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 In the preceding days before the inevitable confrontation between the Flagrant Swordmaidens and the affiliate pirate gangs of the Dragon Alliance, Ves stewed in his anger.

Ronnie Blast and his Blue Paradisio design profoundly offended Ves' professional sensibilities.

If someone ripped off his designs, they better do a decent job at it! This rank amateur completely missed the point about the original Crystal Lord, yet somehow felt daring enough to adapt it to his own work!

If Ves ever met Ronnie Blast in person, he'd probably smack his face into a mess of red. "I'll probably do more than that."

While it was something of an inevitability that any decently successful mech designer suffered from design theft, that didn't mean Ves would maintain his composure when confronted by such a case.

As several days went by, Ves couldn't help but go over the archival footage of the Blind Men's Blue Paradisios and pick them apart to excruciating detail.

Ves obsessively uncovered every flaw, every mistake, every imperfection and every weakness of both its design and the individual physical copies in the hands of the Blind Men.

He knew it was rather unhealthy to spend so much time on analyzing the Blue Paradisios to death. As long as his efforts resulted in more weaknesses that could be exploited, his peculiar hobby could be forgiven to an extent.

As Ves took a break and summarize his findings on the Blue Paradisio, he snorted in contempt. "I think I understand the Blue Paradisio even better than Ronnie Blast now. I can easily school him about the many attributes and faults of his ripoff design for days upon end!"

It would be a waste of time, of course. The lesson he would be teaching this thieving bastard would be a much more practical than theoretical one.

Almost a week went by after the Flagrant Swordmaidens got the news about the strike force heading in their path. While they attempted to circumvent the interception by taking a detour, once they emerged in an unpopulated star system with no planets worth noting, alarms immediately rang across the ship.

[RED ALERT! UNKNOWN MECHS AND STARSHIPS DETECTED IN THE VICINITY OF OUR EMERGENCE ZONE. ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS!]

Not that everyone needed to run to their posts. The alert level had already been raised to yellow and everyone in the remnant fleet already took up their posts in full preparation of an imminent battle.

In the Shield of Hispania's command center, Ves sat at his regular observer's seat in his repainted Squalon. Besides his peculiar combat armor model, he didn't attract too much attention.

Major Verle observed the local plot of the surrounding space that grew increasingly more detailed as the after-effects of their FTL transition subsided. An unknown enemy force clearly parked in a region of space that fell within the emergence zone of any incoming fleet arriving from a specific star system.

It didn't take a genius to determine that these unknowns predicted the remnant fleet's route and moved to block their way.

"The enemy fleet is about an hour away from entering into battle range."

It took at least five hours for the Vandal and Swordmaiden carriers to finish cycling their FTL drives. The time to do so increased for many ships due to lack of supplies and lack of thorough maintenance.

This gave the enemy fleet more than enough time to catch up to the Flagrant Swordmaidens and force a battle.

As long-ranged sensors resolved more details, they conclusively matched the unknown fleet elements to the three pirate gangs that set out from the Woolox System.

"We are ninety percent confident that the unknown fleet consists of ships from Kaso's Remediers, the Slick Hairs and the Blind Men, sir." A sensor officer reported to Major Verle. "Every ship we've observed is a match to the ships that departed from the Dragon Alliance's space station at Woolox."

"Have you detected other ships?"

"Our sensors detected no additional ships so far, but our observations are ongoing, sir. We are attempting to scan the entire system, but so far we have failed to detect anything of note."

Ves considered this as good news. If the pirates arrayed against the Flagrant Swordmaidens received reinforcements, then the odds of winning decreased rapidly.

Right now, the disparity in numbers already provided plenty of headaches to the Vandals and the Swordmaidens. Even after all of their repairs, the Flagrant Swordmaidens could muster only a hundred-and-fifty spaceborn mechs or so at most.

The enemy force fielded at least seventy more mechs than that. While the quality of their mechs didn't impress Ves very much, he knew the folly of underestimating the disparity in numbers.

It would have been a bit better for the Flagrant Swordmaidens if they could have serviced and repaired their worn mechs to peak condition. At their full strength, the Vandal and Swordmaiden mechs stood a good chance of thrashing the enemy mech force.

Yet right now, the Flagrant Swordmaidens were nearing the end of their rope. The psychological weariness among the mech pilots combined with half-repaired states of most of their mechs severely impacted their effective battle strength.

"Everyone is tired. They are tired of fighting and running."

This weariness reflected in the resigned and moody expressions of the Vandals in the command center. No one looked forward to the upcoming battle. After Ves and the strategists analyzed the enemy mech force in detail, they all pronounced that the Flagrant Swordmaidens would have a hard fight on their hands.

No matter who won or lost, perhaps they'd only be left with a fraction of their mechs at the end!

By then, even a space fly could tear apart the remnant fleet!

Even the pirates themselves probably didn't wish to fight the Flagrant Swordmaidens. If not for the Dragons of the Void coercing them into action, they would have rather preferred to bully the weak instead of confronting a damaged but battle-hardened mech force.

"What's in it for them?" Ves wondered quietly. He wasn't too familiar with the circumstances of the Remediers and the Slick Hairs, but he read quite a bit of material about the Blind Men.

While their cult beliefs made no sense to him, on a secular level there was no doubt the Blind Men incurred a lot of debts. Perhaps the Dragons of the Void promised to write off their debts if they participated in this battle.

"Even so, they are in a pretty bad fix."

Minutes passed as everyone made their final preparations in a fatalistic manner. While the Flagrant Swordmaidens could have delayed the battle by several hours by attempting to fly away, they saw no point in delaying the inevitable.

The handful of sandman motherships that followed their FTL transitions still loomed behind them. If they took too long to wrap up the battle, the sandmen ships would eventually catch up!

Therefore, rather than avoiding the battle, the remnant fleet instead took the initiative to close in on the enemy fleet!

"Those pirate carriers are probably filled with fuel and energy." Someone remarked. "As long as we win the battle, we can force the ships into surrender and siphon away their fuel and supplies!"

"Heh. That's easier said than done. Let's try and survive this battle first before we talk about the spoils."

A nervous tension suffused the entire remnant fleet as both forces closed in on each other. It would take much less than an hour at this rate for battle to erupt!

"The enemy carriers are deploying their mechs for battle!"

The pirates only deployed fifty or so mechs on patrol, which didn't seem so threatening. Yet fifteen minutes before the inevitable clash, the pirate carriers began to disgorge mech after mech, each of them forming up in their own little groups with little regard for formations or order.

"We have confirmed sightings of over two-hundred-and-twenty mechs, sir."

The three pirate mech forces formed up in a simple arrangement, as they lacked the discipline and training for anything more sophisticated.

The mechs of the Kaso's Remediers positioned themselves in the main line. Their eclectic mix of melee and ranged mechs gave them a lot of versatility, but as the biggest and strongest pirate gang among the three, they took on the responsibiity of bearing the brunt of the Flagrant Swordmaiden's fury.

The Slick Hairs fast and nimble melee mechs positioned themselves at the flanks. There was no doubt they would attempt to bypass the Flagrant Swordmaidens at the front in order to hit them in the sides or rear. Perhaps they would even attempt to assault the Shield of Hispania and the other carriers directly!

As for the Blind Men, their Blue Paradisios formed up well behind and above the Remediers. This gave them a good overhead angle from a comfortably long distance to pick off the Flagrant Swordmaiden mechs.

Right now, Major Verle communicated privately with Commander Dise on how they should address the threat of the Blind Men's fire support.

Should they divert precious light skirmishers in an attempt to threaten the Blue Paradisios out of sniping their mechs? Perhaps that was a trap to lure them in only for the Slick Hairs to turn around and cut off their escape route.

No matter what response they offered to the enemy formation, the Flagrant Swordmaidens would definitely exact a very painful price.

As Ves called up a projection of the mechs of the Blind Men, he glowered even deeper. The mere sight of the Blue Paradisios made his eyes red! If that blasted Ronnie had more sense, he wouldn't have ripped off the Crystal Lord, making it so that the Blind Men fielded a poor facsimile of Ves' design against himself!

His fury boiled over until something finally snapped within his mind. "Major Verle, I have a request."

The major turned away from his argument with Commander Dise and frowned at Ves. "What is it, Mr. Larkinson? Please make it quick."

"I'd like to open up a comm channel to the Blind Men." Ve stated with forced calmless. It wouldn't do to come across as unhinged right now. "There is something I'd like to talk about them. It concerns their mech model, sir."

"Hmmm, I did hear that their main mech model resembles your old work. Fine, then. Just remember that you have only minutes before the battle commences."

"I'll keep it short."

He was grateful that Major Verle didn't ask too many questions. To be honest, Ves didn't entirely know why he wanted to talk or what he wanted to achieve. He merely wanted to vent his fury on the Blind Men.

As the communications officer took a moment to send out a comm request ot the Blind Men, to his surprise the other party actually accepted the call.

A projection of the Blind Prophet appeared in front of Ves. The man adopted the stereotypical appearance of a prophet, resembling an old man with a long and mostly ragged-looking grey beard. His eyes also looked rather murky, as if he was truly blind.

The only concession to practicality was that he wore a piratized piloting suit at the moment.

"Flagrant Vandals, I have foreseen your doom. Your flesh will freeze and rot in the void of space and your mechs will be strewn across this star system in the form of broken wrecks."

"Cut the crap, you charlatan." Ves hissed. "Let me tell you something about the mechs you're piloting. They're cheap imitations of my own design. Don't know what I'm talking about? Here, let me send you the relevant files on my Crystal Lord design. Do you see whose name is attached to the design? Me. Ves Larkinson. THAT'S ME AND THAT'S MY ORIGINAL DESIGN!"

The Blind Prophet appeared a bit bewildered at the person at the other end of the channel. "Mad ravings of a man already condemned to death. Your spittle is meaningless, so save us all the trouble. Our victory is assured and your defeat is only a matter of time."

"Hahahaha!" Ves laughed. "Confident, are you? Well tough luck, because you're facing against me, the original designer of the Crystal Lord, of which your Blue Paradisio is like a retarded cousin! DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DEFEAT ME WITH A MECH MODEL DERIVED FROM MY OWN WORK?!"

Practically the entire command center fell into silence as they heard Ves' outburst. They never expected the usually well-behaved mech designer to be so furious!

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