The conference chamber fell into ruins. Rubble and debris from the self-destructed tunneling machine bombarded most of the space with dangerous fragments. The shockwave sweeping over the entire chamber flung the unconscious delegates and their seats backwards and against the walls!
Ves cracked open his eyes roughly a minute after the explosion. His resilient physique allowed him to recover faster than anyone else, not that most would be waking up anytime soon.
He threw his gaze at Venerable Foster's body. She suffered some cuts as some sharp pieces of metal debris brushed past her bodies. Other than that, she wasn't in danger of losing her life, so Ves quickly cast aside his worry.
Slowly but surely, he climbed back up to his feet. He spotted the Amastendira ripped from his grasp and thrown to the ground a few steps away from him. Ves concentrated on the weapon and caused it to dematerialize back into his Inventory.
"That's a handy trick."
He turned his gaze towards the middle of the conference chamber and spotted nothing but a broken and debris-strewn hole in the ground. Only fragments remained of what used to be a stealth-oriented tunneling machine.
Ves guessed that it would be impossible to gather any clues from the remnants. He shook his head at the awful sight but walked closer and peered into the hole.
"No sounds. No vibrations. I doubt another machine will come."
That gave him some relief. He had a feeling the conspirators did not employ any other assets for fear of discovery.
After tentatively concluding that a second tunneling machine wouldn't come up, he turned around and sought out the head boxes containing the cut-off heads of Colonel Xelven and Count Reginald.
The tunneling machine's self-destruction bounced the transparent boxes against the wall, causing them to land on skewed orientations.
Fortunately, it appeared the head boxes had been designed to be robust, as the machinery keeping the heads stuffed inside some sort of preservative liquid still worked normally as far as he could see.
The sight of them still creeped him out. Ves couldn't help but right their orientation.
"What is going on here?" He wondered.
Whoever masterminded this attack apparently didn't plan on killing everyone. Instead, they just wanted to put everyone asleep and render all equipment inactive so that they could extract two traitors bearing two valuable head boxes.
For some reason, the value of the information contained in the minds of Colonel Xelven and Count Reginald surpassed almost everything else in Kester Hills!
The only heads more valuable than the two were the heads of Senator Tovar and Prince Colchester.
"Have they been attacked as well?"
Even if they were, Ves doubted that the two VIPs would be so easy to take away. Senator Tovar would have definitely learned his lesson from last and intensified his security at the very least.
Just as he contemplated whether he should stick around or go check up on Senator Tovar's estate, Ves heard a vague noise coming from above. He looked at the skylight illuminating the chamber from above only to see several objects punching through!
Ves closed his eyes and shielded his face with his forearm. A series of thuds sounded from the middle of the chamber as a small squad of exoskeleton soldiers bore their weapons in each direction.
Two of the soldiers noticed that Ves was still conscious. "FREEZE!"
"Hey, I'm on your side!"
Ves did as commanded as the newcomers swept and secured the entire chamber as well as the reception hall and other side rooms. He sighed in relief as he read their markings.
The heavily-armed exoskeleton soldiers that just arrived hailed from the 1st Adamant Fists of the 3rd New Foundation Division of the Mech Corps. Ves faintly heard more noises in the air from the holes in the skylight. More reinforcements arrived from above.
It was a given that the Honored Ones and the others took notice of the blackout that engulfed Kester Hills.
The conspirators timed their operation precisely. If everything went according to plan, then the treacherous Major Sanawn and Lord Brennan would have just made it off with the head boxes by jumping into the stealthy tunneling machine!
"Is this really the extent of their plan?"
For all the elaborate planning and preparation, Ves again doubted whether they went through all this trouble just to steal away two heads.
"Even so, with those two heads, they can do much."
Both Colonel Xelven and Count Reginald served as the lead negotiators on behalf of their respective patrons. They knew almost as much as Senator Tovar and Prince Colchester, but enjoyed much less security.
Anyone plotting to keep the war going would be able to dig up a wealth of information from their heads. They could easily use their gains to figure out everything the peace advocates had in mind, thereby allowing them to undermine any subsequent attempts at forging an early peace!
If this was the main plan of the conspirators, then Ves had to admit it was clever and exceedingly well-executed. They probably had several more men on the inside to facilitate such an extensive range of sabotage. They encompassed not only the Brighters and Vesians accompanying the peace delegations, but also the supposedly neutral Honored Ones as well!
This conspiracy certainly ran deep!
While the exoskeleton soldiers of the Adamant Fists secured the conference chamber, more armed soldiers arrived from the Vesians and the Honored Ones. The Reinaldans arrived last, of course, but they worked twice as hard in order to make up for their many inadequacies.
The reinforcements took away the two head boxes as well as their damaged and bleeding corpses. The bodies might be salvageable if they revitalized them. At the very least, they offered a good baseline for cloning new bodies for the decapitated heads to house themselves on. Such procedures no longer confounded modern medical science.
After some time, the new arrivals managed to get the security center back online. As they worked away the sabotage, other soldiers took Ves, Venerable Foster and every other member of the delegation into an underground infirmary built underneath the security center.
Naturally, the suspicious soldiers also kept an eye on them in case they posed a threat.
Ves merely shrugged at the somewhat rough and unfriendly treatment. Having been subject to similar situations, he knew better than to take it to heart. The soldiers were just doing their jobs after the Honored Ones and everyone else dropped the ball. Again.
His faith in security dropped by another notch. No matter how many precautions someone took, there was always a way to disable or circumvent them as long as you had a man on the inside.
The soldiers set every member of the delegation aside and locked them in their own rooms while their investigators sorted out the mess.
After roughly half a day, the door opened up. Ves quickly shot to his feet at the sight of Senator Tovar himself!
The old man waved aside his heavy guards before commanding the door to be shut. "Ves. I suppose we have you to thank for saving Colonel Xelven and Count Reginald. This latest attack is far more devious and extensive than we have ever expected."
A thousand questions swirled in Ves' mind. He was so tired and harried about what just happened that he didn't bother to dress up his words.
"What is going on, senator?"
The senator looked a little reproachful. "I suppose you do deserve an explanation after all you have done for us. This will take some time."
Camden Tovar calmly stepped forward and sat on a spare seat meant for guests. "When Prince Colchester and I initially came into contact to organize the peace talks, we quickly received indications that certain elements within our states are aware of what we wish to accomplish. It is very hard to keep a secret in this day and age. The only way we can deal with this problem is to accept that our enemies will not sit still and act accordingly."
"You mean... you knew we'd be attacked?"
"We knew." Senator Tovar nodded lightly. "In fact, Kester Hills is not as barren and peaceful as you thought. We had many more mechs and soldiers in reserve in the periphery of this retreat, ready to spring into action if anything went amiss."
"Nothing happened for a long time after everyone fell unconscious."
"We made some mistakes. Our backup forces fell under the same sabotage that befell Kester Hills. While our fleets in orbit quickly found out that something went wrong, it took time for them to deploy reinforcements to the surface."
"It's because of Major Sanawn and Lord Brennan, right?"
"Correct. Prince Colchester and I trusted our respective people. Both have served as loyal retainers for a very long time that it is almost unimaginable that they would betray us so. Major Sanawn... how long has she worked for Ramza Family?"
Ves raised his eyebrow. "How do you know she worked for the Ramza Family?"
The senator smiled at that moment. "Prince Colchester and I kept a close eye on our most likely domestic opponents to act against our initiative. Within the Bright Republic, it has always been the Ramza Family that stood against my Tovar Family. Now, we have gathered enough clues and circumstantial evidence to pin this event to the Ramzas!"
"That is.. great?"
There must be a reason why Senator Tovar mentioned the Ramza Family besides informing Ves that they identified one of the masterminds. Was the senator attempting to ruin Ves' impression of the Ramzas so that he would grow closer to the Tovars?
As suspicions welled up in his mind, Ves voiced some of the thoughts he formed during his time of rest in the underground infirmary.
"Regardless of your plans to catch the conspirators in the act, I think it isn't a coincide that Venerable Foster and I have been brought along."
"Oh? For what it's worth, Ves, I really do appreciate you and your uncanny ability to survive various perils."
"I think that's the main reason why you brought me along, right?" Ves asked with his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "I have a track record of that. You also know my secret weapon by now. It's a weapon that's nearly impossible to hack."
The old man smiled genially at Ves, as if he was a grandpa smiling at a grandchild for impressing with a childish antics.
Ves pressed on. "Something similar must have prompted Prince Colchester to include Venerable Foster in his delegation. As a promising expert pilot who has a decent hope of advancing to ace pilot, she's not just valuable to the Vesia Kingdom, but also to the MTA. No one in their right mind would want to harm a single hair on her when she's outside the cockpit. As long as she resides in Kester Hills, the conspirators aren't able to wipe us all out by throwing an artificial meteorite on the village or something."
"That is very clever of you." Senator Tovar chuckled. "Indeed, expert pilots are just as valuable off the battlefield. Prince Colchester isn't the first person to take advantage of the MTA strictures and he won't be the last. Expert pilots are one of the most valuable bodyguards in the galaxy. I believe Secretary Lowe once described the two of you as wildcards. That is exactly what you and Venerable Foster are. Both of you complicate the plans of our enemies by your presence alone."
Calling them wildcards was a generous way of describing them as pawns. In both cases, the person holding the cards or pawns called the shots.
Realizing that he'd been used in this fashion left a foul taste in his mouth. Even so, Ves knew better than to express his dissatisfaction. What was done was done, and Ves already sided with the Tovar Family anyway.
"So what now, senator? Have we at least gained something out of this mess?"
Camden Tovar smiled brightly. "Now, the real negotiations begin."