Panic immediately suffused his entire mind! How could Calabast figure out his greatest secret?!
For a moment, Ves frantically wanted to throw all caution to the wind and materialize the Amastendira and blast a wide-area laser blast in her direction!
Calabast gently patted his Squalon's shoulder pauldron. "Ah, before you contemplate anything stupid inside your silly head, know that the Starlight Megalodon is one step away from erupting into violence. The death of a department head will certainly trigger hostilities instantly. Without my help, you won't survive the coming storm."
"Calabast." Ves said as he gritted his teeth. "Get away from my sight."
"Very well. I'll leave you alone with your toys." She chuckled and strutted to the exit of the compartment. "Remember to move quickly and do as I ask as soon as you receive the authorizations. Also make sure to wrap everything up as soon as you return the data chip to me. Once we leave the Exotic Research Sub-Department, I predict the Starlight Megalodon will certainly experience some drastic changes! I've prepared some precautions to keep us safe for the moment, but be prepared to get out as fast as possible."
"Hey!" Ves shouted after her. "What is it you want from me, besides accessing those research projects?!"
"If you're so concerned about me leaking out your status once I leave, rest assured." She shook her head as if she was speaking to a silly boy. "Such a good thing is too good to be shared with my employers. I'll be in touch. Remember, don't do anything reckless!"
Long after Calabast deactivated her signal jammer and left the compartment, Ves fell into a complete emotional mess. He kept trying to think where he slipped up his greatest secret.
Calabast must have acquired footage or eavesdropped on his conversation with Virtual Rear Admiral Ordoth somehow.
Despite the Compact-aligned AI locking down his office and activating his own signal jammer, the security arrangements completely appeared to have posed no hindrance at all to the enigmatic spy!
"Damnit!" He cursed. "It was a mistake to trust a dwarf! They're all incompetent!"
Was this retribution for abusing so many dwarves? Did karma strike back at him for all of his unethical experiments?
Whatever the reason, Ves knew he was profoundly screwed right now. His worst fears came true, and there was nothing he could do to reverse this setback.
From Calabast's warnings, he knew that there was no way he could finagle his way out of this fix. When it came to spycraft, Ves was a complete baby in front of this witch. Someone as experienced and capable as her definitely prepared many contingencies in the event Ves lashed out. Even if he managed to kill her, the secret would definitely be out!
"She put me in checkmate right from the get-go, or else she wouldn't have told me what she knew."
Ves truly saw no way out of the most impactful predicament of his life. The only reassurance was that Calabast expressed her intention of keeping the secret to herself. Anyone in her place would have done the same, and this was why he chose to believe her this time.
The more people knew about his status, the higher the odds that the Five Scrolls Compact would come barreling through! Even though this secret organization lost out badly against the MTA and CFA, there was no way any faction in the Komodo Star Sector or the galactic rim could withstand a full assault from this powerful influence.
If worse came to worse and Calabast truly crossed his bottom line, he could always throw caution to the wind and sic the Five Scrolls Compact on her! As for him, while it would be hard to survive being hunted by the crazy fanatics, he could always knock on the doors of the MTA or CFA and seek asylum, though he'd likely be forced to relinquish the 'Metal Scroll' as a result.
"I can also disappear into the lawless frontier as an alternative." He thought. "The outer edge of the galaxy is way too big and sparse to track down a single person."
The life of an outlaw didn't appeal to him very much, but it was a far better alternative than becoming a glorified slave for one of the Big Two.
He calmed down a bit once he went over these possibilities. While they were all nuclear options that would definitely harm him and his family as much as Calabast, it at least afforded him some leverage against her blackmail.
"Someone as clever as her doubtlessly thought about this already."
The risk of incurring mutually assured destruction might also be why Calabast didn't exert too much pressure on him. As a businessman, Ves recognized her intention to opt for long-term profits over short-term gains. After all, she'd be stupid to strangle the goose who laid the golden eggs!
"I'll have to have a good talk with her the next time I see her in order to clarify her exact intentions."
While Ves didn't see anyway to climb out of the hole he fell into headfirst, he could at least start digging upwards.
After the shocking meeting with Calabast, Ves quickly resumed his preparations. He stocked his 'personal shuttle' with water, oxygen, fuel, medical supplies, spare parts and most importantly numerous crates of vintage nutrient packs!
Ves nodded in satisfaction as he saw the loader bots stow away the crates. "I definitely won't starve to death in space with this much nutrient packs."
The Starlight Megalodon could care less about these emergency rations. All Ves needed to do to obtain a crate was to throw a few merits at the commissary.
Once he loaded the shuttle up with supplies, he programmed its autopilot and let it launch from the Starlight Megalodon's shuttle bay without any human occupants.
Even though the Vesians outside should have spotted launch of the craft, they wouldn't be able to track it for long due to all the interference in the air!
As the shuttle departed from the battleship, it followed a convoluted route planned by Ves before parking itself inside a hidden alcove nearly a thousand kilometers away. Ves spent hours studying the surrounding terrain until he settled for this hidden position.
Once there, the natural cover of the terrain along with the shuttle's low-powered ECM mode should keep it nice and hidden, though he didn't discount the possibility that Calabast already found out its location.
Nonetheless, he already programmed the coordinates to his emergency personal teleporter. Unless blocked for some reason or another, Ves would definitely be able to appear next to his shuttle.
"This should be sufficient preparation for my escape route."
In the meantime, the Vesians didn't sit still either. Venerable Foster began to copy his methods of press ganging the Vesians and subsequently using her power over the Mech Department to promote them into better positions.
Many Vesian experts flooded the Research Department all of a sudden!
While Ves looked forward to venting his frustrations on any mech designers assigned to the Mech Research Sub-Division, it seemed the Vesians knew better than to assign their people under his care!
"Damn, I really wanted to mess with them." He sighed with disappointment.
While a handful of their mech designers did join up, they were exclusively assigned to the Mech Department where Ves didn't dare to enter. With a young Journeyman Mech Designer called Patrick taking charge of all mech maintenance duties, the department became extremely lively all of a sudden.
The Starlight Megalodon became a minor hub of activity now that many hundreds of humans took up various duties and responsibilities. Virtual officers no longer monopolized the ship for themselves as the newly arrived humans started to encroach on their power.
Ves noticed several undercurrents running underneath the surface. Both the Vesians and the Flagrant Swordmaidens started spending a lot of time scouting out the vaults.
Naturally, there was no way they could get in. The vaults didn't store just any casual goods. Due to their extremely valuable contents, they had all entered into a permanent lockdown ever since the battleship crashed.
The only way to relieve the lockdown was to cut out the vaults and transport them back to CFA hands somehow.
The only other way to unlock them was to get a CFA high official to disengage the extremely stringent security locks.
The problem was that Ves didn't think the Flagrant Swordmaidens and the Vesians could accomplish either of those options.
"What are they up to?" He frowned.
Not only the humans began to buzz about, but also the virtual officers. He noticed that the security bots of the Internal Security Department increased the frequency of their patrols all of a sudden. Tensions between the captain's faction and the admiral's faction started to intensify, and Virtual Commander Cosit constantly complained to Ves about the rising levels of hostility.
Time was running out.
As Ves waited for Calabast to get him the authorizations to access the two highly classified core research projects, he spent his remaining time on rushing Ketis through her next promotion.
"Follow me and do what I tell you." He said as he brought her straight to one of the mech research labs.
Under his guidance, 'Ketis' managed to accomplish several major breakthroughs in these research projects. A flood of merits entered her record, easily pushing her to the amount required to undertake a promotion test!
"What's the use of earning these stupid merits when I'm not good enough to pass this test?" She asked in a confused tone.
"What do you know?" Ves smirked at her. "Do you know who I am? I'm the boss of every mech designer in the Research Department!"
Although his authority alone wouldn't allow him to circumvent the promotion test, Ves already knew what to do. He blatantly bribed Virtual Commander Cosit with half of his remaining merits, which was a considerable sum all considered.
With this much merits at stake, Cosit instantly turned into a fawning puppy in front of Ves!
[Rest assured, Mr. Longhorn, I will definitely be able to secure a commendation for young Miss Ketis! With the achievements she has already made so far, there is more than enough grounds for me to give her an esteemed award that automatically rewards her with a direct increase in her rank! I will need your approval for that, of course.]
Ves mentally shook his head at the department head's shamelessness. His prolific bribery completely corrupted her programming and turned her into the sleaziest virtual officer of the Starlight Megalodon.
It took Cosit only several hours to gain approval to award Ketis with a commendation. After conducting the shortest, smallest and fastest award ceremony, Ves practically hauled Ketis and her shiny new medal off to the armory where he practically browbeat her into redeeming an EPT as her promotion gift.
Of course, Ketis didn't appear to be amused. "Why should I receive a stupid teleporter when the armory has some really good swords?!"
She gestured her arm at the rack of scabbarded swords calling out for her attention. They came in all kinds of shapes and sizes and were much more than sharp slabs of metal. Each of them not only incorporated extremely expensive exotics which bestowed the blades with all kinds of special properties, they also incorporated many high tech functions as well!
Many of them were so sharp in fact that they could easily leave a mark on the Starlight Megalodon's bulkheads, which was a considerably impressive feat!
Ves didn't care, though. Compared to obtaining a pretty sword, it was much better for her to secure a ticket on his escape ride.
"You're redeeming an EPT and that's it. Or do you think you can leave the Starlight Megalodon by strolling out of the airlock in full sight of the virtual officers and the Vesians?"
Under his irresistible coercion, Ketis reluctantly redeemed an EPT from the armory with an aggrieved expression. Once she obtained it, Ves immediately transferred the same set of coordinates that he already configured on his own EPT.
"Now you're all set." Ves nodded with satisfaction. "Once you land in a spot of trouble or receive my signal, don't wait any further and just engage the EPT. Now, off you go. There's still a gene optimization treatment for you to go through!"
As Ves packed her off, he remained behind at the armory.
[Is there something else you need, Mr. Longhorn?] Levitt asked with a questioning tone.
"I'm allowed to exchange merits for gear, right?"
[Correct, but don't think about obtaining any advanced gadgets. We don't issue them often outside of officer promotions and special mission requirements. You will have to fork over a substantial amount of merits to receive something as good as an EPT.]
Ves gave the virtual chief armorer a confident smile. "Merits is the one thing I'm not short of. Open up the catalog for me! Let me make a selection first before we talk about the price!"