Miss Calabast took in his new CFA-issued gear with a contemptuous glance. "I see where you have been spending your time lately. Are you treating the Starlight Megalodon as your personal toy box?"
"Hey, I got most of this for free!" Ves argued back. "I'm just redeeming the stuff that's owed to me anyway. Don't tell me you're not attracted by the goodies this ship has in store."
Compared to the last time he saw her, Calabast obviously upgraded some of her gear as well. Most notably, she wore an impressive-looking CFA comm that encompassed her entire forearm.
"That's not the point of our mission. How close are you to your next promotion? Last I heard, you were very close."
"About that, hehe..." Ves smiled awkwardly. While he did earn a lot of merits lately, he spent significant chunks of it on his gear and his body upgrades. "I ah.. took a few steps back.. but I can still make it up again."
The woman narrowed her eyes. She stepped closer with irritation and rage sparking in her eyes. Ves meekly stepped back despite wearing superior combat armor.
"Don't let the wealth and power of the CFA dazzle you. We are not on a vacation here." She emphasized while pushing her finger against his Squalon's chest plate. "You have no idea what kind of bomb we are sitting on! While you are running around trying to fish for more advantages from the Starlight Megalodon, I've been working hard to take over the Intelligence Department to pave the way for your ascension in the Research Department! This is not the time to dicker around! Don't you want to save your comrades stranded outside the ship?"
Her rebuke struck him hard. Ves indeed let his personal interests take precedence over his haste to secure the lives of Ketis, Captain Orfan and the other remnants of the Flagrant Swordmaidens.
Still, Ves looked unrepentant. He recognized a unique opportunity in the Starlight Megalodon that would have been at least a hundred years beyond his reach! Who wouldn't take advantage of the battleship's generous offerings of high technology?
Just the problem of his body that confounded many doctors from the Bright Republic and even from a modern CFA science vessel!
Yet a couple of virtual doctors with access to some of the best medical equipment in the galaxy easily managed to solve a problem that wracked his mind for several years. Through a simple operation, they removed nearly every hidden danger locked within his body, allowing him to breathe a little easier.
While Ves did manage to obtain an invitation card to the exclusive Angel's Wing Foundation which traded in all kinds of advanced biotech goods and services, he'd be a fool to surrender his body in their care. The Five Scrolls Compact almost certainly propped up the Angel's Wing Foundation from behind.
He would rather put his faith in the CFA's virtual doctors than those bunch of crazy cultists!
"Look, 'Commander Summer', I'm already earning merits by the bucketload. I can make up for the shortfall in a couple of days. Now that I've underwent two rounds of genetic optimization treatment, my body and mind runs much smoother now!"
While Ves didn't have the System at hand to track how much each of his Attributes improved, he was certain that all of them received a small bump. The most valuable aspect about the CFA's renowned gene optimization treatments was how comprehensively they improved everything human.
Every inefficiency and evolutionary remnant of his human DNA no longer shackled him. He digested food much more efficiently, he required much less sleep than he already did and he aged and lived longer than any baseline human.
That wasn't all. These advantages continued to pile up with each round of gene optimization treatment! It could be said that if Ves promoted to lieutenant commander and received his third round of treatment, his natural lifespan would probably extend to two-hundred years old!
This was the equivalent of undergoing a single round of life-prolonging treatment, something which scores of powerful politicians, businessmen and power brokers in the Komodo Star Sector worked their entire lives to obtain!
Ves wanted to shake his head at the inadvertent boons that had fallen on his lap. While this mission on Aeon Corona VII was exceedingly dangerous, it already yielded him rich rewards! No wonder treasure hunters constantly mounted expeditions beyond the borders of human space.
The frontier truly lived up to the adage that high rewards came to those that dared to brave its many dangers!
Miss Calabast shook her head in helplessness at his inability to let go of the Starlight Megalodon's many bounties. "You managed to both exceed and fall short of my expectations. The more I pay attention to you, the more I learn something new. Tell me, what took place when you visited the office of the Artificial Intelligence Corps? Practically every virtual individual on the Starlight Megalodon knows that he managed to circumvent the emergency protocol and forcefully end his existence shortly afterwards."
He'd be a fool to tell her the truth. There was no way that Ves wanted to let a snake like Miss Calabast grasp his complicated relationship with the Five Scrolls Compact!
"He wanted to meet the smartest guy on the ship before he offed himself." Ves shrugged nonchalantly. "He gave me some merits and some advice. Nothing else went on, really. Admiral Ordoth was just a passenger aboard the Starlight Megalodon and held no actual authority. It's a really sad existence for him to be relegated as a bystander for a couple of thousand years, so I didn't get as much benefits as I had hoped."
Miss Calabast didn't look amused. She obviously didn't believe a word of the nonsense he just spewed out. "Mr. Longhorn, although you seem to be a habitual liar, your tricks don't work on me. You are lucky that digging out your secrets is not within the scope of my mission. Let us discuss what I'm actually here for. Time is running out and we need to facilitate your access to non-mech related research projects."
Besides exhorting him to promote as soon as possible, Miss Calabast also wanted to fill him in on her plan to get him involved with the research projects of the other sub-departments.
As a mech designer, Ves didn't know anything about the biosciences, but that wasn't necessarily a hindrance to him. Cross-disciplinary research projects that required the participation of a diverse range of specialists.
"Once you promote to lieutenant commander, you should aim to access these cross-disciplinary research projects as soon as you can. This won't be easy, but my new position affords me several methods to facilitate your entry. I can guarantee you that you'll have all the security clearances that you'll need to get your foot in the door."
Ves knew that it took a lot of pull to get something like that together. He stared suspiciously at Calabast. "Since you're a commander and a department head, why don't you just access the research projects yourself?"
"Despite what you might think, the Intelligence Department doesn't make me an omnipotent hacker." Calabast shook her head. "The Starlight Megalodon's organizational structure is highly decentralized. Each department is a separate silo that is difficult to peer into from the outside. This compartmentalized structure prevents any department or department head from becoming too powerful. While my position affords me many small advantages, it is much easier to gain access to the Starlight Megalodon's sensitive research projects through using you as a vehicle."
"Great. So I'm just an aircar to you?" Ves replied peevishly.
"You should feel honored to be ridden by me. We both know that we are both making use of each other. I have no particular animosity towards you or the rest of the Vandals and Swordmaidens. Mind you, I am not opposed to working together with the Vesians either. If you continue to slack off, don't blame me if I turn towards your mortal enemies instead."
He should have taken that as a threat. Instead, Ves smirked at Calabast. "Hah! Good luck to them. Perhaps their exobiologists and doctors will be able to gain some small advantages in the biology sub-departments, but their mech designers won't be able to earn a single merit under my watch! Besides, Venerable Foster will need to make an immense amount of contributions before she is able to open the floodgates to her fellow Vesians."
"I wouldn't act so conceited if you know what they have in store." Calabast said with an odd expression. "Venerable Foster is close to promoting to the rank of mech captain. Once she has reached this milestone, she immediately intends to donate the Belisarius to the Starlight Megalodon. The contribution of such a powerful and extremely advanced expert mech will shower her with so much merits that she can probably meet the required amount of merits to promote straight to mech major!"
What?! Ves almost gaped open his mouth. "How could the Vesians do something as reckless as that?! The Belisarius is a mind-bogglingly expensive mech! The Hafner Duchy invested so much Rorach's Bone in her material composition that they'll be the laughing stock of the Kingdom once everyone knows they lost their boondoggle of a mech!"
This time it was Calabast's turn to smirk again. "If the Vesians succeed in their mission, they can more than make up their shortfall. Besides, don't forget that the Starlight Megalodon is filled with treasure. Venerable Foster has already started to scout the approaches to the vaults."
Ves almost forgot about that. If one of the vaults truly contained a batch of advanced life-prolonging treatment serum, then just retrieving a single dose would be more than enough to placate the Hafner Duchy!
After hearing to what extremes the Vesians might resort to, Ves no longer felt as assured as before. He truly felt he was pressed for time again. Calabast left his cabin shortly after once she ascertained she succeeded in lighting a fire under his butt.
Left in a sullen mood, Ves comforted himself by gorging on a gourmet vintage nutrient pack before shedding his Squalon and slipping into his bed.
Over the next couple of days, Ves returned to the Research Department and exerted his efforts on the final remaining easy research projects with gusto. Even though Ves practically picked the Mech Research Sub-Department clean of every low-hanging fruit, he still managed to achieve some breakthroughs on the more higher-hanging fruit.
Many of the more complicated research projects involved multiple phases and elements. It was extremely unlikely for a single mech designer to complete these research projects in one go because they required the input of multiple mech designers who excelled in different fields.
For these ambitious research projects, Ves still managed to please Virtual Commander Cosit by achieving breakthroughs in the areas where he excelled at. He particularly managed to form creative solutions by leveraging his Senior-level Physics Skill, which in terms of knowledge truly encompassed a very wide range of theories and solutions.
It seemed in practically no time, Ves managed to accumulate the necessary merits to undertake the next promotion test.
Having already been informed that Calabast tampered with the test, Ves attempted it without any hesitation.
To no surprise, Miss Calabast used her position as the head of the Intelligence Department to good use by replacing the original test for Senior Mech Designers with the familiar test for Junior Apprentice Mech Designers!
The disparity between the two was so large and so blatant that it was a wonder how Calabast managed to switch the two without any of the AIs taking notice.
"The virtual officers may be able to emulate their human counterparts, but only up to a point." He surmised as he easily completed one task after another as if he was running through textbook exercises. "AIs may be monsters in terms of calculations, but they're absolute dimwits when it comes to common sense."
This was the biggest shortcoming of the virtual officer system. If Calabast could take advantage of this, why not him? He already started to form some ideas...