Chief Technician Haine, Chief Engineer Avanaeon and Lieutenant Commander Soapstone gathered at their usual haunt, though they hardly managed to squeeze the time.
The impending call for battle meant that every Vandal had to needed to make the most out of the few hours that remained.

Ves was at the makeshift lounge as well.
The foursome played their usual game of Pirate Empires.
The semi-virtual board game spiced up the growth of their four chosen outfits with lifelike miniature graphics and a melodramatic music score.

Chief Haine directed her usual choice of pirates.
Chief Engineer Avanaeon went with his familiar band of elite mercenaries, while Soapstone switched up her game by opting for pirates as well.

Unlike Haine, who relied on snowballing her pirate gang through making use of her charisma, Soapstone opted to make external alliances with rivaling pirate gangs.
The logistics officer ’s strategy was novel, but worked out well enough because she mitigated the backstabbing nature of pirate gangs by entangling them with material benefits.

The contrast between their pirate gangs couldn ’t be more different.
While Haine essentially developed a cult of personality around her pirate commander identity, Soapstone faded into the background and became the hidden shadow behind a coalition of pirate gangs.

The two players competed directly against each other, and the conflicts between them became so heated that Ves and Avanaeon farmed the rest of the map in peace.

As for Ves, he mixed it up as well.
He tried out an outfit only available from an expansion.

”I hate to break it to you two gals, but the head designer is running out of control! In twenty turns, he ’s about to topple the rulers of an entire province! ” Avanaeon warned.

Haine and Soapstone diverted their attention from their catfight.
Ves had been laying low all this time, spending most of his time by raiding factories for mechs and gear while training up the volunteers who wanted to fight for the cause.
All of it looked boring in comparison to the high-profile moves of his fellow players, but once he brought everything together with his most recent moves, his true strength couldn ’t be hidden any longer.

Haine sputtered as she swigged a drink.
”Damnit, Ves, rebel movements are broken as hell in this game! I have to work my butt off to recruit new pirates, while you only need to sit back and rake in the suckers who bought into your stupid cause! ”

Ves laughed as his plan came together.
”I can ’t help it if the government is run by a bunch of nincompoops.
They ’re not flexible enough to keep up with my changes. ”

Pirate Empires was a board game that modeled after the management of various outfits and groups in the frontier.
It allowed average people to roleplay as someone with power at their fingertips.
Though the gameplay was nothing like the real thing, Ves nonetheless found it useful to experience the mindset of different outfit commanders.

Playing as a rebel movement mostly meant Ves played on a different field than the other players.
The goal of a rebel movement was to wrest control over the province.
Achieving this difficult objective would put all of the province ’s military mechs at his disposal.

Even if the game limited the amount of mechs that could be reassigned from garrison duties, the forces would be enough to crush any player.
Only the best players with endgame-level ships and mechs stood a chance of surviving such an onslaught.

”Getting there will be difficult, though. ”

Rebel movements started small and pathetic.
With untrained fanatics as footsoldiers and only a single wad of cash as starting funds, rebel commanders needed to build up their movements step by step.
Each raid not only had to inspire the local citizens, but also turn a profit.

During this endless struggle to acquire more funding and manpower, the provincial government wasn ’t sleeping.
The larger the rebel movement grew, the more pushback it received from the government.
Crack anti-terrorist units constantly sniffed out his cells and confiscated his supply caches.
Trying to survive under this constant hounding meant that Ves had to learn to be adept at risk management.

He was going to lose men, equipment and funding regardless.
What he needed to do was to keep the rebel movement growing so that it could easily sustain the losses.

Both the gains and losses was subject to chance.

Perhaps everything went perfect in one match.
The anti-terrorist forces only managed to destroy some inconsequential cells while the rebel movement succeeded in taking down facility after facility.

His luck might turn out to be awful in the next match.
His key cells were being hunted down one after another while his raids bumped into stiff opposition.
Traitors emerged among his ranks and sold out the positions of his supply caches, or worse, split off into a splinter movement that competed directly against their parent movement!

The intervention of a rival player could easily tip the balance against his favor.
For example, Avanaeon ’s elite mercenary corps built up a formidable force based around excellent carriers and a small but high-quality company of mechs.
The mercenary corps could easily accept a contract to hunt down the spaceborn assets of the rebel movement.

Without ships, the rebel cells couldn ’t reinforce each other.
Neither would Ves be able to trade his gains for additional funding and gear.

Too bad it was too late now.
Ves had quietly overcome the weakest period of any rebel movement.
His force now numbered hundreds of spaceborn and landbound mechs.
Though currently his mechs were spread throughout more than a dozen different cells, once he gathered them into a cohesive force, he gained the ability to contend for the provincial capital!

”Tch! ” Soapstone spat.
”My pirate coalition has gained too much infamy.
The border patrol will shoot my pirates down if I send them into civilized space. ”

Chief Haine ’s pirates suffered from the same problem.
Neither of them had taken the route of Lydia ’s Swordmaidens.
With not a single backer from civilized space to vouch for their good conduct, it was virtually certain that they would be hunted down by military mech regiments or several mercenary corps on contract.

Only Avaneon ’s mercenaries possessed the opportunity to halt Ves ’ momentum, but he was busy on a long-term contract himself.
This was why he called Ves out.
If Avaneon broke off his current mission, his mercenary corps would have received a black mark.

To any mercenary corps, a black mark on their record meant an end to lucrative missions.
This would certainly stall the growth of Avaneon ’s forces, putting him out of contention by the time the match progressed to the endgame.

So in short, none of his rival players interfered as Ves called for his rebel movement to begin their uprising!

As everyone did their own thing, Ves began to ask a question, partially to distract the other players but also because this might be the only time he could get an answer.

”Does everyone know about what ’s in store for the Vandals after we complete our mission at the frontier? ”

Everyone nodded.
”According to the boss, we ’ll be sent to the rear.
The days of pitched battles and high-risk operations will soon be over for us! ”

”I wouldn ’t be so reassured if I were you, Haine. ” Soapstone cautioned.
”If the stalemate at the frontline tips in Vesia ’s favor, headquarters won ’t hesitate to break their promise.
They ’re going to need mechs at the front, and they won ’t care about their own guarantees. ”

The words of warning highlighted the unpredictable nature of war.
Many times, the Vesians succeeded in punching through the defensive lines of the Bright Republic.
This allowed them to advance to the interior of Republic space.
Once they got into striking distance of Bentheim, the Mech Corps really started panicking and would pull out all the stops.

Ves followed up this thread with his real question.
”Verle informed me that I might be reassigned at that point.
Something about my talents being wasted in a rearguard unit.
The only thing that ’s nagging me is that he ’s being too coy about it.
He simply won ’t say where they ’ll station me next.
Can any of you help me out? ”

The logistics officer and the two chiefs looked at each other.
The familiar behavior indicated to Ves that they weren ’t ignorant about the matter.

Eventually, the chief engineer spoke up.
”I think we have a good idea where you are heading next.
The problem is that they ’re rather prissy about confidentiality.
They won ’t like it if they find out that we spilled the beans. ”

After that, they all shut their mouths like clamps.
No matter how much Ves attempted to pry open their mouths, they took their duties seriously.
This was too large of a secret for them to casually leak, even to a known friend like Ves.

”Alright, I get it. ” He sighed and gave up.
He turned to another matter.
”What do you think about hitting the Masters of Combat? ”

”I don ’t like it. ” Chief Haine responded.
”Sure, they ’re Vesians, but the major wants to hit them after we ’ve taken only a single step away from the Harkensen System.
That ’s practically taunting the Reinaldans in front of their doorstep! ”

Chief Avanaeon agreed with the chief technician.
”The Masters of Combat aren ’t pushovers.
While it ’s true that we can crush them if we combine our forces with Lydia ’s Swordmaidens, can those witches be trusted? They ’re pirates, after all.
Who ’s to say they aren ’t already in bed with the Masters of Combat, and are just waiting for us to walk into their trap? ”

”Lydia ’s Swordmaidens don ’t have many betrayals on their record. ” Ves added.
”While they aren ’t the most trustworthy bunch, I don ’t think they ’re willing to double-cross a military mech regiment. ”

He had read through their history, and while the records were very spotty, they had a history of cultivating long-term relationships.
They couldn ’t have survived so long in the frontier without befriending some of the locals.

Lieutenant Commander Soapstone added in her own thoughts.
”The Masters of Combat will get in our way sooner or later.
They need to be wiped out regardless of what everybody thinks. ”

Out of everyone in the lounge, Ves knew for certain that Soapstone was a part of the inner circle.
Only she knew for sure why her superior insisted on attacking the Venidsan mercenary corps.

”Even then, I can ’t imagine why Lydia ’s Swordmaidens are joining in. ” Chief Haine scratched her head.
”As far as I know, they don ’t have any grudges with the Masters of Combat.
While their gear is fairly expensive, they can earn more if they do their usual schtick of robbing treasure hunting expeditions. ”

Nobody could explain this questionable point.
Nobody except Soapstone, the only insider among their gathering.
”Lydia ’s Swordmaidens are serious about this alliance, and so are we.
Our cooperation is quite extensive.
They ’ve already passed along critical information about the frontier to us.
Without this intel, our task force could have easily blundered into a pirate stronghold or a sandman settlement.

The frontier was home to many dangers.
While most pirates roamed the frontier independently, the most threatening ones reached a scale that wasn ’t any weaker than a small third-rate state like the Reinald Republic.

The alien sandmen formed another major threat to human intrusion.
These silicate-based lifeforms were a pain to fight against.
The worst part about them was that almost nobody earned a profit by fighting the sandmen.
When their sand constructs blew apart, all they left were worthless sand particles.

”Have we secured any guarantees from the pirates that they won ’t betray us once we ’re out of civilized space? ” Ves probed.

”No, but we don ’t need to.
They need us just as much as we need them.
All will be made clear in the future. ”

Ves heard what he wanted.
He received another clue that matched with his guesses.
He quietly sighed to himself and looked at the game projected by the table.
The senior officials backing the outfits aiming to retrieve the life-prolonging medicines must have been playing their own version of Pirate Empires.

Instead of playing with virtual lives, they played with actual human lives.

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