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 Back in Cloudy Curtain, Ves woke up with tired eyes. Since yesterday, he prepared his departure with Dietrich. They booked a brief flight to one of Bentheim's orbital space station and wait for their long-distance passenger ship to arrive.

A call interrupted his final preparations. Ves picked up the comm and Marcella's worried face showed up.

"Ves, about your trip. Perhaps it's best to make yourself scarce for a month or two. There's trouble afoot."

This sounded serious. Something that disturbed the unflappable Marcella should not be a trivial matter.

"What happened?"

"It's about Vincent Ricklin. He's gone mad. He went on a rampage when he demonstrated your customized Marc Antony's prowess to his family."

Just hearing Vincent's name again made Ves wish he reconsidered doing business with him in the first place. Sure, the credits was nice, but if he did something serious enough for Marcella to call him in the morning, then it was bound to be bad.

"How bad is it, and how will it affect me?"

"He tried to fire his laser cannons on the presumptive heir of the Ricklins, a lass called Catelyn. Somehow, she survived, though how I don't know, but many other elders failed to get away from the blast area. Vincent bulled through the household guards and escaped from Bentheim with a well-prepared escape shuttle."

That sounded like a lot of trouble. Though Ves was uninvolved with this terrorist attack, he'd be in for a lot of scrutiny just by providing the mech to Vincent.

"Did the Mech Corps catch him?"

The frown in Marcella's face grew even more grim. "No. He had help that delayed the rapid response units. Pirates somehow smuggled themselves onto Bentheim and caused enough chaos to cover Vincent's escape. Nearby patrol ships all found themselves crippled by explosions when they attempted to chase their escape vessels. They've succeeded in pulling off the most blatant attack on Bentheim."

The news was incredibly bad for all those who had an inkling of involvement with the events.

"How's the casualties?"

"Excluding the Ricklins, over two hundred people have fallen in the ensuing chaos. The pirates weren't subtle in their actions. You know the damage a mech can do in a densely populated city."

It must be a nightmare back in Bentheim. Even the most casual laser fire might cut through a building and wipe out a dozen innocent bystanders. The injured must run up in the thousands.

"I can't stay behind." Ves said as he simultaneously felt conflicted. "As bad as I feel right now, I'm really innocent. You know the Marc Antony is a lastgen mech. It's hardly an elite mech in today's standards."

"That's why I support your impromptu vacation. Right now the public is in a frenzy and the Mech Corps has fallen flat in securing the star system. The investigators must be in a frenzy right now and it won't be long before they send someone your way."

"I think my family can stall them. The Larkinsons have always been loyal to the Republic and they have some say in military circles."

"Well, you best call on your daddy because this show is just starting."

He worriedly hung up on Marcella and with just a brief moment of hesitation he called his grandfather.

Perhaps anticipating his call, Benjamin Larkinson appeared on his screen. His unflappable face already radiated assurance to Ves. "I know what's going on, and I know you're not guilty of anything."

"Thanks, grandpa." Ves sighed as the reassurance comforted him. "I was planning on travelling to Leemar in order to take part in the open competition there. Could you help me smooth over my departure? This event is really important to me and my career and I can't afford to miss this opportunity due to being held back for questioning."

"I can guarantee that the investigators give you fair treatment, but any sudden departure will look suspicious. I can hold them back from chasing after you if you open up your records and let their people scour your workshop."

As Ves carried his real secrets in his comm, he had no problems letting others take a peek. Sanyal-Ablin pretty much saw everything there was to his workshop when they installed their security suite. Letting the government grab a good look was nothing to fuss about.

"They can do whatever they want as long as my workshop stays intact at the end. I still need to make a living, you know. I hope you can impress that on whoever is coming here to find something that doesn't exist."

"Oh you can be certain I won't let them get out of line." Benjamin grinned. "I've kept an eye on you and I can say that you've made us proud. The last thing I want to do is to let your hard work get ruined. So don't worry. I'll call in some favors and try to suppress any suspicions on you. It's just that some suspicion will never go away."

His grandfather was right. Having his second ever produced mech be involved in a violent terrorist incident was going to be a black mark in his record. But Ves did not let it drag down his hopes. He still had a way to redeem himself if he worked hard.

"What do you think the investigators will do if I return a couple months later as an apprentice to a Master Mech Designer?"

The old man's eyes widened. Even a senior military official like him was nothing but an ant compared to a venerated master. "You will find that many obstacles will melt away like snow in a warm spring day. The prestige of a Master Mech Designer is not to be trifled with. Even a casual apprenticeship to such an eminent person will deter all gossip."

In the end, it came to power and backing. If Ves had studied at an elite institution from the Friday Coalition, he'd never had to worry about being detained for days.

"I'll hopefully return triumphant, grandpa."

"Go then. Spread your wings and see the worlds beyond the Republic. It's a tumultuous place in the center of the star sector. You will see many riches and wonders. Just remember that all of that wealth and power is built upon a foundation of strength."

After Benjamin terminated the call, Ves made some additional preparations. He sent a message to Robyn that SASS should let any official investigators enter his workshop without challenge. He then sent another message to the Little Boss with a summary of the situation and telling him to meet at the spaceport immediately.

"Well, guess I'm out of here. Let's go Lucky."

Man and gem cat turned to look at the workshop for the last time before entering the aircar. Ves browsed the news as his taxi zipped towards the spaceport. The footage the news broadcasters streamed to the rest of the Republic showed that Bentheim had descended into chaos.

Its openness as a port system worked against securing the planet. Too many mercenaries with shady affiliations entered the planet. Some of them turned out to be disguised pirates that somehow fooled Bentheim's stringent security checks.

Worse yet, in the hunt for pirates, the overzealous Planetary Guard sometimes struck mercenaries who were not involved in today's premeditated assault. The battles threatened to spill out and cause even further casualties.

What hurt Ves the most was the occasional footage of what sparked this ambush. The highly modified Marc Antony with its codpiece and all raised its laser cannons and shot straight at a group of defenseless bystanders. The news stations immortalized the brief recording with how hard they tried to send it out to the rest of the star sector.

"Damn it. Forget about the codpiece, Vincent's mere involvement will be an unerasable black mark in my record."

As he hastily suggested to his grandfather, his only way to redeem himself was to achieve his goals in Leemar. Only by attaining some kind of formidable backing would he be able to endure the scrutiny.

The commentators and pundits already speculated on the influence that attacked the Republic. Nobody really believed a bunch of noname pirates planned, funded, manned and executed the intricate raid all by themselves. A lot of Republicans pointed the finger at the Monarchists of the Vesia Kingdom despite the lack of any convincing evidence that hinted at their hand.

Even Ves found this theory compelling. As a homebred citizen of the Bright Republic, he was raised to regard the Vesia Kingdom as their archrivals. Only the Vesians had sufficient motives to find trouble with the Republic.

"Hey, Ves. It's a bad day today." Dietrich finally greeted him once he arrived by the spaceport. The Little Boss looked quite subdued at the moment as he worried for the wellbeing of Walter's Whalers. "I feel kind of bad leaving my mates behind."

"We're only gone for two months or so. A war won't erupt this soon."

Actually, Ves had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. He just said that to reassure his bodyguard. The two subdued young men eagerly boarded a large passenger transport to Bentheim with their floating luggage bots. Besides that, Ves brought an ever-curious Lucky along while Dietrich already stowed away his mech in a container aboard their ship.

The passenger ship was only half-filled this time, an oddity attributed to the attack. Some sought safety in Bentheim's large numbers, but most locals felt it was best to stay on their quiet, unimportant planet and avoid the giant target Bentheim represented. After all, the Vesians never hid their desire to engulf the port system.

The trip to Bentheim was brief an uneventful, save for the additional security measures. The transport had to stop in space and allow inspectors to scan each passenger and piece of cargo in person. One of the inspectors paused briefly when he scanned Ves, but whatever instructions he received forced him to move on.

The people who went over Dietrich's mech added extra seals to his machine. This didn't stop him from using his mech in an emergency, but it took an experienced mech technician at least half an hour to make it battle-ready.

As they arrived at the Bentheim spaceport, they encountered a deluge of humanity. Scores of soldiers kept the peace as they tried to corral the emigrating people in a semblance of order. Ves could only rely on Dietrich's strength to squeeze through the mobs.

"This is insane!" Ves yelled at Dietrich as they waited behind a line. His words could barely be heard over the panicked din of conversation. "There's so many people seeking safer refuge!"

"It's better if these cowards get out. They're nothing but useless sacks of meat."

Eventually, they made use of their priority boarding access and entered a much more orderly area. Only the affluent could afford business-class tickets that allowed them passage on a premium spaceline. Both Ves and Dietrich looked out the window to behold the giant monstrosity that carried them out of the Republic.

TORCH OF THE VANGUARD

Townsends Spacelines

The patriotic name referred to some kind of event or myth that happened early in the Bright Republic's history. While the Republic subsidized the construction of the ship, the operating owners of the entire line resided in the Coalition.

Marcella highly recommended this line to Ves. The enormous passenger ship plied the spaceways from the Republic to all of the other third-rate states in between until she finally reached the edge of Coalition space. Then she travelled the same way back, escorted by a small contingent of space-capable mechs.

Naturally, all of this safety, luxury and speed came at a cost. Ves and Dietrich parted with a whopping hundred-and-fifty thousand bright credits each, and that was just for business class. The passenger ship offered even more extravagant tiers that came with private swimming pools and state-of-the-art sparring arenas.

"Here's to a new adventure." Ves whispered to himself as he held Lucky tight and followed the excited Dietrich aboard the magnificent vessel.

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