"Still.. With great risk comes great reward. What If I turn this equation around?"
Another way of looking at this risky opportunity was that Ves held the key to the Skull Architect's lifelong obsession!
If Ves wielded his absolute advantage in this poorly understood field with finesse, then he might be able to extract a lot of concessions from the Skull Architect!
As an influential mech designer in a region of space where Masters didn't exist and capable mech designers were in short supply, the Skull Architect should be one of the region's peak characters.
Gaining access to this channel should be a boon to him. It added another contingency option to him should his other channels prove to be useless. Forming a relationship, however faint, to the Skull Architect would enable him to establish a foothold in the frontier.
He needed to be exceptionally cautious, of course, and it wasn't a given that he could arouse the Skull Architect's interest. Ves had to balance between offering something of interest while keeping suspicions to a minimum.
While Ves contemplated his this thorny issue, elsewhere various people gathered.
In the secured conference room aboard the Shield of Hispania, a small gathering of Vandals and Swordmaidens held their breaths as their leaders brought out a number of hand-sized encrypted data chips from a locked container.
For some reason, Lord Javier of House Eneqqin was there as well. The lone Vesian noble's presence should have been a cause for alarm, but right now it appeared he had shed his shackles entirely.
"Hurry up and place them together." He impatiently urged. "I want to see what all the fuss is about!"
Major Verle and Commander Lydia placed each of them onto the table in a certain way. Each data chip was shaped like a pie slice with a truncated tip. A magnetic force slotted them next to each other, forming a bagel-like circle that hummed as if hidden mechanisms roused themselves from sleep.
The Flagrant Vandals contributed five encrypted data chips, while Lydia's Swordmaidens surprisingly brought out six of them! The Vandals labored so long to gather this much data chips, yet the Swordmaidens seem to get their hands on them without too much issue!
Certain goods were much easier to obtain in the frontier than in civilized space!
"Something is happening."
Glowing purple lines emanated from the circle of data chips. Strange digital sounds beeped from the amalgamation, and suddenly the seams between the stupendously resilient housing of the data chips started to melt and fuse together!
They had tested the durability of the external housing, and according to their estimations, it was strong enough to survive a supernova! Yet now it easily gave way to each other!
It was as if this device had once been whole. The appearance of the fused circular object radiated a sense of completion, enchanting everyone present in this meeting. After a couple of seconds of internal adjustments, a projection sprang into being from the circular object.
"What is this?" Mayra asked with furrowed brows.
Lieutenant Commander Soapstone gestured for calm. "Be patient. The projection may be in a transition state. We have no way of knowing what advanced technology is at work here."
"Whatever is going on, that sure as hell doesn't look like a star chart." Lord Javier said with a sardonic smile. "Maybe it's a giant middle finger from the Starlight Megalodon."
Major Verle furrowed. After all their efforts into gathering eleven encrypted data chips, they did not appreciate any pranks.
The projection cycled through incomprehensible geometric shapes. Perhaps they formed lines of codes, perhaps they could only be interpreted through math, but whatever the case, nobody present understood a single piece of what was being projected.
Finally, the stream of shapes and symbols disappeared. What emerged out of the fused object was a single shape whose meaning was clear to everyone.
"It's an arrow." Lord Javier stated the obvious. "Where is it pointed at?"
"It's pointed towards the frontier." Commander Lydia stated. "This isn't a star chart. It's a star compass!"
The Vesian noble snorted. "For a compass, it's rather wobbly. Did you bump the data chips around or something?"
"The only other answers are that the location is in flux, or that the shaking is intentional." Captain Rakeshir said.
Everyone took in the implications of these possibilities. The crashed battleship didn't make their hunt any easier!
Eventually, Major Verle sighed. "The purpose of this star compass is clear. We need to bring to follow its direction and bring it closer to the coordinates of the Starlight Megalodon."
At this point, if the people present recorded the wobbly arrow and extrapolated the direction it pointed at, it would have included an expanding cone of space that was roughly two degrees wide!
A cone of two degrees didn't sound very much if the compass pointed at something a couple of meters away. It was sufficient to pick out a single person out of a small crowd of people.
Yet it was a different matter in stellar navigation! The two degree cone encompassed an increasingly wider area of space, to the point of enveloping billions of stars as it ceaselessly expanded towards the edge of the galaxy!
The limitations of the star compass forced the Flagrant Swordmaidens to wield it as a dowsing rod. Like looking for a source of water in ancient times, they needed to bring it closer and closer to the point of origin. The smaller the distance, the more stars they ruled out. Eventually, they could come close enough to narrow down the exact star the device directed them to go.
Nobody questioned the convoluted hoops they had to go through. Neither did they voice the doubts they might harbor about the authenticity of the encrypted data chips. The Vandals and the Swordmaidens had no say in the matter.
All they needed to do was to follow orders. Even if they thought they were chasing after a unicorn, they would do so wholeheartedly because that was what their bosses expected them to do. Out of all of them, the only free agent might be Lord Javier.
The cocky young noble smirked at the complex looks of the people attending this meeting. "Not what you expected, huh? Just face it! Whoever is in charge of the Starlight Megalodon is playing us like puppets on a string!"
"Enough." Verle spoke calmly. "Let us chart our next course. If nothing else, we are no longer blind to where we must travel."
As the Vandal and Swordmaiden officers hashed out a route, elsewhere other factions were making their moves.
In the Hafner Duchy of the Vesia Kingdom, a recently elevated baroness awaited the arrival of an august guest. The person she was meeting stirred up a lot of controversy from her arrival. She disappeared from the radar soon after, and only a handful of people knew who she wanted to meet.
Captain Relia Foster wore her Hostland Warriors uniform as she sat in a secure meeting room several kilometers underneath her mansion. Countless passive and active jamming devices worked their magic, making sure that not a single sensor would be able to resolve anything useful.
The heavy door opened, letting in two very different figures. The brown-haired girl who sat at the head of the table stood up. She ignored the major accompanying the meeting and addressed the resplendently-dressed blond noble. "Welcome to Becham III, milady. I apologise for the drab interior, but there is no other room in my estate that can accommodate your demands."
Lady Amalia smiled politely. "Nonsense, Baroness Foster. I am aware that my arrival came too sudden for you to prepare. It is no matter. I am not here on a social call."
Lady Amalia took one of the two prepared seats. Both the room and the furniture consisted of simple alloy furniture, which looked in stark contrast to the luxurious furnishings of the mansion proper.
The simpler the furnishings, the harder it was to hide any spying bugs.
Major Jameson pulled out a handheld multiscanner and scoured the entire room, not sparing the noble baroness either. The device tested the effectiveness of the jammers and sought out any anomalous signals.
"This room is secure." He concluded after a few minutes, and shut down the device before standing behind his superior. "We may begin."
"Very well." Lady Amalia said. "Let us get down to business. My time is short and the Hafners are trying to track me down. It won't do either of us good if we are caught together, baroness. May I call you that, or would you prefer to be called Venerable or Captain?"
Relia Foster wrinkled her brow. "Please call me Captain Foster. I see myself as a mech pilot first and foremost."
"Not just any mech pilot. An expert pilot, and a young one at that. Everyone in Hafner believes your future is boundless."
The expert pilot shook her head. "I lost. There is no glory to be found in my bone."
"There is no need for you to be so depressed. If it wasn't for the freak chance of those marauding Vandals dropping into the Nova Migolatus System, then your debut battle as an expert would have been in a mech tailored to your ability. I believe the Hostland Warriors have recently completed your custom mech, am I correct?"
"My Belisarius has recently finished its trials." Captain Foster replied without qualms. "The mech designers require one more week of final adjustments before the Belisarius is declared safe to deploy in limited engagements. It will take months or years before my hybrid swordsman mech is able to match another expert mech."
Due to Venerable Foster's ignoble defeat and ransoming at the hands of the vile Brighter hooligans, the Hafner Duchy made a big show out of publicizing the formation of her first custom mech. They invested a generous amount of funding, research and even allocated a team of three Senior Mech Designers to head the project.
The extravagant amount of resources and attention put into the design and fabrication of the Belisarius raised everyone's hopes about Venerable Foster's future performance. Her talent had been stymied due to piloting a generic training mech back on Nova Migolatus I. With the Belisarius at her disposal, she would never be limited by her equipment ever again.
"I find it interesting that your custom mech is named the Belisarius." Lady Amalia prompted. "Does it refer to what you wish to attain? I'm afraid your hopes may never be fulfilled. The Hafner mech legions have never been deployed to war against the Bright Republic. The Reinald Republic is much closer at hand, and due to the recent instability in their territory, we must be more prudent than ever against those short-sighted profiteers."
"Lady Amalia, please be more succinct. As you have said, others are on the lookout for a direct descendant of the Duchess of Imodris. The sooner you leave my premises, the better off we shall be. I have no desire for my loyalty to Hafner to be put into doubt."
"Very well." The Imodrissian noble held out her hand. Major Jameson retrieved a secure data pad from his uniform coat and handed it over to his superior. Lady Amalia passed the data pad over to her host. "I have a mission offer for you. The details are sparse, but the importance of this mission is paramount. Please take a look at its contents."
Captain Foster quickly perused the contents of the data pad. It only contained a single encrypted document, and it amounted to only a couple of pages of mission parameters.
She immediately spotted an alarming detail. "This mission is issued by the royal family!"
"This matter goes beyond the interests of Imodris and Hafner." Lady Amalia smiled. "While we cannot reveal too much to you at this point, know that our perilous journey to the frontier will not be in vain. If nothing else, the odds of encountering your hated foe is very high. We are competing after the same objectives, after all. We have already confirmed that half of the 6th Flagrant Vandals of the 3rd Tarry Mech Division of the Mech Corps is on their way towards the frontier. What's even more salient is that this Vandal task force has teamed up with a frontier pirate gang called Lydia's Swordmaidens."
The instant Lady Amalia mentioned the magic word, Venerable Foster grew heated. She gritted her teeth and gripped the data pad in a crushing grip. "Pirates!"
"We are forming our own task force. It will be comprised of elements of my 2nd Calico Dancer Bats and my 1st Meandering Monkeys mech regiments. Due to prior commitments and obligations, we are unable to bring our expert pilots. My task force has room for an exceptional expert pilot such as you. Are you interested in taking part in our mission?"
Venerable Foster offered a grim smile to the highborn lady. "Do you even need to ask?"