The journey to the Mancroft Independent Harbor had to be delayed. Ves along with the entire attack site had to be scrubbed clean in order to remove every trace of Molgon. As soon as he checked out, he boarded a more heavily armed shuttle along with Melkor and travelled to Sanyal-Ablin’s headquarters.
Seeing Raella’s still and vulnerable body being scanned and prodded by various kinds of medical instruments brought their moods to a low point.
“Will she be okay?” Ves asked softly.
One of the doctors nodded. “Miss Raella is a resilient mech pilot. Her implants and gene treatments have also contributed to her survival. It’s a good thing your various countermeasures have activated so early. She’ll make a full recovery after half a year of therapy.”
Various coincidences allowed Ves to survive this attack unscathed, but he couldn’t say the same to Raella. He resolved to gift his cousins at least one set of spare antigrav clothes. He already had a closet full of them so it hardly made a dent.
Ves had to cough up two million credits to pay for Raella’s treatment, and that included a heavy discount. SASS must have felt a bit sorry for being caught off-guard by the assassination attempt. In any case, it was money well-spent as Miss Robyn assured him they treated Raella with Coalition-standard technology.
“Now that Raella is out of action, do you need me to take her place?” Melkor asked with a tone that suggested that he’d rather watch over of his cousin.
“No. I’m sure my client arranged his own security arrangement. You’re better off keeping watch over my workshop. I don’t want people messing around with my stuff while I’m gone.”
Even if Ves forced Melkor to go along, the mech pilot would constantly worry about Raella. He decided to leave him at home and bring someone else. The only problem was that Ves didn’t know anyone else who could take Raella’s place.
Surprisingly, Melkor rejected his suggestion. “Your premises are already quite secure, and I’m confident nothing will happen to Raella. I know you need someone to watch your back, so don’t refuse my presence.”
“Alright. I’ll arrange your mech to be moved to my corvette.”
A few moments later, they entered a press room. A number of local reporters gathered here after passing stringent security checks. Their camera bots hovered behind their heads, ready to stream the upcoming press conference to the entire planet.
The attack at his workshop was one of the most dramatic events that had happened in recent history. Every citizen of Cloudy Curtain feverishly spread their gossip as they awaited some sort of official response.
The anemic local police services only issued a perfunctory statement while they were running around like headless chickens. This inadvertently gave Ves the chance to shape the narrative, according to Gavin’s media savvy instincts.
Ves nodded at Gavin as he walked over to him. “How’s the public taken it so far?”
“They’re restless, excited and outraged.” Gavin grinned, as if the assassination attempt actually pleased him. “The media aligned to the ruling coalition is already pressing for calm, but almost no one but their diehard supporters are paying attention to those channels. We’ve got a large portion of the population ready to cling to your words.”
While Ves found it distasteful to take advantage of this situation, necessity compelled him to follow Gavin’s suggestions.
They were in the light and their enemies were in the dark. No one stepped up to claim responsibility for the attack. In addition, events that happened in Bentheim and beyond might as well be on the other side of the galaxy as far as Cloudy Curtain was concerned.
“Good afternoon.” Ves greeted the cameras as he stepped up to the podium. “Thank you for attending this press conference. My name is Ves Larkinson. I am an Apprentice Mech Designer under the tutelage of Master Carmen Olsen of the Vermeer Group. I recently founded the Living Mech Corporation here in my home planet of Cloudy Curtain.”
All of the reporters already knew his background, but many of his viewers might not be aware. He deliberately mentioned his master’s name in order to borrow some of her prestige. It forced those who normally dismissed low-tier mech designers to regard him seriously.
“Can you tell us what happened this morning?”
Ves gave a brief and factual account of the sequence of the events. Various recordings had already leaked onto the galactic net, so no one learned anything new. He also left his shield generator and antigrav clothes out of his story. No need to give his enemies any ideas.
“Who is responsible for this terrible attack?”
Ves tried to maintain a composed expression. “I don’t know, but I can think of several possibilities. Various people would like to see me gone. For instance, the ruling coalition has worked hard to ram a new tax bill through the Planetary Assembly that will drive me out of business.”
Technically, he didn’t lie. He let the reporters and the viewers who watched the broadcast connect the dots themselves. Even if it was on spurious grounds, everyone loved a conspiracy theory.
The Greens and the White Doves could issue as many denials as they wanted. It didn’t change the fact that they regarded him with hostility. Could they have been responsible for the attack? Ves didn’t think so, but he was willing to drag them through the mud anyway. Let the public decide the final verdict.
He continued to spin a misleading narrative that Gavin had carefully constructed. Ves had already received some coaching on what to say and what to leave out. Everything he said rang true, and thus should pass scrutiny should someone employ a sophisticated lie detector program.
Once he reached the end of the conference, he left behind a final statement. “I survived today not because of luck, but because this is my home. Don’t believe in the naysayers and pessimists that we’re only good for feeding Bentheim. The Living Mech Corporation’s presence here represents my belief that we can be strong.”
His words took everyone by surprise. Ves left the reporters behind as they digested his eloquent response. He nodded to Gavin who smirked like a cat who got the canary.
“You did an excellent job, boss. You didn’t stumble on your words at all. The only fault I can find is that you’ve been acting a little too lively for someone who survived an assassination attempt.”
“I can’t help it.” Ves chuckled a bit. “I keep thinking about how many mouthfuls of wine those loathsome politicians will spurt once they see my performance.”
It thoroughly burned any bridge he had between him and the ruling coalition, but Ves didn’t care. He bought himself some time. According to Gavin and Calsie, his performance should thoroughly pull the wind out of the sails of the tax reform bill.
One day later, a heavily armed convoy escorted by two aerial mechs landed inside a cordoned-off section of the spaceport. Several security officers accompanied by many bots kept their eyes peeled for trouble.
One of the central shuttles opened its hatch, allowing Ves, Melkor and Lucky to step outside. He turned to an escort and nodded his head. “Thanks for the ride.”
Ves turned to the other side of the field and walked towards the parked corvette. The Barracuda regained her former glory after undergoing repairs. Her rear thrusters looked as pristine as the first day she came into his possession.
He also met the Barracuda’s crew for the first time. A group of five stunning-looking women greeted his eyes. Even Melkor halted for a moment after seeing them together. Even as they dressed themselves in a formless blue uniform with the logo of the LMC plastered to their sleeve, they still looked like angels.
“Hello.” Ves awkwardly said. “I’m your new boss.”
“We know who you are.” A redhead with the only hat replied. “Captain Amber Silvestra, at your service.”
“First Class Engineer Ushra Jacobson, at your service.” A dusky-skinned woman said.
“First Class Pilot Miranda Pham, at your service.”
“Ship Security Officer Angie Sipos, at your service.”
“Able Spacer Jenn Malcom-Stahl, at your service.”
The way they spoke ‘at your service’ revealed they received extensive training. Ves could tell that they used to say those same words with charming voices and enticing smiles.
None of the women composed themselves as anything other than professionals today. Ves already got the lowdown from Marcella.
Evidently, the women worked for a company that operated luxury yachts. Among their regular duties of keeping the ships afloat, they also pampered their clients. A severe dive in fortune for the sleazy company forced them to let go of half of their employees, which included this tight-knit group of highly trained women.
Ves should feel lucky for snapping them up without giving up too many concessions. The total monthly salary they drew only amounted to thirty-five thousand credits a month, plus some extra hazard pay. He spent a lot more money keeping the Barracuda in tip-top shape.
Captain Silvestra gave him enough time to regard his new crew before speaking out again. “Just to be clear, sir, we expect to be treated with decorum. The prevailing employment laws gives us the right to refuse any unlawful or inappropriate orders.”
“I have no ulterior motives.” Ves sheepishly replied while raising his hands. All of the confidence he exuded during the press conference left his body. “The only thing I expect from you is to run the Barracuda.”
Your corvette is an amazing ship. She’s in the right hands. Let’s get you all aboard.”
As they entered the hatch, Silvestra reported the ship’s condition. Ves barely understood the significance of her words. Still, they came fully stocked and prepared for a trip that might take them far from civilized space.
“How’s our fuel situation?” He asked once they entered the central corridor. The crew dispersed to their stations.
“We’re fully topped with high-grade fuel. Our mutual friend Marcella arranged a channel that we can use to procure a limited amount of fuel. It’s not fully condoned so don’t spread the word.”
He nodded and let his strange crew do their jobs.
Captain Silvestra took the captain’s seat while Ves and Melkor sat on the observer’s seats. They strapped themselves in case of a bumpy ride.
“Do I have permission to lift off?”
“Go ahead, captain.”
Under the expert control of their pilot Miranda, the corvette retracted her landing gear and slowly flew up into orbit. The well-built ship hardly shook as its thrusters worked hard to escape Cloudy Curtain’s gravity well. A larger ship might have trouble accomplishing such a task in standard gravity conditions, but the small and sleek corvette possessed ample thrust.
“We’ve currently reached orbit, sir. Your orders?”
“Set course for Mancroft Independent Harbor. We’re due in eighteen days.”
Silvestra turned her seat to look back at Ves. “Do you wish to save fuel? We can save up to thirty percent of our fuel expenditure if we make short but frequent hops, though our FTL drive will also wear down faster.”
Ves took a minute to mull over the question. Previously, he only needed to set the autopilot, allowing the ship make all the choices. “I’m not an expert, so I’ll defer to your judgement. However, I can’t arrive late, so I think it’s best to play it safe.”
“Very well, sir.”
Captain Silvestra turned back to instruct Miranda to plot a course to Mancroft. The pilot cross-trained as a navigator so she expertly plotted a series of FTL transitions that took them through safe and well-known star systems. Unfortunately, the closer they got to Mancroft, the less settlements they’d find.
“The border regions are highly chaotic. Pirates as well as alien raiders frequently appear in this part of space.”
“That bad?” Ves responded with a frown. “I thought the Common Fleet Alliance is supposed to keep a lid on the border.”
Both the captain and the pilot looked at him like an idiot. “Space is big. Unimaginably big. To put it simply, it’s a giant space which largely consists of nothing. There’s no way any fleet can intercept an incursion.”
“I heard the CFA possesses sensors capable of detecting any FTL transitions across many light-years of space.””Even if they’re able to detect them, they don’t have the numbers to pursue every probe. They only muster up a couple of warships if they encounter a strong enough signal. The handful of corvette and frigate-sized vessels that routinely pass through the border practically do so with impunity.”
It turned out the fleet assigned to the Komodo Star Sector possessed a lot less functional warships than their propaganda always suggested. It couldn’t hold a candle to the core fleets stationed in the center of the galaxy.
“So in short, we’re constantly at risk of encountering something dangerous.”
“That’s correct, sir. However, the Barracuda is one of the swiftest corvettes in this star sector. We can outrun any threats as long as we don’t travel along a predictable course.”
Ves nodded ruefully. He once navigated straight into a pirate ambush.