From their conversation so far, Ves knew that Calabast was absolutely a tough customer. Negotiating with her from a disadvantage would never work out well for him if he pushed too far. This was why Ves had carefully sought a worthwhile question to ask.
His request shouldn't have touched Calabast's bottom line. The value of this piece of information was inestimable to Ves, considering that he had no hope of joining Major Verle's inner circle. After all, he was not a careerist mech designer who signed up to the Mech Corps for the long run.
In fact, this information shouldn't be particularly valuable to Calabast, because many players already knew what was going on. Leaking the truth to one more person hardly changed the board.
Considering what Calabast and her organization received in return, she would not lose out at all. Properly speaking, this transaction should have been a win-win opportunity. Though Calabast won a little more than Ves, as long as she spoke the truth, he didn't mind the small disparity.
Perhaps that was the only way for Ves to gain in this negotiation. Someone as sly as Calabast would never consent to a transaction in which she ate more losses compared to Ves.
As predicted, Calabast met his request with welcome surprise. "Looks like you're finally tired of being the frog in the well. You want to jump out, do you? I can help you with that, but be aware that there's no way out at this point. I'd like to receive some assurances that you will go through with what we ask of you."
Ten more invisible people emerged from stealth. They positioned themselves in a semicircle around Calabast. Though they wore the same modified stealth suits as Calabast, to Ves the differences to the infiltrator suits was cosmetic.
Still, enemy or not, at the moment they had more to gain from cooperating. Ves tried hard not to show any hostility to the new arrivals.
"If you asked me to sneak off five people or less, then it won't take too much effort for me. Ten is much more difficult. The Vandals may not possess the best means to detect stowaways, but they are very vigilant when it comes to guarding their own loot."
Ves sighed in aspiration. When the Vandals first received the working Water Wraiths, they went on a robbing spree in the coastal city. They primarily looted the other gangs and mercenaries of their weapons, armor suits, aircars and anything else that helped in a fight.
However, the Vandals stole much more than all of this boring stuff. They also smashed apart some luxury shops and robbed all kinds of valuables. From quality exotic jewelry to luxury goods, the Vandals sure took advantage of this rare opportunity to clean the city out.
"I am confident in your ability to get it done, Ves. Don't underestimate our stealth abilities. We can circumvent most scanning sweeps. You only need to make sure that the Vandals won't open up the containers and rummage around for no reason."
This sounded difficult, but not impossible. The main challenge was to find a reason to open up a couple of containers and let the invisible men sneak inside.
"I'll try my best, but if the Vandals have become active before I finished the job, I won't be able to help you any further." Ves simply said. "Since our agreement has come to this point, I think I deserve to know the truth."
Calabast looked closely at Ves and seemed to be satisfied at his sincerity. To his credit, Ves truly possessed the intention to go along with this transaction. This was because once Ves smuggled Calabast's men inside the containers, the interests of the Vandals and her organization truly aligned.
Considering the risky nature of The Big Breakout, now that they worked towards the same goal, they would definitely insure the Vandals succeeded in their attempts to depart the planet.
"Well, the secret behind all of the unrest is very profound. First, have you ever heard of the Starlight Megalodon?"
Ves repeated the name in his mind. The name did not ring a bell inside his head, but it sounded very profound. "That sounds like the name of a starship, and not a small one either."
Calabast's eyes grew heated. "How little you truly know. The Starlight Megalodon is not just any ship. If you dive into the galactic net, you can easily trace her origins. Far from the tiny ships we are riding on today, the Starlight Megalodon is one of the most destructive weapons in the hands of humanity. That is because she's not some kind of fleet carrier. She's a queen among capital ships, a battleship commissioned several hundred years ago by the CFA."
His eyes widened at that revelation. "A battleship of the Common Fleet Alliance!"
The CFA was the only human organization that had won the right to field humanity's warships. Countless warships traversed the stars and patrolled the huge stretch of space that humanity had conquered.
A destroyer or two already possessed sufficient firepower to demolish the Verle Task Force at its prime. The weapons mounted on their ships possessed a larger caliber and drew their power directly from the ship instead of from a mech. This increase in scale had no limits. The larger the ship, the more tyrannical their weapons became.
Warships defined the Age of Conquest that came before the Age of Mechs. Their dreadful power and majesty became had been seared in humanity's collective consciousness ever since they first toppled over the alien empires that used to human space.
"What is the Starlight Megalodon? What's the relevance of an old battleship?"
After a few seconds of thought, he grew confused. Just like mechs, warships aged as well. Their core technologies grew irrelevant with the passing of time while certain core components irreversibly wore out. At some point, the cost of upgrading the ship and repairing its inadequacies surpassed the cost of commissioning a brand-new ship.
The average lifecycle of a mech spanned from ten to twenty years with normal use. In comparison, the lifecycle of a ship mostly ranged from sixty years to a hundred years, though this was only a rough guideline.
An organization as powerful and wealthy as the CFA had no reason to hang onto a ship more than a hundred years old. The cost of battleships may be ruinous, but for a force at the helm of a civilization that spanned half the galaxy, obtaining a couple of new battleships was trivial.
"The Starlight Megalodon did not meet a normal end." Calabast said. "During an operation in the frontier beyond this star sector, the Megalodon encountered a freak accident during FTL travel. For a long time, the CFA and everyone else believed she was lost with all hands."
"I take it the Megalodon is not as lost as everyone has thought."
"Correct." She nodded. "A very small number of people obtained clues that the Starlight Megalodon definitely exists up to today. She hasn't been torn apart in the higher dimensions, nor had she been sucked into the gravity well of a black hole or a sun. She's intact, and maybe even alive!"
The repercussions of these revelations impacted Ves a lot. "Are you guys nuts!? Are you out to steal this battleship? The CFA won't tolerate other humans encroaching upon their monopoly on power. This is one of their biggest taboos!"
"Calm down. From what we have gathered, the Megalodon is in a bad state right now. Even if she's in a better shape, none of us dare to swallow the entire ship. We only want to strip her of some valuables that we know she's carrying in her vaults. The CFA stands at the apex of human society, and every single aspect of the Megalodon is made in the standard of a first-rate superstate!"
That alone sounded extremely attractive. In the aftermath of the Groening Mission, Ves had once received the opportunity to board a ship of the CFA. Though Ves had only been able to observe some superficial sights, what he witnessed that time had already impressed him of the height of humanity. A ship constructed according to the standards of the galactic center far surpassed the primitive starships of the galactic rim.
"If the Starlight Megalodon is in bad shape, how come you found out about her in the first place?"
"The short answer is that the Starlight Megalodon has crash-landed on an untamed planet. Over time, the original crew have all died off, but before they croaked, they followed their instincts and gave birth to descendents. Repeat this cycle a couple of times and you have a whole community of humans that have essentially gone native in the frontier. Recently, some of us have gotten into contact with some of their descendants. We even captured some of them, but keeping them alive proved more difficult than we thought."
This story grew wilder and wilder as Ves listened on. He would have treated the tale as fantasy if not for Calabast's serious retelling.
"These descendants. They just wandered off into the frontier for no reason?"
"No." She shook her head. "There is a reason for that. The Megalodon is in a very bad state, and it has grown worse due to the condition of the planet she has crash-landed upon. The planet she's landed on turns out to be a Super Earth. It's gravity is several times higher than the terran standard."
Now he knew that Calabast wasn't lying to him. This was because Ves recalled the time where he helped the Vandals purchase high-gravity equipment in bulk! The expense of this transaction was very significant, especially since the equipment had to be rated to withstand five g's!
"If you managed to capture a descendant, couldn't you have traced his route back to the Megalodon?"
Calabast grinned again. "Ah, that's the puzzle that we have all been trying to solve. The descendants of the crew might have degenerated a lot compared to their ancestors, but they still possess some common sense. Everyone sent out into the frontier travelled on modified FTL-capable shuttles. In particular, they tweaked their navigation system to wipe out the route they traversed. This isn't something that can be reversed by hacking. All of the logs were permanently scrubbed."
This explained why the Megalodon remained relevant. So long as the prize was still there, people would continue to kill for it. "So if the shuttles erase the route back to the Megalodon, how can the descendants even go back to their homes?"
As large and wondrous as the Megaladon might be, she didn't carry an unlimited fleet of shuttles. Ves didn't know why it took several hundred years for the descendants to show up in the frontier, but they never would have been allowed to take the shuttles if they didn't have any interest in coming back.
"Each descendant that we've met carries an encrypted data chip." Calabast simply explained. "The trouble is that we're not talking about a regular data chip. It's encryption is virtually unbreakable unless you have access to a Terran or Rubarthan supercomputer. Even after such a long time, the standard of technology of the CFA is still ahead of ours by many leagues. Still, for some reason, besides entering the right input, the data chips can also be unlocked in another way. That is to gather several of them and put them all together. The encryption will fade and the coordinates of the Starlight Megalodon will be revealed!"
This part sounded really fishy to Ves. "The descendants have gone through so much length to wipe out the logs and encrypt the data chips that contains the only way back to the Megalodon. How come they offer such a stupid alternative for unlocking the data chips? Isn't that asking for them to get robbed?"
Calabast shrugged her graceful shoulders. "Mind you, the offspring of the original crew are a far cry from modern humans. Their knowledge, values and beliefs are shaped by their environment. Under such extreme conditions, none of them have grown up entirely sane."
No matter the reason for this quirk, Ves finally became enlightened to the truth behind the conflict in the Harkensen System. For some reason, the small club of people who got wind of the Starlight Megalodon decided to gather in the Harkensen System and began to compete over the data chips.
Holding only a single one was useless. The only way to derive value out of them was to gather even more. Besides taking them directly from the descendants wandering in the frontier, the best way to obtain them was to snatch them from their competitors!
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