940 Dumping the Ballas
Dragons of the Void! This old pirate organization led the vast Dragon Alliance which organized many different pirate gangs under a single banner. Together with the Ravienne Alliance, they dominated over the Faris Star Region as a side hegemon.
Ves wasn't too unfamiliar with the Dragons of the Void. He encountered them for the first time during the Groening mission. He encountered them again during the Glowing Planet campaign.
Both times, the Dragons of the Void proved to be consummate opportunists and cowards. Yet their cunning, organization and above all else their penchant for brainwashing loads of cannon fodder made them into a force to be reckoned with.
Personally, Ves considered the Dragons of the Void to be the most formidable pirates in the Faris Star Region.
In contrast to the violent and destructive Ravienne's Ravagers who presided over the loosely-organized Ravienne Alliance, the Dragons of the Void distinguished themselves over other pirates by being smarter and more rational than the average pirates.
Naturally, this was a very low bar to surpass considering how stupid most pirates that Ves encountered turned out to be, yet just a modest bump in intelligence practically increased their threat level by at least five times!
Therefore, hearing that the Dragons of the Void became involved immediately made him think that they were out to capture those who fled the surface of the planet. After all, any survivors who managed to make it out of that hellhole stood a considerable chance of making it off with their mission objectives!
"How did the Dragons of the Void manage to convert the Finmoth Regal's officers?" Ves hastily asked Vedette over the pinpoint comm channel. "Answer me quickly!"
"The Finmoth Regal became lost ever since they arrived in this blasted system. We fought off several sandman ships and we almost died if not for the Dragons of the Void. Right now, at least half of the crew are on their side while the rest of us are awaiting 'processing'! A bunch of those pirates are even keeping an eye on everyone! You gotta help me before they stuff me in the brainwashing machine! Please rescue us!"
The channel cut off pretty quickly as the ship's security officers stormed into Vedette's office and hit him with an electrifier baton.
Ves turned to the other three occupants of the shuttle with a grimace on his face. "Looks like the Dragons of the Void caught the Finmoth Regal when she was cornered by the sandmen."
Captain Orfan scowled. "The Finmoth Regal has always been a troubled ship. There was that thing with one of their chief technicians, and now they went as far as turning pirate! Ahem, no offense to you Swordmaidens."
"No offense taken." Dise said stoically. "Many pirates actually look forward to being brought into the fold of the Dragons of the Void. The higher-ranking officers of your lost ship were probably able to get away from being brainwashed but the rank-and-file will probably get turned over time."
Ves saw many instances of people affected by the Dragon Alliance's brainwashing methods. Those who underwent the process tended to become suggestible but also fairly stupid and impulsive. It was as if they lost some of their intrinsic value as a human being. While the brainwashed idiots wouldn't hesitate to throw away their lives in suicidal charges, they weren't quite capable of performing any tasks that required higher-level brain functioning.
This was probably why a mech designer like Loke Vedette escaped being put through the brainwashing machine. The fact that he was kind of a wimp who couldn't hurt a fly likely caused the deserters to disregard him as well.
The question now was what they should do with this new information. "I think I speak for all of us that we can't do anything about the Finmoth Regal for the time being."
"Why not? We got all of this fancy CFA gear right?" Ketis retorted as she wrapped her gauntlet against her breast plate. "As long as we can sneak aboard the combat carrier, there won't be a single person aboard that ship who can stop us from killing all the pirates and deserters!"
Lieutenant Dise shook her head. "No, Ves is right. Look at the state of my gear. Captain Orfan and I aren't in the best shape to fight. Even if we manage to hold up against the ship's security officers, there's one type of opponent that we'd be helpless against. Their mechs."
A person could never fight a mech. Though it was not impossible, in most circumstances the difference in scale and power was simply too vast to overcome. An ant would always be an ant in front of an elephant even if the ant decked itself out in high tech gear.
This was the Age of Mechs! Conquering a ship from the inside didn't offer them a solution against the mechs currently searching for their shuttle's whereabouts! As long as the mechs remained on the side of the deserters and the Dragons of the Void, taking control of the Finmoth Regal was meaningless!
"Right now, our priority should be fulfilling our mission, which is to get our lockboxes back to civilized space and hand them over to the right people. The first step in doing so is to reunite with the fleet, or at least board a friendly ship that can take us out of here." Captain Orfan spoke, recentering the discussion on what they ought to do.
"We should wait for the fleet." Ves suggested. "There's no point in going anywhere else, and I'm sure we can hide ourselves from the Finmoth Regal's mechs."
They decided to hole themselves up in high orbit over Aeon Corona IX and keep the shuttle's ECM systems up. The technological disparity between the shuttle's ECM and the sensor systems of Finmoth Regal's mechs meant the latter likely wouldn't be able to see a thing unless they came within a range of a hundred kilometers.
The CFA shuttle neatly entered a very high orbit, far enough away from the planet to keep their distance from the Finmoth Regal and her complement of mechs.
Nobody really knew what to do at this moment. Dise and Ketis conferred quietly amongst themselves through a private comm channel. Meanwhile, Captain Orfan kept glowering at the sensor plot showing the Finmoth Regal's mechs continuing to fan out in an aggressive search pattern.
As for Ves, he knew that they'd be screwed if they failed to secure a berth on a friendly FTL-capable ship. Therefore, he pointed the most powerful long-range sensors of the shuttle in the direction of Aeon Corona VII and attempted to make sense of the battles that took place in orbit.
Even if the CFA shuttle boasted some of the best sensors he had the privilege of working with, the remnant astral winds that linger in the void of interplanetary space still caused a lot of problems in terms of gaining accurate readings, especially at a fair distance away.
Nonetheless, the shuttle's sensors captured a large amount of emissions originating around the huge planet and its moons. Though they didn't provide Ves with enough fidelity for him to figure out who was fighting against who, the fact that a large amount of emissions were clustered at several points revealed that the fleets were still intact for the time being.
"Although it's hard to say whether they still exist considering the time lag."
Aeon Corona VII and Aeon Corona IX happened to brush by very close right now, so it wasn't as if Ves observed sensor readings of a battle that already ended several days ago.
"Still, the fact that these emissions have lasted for many hours is very disconcerting."
This told him that the stricken fleets were likely engaged in a continuous running engagement against an onslaught of sandman ships.
The emissions mostly concentrated in a handful of points at the start, but after several hours of continuous battle, some of them started to split up and spread in several different directions.
"Some of the human fleets are splitting up!" Ves guessed aloud. "Perhaps the Flagrant Swordmaiden fleet is among them. I can't tell from these vague readings."
Captain Orfan cursed. "How many sandman ships are they fighting against?"
"I don't know, but they must be extremely numerous if the fleet decided they are better off splitting up!"
Splitting up a fleet was an act of desperation. Any commanding officer who gave the order only did so when they determined that keeping the fleet together would risk their annihilation!
At the very least, by various combat carriers and other ships in different directions, the faster combat carriers such as the Gorgon's Gaze wouldn't be weighed down by the slower logistics ships such as the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan.
Of course, abandoning cohesion also left those fat, slow ships completely vulnerable to being overtaken by the horde of sandman ships!
While the crew of those sluggish ships destined to be caught would likely be able to shuttle over to the faster ships, it still hurt a lot to lose all of those support ships.
Nonetheless, just like Ves back then, the fleets couldn't think that far ahead when they were only one step away from defeat!
Therefore, Ves did not exhibit too much surprise at this outcome. He instead paid more attention to the trajectory of the emissions as they traveled in different directions.
Some flew up, some flew down, some flew towards Aeon Corona VIII, yet at least twelve different signatures appeared to arc towards Aeon Corona IX!
"We're going to have company soon!" Ves alerted the others. "Whether they're friendly or not, I bet that there's at least a couple of Vandal and Swordmaiden ships among them who received order to pick us up!"
"It could also be the Dragons of the Void."
"Aw, please don't spoil my hopes."
"We need to get ready to face both friends and foes."
It took some time for the signatures to reach the planet, especially when sandman ships constantly nipped at their heels.
Fortunately, most sandman motherships tend to be average when it came to their means of sublight propulsion. Their smaller escort ships were faster but they never strayed too far from the mothership and the sandman admiral controlling them.
The extremely chaotic situation and the act of dumping the ballast saw many ships left for dead. Yet their sacrifice allowed many other ships to successfully dance out of the reach of the pursuing sandman ships.
Shortly after this change, the fighting in the vicinity of Aeon Corona VII subsided and fewer weapon emissions lit up the distant space for the shuttle's sensors to capture and interpret.
"The fighting has pretty much ended at this point." Ves concluded. "The ships too slow to outrun the sandmen have all been caught while the ships that are fast enough to outpace the aliens are no longer threatened."
Nonetheless, how many starships survived? How many ships split up but would never be able to gather up with their fellow sister ships?
Aside from that, a lot of mechs must have been cut off and unable to return to their carriers.
"The Finmoth Regal is exhibiting an increasing level of activity! She's lifting off!"
The shuttle hadn't been the only one to observe the proceedings from afar. Although the old and battered combat carrier didn't carry any high-quality sensors, she had a lot of them and they were all larger. It didn't surprise Ves that they managed to piece together some of the clues as well.
"The Finmoth Regal and her mechs don't have a lot of time left to capture us!"
The situation would become very awkward for the deserters if loyal Vandal ships entered the orbit of Aeon Corona IX. Who knew how either side would react!
Another complication was that the sandman motherships would certainly keep chasing after the humans. A battle between humans only gave the sandmen the opportunity to catch up!
"We shouldn't wait here until they arrive. Instead, we should fly out to meet one of the incoming ships!" Ves suggested.