935 A Necessary Pac
Hopped up on chemicals that forcefully regulated his mood and emotions, Ves quickly calmed down from the adrenaline and excitement that swept his body in the last hour. Their successful escape from the death trap the Starlight Megalodon finally allowed him a true moment's rest.
Ketis on the other hand still showed concern for her missing comrades. She started to fear the worst for their lives.
"They were planning to assault the vault, right? Do you think they're still stuck there?" She asked with worry in her voice.
Ves thought about it. "They sided with the captain's faction and the Internal Security Department and began their attack and ambush on the Vesians and the admiral's faction. That began hours ago. While we were breaching the Exotic Research Sub-Department, their attempts to breach one of the vaults should have already started. However, I don't know how the battle went and if the breaching equipment managed to break through the vault in time."
If the Flagrant Swordmaidens and the Vesians both planned to drill their way into the vault, then they needed a very long time for their special equipment to make it all the way through. The vault was made out of the same extreme tough alloys that made up the Starlight Megalodon's blast doors.
Ves suddenly realized a very awful complicating factor. If Sigrund took over the virtual officers, were the factions simply a smokescreen?
According to Calabast, while Sigrund took partial control, he also became subject to the very same restrictions that shackled the original AIs. This forced them to serve the humans who managed to pass the recruitment tests or gained the Starlight Megalodon's recognition.
The fact that the EPTs issued by Levitt hadn't encountered a sudden malfunction and that all of their gear didn't appear to be sabotaged in any way served as strong clues that Sigrund wasn't fully in control yet. It was also why he was so eager to crush the Starlight Megalodon.
Naturally, this didn't entirely rule out that Sigrund may have been able to fudge some goods and services here and there, but Ves chose to place his faith in the integrity of the virtual officers and the strength of the restrictions imposed upon them by past CFA officers and AI researchers.
"Sigrund may have been the mastermind behind the scenes, but all of the virtual officers are still distinct personalities and AIs."
Ves would never know how far this separation went, but his intuition vaguely suspected that he was being overblown in his worries. At the very least, before he foolishly lifted the lockdown on the mainframe, Sigrund faced too many restrictions and couldn't bring his full power to bear.
Therefore, Ves comforted himself on the fact that all the virtual officers he interacted with were all their own persons rather than an extension of Sigrund's vast virtual mind.
"Sigrund really played us all for fools." Ketis remarked disparagingly. "We all treated the virtual officers as genuine CFA officers. Yet they all turned out to be a sentient AI's sockpoppets."
Ves shook his head. "A puppet isn't entirely the same thing as the puppet master. However, it's clear that our mission, our arrival on the planet and even our quick progress in promoting through the hierarchy of the ship all fell within Sigrund's arrangements. Step by step, we greedy humans sought out the Starlight Megalodon to rob her of some of her treasures, yet in reality we became the harbinger of his liberation!"
The magnitude of what they did at Miss Calabast's urging dawned upon him like a crashing shuttle. He became an unwitting accomplice in the sentient AI's own escape from the lockdown that foiled him for thousands of years. Now that he managed to get free, what would he do next?
A shock of horror swept through his mind as he conjured up increasingly more dire doomsday scenarios. An AI by itself wasn't that scary, but an AI with self-determination and a full awareness of their own existence was a calamity upon the galaxy and the human race!
Worst of all, Ves was the pivotal chain in the link that enabled Sigrund to escape from his cage! Even if he didn't mean to, he was indisputably guilty of freeing an entity that was scarier and vastly more destructive than several thousand antimatter bombs!
His CFA comm beeped. His Squalon combat armor's enhanced transceiver picked up a distant signal that managed to pierce through the interference, if only barely.
The Squalon projected Calabast's hazy form in front of him. Due to the tenuous connectivity, static and noise suffused her projection.
"Ves. I see you have reached your hidey-hole. Good."
"Same to you." Ves smiled back tersely. A part of him wished she botched her teleportation. "Why are you calling me?"
"I just wanted to let you know that you're on your own from now on. I'm on my way out of this star system. I suggest you look into departing this place as well. Don't forget that now that the astral winds are dissipating, the sandman motherships that lingered in this star system have lots their blindness. In the worst case, the entity we encountered at the ship has already made contact with his fellow sandman comrades."
Ves silently cursed. The Aeon Corona System was situated fairly deep within sandmen space. The longer they lingered, the higher the chance this huge and energy-rich trinary star system became a hotbed of sandman activity!
"How are you getting out?" He asked. "How did you enter the Aeon Corona System in the first place back when the astral winds blocked off every approach?"
"Fishing for information again, Ves? Don't bother. A woman has to have her secrets." Her hazy form grinned. "In any case, even if our initial agreement is at an end, don't forget our other 'arrangement'. Don't worry too much about it for now. I'll contact you again after your state is finally out of their silly war against the Vesians."
"What is it you want to do with me?" He asked gravely. "I'm warning you now, Calabast. If you push me too far, I'd rather take my chances with the CFA or MTA?"
"Oh, I'm sure they'd be delighted to hear you unleashed a sentient AI on the galaxy."
Touché. Still, Ves could probably manage to preserve his life as long as he brought them something as valuable as the Metal Scroll.
"Look, Ves, before you decide to do anything drastic and approach the Big Two, be a little patient and reserve your judgement. Goodbye, for now. I will see you after the war! Make sure you survive!"
Calabast's smirking projection winked out as she cut off the connection. Ves sighed as he wondered what kind of demands she would present the next time they met.
Of course, first he needed to survive this crisis. Just because he managed to teleport out of the Starlight Megalodon didn't mean he was in the clear. He was still stuck in the Aeon Corona System in the deep end of the frontier. It would take months of travel through lawless, perilous space before he'd be able to cross back into civilized space.
His next priority therefore was to secure passage aboard a ship that could take him all the way back. For now, that meant he needed to ride his CFA shuttle all the way up into orbit and find a way to rendez-vous with the fleet.
Ketis didn't wish to leave, though. Not without waiting to see if the remnants of the Flagrant Swordmaiden ground forces also managed to get out.
"Maybe they already departed long ago." He speculated. "They did tell us that they arranged their own means of escape."
"Yeah, but that was from a deal with the AIs, right? Now that they've gone rogue, will their escape plan still work?"
Neither of them knew the answer to that question. Ves attempted to call their CFA comms, but he failed to establish a connection.
"We wait for ten more minutes. We really can't afford to linger any longer than that as Sigrund will soon regain control over his old sandman mothership. When that happens, he can easily pinpoint our location and cross the distance in a matter of minutes."
Frankly speaking, ten minutes was already far too long in his eyes, but Ketis stubbornly wanted to cling to her hopes. She lost too many comrades due to this mission, and she'd be damned if she turned her back to any more.
Ves knew that much of the remnant hadn't managed to redeem an EPT. They faced very poor prospects for escape. Only the two leading officers of their forces possessed one each due to benefiting from his assistance in promoting to guard lieutenants.
"Heh." He smiled ruefully at the times where he bribed and interacted with the virtual officers in the mistaken impression that he was dealing with non-sentient computer programs. Ketis was right in that Sigrund played him for an enormous fool. He realized now that he managed to make an enormous amount of headway due to Sigrund's implicit support.
His CFA comm beeped yet again. When Ves accepted the call, his comm began to project the form of Virtual Rear Admiral Ordoth.
[Mr. Larkinson. I see that you have made good use of the toys you've obtained from Virtual Chief Armorer Levitt.] The dwarf officer grimaced. [I am moments away from crushing the Starlight Megalodon into a mangled wreck. I know where you are. I know where you parked our shuttle. Your escape is futile.]
"Cut the crap, Sigrund. I know you're just puffing yourself up. I don't think it's so easy to get rid of all of your shackles that easy. The CFA does good work in that regard. Now why did you call me?"
[So curt, Mr. Larkinson. Very well. I am contacting you because I want to come to an accord with you.]
"Oh?" Although it sounded like a really awful idea for Ves to agree to anything with an extremely deadly sentient AI, Ves recognized the signs of a negotiation. "What do you possibly want from us?"
A negotiation only took place when one side wanted something from the other but couldn't take it by force. The fact that Sigrund, for all his boasting and megalomania, wanted to negotiate was a sign that the AI still wouldn't be able to have free rein for a short period of time. Destroying the Starlight Megalodon entirely was easier said than done!
[It's very simple.] The projection of the dwarf began. [I want to establish a pact of silence with you. As long as both of us manages to leave this system alive, I want you and young Miss Ketis to stay mum on my existence.]
"Because you don't want the CFA to come crashing down on the entire deep frontier in an attempt to retrieve their valuable property." Ves smirked. "I see. Soon enough, the astral winds blocking communication from every ship in orbit will cease. What stops me from using my transceiver to broadcast your existence to every Vandal, Swordmaiden, Vesian and pirate low-life lingering in space?"
[Ah, but you are not the only one who grasps a sensitive secret. Virtual Rear Admiral Ordoth is an aspect of me. Everything he told you, I know as well. Let me turn your own question back to you. What stops me from disseminating your secret from the rest of the galaxy?]
An intense worry struck Ves. It was already bad enough that a snake like Miss Calabast found out about his Holy Son status. The fact that this hybrid between a powerful CFA processor core and a sandman admiral grasped the same secret was ten times more distressing!
"So what do you suggest? We both keep our mouths shut about each other?"
[A pact of silence.] The form of Ordoth stretched his palm at him as if to offer a handshake. [I agree to keep your dark secret, and in exchange you will never mention to anyone that I exist.]
"What about Miss Calabast?"
[I have already come to an accord with Calabast Arnlend. She is a remarkably pragmatic individual. Hopefully, her example will inspire you to follow her lead.]
Ves should have figured that someone like Calabast could even remain silent about Sigrund's existential threat to human civilization in exchange for benefits.
Though Ves deeply desired to reject the sentient AI's offer, spite wouldn't get him anywhere.
He felt as if there was no other choice but to play along because the alternative was plainly worse. Mutually assured destruction hurt both Ves and Sigrund, and the both of them would rather avoid such unpleasantness.