The worst outcome happened just as they finally reached Leemar. An unknown group of invaders brazenly attacked a border system owned by the powerful Konsu Clan. The Saint Hearst immediately locked down the ship and turned off all external communications, but plenty of passengers possessed different means.
"They're not going to attack us, are they?"
"I recognize the emblem! That's the Vermeer Group!"
"That's not a raid, that's a full invasion fleet! They even brought tanks and infantry to occupy captured territory!"
The news became grim when they realized the Saint Hearst got caught in a struggle between two full Coalition partners. The third-most powerful Vermeer Group committed to a full border invasion of the Twin Tigers System held by the second-most powerful Konsu Clan.
"Fuck, I always thought these things happened in dramas. Now that it's happening in real life, I feel really crappy." Dietrich spat as his face turned blue.
Through long-range scans everyone could see hundreds of regimented mechs moving in unison. Any casual mercenary group would get rolled over when facing such an unstoppable tide.
"The galaxy is never at peace. We've been too spoiled in the Bright Republic where skirmishes remain small. After all, there's nothing really valuable there worth fighting to the death."
That the Vermeer Group decided to invest so much effort into conquering a border system meant that this place had something of value. A couple of other passengers had the same idea, and one person who still had access to the galactic net found the reason.
"Spiral ore! The Twin Tigers System has a large deposit of Spiral ore!"
While that meant nothing to Dietrich, Ves looked up with widened eyes as he heard the news. His improved Metallurgy skills along with his extensive insight in the mech industry supplied him with the reason for the Vermeer Group's radical move.
"Spiral ore can be refined into a substance that is essential to fabricating high-density energy cells. Trace amounts of spiral ore can be found in most star systems, but it's not economical to harvest these tiny deposits. If the Konsu clan discovered a substantial deposit in the Twin Tigers System, then it has turned from a backwater in a major strategic asset."
A couple of passengers dug out even worse news. It turned out that the Vermeer Group already possessed two large deposits of spiral ore within their territory. They sought to conquer the Twin Tigers System in order to obtain a local monopoly on the valuable ore. If they succeeded in keeping all three sources of ore, then they were able to dictate the prices and make up for the losses they suffered in this invasion.
"Looks like the unrest outside has spread to the Coalition as well. These Coalition partners sure are ruthless enough to wage war on their own side."
In actuality, it was questionable whether the major partners that made up the Coalition were ever on the same side to begin with. They came together only to defend against the monolithic Hexadric Hegemony. Besides passing some common laws to ease trade and mutual defense, the different partners still held on to their unique cultures and individual pride.
As time passed, the Saint Hearst tightened their suppression in order to avoid panic. Crew members along with armed bots emerged from nowhere and guided the passengers back to their cabins.
A ship-wide announcement spoke once the last passengers returned to their places. "This is the captain speaking. As you may have found out, the Saint Hearst has entered the Twin Tigers System in the middle of a military conflict. While devastating to the population, our spaceline is not related to either factions involved in anyway. Neither sides have expressed any intentions of pursuing us as we announced our presence."
Just as Ves was about to sigh in relief, the captain spoke again.
"Do not misunderstand. We are not safe. Though we may be neutral, either the Konsu or the Vermeer can change their minds at any moment. If you are a person of means and have reason to believe you can convince them to leave us alone, then feel free to approach a crew member. Nonetheless, I don't expect them to spare any thoughts on us. What we may be facing is worse."
Dietrich looked grim as he analyzed a projection of the star system. "When the big boys fight, there's always little boys scurrying underneath."
"We have detected sporadic signs of unaffiliated parties. Though most of them are civilian vessels suffering under the same circumstances, there are a number of vessels that may not hold friendly intentions."
In other words, pirates. The captain prattled on about the importance of staying put and avoid any panic. Both Ves and Dietrich learned nothing new from the speech. Instead, they waited for a key phrase to emerge.
"...Furthermore, to any active mech pilots among you, we may request assistance from you, especially if you have brought along your mech. We are unsealing all mechs in our cargo bay at this moment."
Ves looked at Dietrich, who nodded and started to change from his casual wear into his pilot suit.
"Your Harrier won't keep up with the kind of mechs out there. Even the pirates are better equipped than the Mech Corps back home. Even in the same generation, there's differences in firepower and protection."
"I know, but I'm not one to run from a challenge. I've spent weeks doing nothing but drinking my time away. You hired me to protect you, so it's time for me to earn my pay."
In actuality, Ves did not agree to pay Dietrich anything. He tagged along on his own accord, but neither of the two were in the mood to bring that up. As Dietrich finished changing his clothes, he opened the front door of the cabin and spoke to a nearby crew member. The uniformed spacer nodded and let a spare bot guide Dietrich to the cargo bay at the lower decks.
In times like these, Ves hated he could not join the fight. Though he received basic training in firearms back when he studied mech design, that was only to prepare him as a reservist. Even if the government drafted him into the Mech Corps, all he could really do was repair and maintain mechs. Fighting the enemy at the frontlines was not what Ves ever had in mind.
To calm himself down, he grabbed an oblivious Lucky and changed to a vacuum suit before sitting down on a reinforced chair. Each cabin came supplied with basic sealed vacuum suits and reinforced chairs with sturdy straps in case of emergencies. Ves strapped himself in and made sure any sudden shocks from the ship did not dislodge his bindings.
"Don't move, Lucky. I don't want you to float around in case the artificial gravity shuts off."
Space combat among humans used to be bloody before the MTA stamped down their foot. Nowadays, spaceships weren't supposed to be armed, which cut down on the damage. These days, pirates employed space-capable mechs to secure the surroundings while using boarding troops to invade the interior of a ship. If the Saint Hearst wanted to survive the pirate raid intact, then it could not afford to lose either battles.
The minutes ticked past as Ves felt his skin grow clammy with sweat. The worst thing about the situation was that the crew did not intend to inform the passengers of any news. Dietrich might have already launched from the cargo bay. Could he manage to fight in the difficult environment of outer space? Was his mech sealed tight enough to avoid leaking the air supply?
No sound propagated from space. Any explosions or weapons fire would not affect the ship unless it happened extremely close. Though Ves vaguely sensed a couple of unusual vibrations, he could not guess their source.
Even with the might of the System, Ves still had nothing in his hands to defend against any aggression. He regretted ignoring the self-defense options in the Store and Skill Tree. If he invested some of the 5000 DP into personal defense, then he might not be sweating bullets right now.
The ship shook abruptly several times. The captain quickly made another announcement. "Alert! The pirates have managed to slip in a couple of boarding shuttles through our mechs. They are drilling through the hatches as we speak. DO NOT RESIST AND DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CABINS!"
Ves swore vigorously. This useless captain could have explained what was going on. Who were the pirates? Did they have a track record of wanting murder, or were they just here to rob the passengers of their wealth?
"Shit. I still have more than twenty-four million credits in savings. I can't afford to lose it all."
Still, what could he do? He did not delude himself into thinking he could slip out of his cabin and murder every intruder with his bare hands. He did not even possess a firearm!
He quickly activated the Mech Designer System and opened the Store.
[Basic Fruit Knife]: 100 DP
[One-Shot Holdout Pistol]: 500 DP
"What?! Five hundred fricking DP for a gun with a single bullet?!"
Ves wanted to tear his hair off. Forget about the pistol, he couldn't even afford to buy the most harmless knife from the store due to his shortage of DP. He made a major error in blowing all of his DP away at once.
"Well, lesson learned. Next time, I'll save some DP."
As Ves sat still holding onto his gem cat, he felt a couple of more vibrations. While he had trouble guessing the origin of those vibrations, they increased in magnitude and frequency. If he didn't know any better, they felt a lot like heavy footsteps. With the cabin's heavy sound insulation, he had no way of knowing any better.
Minutes passed as the frequency of vibrations decreased. Just as Ves relaxed his nerves, a breaching device broke the cabin door.
"HANDS IN THE AIR! DON'T MOVE!"
"I'm unarmed, I'm unarmed!" Ves yelled as he raised his arms. Lucky yowled in fright as soon as two menacing exoskeleton suits entered the tiny cabin. The haphazard depictions of weapons and scantily clad girls made it clear that these two men were not part of the ship's security contingent.
The two armored men practically took up half of the cabin's space. One of the pirates held a massive laser rifle over his shoulder while the second held a smoking laser pistol.
"YOU. WHAT'S YOUR NAME?"
"V-V-Ves. Ves Larkinson."
The lead pirate paused for a moment. Ves guessed he was using his suit's internal HUD to look up his name from the passenger manifest.
"MECH DESIGNER. GOOD. YOUR ROOMMATE IS FIGHTING OUTSIDE. NOT SO GOOD. COME WITH US."
"Wait, wait, I can pay. I have credits!"
"WE'RE NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR WORTHLESS CREDITS. COME ALONG BEFORE YOUR FRIEND DOES SOMETHING REGRETTABLE."
The lead pirate revealed a knife and cut off the straps holding Ves in place. "STAND UP."
With one pirate looming over with a rifle and another pointing at him with a thick and deadly knife, Ves had no choice. He kept his hands in the air and slowly pushed off the chair.
"I don't want to get hurt. I'll do what you want. Just don't hurt me."
"RELAX, PAL. JUST LISTEN TO WHAT I SAY, AND YOU CAN-"
The pirate suddenly got cut off as a golden flash swiped over his neck. A soft swish fluttered in the air as everyone got startled. The flash turned out to be Lucky, who landed atop a dresser with glowing blue eyes. A pair of energy claws extended from his dainty claws. The drops of blood that still clung onto its surface sizzled as the heat evaporated the remaining liquid.
The front pirate gurgled for a few seconds before collapsing into a heap. His exoskeleton armor provided almost no resistance to Lucky's sudden strike.
"WHAT THE? FREDDY? FREDDY! YOU FUCKING CAT!"
The remaining pirate went berserk and pulled the trigger of his rifle. A white-hot beam emerged from its muzzle and vaporized Dietrich's bed before turning towards the top of the dresser.
The gem cat's eyes sparkled even brighter before he disappeared in another flash. A fraction of a second later, Lucky landed in front of the broken cabin door as the second pirate suffered from an identical case of having half his neck slashed apart by a deceptively sharp claw. The floor boomed as the dead man collapsed onto his brother.
While Lucky deactivated his deadly claw and preened, Ves grew green as he stared at the expanding puddles of blood. His lunch suddenly escaped from his stomach. He barfed right into his transparent helmet cover. His airtight suit automatically detected the danger and subtracted the front plate. After emptying his stomach, he breathed deeply and stared at Lucky as if he was a ghost.
"Lucky, you... your claws. Since when did you..."
Ves suddenly recalled the mysterious box. Did its contents have anything to do with Lucky being able to manifest his energy claws?