After Lieutenant Dise worked the navigation software, she determined that they ’d be able to reach Aeon Corona IX the fastest if they sling-shotted the shuttle around Aeon Corona VII.

”The question is whether we can make the sling-shot maneuver in this sandman-infested space. ” Ves stated.

In-system travel became extremely perilous at the moment due to the massive amount of sandman motherships and escort ships that roamed the surrounding space.

As the astral winds continued to fade, thereby reducing the amount of interference blinding every vessel ’s sensors, the CFA shuttle detected more and more energy signatures that matched up with the sandman.

Fortunately, it was a lot easier for the high-quality CFA shuttle to detect the sandman ships than the other way around.
The disparity in technology and capabilities enabled the survivors to slip through the notice of most of the sandman ships, especially once Lieutenant Dise pulled back the throttle.

”Sandman are like bloodhounds when it comes to energy and heat. ” She explained.
”The other shuttle probably caught the attention of the nearby sandman escort ships when they burned their thrusters at full power. ”

”What about our own shuttle? ”

”I tried my best at keeping our shuttle out of the sight of that big sandman mothership snacking on the Starlight Megalodon, so I held back the throttle.
I also activated all of our ECM systems as soon as we got word back from the fleet. ”

While this didn ’t make them invisible to the nearest sandman ship, they were merely a speck in the backdrop of space compared to all of the energetic heat signatures from the starships and spaceborn mechs departing from the moons.

”How long until we reach Nine? ” Captain Orfan asked.

”Less than half a day if we go for a least-time intercept course.
It will take much longer if we take the stealthy approach and let the shuttle fly on a ballistic course with its thrusters off. ”

They had to make an important choice.
Should they pursue speed and attempt to reach Aeon Corona IX while radiating enough emissions to alert half the star system, or should they take the time to sneak to their destination at the cost of incurring substantial delays?

”According to the sensor readings, this star system is crawling with sandman ships. ” Ves began and magnified the size of the projection so that everyone understood the scope of the threat.
”As you can see, they are not only swarming in high orbit of Seven, they are also occupying all the Lagrange points, blocking any nearby starships from transitioning into FTL travel by the nearest route. ”

”That sensor plot doesn ’t show many ships outside of orbit. ”

”Correct. ” Ves nodded.
”As long as we adjust our course along the way to detour around the errant sandman ships that are roaming in between the star systems, I think we can get away with speeding up.
We just have to be absolutely sure there ’s a starship that can pick us up at the other end because we ’ll definitely attract many sandman ships this way. ”

”I don ’t like sneaking around. ” Orfan furrowed her brows.
”As far as I see it, we should get out as fast as possible.
Don ’t forget what we ’re carrying. ”

”This shuttle is really fast, though.
The CFA develops the best shuttles. ” Ves reminded them.
”It ’s likely we ’ll reach Nine even faster than the fleet. ”

”Good! ”

After a brief discussion, they decided to take the fast approach.
Nobody really had the patience to linger in this star system more than necessary.

As Lieutenant Dise determined the shortest and fastest route to Nine and set the CFA shuttle on autopilot, they all relaxed a bit as they all settled in for a long wait.

”I could use a bite. ”

”I have just the thing. ” Ves said and went over to the cargo compartment and retrieve a bunch of nutrient packs from a crate.

As everyone settled in and dug into their food, everyone appeared surprised at the taste of the vintage nutrient packs.

”This is really good! ” Orfan ’s eyes lit up.
”Damn, I thought these nutrient packs expired! It looks like I ’ve been missing out! ”

Ves smiled as everyone shared in his enthusiasm for the vintage nutrient packs.
The sublime flavors and the hearty, stomach-filling meal dispersed some of the depressie air that descended upon them as they lost all contact with the fleet and the other shuttle.

The shared experience bonded them together and helped them cope with the aftermath of the mission.

Several hours went by as the shuttle furiously blasted through space.
It never stopped accelerating once it flew away from Aeon Corona VII.

Once the shuttle reached the approximate halfway point, the autopilot turned the shuttle around so that its thrusters pointed in the direction of Nine and started burning at full blast in an attempt to decelerate the vehicle ’s approach.

If the shuttle still flew too fast once it reached Nine, they were all liable to fly past the planet!

”Let me fix up your damaged suits of armor. ” Ves offered.
”My Squalon and some of the supplies I ’ve brought should allow me to patch the holes until we can bring them to a proper workshop. ”

The two mech officers fought hard to breach the vault and retrieve the lockboxes, and it showed in their battle scars.
Without such a high quality combat armor, they would have never been able to survive the ordeal!

They both developed an affection for the combat armor so they didn ’t hesitate to slip out of them and place them in the passenger compartment for Ves to work over.

Though Ves wasn ’t too familiar with CFA combat armor, his general technical competences along with the Squalon ’s robust guided repair systems allowed him to perform simple repairs.

Over several hours, he stopped the damaged combat armor degrading any further and patched up the majority of the surface damage.
He utilized replacement material to make them airtight and fully sealed though he lacked the capacity to restore their defensive parameters.

He wrapped up his repair efforts just as the shuttle reached Aeon Corona IX.
Compared to the grand majesty of Seven, Nine was like the stunted sibling in the family of planets orbiting around the trinary stars.

While Seven was a massive Super Earth, Nine looked more like a cratered moon cast astray from a larger planet.
As a dwarf planet, it also orbited the star system rather eccentrically, refusing to be pinned down in a normal circular orbit around the suns.

The shuttle ’s sensors failed to detect the Flagrant Swordmaiden fleet.
Evidently, they hadn ’t arrived yet.
More concerning though was that the shuttle also hadn ’t detected their thruster emissions in interplanetary space.

If the ships of the Vandals and Swordmaidens tried to make it out to Nine, then they ought to be visible on the shuttle ’s sensors, but nothing came!

The four survivors grew very concerned at this development.

”Did the fleet fail to escape all the sandman ships that converged on the moons? ” Ves wondered.
”From our sensor readings, there were over a hundred sandman motherships converging on Seven ’s orbit. ”

A hundred! While this sounded like a lot, it still took some time for them to reach the orbit and moons of Seven.
Yet it also signified that the fleet risked getting entangled in a growing onslaught of sandmen ships.

”We should see if there are any friendlies here.
It might be that there ’s a ship hiding in the vicinity. ” Captain Orfan said.

As the shuttle orbited around Aeon Corona IX ’s lifeless orbit, they finally received a transmission from the surface of the dwarf planet.

It came from a surprising source!

”A ship responded to our comm burst! It ’s the Finmoth Regal! ”

”What?! Wasn ’t that ship lost when we first jumped into this star system? ”

”Looks like they never made it to Seven and instead hid on the surface of Nine! ”

The Finmoth Regal was an old but serviceable high-capacity combat carrier.
She may not be the Shield of Hispania, the Jaded Sword or any of the other ships of the main fleet, but she was definitely a friendly presence!

Though almost a year passed by since the ground expedition trekked across the surface of Seven, time passed several times slower outside of the star system.
To the Finmoth Regal, it might have only been less than a month since they arrived at the star system and lost contact with the main fleet.

Everyone found it strange that the Finmoth Regal hadn ’t tried to travel to Seven and instead holed up on Nine like a rat burrowing in cave.

”Let ’s go see them. ” Ves said.
”Dise, please set a course to their coordinates. ”

”On it.
We ’ll take the quiet approach.
We don ’t know what the Finmoth Regal experienced, but it doesn ’t hurt to be careful. ”

Everyone frowned at that.
It did sound rather suspicious in a way.
Could some mishap have befallen the combat carrier? The more Ves thought about it, the more his paranoia acted up again.

Anything could happen in this star system.
An isolated combat carrier might be a powerful force to be reckoned with in a rural star system, but here in the massive and sandman-infested Aeon Corona System, she did not even possess the strength to preserve herself!

Still, their curiosity and need for safe harbor overcame their apprehension towards the unknown.
The CFA shuttle descended on the small dwarf planet and experienced only a minor pull towards the ground.

Seven ’s gravity was enough to magnify everyone ’s weight by six times on the surface.
In contrast, the anemic gravity of Nine diminished everyone ’s weight to a tenth to the gravity of Earth?

What did that mean? Basically, Ves would be able to jump many meters in the sky without engaging his antigrav modules.
An average person weighing sixty kilograms on a normal terrestrial planet would suddenly weigh only six kilograms, which was an enormous pittance!

This turned Nine into an ideal hiding plot for any starship because it didn ’t take much thrust power to ascend into orbit, thus allowing for quick getaways.

As the shuttle carefully approached the rocky, jagged moon-like terrain where the signal came from, they finally came within sight of the Finmoth Regal.

Since the last time Ves saw the combat carrier, she had obviously went through some hard times.
Her surface armor plating incurred significant damage from what looked like sandman abrasions.

The breaches in her armor were so severe at some places that some of her compartments became exposed to space.

A patrol of twelve spaceborn Vandal mechs surrounded the Finmoth Regal and made sure to keep an eye on every angle of approach.

For now, the CFA shuttle ’s ECM systems kept it hidden from most sensors at this range.
This allowed the four survivors to ascertain the condition of the Finmoth Regal.

”It doesn ’t look like a trap. ” Captain Orfan said as he observed the footage of the battered ship and mechs.
”Looks like they suffered a good whacking from some sandman ship and were forced to lay low. ”

Ves nodded in agreement.
”The battle damage does support that case.
I see no sign that the Finmoth Regal and her mechs has fought against anything else but sandman ships. ”

”You Vandals aren ’t the only ones who lost contact with one of your ships. ” Lieutenant Dise interposed.
”Are there any signs of the missing Swordmaiden carriers? ”

I ’ve already scanned the surface of the planet several times and caught no other ship besides the Finmoth Regal. ”

”Damn. ”

Ketis and Dise both felt a bit uncomfortable at the absence of Swordmaiden ships.
After all, if the Vandals were inclined to do so, they could easily betray the two and take away the lockbox reserved for the Swordmaidens!

Nonetheless, while the signs seemed good and the response codes transmitted by the Finmoth Regal all seemed valid, Ves still felt a nagging suspicion that something more was going on.
Was the Finmoth Regal really as friendly and inviting as she seemed?

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