Talks about recognition from the Bright Republic still seemed far away to Ves.
Right now, the Flagrant Swordmaidens hardly left the deep frontier and just survived an encounter with the Dragon Alliance ’s peripheral members.

If a real pirate fleet from the Dragons of the Void confronted the Flagrant Swordmaidens, then Ves had no way of replicating his feat.
Such a feared and capable pirate organization would never resort to using cheap, shoddy mechs for their core mech forces!

Nonetheless, from the jubilant way Major Verle spoke to Ves, the mech officer acted as if salvation was already close at hand.

It wouldn ’t take too long for the remnant fleet to rendez-vous with the ’friends ’ of the Swordmaidens!

”By the way, the Swordmaidens are really impressed by what you ’ve done, Mr.
You didn ’t just save many of our mech pilots today.
You also saved the Swordmaidens.
My talks with Commander Dise are a lot more amicable now since you ’ve earned their recognition, which conveniently extends to us.
They are not an ungrateful sort, and I ’m sure they ’ll show more sincerity with our ongoing agreement. ”

Ves genuinely smiled at that.
”That ’s good to hear, sir. ”

”It seems you ’re not feeling very good at the moment. ”

”What I did just then took a lot out of me, sir.
As a mech designer, I regard my designs as my possessions.
To see such an egregious case of plagiarism in front of me just pisses me off.
I take my professionalism very seriously! ”

I see. ”

He probably didn ’t, but Ves let that pass.

After a while, Verle steered the conversation into another topic.
”I feel as if you are not only tired, but disillusioned. ”

”How so, sir? ”

”A lot of Vandals are either tired or lost.
This victory has put a temporary cheer on everyone ’s faces, but that doesn ’t change the fact that we are far away from the Bright Republic and still have months to go before we are able to return to our home territory. ”

”I guess I ’m the same as them, sir.
We all wonder how long it will take to return. ”

”As I ’ve said, there are plans in motion to facilitate our return.
Let us talk about what that means for you.
Please activate that interference device of yours. ”

”Alright, sir. ”

Ves activated his signal jammer and turned up its strength so that the entire stateroom would be blanketed with interference.
The only problem was that his CFA comm was likely immune of this effect.
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He conveniently didn ’t mention this point.

Once the disorienting effect settled in, Major Verle spoke with a bit more ease.
”When you return home, you ’ll likely undergo a thorough debriefing and interrogation session.
There are a couple of sensitive matters that are best left unmentioned, do you understand? ”

”What if the interrogators insist on asking? ”

”Just keep your mouth shut.
The people from the Mech Corps will be indignant, but as soon as I ’m able to file my report to Flashlight, you ’ll get pulled out in no time. ”

”What if Flashlights tries to push me instead? ”

”They won ’t. ”

Ves raised his eyebrows? ”Really, sir? They ’re spooks right? How can they not be curious? ”

”Because I ’ll provide them with all the intelligence they want.
As a Firestarter, my word weighs a lot more than an outsider like yours.
Colonel Lowenfield and I will also pull some strings and cash in some favors to streamline your debriefing sessions.
The gains from our mission and the substantial merits you ’ve earned outweigh any other concerns.
You ’d be surprised what you can get away with as long as you get the job done. ”

”So Flashlight is much like the Vandals in this regard, sir? The ends justify the means. ”

”I wouldn ’t put it so simply. ” Major Verle hedged.
”Flashlight is a formal military intelligence agency of the Bright Republic.
There are many rules and regulations constraining their actions.
It is not as if every operative is handed out a license to kill or a carte blanche to do anything they want. ”

”Then what ’s the best way to interact with Flashlight for someone like me? Can you give me some advice, sir? ”

Just consider that while Flashlight is large and influential in the Bright Republic, it also shoulders an enormous responsibility in keeping the Bright Republic on the winning side during the Bright-Vesia Wars.
Internal politics is rather complex, and it ’s best for you to suck up to a senior official in order to secure their patronage. ”

Having recently dealt with such an instance on the Starlight Megalodon, Ves knew what Major Verle tried to convey.

”I suppose you ’re part of a faction within Flashlight as well? ”

”The Firestarters form their own influence, one that leans towards taking proactive measures against the Vesians. ” Verle smirked.
”However, I ’m not sure which influence within Flashlight you ’ll finally be involved with.
Just be prepared to pick sides early, because if you don ’t align yourself with any influence, you won ’t enjoy any protection. ”

”Thank you for reminding me, sir.
I ’ll be sure to keep your warning into consideration. ”

Major Verle did him a huge favor by parting the veil of Flashlight ’s internal politics a little bit.
The mech officer ’s words heavily implied that Ves would be substantially involved with Flashlight in the future, so learning how to stay on their good side became a high priority!

”If you ’re lucky, Mr.
Larkinson, you will get to meet with the important official who set this mission into motion.
If you ’re unlucky, that person will pay attention to you specifically. ”

”That sounds contradictory.
How can I be both lucky and unlucky, sir? ”

”You ’ll understand if you ever meet that official.
Just remember that it ’s dangerous to associate yourself with this class of people.
Try not to get entangled in the schemes that people at their height tend to hatch. ”

Ves nodded in understanding, curious to which high official from the Bright Republic that Major Verle actually felt apprehensive about to deserve a separate mention.

”Can I ask you something, sir? Since the Saffron Poke joined us, we regained our connection to the galactic net.
Did you find out how the war is going right now? ”

”The war has heated up again.
The current pattern is similar to the last wars, except both the Mech Corps and the Mech Legion are accelerating their efforts.
Bentheim is under enormous pressure and the Havensworth System is under a long-term blockade.
Star systems are won and lost in a span of a few months, but otherwise brave mech pilots are dying in droves. ”

Ves could hear the cynicism in Major Verle ’s tone.
”So this generation ’s war isn ’t much different than last time? ”

”It ’s the same. ” Verle shook his head in resignation.
”I ’ve lived through the last one.
While the battles are different, the outcome is the same.
The Mech Legion is larger than the Mech Corps, but their individual legions and mech regiments care more about competing against each other and are never able to concentrate their efforts in any single major assault.
As long as this basic deficiency holds, the war is destined to end with just a minor shift of the border between the two states. ”

”You make it sound as if the Vesians aren ’t trying very hard to overcome their mutual suspicion.
Surely they aren ’t that stupid, right sir? ”

The major nodded.
”Oh, their nobles are quite devious and cunning, in fact.
It is just that while they would dearly like to conquer the Bright Republic and add their territories to their own, they don ’t actually mind a stalemate. ”

”I think I already heard that conspiracy theory somewhere, sir.
Something about the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom colluding with each other to fight these senseless wars in order to discipline their fighting forces and to quell the unrest within their borders. ”

”That is just a conspiracy theory.
Take no mind of it. ” Verle smiled at Ves in a rather peculiar way.
Obviously, it was up to Ves to interpret the major ’s true meaning.

The meeting wound down quickly afterwards.
When Ves deactivated his signal jammer and left the office, he regained some of his good mood.
He anticipated the rewards the Bright Republic might bestow him for his contributions.
After all, his efforts proved pivotal in the success of this hellish mission.

While he didn ’t see how their efforts in the frontier influenced the war, Ves nonetheless felt a sense of accomplishment.
No matter what causes the Vandals fought, bled and died for, at the very least they succeeded and furthered the plans of someone important in the Bright Republic.

”Even if it ’s to extend the life of some decrepit geezer. ” He whispered to himself.

The remnant fleet, having defeated and dispersed the only significant obstacle standing in their way, passed through a rapid succession of star systems without any further incident.

The good news didn ’t just extend to that.
Their sandman pursuers hadn ’t continued following them, opting instead to park at the site of the battle and scavenge the remains of the mech wrecks and stripped-out carrier vessels.

This put a huge weight off everyone ’s shoulders.
A week went by as the Vandals increasingly lifted up as the prospect of returning home became more probable.

Finally, after transitioning at a quiet red dwarf system, they completed their rendez-vous with a host of pirate fleets.

”Detecting seven distinct pirate fleets! ” The sensor operator called out in the command center.
”They are maintaining some distance between them, but they are all moving in unison! ”

”So these are the dependable friends of the Swordmaidens. ” Major Verle remarked.
”Let us hope they are hospitable to us as well. ”

The Vandal ships and mechs still kept their guard up, but the greeting they received from the pirates were rather tepid.
Instead, they focused more on the Swordmaidens.
As time went by, it became clear that the friends of the Swordmaidens truly came to assist!

”They have over fifty starships and more than a thousand spaceborn mechs! ” Ves said with amazement.
”The strength that we can muster is insignificant in comparison, but they aren ’t making any moves to take advantage! ”

One unexpected but very welcome factor was that the most significant pirate gang among the agglomeration of independents actually consisted of the Omen of Misfortune!

Back at Mancroft Independent Harbor, the Omen of Misfortune got entangled into a fight against the powerful Castle Breakers.
If not for the Swordmaidens coming to their aid, thereby also drawing in the Vandals in the process, the Omen of Misfortune would have certainly suffered a major defeat!

Considering the huge favor that the Vandals had extended for the Omen of Misfortune, it was somewhat reassuring for them to reciprocate in this manner.
While the Vandals didn ’t recognize any of the other pirate gangs, the strong presence of the Omen of Misfortune lent credence to their sincerity and good faith.

”We should still remain prudent and keep a healthy separation between our forces and theirs. ” Major Verle reminded them all.
”However, as long as everyone keeps their word, we shouldn ’t fear any complications. ”

Even so, that didn ’t prevent Major Verle and some of the officers to pay a visit to the Omen of Misfortune in order to express their thanks and perhaps offer some promises of payback.
Ves didn ’t ask to accompany the delegation, as with his luck something eventful might happen due to his presence.

In any case, Ves felt leery about associating himself with a pirate gang that literally called themselves the Omen of Misfortune.

Fortunately, the Vandal officers had the situation well in hand.
They returned half-a-day later with a bit more assurances.

Under the escort of so many pirate vessels and so many mechs, the remnants of the Vandals and Swordmaidens made their way back to the border of civilized with absolutely no challenge.
Not even the Dragons of the Void mustered up a major fleet to go after them, though it helped that the independent pirates made a wide detour around their territory.

Perhaps only the sandmen posed a significant threat, as errant sandman fleets and motherships became attracted by such a high concentration of human vessels.

The pirates knew how to deal with that.
Otherwise they wouldn ’t have remained standing in the frontier.
Even without the aid of the Church of Haatumak, the independents successfully outmaneuvered any sandman pursuers over the course of a month until they made it all the way back to the border of civilized space.

At that time, the huge collection of pirates transitioned into the Mancroft System, formally crossing over the border!

Ves gazed at the plot and regarded the symbols of Mancroft Station and the light CFA warship presence near the gas giant with fond eyes.
They finally made it out of the frontier, and with no further shenanigans or betrayals!

”We ’re back! ”

Practically every Vandal stood up and cheered!

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