Shortly after he arrived aboard the Shield of Hispania, Ves received a summons from the major himself. He handed his luggage towards a hauler bot that automatically brought it back to his cabin.
With that taken care of, Ves followed the map and marched towards the conference room in question. The expansive room that could have accommodated over fifty officers or mech pilots looked hollow and empty when no one arrived as of yet.
Ves picked a random seat in the middle of the conference room and plopped down on it. He wondered why the gruff major went through the trouble of summoning him in person when he could have sent him a notification on his comm.
"There must be something important he wants to discuss with me."
Hopefully the major would be able to dispel some of the questions lingering in his mind. He acquired several over the course of the flight from the Detemen System.
"Ves?" A faintly familiar voice sounded behind him.
Ves looked surprised as the Vesian mech designer traipsed into the conference room after the hatch silently slid open. The woman smiled radiantly at him as she took a seat next to his own.
"I heard that something dreadful happened to you! Did you really escape the Stubby Growler as the Heavenfall missiles broke her apart and crash land onto Detemen IV?"
"It's all true, sadly." He sighed. "How much have you heard?"
"Not so much. I've been assigned aboard another combat carrier that remained in orbit and performed routine duties during the operation."
Ves briefed her on what he lived through, though he couldn't say too much because some of it touched upon classified information. The officer who debriefed him a few days ago forced him to sign a document which enumerated the topics he needed to keep mum on. Naturally, any mention of the 'things' would instantly land him in the brig.
"It's amazing how you survived all alone!" Iris said in astonishment as she referred to his starting moments when he crash-landed in the park. "What is this amazing weapon you used?"
"It's something I got my hands on coincidentally."
Explaining away the Amastendira's contribution to his survival was exceedingly difficult. Ves had to admit his story contained a lot of holes in that regard. When he got debriefed, he tried to skim over it as much as possible.
In any case, his ambiguous talk managed fend off the officer's inquiries, at least that he was aware of. Ves bet on the that the logging function of his military comm possessed a lot of limits. Such a thin device on his wrist wouldn't be able to keep track of everything he did with perfect fidelity. Thus, the acquisition of the Amastendira shouldn't be a clear-cut matter.
He also underwent numerous frisks and body scans while he transferred from the surface to the Antecedent, and when he transferred from the Antecedent to the Shield of Hispania.
None of those security checks produced any contraband. Even if the logs of his military comm showed that Ves pulled out the Amastendira from thin air, they probably would have thought it was a glitch or something.
Still, a bright-eyed person might also conclude that the Amastendira was a powerful hidden trump card awarded by Master Olson. Only someone as wealthy and powerful as her could gift him such a high-tech toy.
Ves actually hoped that the Vandals bought into this misconception. More and more, Ves appreciated the benefit his status as Master Olson's apprentice brought to him. He could whip it out like a talisman anytime he faced a difficult question that shared some relations with the System.
Faced with Iris' insatiable curiosity, he let her make her own conclusions.
"I don't want to talk too much about it. By the way, have you heard if Alloc has been retrieved yet?"
"Alloc Brandstad? No. As far as I'm aware of, he's missing in action. They couldn't find any trace of him in space or on the surface."
This affected Ves quite a bit. The Journeyman Mech Designer had been very considerate towards Ves, which was more than what the other two journeymen from the design department could boast.
Alloc was more than his superior. He was also a mentor of sorts to Ves.
"Then... is he dead?"
"We can never be sure of that." Iris shook her head. "Missing in action means he's missing. More than that, no one can say. It could be his crash ball incurred heavy damage that might have damaged its locators and transceivers when it escaped from the Stubby Growler's destruction. He might still be floating in deep space, though he won't starve or suffocate to death because the Vesian reinforcements would likely pick up his crash ball's presence."
This was only one of many possibilities. Ves grimaced as his thoughts took a darker turn. "Maybe he never survived the Stubby Growler's destruction. Though he sat next to me in the command center, his crash ball might have taken a very different turn that launched him straight at the carrier's power reactor or something."
"Don't let the worst-case scenarios put you down. Even if it doesn't sound very likely, he may still be alive. Don't let go of that hope."
"Are you speaking from personal experience, Iris?"
She smiled ruefully at him. "When you mix in with the Vesian Revolutionary Front, you quickly learn that retirement isn't an option."
Rebellion against a state condemned a person to the life of a fugitive. Space was large and empty, so enemies of the state could easily hide their presence somewhere. Yet to live in some barren rock or in the middle of interstellar space didn't pay the bills.
Ships needed fuel and mechs required maintenance. People needed to be fed, but more importantly they also needed to strive for a dream. Without purpose, rebel movements tended to devolve into pirate gangs.
Principles couldn't be maintained in isolation. Goals would always be forgotten when progress became stalled. Therefore, rebel movements constantly faced the pressure to remain proactive and take a lot of risks.
Accomplishing goals, placating their members and achieving a lot of renown among the people kept these movements alive, though the risks always came at a price.
"Have you lost many friends?" Ves asked.
"Some." She mused. "Thankfully none of my family. As mech designers and specifically as neural interface experts, we enjoy a fairly high status in the VRF. We aren't exposed to as much danger as our mech pilots. Still, accidents can happen, so the possibility of what happened to Alloc always hangs over the Jupiters."
The VRF might be able to extend their tentacles across the entire Kingdom, but they wouldn't be able to fool the ruling powers all the time. Back at home, the Republic regularly tracked down the bases of the Bentheim Liberation Movement and killed all of the rebels they found inside.
The Republic wasn't magnanimous enough to expend an excessive amount of effort in securing prisoners from the noncombatants. Not after all the atrocities the BLM inflicted among civilians.
After a few more minutes of chitchat, Major Verle finally entered the conference room. He looked at Ves and Iris and nodded silently before storming over to the seat opposite of the conference table.
Once he sat down across from the pair, he stared at them with an unnerving expression. "Mr. Larkinson. I'm glad to see your escape from the Stubby Growler hasn't turned you into an imbecile."
What was Ves supposed to say to that. He tried to keep his face as neutral as possible. "Major."
"And the lovely Miss Jupiter. Thank you for continuing to liaise between us and the VRF. We'll be relying on your organization to evade the Vesian defense fleets that are out for our blood."
"It's our pleasure, major." She said. "The VRF is satisfied with the conclusion of the Detemen operation. Enabling the local Detemen League in tearing down Lord Javier from his throne will go a long way in dispelling the infallible aura wrapped around the nobility."
Ves faintly suspected that Iris tried to pad his own accomplishments with those words. He played an integral part in pleasing the Detemen League, after all. The more Iris hinted that they felt pleased at his contribution, the more Major Verle might begin to appreciate his help.
Fat chance of that actually happening though.
"Let's get down to business." The Major looked down upon the data pad in his grasp. "By completing our objectives in the Detemen System, our fleet is entitled to the assistance of the VRF in smuggling us out of the Kingdom, am I correct?"
"That is so, major." Iris nodded gently. "The agreement is still in effect. We acknowledge that the 6th Flagrant Vandals have played their part."
"That's good to hear, because there's a change of plans. We don't want to return to the Tarry region."
"Pardon, sir?" Iris blinked. "Where else do you wish to go if not your home region at the other side of the border?"
"This is where it gets a little complicated. For various reasons, we have business to take care of. Don't worry, the Vandal ships under Colonel Lowenfield's command will continue to follow the original plan, so all of your organization's preparations haven't been made in vain."
"What is it you are intending to do, major?"
Miss Jupiter, new information and new circumstances compel us to run another mission at a location outside of Vesian or Brighter space. For this reason, the ships under my command will not be heading towards the rendez-vous system and merge with the colonel's fleet. Instead, we are to form a separate task force that will run a special mission in Reinald space."
This caused Ves and Iris to widen their eyes.
"You wish to take your task force to the Reinald Republic?! That state is on the other side of the Vesia Kingdom's border! It will take you further and further away from the Bright Republic!"
If Ves didn't know that Major Verle held unquestioning loyalty to Colonel Lowenfield, he would have suspected him of attempting to desert and begin anew as an independent.
"If the VRF wishes to know more about our intentions, then I suggest you contact your liaison that is with Colonel Lowenfield's fleet and have them ask the details from the colonel herself. I'm not at liberty to divulge the details of our task force's mission."
Iris asked a few more questions, but Major Verle continued to stonewall her at every turn. Their mission must certainly be a sensitive one because the major hardly clarified anything at all. The only thing they needed to hear was that the task force needed to arrive at a certain star system within the Reinald Republic within two months.
"I'll be honest with you, major. Two months will be very tight." Iris determined. "A legitimate trade convoy can make the same journey in a week, maybe two if they take the safest route. Yet for a massive task force like yours, it will be an incredible challenge, especially since we need to contact all of the regional rebel movements along the way and strike a deal with each and everyone of them. I'll have to warn you now, their asking prices will assuredly be exuberant."
Major Verle dismissed her concerns. "Colonel Lowenfield is prepared to pay a good price. If our sovvies or credits are insufficient, we can also pay in military assistance, much like we helped the Detemen League. Our only demand is that it must not divert too much time from our journey to the Reinald Republic."
Obviously, such a last-minute change of plans would still upset the VRF. Iris looked very troubled all this time, and she foresaw a lot of yelling and browbeating in the coming weeks as the VRF tried to get the local bullies to play along.
Still, from what she heard, Colonel Lowenfield would absolutely make it worthwhile for them to facilitate the task force's sudden journey.
"On account of the colonel, the VRF may probably agree to your request, but I may not be sure. I am only a liaison, you see."
"I understand, miss."
After that, the major finally turned to other man in the room.
Somehow, Ves felt as if a lot of trouble was about to land in his lap as well.