Ves instantly catapulted to the top, but that didn't necessarily secured his win. He was still far short of reaching the victory condition for the game, so he had no choice but to transform his newly-gained wealth into strengthening his battle capabilities.
With a much-expanded force of mid-range ships and mechs, Ves experienced a renaissance which he took full advantage off to batter Chief Haine's increasingly formidable pirate armada. It was a shame that Chief Avanaeon's elite mercenary force beggared off at this time.
"Avanaeon, scuttlebutt says that the slapdash installation of the FTL drives on our logistics ships is coming back to bite us. Is there any credence to this rumor?"
The engineer grunted. "All the chief engineers are pulling double duty in trying to keep those shoddy FTL drives in one piece. What do you expect? They're simply the wrong fit for the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan. To a mech designer like you, it's like putting an engine for a light mech into a medium mech. The FTL drives constantly break something after each and every jump. That's why we've suffered so many many delays recently."
This sounded very worrisome to the other occupants of the compartments. "Do we need to open the stockpiles for the repair effort?"
"No, it's fine. The lack of materials is not an issue. The main challenge we are grappling with is that we don't have a good understanding of FTL technology ourselves. Even the best of humanity hasn't figured out all the nuances, so us poor engineers from a backwater third-rate state are only scratching the surface in this field."
"Aren't chief engineers supposed to master FTL theory?" Soapstone followed up.
Avanaeon laughed. "Impossible! You'll have to be as smart as a three-hundred year old theoretical physicist to understand maybe twenty percent of how FTL drives work. Engineers like us make do with maybe five percent. We mainly learn what each component of an FTL drive is suppose to do and how it should look like. Unlike mech designers, we don't need to understand the underlying workings of FTL drives in order to get it to work."
"So you are essentially treating FTL drives as black boxes?" Ves asked.
Even though he knew that engineers didn't comprehensively grasp the theory of FTL travel, he severely underestimated how little they actually knew.
The thought disconcerted him a lot more than he thought. After all, he wouldn't be happy to know if he rode a shuttle piloted by someone who never graduated from piloting school.
"You don't want to mess around with FTL drives. One faulty component can cause a ship to get lost in the higher dimensions for centuries. That's the least-bad outcome by the way. It's much more likely to get dropped out of FTL only to get sucked into a random black hole. What a way to go."
Everyone shuddered a bit at the thought.
Chief Haine's attempt to beat back the sudden incursion from Ves succeeded, but at great cost. Her pirate fleet lost most of their low-quality scum. Despite being used as sacrificial pawns, the stupid pirates rabidly held up the rear guard and fought to the death.
The strengthened mercenary corps owned by Ves lost a lot of time chewing through the cannon fodder. By the time they shrugged off the pirate scum, Chief Haine's elites had already made a getaway.
In the meantime, Chief Avanaeon's mercenaries actively hunted for Lieutenant Commander Soapstone's treasure hunting expedition. They followed the trail of breadcrumbs into uncharted territory and through sheer luck managed to arrive at the right star system.
"Hey! That's not fair!" Soapstone slammed her fist against the table. The vibration from the impact briefly scrambled the projection of the game. "Out of thirty-nine star systems your fleet could have jumped to, how come you picked the right one?!"
"I'm just lucky, haha!" Avanaeon laughed as he sent his elite mercenaries to decimate Soapstone's civilian-grade ships. "Prepare your booty, because I'm coming to take them all!"
Soapstone's expedition had been caught in the middle of a planetary exploration phase and faced two difficult choices. Either she could abandon her considerable landbound assets and preserve all of her ships, or she could make a stand in an attempt to buy enough time to evacuate her landbound forces.
The first option led to guaranteed survivor, but represented a major setback. The second option might cause her to bow out of this game.
The former option wasn't even a viable choice at all. Chief Engineer Avanaeon loved to run with very fast ships, so there was no running from his pursuit.
The outcome of the battle arrived quickly enough. Soapstone hadn't devoted enough resources to defend her fleet from spaceborn threats and paid for it. Even though Avanaeon fought with a diminished force of mechs, their outstanding quality allowed him to defeat the much more fragile ships and mechs of Soapstone's treasure hunting expedition.
The logistical officer was the first player to be taken out of the game.
"You lucky dog."
With three players left in the game, the session transitioned into the late game phase. Every side accumulated a core force of high quality people and assets. Instead of racing to accumulate enough wealth to satisfy the victory condition of the game, everyone tried to hunt each other in order to take their opponents out directly.
"Come on, Haine. Where is your mighty pirate fleet?"
"I'm swaggering towards you! Just you wait! Our final battle will soon begin!"
"Speaking of final battles, how high are the odds we'll be forced into a battle against the Hafner Duchy?" Avanaeon asked.
"My gut feeling tells me that Hafner won't let us go without a fight." Haine remarked. "I've managed to survive up to now by listening to my gut feeling, so you better take my warning seriously."
Ves shrugged at that as he drove his mercenary corps in a search pattern. "I've studied Hafner's strategies extensively, and one thing that stands out is that they've erected a massive monitoring web at the border between the Kingdom and the Reinald Republic. According to Miss Jupiter, there's no way the local rebels can sabotage this monitoring network. We'll definitely trip an alarm as soon as our ships near the border."
"Hafner has a reputation for responding quickly to alerts. Their ships catch up fast."
"I'm very concerned about Hafner. All the information I've read about them suggests that they are zealous pirate hunters. Added to the fact that they know we'll have to cross their borders, they'll be ready to take us out. Frankly speaking, if not for the two-month deadline of our mission, we should have tried to go around and avoid this territory entirely."
After jumping through several star systems, Ves finally cornered Haine's pirate fleet. A massive battle ensued as both sides fought to the death.
One of the more annoying aspects of Haine's pirates was that she always managed to max out their loyalty scores. The last time he played pirate, all of his subordinates deserted him once he sustained twenty percent losses. The gutless pirates under his command showed no appreciation for his command.
Mercenaries fit better with his playstyle anyway. Most mercenaries possessed a sense of honor, and if nothing else they were lured by generous pay and hefty pensions for their loved ones should they fall.
Right now, his mercenaries gained the edge. Pirate elites or not, criminals mainly sourced their mechs and ships from the black market, which wasn't known for their quality control. At least a fourth of the hardware that Chief Haine bought from a pirate station suffered a malfunction during the battle.
"Those numbskull profiteers! Isn't it too much to ask for me to get what I paid for?!"
Ves laughed at that as his forces slowly gained the advantage. "That's pirates for you. They're utterly lawless. Without the need for the MTA to certify their mechs, they can pull off any scam they can get away with. I can think of a million ways to fleece my customers if I have no morals."
"Pff. Mech designers. Always thinking about profit before duty."
"Well, you are about to lose!" Ves replied, not taking offense at her jeer.
The battle took a sudden turn when the Chief Engineer showed up out of nothing. His reconstituted force of elite mercenaries instantly dove into the battle.
"Sure! Let's kick this arrogant mech designer's butt!"
"Avenaeon! That's low! Fighting alongside pirates is a great taboo!"
"Not if we keep our distance!" Avenaeon responded with a grin. "Besides, once I clean up your dinky little mercenary corps, I'll immediately prove my law-abiding ways by finishing off what you started."
The chief technician and chief engineer were in cahoots with each other. It made sense to gang up on Ves to them because his mercenary corps was the strongest force by a fair margin. One-on-one, neither of the chiefs could match the strength of his mercenary corps.
The battle ended in a tragedy for Ves. He'd been too eager to seek a final confrontation, and he didn't expect Chief Avenaeon to join the fun so quickly.
"The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind! Tough luck, Ves, but this time you're the mantis!"
"Good game, but how the hell did your fleet arrive at the battle so quickly? I was certain that I could have finished off the pirates before you arrived."
"There are lots of tricks you can pull off with certain FTL drive models if you're willing to burn them out. I performed an ultra-long-ranged transition at double their effective range. I can cover twice the distance at the same amount of time. The only downside is that navigation is gone to hell. I lost over thirty percent of my fleet to the tides of the higher dimensions."
"Damn. Well, at least I've learned something new."
With Ves out of the way, Haine's badly battered pirates contended evenly against Avenaeon's elite mercenaries. As a last hurrah, Ves had ordered his mercenaries to focus their final moments into crippling the enemy mercenaries. Since Avenaeon already lost thirty percent of his forces from botched FTL transitions, he really didn't have a lot of mechs at his disposal.
Haine managed to retrieve her malfunctioning mechs and kludged a number fixes together that restored their fighting strength. Those extra mechs tipped the scales in her favor, causing her to be the ultimate winner of this session.
"Good game." Avanaeon said, being gracious enough to concede the win to Haine.
"Yeah! Go team pirates!"
The losers at the table grumbled a bit as they raised their comms and transferred five hundred credits to Chief Haine's account.
"I'll earn that money back next time, so don't spend them yet!"
"Keep on dreaming, Soapstone!"
After wrapping up the game, they retired to the sofas and shared a few drinks. An hour later, Ves departed from the lounge to call it a night.
When Chief Haine initially invited him to these little gaming sessions, he only accepted out of a social obligation. Each session ran for at least an hour, which was precious time that Ves could have spent on furthering the repairs of the task force's mechs.
It was only after he attended the first couple of sessions that Ves realized the value of these informal gatherings. Everyone invited to the games served a vital function aboard the Shield of Hispania.
Everyone had a tendency to loosen their lips during the gaming sessions. Ves learned a wealth of information from key personnel that he would have never gotten wind of in his regular capacity.
Naturally, the others expected him to reciprocate, so he returned the favor with some semi-critical nuggets of information from time to time. He was glad that everyone knew their limits. Nobody leaked a word of classified information unless all four of them possessed the right clearances.
Through these regular off-duty meetings, Ves pieced together Major Verle's plan for Hafner.
The mech officer came up with a bold plan. Instead of letting Hafner come to them, the Vandals would take the fight to Hafner! In other words, they planned to surprise the duchy by launching a surprise attack against one of their worlds!