The Woolox System centered around a bog-standard red dwarf ubiquitous in the galaxy.
Due to its low mass and energy output, the sandmen tended to overlook it, which the Dragon Alliance capitalized upon by setting up a small space station in orbit of the third planet from the sun.

However, just because the red dwarf was a puny star in galactic terms didn ’t mean it packed a punch.

Though rare, Woolox I, the closest planet orbiting the sun, consisted of a Hot Jupiter that orbited around the sun like a frenetic wheel.
The gas giant absorbed so much heat from the sun due to its proximity that its actual gas expanded by quite a bit.
This made the Hot Jupiter take on a rather puffy appearance.

If the planet wasn ’t so volatile and orbiting so close to the red dwarf, a harvesting operation could slowly scoop up all of that loose gas.

Woolox II and Woolox III consisted of the normal lifeless terrestrial planets with nothing unusual.
Woolox II orbited a bit too close to the sun, so the Dragon Alliance plopped a space station in the orbit of the much-cooler Woolox III.

The Dragon Alliance collectively administered the outpost at the precipice of the deep frontier because no pirate gang was stupid enough to assume sole responsibility of what was called the Sandcastle.

The Sandcastle received its name due to the star system ’s proximity to the core occupied space of the sandmen race.
Many star systems beyond the Woolox System contained massive concentrations of sandmen.

Gathered into huge amalgamations of sentient sand on the surface of planets and moons, these massive concentrations posed an extremely deadly threat to any human that strayed close to these colonies.

The most dangerous part about these huge sandmen colonies was that they grew extremely smart when a huge number of them gathered on a single planet.
Centered around a sandmen governor or mayor whose body was made out of sentient exotic material, their level of calculation and forethought sometimes resembled the thinking patterns of AIs!

Some people argue that the sandmen race was in fact a virtual race, a natural-born race of computers in other words.
Equating them in the same box as organic races such as humans didn ’t accurately reflect their fundamental nature.

In any case, while the full might of the CFA could easily stomp the sandmen empire into the stone age, they were currently preoccupied with other matters.

That left the sandmen race as a perennial threat to the inhabitants of the Faris Star Region.
Though the sandmen learned not to approach human space in larger numbers, some of their more simple-minded offshoots didn ’t get the message, causing a steady outpouring of weaker sandmen fleets to pour into the space nominally ruled over by the pirates.

”We pirates tend to look at the sandmen like processors and bots rolled into sand-like grains. ” Ketis explained to Ves.
Her knowledge regarding sandmen was much more extensive than Ves, who only hear and read third-hand accounts about the silicone-based race.
”They ’re crazily smart if they gather in large numbers, but an average fleet is as smart as one of those cleaning bots we bumped into at the Mancroft Independent Harbor last time.
They ’re as murderous as those bots as well. ”

”The sandmen fleets are capable of self-learning, though, especially when led by a sandmen leader. ”

”Yeah, but even then, their learning process is really slow.
Mayra once told me that much of their processing power is occupied with keeping their silicate-based forms animated.
They don ’t have much spare capacity for thought.
This is also how they grew to become dependent on gathering in large groups to grow smarter.
An individual sandmen intelligence is rather tiny, but gather enough of them and pool them into a single special sandmen, and you practically have an AI with access to a lot of processing power.
Even then, they ’re still as dumb as bots, so it takes decades for a sandman leader to develop enough smarts to rival a human. ”

All of this meant that the Woolox System stood at the precipice of some of the most dangerous forms of sandmen in the region.
Scores of intelligent sandmen leaders lurked just beyond the invisible line that bisected the Faris Star Region in two. 

The Sandcastle didn ’t look very impressive to Ves.
A fraction the size of Mancroft Station, the Dragon Alliance obviously invested the bare minimum they could get away with to establish a permanent presence in this red dwarf star system.

With only a handful of shops, a small hold filled with meager amounts of food, water, fuel and other necessities, the Sandcastle stayed afloat by selling their products at ripoff prices.
There was hardly any space station closer to the deep frontier than the Sandcastle, so visitors had no choice but to pay for the wildly inflated prices if they needed something.

”This place doesn ’t sound friendly at all. ” Ves spoke.
”I ’m kind of worried about what will happen to the Fourth Prince and his surviving retainers after we drop them off here.
What will happen to them? ”

Surprisingly, Ketis knew the answer.
”Ah, I already heard word that Commander Lydia has commissioned the Omen of Misfortune to come here and pick them up.
It ’ll take a while for the Omen of Misfortune to reach the Woolox System, but they owe us for saving their bacon back at Mancroft, so they have no choice but to fulfill this small favor. ”

Until then, the remnants of the Shining Stars needed to hole up in this desolate outpost of a space station.

Ves did not exactly feel very confident the Fourth Prince would be able to survive in this nearly-forgotten corner of the galaxy.

”How you you insure the local pirates won ’t mess with them in the meantime? The Fourth Prince is without a ship, mech and his trusted expert pilot.
He ’s practically naked now, and we ’re just going to throw him to the wolves? ”

”That ’s why we ’re hiring the local pirates instead.
We ’re paying the pirates some of the K-coins we ’ve appropriated from his own flagship and use that to bribe the station administrator and commission some of the local gangs to keep an eye on the Fourth Prince. ”

That sounded like a pirate thing to do.
The question was whether the pirates who accepted money from the Flagrant Swordmaidens would actually fulfill their end of the bargain.
This far away from civilized space, no one insured that business contracts would be followed to the letter.

As the fleet finally reached the outpost some time later, the Fourth Prince evidently had a change of heart.

Gossip rang throughout the fleet.

”Prince Hixt-whatever doesn ’t want to be dumped at the Sandcastle! ”

”Hey, if I were him, I wouldn ’t be going to that garage box of a space station either! Just look at it! Even an apartment complex from Haston looks better than that! ”

”Venerable Xie is backing up his former prince! I heard that once the Fourth Prince kicked up a fuss, the expert pilot put his foot down! Seems like his heart is still devoted towards his old boss! ”

Prince Hixt-Klaaster ’s hissy fit threw the plans of the Flagrant Swordmaidens in disarray.
With the sensitive nature of their mission, they couldn ’t afford to bring a complete stranger picked up from the frontier under rather dubious circumstances.

Though the same applied to Venerable Xie, the Vandals believed in his integrity.
As for the Fourth Prince…

”This guy unilaterally wants to change the agreement. ”

”I hear that the prince is a gullible, short-sighted fool back in his own kingdom.
It ’s no wonder the other princes kicked him out of the Dark Plasma Star Sector. ”

”Now that this guy wants to stick around, he turned into a real headache for the bigwigs.
They can ’t kick him out, but they don ’t want to bring him along. ”

”We don ’t have a choice.
Venerable Xie is only willing to fight for us if the prince is safe.
If we dump him at the Sandcastle, the local scum could stab him in the back and rob his corpse blind at any time.
The guy ’s worries are legitimate. ”

After some delay, the brass came to a compromise with Prince Hixt-Klaaster.
The surviving crew of the Rovista Splendor and his remaining retainers would be dumped at the Sandcastle.
The Omen of Misfortune would still come and pick them up and bring them to a safer star system where they could make use of their skills to start their new lives.

This left the Flagrant Swordmaidens with only two survivors of the Shining Stars Colonization Fleet.
Keeping an eye on a single prince and expert pilot was a lot easier than keeping watch over hundreds of ship ratings, mech pilots, mech technicians, colony administrators, middle managers, and more.

As the refugees slowly boarded the shuttles that brought them to the last stop before entering sandmen territory, Ves wondered what the retainers thought at being separated from the prince they pledged their loyalty to.
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”Do you Swordmaidens really mean it when you are giving these refugees new lives? ” Ves asked.

”Hey, even if we ’re pirates, we aren ’t that unreliable. ” Ketis immediately pushed back.
”You already know that highly-educated and highly-skilled specialists are in high demand in the frontier.
With the conditions we ’re providing them, they can easily get picked up by any band of pirates.
Whether they ’ll remain free or be forced into slavery after they join their crews after that is none of our business. ”

He should have expected such an answer.
”If the retainers know what ’s good for the, they ’ll stick together.
Their mech pilots are of a high standard and they still have a decent number of intact mechs left among them to constitute a small pirate gang or mercenary corps.
If they split up though, the non-combatants among them won ’t be able to survive the frontier. ”

For all he criticized the frontier ’s obsession over placing an undue importance on personal strength, it did make sense for people here to be able to protect themselves.
Those who possessed highly desirable skills but lacked both escorts and the ability to protect themselves became juicy prices to any pirates who didn ’t have any scruples about enslaving new crewmembers.

These people from the Dark Plasma Star Sector were about to have a really hard time if they hadn ’t internalized the rules of the frontier.

Once the Flagrant Swordmaidens dropped off the refugees, they turned around and headed towards the nearest Lagrange point while in full view of the Sandcastle and its gaggle of local pirates.

Though the space station and the pirates who frequented it possessed a powerful background, they were very far away from the effective sphere of influence from the Dragon Alliance.
The Flagrant Swordmaidens possessed enough firepower to inflict heavy damage on the outpost if provoked.

Only after the fleet transitioned back into FTL did everyone sighed in relief.
The pirates at the Sandcastle got rid of the scary allied fleet, while the Flagrant Swordmaidens didn ’t have to worry about pirates starting anything stupid.

While the entire fleet stood down from yellow alert and everyone shed their hazard suits or armor suits, the entire crew suddenly woke up to the fact that they were crossing into the deep frontier!

”Damn! Aren ’t we intruding into the interior of the sandmen empire!? ” Ves questioned.

”Hey, don ’t worry, teacher. ” Ketis reassured him.
”We have that blessing from the Church of Haatumak to protect us.
As long as we enjoy this blessing, we don ’t have a thing to worry about! ”

”That blessing only stops the sandmen from tracking us with their long-ranged sensors, right? It doesn ’t work if the sandmen have a presence in the same star system as we are.
Since we are entering the core space of the sandmen race, we ’re bound to bump into their colonies a lot! ”

The dangers of the deep frontier surpassed the near frontier by an order of magnitude!

In the near frontier, they mostly needed to guard against pirates, many of whom wouldn ’t dare to provoke a large fleet like the Flagrant Swordmaidens.

The deep frontier on the other hand posed a very different threat! One that couldn ’t be intimidated or negotiated with like other humans!

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