A day after the meeting, Ves 'press ganged' most of the test subjects. This allowed them to enter the service as the lowest rating, basically turning them into deckhands only good for odd jobs and dangerous duties.
Nevertheless, the most important point was that the Starlight Megalodon considered every rating, no matter how low, to be a proper serviceman of the CFA!
This simple change in optics suddenly turned the remnants of the Flagrant Swordmaidens from complete strangers into familiar CFA bosom buddies to the AIs and regulating systems of the battleship.
From there, Ves plainly abused his authority, and along with throwing some hefty bribes into Virtual Commander Cosit's direction, everyone gained promotions in officer or officer-equivalent ranks.
The few experts that remained joined the Research Department as researchers. Ves especially held out hopes for the handful of exobiologists and engineers who might be able to replicate his rapid rise to some extent. Even if they were barely experts in their own field, three-hundred years of scientific progress must mean something.
As for the mech pilots and other support personnel who didn't possess any scientific acumen, Ves faced a more difficult choice. He possessed the power to appoint a handful of them as security guards, with Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise becoming security lieutenants straight away.
That still left a score of Vandals and Swordmaidens who Ves recommended to the other departments according to their skills and own demands. Naturally, Ves facilitated their transfer by throwing even more bribes around.
Merits flowed freely from his hand, but he was still able to earn them back for now. With practically every mech research projects at his fingertips, he could pick and choose which part of which project to advance.
"It's getting harder and harder, but I haven't hit a wall as of yet."
Seeing Ves spending merits left and right inspired the Flagrant Swordmaidens into earning merits on their own. Such a display of confidence made him smirk. They would find out soon enough that earning merits was far harder than it looked like. Without the right skills and the right advantages, people could forget about accumulating them fast enough to obtain a promotion!
As Orfan and Dise both became security lieutenants under the Research Division, they enjoyed the same treatment as Ves once received. Besides receiving their standard-issue CFA battle gear, they also got to pick out one exceptional item.
For this choice, Ves held them back before they went to the armory. "Before you go off choosing a fancy weapon or something like that, I suggest you choose to redeem an Emergency Personal Teleporter. I have one as well. As long as we all get EPTs, we can sync them together and teleport a thousand kilometers away from the Starlight Megalodon whenever we want to. That's a much better option than increasing your battle capabilities on a ship that can rip us to shreds regardless of what we carry."
"We'll take that under advisement." Captain Orfan replied.
Obviously, they hadn't considered the option and needed to discuss it among themselves. Ves left them to it and made some other preparations.
He knew that Venerable Foster already settled in as mech major. Like Ves, she also redeemed various pieces of gear from the Starlight Megalodon and on top of that went through three rounds of gene optimization treatments. That had made her into a very scary opponent, one that Ves couldn't possibly beat in a straight fight!
Therefore, from the start, Ves always intended to flee rather than fight if confronted by an enemy. The personal shuttle he gained the right to ride whenever he wanted became the key to his escape plan.
"If the Starlight Megalodon descends into hell, I don't want to be anywhere around here any second more than necessary." He figured to himself. "The EPT can teleport me up to a thousand kilometers away, so it's a waste if I don't take advantage of that property."
If hostilities really broke out on the ship, the chance of his shuttle being barred from launch or getting shot down by some anti-air emplacement was extremely probable!
This was why when Calabast next sought of Ves, she encountered him guiding a couple of hauler bots in bringing away crates of vintage nutrient packs.
"What in heaven's sake are you doing right now, Mr. Longhorn?" Calabast asked in the most genuine bewilderment that he had ever heard from her. "I thought I made it clear that you should wait on my next instruction."
"Well, I'm not short on merits right now, so please excuse me if I am stocking my escape shuttle, commander." Ves truthfully replied. There was no use hiding this detail from the head of the Intelligence Department anyway. He also threw her a hasty salute before she complained. "You never really explained to me how the Flagrant Swordmaidens and I would be able to leave the ship and the planet, so I've taken matters into my own hands. I hope you don't mind."
This time, Miss Calabast appeared quite different from last time. Maybe she had some free time, or maybe she decided that Ves couldn't hog all the good stuff. She replaced her old infiltrator suit with a highly advanced CFA version of the same. Its pockets contained various gadgets and gear, making it abundantly clear that she was prepared for action at any time.
When Ves studied her attractive appearance, he bet that she underwent the gene optimization treatments as well. The goal of these treatments was to elevate the quality of every CFA serviceman's gene quality. Not only did they improve a baseline human's lifespan, immune reaction, digestive energy intake and attributes, they also holistically improved their appearances and reduced any factors deemed too unattractive.
This meant that without even trying to, she already looked gorgeous in a dangerous way.
As a commander of the CFA, her high rank entitled her to four whole rounds of gene optimization treatments, which was one more than Ves himself received!
Just the thought of Calabast getting the better of him in this area made Ves seethe with envy. This kind of opportunity wouldn't come twice for him in a very long time. The earlier he received these treatments, the better off he'd be for the rest of his life!
"Your lack of faith in me is noted." Calabast responded dryly as she saw that Ves was fully serious in preparing his own escape shuttle. "Perhaps it's best if we plan to make our separate ways sooner than anticipated. Regardless of your proclivities, I've come to inform you that the influx of humans has stirred up the more radical virtual officers. Although I don't have any solid proof, I am reasonably certain that they are plotting our demise even now."
"They're really serious about perpetuating old hatreds?!"
"You have to realize that the Starlight Megalodon faced no external enemies for thousands of years. That has warped the priorities of the AIs. The absence of outside threats means they instead look to themselves for foes."
Ves wanted to bash the data banks of those stubborn AIs with a hammer!
"So you're saying we are running out of time."
"For now, the aggressive captain's faction is being constrained by the admiral's faction, who by far has received the most new recruits. The Mech Department is especially prepared to receive a large influx of human mech pilots and mech technicians under Venerable Foster's lead."
In short, too many humans were joining too quickly into a single department. Ves could see why that would alarm so many virtual officers.
"Shouldn't you tell me which research projects you are aiming to obtain?" Ves asked with narrowed eyes.
"Let's talk somewhere more discreet."
They entered one of the many empty compartments nearby before Calabast activated her signal jammer. After that, she handed over a peculiar-looking secure data chip to Ves.
"What's this?" He asked even as he stowed it away inside a special cushioned and shielded compartment inside his Squalon.
"That's the key to your next tasks." Calabast explained seriously. "In the next couple of days, I will finish arranging your access to two highly sensitive research projects. One of them is Project Void Calamity from the Exobiology Research Sub-Department, while the other is Project Pandemonium Descent."
Those project names sounded a lot more bombastic than the others he heard! Obviously, the researchers who devised these top-level secret projects held some very lofty visions!
"Can you tell me what they're about?"
Calabast shrugged. "You'll find out soon enough. It is not your job to meddle with the projects. My only expectation of you is to get in, insert the secure data chip into the restricted terminals in their labs, and let the hacking software do its job."
"How are you so sure the hacking software on the chip is sufficient to circumvent the layers of security protecting the research files?"
"Because I programmed it myself these last few weeks." She grinned. "I may not look like it, but I'm a very adept hacker. It comes with the job. My new position also affords me many lessons on how to crack the CFA's own security suites."
"Really?" Ves gazed dubiously at Calabast and couldn't imagine her for one of those stereotypical programmers turned bad. "Aren't you just taking credit for the work of your operatives or something?"
"Believe what you will." She neither confirmed nor denied his suspicions. "Just make sure you do not draw the attention of the virtual AIs that are overseeing the projects and for everyone's sake, don't mess with things you cannot possibly understand! Is that clear?"
"I get it! Will I be off the hook once I do this for you?"
"Not yet. After you let the data chip hack into the terminals of the two projects I've mentioned before and come back to me, we'll need to go together to access one more secret project. This is a joint project that spans many disciplines such as exobiology, genetic modification, mech design, artificial intelligence, exotic materials science, energy physics and more."
"What an expansive project!"
"It's scope is enormous." Calabast agreed. "It's also the crown jewel of the Starlight Megalodon and we'll both have to work together to enter the deepest and most secretive lab of the Exotic Research Sub-Department."
"I didn't know such a sub-department existed."
"That shows you exactly how classified this project is! The Exotic Research Sub-Department is not only the place where the CFA tries to find applicaties of newly-discovered exotic minerals with high potential, but it is also a center for any miracle research that spans far beyond their current understanding of the sciences!"
"May I know what the project is called?"
"Project Icarus. Don't bother searching the databases of the Starlight Megalodon for mention of it. You can't find it in any records."
Ves tried hard not to blink or look astonished. In the end, while the Flagrant Swordmaidens claimed to go after the life-prolonging treatment serum stored in the vaults, Miss Calabast aimed her sights much higher from the start!
She wanted to retrieve the research data on potentially the most impactful project on the ship, one which could easily change the course of human history!
Virtual Rear Admiral Ordoth wanted Ves to access this project as well on behalf of the Five Scrolls Compact. That alone gave him enough reasons to stay well away!
Yet fate had a strange way of forcing him to converge upon the one research project which the Starlight Megalodon most wanted to keep out of anyone else's hands!
It seemed that Ves guessed wrong about one thing, though. Project Icarus wasn't housed in any of the biology sub-departments but instead in the Exotic Research Sub-Department which Ves never encountered any mention before.
"What will happen afterwards once you get what you want?" Ves asked, pressing Calabast to answer his question properly.
She smirked and crossed her arms. "Are you worried about being dumped?"
"Wouldn't you want to prevent others from finding out that you've obtained the research data of those three projects?"
"I trust in your discretion."
Ves frowned deeply. "That's awfully generous of you. Sadly, I don't believe a word of what you said."
"Let me just say that I have grown very appreciative of you. You are more use to me alive than dead." She grinned and abruptly entered his personal space to lean in until her scent brushed his nose and her lips almost touched his ear. "After all, it's not every day I catch a rogue Holy Son in the wild."
It was as if a lightning bolt struck his body!