowing blue eye widening to an absurd degree, "I-I don't believe it. C-crown Prince Kado."
I managed an ironic smile, "At your service."
I saw her stand up to her full height, although she barely cleared my shoulders. Her face narrowed with resentment as she gave me a stinging slap as a thank you.
Jin reached for her blade hilt with cold fury, but I waved her down as my jaw ached sharply. For such a petite lady, she could hit impressively hard. I rubbed my raw cheek as I gave out orders, "Hoshisen-san, I will send my sister right in. Gallowglass, please stay here."
My bodyguard sheathed her blade, her face a twitching mask of resentment, "Yes my Prince."
A few minutes later Ayumi came onto the bridge looking drained, but cracked a wide smile as soon as she saw me with a crewcut, with my long white locks lying in a pile around my feet. I was now dressed in a conscript uniform. It consisted of a gray jumpsuit, with red trim at the collar, cuffs and parallel to the front suit fastener. The general was finishing the black dye job on my hair with a meticulous attention to detail. He efficiently finished up and left the bridge wordlessly.
Ayumi burst out laughing as soon as we were alone, "Niisama you look ridiculous!"
I chuckled with relief as I could only be myself when I was alone or with my adorable new little sister, "Do I look incognito enough?"
She walked over and gave me an impish kiss on the cheek, "You look really dumb."
I smiled wryly, "Thanks for the support. I've decided on my cover name too."
I brushed stay hair off the uniform shoulders as I gave a mock bow, "Princess Kado, my name is Seki Michio. How do you do?"
Her violet eyes sparkled as she sat on the next seat over, "That's your real name, isn't it?"
"Yeah." I gave her a shy smile as I relaxed in her company, "It's kinda nice to use it again."
She leaned in close, "So where are you really from?"
"A city called Osaka in Japan." I reluctantly opted to withhold the fact that I was trapped in a fictional story set centuries in the future.
She looked intrigued, "I don't believe it. You're from the legendary homeworld of Terra?" She squealed, "Seriously?"
"Uh-huh." I knew from reading the sourcebooks that the first setters to this galaxy had come from Earth originally via a freak warp accident. However, its location had been lost to history when the first empire fell nearly a thousand years earlier. The second empire, the Kado dynasty, had emerged from the chaos several centuries later.
The young teen took my hands in hers and gushed, "Tell me what Terra is like, please. I want to know all about it."
Her enthusiasm was infectious, which made me feel guilty for having to let her down. "Well, I saw a lot of it in pictures. Some was breathtakingly lovely, and pristine, but some was overcrowded and polluted." I sighed as I knew how pathetic I sounded, "I never set foot outside of my hometown in person."
She looked confused and annoyed in equal measure, "Why not?"
"Because I'm a recluse. In my former life I was an albino like Arashi, but I just get rude stares instead of respect. I fixed computers for a living, designed websites, and hacked into computers on the side. I even wrote crappy fan fiction about my favorite anime. Thank the spirits that my vivid imagination allowed me to believably roleplay your bro-"
She cut in looking confused, "What's anime, niisama?"
I scratched my itchy scalp before figuring out how to respond, "It like animated holos of fictional stories."
"Ohhh, sounds very interesting," she replied with a smile. She asked innocently, "Which one was your favorite?"
Arashi: the Storm Prince of course. I would rather have my toenails ripped off that admit that. I opted for a half-truth, "Err, I was really into space operas…ya'know, like t-this one."
She broke into soft chuckles and nodded, "So true! My brother and his struggles would make a great holo someday."
I gave her a secretive smile and gently steered to conversation back on track, "My talents with computers was how I was able to take down the enemy MCU so quickly. But I'm no good with people, especially ladies. It's easier for me to stay in my apartment than go out in the world."
Ayumi looked positively aggravated, "Idiot brother! If I could be on Terra I'd explore every kilometer of it."
I bowed contritely and apologized for my thoughtless behavior, "I'm sorry. I didn't appreciate it when I had the opportunity to see the wider world."
She seemed to forgive quickly, "Just don't ever take your good fortune for granted again!"
I smiled as Ayumi was so adorably earnest, "I promise."
"And don't worry about women. You're very charming, and I think they will like Michio-niisan even more than the Casanova prince."
I flushed deeply red at her playful teasing. Before I could force my stumbling brain to think of a way to answer, Hoshisen and Jin walked in.
Kasumi bowed deeply as soon as she reached my position, "I'd like to b-beg your pardon, your majesty. I was angry about my sister, and I acted without thinking. I will accept w-whatever punishment you see fit to impose on me."
I stood up warily as I still felt a residual soreness in my cheek, "And how is your younger sister?"
She kept her eye downcast, "S-she is still groggy, but Princess Kado sealed her wounds with her powers. Natsumi lost a few finger tips, but she will survive. She still needs a doctor's care, though." She fell to the deck and kowtowed before me, "Thank you for rescuing us! We are forever in your debt, your Majesty."
I felt sick to his stomach at the groveling. I insisted, "Please stand up."
Kasumi did so, reluctantly with my sister's aid.
"Your punishment is to help the mortal enemy of the Obsidian throne get back to his capital." I gave her a completely serious expression, "Fair enough?"
She looked up in surprise, "But your majesty, I deserve far worse!"
My eyes blazed as I ranted, "No one deserves the evil that the Obsidian throne has imposed on the empire!" I steeled my nerve as my heart was pounding, "I command you and Natsumi to compose and perform a new song for the rebellion. Do that and your debt will be paid in full."
She looked beyond stunned as she bowed, "Y-yes, your majesty. Thank you."
"Go look after your sister now. Dismissed." I turned around to hide my face from the ex-singer scurried back to the sickbay. Only after the bridge door clanged shut did I dare let out my breath in loud exhale of relief. Playing the part of the imperious prince, especially around girls was nearly too much for my nerves to handle.
My sister twisted the knife merrily, "Ladykiller."