The interior of the Starlight Megalodon became baptized in war and paralysis. Behind the scenes, the captain's faction and the admiral's faction waged a frigid war on the ship's internal network and all of her automated systems.
Meanwhile, in realspace, Flagrant Swordmaidens and the Vesians fought over the vault which they believed stored a batch of high-grade life prolonging serum and other valuables.
These two interconnected battles threw the entire ship into disarray and prevented her from engaging her most potent defenses to annihilate the humans or the AIs that took up arms.
The chaos wracking the ship lessened almost every human and AI's attention away from the neutral Research Department. The evenly-sided stalemate also ensured that the conflict wouldn't be resolved within a short amount of time.
These serendipitous circumstances provided the perfect backdrop for Miss Calabast! So much so that Ves couldn't help but eye with considerable suspicion. He strongly believed that she definitely had a hand in enabling this confrontation to occur. She might have pushed both sides towards a conflict just so she could manufacture an opportunity to break into Project Icarus!
"What are you looking at?" Miss Calabast noticed him staring daggers at her. "Do you have any complaints? You shouldn't think that much. You just continue to do what you are good at while I do what I'm good at. Don't forget that I have a stake in you as well now."
He sure knew it considering he worried about what she had over him every waking moment.
"Let's just get this over with so I can either lend a hand to my comrades or make my way out." He grumbled. "Why do you need my assistance so much anyway? You can hack anything from what it looks like."
Calabast shook her head. "I only managed to pack up Virtual Commander Cosit because she's not a research AI. You only saw me input some commands that wiped out her personality matrix, but I spent days to search for exploits and find a way to remove her from the picture. Her removal is necessary because it leaves you as the highest-ranking officer in the Research Department. Check your authorizations. While you haven't inherited the position of department head, Cosit's absence caused the ship to transfer many of her powers over to you. We'll need that to unlock most of the restrictions barring our way."
They tested out her assumption very quickly.
Ves and Ketis accompanied Miss Calabast and her war party into Cosit's office. It turned out the entrance to the Exotic Research Sub-Division lay right beneath Virtual Commander Cosit's desk!
"Go work your magic, Ves."
Surprisingly enough, when Ves inputted a special opening command, the entrance responded.
They watched the desk hover into the air before a hidden mechanism disengaged the locks and slid back the deck plating. A hole extended right into the darkness underneath.
"Go and hover down. Be careful that you don't fall!"
Miss Calabast, Ves, Ketis, the heavily armed exoskeleton soldiers and the security bots all activated their antigrav modules and floated down into the dark.
No lightning lit up the sheer tunnel leading downwards, so everyone activated their suit lighting and activated an augmented vision mode on their helmet visors.
A minute later, everyone carefully touched down on the deck underneath. They subsequently passed through a heavily guarded but ominously silent security checkpoint.
Ves understood that technically Ves shouldn't have received so many authorizations after Cosit's removal. Certainly, he shouldn't have obtained the security clearances and permissions to enter the Exotic Research Sub-Department. Yet Calabast manipulated the automatic succession process in such a way that turned over the bulk of the virtual commander's responsibilities on his lap.
Therefore, they didn't encounter any hindrance at the first checkpoint. Yet there were seval more in their path before they could reach the inner core of this secretive section.
"Careful, you two." Calabast warned as the two had started to let down their guard in the dark environment. "We easily managed to bypass the first security checkpoint because it's not as strict and stringent in preventing entry. The next checkpoints will be rather troublesome because while the gates and fixed defenses will recognize your authorization codes, the security bots and virtual officers residing inside are different."
"Different in what way?" Ketis asked.
"For security and redundancy reasons, the bots and virtual officers all operate on an entirely enclosed network within the Exotic Research Sub-Division. There is no way I can access the network from the outside, and let me inform you that I have tried many times."
"So what does that mean?"
"We'll have to fight our way through the bots. These aren't the standard bots like the ones that watch my back right now. The bots inside are of a completely different make and model. They're extremely formidable and armed with extremely lethal weapons, though the good news is that there aren't a lot of them. The Exotic Research Sub-Division mainly relied on elite human guards to guard their top secret projects."
Even if the CFA extended a lot of power to AIs and bots, they always relied on humans to take up primary responsibility. As they should.
When they walked across the eerily empty corridors, they finally encountered the next checkpoint.
As Ves transmitted the authorization codes to the checkpoint, most of the turrets and other defenses stood down.
However, the virtual guards and security bots immediately grew hostile.
[Wait a minute! You're not Virtual Commander Cosit! You don't belong here!]
Miss Calabast didn't bother with any verbal sparring. She held out a plasma rifle and instantly pulled the trigger. "Open fire!"
The war party outnumbered the still-functional defenders of the security checkpoint. Yet their armament was extremely destructive!
One slicer bot teleported right in the middle of them and began to whirl around with their special blades. Within half a second, the bot managed to slice several unprepared exoskeleton soldiers into half despite their thick armor plating!
A handful of other bots fired out destructive rays that molecularly disintegrated the security bots that Calabast brought along. Everyone else including Ves and Ketis huddled behind their bulk as cover, but the bots dwindled by the second!
Nonetheless, the intruding war party hadn't completely come unprepared. The exoskeleton soldiers blasted the slicer bot into a dented wreck with their heavy kinetic cannons. Small-scale artillery turrets mounted on their shoulders and back lobbed explosive shells at the ranged defender bots. The heat and concussive shockwave from the explosions threw them the defender bots off-kilter, interrupting their disintegration rays and other highly potent weapons fire!
"Finish them off!"
The war party's railguns, explosive shells, plasma weapons and other assorted CFA weaponry finally took down the bots standing guard.
As for the virtual guards? They were just projections who fizzled out when Calabast activated a strong anti-projection field from her augmented CFA infiltrator suit.
"Come on. There are several more checkpoints to go."
Over the next half hour, they fought hard against five or six security bots standing guard at each security checkpoint. Each time, the war party won a hard victory, though they managed to bleed less men and bots as they learned how to cope with the elite security bots.
The absence of elite human guards reduced the strength of the defenses enormously. The deactivation of the interior defense system further reduced the total defensive strength to a fraction of its former glory.
Even so, by the time the war party made it all the way to the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the Exotic Research Sub-Division, Calabast lost most of her subordinates and all of her security bots!
If not for her excellent preparation and planning as well as the modern ECM field generators she deployed to spoil the targeting systems and interfere with the functioning of the defending bots, they would have been eliminated instantly!
The difficult excursion opened his eyes to Calabast's ruthless determination. She knew just enough to make the right preparations that tilted the battles sufficiently in her favor. Yet even after accumulating so many advantages, she still needed to sacrifice most of her fellow operatives to make it this far.
To Calabast, the lives of those operatives probably meant nothing to her! She wouldn't hesitate to use up the lives of anyone deemed expendable in her judgment!
Of course, an even scarier observation was that none of her subordinates complained or showed any hesitation. They moved with confidence and determination as if they would gladly sacrifice their lives to the cause!
"We're close." Miss Calabast whispered as they approached a heavily-reinforced set of blast doors. "Go ahead and use your authorizations."
The blast doors looked extremely thick and formidable. Ves couldn't even tell what kind of high-grade exotics had been blended into forming the blast doors and the bulkheads wrapped around the compartment housing Project Icarus.
Such an extravagant use of materials ordinary prevented entry into the most sensitive parts of the ship such as the bridge, the CIC or the command center! Perhaps only the ship's vaults could equal this kind of protection!
When Ves walked into range and transmitted the codes, the blast doors wouldn't open just like that. The automated systems managing the blast doors forced Ves to undergo an extremely stringent identity check. Only after the systems confirmed that 'Lieutenant Commander Adeseus Longhorn, provisional head of the Research Department' sent the authorization codes did it finally unlock the blast doors.
The thick slabs of some of the strongest alloys known to the CFA several hundred years ago began to retract.
The lack of use and millenia of the neglect caused them to move far slower than they ought to. Many parts squealed and groaned or shuddered as lack of oiling and maintenance really caused everyone's apprehension to rise.
A soft, cyan glow emerged from beyond the slowly parting blast doors. An enormous compartment the size of one of the Starlight Megalodon's smaller hangar bays stretched out before their eyes.
As Calabast boldly stepped forward, the rest followed suit. They entered a large but haphazardly filled chamber. Besides the main path that stretched straight forward, everywhere was occupied with various advanced machinery and lab equipment. Some of them seemed to be related to the study and measurement of extremely elusive exotic energy, while others dealt with the study of high-grade exotic materials.
Interspersed between these machines were other, more gruesome looking machines that Ves instantly equated to some of the medical equipment in the medical bay or Exobiology Department.
One side of the chamber had even been turned into a massive cultivation area for what Ves presumed to be human clones!
Inside the transparent cylindrical tanks, hundreds of bodies of human clones floated silently in the murky-looking liquid solution. The main reason why Ves recognized them as clones was because they possessed extremely similar physical appearances.
Obviously, the bodies weren't in good shape. While the tanks remained active and tried to keep the bodies alive, an unimaginably long time had passed. Not even clones could last that long.
If not for the vacsuits they all wore to preserve their modesty, the sight of their long-dead and wrinkled bodies would have disgusted Ves to the point of vomiting up the contents of the vintage nutrient pack he ate some time ago.
As a nutrient pack connoisseur, Ves couldn't stand such a waste!
"Yes?" Calabast raised her eyebrow at him as they slowly traversed the open path.
"Do you reckon the FTL-capable shuttles released by the Starlight Megalodon were crewed by clones cultivated from this research lab?" He asked.
"I looked into that. While there are cloning bays and other areas capable of growing human clones aboard the ship, none of them have ever showed signs of activity in recent times. This is the only compartment which I haven't been able to call up the data regarding their cloning activities, but by the process of elimination it's extremely likely this lab is responsible."
"If that is so, doesn't that mean there is some controlling intelligence at work here who sent out the lures into the frontier?"
The top secret research lab became less inviting by the minute. The shadows in the corner of his vision seemed to jump out at him, causing him to be frightened out of his wits.
He had a feeling they weren't alone in here!