After hours of lying wide awake in my quarters in the darkness, and staring at the intricate criss-crossing pipes decorating the ceiling, I gave up and walked out of the room barefoot. The heavy door slammed shut behind me with a clang as I furiously strode down the hallway to the medbay. My hand hovered over the luminescent green door switch for agonizing seconds before I exhaled with aggravation and slammed the switch. After the door opened I walked in, and gazed forlornly at my pale gallowglass lying prone on the bed. I turned to see my little sister Ayumi curled up in a chair, fast asleep. I wiped at my misted up eyes and then gently tucked the blankets over her shoulders. I then wearily slumped by Jin's side and ignored my fluttering heart as I took up her warm hand in mine. My face screwed up in anguish as I contemplated all that Jin had sacrificed for my…no, for Prince Arashi's sake. Kasumi's kiss still made me deeply ashamed even through Arashi and Jin were not lovers in his former life. However I had already concluded that Kasumi had reflexively hero-worshipped the fearless prince Arashi and didn't see the petrified Michio inside. I spoke with a slight hitch in my voice, "Please…forgive me, Tenku-san."
Much to my shock I heard a faint rustle of sheets and a soft voice that part of me thought I would never hear again spoke up, "Forgive you for what, my Prince?"
I gasped as Jin's eyes fluttered open, and I blinked in disbelief as she looked at me with a groggy expression. I had been terrified at the thought that I never would see those ever-serious aquamarine eyes gaze at me ever again. My hand squeezed hers tightly as I started to sob, "J-jin-san…you're awake!"
She nodded woozily and tried unsuccessfully to sit up. She sighed as she rubbed her forehead, "Yeah. It feels like I'm been asleep for a year."
Now that I knew she would be okay I felt about 10,000 kilos lighter. I beamed as I wiped away my tears, "It's been about five days."
She looked down and saw that our hands were intertwined and her expression became conflicted. It looked like she couldn't decide if she liked my overly familiar gesture or hated it.
I felt a twinge of guilt as well as embarrassment for touching her in an overtly familiar manner. I hastily released my hold and watched her pull her hand away.
She looked up at me with a clearly troubled expression and pleaded, "What happened to you, my Prince? Something changed when we lost the Tsukiko. It's like you…aren't the same per-" She stopped mid-syllable and hung her head, "Forgive me. I am being unspeakably rude to talk to you like this."
"I know you've been wondering something for weeks now," I replied with my voice remarkably steady even as I was screaming inside as I knew what was coming. I realized that it didn't make any difference if I was an ugly computer geek living in Osaka, or a gorgeous prince living on board a starship. It was Seki Michio's karma to be rejected…endlessly and painfully. "F-finish your thought, Tenku-san," I whispered hoarsely.
She looked at me with the utmost seriousness as her composure wavered, "Nothing makes any sense anymore! The old prince was cold, vain and ruthless. However the moment you refused to commit seppuku, I knew you had changed. The next thing I knew you started to call me Jin instead of gallowglass. You could suddenly hack an MCU, whereas before you knew nothing about computers. You risked your life to rescue Terrassa-san and the Hoshisen sisters. I tried to dismiss my doubts until Crucible. However now I know something has forever changed, and it frightens me!"
I nodded grimly and silently, waiting with sickened certainty for the hammer blow to cave in my heart.
"The prince I've known for the past 17 years would have slapped me for what I just said," she finished with a miserable tone.
Despite all the force bearing down on my soul I still managed a sentimental half smile, "I would never hit you."
She looked alarmed at my adoring gaze, "That's just it! Since we stole the Brawler, you've been warm, compassionate and sweet!"
I flushed under the heat in my cheeks, and bowed with an inadequate apology, "I'm sorry Jin-san."
She shook her bandaged head, as she wiped at her wet cheeks, "Who are you, my Prince?"
I nearly leapt into the ceiling as Ayumi Kado spoke serenely, "His real name is Seki Michio, Jin-san."
"Ayumi-chan! You were listening to us," I spat out with a mortified blush blooming across my cheeks.
She grinned sheepishly and winked, "I was hoping for a more romantic conversation, actually. I didn't want to disturb the mood."
Jin paled with her mouth set into a tense frown before she squeaked out, "R-romantic mood! I would never harbor impure thoughts about my Prince!"
Just my crummy luck, I thought; another one-sided love. I hung my head in shame and sighed deeply, "That's not important. What is important is that you are speaking to Seki Michio's soul in the prince's body."
Her face paled, "You're not Prince Kado?"
"Yeah," I replied with a melancholy face. "I accidentally stole his life the morning we lost the Tsukiko."
"I-I knew it! You're an imposter!" Her eyes were now wide with disbelief.
"In a way, I am, yes."
She looked with a wounded expression at Ayumi, "Princess Kado, you knew and never said a word to anyone?"
My sister shrugged sheepishly and reminded Jin of her unfair advantage, "Remember I have empathic psychic powers, so I had a leg up over you. I know this seems like an awful development, but Seki-niisama is a really great guy! All of us are alive now because he always chose to fight to live!"
"My Prince and Princess Kado, I-I realize that I am completely out of line for asking this. I have two humble requests."
I braced myself for the next blow, as if being shoved into the friend zone wasn't bad enough. I spoke stiffly, "Yes, proceed."
"My first request is you do not reveal this truth to anyone other than the general. If the empire knew that the prince was replaced with a substitute, then the rebellion would collapse in no time."
That was a surprisingly painless request. I assented eagerly, "Done. All of us want the Obsidian Empire to be overthrown, after all."
Princess Kado nodded in agreement with an impish smile.
"The second is to call me gallowglass again," she requested with a downcast expression as she fidgeted with her hands.
She was pulling away, and extinguishing any possibility of a romance. Just kill me and show me a little mercy I thought despairingly.
She dabbed at her eyes. "Your kindness is killing me, your Highness. I can't be a disposable bodyguard if you continue treating me like you're just a normal guy who wants to protect his girlfriend."
I made one last feeble plea to salvage our bonds, "Tenku-san, I only want-"
She started to sob, "Please don't call me that! I am your gallowglass, nothing more. Even if you aren't the real prince, you must act like him to keep up the pretense." She bowed deeply in complete abasement.
I felt the old familiar sting of my old friends…rejection and humiliation. They had been my constant companions ever since middle school where I had my first romantic confession shot down. I replied in a soft, bitter voice, "I understand, gallowglass."
Ayumi looked surprised and annoyed at my meek gesture of surrender, "Niisama! What are you saying?"
Jin bowed at the edge of the bed, "Thank you my Prince."
I stood up stiffly, and walked towards the door, followed by my deflated sister. Just before I left, I turned back, and practically barked, "Gallowglass!"
She stood up and propped her body upright by bracing against the wall as she stood rigidly at attention, "Yes, your majesty?"
I banged my fist on the doorsill and turned back around. Since it was all over anyway I felt a reckless surge of courage well up. I met her gaze with blazing blue eyes and snapped, "Gallowglass, I want your hair ribbon!"
With a completely baffled expression she complied and pulled off the sky blue ribbon tying her short ponytail back. With Ayumi's assistance, I tied it around my upper right arm.
Jin's eyes grew wide, as she seemed to recognize the ancient symbolic gesture of a knight pledging his devotion to a single noblewoman. She stammered, "Y-your majesty! S-s-surely you can't mean..!"
I flashed a pained, defiant expression, and nodded firmly in confirmation before storming out. After the short walk to the cramped bridge I slumped in my chair just as General Sysverdin took the ship out of hyperspace. At the navigation console, Kasumi looked back at me with an embarrassed glance, and then returned to her display. The blast shutters came up and I looked at the Fasil system to distract me from being dumped…again. It was home to a bloated blue supergiant and nothing else orbiting around it but a vast asteroid field at 3 billion kilometers out. There were no permanent settlements or bases, but there was the presence of innumerable prospectors and the occasional pirate. I noted glumly, "General. Let's just get fuel from a methane asteroid and get our butts out of here ASAP."
Sysverdin nodded firmly, "Agreed."
Natsumi, at the communications console, looked up in shock. "Prince Arashi. We're being hailed via a LADAR stream."
I waved in her direction for the communications channel to be opened. "Captain Terassa, you're on," I spoke tensely, unsure if this SOS was a ruse.
An unknown voice urgently resounded over the metallic bridge, "This is Hunter 8100! We are under attack. All available aid is necessary!"
Francisco looked over Natsumi's shoulder and inquired, "Got a fix?"
"Yes sir! It's on an encrypted channel. Transferring coordinates to Oneesan!"
Kasumi inputted the exact position into the navigation console to plot an intercept course.
The false captain of our little ship spoke with a confident baritone voice, "This is Captain Terassa of Brawler 21081. We're on our way!"
The general commanded the ship into hyperspace briefly and came out on the other side of the star. The badly mauled Hunter streaked by at less than 10 million km, as two pursing pirate ships strafed her with railgun fire. My Brawler gunship unleashed its kinetic fire along with a full missile spread. Both attacking ships were taken by surprise and twin flashes of lights indicated successful hits. I pumped my fist in glee before realizing we had just snuffed out lives again. I leaned back and groaned softly at the harsh reality that my duty would always weigh on me like a yoke. The rest of the crew quickly assembled on the bridge, now that the emergency was over.
The MCU piped up, "Hunter 8100, you are all clear."
The computer of the Bloodhound Hunter replied in kind, "Nice timing Brawler 21081." The ostensibly allied Hunter ship quickly rendezvoused with our vessel. After Ayumi, the general and I donned sunglasses to obscure our non-luminescent eyes, Natsumi powered up the viewscreen. Onscreen was a petite young woman with dark tan skin, penetrating amber eyes and shoulder-length raven hair. Her dress was an Ultramarine-hued Obsidian uniform with cobalt trim indicating her senior officer's rank as a commandant. Discretely standing behind her was an elderly retainer in black formal wear.
I exhaled slowly as I murmured softly, "No way." I recognized Princess Amamizu Taki, the only niece of the Obsidian Emperor instantly.
Francisco nearly stumbled as he stepped forward and bowed stiffly and blurted out, "Your imperial majesty! You honor us with your presence!"
The princess sighed and rolled her eyes in annoyance, "Captain Terassa, I would prefer to be referred to Commandant Amamizu. I rescinded my title and any claim to the throne five years ago."
All of us stood rigidly at attention as she looked over the motley crew with a pensive expression. Her eyes widened as she eyed the navigator and communications officers. "You're the starlight sisters, aren't you?"
Kasumi bowed formally, "Yes, commandant. It is truly an honor to meet you."
Amamizu smirked slightly, "I could find uses for you two." She then frowned as she stared at Ayumi and me with her prim mouth forming a puzzled frown. "You two look familiar too."
I tried to ignore my sweaty palms as I attempted a graceful bow, "C-computer ops officer Seki Michio, at your service, Commandant."
Ayumi curtseyed, "A pleasure to meet you. I'm medic Seki Yumi."
Amamizu shook her head, as if trying to shake off a nagging feeling. She soon regained her stern expression, "Captain Terassa. Can you spare a moment, alone?"
"Yes ma'am!" He shooed the rest of the rest of the crew off the bridge, except for me, who stood off to the side out of camera range.
Commandant Amamizu waited until the bridge doors clanged shut again, indicating that coast was clear and groused, "HQ wouldn't even let me participate in the battle to take out the Tsukino!"
Terassa shook his head mournfully, "It was a victory at a high cost. We lost well over a hundred ships, and both the target ship and its base were destroyed rather than captured intact. My ship lasted exactly three seconds once the battle started as an EMP pulse crippled the Brawler for days afterwards. The only upside was that the figurehead of the rebellion died."
Out of sight, I shook my head ruefully.
Amamizu mused thoughtfully, "It would have been better if he was taken alive. I was trying to devise a way to meet with him."
Franco hissed urgently, "That's treasonous talk, commandant!"
She shook her head, "Treason it may be, but someone must suggest it. We've had ten years of anarchy, chaos, death and strife. I may no longer be royalty, but this destructive civil war has dragged on for far too long already. I hated that arrogant, pompous, self-important jerk, but he was the only one in the rebellion with enough clout to put an end to the bloodshed. With the foolhardy prince dead, his followers will doubtless fight to the bitter end."
Terrassa looked thoughtful for awhile. "Commandant, there may be some clues left at the battlesite. I'm sure there are remnants of the Tsukiko."
Amamizu nodded approvingly. "Good idea. You're with me now. Follow me in."
Left with no other choice, Terrassa readily agreed, "Yes ma'am!"
A few days later Amamizu's patrol warped into the place where our misadventure had begun, and we made a beeline for the asteroid base. Already the larger chunks had robotic salvage ships sweeping them. Drifting hulks from many dozen ruined Obsidian vessels had been towed over to be stripped for parts, as well as thousands of fragments that I sadly recognized as the remnants of my once magnificent flagship. At least fifty Brawler ships stood arrayed around the ruins to dissuade any interference. On the bridge I shivered due to the slight chill in the air as I overheard the testy exchange between the salvage commander and Amamizu.
My new superior sounded downright exasperated as she groused, "Look Commandant Rampling, I am commandant of this task force. I have every right to be here to inspect the ruins of the Tsukiko, and the asteroid base!"
I heard barely suppressed terror of the female officer's on having to anger such a highly placed member of House Obsidian. She pleaded, "I'm dreadfully sorry Commandant Amamizu! I have orders from the Emperor himself! This is a blackbox operation. Only the scavenger team is allowed in! You have to take it up with him if you want in!"
"Damn you! Amamizu out!"
There was a tense silence for a few minutes. Suddenly Ayumi's eyes lit up. She tapped Francisco on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. I blinked as I wondered what on earth was going on. Terassa looked surprised at her intel, and then elated. He eagerly activated the communication console, "Hunter 8100, this is Terassa."
"What is it," Amamizu snapped.
"I uh…with your leave, we've found something interesting."
She exhaled in exasperation and consented, "Alright, captain."
After a hours long navigation through the asteroid field we came upon an appalling sight. On the surface of one of the asteroids, we saw at least three badly damaged Brawlers crudely welded together to make a primitive life raft. I was stunned that there could possibly be more survivors this many weeks later. I gently chided myself as I remembered that Melissa on Anvil had subsisted for years without resupply. Anything was possible with ingenuity, stubborn resolve and a bit of luck
Franciso hailed his superior as he was already starting to don his spacesuit, "Captain, permission requested to form a boarding party."
"Granted Captain. Just be careful. We'll keep a weapons lock just in case!" Despite her surly demeanor I had to admit that Amamizu seemed to genuinely care for the welfare of her subordinates. I had not seen this side of her personality from the show, as she was portrayed as a one-dimensional sadistic tyrant.
Soon enough Sysvedin, Terassa, Jin and I were quickly suited up as a boarding party. The wrecked ships remained silent even after repeated hails by Kasumi; so I reasoned that they had no way to communicate. We exited the portside airlock of our Brawler and gently floated down onto the nose of the most intact ship. The blast doors on the bridge windows were down, but Ayumi's sense had picked up human life signs so I knew someone had to still be alive in there. After we reached the starboard airlock I soon override the controls. After the air cycled we stepped into a ruined bridge that somehow made our half destroyed Brawler bridge look pristine in comparison. Several survivors had guns trained on us but an authoritative voice cut in, "Stand down people! It's our guys!"
The battered crew warily lowered their weapons, as did Francisco's team. Terassa spoke up brightly, "Good to meet fellow survivors! Are you the Captain?"
The thin man facing them grunted and pulled off his helmet. I recognized the face in a millisecond, yet it took me several seconds for my sluggish brain to register the fact that I was fate's chew toy once again. What the actual hell? Bashing my head on the bulkhead suddenly started to look like an attractive alternative to continuing this encounter from hell.
The man leading the motley band of survivors was wiry and tall with a shaved head with amber-hued stubble and deep green eyes. Still, it was unmistakably Engineer Kin, the man who had betrayed me-Prince Arashi and started the whole mess in the first place! Totally obvious from being three steps away from his despised nemesis, Kin stepped forward and shook Terassa's outstretched hand with a face displaying immense relief. He enthused, "Boy, you guys are a sight for sore eyes! We were down to three days of rations and a week of reactor power."
Francisco opened his opaque visor and grinned, "Glad to be of help. I'm Captain Terassa of Brawler 21081. Hunter 8100 out there is commanded by Commandant Amamizu."
His green eyes got even larger as he looked shocked at the staggering odds of meeting such a revered Imperial leader, "Amamizu as in the Emperor's niece? No shit?"
Terassa nodded with a somber expression.
"Wow. Just…wow." He looked a bit awed as he struggled to regain his composure, "I'm Jeremiah Kin. We have six survivors left from Brawlers 22911, 19818, and 19001 plus me."
A dignified young lady with dark skin and the same creepy glowing blue eyes as the rest of the conscripts next to Kin confirmed his story, "Captain Terrassa, I'm Michelle Redlake. Without Jerry's engineering skill, we would have perished weeks ago!"
Terrassa looked a bit puzzled as he took note that his counterpart's irises were not blue or glow in the dark, "Captain Kin, if you're a conscript, why are your eyes normal? Did the empire make an exception for you?"
Kin shook his head grimly, "Nope. I'm the Judas who betrayed prince Arashi to your forces!"
Francisco slumped into a nearby seat. I grumbled to myself that it looked like my call to spare the traitor just bit me in the ass. Lucky me.
Michelle sighed and squeezed my ex-engineer's shoulder firmly, "Jeremiah, the rogue prince had to be stopped. His rebellion was tearing the order of the galaxy apart. There are countless loyal citizens who would have done what you did."
Kin curled up his hands into fists, and spoke bitterly, "I still betrayed my master for personal gain. I can't be trusted ever again." He turned to his friend and flashed a quietly despairing smile, "Michelle, now that the cavalry has arrived, I'd like you take over my duties as acting captain. I'll surrender to the Empire, and pay the piper."
Redlake smirked, shook her head and asserted, "Forget it. I owe you my life. I hereby nominate you to be captain of our Brawler!"
"Seconded," echoed another survivor.
The remaining four crewmembers raised their hands in unanimous assent.
Terrassa chuckled with a friendly shoulder pat, "Congrads, Captain Kin. I became a captain unwillingly as well." He nodded to me and my followers, "You are dismissed."
A week later, Brawler 19001 was pressed back into service using stripped parts from its sister ships. To avoid being unmasked I ordered that only Terassa and the Hoshisen twins be allowed to board Kin's ship to help with repairs. I had contributed by cobbling together a working MCU from three damaged computers from the ships.
Amamizu had just returned from a thorough sweep of the asteroid belt, she indicated with annoyance that her search had turned up nothing of value to her cause. Over the past few days, I begrudgingly admitted that as much as I would eternally despise what Kin had done, he seemed to be genuinely repentant over his greed and envy. On the whole I had to silently concede that it for the best that I had spared the bastard, as his technical skills had saved precious lives. I watched Terrassa's conversation with his new 'allies' with interest.
Captain Amamizu's serious face was on the viewscreen as her two underlings reported to her, "Captains Kin and Terrassa, its good to have you both on my team."
"Yes ma'am," Terrassa said quietly.
Kin's voice echoed over the speakers, "It's our pleasure!"
"So, as you were the inside man, can you guide us to Arashi's headquarters?"
Kin sighed wearily. "Yeah, but the Bouhatai system is heavily defended. We'd be swatted like flies in these puny ships. It's better if we contact one of his generals."
Amamizu's face became animated, "I've always wanted to meet General Sysverdin!"
"That's not possible unfortunately. Unless they left the ship when I was stuck behind in the asteroid base, Sysverdin, Princess Kado, Prince Arashi, and his Gallowglass all perished in the attack."
Her amber eyes looked downcast as she cursed bitterly to herself. She then looked introspective, "They could have left the ship? How?"
Kin's image in the inset screen shrugged, "The last thing I heard from the prince before ditching my escape pod was a taunt about my betrayal. I didn't remember until just now, but he sounded winded, like he was running."
Terrassa smirked at me as he chimed in. "No way that they used the escape pods, unless they were suicidal. They fired them off as decoys, and every last one was blasted into shrapnel. My ship's sensors had a good view after the EMP blast crippled us."
"If they weren't on the bridge, and they didn't used the pods, then they probably went out in spacesuits. That would be too small a target to track," Kin noted drily. "It's still a pretty dicey proposition. It would be massively out of character for that asshole control freak of a prince to play the odds like that. He's much more the type to commit Seppuku than take a one in a million chance."
Francisco mused, "You think they've been captured or their bodies found?"
Commandant Amamizu frowned, "Unlikely. The empire would parade that kind of coup far and wide, complete with parades featuring grisly holos of the confessions or dead bodies. All I've seen on the military relay network is that the Prince's flagship was destroyed and the prince presumed. Then again, he might have been savvy enough to wiggle his way out of this trap!" She looked reenergized at the thought. "Too bad about the princess; she was by all accounts a real sweetheart. So the next logical general to contact would be Tsuchi Mio?"
Kin smiled, "The brawn queen, yes. She was a pirate before enlisting in Arashi's forces. She is a formidable warrior and she's always near the front lines. If we use you as an emissary, and approach her pirate allies, we might gain an audience with her."
She frowned again, "But I gave up my title to serve on the front lines. I have no more imperial authority than any other Hunter commandant."
Kin chuckled and urged the ex-royal, "Don't undersell yourself, commandant. You have massive clout and goodwill across the empire. You're still a fearless princess in the public's mind. Use that to your advantage."
"Alright. We'll try your plan. Transmit the coordinates Captain Kin."
I idly wondered why I suddenly felt so conflicted about using my sworn enemies as disposable pawns.