Establishing his own shadow force enabled Ves to punch above his weight. It also allowed him entry into the darker part of the galaxy. He could accomplish both without tarnishing his reputation.
In the light, Ves was talented and promising mech designer. He ran his own company that had grown to the point of selling his mechs all over the Komodo Star Sector. In his free time, he dabbled with treasure hunting expedition, but all in all he was only as shady as the average businessman.
In the dark, Ves or whatever pseudonym he decided to adopt would become a hidden player in a game that few people were aware of in the first place. His shadow force granted him the right to participate in such games and thereby enable him to achieve goals that would have been impossible for his public identity to accomplish.
"Most people think society is ruled by those in the light. I would argue that the real power brokers are the players who prefer to lurk in the dark."
Ves couldn't offer any solid proof to his assertions. However, the events he witnessed so far had been so impactful that his perspective of human society couldn't be divorced from this dualistic perspective.
"At the heart of it all, the power brokers are all competing in pursuit of longevity."
Nothing else mattered compared to living a couple of hundred years longer. Doubtlessly many people went through untold extremes in order to obtain such a chance.
"Well, enough dreaming about my ambitions. While it's important to know what I'm aiming for in my life, I still need to get back to work."
The engineers had it worse this time. Fixing the combat carriers of their surface damage was a monumental endeavor that could never be competed in a month or two. This made their journey into the frontier more precarious, but Ves would rather ride with a damaged ship than to have less mechs at his disposal.
As Ves returned to his work, he tallied the damaged mechs and drafted individual repair plans for those that needed them. He delegated responsibility for fixing up the lightly-damaged mechs to his deputies.
"Patching up the spaceborn mechs is only a secondary priority at this point. Our first priority remains readying our landbound mech for high-g deployments."
Ves faced a lot of issues with this responsibility. The Vandals utilized so many different mech models with their own unique customizations that Ves practically had to draft an individual modification scheme for over two-hundred-and-fifty landbound mechs.
Every single attempt was like designing a variant. Even if he was a pretty good mech designer, designing that many variants in the span of a month was inhuman!
Still, just because the problem sounded daunting didn't mean Ves had no way of solving it. The first solution was to simplify the matter and categorize similar mechs into their own sub-categories. Ves would only have to put his full efforts on developing a modification scheme for only one of the mechs.
He would then dump the scheme in the laps of his deputies and order them to adjust them to the other mechs that shared the same base model. "I've been hogging so many duties that Mercator and Trozin are having it easy. It's about time for them to sweat on my behalf."
This wasn't an easy decision to make. Ves held the utmost confidence in his own skills, and he was never truly satisfied with the work of his lessers. Their current capabilities simply didn't garner any respect from him. Yet if Ves wanted to complete his work in time, he had no choice but to lower his standards and spread the workload to his lessers.
"Maybe they won't be able to produce the best work, but it should be good enough for the Vandals."
That was what mattered the most right now. Necessity and lack of time forced Ves to loosen up from his constant refrain of delivering the highest quality possible.
The approach went against his instincts. Ves would never tolerate such sloppiness in his own company. Unfortunately, reality wasn't so kind to grant him the time to slowly work his way through his problems.
"Speaking of problems, the Swordmaiden delegation is about to arrive."
Ves didn't know what to think about Lydia's Swordmaidens. Were they pirates or intelligence operatives masquerading as pirates?
"They certainly acted the part during the last battle."
According to Chief Haine, much of their actions could be chalked to posturing. They didn't really put their mind on this battle, but instead acted to improve their standing in front of the Vandals. Pirates thrived on reputation to a much greater degree because they couldn't depend on the law to protect them on their behalf.
Frightening or intimidating their peers was a survival mechanism to them. Just like how Ves relied on building up a reputation for quality to survive in the market, Lydia's Swordmaidens relied on their reputation for ferocity to fend off any bottom feeders with ill intentions.
Ves couldn't lie to himself. He was curious about the Swordmaidens. For all intents and purposes, they were probably the most amiable pirates he would ever encounter.
He arrived at the shuttle hangar bay at the appointed time. The majority of the servicemen aboard the Shield of Hispania already arrived early and stood at ranks. The Vandals decided not to roll out the dress uniforms because other threats could always pop up in the Remoss System.
"This is just an attempt to get a feel for each other." Chief Haine commented as Ves found his way to her side. "It's no secret that some bigwigs forced us to work together with the Swordmaidens. We don't have anything in common, so everyone is in a hurry to get to know each other."
Ves nodded. "This marriage is a little too forced. What happened in the last battle can't happen again."
A shuttle coated in the outfit colors of light green and blue slipped through the energy screen covering the open hangar entrance. The craft looked beaten but robust, and Ves instantly spotted the marks of frequent patchwork repairs.
The side of the craft carried a faded emblem of the Swordmaidens. It depicted a screaming woman in knight's armor holding a two-handed sword aloft against a backdrop of stars. The image it conveyed was as simple as a rock. Nobody would be able to mistake their identity or ideals.
When the shuttle touched down on the deck, the hatch slowly opened up.
First to leave were four serious-looking Swordmaidens in semi-powered heavy combat armor. Though not as strong as exoskeleton armor, these suits performed much better in confined spaces. They all looked like hey had plenty of experience in boarding enemy craft or invading enemy bases.
The second wave of women consisted of what appeared to be their officers. Every woman looked tall and strong, unnaturally so but not unusual in this day and age. Body modification was so ubiquitous in this day and age that even pirates had access to these kinds of services. Plenty of hack-job doctors made themselves home in various pirate stations.
These ones looked like they went the extra mile though. Some replaced their eyes with those of a cat, while others exhibited subtle scales over their skin.
Many Vandals held their breath in shock.
Ves would have mistaken them for citizens of the Coman Federation with their embrace of alien genes. While genetic modification was something to be frowned upon, he had long shed his naivete about the matter. Those in power needed to be better than the common man, and mixing your own genome with superior alien traits was the most expedient way of stretching or breaking the human limit.
Even so, most people in the upper class had the decency to hide their modifications and retain their baseline human appearances. The rare exceptions such as the transhuman crazies from the Coman Federation would be kept at a healthy distance in order to avoid polluting the minds of average people.
It was a good thing the Vandals had already been warned. Besides the shock of encountering alien features in the flesh, the excitement quickly subsided. It helped that the Swordmaiden officers hadn't resorted to more extreme deviations.
"They're women, after all." Chief Haine commented.
The Swordmaiden officers formed a line of their own and eyed the Vandals with challenging expressions. Compared to the functional burgundy-and-black uniforms of the Vandals, the Swordmaidens adorned themselves with barbaric-looking garments made out of exobeast pelts.
Reptilian, mammalian, covered with fur or scales and accompanied by a riot of colors, the Vandals struggled to find the meaning behind the clothes.
Ves saw what many others couldn't. His sixth sense rippled when he focused on the clothes. Each Swordmaiden invested a significant amount of emotion in those garments. Their shapes and colors didn't matter as much as what wearing them represented.
"Do you know what's going on with those clothes, chief?"
"From what I heard, the Swordmaidens consider it a rite of passage to hunt an exobeast on an untamed planet." Chief Haine replied. "They skin the pelts by themselves and fashion them into clothes. That's why some of them look cruder than others."
He understood the sentiment that came from this tradition. He felt much the same whenever he handcrafted a mech of his own design. Those women put their heart in this ritual. The fiercer the animal, the prouder the women wore the pelts fashioned from their kills.
The last person who emerged from the shuttle was the only woman who didn't wear any armor or outlandishly barbaric animal skins. Commander Lydia herself walked down, her greyish-black hair swaying in the air.
Despite her generic military-style suit, she looked as formidable as any other mech commander. Ves detected the same air of command he often sensed from Major Verle. This was a woman used to leadership. Different from Verle's professional restraint, the Swordmaiden leader wasn't shy about flaunting her strength.
Pirates and servicemen. The two groups couldn't be any more different.
"Daughters of the frontier, present arms!"
The Swordmaidens all drew the giant swords from their backs and held them pointed upwards in front of their faces.
Before any Vandal could figure out what was going on, the Swordmaiden officers swung their blades around until their faces faced the pommel of their weapons.
"Baptise this deck!"
Each of the women uttered a warcry as they thrust their swords into the hangar bay deck!
Some of the Vandals attempted to warn them. The deck of the hangar bay was rated to withstand crash landings from shuttles and mechs. An ordinary sword would never be able to pierce the thick alloy surface!
Yet the Swordmaidens managed to accomplish the impossible. Their valiant swords hit some resistance, but their physical strength combined with the unparalleled sharpness of their blades allowed them to thrust in their weapons until they had reached a finger's length through the deck!
The incomprehensible act had stolen the breath of every Vandal! Could the Swordmaidens still be considered human? What was this inhuman level of strength?
Ves, Chief Haine and a couple of others recognized the crux lay in the material composition of the swords. Though they looked like plain steel greatswords, their actual worth was probably measured in millions of credits. Each sword was a treasure of forging and craftsmanship.
Major Verle tried hard not to look displeased at the unexpected act of vandalizing the deck. Fixing the damage was no small matter. "Commander Lydia. It would behoove your ladies if they keep their swords in their scabbards. We don't want any misunderstandings to occur."
"My Swordmaidens know what to do." Commander Lydia gruffly answered as she stared at the major like a lioness eyeing her prey. When she briefly shifted her gaze to the other Vandals, her expression became discontented. "Your men needed a reminder of what we are capable of. We have found that many incidents can be avoided as long as we demonstrate a taste of how we fight."
Commander Lydia practically insinuated that the Vandals, or at least the male portion of them, were a bunch of lustful beasts. Tensions increased as many Vandals felt mildly offended, but Major Verle quickly waved his men to calm.
"We have prepared a sumptuous banquet for your arrival. Please follow me to the dining room."
The daughters of the frontier wordlessly advanced, sparing very little glances at the other Vandals. It was as if none of them earned any respect in their eyes.