Many of the pirate gangs that lent a hand to the Swordmaidens began to fly towards Mancroft Station. Since they dropped by here, they might as well do business or hang out at that hive of scum and villainy.
Ves knew that the Omen of Misfortune and the other pirates wasted a lot of time, fuel, energy and supplies just to escort eight measly vessels of the Flagrant Swordmaidens to safety. This was time that they could have spent on using their forces to more productive uses.
Yet somehow, the severely weakened Swordmaidens still enjoyed enough clout to have so many pirate forces answer their call for help!
He found that inspiring. He thought that true friendship didn't exist in the frontier, yet the conduct of independent pirate outfits such as the Swordmaidens and the Omen of Misfortune proved him wrong.
Whenever Ketis boasted about the friends of the Swordmaidens, Ves always took her stories with a grain of salt. How could treacherous and opportunistic pirates be so generous and altruistic all of a sudden?
In fact, Ves still couldn't quite explain the friendships between these independents. Their bonds transcended pure practicality and was substantially more than a relationship propped up by benefits.
As the Vandal and Swordmaiden vessels quickly stocked up on some essential fuel and supplies, the time they would travel together soon came to an end.
The Swordmaidens intended to travel to the Reinald Republic while the Vandals obviously set the Bright Republic as their destination.
While risks still existed in civilized space, both of them leaned on their backup. For the Swordmaidens, the Omen of Misfortune promised to escort them all the way to the Harkensen System in the Reinald Republic.
As for the Vandals, every serviceman aboard the Shield of Hispania and the Gorgon's Gaze heard with amazement that the other half of the mech regiment was present in the Mancroft System!
"That's the Wolf Mother! I recognize that huge factory ship anywhere!"
"We're saved! With Colonel Lowenfield escorting us personally, who dares to attack us?!"
This must be what Major Verle kept back from everyone. With the two remaining combat carriers of the Verle Task Force finally returning to the welcome embrace of the main element of the 6th Flagrant Vandals, their days of skulking about like rats were finally over!
As the entire Shield of Hispania erupted into a festive mood, Ketis quietly shuttled over at Ves' invitation. He met her at the shuttle bay as she stepped off the Swordmaiden shuttle.
This time, he was no longer followed by a guard. The threat level aboard the ship reduced to such an extent to make such precautions redundant.
"Have you finally made the right decision?" He gently asked.
She sighed. "I really want to stay. The Swordmaidens truly need a mech designer to keep an eye on their mechs as they rebuild. Yet... Commander Dise insists it's better to take the time to invest in myself."
"She's a smart woman and shaping up to be a great leader of the Swordmaidens." Ves nodded in acknowledgement. "She's right, you know. From a long-term perspective, the Swordmaidens are much better off if they retain a capable Journeyman Mech Designer rather than a middling Novice Mech Designer. It will just take a while for you to get there, even under my tutelage."
"It still feels as if I'm abandoning them right when they are at their lowest point." She pouted.
"I don't see it that way, Ketis. You are making a brave sacrifice by coming under my wing. You willingly chose to separate yourself from your sisters in order to work towards a better future for all of them. It won't be easy, and it won't be fast, but as long as you keep learning and improving, I'm sure you'll make it to Journeyman in time. By then, you can opt to stay with me or return to the frontier to take up Mayra's old position."
Naturally, Ves hoped that Ketis remained with him in civilized space if she proved satisfactory. He would have to find some way to bind her into a net that would keep her in his clutches, but that was a matter for the future.
For now, Ves waited for his other arrangements to happen. Once Ves confirmed her decision to go along with his plans, he took her to the CFA shuttle parked to the side.
"Where are we going, Ves?" She frowned as she boarded the shuttle and set her floating luggage containers down.
"I can't very well take you to the Mech Corps, can I? I'm still a drafted mech designer of the Mech Corps, while you are technically a citizen of the Reinald Republic according to your forged identity that Mayra prepared for you. For now, we'll have to remain separate for the duration of the Bright Republic's war against the Vesia Kingdom. I have arranged a stay for you at my company in the Bright Republic."
"So I'll be alone there?"
"Not alone. I have several trusted employees there that are holding the fort in my absence." He said as he engaged the autopilot. Even without a human pilot, the shuttle would still be able to fly. "Try not to piss them off. They're working on my behalf and so will you, so it's best to start on the same page."
The CFA shuttle departed from the shuttle bay of the Shield of Hispania and crossed the void of space for half an hour. Ketis kept asking questions about her new life on Cloudy Curtain and Ves did his best to answer.
At some point, the shuttle slowed down and appeared next to a corvette.
"What is that ship?"
"That is the Barracuda, my personal yacht!" Ves grinned.
Back when Ves first connected to the Saffron Poke's quantum entanglement node, he sent a series of encrypted messages that told Calsie and Melkor to send the Barracuda to the Mancroft System and wait for his arrival.
They got his message and sent out the corvette in time!
After Ves sent out a few codes to the Barracuda from his CFA shuttle, the cargo hold opened up. The shuttle squeezed through the open hatch and parked on the deck.
As Ves and Ketis exited the corvette, Captain Amber Silvestra saluted him. "Sir, welcome back!"
"It's good to see you again, Captain." Ves nodded with a smile. Both of them looked older and more mature since the last time they met. "I'm on a short timetable here so we'll have to do a proper reunion another time."
"I understand, sir. Several mech patrols of the Flagrant Vandals have already started to question the Barracuda's presence so close to their ships."
Ves wasted no time. After entering a spare compartment, Ves changed out of his Squalon and CFA underlayer vacsuit and changed into his standard dark green mech designer uniform that he brought along.
A couple of bots took his Squalon and lifted it into a heavily shielded crate whose sole purpose was to block all kinds of scans and signals from penetrating its contents.
Just to be sure, Ves demanded that Ketis do the same. Because it would be inappropriate for her to wear her piratized combat armor or uniforms in civilized space, she made do with a generic outfit supplied by the Barracuda.
"I feel awfully weak in this boring getup." She complained as she pulled at her plain white clothes. "And my sword! You even forced me to give up my super-sharp CFA sword!"
"You can fabricate a new wardrobe yourself or purchase a new set of clothes at Cloudy Curtain. Just bear with it for now." He said. "Right now, our CFA gear is far too hot and eye catching for us to flaunt around. We don't actually want to draw the attention of the CFA down on us. Just talk to Melkor when the Barracuda brings you to your destination. He'll be able to set you up with some new battle gear."
"It still won't be as good as what's stored inside those crates!"
As Ketis kept sulking, Ves ignored her and turned back to the captain of the ship. "You know what to do. Bring back this stuff and make sure they're locked in the vault of the Mech Nursery. By the way, how is my company doing?"
"It's still standing." The female captain shrugged. "I don't have much of an eye for business, but it seems the LMC is holding its head above the water for now. That's a lot better than most mech manufacturers. Thousands of them have already gone bankrupt and more are gobbled up by larger companies. I hear there's plenty of rumblings at the company board at the moment."
"How many mechs is the LMC selling these days? Are the Blackbeaks and the Crystal Lords still rolling off the production lines?"
"Don't worry about that, boss. The LMC is still selling hundreds of silver label mechs. It's the bronze labels that are giving the company a hard time. Something about inflation and increased costs wiping out the profit margins. The Mech Nursery also expanded their production a lot to produce more profitable silver label mechs. I heard that the quality of the mechs went down while debt is piling up."
Ves closed his eyes but didn't linger too long. As long as the LMC held long enough until he returned, he shouldn't be so critical. At the very least, the LMC still remained standing under wartime conditions. Many other companies lacked this luxury!
"Has Calsie done a good job as interim CEO?"
"I wouldn't say she's CEO material, but she has your grandfather Benjamin's guidance and support. With his help, she has managed to remain on top of the issues, mostly. She hasn't sided with anyone if that's what you're concerned about, although some of her initiatives is rather extravagant."
Ves didn't need to know much more than that. With his grandfather keeping an eye on her, Calsie should do fine. He pushed her to take up the chair he vacated not because he expected her to grow his business, but to keep it away from the hands of those who greedily pawed at it or tried to steer it in a reckless direction.
In the worst case, Ves left behind a contingency plan to replace her should she go out of her bounds, but it appeared that wasn't necessary.
After arranging matters with Ketis and Captain Silvestra, Ves boarded a generic civilian shuttle and returned to the Shield of Hispania much-diminished in stature and possessions.
He left behind his CFA shuttle, his XV-99 Squalon and all of its integrated gadgets and gizmos, his armored toolbelt along with his CFA tools and standard-issue CFA laser sidearm, and most importantly a bunch of crates containing many bundles of vintage nutrient packs!
"Of course, I can't forget about the Archimedes Rubal either."
Ves had plans for the bioimplant, but for now he couldn't make use for it, so he sent it packing off with the rest of the goods he recovered from the Starlight Megalodon.
As Ves stepped off the civilian shuttle, which quickly flew away since it wasn't actually supposed to be here in the first place, he met up with a familiar face.
Major Verle actually went out to greet Ves in person in the shuttle bay. "I've received a report that some of our recovered gear is 'misplaced'. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
"Ah, no, sir." Ves coughed. "However, I did happen to see a shuttle roll off the shuttle bay deck. Terribly sloppy, sir. The shuttle technicians should be reprimanded. That fancy CFA shuttle along with all of its contents disappeared into space before we knew it, and well you know how difficult it is to locate a CFA shuttle with its passive ECM systems constantly active."
This was the excuse that Ves came up with to explain the disappearance of 'his' loot. To be honest, it was an extremely poorly-constructed excuse that wouldn't hold up to any serious scrutiny, but Major Verle already promised to make sure nobody asked any uncomfortable questions.
This was the benefit of borrowing someone else's influence!
While the rules and regulations clearly stated what was allowed, it was up to humans to enforce them. Ves learned the importance of this difference during his time with the Vandals and clearly applied his lessons in this case.
Naturally, without earning the favor of the Vandals and Major Verle specifically, Ves could forget about making use of this trick.
"Well, I hope you don't think you're done here, because you have a number of appointments on your agenda. First, we'll have to stop by at Colonel Lowenfield's flagship to hand over sensitive materials and provide a verbal report."
Ves nodded, not surprised that he'd be called up to the desk of this notable figure. Colonel Lowenfield exerted a huge influence over the Flagrant Vandals! Ves actually felt slightly apprehensive about meeting her, especially since he heard rumors that she shared a contentious relationship with Colonel Ark Larkinson at Citadel Havensworth...
She wasn't his lover or something, was she?