With a weary sigh, Ves stepped up to the projection and bent down slightly to shake the avatar\'s hand.
Just before their palms met, Ketis suddenly forced him back.
Wait a minute! I have something to say first.
Sigrund barely acknowledged Ketis before she spoke up.
That she asserted herself all of a sudden surprised both him and Ves.
I don\'t know what kind of secret you are so keen on hiding, Ves, but you\'re not the only one here who knows about Sigrund. She turned her gaze to the dwarf officer avatar.
You jumped up AI, if you want to buy my silence, you better cough up our fellow Vandals and Swordmaidens!
I stand with Ketis on this. Ves quickly said.
Sigrund, our pact is off if you don\'t release our surviving comrades
The projection grimaced.
[About that… the fighting between your comrades and the other humans has been rather… intense.
There are barely any survivors left on both sides.]
With Sigrund pulling the strings behind the scenes, he wouldn\'t have wanted the Flagrant Swordmaidens and the Vesians to win decisively.
It sounded just like him to engineer the struggle for the vault in a way that caused them both to suffer enormous losses.
Did they manage to breach the vault Ves asked.
[They did, and the only reason they have managed to remain safe so far is because the vault\'s strong structure shelters them for now.
That will not last forever.]
Let them go. Ves reiterated Ketis\' demand.
Two of our officers possess EPTs.
As long as you drop the anti-teleportation field, they can make it out alive.
As long as they make it here, we\'ll both agree to the pact of silence.
[I am very disinclined to let more humans go who will live to tell the tale of what has transpired on the Starlight Megalodon.
The more survivors I release, the greater the risk the CFA is able to piece together the truth.
A small number of humans hailing from the Vesia Kingdom has already managed to slip from my trap!]
That sounded bad as well, though not for the same reasons that Sigrund worried about.
If anyone from the Vesian side managed to slip away, it would have probably been Venerable Foster!
Right now, though, Ves saw an opportunity to extract more benefits from Sigrund.
Let the survivors go.
All of them, as much as they are still alive.
Contrive of a way to teleport them out or put them into a shuttle or something.
You\'re a smart AI, you can figure something out.
Oh, and make sure they are able to leave with some loot from the vault.
As a sandman, life-prolonging treatment serum is of no use to you.
[I don\'t like it when others take my possessions.
Even if this serum is incompatible to my physical shell, it is extremely valuable to you humans.
I intended to save this valuable good for barter.]
Well, you can barter for both the lives of our comrades and the serum for our silence.
Do that, or the deal is off.
Even if you plaster my secret into every corner of the galaxy, you can forget about escaping the CFA\'s frantic pursuit!
Ves knew he was laying it rather thick, but his negotiating instincts told him that Sigrund cared far less about some random humans and some life-prolonging treatment serum that he could only look at but not use up for himself.
As much as the serum was incredibly valuable, the vaults of a CFA battleship probably stored a lot more riches in its lockboxes than just this trifling good.
Ves and Sigrund argued a bit longer.
The sentient AI wasn\'t as easy to fool as a non-sentient AI, but the fact of the matter was that Sigrund would be better off by complying with this concession than end any hope of establishing this extremely vital pact of silence!
[Very well.] Sigrund grumbled.
[I will agree to this demand.
Are you happy now, girl]
Uhhh I guess so. Ketis blinked, as if she couldn\'t entirely believe that the scary AI acquiested to her rather impulsive demand.
[Then let us strike the pact!]
Ves shook hands with Ordoth\'s projected form before Ketis did so as well.
It was a really awkward experience as his Squalon wasn\'t capable of emitting physical projections.
Nonetheless, the symbolic gesture served its purpose.
As long as neither of them could stop the other from blabbing the deep dark secrets they tried to hide, they had a basis of cooperation.
Though Ves wasn\'t deluded enough that such a precarious pact would last forever, right now he only cared about addressing his immediate concerns.
As for what might happen decades later Ves didn\'t have the luxury of thinking that far ahead!
For both our sakes, I hope we don\'t see each other again. He spoke after completing their handshake.
By the way, if you want to escape this star system alive, you may encounter some issues with that.
You see, the situation in orbit is much different than you think.]
A sinking feeling overcame Ves.
[Oh, right now my fellow sandman motherships are beginning to gather and assault the fleets awaiting your return.
And before you ask, they are not under my control.
The only reason I am informing you of this is because I don\'t want you to miss your berth and broadcast my dirty laundry to the escaping ships out of spite.
Take care and leave quickly!]
Shortly after Sigrund closed the call, the clearing in front of the cave slightly whooshed as the twin forms of Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise succeeded in teleporting to the fallback point!
Sigrund kept his word!
Dise! You\'re back! Ketis ran up and almost attempted to lift her into a hug.
She held off when she realized the awful state of the two survivors.
The two of you look awful! What happened
Both mech officers appeared as if they went through a war zone.
Their standard-issue CFA combat armor suffered many rents, tears and burn marks.
They lost most of their weapons and their expressions both seemed haunted.
Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. Captain Orfan explained as she took deep breaths.
When we launched our ambush and took the Vesians off-guard, we managed to kill many of them outright.
The problem was that we were heavily outnumbered from the start, and the Vesians quickly rallied under Venerable Foster.
Lieutenant Dise picked up from there.
We still managed to breach the vault, but our losses became greater than expected when the AIs started to glitch out.
We lost the support of the Internal Security Department, and that cost us deep at the moment when we successfully breached the vault.
Ketis looked extremely worried right now.
How many of our comrades are still alive
We started off with about a hundred, but the killing kept going on until there\'s only a tenth of us left.
The ones we left behind didn\'t begrudge us when we activated our EPTs.
Hopefully, they will manage to reach an escape pod or a shuttle and make their own way out what is left of the Starlight Megalodon.
As Ves took in their battle-scarred states, he noticed that Captain Orfan and Lieutenant Dise both carried thick, head-sized lockboxes in their hands.
Are those the…
Captain Orfan returned a brittle smile.
We managed to secure the mission objective.
According to the vault\'s catalog and markings, these lockboxes should be the right ones.
We don\'t know how much is actually left in them, but it\'s better for us to keep these lockboxes closed until we hand them over to their new owners.
Did the Vesians manage to make it off with the serum as well
They grabbed at least one lockbox of serum and took the opportunity to grab several other lockboxes. Orfan replied.
If the Starlight Megalodon didn\'t start collapsing at that point, the Vesians would have taken our boxes from our dead bodies.
Let us depart from this system. Dise interrupted after finishing her short rest.
I don\'t know why a disaster struck the Starlight Megalodon, but from what we saw and heard the fossilized sandman mothership is responsible! We should get out of here before the sandman finishes with the ship and hunts us down!
I have received some information that the situation in orbit isn\'t all that great either.
The four of them boarded Ves\' personal shuttle.
The vehicle came online as expected and according to the diagnostics, the shuttle hadn\'t suffered any serious degradation during its rest here.
He also checked out the goods he squared away in the storage compartments.
All the antique pre-Age of Mechs nutrient packs he brought back were still there along with the other supplies as well as some souvenirs.
Most importantly, Ves also planned ahead and stored the stasis cage containing the bioimplant inside a tiny composite box hidden deep within a crate of vintage nutrient packs.
After he completed his checks, he approached the cockpit where Lieutenant Dise took the helm.
As an avid Swordmaiden who often went out on solo hunts, she learned how to pilot shuttles along the way.
I\'ve checked the supplies.
Everything is in order.
All systems are green.
Preparing for launch.
Launcing in three, two, one, lift-off!
None of the occupants felt anything as the shuttle slowly hovered from the ground and emerged from the cave where it remained hidden.
While Lieutenant Dise piloted the shuttle, Ves sat in the co-pilot\'s crash seat and started engaging the shuttle sensors.
Although he wasn\'t entirely familiar with the interface, the shuttle sensors weren\'t that different from the sensors of a starship or a mech.
He quickly analyzed the readings returned by the sensors pointed above.
The spacetime distortion has weakened by seventy percent.
Local time acceleration is slowing down.
The astral winds have almost entirely dissipated directly above.
It\'s safe for us to fly into orbit in the most direct path possible!
What are we waiting for! Let\'s go, Dise! Orfan slapped the Swordmaiden lieutenant\'s back armor.
The CFA shuttle tilted at a steep angle and engaged its powerful thrusters and antigrav modules.
Aeon Corona VII\'s heavy gravity couldn\'t possibly hinder the shuttle\'s inexorable ascent.
They were finally leaving this cursed hellhole of a planet!
We should make contact with the fleet. Ves suggested.
Let them know we\'re coming before their escort mechs blast our strange CFA shuttle into pieces.
I know the right frequencies and codes. Captain Orfan said as she moved to a small side panel in the cramped cockpit.
Let me holler up Major Verle so that he can roll out the red carpet for us!
As Orfan awkwardly worked the comms in her damaged armor, she finally managed to send out a transmission in the right frequency.
Unfortunately, no one replied.
Maybe they\'re busy right now.
She sent the transmission again and put it on repeat so that the shuttle broadcasted the message every fifteen seconds.
Ves was beginning to worry.
Sigrund\'s last words before he cut off his comm call echoed in his mind.
Was the fleet in trouble
Maybe there\'s too much astral wind still in space for our transmission to get through. Orfan guessed.
No. Ves shook his head.
It has already dissipated to the point where almost every transmission should go through with a reasonable amount of signal strength.
Yet while the shuttle continued to fly up into air, the shuttle never received a response.
Even Lieutenant Dise started to frown.
Perhaps there is a problem with the comms of the Vandal ships.
Let me try and hail the Swordmaiden carriers.
She put the shuttle on autopilot and quickly switched to a comm interface before sending her own series of transmissions.
Not even a single beep besides static and background noise.
Ketis, who stood at the hatch leading into the cockpit, voiced out the possibility that continued to grow in their minds.
Do you think… the fleet is gone