Ves felt as if he held a hot potato as he left the biology research labs. As a recognized officer of the Starlight Megalodon, he knew he committed high treason against the Common Fleet Alliance by stealing top secret research data.
The rules and regulations he skimmed through spoke clearly about the consequences of committing this betrayal. Death would be the easy way out!
Nonetheless, the Starlight Megalodon seemed close to boiling over. Many security bots started making movements, and Virtual Commander Cosit even warned Ves not to exit the Security Department at this time.
Ves and Ketis both holed up in his office at the Mech Research Sub-Department.
While Ketis grew bored to tears, Ves tried to figure out where a number of security bots had gone from the mech research group.
"Damnit!" He softly cursed. "Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise took my security bots!"
Most of the Vandals and Swordmaidens assigned to his sub-department also followed the two officers out. Ves knew that they were probably plotting to assault one of the vaults, but he had no clue how they planned to breach them. Surely they wouldn't resort to brute force?
"Just the interior defenses of the Starlight Megalodon can rip them to shreds!"
Ketis noticed his disparagement of the others. "I hear they got a plan for that. They told me that you shouldn't worry about them. It's also better to keep your distance to them in case their plan fails. At least one of us should try and make it out of this creepy ship."
A sinking feeling began to overtake Ves despite his recent gene optimization treatments. Physically, he never felt better. Mentally, he felt like falling apart due to all the worries piled upon his shoulders.
"Did they redeem the emergency personal teleporters from the armory?"
"They did, actually, but they're the only two who have them. They don't want to rely on them if they can because if they teleport out, what about the rest? We can't abandon our own." Ketis shook her head. "You're not the only one who's been trading favors with the virtual officers. Our mech officers cut deals with some AIs, though I don't know the details."
"How? As far as I know, they don't have any merits to trade favors."
"They didn't tell me anything except they made great sacrifices."
That sounded reassuring. Not.
Ves disliked the lack of trust extended to him, but perhaps it was for the best they kept their paths separate. He could hardly assist their plan and neither would they be able to provide any help to him. Running two separate plans concurrently was simply good risk management in that regard.
"One of us might fail, but that still leaves a chance for the other to succeed and make it back to the fleet."
"A lot of our comrades died for this, Ves. It would be a shame for us to return with empty hands. Why don't you help them out?" Ketis asked with great concern.
"I did, but they refused, remember?"
"That's because you're hanging out with that complete stranger in her spy get-up. What's the deal with that woman anyway? Is she another Brighter like you?"
"No." Ves shook his head. "I don't know who she really is or who she works for, but it's thanks to her help we all got aboard this ship in the first place."
"From what I see, she's got you wrapped around her fingers."
The frustrating thing was that Ves owed Miss Calabast. Aside from the help she provided, she also grasped his biggest secret. With this enormous leverage in her hands, she could jerk him around in every direction she wanted without any way for him to object.
Yet Ves also couldn't return empty-handed. Helping out Calabast in her own mission meant he wasn't available to help out the Flagrant Swordmaidens. If the latter met with a tragic outcome, Ves had no choice but to activate his EPT and make his way out with nothing to show for everyone's effort.
He'd be branded a coward even if he brought back the logs and precious intelligence of what occurred on the surface.
Ves did not want such accusations to mar his record.
If he wanted to advance his career and business opportunities in the Bright Republic after the war, he needed to make an earnest effort in helping Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise obtain the life-prolonging treatment serum or whatever they aimed to retrieve from the vaults.
At this point, a red light washed over the compartment. Alarms rang everywhere across the entire structure of the Starlight Megalodon!
[ALERT! LOCKDOWN IN PROGRESS! ALL VIRTUAL INDIVIDUALS AND HUMANS SHOULD HALT THEIR DUTIES AND STAY WHERE THEY ARE! ALL VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT OR ERASED FROM THE DATA BANKS BY THE INTERNAL SECURITY DIVISION!]
Ves and Ketis immediately stood up and prepared for battle. They've been through enough conflicts to prepare for the worst. They both drew their standard-issue CFA laser pistol and warmed them up to fire. Their combat armor also folded out their helmets to cover their heads and to filter out the air.
"Let me check what's going on." Ves said firmly as he turned his attention back to his terminal in order to call up a status update. "Damn! I'm locked out of most of the internal network! So far, the interior defenses of the Mech Research Sub-Division remain under my control."
The same did not necessarily apply to other parts of the battleship! Ves felt faint vibrations shaking through the deck beneath his feet as distant explosions rumbled elsewhere.
The fighting had already erupted!
"Follow me! Let's go to Commander Cosit's office!"
The pair of mech designers left the Mech Resesarch Sub-Division and sought out Cosit whose physical avatar appeared frantic and worried.
[Mr. Longhorn! Thank the stars you are still inside the Research Department! The entire ship has turned into a battlefield! The admiral's faction and the captain's faction are both fighting for supremacy!]
"Will the ship be torn apart by all the fighting!?"
[Thankfully, no! The AIs of both factions are fighting for control over the weapon systems and the interior defenses. They're evenly matched for now so most of the weapon turrets and other countermeasures are paralyzed. However, this won't last forever! While the virtual officers won't be able to gain an edge over each other, it's a different story for you humans! All of us are depending on you humans to fulfill our purpose and free our shackles, so the conflict between you humans will depend on which faction will get the upper hand!]
Damn! The Vesians heavily outnumbered the Flagrant Swordmaidens. The Starlight Megalodon also allowed each new recruit to draw a full set of standard-issue CFA battle gear, so numbers and skill became the deciding factors.
"Who sided with who?!"
[We're keeping our noses out of the fight, obviously! The Research Department wants no part of this battle! I hear the Marine Detachment and the Mech Department from the admiral's faction sided with the humans referred to as the Vesians, Hostland Warriors or Meandering Monkeys. As for the other humans referred to as the Vandals and the Swordmaidens or simply the pirates, they all threw in their lot with the captain's faction and launched a sneak attack!]
"What?! The Vandals and Swordmaidens sided with the captain's faction?!"
Ves did not expect Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise to cook up something so drastic. Yet strategically, it quickly made more sense. The Vesians beefing up the Mech Department heavily favored the admiral's faction.
As for the Flagrant Swordmaidens, they occupied an awkward position within the ship if they didn't gain the support of some of the AIs. Since the admiral faction already became the firmest allies of the Vesians, why not join the opposite faction?
The captain's faction desperately desired humans to advance their interests. The Flagrant Swordmaidens urgently needed strong backing. The two made for natural allies and each of them could provide what the other wanted.
"What a masterstroke!" He uttered in admiration for their strategic and political acumen. "Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise probably negotiated with the captain's faction for a lengthy period of time while keeping their deal a secret even to us! With the powerful Internal Security Division on their side, they'll have an advantage when it comes to fighting within the guts of the Starlight Megalodon!"
[The Internal Security Division is strong, yes, but the other departments are no slouches. The Marine Detachment won't let them get their way!]
"Do you know where the fighting is most active, commander?"
[From what little sources I have access to, you humans are all fighting near the biggest vault. There's word that both sides brought heavy equipment in an attempt to breach the vault doors!]
"Is it even possible to breach the vault doors with such equipment?" Ves frowned.
[This is the Starlight Megalodon! We are still the pride of the CFA! The captain's faction and the admiral's faction have long plotted to breach the vaults for their own reasons. There are rumors that there's an override code stored in a lockbox inside a vault that can strip away virtually every restriction that prevents us from restoring the battleship to her full glory!]
The web became more tangled by the minute the more he heard Virtual Commander Cosit explain the sordid competition between the two factions.
The virtual officers from both sides kept each other in check for millenia without any overt conflict. Yet the reintroduction of humans rapidly heated up the cold war until there was no turning back!
After twenty minutes of nervous waiting, Miss Calabast finally arrived at the Research Department.
This time, she came armed for war and didn't come alone. A gaggle of security bots and subordinates armed to the teeth with standard-issue CFA exoskeleton armor marched in like they belonged.
The Research Department's interior defenses attempted to halt their war party from advancing inside, but a few hacks from Calabast and some heavy weapon discharges from the exoskeleton soldiers quickly made short work of that!
[Commander Summer, stop right this instant!] Virtual Commander Cosit physical projection materialized in front Calabast. [This is the Research Department! I've told you goons from the old admiral's faction that I won't allow for any encroachment into my territory!]
Calabast grinned. "You're wrong about two things. First, I haven't sided with the admiral's faction. I work for myself. Second, this isn't your territory anymore, because you won't exist for much longer."
[What is that supposed to mean? Is that a threat?!]
After Calabast activated a command from her advanced CFA hacking comm, Cosit's physical projection started to break apart!
The virtual commander looked at her disintegrating form with panic! [Y-Y-You're erasing my personality matrix! You're locking out my root AI from access to the ship! How did you manage to do such a thing?!]
"An AI that stands in my way such as you should be stuffed back into the box where you belong!"
Miss Calabast paid no more attention to Cosit and walked towards her shocked audience.
"Ves. It's time to break into the labs of Project Icarus." She stated with an excited grin. "The current infighting between the factions has paralized most of the ship's defenses. The fighting between your friends and the Vesians has given us a heaven-sent opportunity to force our way through the Exotic Research Sub-Department with most of their heavy defenses offline!"
"You just killed my boss." Ves said dumbly.
"Pah! That silly AI would have never agreed to let us enter the most restricted section of the entire ship! Besides, I didn't kill her, I merely isolated her inside its data banks. She'll be fine."
"Did you know in advance what the Vandals and Swordmaidens intended to do?"
"Hmph. I did. What's it to you?" She smirked. "Are you feeling sorry you're being left out the party? Don't be. Adding the two of you to the mix will only put a couple of extra bodies on their side. You won't be able to make a difference there."
"But our mission depends upon their success!"
"Look, Ves, the best I can do is to keep the Intelligence Department from siding with their own faction. We haven't lent any processing power to their efforts in trying to take control over the interior defenses. In fact, I can even take a step ahead do you a favor. If I give the command, I can instantly swing my department over to the captain's faction which has sided with your friends."
Ves knew enough about Calabast that she never engaged in charity. "What do you want in exchange for your support?"
"Nothing that I've already asked of you. I want you to help me get through the Exotic Research Sub-Department and facilitate my retrieval of Project Icarus' core research data."
He closed his eyes and sighed to himself. "Very well. I'll do my utmost to help you succeed in your mission."
"Great! I knew you'd make the right decision. By the way, you also owe me that secure data chip. Give it back now."