Chapter 163: Untamed Stars
Miss Miranda plotted a brisk course that brought them to Mancroft within seventeen days. She wanted to alternate between short and long hops in order to test and calibrate the brand new FTL drive.
“The core of the galaxy is familiar with this generation of FTL, but it’s new technology to us. We need to establish a baseline so that we’ll know how far we can push it. Corvette-class ships are especially known to have a generous threshold.”
“And a threshold is?”
“How near we can transition into a star system. The threshold is mainly dependent on the relative mass between the ship and the destination’s star.”
“That sounds kind of dangerous.” Ves apprehensively noted.
“Good thing we have a First Class Engineer, sir. Ushra has plenty of experience with pushing FTL drives to their very limits. Our former clients liked the thrill of jumping in deep.”
Ves took her word for it. He hired them on exactly because he wanted more options in case they ran into any trouble.
While all of the crew engrossed themselves with their tasks, Ves and Melkor had a lot of time in their hands. Melkor sighed as he followed Ves out of the bridge.
“Raella probably would have loved to befriend your crew.”
As the only two men on the ship, they both felt a bit out of place. Ves sighed. “I guess we’re relegated to passengers. Let’s prepare for the upcoming expedition. I don’t know what kind of role you’ll be able to play, but make sure you’re ready to roll out if needed.”
They passed the time in peace. Melkor spent most of his time down in the cargo bay. He used the cockpit of his rifleman mech as a simulator pod and feverishly trained his ability to shoot in zero-G conditions.
Unlike Dietrich’s Harrier, Melkor’s Stanislaw model lacked a flight system. Unlike the Old Soul, Melkor’s rifleman was meant to fight a running battle. It featured a robust and powerful engine, allowing the Stanislaw to weave around various obstacles while spoiling the aim of its opponents. Its rapid-fire laser rifle excelled at wearing down mechs at medium range.
“Whoever was in charge of its maintenance did a great job.” Ves declared once he finished going over the mech. It hardly required any tweaks.
“The Larkinsons know their mechs. We employ some of the best mech technicians in Rittersberg, you know.”
Since Ves didn’t have anything else to do at the moment, he returned to his stateroom and lazily browsed the galactic net. A bored Lucky jumped on his lap and made himself comfortable.
The ship’s quantum entanglement node allowed Ves to keep in touch with the rest of the galaxy. He closely followed current events on Cloudy Curtain. The recent happenings along with his first press conference left people scrambling for answers.
The complacency on the part of the White Doves and the Greens left them ill-prepared to the sudden shift in public opinion. A large swathe of neutral citizens who never paid attention to politics became passionately involved once one of their own got hurt.
Ves found it rather funny that he ranked higher than the leaders who ruled the planet for many generations. The pacifists along with the consortiums standing behind them founded Cloudy Curtain and built it up into a quiet and idyllic farming planet over more than two centuries. Even now they directly or indirectly employed over half the population.
Despite all of their efforts, the founding elites garnered very little appreciation of the common folk. Their greed and their attempts to stall the development of what they thought was their own private playground worked against them this time.
All because of mechs. The current zeitgeist of this era revolved completely around the majesty of mechs. Even the lowliest of farmers and menial laborers were swayed by their primal urge to worship these gods of the modern age.
“Why does Bentheim attract all of the attention? We don’t even have our own mech arena!”
“I told you that the man keeps pushing us down! The fat cats up in their towers drink their million credit wines every day while average folk like you and me can’t afford a house!”
“Mechs! Mechs! Mechs! I want to see more mechs! I want to see them with my own eyes!”
“All of these mech heads have gone crazy! I can hardly walk my dog these days without hearing constant discussions on mechs.”
Even the Pioneers started to join the bandwagon. They self-servingly took up his cause as if they never attempted to take advantage of him. Ves didn’t know what to make of their support, but he welcomed their efforts anyway.
In any case, the White Doves and the Greens started to push back against the rising tide. Perhaps aware for the first time that ignoring the masses was a bad idea, they started talking about their upcoming plans to increase the planet’s infrastructure spending.
In their words, the tax reform bill is needed to pay for better schools and hospitals. Every wealthy business has to make some sacrifices in order to increase the planet’s quality of life.
Mysteriously, a lot of exemptions disappeared. In exchange, the bill subjected many industries to a less outrageous maximum tax rate. The clever maneuvering made it more difficult to say that the White Doves and the Greens favored their own little circle of friends over an outsider like Ves.
That didn’t change the fact the Living Mech Corporation had to pay forty percent of its profits to the planet’s coffers. While this sounded a little more reasonable compared to the previous rate, it still exceeded Bentheim’s rate.
“These guys just don’t know when to give up.”
Hardly anything could compete against free goodies. Even the allure of mechs might lose out to personal benefits.
“We should strike while the iron is hot.” Ves concluded, and his employees concurred. They already arranged an appointment with the Republican Commissioner. Hopefully his obligation to ready the planet for war won out against his restraint to favor one side over another.
The only time when everyone came together was when Jenn served dinner. As the most junior spacer on the ship, she generally handled the miscellaneous duties that didn’t require a specialist, which also included cooking.
Jenn certainly knew her stuff, as every dinner had been sumptuous and filling. Everyone loosened up a little at this time, enough for Ves to pry open their mouths on why they decided to take up this post. He learned that they all earned generous tips in their previous jobs.
“It’s never meant to be permanent.” Ushra said. “We knew what we were getting into. It’s one of the few opportunities commoners like us can afford our training. Do you know how expensive my engineering courses are? I’m thankful my old boss paid for it all.”
All the other women had similar stories. Even if they possessed a small amount of talent, they lacked the opportunity to get into a decent school.
“You don’t have to feel sorry for us. Our previous boss took great care of us. It’s a shame he got caught taking bribes. When a bunch of us got laid off, we decided to quit the service industry.”
“Why choose to crew the Barracuda instead of something larger or more professional?”
Captain Silvestra smiled at her crew. “We like to stay together. Our experience with pleasure yachts has left us with very few job opportunities. We don’t have the qualifications to take up senior positions in passenger ships or transports. Those who offered to take us on all expect us to take up our former duties again.”
Angie, their security officer, snorted in irritation. “Those slimeballs are ten times worse than our old boss. At least he ran a clean ship because he wanted to cozy up with the bigwigs. The other bosses in the service industry have powerful gangs backing them up. That lets them get away with certain things.”
No one gave any examples, but Ves could make a few guesses. The major gangs that ruled most of the Bright Republic’s underbelly didn’t behave anything like Walter’s Whalers. These weren’t the cuddly ruffian hometown heroes who only beat up people once every month.
No, these shady enterprises ruled over a vast underground network that earned them billions of credits each year. With this much money at stake, none of these organizations pulled their punches.
“Well, I’m glad to have you with me.” Ves admitted, feeling the need to reassure his crew that he didn’t intend to operate in the same way as the service industry. “I don’t expect to be travelling a lot with the Barracuda, but whenever I do, we might be heading towards danger.”
“We don’t have a problem with that.” Silvestra replied with a casual expression. “Our training combined with the capabilities of your Arkon-class corvette will see us through.”
Ves had the feeling they might even come to embrace any crisis that might pop up. Resolving difficult situations would certainly prove that they were good for something more than flirting with the rich.
Personally, he didn’t mind if they wanted to pad their resumes. As long as they stuck around for a few years, Ves was willing to grant them several allowances. He knew he wouldn’t be able to motivate them with his charm, so he could only use obvious incentives to motivate his crew.
“Do you happen to be familiar with the Mancroft Independent Harbor?” Ves asked.
“It’s a typical frontier den out here in the most remote corner of the galaxy. A bunch of ex-pirates, mercenaries and desperate merchants have made themselves home there. They make their living by exploring the uncharted stars on both sides of the border.”
“What about the sandmen?” He pressed, this time mentioning the aliens who occupied the stars just over the border next to Mancroft. “Those silicon-based lifeforms are known to be extremely aggressive against humans. I’d figure they’d be livid if a bunch of fortune seekers rummage around their territory.”
“You aren’t wrong, but the situation is a bit more complex.” Silvestra replied with a serious expression. “The human race has a tendency to look at space as something we own or something that other races own. It’s an incredibly simplistic way of looking at the effective territory we own.”
“How do you see space, then?”
“A vast sea of unimaginable distances, dotted with the occasional islands. Every island is a star. Every race can only really exert their influence on solid ground. No one is able to claim the vast seas.”
“I see. So the sandmen have a different perspective on the border than us?”
“They’re pretty weird in many ways. What else can you say about a huge collection of tiny sand-like creatures?”
No one knew how the sandmen organized themselves. Only a bit larger than a grain of sand, they acted much like insect hives. Individually, they were weak and inconsequential. They grew much scarier once they clumped up into a gathering the size of a mountain.
Researchers have found that the sandmen combined their processing power into hive minds when that happened. The larger the group, the scarier their thoughts. Sadly, they never appear to possess emotions, and could hardly outthink a six-year old human child.
Their native, incomprehensible technology was the only reason why humanity took them seriously. Certain anomalous sandmen centered around a core of various kinds of exotic materials somehow managed to develop a workable form of FTL.
This turned the race into a menace, as each major invasion saw entire planets engulfed in waves of sandmen who propagated easily. They normally multiplied slowly by absorbing the energy of a sun, but whenever they encountered an active power source, they ballooned in numbers.
“The sandmen normally don’t bother with most small vessels. The CFA thinks that they are constantly weighing the amount of energy they have to expend compared to what they might gain if they catch an intruder. Anything that results in a net loss of energy means that they won’t lift a finger.”
Ves found Captain Silvestra’s explanation fascinating. Despite the state of total war between their two races, the sandmen didn’t often pose a threat. Outside of their major extinction-level invasions, they were content to hold on to their existing territories.
“It’s likely my mission will take us into sandmen space. Do you have any advice you’d like to share?”
“Yeah. Take a good look at the fleet you’re going to be a part of. The larger the ships, the higher the chance you’ll provoke a reaction from the sandmen. No one knows why, but they’re just as capable of detecting ships in FTL as the CFA. The little creepers probably took over a CFA flagship and reverse engineered our technology.”
That sounded fairly important. Perhaps the Barracuda would be able to outrun the sandmen, but if his client wanted Ves to stay on his own ship, then he might be stuck with the rest.