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 After he returned to the hotel, he lingered at Cinach VIII for a few more days. He occasionally and deliberately showed up in public for various reasons in order to reinforce his alibi.

In particular, he visited the offices or residences of various Journeyman Mech Designers who worked at one of the many universities and research institutions on the planet.

The impromptu exchanges he conducted didn't yield much fruit to Ves. Regardless of his gains or lack thereof, Ves already achieved his goal by acting in a way that did not invite suspicion.

If Ves immediately left Cinach VIII after departing from the Circle of Mota's underground marketplace, then someone might be able to form a connection between Rho-Sigma to Ves Larkinson!

Therefore, even if Ves wanted to leave the planet as soon as possible in order to study his newly-obtained goods, he restrained his urges and acted as if he still had a lot of time on his hands.

Those were some of the slowest days of his life. He exhibited much less enthusiasm for the exchanges he conducted and he often glanced at the clock projected by his comm to see how little time had passed.

Fortunately, now that Ves had returned to the surface, he enjoyed the company of both Lucky and Gavin.

While his cat playfully tugged at his Pride of Dusk while demanding hugs and exotics, Gavin began to distract him by describing their next destination.

"As you know, our next destination is the Hertog Dominion. While it's not as close to the frontier as the Tomaris Federation, the crisis at the border has started to affect it as well."

That caused Ves to pause in eating his lunch sandwich. "Have the sandman raids reached as far as the Hertog Dominion? Already?"

"Only half-a-dozen sandmen fleets have crashed into their border systems so far. While these attacks don't constitute a threat to a proper state, the citizens of the Hertog Dominion are not used to fighting aliens! There is a considerable amount of panic and unrest among its citizens. Everyone is fearing the worst. Markets are destabilized while the rulers are doing their best to mobilize their forces."

Ves could imagine how his original plans for the Hertog Dominion might fall through due to all of the recent changes.

The escalating sandman incursions became an increasingly greater threat to the Komodo Star Sector!

"If it's already that bad in the Hertog Dominion, what about our destination after that? Is the Tomaris Federation still holding together?"

Gavin sighed. "Tomaris has fully mobilized into a war footing. Sandmen fleets are passing through the gaps in the border like maggots trying to burrow into the apple that represents human space. The intensity and frequency of all of the fighting has matched the level of the Bright-Vesia Wars! In fact, many analysts think that the worst is yet to come!"

Ves sat up straighter from his chair when he heard this news. "What?! That's ridiculous! What is the CFA doing?! Are you still taking their time in sending reinforcements?"

"That's the thing. While the CFA has diverted some of their smaller squadrons and flotillas to reinforce the hotspots, the sandmen are assaulting a broad front that spills across the entire length of the border. Their forces are being stretched thin and way too many sandmen fleets are getting through! Mancroft and many of the other states in the vicinity are barely hanging on with the assistance of the CFA."

This sounded incredibly serious! The sandman incursion might even have the potential to threaten the Bright Republic!

"How is home?"

"Fine, thankfully. The sandmen appear to divert most of their fleets in the direction of the Tomaris Federation. That's also while their situation is the most dire. The other states in the vicinity of the border can easily deal with the fleets that have fanned out from the center of their direction."

As Gavin described a few more details about the recent incursions, he also announced a piece of unwelcome news.

"Due to the crisis at Tomaris, all of the appointments you've made there are called off. None of the Journeymen who work there can free themselves up to conduct an exchange with you. Many of them are assisting their military in hidden research bases and the like. Others have packed up their bags and left the state as fast as possible!"

Ves wasn't surprised to hear about the former, but the latter did take him aback. "Mech designers actually fled? What about their duty?"

"They aren't Brighters like you, boss. Those who live closer to the borders of the frontier are a lot more self-serving than you think. I don't blame them. If I was in their shoes, I would try and make off as well, damn whatever assets that's left behind."

The idea disgusted him a bit. It was one thing to depart from a state to seek better opportunities, but to do so while their home was under an existential threat was dishonorable!

Even if Ves slowly cared less and less about the Bright Republic lately, he still felt compelled to defend his home state in its time of need!

This was because he was a Brighter!

"I take it that traveling to the Tomaris Federation at all is a bad idea."

"Yeah. No matter how you put it, spending your vacation in a middle of a sandman-infested war theater is not the wisest choice. I think you should consider scrapping your plans short. We've already started running behind schedule anyway. We've lingered too long in the Sentinel Kingdom."

Ves sighed. He knew what was behind the sandman incursions that was plaguing the Tomaris Federation and the other states at the border. The true mastermind behind this incomprehensible push was not an entity that he wanted to spar with right now.

There was no way a single human like him could ever obtain the upper hand in a direct confrontation against Sigrund!

"Agreed." He spoke. "Please clear my schedule of anything related to the Tomaris Federation. As much as I sympathize with their difficulties, I don't want to be press-ganged into another war."

This was unlikely to occur. Perhaps he might be in trouble if he was just a low-ranking mech designer, but as a Journeyman he enjoyed greater protection.

Still, the point was that a foreign Journeyman like him had no business visiting an active warzone unless he was part of some delegation to assist the state. There were probably rules in place that regulated these kinds of things.

Ves resumed eating and spoke between his bites. "I'm still visiting the Hertog Dominion, though. I don't want to get pulled into any wars, but I want to check their situation to see how they cope with the sandmen. Do you think that is still possible?"

Both Gavin and Nitaa looked at each other.

His bodyguard couldn't remain still anymore. "I highly advise you to cancel your plans for the Hertog Dominion, sir. While the sandmen threat hasn't reached the level where we need to be concerned, the situation might grow worse by the time we have reached the state. In addition, it's not just the sandmen we have to be on guard against. The Dominion itself..."

"The Hertog Dominion is not exactly known for its stability and rule of law." Gavin continued. "It's like a downgraded version of the Sentinel Kingdom. It has a tyrannical government, but without the strength to back up their iron rule. From what I've read, the society there has always been unstable beneath the surface."

"That doesn't concern us, right? As long as we keep our noses out of local politics, we are just guests."

Gavin shook his head. "You're right, but who knows what will happen now that the sandmen are thrown in the mix. What I'm trying to say is that all of the risk factors have grown since you have made the initial decision to travel through the Hertog Dominion. Already, half of the Journeyman you've made an appointment with have rescinded their invitations. Same as the mech designers from Tomaris, they're too busy to bother with you, boss."

Eventually, Ves gave in to the advice of his staff and decided to truncate his visit to the Hertog Dominion. He'd only stay there long enough to make some visits he still thought worthwhile before linking up with Gloriana who awaited his arrival there.

"My meeting with Gloriana is still in place, right?"

"Yes, though she also sent a message to you that it's fine if you want to relocate your meeting to another place."

Ves grimaced. "No thanks. I won't be visiting this part of the star sector anytime soon, so I want to take the opportunity to experience one more culture."

While he did indeed wish to broaden his horizons by experiencing what life was like in the Hertog Dominion, he still harbored another goal.

He wanted to investigate the sandmen invading human space. While Ves was too afraid to confront Sigrund directly, it should still be okay to study the remains of the sentient AI's sacrificial goons.

How did Sigrund manipulate the sandmen into committing a suicidal invasion against humanity? What compelled the sandmen to throw away their lives for a futile opportunity to root themselves in civilized space?

More importantly, Ves began to harbor some more ideas about the sandmen, especially their leader caste. In order to test some of the assumptions he made, he wanted to get in touch with one of the sandman leaders, or their remains if he couldn't get close to a living specimen.

Not even Gavin or Nitaa dissuaded him from this course of action. If he didn't perform an investigation in person, he wouldn't feel relieved about the threat posed by the sandmen.

Perhaps Ves merely wanted to do something to atone for unleashing Sigrund to the galaxy.

"We're almost done here." He spoke. "It's time to return to the fleet and leave the Sentinel Kingdom."

Ves stayed on the planet for one more day before he left. He and his group calmly boarded a transit vehicle from the spaceport and reached a space station. From there, they booked another transit back to the orbit of Cinach XII where they headed towards one of the floating drydocks.

Crindon welcomed Ves at the huge facility.

"Welcome back, sir."

Ves stared up at the Barracuda nestled in between the clamps. Though most of the overhaul took place inside the corvette, her surface had been brushed up as well. Some of the dust and corrosion and damage from micro impacts had been smoothed out. Along with a fresh layer of coating, his ship looked as good as new!

"Did you encounter any major issues during the overhaul?" Ves asked his Kinner bondsman.

"There are always issues." Crindon responded and handed over a data pad to Ves. "You can study which of the changes have gone through and which one we haven't managed to perform due to various reasons."

The Barracuda is a second-class ship. I'd be surprised if you didn't encounter any setbacks."

The security expert began to explain what he accomplished. In short, most of the communication and internal sensor systems were more robust against external intrusions.

In addition, by replacing parts that originated from the Friday Coalition with identical parts from the Hexadric Hegemony, the ship should no longer be easily accessible by any parties from the former state.

"Even Hexers will encounter some difficulty in intruding into your ship's network with the new countermeasures I've implemented." Crindon confidently grinned. "While any hacker can gain access to systems that are connected in a network, there is no way they can ever intrude in a system that is air-gapped. I've replaced many components that used to communicate with each other wirelessly with less sophisticated wired components. I've also introduced many breaks and other barriers in between the wires in order to close off systems that you truly don't want anyone to access. This includes practically every monitoring and communication system in your stateroom!"

"Finally! I can enjoy some true privacy!"

The days of Gloriana or her AIs secretly snooping in on him while he worked or slept were finally over!

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