Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Seventh Part, B Side - Empty Dreams ( Chapter 16 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

"Whattaya mean they're not gonna let us go to Earth?!"
Benten shuddered, her fists clenching as she glared at Nassur. Standing beside the Fukunokami teen, Oyuki maintained her usual calm demeanour. One look into her eyes, however, told the expat Vosian bounty hunter that the Neptunian crown princess was as upset as her friend about this turn of affairs. They were standing in a hangar at Onishuto Revolution Spaceport; some distance from what was left of Uru's capital city. Nassur's ship, ISS Renegade, occupied this particular space. Even several weeks after a makeshift antimatter bomb wiped out most of Onishuto, killing more than five million of its residents, the skies over this part of Uru were a slate grey. People working outdoors within fifty kilometres of Ground Zero for protracted periods of time, to protect themselves from fallout, wore respirators and hazard suits.
"That's right," Nassur confirmed, nodding. "As far as the Noukiites are concerned, there's no reason for any of us to visit Earth."
Benten crossed her arms. "Oh?! What about what Lupica wanted?"
"The Noukiite government has promised a full and detailed explanation about all military and paramilitary missions run against elements of the Urusian government to the Federation and other interested parties." Nassur then held up a cautioning hand. "And yes, that'll include everything Moroboshi Ataru might've been directly involved with."
"Dammit, Nassur . . .!"
A touch of ice entered the Vosian's voice. "Benten."
Benten winced, though the flash in her eyes told Nassur that explanation had not gone far enough. Taking a deep breath, he waved the two women towards Renegade's gangplank. "I know you want to go to Earth and see how Lum-chan and Ran are doing," he said, lowering his voice in case any of the Noukiites serving as maintenance or security overheard them. "There's nothing wrong with that. But don't forget, as far as the Noukiite authorities are concerned, Lum-chan is dead. Do you want me to try to explain to the Noukiites this 'crossing over' thing Lum-chan and Ran underwent as soon as they arrived in Tomobiki?"
"Hell, no!" Benten snapped before she took a deep breath to relax herself. "Look, Nassur. I personally don't give a fuck about Moroboshi. Never have, to be honest with you. If he helped these guys trace down the people who murdered his grandmother, it sure don't bother me! But given how much Lum still likes the damned jerk, what the hell's gonna stop some Ip'ihu asshole from finally puttin' two and two together and make them decide to go after her?! After all she's lost, Nassur, she don't deserve that at all!"
Nassur gazed on her, nodding. "Agreed, she doesn't."
"If only Father hadn't promised the Zephyrites that I wouldn't use the Warp Chamber to travel to Earth again," Oyuki lamented.
"Well, you have to admit, telling Lum-chan's friends about her 'death' ended up doing more harm than good, Oyuki-sama," Nassur warned.
Oyuki winced. In conversing with the women calling themselves Izumo Seiko and Izumo Sakiko sometime ago, Oyuki and Benten had learned of the terrorist attack on Tomobiki High School a week before. An attack that, while launched in answer to the "space-taxi/world oil theft" incident just after the first Tag Race, had been directly prompted by the news Oyuki had brought to Earth concerning Lum's fate. "Yes, that is true . . . "
He looked towards the doors of the hangar. The Vosian's blue eyes glowed as his brainwave-tracking powers automatically locked in on the newcomer. His bearded face broke out into a grin. "Dake-chan, what in Lecasur's name are YOU doing here?!" he demanded as the newcomer slipped off her breathing mask, her hand moving to unzip her hazard suit to reveal a Fukunokami battle bikini.
Benten and Oyuki were stunned on recognizing the elfin-eared, red-fur tailed bounty hunter, a woman whose origins had been lost in time for five million years. "Dakejinzou!"/"Shogai-sama!" they blurted in sync.
"Oh, no need to be formal!" Shogai Dakejinzou said as she slipped off her hazard suit, nodding thanks as a technician came up to take it away before she faced her old partner and his current companions. "Anyhow, it's come to my attention that you three want to visit Earth."
"How'd you find out?" Nassur wondered.
"The Inquisition. When you spoke to the military governor yesterday about going to Earth to look in on what's going on there, one of the liaisons from the Holy Inquisition overheard it. He relayed that information to Inquisitor-Bishop Owleye on Jiyuu. Considering some of the more . . . " -- her cat-slit blue eyes twinkled amusedly -- "Unusual circumstances surrounding this whole matter, Firesky decided that this will, for once, be permitted."
"We can go?!" Benten gasped.
"Yes. As long as you come with me on my ship."
"Why?" Oyuki wondered. Then, as Dakejinzou gazed on her, the princess added, "Well, not that we're not grateful, of course, but . . . "
Dakejinzou held up a hand to stop her. "Princess Oyuki, I should warn you that the Inquisition is aware of what happened to your friends now on Earth," she said, lowering her voice. "They haven't chosen to pass it on to the Noukiites. Nor will they do so. And if you want to know why, you can thank Ataru for that if or when you see him sometime soon."
Nassur blinked. "He asked them to keep silent about it?"
"Yes, he did," Dakejinzou replied with a nod. "And while there's already enough problems when it comes to a 'first contact' with a race like these Nendo-kata, I got the clear hint from Firesky that there's something else involved in this. Something even HE doesn't know about."
Dakejinzou winked at Nassur. The Vosian nodded. Firesky Owleye, the senior Inquisitor in Jiyuu's sector, was one of the most famous lawmen in the local cluster. A man who had hunted all sorts of malcontents for almost two centuries, rumour had it that soon, he would be elevated to Inquisitor-Archbishop and assigned the Inquisition's top job, Supreme Defender of the Six Churches. Only one other law-enforcement officer in the local cluster was spoken of with the same respect the Zephyrite had gained from fans and detractors alike: Nassur's and Dakejinzou's own teacher, Grand Duke Varanko of Kyotos, Lord High Executioner of the Royal Kingdoms of Yehisril.
"Could it be perceived as a danger?" Nassur asked.
A shrug twitched her shoulders. "Hard to tell. But I believe this is considered a very important secret deep within the Moroboshi family. If it is and if it's seen as non-threatening, that's that."
"Oh, wonderful!" Benten spat out as she threw up her hands in frustration. "In other words, what you're tellin' us is that Lum's and Ran's lives now ride on Moroboshi's good fuckin' will! Is that it?!"
Dakejinzou's tail swished snappily to and fro. Nassur's eyes rolled. He knew that anyone who elicited THAT reaction from the older bounty hunter found themselves treading on VERY thin ice. "Benten." Dakejinzou's voice lost its emotion as she fixed the younger girl with a glare. "I should advise you to scuttle that attitude of yours right away. Ditto with you, Princess!" She swung on Oyuki, causing the Neptunian to wilt. "Before you two get any bright ideas, I should warn you this: Some time ago, I agreed to go on retainer for Brother Darklight Sunfire. He was Lady Nagaiwakai's chief advisor. The job is simple: I am to help ensure, when I'm needed, that Moroboshi Ataru AND members of his family are kept free of harm, both PHYSICAL and PSYCHOLOGICAL harm!" She held up a warning finger. "In other words, if either of you two pull any stupid stunts on Ataru or on any of his sisters, you answer to me."
Benten and Oyuki paled as they both ducked Dakejinzou's look. "I see." Nassur then gazed on the younger women. "By the way, girls, if you think I'm going to help you out in that case, you're both mistaken."
Lum's friends moaned. Everyone then jolted as a communications buzzer sounded off. Dakejinzou tapped her earring. "Yes, Ship?"
"Message from Ipraedos Listening Post Seven," the main computer of the hunter's ship, ISS Goddess of Luck, replied. "They detected the Ellsian patrol monitor RENS Rose Emperor having passed their area of operations twelve hours ago. En route to the Earth-Neptune system."
Everyone perked. "Elle?!"
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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"THIS is your champion kendou-ka?!"
Chikage shook her head as Kunou slowly staggered back to his feet. Nearby, Marie exchanged a look with Nabiki. "Nabiki-san, has Kunou-san there EVER faced a serious challenger?" the former asked.
Nabiki snorted. "No, he faced Ranma-chan all the time, but he denied it to himself every time she plastered him all over the place."
"You . . . "
Kunou recovered his footing, turning to gaze dizzily on the young sorceress. As Chikage's cool yet sensuous looks began to register in the kendou-ka's mind, a familiar surge of desire foamed from his heart. "Truly impressive for one as lovely as you, my violet-haired goddess of night!" he declared. "Yes! Very impressive indeed . . .!"
"Oh, shit! Here he goes again!" Fujii Chieko groaned.
"Chieko, there ARE children present!" Nabiki scolded her friend.
Chieko acked as she glanced at Hinako. The youngest of the sisters stared at the older girls with a giggle. "It's alright!" she assured everyone as her hand rose to her mouth. "Jii-san and Mamoru-chan swear even worse!"
Marie snickered. " . . . before I soundly deal with the traitors and backstabbers who've no doubt fallen under the spell of that wretch Saotome Ranma and your own perverted brother . . .!" Kunou growled before a stricken look crossed his face. "Oh, the SHAME you must feel, Violet One!" he wailed. "To be related by BLOOD to such a scoundrel as . . .!"
Kunou gasped as the end of Chikage's jou slammed into his breastbone, sending him faltering back two metres. "First of all, Sempai, my name is not 'violet one.'" The sorceress swung into a new ready stance. "And secondly, I happen to be very content with my relationship with Ani-kun. After all, compared to a fool like YOU . . .!" -- in the flash of an eye, she was standing nose-to-nose with the kendou-ka, her dark-eyed gaze boring into him like twin amethyst drills -- "Ani-kun is TEN TIMES the man!"
Kunou jumped back. "WHAT?! You DARE proclaim such a lie?! No doubt, that black scoundrel has enchanted you to . . .!"
Tap! Shiatsu strike to the throat to freeze his voice box. "You were about to say I've been enchanted by Ani-kun into saying such 'lies,'" Chikage mused as she stepped back from the kendou-ka, allowing the jou to rest in her hands. "Spare me. No, please! In fact, spare us ALL your verbal diarrhoea, Tatewaki. You wouldn't know real magic if it stripped you nude, deposited you in an amphitheatre in the middle of typhoon season and made you dance the Macarena in front of a crowd of sex-starved nymphomaniacs!"
Gales of laughter welled up from the crowd as many of their minds quickly conceived of what Chikage's unique allegory would look like. Hearing that, Kunou shuddered as the sorceress turned her back to him. "Though truthfully, it shouldn't really surprise me that you've continued to live under the delusion that the male and female Saotome Ranma are two separate people. You've had that curse demonstrated to you HOW many times to date? Five? Ten? Twenty? Tell me something, Tatewaki: Do you actually become AROUSED every time you see such a handsome specimen of adolescent manliness as Ranma-kun transformed into a bubbling vision of adolescent womanhood as Ranma-chan?"
The laughter picked up, which made Kunou quake as Chikage continued her tirade, "Tatewaki, please!" She shook her head, a tsk-tsk clicking her voice in the background. "If you ARE bisexual, why, there's no need at all to feel ASHAMED about it!" Hearing that, several viewing this gripped their stomachs as delirious guffaws shook them from head to toe. "Being such doesn't make you the victim of some moral 'poison' as some of the more narrow-minded among us would fervently claim at the drop of the proverbial hat."
A voiceless roar escaped Kunou as he lunged on her, his bokken zinging for her forehead. People screamed as the sorceress seemed to freeze in place. She disappeared into a faint blur as the jou knocked the kendou-ka's weapon out of his hand. The wooden sword flipped through the air in Marie's direction.
* * *
"We got the ones at the shrine, Rose!"
"Okay, ma'am! Locking in on the one at the school now!!"
* * *
Seeing the big stick fly through the air, Michael barked as he lunged for it. "Ah, Michael!" Marie cried.
She moved to restrain her pet. Hinako swung to follow. "Marie-chan!"
People watched as Michael leapt into the air, snaring the bokken. A whoop echoed through the crowd as the retriever made a perfect landing. Marie moved to catch him as Kunou leapt at the dog to retrieve his weapon. At that moment, Hinako reached the spot Marie was standing at when Seven Bake Rose, in orbit, locked in on her bio-signature and energized her ship's transporter.
Instantaneously sensing the de-materializing energy seemingly focusing on its controller, the Staff of Gihan briefly flared as it formed a protective shield to prevent Hinako from being taken away from her sisters and friends. That shield deflected the sensor trace off to Hinako's right, directly on Kunou Tatewaki. The energy faded for a second as the sudden change of target coordinates was noted in the transporter's computer unit, and then de-materialization began anew. This time without interruption.
If he still had a voice, Kunou no doubt might have bellowed something rather inspirational. Such as, "WHAT FOUL SORCERY IS THIS?!"
People watched wide-eyed as the defrocked kendou team captain vanished in a shower of sparkles. Silence fell over the front lawn of Fuurinkan High. By then, Michael had turned to give his new prize to Marie.
Hinako then asked, "A-ri-ri?! Where'd he go?!"
Marie looked, blinking on seeing everything in place save one kendou-ka who had been in the midst of being humiliated by Chikage. "Wha . . .?"
Mutterings rose from the crowd as Hinako walked up to stare on the spot where Kunou had last been. "Ne, ne, Chikage-chan?" she asked as she faced the sorceress. "Why'd you make him go away like that?!"
Actually, Hinako, someone else took him away.
"Huh?! What do you mean, Bou-san?!"
The Staff whispered the answer. Watching the young girl speaking to the magic wand in her hand, the assembled Fuurinkan High students and staff didn't feel any need to panic. After all, compared to some of the things they had been witness to or been a part of -- including the welcomed sight of Kunou Tatewaki being made to vanish before their very eyes minutes before -- having kids speak to magic wands seemed . . . well, seemed NORMAL!
Eyes locked on Hinako. The youngest of the sisters was wide-eyed as she turned on Chikage. "Chikage-chan! Bou-san just said . . .!"
"That someone in orbit over Earth just tried to abscond with Marie-chan?"
"Yeah, she . . .!" Hinako stopped herself, sighing. "Chikage-chan?"
"Do what?"
Hinako moaned. A cell-phone rang. "Moshi-moshi," Marie answered it. "Oh, Aneue-sama, is there a . . .?" She stopped as Negako's voice cut her off, and then her eyes went wide. "EH?!" she shrieked, making everyone stare her way. "SOMEONE KIDNAPPED OUR SISTERS?!"
As soon as that shout faded into the early afternoon air, another bellow echoed over Nerima from the general direction of the Tendou doojou. "It seems that we don't need to inform Ani-kun about this," Chikage mused.
* * *
Kasumi and Shinshi, standing at the doorway leading into the latter's bedroom, exchanged a look as Ataru's outraged scream rocked the Tendou home.
"I take it this must be a friend of Ataru-kun's," the former mused.
The latter fearfully chuckled. "Some friend!"
Both winced as Ataru marched up to them, finger rising in objection. In his hand was a folded note of white paper embossed with a pink rose. "Oh, no, NO, my friends! This lady's NO friend of mine!" He shook his head and finger before he turned to indicate the spot where Yotsuba had been standing. "No, indeed! She's a lot WORSE than that!"
"And she is?" Kasumi prodded.
Dramatic pause.
Ataru turned away. "My fiancée."
The Tendous gazed at him as he let loose another scream. "Gee, and I thought RANMA had problems with fiancées?!" Shinshi muttered.
Kasumi covered her mouth politely. "Oh, my!"
* * *
"Where am I . . .?"
Karen looked around, surprised to find herself in a softly coloured room of white, light pinks and browns. The room, possessing the same feel as a hotel room -- as the stepdaughter of a government official who often travelled overseas on business, Karen knew what those were like -- came with a bed, nightstand, work table and chair, what seemed to be a television/entertainment centre, a small wardrobe with vanity and what looked like a microwave oven. Two doors lead from this room elsewhere. One clearly was the main entrance while the other seemed to go into a bathroom. The room's stylishness, more advanced than anything Karen EVER had seen, sent chills through her.
Where was she?
One of the doors opened, revealing a middle-aged woman in a dark dress akin to what Guenevere wore when she tended to Aria. "Good afternoon, Karen-sama," she hailed, bowing politely to her before she came up to guide the young woman back to the bed. "How are you today?"
Karen was quick to notice the lack of lip-synch between her mouth and voice. Realizing that, another chill ran through her, though she didn't resist the maid's guidance. "Where am I, miss?" she then hesitantly asked.
"You're aboard the Royal Ellsian Navy Ship Rose Emperor, dear," the maid replied as she proceeded to the microwave. "Your sisters and you are currently the guests of Her Majesty Queen Elle, your brother's betrothed. Computer, tea, Earth Japanese 'sencha,' one cup, serve standard."
The microwave -- A replicator?! Karen wondered, her eyebrow arching -- beeped, and then the door opened to reveal a cup of tea. "Arigatou," she said as the maid handed it to her. "Queen Elle? Why would she want . . .?" Her voice trailed off as it suddenly hit her. "Onii-chan?"
"I'm not aware of the exact circumstances surrounding your brother's betrothal to Her Majesty, but it seems she desires to press through with the matter." The maid then gave her a sympathetic look. "And I recommend that you do nothing which could anger the Queen, Karen-sama. Many of us know that whatever Her Majesty desires, she gets."
Hearing that, Karen shuddered. "H-hai!"
A content smile then crossed the older woman's face. "If you require something else, please use the call button by the lamp." She pointed to the object in question before bowing to her charge. "Excuse me, please."
The maid withdrew. Karen watched her go. Setting the cup on the nightstand, she sank back into the bed. "Onii-chan . . .!" she whispered as tears welled in her eyes, her arms wrapping around herself.
* * *
"Your Majesty . . .?"
"Why are there only NINE of Honey's sisters here?!" Elle, she seated in the Flag Admiral's chair on the bridge of the Rose Emperor, gazed intently at Seven Bake Rose. "You guaranteed there'd be ten of them ready for transport to the ship when I wanted them brought here! Where is Marie?!"
"I . . .!" The mercenary scratched her hair. "I can't understand it myself, ma'am! I had a positive transporter lock on Susumu, right to the point when I energized the system to bring her aboard! She should've been beamed right into the guest cabin set aside for her!"
The monitor's science officer came up. "It's true, Your Majesty."
The Rose Queen glared at her. "What do you mean?"
A datapadd was handed over. "Transporter lock was confirmed as soon as Rose activated the system," the officer explained. "But at the instant the system was energized, the target moved away from the location she was when transporter lock was made. At that moment, as you'll see, something got in the way and deflected the trace to the man now occupying Miss Susumu's guest room."
Elle gazed at the readout, blinking. "What caused this?"
The science officer shook her head. "Impossible to say at this time, Your Majesty. I'm having it analysed right now."
"I see. Very well, then." Elle handed the padd back, and then she gazed on Rose. "Well, save for this problem, you did carry out the mission assigned to you, Rose. Well done. In the meantime, Captain, I think it's time we left. Take us out of here and return us towards Toshitto."
The monitor's captain nodded. "By your command, Your Majesty."
Rose perked as orders were barked to break orbit. "We're not staying?"
Elle shook her head. "No. I'm taking her into the Slot. We'll place ourselves halfway between here and Toshitto to wait for Honey to react."
The Rose Queen then stood, heading to the turbolift to carry her below decks. Her entourage of aides and personal bodyguards moved to flank her as she stepped off the bridge. Rose followed her. "What makes you think Mr. Groom can follow you, ma'am?" she then asked.
"A test, Rose. Remember, Honey DID fight with the Noukiites when he decided to hunt down his grandmother's killers. I want to know how well connected he is when it comes to the Dominion. This might be turned to our advantage if we play our hand correctly. After all, you know what might happen if the Noukiites carry out their threat and withdraw from the Federation, much less secure formal ties with Ipraedos and the Seifukusu. If that leads to the Federation's collapse, I want the Kingdom to be on the winning side."
The mercenary considered that. "Smart thinking, ma'am. But what happens if Mr. Groom can't get any help to rescue his sisters?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, Rose."
"Yes, ma'am." Rose then perked as she remembered something else. "Oh! What about that guy who got snatched in lieu of Susumu?"
"Throw him in with Miyake and her friends. From what I've seen of him so far, he reminds me a little too much of Mendou Shuutarou."
"Yes, ma'am!"
* * *
"Headache, Ataru?"
Ataru blinked before a moan escaped him as Negako tapped a couple points on his neck. "Thanks, Onee-chan. You're a life-saver."
"I try not to be," Negako noted as she sat down beside him, canting her eyes to the shouting crowd in the middle of the old shrine's living room. "How quickly these fools so readily revert to type, ne?"
He shook his head. "Got that right."
After giving Kasumi and Shinshi an explanation about his "betrothal" to Elle, Ataru received a call from Marie, relaying information from Negako concerning the Rose Queen's absconding with Kunou Tatewaki and all his other half-sisters save Chikage and Hinako. Returning to the shrine, Ataru heard everyone's story, and then he sent Miree off to find Ranma.
Those Ataru immediately thought of as the "Tomobiki Idiot Brigade" arrived two minutes after the Hollywoodite high priestess departed. Deep down, he knew it wasn't fair to call them THAT, especially now with over thirty students somewhere in outer space, held hostage to make him surrender and marry that rose-loving twit. But given the way that some of the people in that group -- Sakura, Cherry, Onsen Mark, plus a half-dozen Kuromegane from the Mendou estate -- began shouting demands at him the instant they passed through the front door, it was a relief when Negako came up and temporarily silenced them with shiatsu strikes to the throat. At least Kotatsuneko had kept his peace, merely setting up a low table (complete with the requisite space heater) in the room, and then he began preparing tea for Ataru, Negako, Reiko and Kaneko.
The local idiot brigade arrived a minute later, trailed by Chikage, Hinako and Marie, plus Michael. Ataru recognized Tendou Nabiki in that crowd, though he strongly suspected that the old ninja in the dark green bodysuit was possibly Sarugakure Sasuke, Kunou Tatewaki's ninja retainer. As Chikage tried to give Ataru a detailed explanation on events at Fuurinkan High, the crowd of boys in sports gear and martial arts uniforms began loudly begging him to find the kendou-ka in question. When Ataru asked why, one of the newcomers, a kendou-ka himself, explained that, on behalf of Tendou Akane's school-wide fan-club, they were honour-bound to finish thrashing Kunou for all the bad things he had done to her. Hearing that, the crowd of parents from Tomobiki -- Ataru recognized only Shinobu's mother and father -- readily laid into them, wondering what made a narcissist like Kunou more important than their own babies. The shouting match started right then and there.
"Hey, Ataru!"
Ataru looked up, breathing out as Ranma slipped through an open window before making her way to the table. "Hi! Heard the news?"
"Yeah, Miree told me everything." She then blinked as a giant mi-ke cat handed her a cup of tea. "Oh, um . . .! Th-thanks!"
"Ah, sorry," Ataru apologized before doing introductions.
"Pleased to meet you." Ranma shook Kotatsuneko's paw, and then she gazed on the small crowd of people screaming and yelling at each other by the front door. "Man, what the hairy hell's wrong with them?!" she asked, pointing.
"Trying to prioritize who should get rescued first, I think."
"So what's the plan?"
Another groan. "Other than taking something for this headache I've got now? Nothing at all," he confessed as he covered his eyes with his hands. Then, as he pulled them away, he found himself staring at Cherry's face.
"Ominous," the old monk grimly intoned.
A sigh. "Cherry."
"Yes, lad?"
"Get out of my face or get ready to meet the Buddha."
Cherry jolted as the emotion on Ataru's face suddenly faded, leaving behind a steely mask which seemed to fit better on the face of the inhuman monster currently seated beside him. Before he could respond, an invisible fist grabbed him, sending him flying. "Heaven's Gate, monks weren't THAT pushy back home!" Reiko muttered as she took her place at the table.
"You try not to get used to him too much, musume-chan," Ataru noted.
A teary Hinako came up. "Onii-tama, when are we going to get Karen-chan and the others back?" she moaned as she dropped beside him, leaning her head against his arm. He wrapped his arm around her as a light kiss brushed her forehead. "How can that girl be so mean . . .?"
"No one, Hinako, has taken the time to imprint on Elle that kidnapping is a crime even a queen must be held responsible for," Negako noted.
"I'll damn hell imprint SOMETHING on that creep," Ranma snarled, her hands squeezing into fists. "Let's see how Miss Rose Queen likes getting a taste of the Amaguriken or the Kaze-te at point-blank range!"
"We have to be careful, Ranma," Ataru warned.
"Regardless of what we might think of her, she IS a queen."
They exchanged a look, and then Ataru sighed. "True . . . "
Nabiki came up, sitting beside Reiko. She found a cup of tea in hand thanks to Kotatsuneko. "Why aren't you in Nerima?" she asked the cat-ghost, and then she took a sip. Good tea the big guy made. "So what's the plan?"
Ataru nodded towards the shouting crowd behind Nabiki and his daughters. "Hard to conceive of one with all that in the background."
"Right." Nabiki then stood, turning to face the crowd. "Okay! OKAY, people! Let's settle down here!" She clapped her hands.
No response; in fact, the crowd's words seemed to pick up in volume. Hinako sniffed. "I don't think they heard you, Nabiki-san."
Nabiki's eyebrow twitched. In all the time she had used her "ice queen" image, this had NEVER happened. Then again, she really couldn't blame the people from Tomobiki, especially the parents, for acting this way. Taking a big breath, she moved to shout them down, and then she blinked as a hand fell on her shoulder. Looking left, she saw Chikage standing there, a smile on the sorceress' face. Recognizing what the younger woman might have in mind, Nabiki took a step back, waving Chikage into the batter's box. Nodding her thanks, the sorceress then faced the crowd, raising her right hand, her thumb, index and little fingers splayed with the middle and ring fingers tucked in.
Nabiki's jaw hit the floor on seeing a floor-to-ceiling, butterfly-shaped wall of ki appear out of nowhere to slam into the crowd, mowing them down like they were dominos knocked over by a strong wind. As silence fell, Chikage lowered her arm, and then she gazed in amusement at Ataru. "I believe they'll be willing to listen to you now, Ani-kun," she announced.
"Thank you, Chikage-chan." Ataru rubbed his forehead. "So, atop nine of my sisters being kidnapped, everyone in Miyake-san's old class was also taken away? Plus Mendou?" He gazed on one of the Kuromegane, an eyebrow arching. Seeing him shakily nod, Ataru breathed out, "Okay . . . "
"So how can we rescue them?" Ranma wondered.
"Depends on what Elle might actually have in mind," Ataru mused as Marie stepped out of one of the guest bedrooms to join them. "If she knows about Karen-chan and the others, it means she probably had an agent active in Noukiite space when I was helping them put the Urusians down. It was around that time that I was given honorary citizenship in the Dominion, plus was allowed to have everyone registered on the 'Nehek' family registry."
Marie blinked as she sat beside Ranma. "We have Noukiite citizenship?!"
"Hai! Papa needed that when he adopted Kaneko-chan and me." Reiko then turned to Ataru. "Ne, Papa, why would this Elle creep want to marry you? You told us in Sanctuary you never did step on her shadow!" She then shrugged.
"True." Ataru sighed as the crowd by the door slowly stood, many of them shuffling closer. A warning glance from Chikage ensured their good behaviour. "So it'll be hard to determine why Elle would want me." He then rolled his eyes as he added, "Unless it's just out of vanity or pride."
Miyake Kimiki blinked. "'Vanity?!'"
"Hai. After all, I DID defy her when I found out about the Refrigerator of Love. And Lum and her friends did pretty much make sure that we never got married. I don't know everything I'd want to know about Elle, but I do know she's pretty proud. To lose face like that, especially in front of all those alien delegates at the cathedral in Baran . . . "
"How many fiancés has this girl got?" Nabiki asked.
"A hundred thousand."
"A hundred . . .?" -- Nabiki's eyebrow twitched -- "THOUSAND?!"
"Yep. Matter of fact, Mendou would have been her one hundred thousandth 'cute boy' -- that's what she calls all those lifeless dorks frozen up in her refrigerator -- had she been able to freeze him."
Nabiki gaped. "They're cryo-frozen?!"
Ataru nodded, and then he jolted on hearing Hinako sniff. Eyes locked on the youngest sister. "Hina doesn't want Onii-tama to be frozen!"
Ataru rubbed his sister's hair before playfully batting his nose on her forehead. "Who says I'm gonna be frozen, Hinako-chan?"
"So if this chick's got all these guys all stored up like sardines, why waste the time goin' after you?" Takuichi Daikun, leading the delegation from the Horde o'Hentai, wondered. "I mean, pride's an important thing, but . . . "
"Hey, Takuichi, remember Kunou with Ranma?" Daisuke, who had come with Hiroshi in hopes of talking to Ranma, cut in.
Daikun gazed on him. "And this chick's a QUEEN?!"
"Daikun has a point," Negako mused.
"What do you mean, Aneue-sama?" Marie wondered.
"This all might be a test Elle desires to force on Ataru."
"A test?!" Sakura blinked confusedly. "But why?"
"Unless it's got something to do with Noukiios pulling out of the Galactic Federation," Kaneko then spoke up.
"What does that mean?" Miyake Toshoba demanded.
Kaneko reached into her shirt to pull out a circular device akin to the base of a sports trophy. Placing that on the table, she tapped a control to turn the projector on. Her eyes then glowed as she sent a psychic command to the projector's central computer. A three-dimensional local galactic map appeared in the air over the table. The domains of the different powers were shaded in individual colours. A pair of thick, wavy red lines rose up from the bottom of the projection, nearly came together by one star, form a space "bridge" in the direction of a nearby star, and then spread off to the top and right side of the projection. "Where are we?" Kimiki asked.
"There." Reiko pointed at a blinking star, right where the two thick lines first came together. "Everything between the red lines represents member states of the Galactic Federation." She then pointed to the gold space beyond the "bridge," a torrent of scorn appearing in her voice. "Oh, if you all want to know -- much that I can't understand WHY! -- this is Urusian space."
"Who are these guys?" Nabiki indicated the dark green area to the lower right of the projection. "And them?" She indicated the large mass of light blue that took up the upper left of the screen.
"Ipraedies and Zephyrites," Reiko explained, pointing to the dark green area. "The Ipraedies were the Urusians' other big enemies outside us. The dog people managed to make the rest of the Federation hate them, too, but my people don't mind them so much. They're pretty xenophobic, but once you get to understand them more, they're pretty alright."
"And the Zephyrites are the local galactic superpower," Ataru added. "My grandmother dealt with them pretty closely right up to her death; they're the ones who helped the Men in Black get all their special gear."
"And they border this link between our solar system and the start of Urusian space." Sakura pointed to the "bridge." Light blue and dark green flanked both sides of it from one end to the other.
Kimiki nodded. "That explains the First Tag Race! Ataru-kun, were the Ipraedies planning to invade us before the Urusians came?!"
Ataru nodded. "Yes, they were. Reiko-chan, expand the map. Show the whole galactic cluster from us out to Vos and Yehisril."
"Hai." Reiko tapped the projector, her eyes glowing.
The image soon became the upper left quadrant of a much bigger map. The viewers noted that the Galactic Federation states all formed a blobby, flipped-L shape around Ipraedies space. To the "right" of the Ipraedies Empire was a massive field of turquoise. Down "south" from that, touching both Ipraedies and Federation space, was a massive field of bright crimson.
Nabiki pointed. "Who are these guys?"
"The other galactic superpowers." Ataru pointed. "The Confederation of Vos . . . " -- the turquoise -- "And the Royal Kingdoms of Yehisril." -- the red areas. "All of them being enemies of the Ipraedies."
"They're hemmed in on all sides," Onsen grumbled.
"Yeah. Our area of space just happens to be beside the only thin area of 'enemy' territory their space borders." Nabiki indicated the point of light symbolizing Sol. "Unless these guys consider the Zephyrites enemies?"
Her eyes fell back on Ataru, an eyebrow arching. "Not really." Ataru shook his head as he crossed his arms. "Everyone, even the Vosians and the Yehisrites, would have to be totally out of their heads to challenge the Zephyrites head-on in an all-out sort of war. What the Ipraedies want most of all is to see the Federation broken up. Once that happens, their hostility to their neighbours -- save for Yehisril and to a lesser extent, Vos -- could then be dialled back somewhat. And the best break point is here." He pointed to Sol. "Fortunately for them, Uru's defeat makes things a lot easier."
"What about their plans to invade Earth?" Onsen demanded.
"It would now be seen as unnecessary." Ataru stared at Reiko. "Reiko-chan, change the map to show Noukiios out of the Federation, plus the proposed demilitarized area between us and Toshitto."
The map blew up to a close-up of the Earth-Triton area. A small sector of Ipraedies space, it possessing no star systems, switched to jet black, merging with the "bridge" connecting Earth with Urusian space. The Federation's space was severed at this area as the bridge faded from view. "North" of the soft gold area marking Urusian space, an area of emerald green lying alongside Zephyrite space was no longer framed in red lines. A yellow zone appeared to encompass the black zone once part of Ipraedies space, plus the bridge and some sectors of Urusian space, including the star that had been at the "right" end of the "bridge," plus three stars close to Noukiite space.
Sakura pointed to the areas of Urusian space marked as "demilitarized." "Noukiios is going to impose all THIS on Uru?"
Ataru gazed knowingly at her. "They have no choice in the matter."
"So what happens in this area?" Toshoba pointed to the zone in question. "'Demilitarized' means what in this case?!"
"It means that Uru can no longer send ships into this area to ensure 'free trade.'" Ataru smirked. "Which actually meant that any trade from potential 'enemy' states like Ipraedos or the Seifukusu worlds -- and yes, Noukiios -- would be stopped and subject to inspection and seizure by Urusian authorities. This is part of what's led to the famine on Noukiios and her colonies in recent years. Other Federation states -- the big grain and food producers such as Spotak, Zeiwan and Phentax Five -- have tried for years to sell their surplus foodstuffs to Noukiios to help alleviate their crop shortages. But all those states are in the out-spin regions." He pointed to the bottom of the map. "Once the ships got to Neptune and went through the Slot to Toshitto, they then had to face Urusian customs inspection."
"And once they learned the food was going to Noukiios . . . " Nabiki shook her head. "They impounded it, right?"
"Sometimes. Worse, some of the sneakier of the bunch would find ways to spoil the shipment to ensure they couldn't be put to use when they arrived. If Noukiios tried to get food from Ipraedos -- and such shipments have been generously offered in the past given how much the Ipraedies wanted to stick it to the Urusians -- it wouldn't have happened since Federation-wide policy -- policy forced on the others by the Urusians, by the way! -- frowns heavily on any trade with the Empire. The only other recourse for Noukiios would've been to deal with the Zephyrites, but the Holy Republic can only spare so much. And Noukiios would never trade with Uru as long as the Union kept demanding the 'return' of three colony worlds they never had any rights to in the first place." He indicated Okusei and her two sister worlds on the map.
"They were being starved into submission," Sakura concluded.
"Right," Ataru drawled.
"You learned of this while you were working for them?" Cherry asked.
"I hate to say this, but with the way you've described them, Lum's people are a bunch of two-faced HYPOCRITES!" Nabiki snapped.
"Focus that criticism directly on their government, Nabiki-san, not the people," he declared, reminding himself to keep mention of his former fiancée in past tense to maintain the illusion of her "death" to many of the crowd standing in his living room, especially those people from Tomobiki. "Lum would've not stood for any of this, so she was never told about it at all."
Hinako gazed on her brother. "Her papa lied to her, Onii-tama?"
Ataru nodded. "Yep. About a lot of things."
"That's fine and fair, but we've got a more important problem ahead of us. Namely getting everyone away from Elle," Ranma noted.
He spared her a glance, nodding. "True."
"Ne, Papa?"
"What is it, Kaneko-chan?"
"If you need a ship to go after that baka k'uk'e, we have one!"
Ataru blinked, and then he leaned up to his daughter. "You mean . . .?"
"Hai!" Kaneko grinned. "We brought it here with us! It can't do you any good sitting in orbit over Noukiios, can it?!"
"Nani?! Nani?!" Hinako looked at Kaneko, and then at Ataru, and then back to Kaneko again. "What's Kaneko-chan talking about, Onii-tama?!"
"Bring it here!" Ataru ordered as he gently squeezed Hinako's hand.
"Hai!" Kaneko nodded as she reaches into her jersey to draw out a flat, rectangular-shaped computer keypad. Her fingers darted over the keys as she typed out a command code, and then she hit the TRANSMIT button.
"Eh?!" Hinako leaned close to gaze intently on the keyboard. "Is this some new video game, Kaneko-chan? Can Hina play with it?!"
"Don't touch, Hinako-chan," Ataru warned.
"But Hina wants to play with . . .!"
Her voice was cut off as a rumble filled the air, it echoed by a tremor quaking the walls and floorboards. "What the hairy hell's THAT . . .?!" Ranma demanded as she got to her feet, heading to the window just as a shadow masked the early afternoon sun. "What the . . .?!"
Everyone scrambled outside, looking up to stare at the keel of a Noukiite scoutship, it hovering ten metres off the ground! As soon as she got outside, Hinako gushed, "WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAI! ONII-TAMA HAS HIS OWN SPACESHIP!"
"And where exactly DID you get this ship, Ataru-kun?!" Nabiki asked, an amused twinkle in her eyes as her mind filed this new little factoid into the mental file she had been building on Ranma's new boyfriend for the past while.
An embarrassed chuckle escaped him. "Well, after all Onee-chan and I did for Reiko-chan's and Kaneko-chan's people, they felt we DID deserve a reward for our troubles." He indicated Negako with a wave of his hand and a shrug.
Marie contently smiled. "Why, wasn't that nice of them?"
"Indeed, it would offer an excellent view of the stars," Chikage added.
"Hina wants to see Onii-tama's spaceship!" Hinako grabbed Ataru's hand as she moved to drag him to the waiting ship so she could look around. "Hina KNOWS there'll be lots and lots and LOTS of nice things for Hina to play with! C'mon, Onii-tama! Hina wants to see the spaceship!"
"Hey! Hey! HEY! Slow down, Hinako-chan!" Ataru tried to yank his hand away from his sister's determined grip. "We can't go yet!"
"But Hina wants to see Onii-tama's spaceship!"
Sensing their youngest aunt about to throw a fit, Reiko and Kaneko exchanged a look and a giggle before they dove in to rescue their hapless father. "It's okay, Papa! We'll take Auntie Hinako aboard!" the former promised as she and her sister guided Hinako away from Ataru.
"Waaaaaaaai! Hina's gonna see Onii-tama's spaceship!" Hinako gushed as the Noukiite twins telekinetically boosted their aunt into the air for the starship's weather deck aft of the main solar sail mast.
Marie covered her mouth. "Aniue-sama, Rinrin-chan is going to KILL you for keeping this a secret from her."
He chuckled. "Well, I only got the Windrider the day I finished work on Noukiios! That was just before I went to Sanctuary for a whole week!" He waved his hand. "'Sides, there's no dock for me to park the thing anywhere on Earth! And I wasn't going to just plop it down anywhere, for heaven's sake!"
Marie blinked. "Maybe we can build a spaceship dock on the seashore beside Welcome House. I'm sure the people on the Island won't mind." She then gazed up, noting the solid metal hull lacking any sort of visible access hatches below what could easily serve as the Windrider's waterline. "After all, your ship does look like it can land on water."
"A good point to consider," Chikage noted. "Now all we have to do is decide who'll come with us to help rescue the others."
Everyone blinked on sensing a large crowd of students, plus Sakura, Cherry and Onsen, loom over them. "WE'LL COME WITH . . .!"
One ki blast later, the crowd of idi- . . .! -- er, would-be rescuers! -- was smashed against the fence. "Thank you, Ranma." Ataru took a breath before he gazed on Nabiki. "Nabiki-san, please call your brother. You'll both come with us. Ditto with Miree and her daughters, plus Himiko-san and Mikiko-san if they're interested in helping out."
"ME?!" Nabiki balked. "Hey, wait a minute! I don't . . .!"
"I can trust you, Nabiki-san!" Ataru stared knowingly at her before he thumbed the crowd of people Ranma just blasted with the Mooko Takabisha. "Do you really, honestly think I can trust any of THEM?!"
Silence fell as the middle Tendou daughter considered his words. "Ataru-kun . . . " She flustered before nodding. "Oh, okay!"
"Relax, Nabiki-chan." Ranma winked. "If you want to be a full-time martial artist again, you HAVE to go on these jaunts!"
Nabiki gazed at her, her body quaking. "You just HAD to remind me of that, didn't you, Saotome?" she muttered.
Everyone laughed.
* * *
"So what's a Noukiite ship doing hovering over Nerima, Seiko-chan?!"
Seiko hummed as she, Sakiko, Ten and the four replica-bioroids who brought him to Earth relax in Tomobiki's town park. They had come here to enjoy a take-out lunch after finishing business with the SCAA downtown. From here, they had seen the sleek Noukiite ship soar down swiftly from the general direction of Siberia, it coming to a stop over the central part of Nerima. Despite the ship's size -- it was about the length of the average jumbo jet -- it stood out clearly in the afternoon sky due to the lack of tall buildings in the skyline between Tomobiki and Nerima. "I'm not too sure." Seiko's eyes narrowed as she focused her powers on the hovering ship. "Unless . . . "
Her hearing picked up the murmurs of several boys walking past the main gates. "Can you guys believe they cancelled classes 'cause the idiots in 3-4 got kidnapped by that queen who wanted to marry Ataru?" one of them wondered over the derisive laughter of his friends.
Seiko spun around, her eyes widening on seeing a small crowd of students in the Tomobiki High boy's uniform walk past the gates. "Heard Mendou got snatched," another noted as they headed down a side street. "Let's hope that queen'll keep the snob with her when she lets the others go!"
"Amen to that, bro'!" a third whooped.
"'Queen?!'" Seiko blinked as she exchanged a look with Sakiko.
* * *
"Bless you, Your Majesty! Are you alright?!"
A handkerchief was offered to the Rose Queen. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you." She wiped her nose, and then she gazed on the deckhead for a moment before they carried on. "Have the dockyard maintenance staff look at the air-freshener units. There must be something in the atmosphere . . . "
"Of course, Your Majesty. It will be done as soon," her chief servant replied with a nod as the small party passed through the door leading to the balcony overlooking the containment area holding Ataru's former classmates.
And one other.
Guess which one of Chikage's shiatsu strikes had just worn off?
"Kunou-san, please calm down! There is an explanation . . .!"
"I don't think he's listening to you, Mendou-san."
"Jerk probably doesn't get tired of listening to his voice, ne?!"
"Got that right, man!"
"How does this guy know Ataru-kun?"
"'Violet One?!'"
"Ne, Tomomi-chan! You think he's talking about Chikage-san?!"
"Hard to say . . . "
"I guess he IS talking about Chikage-san, Kyooko-chan!"
"Um, Shinobu-san. Is he trying to insult Ataru-kun?!"
"I think so."
"Right . . . "
"V-v-violet one . . .!"
Body dropped to the deck. "Mie-san! Why did you do THAT to him?!"
"He was giving me an earache with his yelling! 'Sides, I don't think Ataru-kun would appreciate being insulted behind his back!"
"Ye gods! Is it POSSIBLE . . .?!"
"That someone . . .!"
"Actually LIKES Moroboshi Ataru?!"
Dramatic pause.
Running footsteps, and then one man's hands grasped a woman's.
"Mie-san! You must not think of pursuing Moroboshi . . .!"
Multiple thuds! as many women fainted, overwhelmed by shock on seeing Mendou punched head-first THROUGH the containment area's deck.
"Damned jerk! Who gave him the right to touch me there?!"
"He DID kinda deserve that, didn't he?!"
"I can agree to that!"
Stunned silence.
"Did you see that?"
"Ye gods! You mean there's actually a girl . . .?"
"Who's IMMUNE to Mendou?!"
Dramatic pause.
"Hey, wait a minute! She still likes Moroboshi!"
Another pause.
Most of the boys from Shinobu's class collapsed en masse to the deck, wailing at the heavens for cursing them with the presence of a young woman like Seikou Mie. Above, Elle's eyebrow twitched as her mind tried to take in what she just witnessed, and then she gazed on one of her aides. "I think I can now understand why Honey wanted to leave these people," she noted with a chuckle.
"Agreed," the aide said. "Shall I have Mr. Groom's sisters brought here so they can see these fools for themselves?"
"At once."
"By your command, Your Majesty."
* * *
"This is your room, Auntie Hinako."
"Waaaai!" Hinako breathed out as she walked into a small cabin located on the same deck as the Windrider's pilotage. Looking around to take in the room -- it was fitted with a bed, nightstand and a large closet space, arranged not so differently from Hinako's bedroom at Welcome House -- the youngest of the sisters nodded. "Hina likes this place!" She then noted a side door situated next to the closet. Walking to it, she opened the door, looking beyond to find a Western-style washroom. "Oh, Hina even has her own bathroom on Onii-tama's ship!" she declared before turning to gaze on Reiko and Kaneko. "Ne, ne, Reiko-chan, Kaneko-chan, how soon can we get going?"
"We're going to go to the bridge to get things set up," Kaneko announced.
With that, the twins withdrew, Reiko closing the door behind her. Hinako watched her go, and then she sighed, staring at the Staff of Gihan in her hand. "Bou-san, do you think we should tell Lufy-san and her friends what happened?"
It would be a wise idea, the Staff replied. Given the Daishi'cha's own feelings for your brother, they would be concerned.
"Okay, let's go!"
A flash of light later, Hinako's room was empty.
* * *
Chikage had found her own cabin aboard the Windrider by simple deduction; the doors to each of the cabins on the main deck level had name plaques. Standing up after she slipped the dozing Tendou Akane under the covers of the comfortable bed there, the sorceress gazed in the general direction of Hinako's cabin. Her eyes then narrowed as she quickly perceived the small space-warp that had teleported Hinako off the barque.
"Hinako-chan . . . "
* * *
"The Rose Emperor is gone?!"
"Yes, Linna. It left orbit about a half-hour ago according to the decay of ion particles. The trail leads from Earth toward the Slot," Sylvie reported after looking up from the Kiboo'cha's main scanner display.
Presently sitting in the warpsloop's command chair, Linna hummed as she took in that information. Before she could postulate what she should do next, a blinding flash of light nearly burned the eyes out of everyone on the bridge. "Lufy-saaaaaaaaaaaan!" Hinako screamed out as she materialized on the Kiboo'cha's bridge. Then, when the light faded, she looked around. "A-ri-ri?! Where's Lufy-san, Linna-san?!" she asked.
"Hinako-chan!" the chief of Section One gasped as her subordinates leapt to their feet to salute Ataru's sister.
"Hinako-sama?!" a voice called out from behind Hinako as Sylia stepped onto the bridge, she followed by Priss, Nene and Ayumu. "What in Lyna's name are you doing here?! We told you we would contact you when it was decided to open contact with your brother . . .!"
"Hina knows that!" Hinako cut her off with a wave of her hands. "It's terrible, Sylia-san! It's terrible!"
"What?!" Priss demanded.
Hinako told them. "SAY WHAT?!" everyone else screamed.
"It's true!" Hinako whined. "That baka-baka Elle kidnapped Karen-chan and the others to make Onii-tama marry her!"
Silence fell as eyes focused on Sylia. The Troop commander's brow furrowed as she considered the options she could take in the wake of this. Taking a deep breath, she then turned to gaze on Priss and Nene. "Priss, Nene, do you think we can handle a hostage situation like this?"
The first officer and the coxswain exchanged a wary look. "We can't," the former then said with a regretful shake of her head. "We're nowhere near trained to deal with a situation like that. You know that! We're a special warfare force, Sylia. Not the Hostage Rescue Team."
"I don't think the HRT will be able to help out," the latter added.
"Agreed," Sylia breathed out.
A snap of the fingers. "Ah! Game winning auction wager!"
Eyes locked on Ayumu. "Ayumu-chan, you're supposed to say 'game winning home run!'" Hinako protested.
The master chief petty officer of the Sagussan Navy gazed at her. "But we don't play baseball on Sagussa, Hinako-chan."
"What do you have in mind?" Nene asked in exasperation.
"Simple!" Ayumu replied with a smile. "This is kidnapping, right?! Why don't we have Tomo deal with this?!"
The other Sagussans recoiled in shock as the implications of THAT idea sank in. "You CAN'T be serious!" Priss exclaimed.
"There won't be anything left of any of them once Tomo gets through with them!" Linna protested, she grabbing her hair and yanking on it.
"Left of what?!"
Everyone screamed as a shaggy raven-haired, brown-eyed, Yizibajohei-born woman in the black-and-dark blue of the Internal Security Force stepped onto the bridge. The four pips-and-windrider rank insignia of the SISF's senior non-commissioned officer adorned Tomo's collars. Behind Tomo came a brown-haired and eyed, bespectacled, Yehisrite-born woman with a spatula-and-knife tattoo on her cheek. Koyomi was draped in a gold-trimmed red coverall jumpsuit with dark brown leggings; this was the work uniform of members of the Engineering Ministry who were formally trained as construction engineers.
"When did you get here?!" Priss snapped.
"Just now!" Tomo innocently replied.
"Ah! Tomo, you're here!" Ayumu breathed out. "It's terrible, Tomo! It's so terrible! Ataru-sama's sisters were just kidnapped!"
Tomo jolted. "KIDNAPPED?! When?! By who?!"
"By that baka-baka creep Elle!" Hinako cried out.
Koyomi blinked as something came to her. "Oh, so that explains what that patrol monitor was doing heading towards Toshitto!"
"Eh?!" Tomo gasped as she spun to look on her bond-mate. "You mean we let criminals actually get past us?!" she demanded before grabbing Koyomi by the arm and dragging her off the bridge toward the "Kiboo'cha's" transporter room. "We're off in hot pursuit!" she then bellowed.
Koyomi cried out as she found herself being yanked through the air by Tomo. The members of Pathfinder Troop Six watched helplessly as the two other Sagussans vanished around a corner. Ayumu then stared at Hinako. "There you go, Hinako-chan!" she assured her with a raised hand. "Tomo's on the case! Karen-chan and the others are as good as rescued!"
"Yay!" Hinako cheered.
Sylia reached up to her forehead. Dear Lyna, I beseech thee: Why me?!
* * *
"Darling, that's horrible!"
"Tell me about it," Ataru complained as Hensou and Kamen wrapped their arms around him in a supportive hug. The Izumo sisters and their companions had just arrived at the old shrine. Many of those who had come to speak to Ataru concerning the kidnappings had left, the parents from Tomobiki having being given personal assurances their children would be rescued within the day. Miree, Jonna, Orin -- plus Kawamura Himiko and Serizawa Mikiko, neither of whom had been seen by any of the people from their hometown -- had already boarded the solar-sail barque to help Reiko and Kaneko with preparations. "No doubt, Elle must've had someone operating in Noukiite space when I was working with them." Ataru paused for a moment before continuing, "Seven Bake Rose would be my first guess on that regard; from what I learned from the Inquisition about her, she is good at what she does. After my family was added to the Dominion Family Registry when I adopted Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan, it would've been simple for someone to tap into it and get the skinny on everyone else."
"Darling, do you think you can rescue the others?" Sakiko asked.
He considered that for a moment. "It should be easy enough, especially with Hinako-chan and the Staff on our side."
"Too bad we couldn't call Nassur-chan and ask for his help," Ten, who was being held in Seiko's arms, mused.
"Hey, you got the next best thing, Ten-chan," Kamen then spoke up as she thumbed herself. "You got us! We can handle this!"
Ataru, the Izumos and Ten gazed on the four bioroids, all of whom had smiled at Kamen's assertion. Seeing the casual pride flashing in their eyes concerning their connection with the expat Vosian, Ataru slowly nodded. Despite his assertion to his old classmates the previous Saturday that he personally never wanted to meet the man, Ataru had -- while he was working with the Noukiites and the Zephyrites -- learned a lot about Nassur's reputation. It was quite solid. "Well, if you ladies would like to help us . . . "
His eyebrow arched. The replica-bioroids laughed. "Of course we'll help, Darling!" Hensou said. "After all, they ARE your sisters!"
"Quite cute ones at that," Damasu added.
Mienai gazed intently at Ran's replica. "Flirt!"
"Hey, I can look, can I?!" Damasu whined as she ducked away from the intensive stare Oyuki's replica was sending her.
Laughter shook the crowd before a voice spoke up, "We'll have to give these girls a proper reward for their assistance, Ani-kun."
The replica-bioroids gasped as they spun around to see Chikage standing there, the sorceress gazing amusedly at them. "Hey, Chikage-chan, did you train under Nagaiwakai-sama's ninjas or what's the damned story?" Kamen asked.
"I've had much more eclectic training, Kamen-chan," Chikage explained to Benten's replica, and then she stared at Ataru, her eyebrow arching in amusement. "So what sort of reward would you girls desire? A night of blissful snogging and shagging (as Yotsuba would put it) with Ani-kun?!"
As Ranma and Marie walked up to join the crowd under the Windrider, they trailed by Sakura, Cherry, Nabiki and Shinshi, Ataru acked as he took a fearful step away from the four Avalonians in question as they turned to stare leeringly at him. Seiko and Sakiko snickered on seeing him react THAT way to Chikage's suggestion, not to mention the replica-bioroids' receptive looks. "I'd go for it," Hensou answered with a predatory grin on her face.
"That sounds like a good idea!" Kamen added.
"What idea?" Ranma asked.
"Why, we giving Darling the time of his life, Ranma-san!" Mienai cooed. "And since we can sense that you ARE bonded to him . . . "
"The more the merrier!" Damasu finished.
"URK!" Ataru and Ranma acked in sync.
More laughter. Shinshi and Nabiki toppled over on seeing their late sister's former fiancé react as she did to THIS aspect of puberty. "Ye gods, I can't believe it!" Sakura sighed, she shaking her head in disappointment. "There are actually MORE girls who're interested in Moroboshi?!"
The laughter came to a stop with the speed of a falling guillotine blade as four sets of eyes locked on the priestess. "Who wants to do this?" Hensou asked as her body flashed with the bio-electricity she inherited from Lum.
"I'm in," Kamen asserted as she cracked her knuckles.
The air around Mienai began to chill. "I think we need some practice."
Sakura blinked, and then she jolted as Ataru and Ranma quickly cleared the field of fire. "Be our guest!" Ataru declared.
A few seconds' intense violence later, the burnt, bruised, frozen and youth-sucked priestess was sent on a ballistic trajectory back towards her shrine in Tomobiki. "Now THAT, she had coming to her!" Seiko asserted as they watched Sakura disappear into the afternoon sky.
"Nice moves," Ranma said. "Need to work on your follow-throughs."
The replica-bioroids stared at her. "You think so?" Kamen asked.
"Sure! When we get back from this trip, I'll show you some things."
"Sounds fair," Hensou asserted as she walked over to slip one of her arms around one of Ranma's. "Shall we go aboard, Ranma-san?"
Ranma nodded, and then the disguised Oni/Avalonian boosted her into the air for the Windrider's weather deck. Sakiko then used her powers to boost Damasu, Kamen, Mienai, the Tendou siblings and herself aboard. "Can I come, Seiko-chan?" Ten asked as he stared at his transformed cousin.
Seiko and Ataru exchanged a look before both shook their heads. "It's better if you stayed with Negako-san," the former asserted as Marie, Michael and Negako walked up to join them. "Darling's daughters are going to be on this trip and they KNOW what you once were."
Ten jolted before a sad look crossed his face. Even if his just-acquired Avalonian powers were beginning to awaken, he had sensed enough of Reiko and Kaneko to know how the Noukiite twins viewed Urusians in general. "Yeah, that's true . . . " he lamented with a frown.
"He will be safe with me," Negako declared as she held out her arms for him. "Besides, I believe there is a young lady who would be more than happy to see Ten while you are off to retrieve the others." On sensing Ten stare wide-eyed at her, the ninjutsu grandmaster added, "Modoki Mako."
Ten jolted, his eyes going wide on hearing the name of the kindergarten-age girl who, shortly after he came to Earth, once tried to force Valentine's Day candy on him and -- as she believed -- make the young Oni her "husband." Screaming out in wide-eyed fear, he leapt into Chikage's arms, reaching over to draw the sorceress' cape around him to hide him from Negako's view. "NO WAY!"
"I suggest you change your viewpoint concerning Mako," Negako declared. "After the news of Lum's 'demise' was aired on the public news networks, Mako came to fear the worst about you. Her feelings of over-possessiveness where it concerns you have evaporated since that time."
Ten peeked out from behind the flap of Chikage's cape. "Really . . .?"
"It is true," Negako asserted with a nod. "In fact, from what I have sensed about her, Mako's depression has grown to the point where it may come to harm her physically. A visit from you would do much to restore her spirits."
The young Oni-turned-Terran/Avalonian considered those words before he breathed out. Slipping out from behind Chikage's cape, he leapt to the ground and walked over to stand beside Negako. The ninjutsu grandmaster leaned down to boost Ten into her arms. "Ten-chan, you make sure you keep an eye on Michael while we're gone, too," Marie told him, holding up a finger.
"Hai!" Ten affirmed with a nod, Michael barking in acknowledgement.
"We'll be back before you know it!" Seiko asserted as she reached for Marie's hand. "Marie-chan?!" she beckoned the other girl with her.
Marie nodded before she found herself boosted into the air by Seiko's telekinesis, both soaring for the Windrider's weather deck. "Shall we go?" Ataru then said as he gazed knowingly at Chikage.
Before she could answer, a shrieking noise caused everyone to glance up. Soaring away from the Windrider towards Tomobiki was a smoking Cherry, having just received a demonstration of the Staff of Gihan's power. "GET LOST, YOU CREEP!" Hinako -- she having just returned moments before from her meeting with the Sagussans -- screamed. "OR HINA'S GONNA GET REALLY, REALLY, REALLY MAD!"
"It's Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate!" echoed throughout the afternoon sky.
Those still on the ground below the Windrider's keel blinked. "That, he DEFINITELY had coming to him!" Ataru asserted.
"Indeed," Negako affirmed with a smirk.
* * *
"You want to know something, my friend?" Ono Toofuu mused from the front porch of his clinic, a delighted grin twitching the sides of his mouth. "Maybe giving that thing to Hinako-chan wasn't such a bad idea in the first place."
[INDEED!] the panda signed.
Yes, folks! Even people in Nerima had heard of Cherry.
* * *
"Papa, the ship's sealed for space flight!"
"Waai!" Hinako gushed as everyone stepped on the Windrider's pilotage.
"What a set-up!" Nabiki stated before she noted the kanji and kana etched into the backs of every chair there, each underlined with the han'geul-like symbols representing the Noukiite language. "I take it you had this ship built with your sisters AND your daughters in mind?" she then asked as she gazed knowingly at Ataru, her eyebrow arching in amusement.
Ataru scratched his hair, chuckling embarrassingly. "Well . . .!"
The others laughed. The Windrider's pilotage was structured akin to how most university large lecture rooms were set up. The main view screen was located forward. It was flanked on both sides with small control station lecterns. Three rows of work stations ascended a step at a time to the main entrance to the pilotage, that opening to the corridor that eventually led to the master's and commander's cabins at the aft end of the barque's main deck. A half-circle stuck out forward from the second row of stations; this was where Reiko and Kaneko had positioned themselves. A central chair sat behind the twins' stations, it marked with the kanji for "Ani" on the back of the chair. Standing monitor stations and side exits lined both sides of the pilotage.
"So where do we all sit, Darling?" Seiko asked.
"Marie-chan, you're there." He pointed to the far portside station on the third row. "Chikage-chan, you're there." He indicated the near starboard station on the second row. "Hinako-chan, you're down front." He indicated the near port station on the first row. "Shinshi, you take Yotsuba's spot." He indicated the far starboard station on the second row. "Nabiki-san, take Rinrin's spot." He indicated the near starboard spot on the third row. "Mikiko-san, you take Sakuya's seat beside her. Himiko-san, you go here." He indicated Haruka's spot, the far port seat on the second row. "Seiko-chan, take Karen's place." He indicated the seat between his and Haruka's. "Sakiko-chan, sit beside Hinako-chan." He indicated Kaho's spot, the far portside seat on the first row. "Girls, you go to the spots by the view screen." He waved Jonna and Orin forward, and then he pointed to Shirayuki's space beside Marie's. "Miree-san, go there. And for you four . . . "
He faced the replica-bioroids. "We'll take the side stations, Darling," Hensou -- she having taken the name "Nomade Shinobi" in partial tribute to the time Lum disguised herself to date Ataru -- said with an understanding nod.
Ataru nodded as people sat down. "Thanks."
"Who's piloting this thing, anyway?" Nabiki wondered.
Reiko waved her hand. "I am! Where to, Papa?!"
"Hina wants to fly Onii-tama's spaceship!" Hinako protested.
"Hinako-sama, do you know HOW to pilot Ataru-sama's ship?" Jonna wondered as she turned to gaze amusedly on the youngest sister.
"Hina . . .!" Hinako stopped herself as she flustered. "N-not really."
Ataru sat at his chair. "Oh, relax, Hinako-chan! You'll all get the chance to fly her as soon as we get everyone else back . . .!"
Everyone stared on Chikage. The sorceress' crystal ball was sitting on a holder, presently showing the image of the Rose Emperor in warp. "I believe they've left the system," she reported as she stared narrow-eyed at the image. "Heading into a very dark and remote area of local space . . . "
Nabiki gaped. "You're able to see THAT through your crystal ball?!"
"Confirmed!" Kaneko called out as she gazed on her sensor readout. "The sensors've picked up an ion trail heading in the direction of the Slot, Papa! Isotopes detected are consistent with the warp drive of an Ellsian ship."
"She's trying to drag you back to planet Elle, Darling," Seiko warned.
"Then we play along," Ataru grunted. "Pursuit course, Reiko-chan."
Reiko tapped controls. "Hai!"
"Um, Ataru?"
Ataru gazed on Ranma. "Where do I sit?" the latter demanded.
In answer, Kaneko pointed with her hand as she telekinetically boosted her into Ataru's lap. "You sit with Papa, Mama!"
Ranma's face flushed as she sank into Ataru's lap, the embarrassment of being seen so close to her new boyfriend in front of over a dozen witnesses preventing her from making an objection. Seeing her flustering, Nabiki broke out in a peal of giggles. She was soon joined by Shinshi, and then Miree and her daughters. An envious look crossed Seiko's face before she, too, started to laugh. Soon enough, everyone was laughing, even Ataru. Ranma ducked their looks with a chuckle, she rubbing the back of her head.
* * *
Kasumi smiled, she on the porch of the Tendou home, as she watched the Windrider soar away. "My, what a beautiful spaceship."
* * *
"You think they're gonna be okay, Ku-chan?!" Ukyou wondered.
The chef, Ranma's mirror-twins, Shampoo, Kodachi and Mousse relaxed in Hikarigaoka Park as they watched Ataru's ship race off. "Yeah, they'll be fine." Kumiko had an arm wrapped around Ukyou. "It's this Elle who has to watch out. For both Ataru-kun AND Ranma . . .!"
Toshiko snickered knowingly. "Agreed."
* * *
"Good luck, Ataru," Inu Chigaiko said as she watched the Windrider soar from Nerima. The expat Tomobiki native was with Tokoro Yuka and Asano Sayuri by Yamada Fred's yatai in a different part of Hikarigaoka.
"Bring them back safe and sound," Yuka added.
* * *
"Sylia, the Windrider is entering the thermosphere over Tokyo. She's moving to pursue the Rose Emperor," Nene announced.
"Distance between her and the bioroid factory?" Sylia asked.
Nene stared at the sensory readout. The Kiboo'cha was at action stations; it was currently over the Moon's north pole. The warpsloop was still cloaked; when it had been built, it was fitted with a more advanced device than what the Avalon factory ship possessed. The tactical display on the view screen was projecting a graphic of orbital space over Japan's capital city. "She'll clear the factory by at least 600 kilometres; Nerima's to the east of Tomobiki and the factory's only now shifting back to where it had first assumed orbit when it came here from Phentax Twelve," the coxswain reported. "The Windrider's now out of range of the factory's weapons systems. But it's a fair bet that they were spotted by whoever's aboard the factory."
A scowl turned her lips. "We'll have to do something about that, then."
"Already working on it," Nene asserted with a wink.
"You always are," Priss said from her station.
Everyone else laughed.
* * *
"Confirmed, Mister President." Otako turned to gaze on Oogi. "According to its ID beacon, that craft is the ISS/C Windrider, home-ported at Magairu. Registered to Moroboshi Ataru of Japan, Earth. It . . . " She paused for a moment. "It was awarded to him by the Noukiite government in thanks for his assistance in their dealing with the Urusians, Mister President!"
Oogi remained still as he digested that information. He then shuddered, a fist quaking at the view screen as he gazed at the Windrider's image; the solar-sail ship had just warped out. "A REWARD for destroying the Goddess and Her Faithful, you say?!" he snarled. "Fine! We'll destroy it when it returns and eliminate the Great Evil once and for all!"
His maniacal laughter then echoed throughout the factory.
* * *
Akane's eyes opened.
Taking a breath, she sat up, glancing around the darkened space. From what she could pick out in the faint light, the room appeared to be about the same size as Hinako's room at Welcome House. The absence of any of Hinako's toys dispelled any thoughts of her actually being in Welcome House, though. Gently swinging her legs out onto the floor, she gingerly stood to stretch herself. Gazing down at herself, she traced a hand over her breasts and abdomen before feeling her arms and face. "Wow . . . " She then closed her eyes as a storm of thoughts and images formed in her mind, relaying information she never possessed before. Once that was done, she sat back on the bed.
"So . . . "
The lamp on the nightstand beside the bed flicked on, illuminating the space. Akane winced as her eyes adjusted to the light. She noticed a folded note on the nightstand, her name in beautifully scripted hiragana there.
Opening it, she read:
By the time you awaken, you'll find yourself aboard Ani-kun's starship, the Windrider. Please, do not be alarmed. Shinshi and Nabiki are aboard at this time, as are several other Avalonians such as Miree, her daughters, Himiko and Mikiko, not to mention Ranma-anekun and Ani-kun. While you were undergoing insertion into your new body, an old acquaintance of Ani-kun's decided to abscond with most of our sisters; only Negako-anekun, Marie, Hinako and myself were left. We're now in pursuit and should get them back within the hour.
Rest up as much as you can; you still need time to adjust to your body. You may be needed. As soon as I can, I'll look in on you.
"Starship . . .?" Akane whispered. Then noting a curtained window overlooking the bed, she shifted over to pull the fabric back.
"Oh, my!"
* * *
"There she is!" Koyomi announced with an icy grimace.
The construction chief engineer artificer's personal craft, RSS/C Haengge'cha, was a modified two-man warp courier ship about the same size as the Kiboo'cha. It was one of dozens of such vessels that had been found by the Sagussans ten years before over a dead Class D planet near Spotak named Den'sha Two. Having been extensively modified by Koyomi on her spare time, the Haengge'cha was considered one of the fastest ships based on that reborn world outside the Galactic Barrier. Even so, given how slow ships from the races inside the Barrier were in comparison to anything from Sagussa, Koyomi didn't really have to push it to get her bond-mate close to the Rose Emperor.
As she manipulated controls to allow the Haengge'cha to parallel the Ellsian patrol monitor, Koyomi smirked. "No shields up," she reported after taking a glance at the scanner readouts. "Lucky thing I put those particle mufflers on this thing. Even cloaked, we could be spotted by all the tachytron energy emissions our reactors and engines put out." She glanced over her shoulder at Tomo. "You set to go?"
The master chief warrant officer of the Sagussan Internal Security Force took a breath as she finished buttoning her shirt. On Koyomi's suggestion, Tomo had switched from her duty uniform to plain Terran Western-type civilians. "Even if this is an undercover mission, I've never done something like this before," she asserted. "Do you think we still have time to call in the HRT?"
"They're not trained to handle a situation like this, especially when military personnel are involved," Koyomi replied, she trying not to smirk at Tomo's show of nerves. She had long learned that her bond-mate, while always willing to project a mask of steely determination when in the presence of other people, was still human underneath. It was a good thing, the Pirpirsiw'r mused as she began an internal scan of the Rose Emperor in hopes of locating Ataru's sisters and the other hostages. Cautious warriors, warriors willing to question anything and everything about missions assigned to them, were often the ones who survived to tell the tale afterward. "You can do it. Don't go totally hog-wild. When hostages are involved, you've got to be VERY careful."
"I hear you," Tomo asserted as she picked up a web-belt holding three personal defence pistols, she moving to strap that around her waist. Once that was done, she stood beside her bond-mate. "Where could I go in, anyway?"
Koyomi's eyes danced over the display showing the interior of the Rose Emperor. "Okay . . .! Ah, there they are!" She tapped a point in the lower hull amidships. "Terran life-sign readings. That's where Ataru-sama's old classmates are being held, no doubt. And . . . " Her smile widened as the fingertip shifted left slightly. "There're Ataru-sama's sisters. On the move by the looks of things. No doubt, they're being shifted over to keep them close to the other prisoners. Now, let's find out what's around there . . . "
She tapped controls. Tomo watched as another hologram appeared by the first, revealing an Intelligence Ministry data file on the internal structure of an Ellsian patrol monitor. "Enlisted crew quarters," she announced, pointing to rows of cabins close to the chamber where Ataru's old classmates were being held on the Rose Emperor. "Beam in there, get a change of clothes, then move in to deal with whoever's guarding Ataru-sama's sisters and everyone else. Once you're there, I'll beam you all out."
"Can the transporter do that?" Tomo then asked. "You were gonna replace the pattern buffer before we came out here."
"It should be okay." Koyomi then sighed. "I hope."
* * *
"Aniue-sama, you didn't tell us there were other people aboard this ship." Marie gazed quizzically at Ataru. "Who are they?!"
The sisters, Ranma and Ataru were standing in what served as the main engineering control space aboard the Windrider: The solar sail control room. Currently manning the stations that governed the winches, pulleys and feeds that gave the sail-barque her power was a team of golden-skinned men and women in utilitarian jumpsuits. All of them had given Ataru respectful nods when he had stepped into the room with his companions, and then they returned to their duties. "Well, Marie-chan, they're . . .!" He flustered.
Eyes locked on Chikage. "Robots?!" Ranma then peered intently at the crew. "Yeah, they are machines, aren't they . . .?"
"The Noukiites purchased them from the Zeiwanites when I told them I didn't want a volunteer crew assigned to my ship," Ataru elaborated as he stated at his companions. "You just wouldn't BELIEVE the number of people ready to drop everything just to serve as crew on a ship I might not put to much use, even if the Special Committee DOES permit me to dock her on Earth!"
"Rinrin-chan's going to be BESIDE herself when she finds out about them," Marie said with a chuckle, covering her mouth politely as she gazed on her siblings. "Could you imagine how fast she'll finish up her work on Mecha-Rinrin-chan when she gets a chance to examine them?"
Chikage scratched her chin thoughtfully. "Much less what she might do if Sakuya persuades her to create a 'Mecha-Anikun?'"
Ranma blinked. "'Mecha-Anikun?!'"
Ataru flustered even more. "That was a little idea Sakuya-chan came up with when Rinrin-chan first told us about Mecha-Rinrin."
"Hina remembers when Sakuya-chan tried to play Mecha-Sakuya-chan!"
"Hinako-chan, DON'T remind me of that!" Ataru yelped.
Hinako snickered. "Bad?" Ranma asked.
Ataru returned her look. "What do you think?"
* * *
"Bless you, Sakuya-chan! Are you alright?!"
"Ugh!" Sakuya wiped her nose before she nodded assuredly at Karen. "Yeah, I'm fine! Someone must be talking about me."
Shirayuki fretted. "Hopefully, it's Nii-sama."
Haruka nodded. "I hope so, too."
The sisters were being marched through the halls of the Rose Emperor by a platoon of heavily armed guards. Two of the maids assigned to them kept Aria and Kaho company. Seeing the fearful looks on her sisters' faces, Sakuya tried not to scream out in rage. DAMN that loony bitch! Who the hell gave her the right to frighten them to their wits' end just to try to woo Onii-sama?!
One of the guards stopped by a door to open it. "Here."
They were led through the door, finding themselves on the balcony overlooking Elle's other prisoners. Quick to recognize some of the jerks Onii-sama once went to school with, Sakuya's heart sank on seeing Yoshino Tomomi and Ikusawa Kyooko in the crowd. When we get out of this, we DEFINITELY try to persuade them to come to the Island! Sakuya mused to herself. They certainly don't deserve to spend any time with THESE nuts!
"Ah, ladies, there you are! How nice of you to join us!"
They gazed right as a white-caped, green-eyed redhead with a white-and-silver headband stepped towards them. Gazing at Elle, Sakuya tried not to whistle in admiration. Damn, after seeing her in the flesh, she could understand why those idiots in the Rose Queen's refrigerator could fall for someone like this! "Queen Elle, I presume," Sakuya hailed, the other sisters massing in a group behind her. "So what's the idea? You realize the instant Onii-sama finds out that you've taken us away, he'll come rescue us!"
The other prisoners, including a recently recovered Mendou Shuutarou, were staring wide-eyed at the group of nine young women who had just joined Elle on the balcony. Kunou Tatewaki was still unconscious on the deck, being closely monitored by Tomomi, Kyooko and Sawada Minako. Those from Tomobiki who had not learned of Ataru's sisters before -- not to mention those who hadn't known how MANY sisters Ataru had these days -- were whispering to each other. Listening to what was being said by some of the boys close by, Miyake Shinobu could only shake her head in disgust. If Ataru DID come soon to rescue his sisters, things could get very ugly. VERY quickly.
Little did she realize how right she would be.
"Oh, I'm sure Honey WILL come after you girls." Elle then tittered, the gleam in her eyes lacking any mirth whatsoever. "As to his actually going all the way to rescuing you, that'll be a different story, I assure you."
"Why?" Karen demanded. "Onii-chan never stepped on your shadow when you played your shadow-tag game! He has no right to pursue a marriage . . . "
"Not that Aniki'd want to marry a girl who loves dipping all her boyfriends into cryo-tubes!" Rinrin snarled.
Elle jolted, gazing confusedly at the sisters for a moment before her eyes widened. "Why . . .?" she whined, a flash of real pain appearing in her emerald eyes. "Do you think I'd put Honey into my Refrigerator . . .?"
"The evidence stands against you, Your Majesty," Haruka icily noted, her eyes narrowing. "Much that it is something of a tradition for any ruling elite to possess their own harems to see to their intimate needs, the fact that you deliberately keep yours under such inhuman restraints . . .!"
"I KEEP THEM WHOLE AND PURE!" Elle shrieked, the force of her assertion making the sisters balk away from her. "I freeze them to ensure their love for me is preserved, kept as fresh, as complete as the day I first met them! What in the name of the Fates is wrong with that?!"
"Do they actually AGREE to such treatment?!" Haruka pressed. She then pointed to Mendou. "From what Anigimi-sama told us, Mendou-san there didn't agree at ALL to being made a part of your collection of 'cute boys!'" That comment caused Mendou to blink; he never expected Moroboshi Ataru of all people to stick up for him for any reason, even to these so-called "sisters" whom he hadn't known about until that very moment. "And you honestly believe that we'd accept your word that you won't do the same to Anigimi-sama?!"
Elle leaned back before a determined look crossed her face. "It doesn't matter," she asserted, dramatically pulling her cape close to her. "Honey and I will be wed as soon as he comes here, as I'm sure he's more than capable of doing given all he's done on behalf of the Noukiites! I'm more than sure that he holds your lives dear, so keeping you under my thumb should force him to see reason. A pity that I couldn't get hold of Negako, Chikage, Hinako and Marie; with ALL of you in my grasp, Honey's capitulation is assured! Now . . . "
An intercom whistled. "Your Majesty, long-range sensors have now detected a Noukiite solar-sail scoutship coming toward us from the direction of Earth," the monitor's sensor officer hailed over the intercom. "Her identification beacon marks her as the ISS/C Windrider. She's registered to Moroboshi Ataru of Earth, home-ported currently on Magairu . . . "
"Big Brother!" the sisters gasped.
"She's approximately ten minutes from reaching our position at present speed," the officer continued. "The captain wishes to know . . . "
"Stop the ship!" Elle ordered. "Weapons on stand-by. Raise shields to prevent their beaming anyone out! I'll be right there!"
"Yes, ma'am!"
The intercom clicked off. Elle faced the sisters. "Do excuse me, please, ladies. I'm off to have a long chat with Honey!"
She stepped through the doorway, her guards shifting themselves to ensure none of the sisters could escape with the door open. In a minute, the nine young women from Earth were left alone on the balcony, the door leading out of this place locked. Exchanging worried looks, the sisters then focused on the door. "What do we do now?" Kaho pleaded, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Why don't you guys c'mon down here?" Ryuunosuke's voice echoed from the main deck. "If we stay close together, we'll be a lot safer."
The sisters glanced down at their brother's former classmates. "As long as Sword-for-brains and Bokken-for-brains behave themselves," Sakuya asserted as she pointed at Mendou and Kunou. She then turned to Aria. "Here, Aria-chan, you go first. Tomomi-chan and Kyooko-chan'll catch you."
Seeing the big drop to the main deck, the young Parisian shuddered fearfully as the others gently pressed her to the balcony rail. "Aria . . .!" she burbled before she started to cry. "Aria doesn't want to fall . . .!"
Tomomi and Kyooko shifted themselves below her. "It's okay, Aria-chan!" the former asserted with a bright smile. "We'll catch you!"
* * *
"They're stopping!" Tomo reported.
"I see that," Koyomi asserted as she pressed controls to de-warp the Haengge'cha close to the Rose Emperor. Glancing at the sensory controls, she then smirked. "And there's Ataru-sama's ship. Alright, here's our chance to get you aboard so you can rescue the others!"
"Right!" the internal security officer said as she shifted herself to the transporter unit at the aft end of the pilotage.
* * *
"Papa, they've raised shields and readied weapons."
The Windrider was two hundred kilometres from the Rose Emperor. The solar sails had been drawn in, clearing the field for the ship's weapons, including a pair of swivel accelerator cannons amidships and concussion missile tubes located under the figurehead, to be used. On the front view screen in the pilotage, the Ellsian patrol monitor, a ship roughly the size of Invader's Kashin, glistened like a multi-faceted jewel in the pitch-dark of inter-system space. "Are they scanning us?" Ataru asked.
"They're trying to," Kamen -- who, these days, called herself "Fujikaze Nobuko" -- reported. "Ship's ECM systems are blocking the scans easily."
"They're blocking our scans too, Darling," Mienai -- she currently calling herself "Kanki Yukiko" -- reported from a port-side station next to Marie. "I'm trying to adjust the bandwidth to get around their ECM now."
"Don't be too obvious, Yukiko-chan," Ataru warned.
"We can't fight them flat-out, can we?" Ranma, having shifted herself to stand behind Ataru's chair, wondered.
He thoughtfully tugged at his beard. "No, we can't."
"What is it, Shinobi-chan?"
"Long-range sensors just picked up another ship heading our way from the direction of Toshitto," Lum's double said. "It's a Fukunokami-type starship, frigate-class. Trying to identify her now." She then tapped controls.
"What would one of them be doing here?!" Seiko wondered.
"Do you think the Ellsians've picked them up?" Ataru asked.
"Doubtful." Shinobi then frowned as the readouts danced before her eyes. "You've got quite a powerful sensory unit for a ship of this size, Darling. I . . .!" She paused. "Wait! The other ship just came to a halt. She's about ten million kilometres away. If I'm not mistaken, I think they just picked up the Rose Emperor. Hard to tell if they've been detected in return."
"They haven't."
Eyes locked on Chikage. "Is that bankable?" Nabiki wondered.
"Very." The sorceress then smiled as images swirled in her crystal ball. "It appears, Seiko, several of your friends were on their way to visit you and your sister when Elle decided to change all our social schedules."
Seiko blinked. "MY friends?!"
"Wait!" Shinobi cut in. "Got the ID on the second ship. She's the Independent Starship Goddess of Luck, out of Bensaikyou."
Nobuko stared at her sister Avalonian, her eyes wide. "Shogai Dakejinzou's ship?! You sure about that one, Hensou?"
"Chikage-chan, isn't that the bounty hunter Brother Sunfire put on retainer just in case something happened to us?" Marie wondered.
Chikage nodded. "The same."
"And the Ellsians haven't detected them?" Ataru asked.
"No, Ani-kun, not yet. But it could happen soon."
"Right." He then scowled, bracing himself. "Reiko-chan, ready a spread of concussion missiles. Use the subspace harmonic warheads. Bracket Elle's ship on all sides. I don't want them to see who else is out there."
"Hai, Papa!"
* * *
"You can't scan into that ship?!"
The sensory officer shook her head. "Negative, Captain. She's got quite a powerful ECM system for a ship that size . . .!" Her voice then trailed off, her eyes wide as a new reading came up. "Captain, she's readying missiles!"
The shock at that announcement was very brief as the captain barked, "All power to the shields! Ready anti-missile defences . . .!"
"She's firing!"
Slender torpedoes lanced out of the Windrider's launch bays, darting to all sides of the Rose Emperor. Before the crew on the larger ship could realize what was happening, the first of the concussion missiles exploded, sending high-frequency subspace shockwaves all over the place. Since they were presently both in normal space, neither the Windrider nor the Rose Emperor was affected by the strikes save for molecular debris from the detonated missiles showering the larger ship's shields. It was in the various dimensions of subspace, where the most highly attuned of the Ellsian warship's sensors were currently locked, that the missiles had their full effect.
"Damn!" the sensory officer spat out. "He's blinded us!"
"What?!" the captain demanded.
"Long-range subspace, short-range subspace and weapons targeting sensors down! Subspace communications are off-line!" the younger woman read off the litany of problems facing them now. "Warp core's unaffected, but I'd recommend NOT going into hyperspace at this time, Captain!"
The captain blinked before she turned to stare at the image of the Windrider. The view screen was showing the static after-effects of the missile strike from the Noukiite ship. "What's he up to?" she whispered.
* * *
"What's that idiot up to?!" Benten demanded.
"Multiple subspace shockwave blasts," Nassur said as he adjusted controls on the Goddess' sensors. Like what was fitted on the Windrider, the sensory suite on Shogai Dakejinzou's ship was well above what was seen as standard for a vessel of that size. "No doubt, they're pretty much blind save for normal-space scans, plus they can't risk entering warp unless they clear the disturbed area." A nod of approval. "Smart move on his part."
"Why would Ataru do something like that, Nassur-sama?" Oyuki asked.
"Elle has hostages aboard her ship."
Eyes locked on Dakejinzou, the alien hunter's hand touching one of her earrings. "How the hell did you know that?!" Benten demanded.
"Signal from Brother Sunfire I just received right now, Benten. Nine of Ataru's sisters, plus all his former classmates at Tomobiki High, were kidnapped shortly after lunch local time. Elle demanded Ataru surrender himself to her in order for the hostages to be released."
Benten and Oyuki exchanged a look. "But Moroboshi never stepped on that idiot's shadow when they were kids!" the former said. "Why the hell's Elle after him now?" Her voice trailed as something came to her. "Unless . . . "
"With Lum-chan 'dead,' the Queen must have come to believe that no one else would desire Ataru," Oyuki noted. "After all, we did make quite a mess of things when we helped her rescue him from the altar . . . "
"Everyone knows how vain that woman is." Nassur then gazed on Dakejinzou. "So what's Brother Sunfire going to do now?"
"He would contact a crusade fleet on Magairu to force Elle to release her hostages," she reported. "A message would be passed to the Noukiites based on Toshitto to send their own force out. Hopefully, this can be done with as . . . " She paused before turning to tap controls on her flight board.
Everyone gazed on the view screen. "Why's he approaching her?!" Oyuki demanded as the Windrider came in close to the Rose Emperor.
Nassur turned to his board. "Shields still up; he's keeping some distance from the Emperor." A hum. "This is interesting . . . "
"What's he tryin' ta do, anyway?" Benten wondered.
The expat Vosian shook his head as he sat back in his chair. "Hard to tell since I've no idea what he's capable of doing. If he's got some hidden surprises up his sleeve and he's prepared to use them, Benten, I'd say his chances of rescuing his sisters and the others are very good."
"Why say that?! He ain't ever done this before . . .!"
"True, which could potentially give him an advantage, especially dealing with Elle." Nassur held up an objecting finger. "An experienced warrior would know what sort of manoeuvres to avoid in a situation of this nature, Benten. I'm willing to strongly bet that he wouldn't know what mistakes to make. Atop that, Elle's probably still thinking of Moroboshi Ataru as the sex-crazed idiot she met a year ago. I think after what you both saw happen on Phentax Two, that doesn't apply anymore. Ne?" His eyebrow arched knowingly.
Benten moved to disagree before a thoughtful look crossed her face for a moment. "Yeah, ya got a point." She gazed out the front view ports of the Goddess' pilotage before she watered her response down with a muttered, "Still, it IS pretty hard to believe, ya know!" She smirked.
"Agreed," Oyuki affirmed with an understanding nod.
"Wait . . .!"
Eyes locked on Dakejinzou. "What is it?" Nassur asked.
"He's hailing her," the alien bounty hunter reported.
* * *
"Beam-in successful," Tomo whispered into a communicator in her collar.
"Gotcha," Koyomi's voice echoed through a speaker fitted in the officer's ear. "Lucky thing we got you over before Ataru-sama fired those missiles." A pause. "Ataru-sama's starting a parlay with Elle right now, Tomo. Get to the hostages and get ready. I'm prepping the transporter unit now."
* * *
"Hello, Elle. It's been some time."
"Hello to you, too, Honey. My, it HAS been some time since I last saw you. The beard and moustache are very nice touches." The Rose Queen seemed to quiver with delight on seeing her "fiancé." A condemning glare then crossed her face. "What you just did to us was very rude, Honey." She wagged her finger at his image. "It's not nice to launch subspace-harmonic concussion missiles at your fiancée, you know!" she admonished.
All emotion drained from Ataru's face as he icily replied, "Kidnapping my sisters is equally rude, Elle. Especially on the false pretext that we're engaged. You WILL recall what we discovered when we took that small jaunt into the past after you and I nearly got married. So what's the idea? If you wanted to talk to me, all you had to do was call me direct."
Elle seemed to freeze for a moment as she took in who and what sat alone on the bridge of the Windrider; before hailing the Rose Queen, Ataru had the bridge cleared out of everyone else, especially his sisters, his daughters and Ranma. "Well, in spite of what did happen when we were children, the fact remains that I still do care for you. And yes, I still wish to marry you. And NO, you're not destined for the Refrigerator of Love. Why in the name of the Fates would I place my husband inside the Refrigerator?"
Ataru's eyebrow arched. "And the Cute Boys? What about them?"
She made a dismissive wave with her hand. "Oh, just fleeting liaisons that struck my fancy, Honey. Nothing more, nothing less. Besides, you yourself tried to gather your own harem. Before, of course, you learned of that delightful family your late father parented on the side."
"True, I was that way," he verbally admitted the hit, sitting back in his chair. "However, I'd like to think I've outgrown that stage of my life. I hope that one day soon, you'll be able to do the same, Elle." A pause. "Besides, why is it you targeted boys who were, almost to the end, suffering from a host of incurable illnesses like Hifuto Syndrome?" He ignored the shocked look on her face on hearing those words. "Elle, if you were really trying to preserve their lives for a time when medical technology might cure them, it might've done you a lot of good to come out and admit the truth. Your people might actually respect you a lot more that way, you know."
"H-how . . .?!" she sputtered.
Ataru thinly smiled. "There's little the Inquisition doesn't know."
* * *
"Is he tellin' the truth?" Benten asked.
Nassur's eyes were scouring the image of the Rose Queen on his board. "By the looks of it, yes. Hard to believe, ne?"
Dakejinzou quirkily smiled. "Agreed."
* * *
"Sylia on Kiboo'cha to Koyomi on Haengge'cha. Status report, Chief?"
Koyomi tried not to frown on seeing Sylia's image appear before her. Everyone on Sagussa knew that when Sylia addressed someone by rank instead of name, she was clearly upset about something. "The Master Chief's aboard the Rose Emperor right now, Commander. So far, so good. Ataru-sama's in a parlay with Elle as we speak. I'll pipe you the transmission." She then tapped controls to link the transmission back to Earth.
* * *
Elle quickly gathered control of herself, and then she made another dismissive wave. "Well, that doesn't matter, Honey. What does matter is you." She winked at him, her lips widening in a smile. "I WILL marry you, Honey. I just can't imagine living another day without you at my side."
Ataru then sighed. "Elle, I AM quite flattered . . . "
"You deserve it." The Rose Queen then blew him a kiss before she sat back in her chair. "Even better, the Devil's Daughter is now radioactive dust over what's left of Onishuto thanks to your Noukiite friends, so we don't have to worry about any interruptions from that quarter. And with her gone, all her friends from space won't interfere since, as you and I are aware of, they never cared one bit for you, much less Lum's interest in you."
He nodded. "Yes, that is true, isn't it? Hell, there are times these days that I kick myself for actually taking interest in the likes of Benten and Oyuki in the first place. I mean, would you believe that the day Lum dragged me to their Setsubun festival, Benten tried to entice a kiss out of me just to help her side win that stupid ball-toss? And Oyuki!" He rolled his eyes. "Other than dumping enough snow to sink the Titanic into my bedroom every time she visited, there's that so-called 'bodyguard' of hers, B-Boy. Sheesh!" He threw up his hands before turning to wag a finger. "I swear, Elle-chan, the NEXT time I see that pathetic imitation of a yeti, I'm gonna take my qu'f-piaqu'r and use him for BAYONET practice before using my eunuch swords on him!"
* * *
"He WOULDN'T!" Oyuki shrieked.
Dakejinzou gazed amusedly at the princess. "Bets?"
The Neptunian shuddered before she turned to look anywhere else but the view screen re-playing images transmitted between the Rose Emperor and the Windrider. Nearby, Benten was muttering a litany of dockyard-grown curses about Ataru. Watching their reactions, Nassur tried not to fall over laughing as he exchanged a knowing look with his old partner. Dakejinzou winked back.
* * *
"Excuse me."
Tomo tensed as the voice from behind her made her stop. "Eh?"
She turned to see a chief warrant officer step up to adjust something on the back of her uniform. "You belt wasn't looped properly," the older woman declared as she made the necessary changes to the sleeveless bodysuit Tomo had appropriated from the cabin she beamed into. "This is the Royal Flagship. You have to look your best, especially when the Queen's aboard. Remember that!"
Tomo braced herself at attention. "Aye, ma'am!"
The older woman nodded before she marched off to carry out her rounds. Tomo watched her go, inwardly stunned that the Ellsian woman hadn't taken notice of the fact that the visiting Sagussan wasn't a local; all one had to do was look at the back of her thighs to find her Daishi'cha sequential tattoos. Guess people serving in this bunch ARE as pack of idiots, she mused to herself as she waited for the chief warrant officer to disappear around a corner. Once that happened, the patrol officer picked up her small duffle bag containing her weapons -- that was from the quarters where she had got her uniform -- and then she turned to head down the corridor to the holding area.
* * *
"Oh, Elle-chan?"
"Yes, Honey?"
His eyebrow arched. "Do you still wear that very nice perfume I smelled on you when we were dancing in the garden at your palace?"
Elle's cheeks reddened. "You still remember . . .?"
"Hai, Elle-chan. I haven't changed THAT much, you know."
One of the Rose Queen's hands touched her cheek. "Oh, Honey!"
"I guess I'll just have to reacquaint myself with that lovely scent." Ataru then reached forward to tap controls at Reiko's station. "See you in a couple of minutes . . . " He fixed her with a wink. "Intended."
The screen blanked out on the Rose Emperor, leaving behind a bridge full of stunned, wide-eyed women. Their queen was quivering like a schoolgirl who just landed a date with the most popular sports star for the prom. "He's lowered his shields, Captain," the sensory officer reported, causing the others to blink, save for a very twitterpated Elle. "All weapons now deactivated."
"I . . .!" The captain then nodded. "Um, r-right! Lower shields to allow him to come alongside, Pilot." She then stared at the officer of the deck. "Tractor him into the portside quarterdeck airlock," she then ordered.
"Yes, ma'am!"
"Oh, Honey . . . "
Eyes locked on Elle. Her cheeks were still aflame like a pair of spring mountain roses after a morning shower. "Are you alright, Your Majesty?" the captain gently asked as she approached the Rose Queen.
The Rose Queen jolted before she noticed everyone staring concernedly at her. "I . . .! Ah! Oh, y-yes!" She cleared her throat with a discrete cough. "Have a reception committee ready at the place Honey is to come aboard, Captain. Let's be cautious." She raised a finger in warning.
The captain saluted. "By your command, Your Majesty!"
* * *
"He's surrendering that quickly . . .?"
Seven Bake Rose scowled at the blank image on her view screen inside her private cabin, which was located not too far from where the prisoners were currently being held. The unit had been tapped into the Rose Emperor's main transmitter unit, allowing the mercenary a chance to overhear everything that had been said between Elle and Ataru. "Something's going on here," Rose muttered as she sat back in her chair, her mind calling up all the relevant information she had acquired about Mr. Groom in the last while. It then focused on one interesting point about Ataru's time with the Noukiites.
He was The Brother Who Danced on the Wind.
That name had been bestowed -- according to Noukiite propaganda -- to an Ip'ihu warrior who had personally gone to Uru and several of its colonies to deal with those high-ranking Onis who had escaped the atomization of Onishuto midway through that conflict. Finding out THAT tidbit about Mr. Groom's secret life on Noukiios had been difficult for Rose, but not impossible.
In fact, that action had proven once and for all how stupid the Urusians had been altogether when it came to the natives of the planet Earth. After all, even a sex-crazed idiot like Moroboshi Ataru had been able to learn the intergalactic specialized warfare trade quite quickly. Almost TOO quickly, Rose often mused from time to time during her recent investigative trip on Noukiios. Then again, after learning the truth about his grandmother's murder at the hands of agents of the Devil Invader, adding that to his parents' betrayal of him three years before the First Tag Race, plus an understandable fear concerning the safety of the family he just acquired . . .!
Well, that could easily prompt ANYONE to make himself the best unconventional warfare fighter in the local cluster.
Yes, even a sex-crazed idiot like Moroboshi Ataru.
The Brother Who Danced on the Wind.
Rose's eyes then widened. "Diversion . . . "
Quickly, she bolted to her feet, reaching for her sidearm.
* * *
"Tomo, Sylia, the parlay's ended," Koyomi announced to the transmitter in her bond-mate's ear and to the Kiboo'cha over the Moon. "The 'Windrider's' moving to dock alongside the 'Rose Emperor' now."
"Gotcha," Tomo whispered into her collar-mounted communicator.
"Hey! You're not supposed to be here."
Tomo's eyes turned up to see two guards standing post by the entranceway to the holding area. Noting that only one of them was facing her, the Internal Security Force's master chief warrant officer grinned. "Actually, Sarge, I AM supposed to be here," she cheerfully announced.
Both guards jolted on hearing Tomo's odd accent. "Who . . .?" the other guard demanded as both turned to stare at her.
Tomo's fist smashed through the first guard's face shield, pulping the poor woman's nose as she was flung into a bulkhead by the force of the blow. Before the second guard could grab her pistol, the Yizibajohei-born patrol officer's foot caught her under the jaw, sending the hapless woman slamming into the holding area's doorway with a broken neck. Catching them both single-handedly before they could slide to the deck and mark the scene with blood, Tomo drew out a small transmitter from her duffle bag. Aiming it at the security lock by the doorway, she pressed a button. The lock unsealed, the door opening in response. Without pause, she threw the dead troopers onto the balcony deck before surging through herself, she closing the door behind her.
"Hey! Who're you?!"
Tomo spun around to see the crowd some metres below staring wide-eyed at her. Grabbing her duffle bag, she jumped down to join the prisoners. Opening her duffle bag, she drew out a pistol as she headed over to Haruka. "Here ya go, Haruka-sama," she declared as she stuffed the loaded weapon into the back part of the martial artist's waistband.
"Ano . . .!" Karen then spoke up.
Tomo grinned. "It's okay, Karen-sama. I'm helping with the rescue."
The hostages blinked as they took that in. Some distance away from the Internal Security Force master chief, a brown-haired girl with wide blue eyes was staring in shocked disbelief at the newcomer.
I KNOW HER! Seikou Mie railed in her mind.
* * *
"To quote the great cartoon . . . "
"'What a maroon!'" everyone in the corridor aft of the bridge chimed as one after Ataru closed the door behind him.
"Will they be able to sense how many people're aboard this ship now?" Nabiki wondered. "Especially since we're going to get . . . "
The deck lurched slightly. "Tractor beam," Kaneko warned.
"Perfect." Ataru glanced at the deckhead before he turned to Sakiko. "You can use your powers to lock in on Ryuunosuke, right?"
The flame-haired Nendo-kata winked. "Easy as pie, Darling."
"Okay. As soon as we're aboard, Ranma'll use the Umisen-ken to snatch Elle. I'll leave the moment to strike to you, okay." He stared at Ranma before turning to Seiko. "Seiko-chan, you stay with Ranma, help her as you see fit. Reiko-chan, Kaneko-chan, you'll come with Chikage and I." He looked to the others. "Rest of you, stay here. Hinako-chan, you keep the Staff locked on me." He tapped the Staff. "After I find the other girls, I'll give a signal and you use the Staff to bring us all aboard, okay?"
Hinako sniffed. "Hina wants to come with Onii-tama!"
Ataru firmly shook his head. "No. I don't want any knowledge of Bou-san to be plastered from one end of the galaxy to the other, Hinako-chan. You'll never know a moment's rest if that happens. Okay?"
The youngest sister nodded. "What of us, Aniue-sama?" Marie wondered.
Ataru gazed on the others. "The rest of you'll stay here. Miree, you're in charge of a rescue party in case things get out of hand. If I get caught -- which I'll try to avoid -- I'm counting on you to bail us out, alright?"
The Hollywoodite chief priestess nodded. "Of course."
A grinding noise echoed through the hull. "We're locking alongside, probably at one of their quarterdeck gangways," Reiko warned.
"How many people might be on hand?" Ranma wondered.
Seiko's eyes glowed as she directed her telepathic powers towards the patrol monitor. "There's about forty people within ten metres of us right now, Ranma. I . . . " She then grinned. "Good. Elle's waiting."
"Perfect." Ataru stared at Seiko and Sakiko. "Keep the use of your powers to a minimum. They might expect it from Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan, but not you. Same deal as with the Staff." He nodded towards Hinako in emphasis.
Marie shuddered. "Be careful, Aniue-sama."
"Everyone, let's get to the bridge," Miree ordered, waving those remaining behind through the door into the sloop's pilotage.
"Watch your back, Ranma-chan," Shinshi warned.
"I'll be cool," Ranma assured before she slipped under the ki cloak.
The grinding came to a halt. A clanging noise echoed. Ataru waved the others with him to the gangway. Sakiko slipped up to the airlock controls, nodding on seeing the readout. "Soft seal, Darling. We can go in."
She tapped controls to open the lock. Ataru blinked as the darker light of the Noukiite ship was instantly chased away by a tidal wave of bright light flooding in from the Ellsian monitor. His eyes adjusted to the light as he stepped aboard the Rose Emperor, finding himself in a breezeway leading to a circular reception area. Placing Reiko and Kaneko before him, he motioned his daughters forward. Seiko, Sakiko and Chikage fell in behind him, the invisible Ranma behind them. "Let's go," he whispered, waving the others with him.
Behind them, the Windrider's airlock automatically closed. The small crowd boarding the Rose Emperor ignored it as they stepped out of the breezeway onto the monitor's quarterdeck. Around them stood nearly three platoons worth of security troops, stun rifles at port arms. By the main doors leading into the remainder of the ship, there stood a familiar figure in a lime green battlesuit. "Oh! Hello again, Captain!" Ataru hailed with a smile on remembering the first Ellsian he had met a lifetime ago at Tomobiki High's clock tower. "It's been a while. Oh!" He caught himself, placing his hands on his daughters' shoulders. "Permission to come aboard."
The woman blinked. "Um . . .! Ah, granted, Mr. Groom! Granted . . . "
Her voice was cut off as the door behind her opened. "Honey!"
Reiko and Kaneko ducked as a white-and-red blur slammed into Ataru. Fortunately, since he was the only man standing on the quarterdeck at the time, Elle didn't repeat the faux pas she made when she first encountered Ataru (then accompanied by some of his classmates) back in Baran. "Hey!" Ataru grunted as the Rose Queen squeezed him. "Take it easy, Elle-chan! I need to breathe!"
Elle pulled back to give him a close look, a finger reaching up to stroke his beard. "This IS a great improvement," she cooed with delight, leaning in to rub her nose on the end of his chin. "It's been so long, Honey! I'm so delighted you've decided to come join me!"
He wriggled his eyebrows. "Well, much that I hate to remind you, you didn't give me much of a choice, I'm afraid."
"Oh, don't worry about that!" Elle made a dismissive wave with her hand. "They're all safe and sound, Honey. You needn't fear . . . " Her voice then trailed off as she saw the young girls flanking Ataru. "Who . . .?"
"Ah, sorry!" He then made introductions.
Elle's eyes widened. "Your daughters?!" she gasped before kneeling to gaze upon them. "Oh, they're so precious! And Yekhu, too!" She tapped their golden sun caste tattoos. "Well, only the best for Honey's babies, eh?"
Reiko stared up at Ataru. "She's really pretty, Papa."
He nodded as Elle straightened herself. "That she's always been." He leaned forward, his nose flaring slightly. "You remembered."
Elle's cheeks reddened. "You remembered for me, Honey . . . "
"I was happy to. Oh, good grief, I forgot!" He then turned around to indicate Chikage. "Since you've already met some of my sisters, here's another. Elle-chan, this is Chikage. Chikage, Elle."
Chikage curtly nodded. "Elle."
"A p-pl-pleasure, Ch-chi-Chikage-chan," the Rose Queen sputtered, a shiver running through her as the sorceress' dark eyes seemed to bore into her very soul. She then turned back to Ataru. "But Honey, where are Negako-chan, Marie-chan and Hinako-chan? And who are . . .?"
She indicated the Izumo sisters. Seiko and Sakiko then introduced themselves. "One of the people you kidnapped from Tomobiki is my girlfriend, Fujinami Ryuunosuke," the latter announced, keeping her voice level as she fought down the urge to lash out at this sub-creature. "A lot of people are very upset with you right now because of what you did, Your Majesty."
Elle made a dismissive wave with her hand. "Well, it was necessary. Besides, all the incidents provoked by the Devil's Daughter living there were far worse. And from what I've heard from them, you yourself don't seem to care too much about what happens to them, Honey." She gazed knowingly at Ataru.
"What do you expect?" Ataru shrugged, sensing Seiko quiver at Elle's barb. "If it wasn't Lum they were fawning over, it was Mendou." His eyebrow then arched. "Oh, speaking of which, what about him? Will you send him into the Refrigerator with the rest of your collection?"
"No, of course not." Elle then gave Ataru a thoughtful look. "Unless you want me to dispose of him myself, Honey . . . "
Ataru shook his head. "Nah, don't bother. Living well's the best revenge, after all. And he DOES have to get married this Saturday or else he'll get tossed out of his family. I don't want him to miss that."
The Rose Queen then tittered. "An odd revenge, indeed!" She took a deep breath before snapping her fingers. "Ladies!"
The guards instantly levelled their rifles on Ataru and his party. "I guessed you'd try that." He then barked, "NOW!"
Two telekinetically propelled waves of compressed air slammed into the guards and the captain, sending them flying into the bulkheads. The air behind Elle fizzled, revealing Ranma. "KACHUU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!" she barked as she rained a storm of punches into Elle's back, sending her flying against the glass bulkhead beside the breezeway leading to the Windrider.
* * *
Everyone shrieked as Kunou leapt to his feet, and then he lunged for the balcony. Yanking out a spare bokken, the kendou-ka roared as he unleashed his storm of righteous vengeance on the door. "THE BLUE THUNDER WILL SAVE YOU, MY PIG-TAILED ONE!" he bellowed as the door exploded from the air pressure.
Kunou lunged through, racing off with a determined scream. The crowd left on the main deck of the containment room gaped at the sight. Yotsuba then turned to her sisters. "Um . . . do we follow him out?!"
People exchanged looks. Noting this after she slipped the last of the pistols she had brought with her into the waistband of Shinobu's skirt, Tomo then tapped her communicator. "Yomi, this is Tomo! Something's happening! You got that damned transporter working or what?!"
"Just a second . . . " echoed in her ear, and then a belching noise nearly popped Tomo's eardrum. "Oh, DAMN . . .!"
"The transporter buffer's blown! Interference from those concussion missiles Ataru-sama fired from his ship!"
Tomo sighed, her head drooping. "It's always something . . .!"
The Internal Security master chief's head snapped up just as a panicked scream echoed from her left by the balcony. Her eyes locked on a tall, brown-haired woman who currently had one of Ataru's old classmates in a headlock, a pistol pointed at the back of her head. "Momoe-chan!" Gekasawa Kumiko cried out on seeing her beloved friend being held at gunpoint by Seven Bake Rose.
"Oh, ki . . .!" Tomo muttered under her breath.
Yeah, it was ALWAYS something!
* * *
"GO!" Ataru barked as he raced for the door leading off the quarterdeck to the rest of the ship, his finger lashing out at the metal. "SHINZOU BAKUHATSU SHOKU!" he barked as it hit the door's breaking point.
It exploded. Ataru and Sakiko leapt through, they racing off towards the centre of the ship. Reiko, Kaneko and Chikage leapt through next. The twins snapped up a telekinetic defence field to block off a storm of stun bolts fired at them from a team of security officers charging at the women from aft. "OSCULUM PAPILIONIS!" Chikage barked as she unleashed her own attack.
Reiko and Kaneko ducked as the wall of ki mowed down the Ellsians like a giant bowling ball. "Where's the engine room?!" Chikage demanded as they raced down a corridor. "We need a distraction to give Ani-kun and Sakiko the chance to locate the others for Hinako to retrieve them!"
Reiko's eyes glowed, and then she pointed to her left and up. "There!"
Chikage's eyes narrowed as she focused her senses on the distant room in question. She then grabbed the twins' hands. "Come on!"
They vanished in the flutter of the sorceress' cape.
* * *
"Open the damned door!"
Marie pressed the panel to open the airlock. Elle's body was the first thing tossed through, followed by Ranma and Seiko. The latter hit the control to seal the lock, and then the intercom. "Miree, this is Seiko!" she called to the pilotage. "The ship's sealed! Break us free of them right away!"
"Hang on!" Miree's voice echoed throughout the Windrider as the howl of metal being twisted echoed throughout the ship.
* * *
Chikage and the twins appeared in a cavernous, tubular space divided down the middle by a slender shaft blazing with energy. Taking note that the Rose Emperor's main engine room could easily swallow the whole of the rotunda at Welcome House, the sorceress drew one of her crucifix-shaped magical charms from under her cape. Then, with a flick of her hand, she sent it flying into the monitor's warp core. The cross easily phased through the hardened glass keeping the blazing plasma within from escaping. Then, once it made contact with the energy in question, Chikage's charm flared.
By the time the outer containment shell of the warp core shattered, showering the surprised engineering crew with ultra-hot plasma, Chikage had already snared Reiko's and Kaneko's hands and teleported them to safety.
* * *
"Commander, the Windrider is breaking free of the airlock!"
The first officer jolted before she looked to the view screen to see the sloop pulling clear of the Rose Emperor. "Tractor it . . .!"
The deck lurched as a explosion echoed through the ship, the shockwave from that sending everyone flying out of their chairs to smash into consoles and the deck. A computerized voice warned, "Alert! Alert! Warp core breech in progress! Estimate time to critical overload, three minutes. All personnel, abandon ship! All personnel, abandon ship! Alert! Alert . . .!"
The first officer paled. "The warp core?"
* * *
"Uh-oh!" Hinako said as she watched a plume of exploding gas erupt from the hull of the Rose Emperor. "Someone broke their ship!"
"It's a warp-core breach, Mother," Jonna reported. "I estimate three minutes before her singularity core goes critical."
"We best be clear when it happens." Miree grimaced. "Any chance of scanning into that ship to find the others?"
"Trying now, ma'am," Nobuko reported from her station.
* * *
"Aria-chan, are you alright?!"
"It . . .!" The young Parisian sniffed as Sakuya laid a broken part of Mendou's katana sheath against her lower left arm. "Hurts . . . " she moaned as Sakuya took the ripped sleeves of Mamoru's sweat top to tie the makeshift splint on Aria's arm. "Kusun . . . " she quietly sobbed.
As the sisters administered to their sibling, Tomo was keeping her pistol (the one she had hidden in Shinobu's skirt) trained on Seven Bake Rose's forehead. The mercenary had kept her footing when the ship had lurched, her grip on Momoe's neck tightening even more. "Drop the pistol, girlie!" Rose snarled. "Or this little pretty gets a new ear!"
"You're hearing your ship's computer right now," the Internal Security officer reported. The faint echo of the ship's computer rebounded from the corridor beyond the observation balcony. "We've got less than three minutes to clear out of this junkheap before we all get a one-way ticket into the Te'a. So let's call it a day and let the girl go."
Rose cackled. "Not a chance, honey."
* * *
"Darling, Rose has Momoe-san hostage right under the balcony," Sakiko whispered as she and Ataru crouched to either side of the doorway leading into the balcony. "Her gun's pointed at Momoe-san's head. I don't recognize the girl who came in here, but she feels like an Avalonian . . . "
"Never mind," Ataru quietly cut her off as he drew out his Lawgiver from under his camouflage cape. "Hinako-chan . . .?" he hissed.
What is it, Onii-tama? Hinako's voice echoed in their minds.
"We've got a hostage situation. The creep who kidnapped Karen-chan and the others is holding one of my old classmates hostage. Can you get the Staff to beam everyone else back to the 'Windrider' while I deal with this jerk?"
Onii-tama, Hina can save her . . .!
"No," he hissed. "If Rose senses anything, she could squeeze the trigger and kill Momoe. The sisters first. Ten seconds."
Sakiko stared curiously at him. "Darling . . . "
He gave her a weak smile. "They have to understand, Sakiko-chan."
* * *
A noise echoed through the room. "Hey, what's . . .?!" Rinrin gasped.
Before she could say "that," a flash of energy blinded everyone in the room as the Staff of Gihan whisked away Ataru's sisters. As the light receded to normal, a lithe form leapt off the balcony, somersaulting himself around to make a three-point landing on the deck close to Shinobu and Tomo. Another person landed right in front of Ryuunosuke. By the time Rose's vision began to clear, the mercenary turning to see that nine of the hostages had just vanished right before her eyes, a snarling voice barked out, "DROP IT!"
Her eyes locked on a bearded figure in camouflage in a classic kneeling position, a gun aimed at her. Quickly sensing who it was, Rose roared as her gun hand, which had shifted to shield her eyes when the sisters were taken away by the Staff of Gihan, began to drop down so she could aim her weapon at the back of Marubeya Momoe's head. "MOROBOSHI, DON'T . . .!" Mendou screamed.
The Lawgiver barked, the bolt of highly charged energy punching Seven Bake Rose right through the bridge of her nose! As the mercenary's brain was pulped, the impact sent her flying into the bulkhead behind Momoe. The latter was able to stumble clear before she collapsed to the deck, her head snapping around automatically to stare at her captor. The look on Rose's face seemed frozen in shock and disbelief as the dead mercenary sank to the deck, her pistol dropping from an unfeeling hand to clatter on hard metal.
"Perp's down!" Tomo barked.
Ataru took a deep breath, and then he lowered his weapon. Standing, he holstered the Lawgiver as several of the others moved closer to him. Shinobu and Kumiko ran over to help the shivering Momoe. "Fuckin' stone cold or what?!" Koi Shinjin muttered under his breath as he stared at the dead Rose.
"Damn good shot, though!" Ryuunosuke added, and then she gasped as Sakiko embraced her. "Hey, what took you so long, Sakiko-chan?!"
"Traffic!" Sakiko whispered as she kissed her lover's cheek.
By then, Momoe had been shifted closer to the rest of her classmates. The former was starting wide-eyed at Ataru, speechless at what just happened. Before anyone could say anything more, a tremble shook the deck. "We better get outta here!" Tomo warned before she tapped her communicator. "Yomi, PLEASE tell me that you got that damned transporter fixed?!"
"I'm working on it!" the engineer's voice echoed in her bond-mate's ear.
Tomo-chan, Bou-san can send you back to Yomi-chan! Hinako called out.
"Okay, do it!" Tomo called back before she gazed on Ataru. "By your leave, Ataru-sama!" she said, saluting him with her pistol.
Ataru blinked as the Sagussan vanished. "Wait . . .!" Mendou gasped.
"Who WAS that girl, anyway?!" Tomomi demanded.
"Don't look at me," Ataru asserted with a shake of his head, and then he looked up. "Hinako-chan, if you wouldn't mind?!"
* * *
Hinako raised the Staff as the crystal flared. "Hai, hai!"
* * *
"MOROBOSHI! Where are you, you slime . . .?! Urk . . .!"
"Help . . .!"
Kunou turned before he gasped on seeing a woman about Ninomiya Hinako's age, she in a green strapless bodysuit similar to what the other women on this ship wore, hanging on for dear life from being sucked out a shattered doorway into deep space. Air was steadily rushing out that breech in the ship's hull; despite there being an atmospheric containment field fitted in this part of the Rose Emperor, it wasn't forging a perfect seal. He grabbed her arm, and then braced himself as he pulled her into the main hallway.
The captain threw her arms around the helpful young man's waist as he pulled them towards the nearest airtight door down the hallway. Strewn on the deck was a pile of unconscious security officers. As they moved, the ship's computer dutifully noted the countdown, " . . . breech in progress! Estimate time to critical overload, two minutes twenty seconds. All personnel, abandon ship! All personnel, abandon ship . . .!"
"We must leave this ship!" Kunou grunted.
"Escape pods . . . " the captain gasped.
She reached over to open the airlock. "Past the door . . . "
A strong wind flowed through the door, causing the crew moving to escape their doomed ship to cry out with surprise. "Captain!" one of them screamed in relief on recognizing the woman presently hugging Kunou. She then raced over to help them. "Here, sir! This way!" She pointed to a waiting pod.
"The others!" the kendou-ka snapped.
He lunged to pick up three of the security officers, and then he passed them back through a chain of crewmembers to load into the pods. By the time the computer announced that the Rose Emperor had ninety seconds to live, the last of that group were safely in their escape vehicles. "This way, sir!" one of the crewmembers called out as she grabbed Kunou, and then she forced him into a pod holding the captain. "Thank you for saving our commander, sir!" she then said before she closed and sealed the hatch.
Kunou grunted as the ejection bolts were blown. He then gazed out the small view port in the middle of the hatch as the escape pod flew clear. "Will they be safe . . .?" he whispered before he sensed a slender hand grasp his. Turning to look, he then nearly passed out in shock as a teary-eyed young captain swamped him with a warm hug and kiss.
They remained still for a moment, and then she pulled back from him, a relieved smile crossing her face. "They should be fine," she whispered, her voice still quite hoarse from about a minute's exposure to near vacuum. "There are only about three hundred people aboard my ship. Escape pods are readily accessible all over." Taking another breath, she then blushed. "I'm sorry. We haven't been properly introduced. My name is Anna du Kohln. May I know the name of the gallant rescuer who just saved my life?"
He stiffened proudly. "My dear, I am . . . " he launched into his usual introductory spiel, and then his voice trailed off before he relaxed. "My name is Kunou Tatewaki, Anna-san. I was happy to help. And I pray . . . " -- he looked through the view port -- " . . . that your crew also escapes what is about to happen to your ship. Do you . . .?"
"No!" Anna leaned against him. "Please don't make me look."
Kunou gazed on her before he nodded, he placing a hand on her hair.
* * *
Karen fretted. "Onii-chan, are they going to make it out?"
Hinako listened to the Staff's response, and then she turned to Ataru. "Bou-san says that when the ship goes boom, a lot of those little ships are going to go boom, too . . . " She then sniffed. "This isn't any fun . . . "
"Hinako-chan, can the Staff contain the explosion?!" Rinrin asked.
Hinako jolted before she relaxed as she listened to the Staff's response. "Hai!" she replied with a smile, and then she frowned, gazing fretfully at the bridge deck. "But Bou-san says she'll have to go to sleep for a while . . . "
"Never mind, Hinako-chan! Do it!" Ataru barked.
The Staff flared.
* * *
"Thirty seconds," Nassur intoned.
Benten tensed. "Not all of 'em are gonna make it."
"Maybe . . . " Dakejinzou's eyes then went wide. "Gods!"
A bolt of something leapt out of the Windrider, it moulding into a spheroid of energy encompassing the Rose Emperor. "What in the name of the Fates is that?" Oyuki gasped as everyone morbidly watched.
"Are any of the escape pods inside that field?!" Dakejinzou asked.
"Negative," Nassur said after checking the readout. "Fifteen seconds."
Everyone on the Goddess braced themselves as the Vosian made the countdown. On reaching "zero," people automatically averted their eyes as the main hull of the patrol monitor exploded. Fragments of the ship slammed into the energy field surrounding her, shattering into nothingness as the force of the detonating warp core was forced straight up through the metal "petals" forming the ship's rose flower-shaped superstructure. Within two seconds, the only thing of the Rose Emperor larger than microscopic-sized fragments were the several dozen escape pods spared being caught in their mothership's death-throes by the energy emitting from the Windrider. Another second later, the near vacuum of surrounding space snuffed out the last of the fires as the shield protecting her escape pods faded from existence. Silence fell on the bridge as people exchanged shocked looks. A buzzer then sounded off.
"Ah." Oyuki jolted before she turned to stare at the readout before her. "Um . . . I . . . the Windrider is hailing us, Shogai-sama."
Dakejinzou tapped a control. "Right . . . "
On the view screen, Izumo Seiko appeared, currently seated in the Windrider's central chair. "Hi, Shogai-san . . .!" she hailed before her eyes went wide on seeing who else was there with the alien bounty hunter. "Nassur-chan! Benten! Oyuki-chan! What are you guys doing here?!"
Shocked silence responded. "Well, we were coming by to look in on you, your sister and Ten-chan, Lu- . . .!" Nassur caught himself, flustering, and then he nodded in apology. "Er, Seiko-chan! Sorry!"
Seiko waved him down. "It's okay . . . "
As a giant brown eye appeared on the screen, staring at the people on the Goddess via a HUGE spy glass. "CUTE ALIEN CHECKY!"
"YOTSUBA! GET AWAY FROM THERE!" someone yelled from off-screen.
A handsome young man stepped into view to drag Yotsuba away. "Yo-chan, don't butt in! You can check them later!"
"Yotsuba wants to check them NOW!" the would-be detective whined.
His voice then turned sultry as he leaned close. "Yo-chan, I have something very nice for you to check," he sensuously purred.
Yotsuba jolted as her mind wrapped around that comment. She then quickly shoved Shinshi out of camera range. "Yotsuba has to do her checky of Shi-chama somewhere private!" she declared as they headed off the barque's pilotage.
Sweat drops appeared. "Lum, who the FUCK was THAT?!" Benten demanded.
"HEY!" An older girl with absurdly long ponytails jutted into the camera range. "Who's the trash-mouth over there?!"
"That's gotta be Benten," a younger woman called from off-screen. "Anii said she could out-swear a pack of drunken bikers!"
Benten exploded. "HEY! I RESENT THAT!"
"Actually, Benten, I believe Ataru was giving you a compliment."
She stopped before she glared at the Neptunian. "Et tu, Oyuki?"
"This is YOUR friend, Seiko-san?" another girl asked from off-screen.
Nassur and Dakejinzou were both quick to notice the slight flush crossing the Oni-turned-Nendo-kata/Terran's face as she faced her questioner. "W-well, B-b-Benten takes a lot to get used to, K-k-Karen-san . . . "
Dakejinzou gazed on Nassur, she glad they possessed a Vosian pe'cha bond so they could communicate in private. What's with her?
Nassur shrugged. Search me! Must be a Nendo-kata thing . . .
"Sakuya-sama, long-distance sensors are picking up a Zephyrite crusader fleet now de-warping from Magairu," another woman reported from off-screen. "The force commander just signalled us. They're commencing rescue operations."
"Any problems?" the girl with the long ponytails demanded.
"Negative, Sakuya-sama, but the force commander would like to know what has happened to Elle," the other girl replied.
"Ya mean Anee can't beat her up ta make her leave Anii alone?!" the girl who had spoken of Benten's profane loquaciousness asked.
Sakuya hummed. "I think we'll need to get a message across to these dorks about Elle and her so-called 'interest' in Onii-sama."
"What do you intend to do, Sakuya-chan?" Karen asked.
"Orin-chan, can we beam a signal into those life pods?"
"Easily," the woman who reported on the arriving Zephyrites replied. "Would you like to make it a live broadcast, Sakuya-sama?"
"Hai. Haruka-chan, you're here, but where's Chikage-chan . . .?"
Screams echoed from all over the "Windrider's" pilotage. "CHIKAGE! WILL YOU STOP DOING THAT?!" over a half-dozen women's voices bellowed.
"Stop doing what?" another woman tonelessly asked.
Moans responded. "Sounds a lot like Cherry, eh?" Benten mused.
Oyuki shook her head. "That could be said."
* * *
"Are you able now to communicate with your shipmates, Anna-san?"
Anna twisted a wire sticking out of the emergency communications unit, and then she adjusted the tuning. "I think so. Let's see . . . "
A garbled squawking noise belched from the speakers before a woman's voice called out, " . . . -llo, minna-san! I hope you can hear me!"
"Who's that?!" Kunou demanded. "She sounds familiar . . . "
The last captain of the Rose Emperor blinked before she grimaced as she recalled where she first heard that voice. "That's Sukeyama Sakuya. She's one of Moroboshi Ataru's sisters. Let's see, now . . . " She gazed at the controls. "Okay, it's a visual signal . . . "
Kunou blinked. "Another sister . . .?"
Anna tapped a control. A tiny view screen at one end of the life pod flicked on, revealing the image of three young women. "Violet One!" Kunou yelped on recognizing the dark-dressed one to the right of the screen.
"This message will be repeated as long as you're stuck inside those lifeboats," the girl standing in the middle announced, her fists on her hips. "For those of you formerly of the Rose Emperor who didn't get the news by the time we were rudely kidnapped from Onii-sama's home by your queen, I'm one of Moroboshi Ataru's sisters, Sukeyama Sakuya. These ladies beside me . . . " -- she indicated her companions -- " . . . are also Onii-sama's sisters, Hirosaki Chikage . . . " -- Kunou perked as Sakuya waved to his violet-haired temptress -- " . . . and Tenhiro Haruka." She indicated the other woman, a very beautiful black-haired girl dressed in a pink-and-black hakama.
"Now, I'm sure that a lot of you are pissed off at the fact that Onii-sama, in rescuing us and those people from Tomobiki your queen also kidnapped, managed to blow your starship up." Sakuya faced the camera. "I'm sure if it happened to me, I'd be pretty angry too. But before you get any funny ideas, you better know now that a Zephyrite crusader squadron is arriving in the area. A Noukiite task force is about another hour away, so you won't have to stay in those little life pods for much longer. So if you gotta go, hang on and you'll get plucked out of there as soon as it can be arranged.
"As for your so-called 'queen,' she is currently our prisoner aboard Onii-sama's ship." The smile then slipped from Sakuya's face. "As we speak, Onii-sama's REAL fiancée is having a discussion with Elle about her coveting our brother for no reason whatsoever. Despite what you might have heard, Onii-sama does NOT, nor will he EVER, want anything to do with Elle! So, after Onii-sama's fiancée gets done with Elle, we'll transfer her over to the Zephyrite Inquisition. You can probably guess what'll happen next."
Anna paled. "No . . .!"
"What is she talking about?" Kunou demanded.
" . . . if you people are hoping the Inquisition'll let your queen off the hook that easy, think again," Sakuya added, her voice ice-cold. "During the rescue, one of our younger sisters nearly broke her arm and a few of Onii-sama's old classmates got bruised up pretty badly when your ship's warp core went on the fritz. And all of us who got kidnapped, not to mention our parents and friends back on Earth, are VERY peeved at Elle for pulling this garbage! So if any of you get any ideas about revenge, I suggest you keep in mind that the United Nations are going to be inviting the Zephyrites and the Noukiites to take up PERMANENT residence in our solar system until such time as we've caught up with our interstellar neighbours. Besides . . . " A smile crossed her face. "From what Onii-sama told me, your planet's monarch is elected into her post. Maybe when you get back home, you might force your Senate to IMPEACH Elle and get a more COMPETENT person on that throne. Think about it!"
She winked as she pointed at the camera. The image then faded for a moment before it began to replay. Anna stared at the screen before she reached over to switch off the feed. Gazing at the captain, Kunou was quick to see the lost look on her face. "Anna-san . . .?" He gripped her shoulders.
She quaked, tears brimming in her eyes. "I can't believe this . . . " she whispered. "This isn't the Mr. Groom we met a year ago . . . "
"Moroboshi?!" the kendou-ka probed.
"Yes . . . " she stammered, allowing her companion to draw her into an embrace. "A year ago, Mr. Groom was so . . .! So carefree! He seemed so RIGHT for the Queen to marry! And now . . . " She waved to the blank video screen. "Look how easily he . . .! He . . . "
A sob escaped her as she hugged him. Kunou remained in place, a hand threading through her hair as he gazed out the view port.
* * *
"Mission accomplished!" Tomo declared as she slumped into the chair beside Koyomi, once again dressed in her duty uniform.
The latter nodded as she tapped controls to guide the Haengge'cha away. Setting a course that would allow the Sagussan courier to present a wide birth to the arriving Zephyrite fleet -- not to mention get them clear of the disturbed areas of subspace which had become even MORE disturbed because of the destruction of the Rose Emperor -- the chief engineer artificer then sent her ship into warp for the trip back to Earth and a rendezvous with the Kiboo'cha. "You really didn't do much in the long term."
"At least I held off that bitch before Ataru-sama got there," Tomo noted.
"True, true."
* * *
"So where the hell did Ataru get hold of this ship, anyway?"
The members of Shinobu's homeroom class were standing in the hallway aft of the pilotage. When they had come aboard, Ataru had guided Shinobu, Kumiko and Momoe into the master's cabin at the aft port end of the deck before he headed to the bridge to deal with the Rose Emperor's destruction, and then he headed back to look in on Momoe. Since the Windrider didn't have a separate master (the owner) and commander (the captain) -- Ataru was seen as both in the eyes of Dominion authorities -- only one of the two large cabins aft was prepped for full-time use. The other acted as a guest cabin.
"Search me, man," Ryuunosuke replied to Shinjin's question as everyone took in the details around them. A few of the students had tried the doors leading into the sisters' cabins, but found all of them locked; Ataru had a security system fitted into the Windrider that would respond only if he, his sisters or any of the ship's android crew wanted to access those spaces.
"This isn't Urusian construction by any stretch of the imagination," Mendou noted. "Is this a Noukiite ship, Sakiko-san?"
"Hai, it is," Sakiko replied, having just given the remainder of the people there a cursory pass with her empathic powers to gauge their current mood. For almost all of them, the prevailing mood was shock, clearly thanks to what they had just witnessed aboard the Rose Emperor before Hinako had brought them aboard the Windrider with the Staff of Gihan. If she worded her response correctly, she wouldn't accidentally let it be known to everyone else that Lum was, in a sense of the term, alive. "He got the ship as a reward for his helping the Noukiites deal with the Urusians, especially those leaders in government who might've been involved in the murder of his grandmother."
Ryuunosuke snapped around. "The Onis killed Moroboshi's grandmother?!"
"Yes," Sakiko replied. "She had close ties to the Zephyrites, Ryuu-chan. If the Urusians' plans for the First Tag Race -- had he lost, of course -- were to work, the Zephyrites had to be pushed out of the way. Killing Nagaiwakai-sama guaranteed that." A sad smile crossed her face. "What they didn't count on was the fact that Negako-san could tell the difference between murder and dying by heartbreak. Not to mention the Zephyrites being willing enough to wait until the time was right to deal with them."
The tomboy considered that, and then she breathed out, "Shit . . . "
The door to the master's cabin then opened, Ataru emerging. "Moroboshi . . .?" Mendou called out to him.
Footsteps heralded Shirayuki's arrival from the galley a deck below, a small tea tray in hand. "Nii-sama, here you are!"
"'Nii-sama' . . . " some of the students around them muttered.
"Great! Thanks!" Ataru replied as he took the tray and headed back.
The door closed behind him. Shirayuki nodded, turning to head back to the galley. Before she could take a step, she found her way blocked by Koi Shinjin. "Hey, hold on a minute!" he said as he tried to glare her down. "How the heck can you be Ataru's sister?! He doesn't HAVE sisters!"
Shirayuki stared at her questioner before a snicker escaped her, and then she moved to walk past him. "Silly boy! Hime was adopted into Nii-sama's family!" That had been the explanation the sisters had agreed to use if or when they ever encountered anyone from their brother's past.
"So where's Ataru-kun living now?" a girl asked.
Shirayuki stared at them for a moment, and then she sighed. "Himitsu desu no!" she declared before walking past Shinjin.
Everyone remained rooted in place as the chef descended to the galley level. "Hey, Sakiko-chan, ya ever get the funny feeling that these girls've been proofed against everyone in Tomobiki?" Ryuunosuke whispered to her lover.
"Most likely," Sakiko replied.
Everyone jolted as the Windrider shook from stem to stern, a series of clangs! echoing through the hull. "What the hell's that?!" one boy demanded.
The door to the pilotage opened, revealing Sakuya. "Okay, everyone! Good news!" the eldest sister declared. "We just docked alongside a Zephyrite warship. They've got a courier ready to take you back to Tomobiki right away!"
"You're not coming back with us, Sakuya-san?" Sakiko asked.
Sakuya shook her head as the door to the master's cabin opened to reveal Ataru, Shinobu and Kumiko. "Nope. We've got someplace else to go to first. As to where that might be, well . . . " She then winked. "It's a secret."
Before anyone else could react, Mendou zipped up to grasp Sakuya's hand in his own. "Sakuya-san, we can only thank you enough for your more-than-generous hospitality in our time of need," he stated as he gave her a heart-melting gaze, one guaranteed to succeed in winning a girl to his side.
Sakuya's response was to reach up and forcefully tap Mendou's hand away from hers. "Don't touch," the former warned as she sent her Onii-sama's rival a look that could melt lead. "I've got no time to play with a jerk like you!"
Seeing that, Mendou staggered back, the surprise he felt at Sakuya's reaction etched over his face. That caused everyone to blink in shock as they exchanged looks. "Guess we were right about Moroboshi proofin' his sisters against us," Ryuunosuke whispered to Sakiko.
Sakiko giggled. Shinobu glanced at Ataru, surprised to see a calm look on his face. "Ataru-kun, aren't you going to say anything?"
He returned her look. "About what, Miyake-san?"
Shinobu jolted; like Ranma's fiancées had reacted to her addressing them so formally, she wasn't used to being called anything else but "Shinobu-chan" by her former boyfriend. "Mendou-san just tried to molest your sister!"
Mendou spun on her, his eyes widening even more. "Shinobu-san . . . "
"Well, I really can't do anything about it, Miyake-san," Ataru admitted before snapping his fingers as he realized something. "Although . . . " Everyone blinked as they watched him straighten. "Mendou Shuutarou-san."
Mendou jolted. "Moroboshi . . . "
Ataru then bowed. "I give you my most sincere apologies, Mendou-san."
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
"For my behaviour concerning your sister, Ryooko," Ataru added, ignoring the chorus of snickers from the boys in the room, not to mention the Avalonians in Shinobu's class and Seikou Mie. Mendou remained frozen in place, a shocked look on his face as the future patriarch of the Moroboshi Clan continued, "Even though Ryooko-san has often tried her best to drive you totally insane, your love for her shone through like a nova every time you believed her personal space and dignity were in danger. Given my own relations with my sisters, it is an inspiration to look upon how much you love and care for your own sister. Many times in the past have I taken advantage of that whenever my own lusts overwhelmed me when I was in Ryooko-san's presence. Be assured, I will gladly offer her my own apologies for my behaviour vis-à-vis her in the past. And I give you my assurances that such behaviour will never occur again."
Silence fell over the scene as Ataru straightened himself, he calmly waiting for Mendou's reply. The scion of Japan's richest family remained as still as a statue, his hands raised as if he was warding off an evil spirit. The others from the rivals' former class looked first at Ataru, and then at Mendou, and then back to Ataru again. Finally, Sakuya breathed out, "Well, Onii-sama, since you've apologized to this idiot, what say we get the Inquisition aboard here so Miyake-san and the others can go home?"
"Hai," Ataru replied.
* * *
"Are you people alright?!"
"Yes!" A panting Kunou Tatewaki nodded as the escape pod's hatch was opened, revealing what appeared to be two flight deck technicians dressed in blank work jumpsuits. Both, as standard for most Zephyrites, resembled Europeans from Germany and the Scandinavian nations. "Where are we . . .?" He looked outside, shifting himself to give Anna a chance to look herself.
"Aboard the Holy Republic starship Windrider Dreams," one technician reported, the lack of lip-synch more distracting than the black phoenix tattoo on his and his companion's cheeks. "You're not Ellsian, are you?"
"No!" The kendou-ka nodded as the other tech helped him out of the pod. "I'm from Earth. Japan to be exact. I was absconded from my high school by Anna-san's friends at the direct order of her queen . . . "
"Ah!" The technician laughed as he helped the late Rose Emperor's captain out of the pod. "Your queen didn't fancy the idea of challenging the grandson of a Righteous Gentile without some insurance, eh?"
Kunou perked. "'Righteous Gentile' . . .?!"
Reverent looks appeared on their faces. "The Most Righteous Lady Nagaiwakai Moroboshi, may Eternity bless her for all she did. She was from Japan herself," one of them noted. He then sniffed back a tear as both gazed on the deckhead. "I'll wager that all the Spirits in the Heavens Themselves wept after those heretic Urusians assassinated her!"
"Don't worry about it." His companion patted his shoulder. "The Inquisition and the Noukiites dealt with those heretics."
"Aye, true . . . "
"Captain du Kohln?"
Anna perked as a beautiful woman Elle's age walked up. Dressed in a dark blue jumpsuit with a red version of the Zephyrite broken phoenix insignia on her chest, she had long, wavy blonde hair and deep blue eyes. The rank insignia on her collars quickly identified her to the "Rose Emperor's" captain as a captain herself, no doubt this ship's commander. She straightened herself, nodding. "Yes, I am she. And you are . . .?"
The new arrival respectfully bowed to the older woman. "Captain Sunhair Windrider, PRCZ, commander of the Windrider Dreams."
Anna took a deep breath. Even if, in a way, she could be seen as a prisoner aboard the Zephyrite battlecruiser, she still had her duty to her own crew to perform. "What of my crew, Captain Windrider?" she asked.
"We're pulling the last of the escape pods aboard now," the Zephyrite commander reported as the hangar deck technicians headed off to carry on with their duties. "The count might change as soon as stations report in, but according to my science chief, about two hundred and thirty got clear of your ship before her warp core detonated." Her eyes bowed. Death in space was NEVER pretty. "The chances are very good that the majority of your casualties might all come from your engineering crew, Captain . . . "
"Not to mention those of the security detail Mr. Groom's friends aboard his ship allowed to be sucked into space when that ship pulled away from mine just as the warp core started to overload," Anna added.
The Zephyrite commander blinked before she nodded understandingly. "Well, that's the price you had to pay when you kidnapped Ataru-chan's sisters just so your so-called 'queen' could marry her precious 'Honey' . . . "
Eyes locked on Kunou. The shock on the kendou-ka's face took the two starship commanders by surprise. Anna then spun on their host. "Excuse me, Captain Windrider, I don't mean to sound shocked, but you KNOW him?!"
A beautiful smile crossed the younger woman's face, her eyes glistening with delight for a moment. "Of course I do, Captain du Kohln. As you might know, my father is Magistrate-Bishop Fireye Windrider, the chief administrator of Magairu. He was very good friends with Ataru-chan's grandmother. I met Ataru-chan myself when we both young adolescents. In fact . . . " -- her smile slipped -- " . . . if things hadn't gone wrong five years ago, I might have been engaged to him." A knowing look crossed her face. "I guess you can suspect what our government's reaction might have been if your queen tried to press her own claims on Ataru-chan had THAT happened. Ne?"
Anna blinked before she nodded. Then, to both ladies' surprise, the man beside her lunged over to grab Sunhair's hands. "Miss, how could you even THINK of holding any feelings for that lecher- . . .?!" Kunou demanded.
The echoed clicks! of dozens of firearm safety switches being turned froze the kendou-ka in place. Anna quickly looked around, her eyes picking out the members of the ship's security team glaring her way, Lawgiver pistols and even the odd Peacemaker rifle aimed at Kunou. Glad to see that her ship's crew were still on the ball for a team of home guardsmen -- naval reservists -- just recently brought up to crusader -- active naval -- status, Sunhair slipped her hand away from Kunou's grasp. "I thought you were from Earth," she spoke in accented Japanese, without need of translator. "No doubt, you're that ultra-rich heretic, Mendou Shuutarou. I've heard from some friends of Ataru-chan's grandmother about all the times you've tried to kill Ataru-chan . . . "
"Um, excuse me, Captain . . . "
Sunhair stared at Anna. "What?"
"This isn't Mendou Shuutarou."
"Oh?" The younger captain then stared at Kunou. "So who are you anyway and what's your problem with Ataru-chan?"
Shuddering at the total lack of apprehension this lovely woman showed concerning the vile beast Moroboshi, Kunou straightened himself as he launched into his normal introduction. "I, Captain, am the Blue Thunder of Fuurinkan High School, the rising star of the kendou world, Kunou Tatewaki . . . "
He drew his bokken, and then he yelped as several bolts of energy disintegrated the wooden sword! Quickly drawing his hand down, he looked wildly around the hangar to spot all those who had fired on him. "I see, then." Sunhair crossed her arms, making a finger gesture to her crew to make them stand down. "Fuurinkan? Is that in Tomobiki, by any chance? I've personally never been to that warren of heretics myself . . . "
"No, ma'am," Anna cut in. "We obtained Tatewaki from the Nerima district of Tokyo. It's to the east of Tomobiki. I assume the school he was at when we beamed him aboard is the one he currently states he's attending . . . "
"Foul traitors!" Kunou growled, that statement causing both women to gaze on him. "Was I not distracted by the lovely violet-haired one who's forced to claim that beast as blood-kin, I would've put them all into line . . . "
"'Violet-haired one?'" Sunhair asked.
"One of Mr. Groom's sisters," Anna said. "Chikage, to be exact."
"Right," the Zephyrite drawled before she glared anew at Kunou, who was still muttering about what his classmates had done to him after lunch. "So what exactly did Chikage-chan do that 'distracted' you so much, Kunou-san?"
The kendou-ka stopped. "The beauteous Chikage was testing her skills against me. I was about to defeat her, of course . . . " His voice trailed off as a surprised grin crosses Sunhair's face before peals of laughter escaped the Zephyrite. "What's so funny?!" he then demanded.
"YOU?!" Sunhair shrieked, pointing at him. "Defeat CHIKAGE?!"
"But of course!" Kunou affirmed with a snort, trying not to twitch from what Sunhair's laughter implied. "Only the late, beloved Tendou Akane and the fiery pig-tailed girl can defeat the Blue Thunder in combat . . .!"
"Oh, REALLY?!" the Zephyrite wondered. "Kunou-san, a word of advice before I have you escorted to the brig while we process Captain du Kohln's crew for repatriation! From what I've heard, Chikage-chan only ranks below Ataru-chan's adopted sister Negako in martial arts skill! And Negako-chan is one of the best martial artists on your planet, PERIOD! I suggest that when you finally get back to Tokyo, you take a crash course in something called 'reality' before you think of challenging Ataru-chan's relatives!"
She turned away. "Also . . . " She snapped her fingers.
Kunou yelped as a bolt from a Lawgiver slammed into him, sending him into the deck. Anna screamed, and then she moved to help him as Sunhair glanced over her shoulder. "I don't tolerate ANY insults directed at Ataru-chan OR members of his family, Kunou-san. Especially aboard my ship!" Her voice turned to ice as she gazed on her crew. "The brig!" she barked out.
"YES, MA'AM!" a dozen voices chanted in turn.
* * *
"Ooooh . . . "
"About time you got up, Elle."
The Rose Queen gasped as lances of PAIN ripped through her spine and ribs, her eyes fluttering. Blinking confusedly on finding herself in a dimly lit room no bigger than a storage closet on the Rose Emperor, she grunted as she tried to get back up. She then collapsed on the mat protecting her from the chilly deck. "Wh-where . . .?" She blinked on spotting a pair of feet. Turning to look, she then glanced up to stare into Seiko's impassive face. "Y-you . . .?" Elle sputtered as she tried to sit up. "Wh-what . . .?"
"You're aboard Darling's ship right now," Seiko declared, her arms crossed. "Your own ship's warp core was destroyed when you were captured and brought aboard. Most of your crew made it to the life pods, but your ship's gone. Fortunately for you . . . " -- her eyes narrowed -- " . . . Darling's sisters and his old classmates all made it out alive and intact, though Aria-chan nearly broke her arm along the way."
Elle blinked before a chill warped through her as the word "darling" set off a warning bell deep in her mind. "Why are you . . .?" she hissed as she peered at Seiko, and then her eyes went wide. "No!" She gulped. "L-l-Lum?"
The Oni-turned-Nendo-kata/Terran smirked. "In part."
They stared at each other. The Rose Queen then grunted as she moved to get back to her feet. Seiko remained in place, not moving to either assist or hinder her former rival as Elle nearly dropped back onto her face when the scalding pain in her spine overwhelmed her. Finally, Elle got back to her feet, though she slumped against a bulkhead opposite Seiko, panting heavily as she fought back the tears streaming down her cheeks. "This . . .!" she spat out, glaring at Seiko. "This is . . . an outrage . . .!"
"An outrage?!" a woman's voice echoed from every point in the room. "Then what do you call kidnappin' Ataru's sisters, bitch?!"
Elle gasped, paling as the air between her and Seiko fizzled, revealing the presence of a busty redhead with eyes as blue as a clear sky. Before the Rose Queen could stammer out a question, Ranma walked over, slamming her hand around the Ellsian's neck. Elle croaked as her air was cut off, and then she was effortlessly boosted off her shaking legs. "So this is the little bitch who loves ta store guys inside some big refrigerator to 'preserve' their love for her, huh?!" the martial artist said with an icy sneer as she yanked Elle over so they could gaze eye-to-eye. "I sure as hell ain't impressed, Seiko. Why didn't you off this bitch when you had the chance?!"
"Much that the temptation was there to do just that, she IS a recognized head-of-state, Ranma," Seiko reported, shaking her head. "Atop that, when we accidentally got shot back in time after my friends and I rescued Darling from the Baran Cathedral, we learned that Darling never did touch Elle's shadow when they had their shadow-tag game. We assumed . . . "
"The whole thing wasn't legal, so there should've been no worries about this bitch ever coming back to hurt Ataru again, right?"
"You . . . can't . . . "
Ranma sneered as she leaned close to Elle. "Can't what?"
"Judge me . . . " Elle's hands reached up to pull Ranma's arm away. She gasped as Ataru's girlfriend increased the pressure. "You won't . . .!"
"What? Get away with this? Boy, are YOU livin' in a dream world, girl!" Ranma grinned as she cupped her free hand. "Kontou . . .!"
A buzzing noise filled the room as the soulsword appeared. Elle's eyes widened as Ranma brought that blazing ki-weapon up to hover right beside her head. The hairs on the Rose Queen's head stood on end as her skin tingled from VERY close proximity to that killing energy. "Now, you got a simple choice to make," Ranma's voice lowered to a growl. "You can guess what that choice is." She swung the soulsword away as she leaned up to glare into the other woman's emerald eyes. "And the only choice for you if you want to survive to see your home planet again is to accept this . . . " Her eyes morphed to the burning red cat-slit eyes of the most savage part of Ranma's soul. "If you value your life, THOU -- SHALL -- NOT -- COVET -- MY -- MATE -- AGAIN!"
Elle's eyes went wide as she found herself glaring into those demonic orbs. Then, a spasm of desperation-fuelled strength flooded her arms enough to make her shove Ranma's hand away from her throat. "NO!" she screamed out.
Ranma staggered back as the Rose Queen collapsed against the wall. "RANMA, WAIT . . .!" Seiko screamed, she moving to constrain her.
"Suit yourself, bitch!"
Before Seiko could seize Ranma, the martial artist's hand flicked the soulsword around. The tip of the burning katana blade ripped into Elle's skull just above her left ear, cleaving across her brain in the blink of the proverbial eye. The Rose Queen's body locked up for a moment as a surprised look was flash-frozen on her face. She then dropped like a discarded marionette to the deck, not a sound escaping her. By then, Seiko had grabbed Ranma's arms, throwing in her telekinetic powers to keep the martial artist from doing anything more. Not that anything more needed doing.
"No . . .!"
Seiko stared at Ranma as the soulsword in the latter's hand faded. The wild rage that had twisted the redhead's features into a hideous scowl not seconds ago had just melted into wide-eyed confusion before her skin started to sallow as she remembered what her other-self -- what SHE -- just did. "Oh, no . . .!" Ranma sank to her knees as her eyes locked on the frozen mask of horror Elle's face was twisted into. "No, please . . . "
Sobs stole her voice as Seiko immediately moved to comfort.
* * *
To be continued . . .