As the Flagrant Swordmaidens brought their combined fleet closer to the only public space station in the star system, some of the fleets around them showed some reaction.

Many fleets proactively moved their parking orbit further and further away.
Lydia ’s Swordmaidens enjoyed a decent amount of notoriety in the frontier, while the Flagrant Vandals always seemed to cause death and chaos wherever it went.

Leaving religion aside, humanity had never fully shed its tendency to believe in superstition.
Pirates leaned on them all the time, and right now they came under the sway of the supposed cloud of misfortune that surrounded the Flagrant Vandals.

Ves saw the dots representing the positions of their ships and scoffed at their behavior.
In an age like this, almost every form of superstition had been systematically debunked.
Nonetheless, humans could be as stupid and impressionable as ever.

”Please tell me a bit more about the pirate factions that rule over the Faris Star Region.
Which pirate faction is depraved enough to take these Red Tongues under their wing? ”

The horned woman sighed.
She unconsciously dragged over her floating scabbard and raked its surface with her fingers.

”I ’ll give you the short version.
Pirates don ’t tend to like being under the thumb of someone else.
By far most of the pirate groups like to stay independent and do their own thing. ”

”How do these independents manage to stay alive? ”

”Well, most of them crash and burn pretty soon.
Some are lucky enough to survive through the cracks.
Most try and make pacts with fellow pirates.
The Swordmaidens are kind of like that.
We created a web of allies that looks out for each other in case any of the big boys want to bully one of us. ”

That didn ’t sound very stable to Ves.
These fair-weather friends only stuck together so long as the situation benefited them.
They would certainly drop support for the Swordmaidens if someone threatening enough put blades against their throats.

”The independents number the most, but the most powerful pirates are actually two different pirate blocs.
They ’re massive alliances centered around the biggest pirate groups in the Faris Star Region.
The ones that subjugated the Red Tongues is the Ravienne Alliance. ”

Ves looked up in recognition at the mention of Ravienne.
He occasionally saw that name pop up in the news.
”I ’ve heard of her name before.
Isn ’t she that madwoman from the Hexadric Hegemony who was so crazy that even her fellow matriarchs couldn ’t stand her any longer? ”

”Ravienne is one of the scariest pirates in the Faris Star Region and you should never refer to her by any insults.
If any of her underlings like the Red Tongues hear you call her that, they ’ll jump on you and tear you apart before sending off your bleeding flesh to Ravienne as tribute. ”

”She has that much sway in the region? ”

”Her influence in unimaginable.
Even though she ’s bloodthirsty and cruel, she ’s also a brilliant strategist and tactician.
The rose up from nothing and took the entire star region by storm when Ravienne ’s Ravagers became the leader of a new bloc of pirates.
By now, the Ravienne Alliance is the largest and most powerful gathering of the vilest scum and trash that call themselves pirates.
If you think the Red Tongues are bad, the other subordinate gangs are worse. ”

The picture she painted of the Ravienne Alliance made them sound both powerful and chaotic.
Even their leader was prone to mood swings and outbursts of violence.
If not for her former background as a matriarch of the Hegemony, she might have long lost control over her own organization.

”How are they able to stay together? ”

”Well, they don ’t, really.
There ’s lots of infighting going on in the alliance.
Every gang wants to prove to the Ravagers that they ’re crueler and more conniving than the others.
They frequently kill each other, but they never seem to run out of fresh blood.
Many pirate groups are clamoring to become a member of their alliance. ”

This sounded awful to Ves.
If Ketis described the truth and the subordinate gangs under Ravienne did indeed eliminate the weakest among them, eventually her organization would be left with the toughest, meanest and most adaptable pirates.

Perhaps Ravienne deliberately fanned the flames in order to let natural selection take its course.

”You mentioned there are two major pirate alliances. ” Ves spoke, not wanting to dig further into Ravienne ’s gruesome culling methods.
”Which pirates are brave enough to fight against Ravienne? ”

The Dragons of the Void. ” She replied.
”Hmm? You heard of them? ”

”I even encountered them in the flesh several times.
They ’re true bastards who treat their men like cannon fodder.
Somehow, they ’ve gotten really good at brainwashing their fellow pirates.
Is it true that everyone in their sway gets turned into drones? ”

Ketis adopted a distasteful expression.
”That ’s one of their scariest aspects.
The Dragons of the Void own a lot of space stations in the local star region.
At the end of a raid, pirates still need a place to sell their loot, resupply their exhausted inventory and fix up their damaged mechs and ships.
The space stations set up by the Dragons are all placed in strategic star systems.
It ’s easy to enter the system, but not so easy to leave. ”

”The last time I saw them, they were literally throwing thousands of mech pilots and mechs against several military mech divisions! How come they ’ve brainwashed so many pirates, and how do they get away with it in the first place?! ”

”That ’s one of the hazards of operating in the frontier. ” She shrugged.
”The Dragons of the Void claim they are snatching pirates at their space stations because they broke the rules or can ’t repay their debt.
I don ’t know if I buy that.
Mayra once told me that if the space station is too quiet, the Dragons pick a random pirate group and attempts to take them into custody on some trumped-up charges.
Nobody is around at these times to dispute the charges, and nobody has ever succeeded in disproving the accusations. ”

This situation truly sounded broken to Ves.
While the Dragons of the Void would be able to grow powerful enough to flood their enemies with worthless mechs, it didn ’t sound like they inspired much loyalty.

”I find it hard to believe that any pirate group will voluntarily submit to the Dragons. ”

”It ’s never ’voluntary ’, you can say.
The Dragons have a way of pressuring pirate groups into working for them.
The Dragon Alliance is much more orderly and organized, but the hierarchy practically never budges.
The core members of the Dragons of the Void can issue any orders they want.
The vassal pirates serving underneath them do most of the actual work.
They ’re barely better off than their brainwashed cousins because they at least haven ’t been put through a brainwashing regime. ”

After Ketis described the two major pirate blocs, Ves finally understood why Lydia ’s Swordmaidens hadn ’t taken the initiative to pledge allegiance to either power blocs! Faced with either endless bloodshed or possible brainwashing, it was no wonder that many independent pirate groups tend to stay away from these behemoths.

The last time Ves had visited the frontier, he rode with some foreigners who originated outside of the Komodo Star Sector.
The retainers and household troops of House Kaine never really cared about the local powers that be, a mistake that proved very costly to them.
Ves barely knew what went on in the frontier back then, so he made full use of being in the company of a native daughter of the frontier.

As Ketis described each of the pirate gangs she recognized from the fleets parked close to the Independent Harbor, the Flagrant Swordmaidens slowly entered their designated position.
Each fleet orbited far above the tiny rock that anchored the orbit of the space station.

It took a bit of tricky maneuvering to retain their distance from all of the other parked fleets, but the Vandals and the Swordmaidens eventually reached their designated stops.

Ves noticed that neither of their forces let down their guard.
With all of the pirate gangs and shady outfits congregating in the Mancroft System, conflict could break out at any moment.
Scores of spaceborn mechs deployed from the hangar bays of the Flagrant Swordmaidens and formed into groups to patrol their immediate perimeter of space.

Inheritors upgraded with anti-stealth detectors happened to deploy as well.
As Ves zoomed in on the plot, he called up the telemetry of one of the mechs, making use of his privileges as a head designer.
The Inheritor was blasting its sensitive and fragile sensor array at half strength.

Both Ves and Ketis received an alert from their comms.
Both of them received an announcement from their commanders.

”Hmm. ” Ves grunted.
”Finally, some common sense.
Anyone approved to step aboard Mancroft Station has to go in full combat gear. ”

Ketis grinned at that.
”It ’s been a long time since I frightened off some rats! ”

The Flagrant Vandals were about to step in the frontier, so they needed to play by their rules.
One of the biggest differences between Mancroft and Harkensen was that the former didn ’t guarantee anyone ’s security.

Oh certainly, the Bosey Clan largely kept the peace, but even if they claimed to be the official rulers of the Independent Harbor, they never did a good job at stopping disputes.
Part of it came from their desire to avoid pissing powerful pirates off.
As long as the Boseys never made any enemies, they didn ’t have to deal with a challenge to their regime.

Every visitor that stepped foot on Mancroft was responsible for their own security.
Though incidental visitors could hire some of the local mercenaries as guards, the Vandals and the Swordmaidens could take care of themselves.

The Swordmaidens were accustomed to being armed to the teeth whenever they entered pirate stations.
Though Mancroft Independent Harbor wasn ’t a pirate station on paper, in practice there was hardly any difference.

As Ves had plenty of business to do at the Independent Harbor, the Vandals saw fit to provide him with an armed escort of four security officers.
In addition, they brought him a custom-fitted suit of combat armor, modified for ’frontier cultural expectations ’, whatever that meant.

It didn ’t take long for his escorts to arrive with his combat armor in tow.

Larkinson! It ’s good to see you again! ”

Ves recognized the familiar voice.
”Lieutenant Nolsen Feray! Aren ’t you assigned to the Finmoth Regal? ”

”They transferred me hear to lead your guard escort.
It makes sense since we ’ve already travelled together.
I ’m familiar with some of your habits.
I ’ll make sure you ’ll stay nice and safe at Mancroft. ”

Ves smiled sardonically at his escorts.
All of them came in suits of hulking exoskeleton armor that must have weighed as much as a horse.
Not only did they came in the most powerful infantry armor in the Vandal armory, the armorers also saw fit to..
add some creative additions.

”What ’s with the medals, spikes and bling? ”

An ordinary suit of exoskeleton armor resembled a smoothed or angular humanoid mech in miniature size.
Right now, the burgundy-and-red suits of powered armor gained a lot of decorative golden frills along with the oversized medals pinned to the chest that made it look like they were prepared for a parade.
Ves wasn ’t even sure if half of those medals actually existed in the Mech Corps!

The only addition that made the suits of armor seem like they were not to be trifled with was the extra spikes.
They shot out of the shoulder pauldrons, the helmet, the arm guards as well as the leg guards.
Hell, they looked nasty enough to bleed out a random passerby in seconds if they accidentally bumped into these sharpened spikes!

The helmets even received a visual makeover.
The face-plates had been shaped and painted over to resemble the faces of snarling stylized skulls.
The eye-sockets even glowed like ominous red stars.

”If you think our getup is impressive enough, you should see what the armorers have done to your combat armor! ”

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