949 Fraying Bonds
Since the time Ves returned to the fleet, he often thought about the relationship between the two allied forces.
At first glance, they didn't appear to be a good fit. The Flagrant Vandals may be scoundrels among mech regiments, but they still stayed true to their military roots.
As for Lydia's Swordmaidens, though their founder attempted to train elites among pirates, they still couldn't shed their unsavory background no matter how much they adopted their unique mindsets.
A mech regiment and a pirate outfit should have been hostile to each other from the start. The only reason why the two forces banded together was because they saw the need to rely on each other's strength to fulfill their missions.
Yet now that they managed to retrieve the lockboxes, what next?
Ves thought about their current relationship and believed the only reason the Swordmaidens hadn't split up yet was because they lost too much to be able to protect themselves in the cutthroat frontier.
The Flagrant Vandals on the other hand were completely out of depth in the frontier. They didn't know the lay of the land nor did they benefit from any connections to the local powers. They didn't know the best star systems to lay low and which star systems posed extreme hazards to anyone who jumped to them. All the while, the ever-present sandmen loomed behind their backs.
Right now, the Flagrant Vandals were only left with the Shield of Hispania, their flagship, and the Gorgon's Gaze, which still hosted Parallax Star and the half-dead Venerable O'Callahan. This offered them a respectable amount of fighting power, but not enough to deter most opportunistic enemies from taking a stab at them if they thought they could actually win.
Combining their numbers with the Swordmaidens brought their collective threat level just enough to scare away most bottom feeders. Yet how long would they stick together? The Swordmaidens could leave at any moment once they reached some form of safe harbor. The frontier was their stomping grounds, after all, so they didn't have to travel as far to reach safety compared to the Vandals who needed to go all the way back to civilized space.
"What's on your mind, Mr. Larkinson?" Major Verle asked as his curiosity increased at Ves' mention of the Swordmaidens.
"I've spent some time among the Swordmaidens. Enough to get a good sense of their values and priorities." Ves began, thinking back on the times he chatted with Ketis or visited the Swordmaiden camp. "We should consider becoming their 'friends'."
"Aren't we already friendly with the Swordmaidens?"
"Our arrangement up to now is an alliance of convenience, sir. Something which has mostly served its purpose. You have to know that the Swordmaidens makes a strong distinction between business partners and 'friends'. They don't have any hesitation to kick the former dead when they are down on their luck. However, if we are worthy to become their friends, they would instead extend a hand to them to pull them back on our feet."
A frown etched on Major Verle's face. He failed to understand the Swordmaiden concept of 'friends'. "What is it you are proposing, exactly?"
"I propose we endeavor to make a new and more permanent connection with them. Call it a long-term alliance if you will. Unlike most pirate outfits in the frontier, the Swordmaidens are known for keeping their word and for their relatively honorable conduct. They are probably one of the best pirate outfits we can partner with on an ongoing basis."
Major Verle looked dubious at Ves. "Honorable pirates? I know the Swordmaidens are rather distinct, but you make a bold claim. Suppose we accept your premise. Why should we forge a deeper alliance and how will that benefit us in our current state?"
"Lydia's Swordmaidens is founded upon an ideal, sir. They aim to lift the status of women in the frontier and attempted to create a strong, all-women mech force to protect their sisterhood. With the death of Commander Lydia and the loss of over eighty percent of their ships, mechs and sisters, they are probably unmoored and demoralized right now. That makes them vulnerable. Vulnerable to degeneration but also vulnerable to suggestion."
"Go on." Verle waved his hand for Ves to continue.
"Sir, it's like this. While our current forces are extremely meager, we are still part of a greater organization. If we can appeal to their ideals and offer them medium and long-term assistance in rebuilding and revitalizing the Swordmaidens, they'll surely accept such an arrangement because they won't have to give up and abandon the ideals they worked for all their lives."
"Let me guess this straight. In exchange for providing material support in the future, we are asking the Swordmaidens to stick with us and protect us through thick and thin?"
"There are many problems with your proposal. First, the Flagrant Vandals already crossed a line when we partnered up with a pirate gang for this mission. A single slip-up can be forgiven and swept up under the rug, but it's a different matter entirely if we continue to break the rules over and over again. The Mech Corps will certainly never approve of an ongoing relationship with pirates."
"Major, the Mech Corps might not approve, but other… more clandestine organizations might be interested in forging ties with a reliable partner in the frontier."
For a moment, Verle just stared at Ves. They both knew that Ves referred to Flashlight. Right now, Ves hadn't activated his signal jammer yet, so he didn't dare say the name of the military intelligence agency out loud.
"What you say is… possible." The major eventually conceded. "However, such decisions need to be made in coordination with more senior authorities in the Bright Republic. Without a working quantum entanglement node anywhere on our ships, I can't make binding agreements."
"Why not just do it and ask for permission later? Isn't that the Vandal way of doing things, sir?"
Verle smirked at Ves, before going back to frowning. "You've been learning. Sadly, even is certain other organizations are amenable to the idea, it won't change the fact that I will be severely crossing my boundaries."
"I think the relevant institutions of the Bright Republic will understand considering what we've done for them. Right now, sir, we are in a precarious situation. Not only are we deep in the frontier, but we are also surrounded by threats on all sides with no friendlies in sight. What's the harm of making a deal with pirates when it will help us complete our mission and enables us to forge a solid connection to a minor but trustworthy and grateful power in the Faris Star Region?"
"You make a good point. Good enough that I can use the same argument when I'll inevitably be called up by my superiors to account for such a daring initiative."
"Remember, sir, not only will we gain an immediate benefit by having the backing of a local power, but we can also continue to exploit this ongoing relationship."
"The Bright Republic isn't completely blind and deaf when it comes to the frontier."
"Then why haven't I ever noticed any form of aid other than from the Swordmaidens, sir?" Ves pressed. "Are there pirate outfits or other local groups along the way that are ready and willing to help us bring us out of the frontier?"
The major didn't answer his probe, which pretty much answered the question. Either the so-called existing connections to the frontier didn't amount to much, or the Bright Republic was restricted from drawing upon them at will.
While Major Verle still seemed reluctant to make permanent commitments to an alliance with the Swordmaidens, the dire situation of the Vandals made it so that they couldn't afford to be seperated with the pirate outfit.
So far, they worked well together and covered each other's backs! It would be best for all of them if such an arrangement continued until the Vandals succeeded in making it out of the frontier.
"There is still another problem to consider, Mr. Larkinson." The mech officer opened up a new tack. "Even if I am willing to take the shot and fight to make sure the relevant organizations will back any agreements I make, why would the Swordmaidens believe in our sincerity?"
Ves smiled at the man. "Sir, Let me go over to the Jaded Sword and discuss the matter with Dise. As I stated earlier, I am already familiar with them. My strong connection with Ketis should also count for something."
"Why not send Captain Orfan instead?"
"Do you think she's any good at negotiations? Besides, while the good captain is very close to Dise, I don't think Orfan has a feel for the Swordmaidens as a whole."
In fact, Ves something back. If Captain Orfan paid a visit to the Jaded Sword, she'd be sure to secure an easy agreement on account of her intimate emotional connection with Lieutenant Dise, or was it Commander Dise now?
In any case, one of the reasons why Ves proposed this course of action in the first place was not just because he wanted to secure his safety, but also to pursue an ulterior motive.
Ves wanted to pave his own connection to the frontier, seperate from the Mech Corps or Flashlight or whatever. He wanted to use this opportunity to speak on behalf of the Vandals to make a parallel agreement or at least open up the possibility for greater ties between his business interests and the Swordmaidens.
Even in the middle of a crisis, he didn't forget to seek for long-term opportunities as long as the situation allowed him the luxury of doing so!
Ves faintly suspected that his business would be in an awful slump when he returned from the war, so opening up new ground beforehand would save him a lot of effort in the future.
After some reluctance, Major Verle allowed Ves to take the lead on the negotiations. Perhaps the mech officer already possessed an inkling of Ves' ulterior motives because his eyes narrowed a bit in suspicion for a moment.
Nonetheless, since there wasn't any fundamental conflict of interest, Ves didn't feel guilty about taking advantage of this opportunity.
After receiving a raft of instructions and limitations on what Ves could offer on behalf of the Vandals, Verle packed him off to the Jaded Sword.
"Take a regular shuttle to the Swordmaiden flagship and go do whatever you need to do. Remember that I will reserve final judgement on any deal you forge with the Swordmaidens, so don't think you have an unlimited licence to do whatever you want."
"I will make sure you'll be pleased with the new agreement I'm about to forgive, sir." Ves bowed.
"Don't take too long. I want you back in half a day at most. Once you return, we can make our preparations to transition out of the Aeon Corona System."
"Got it, sir."
After receiving a data pad that listed all the possible demands and concessions that he could include in the agreement, Ves did as ordered and boarded a shuttle already scheduled to fly to the Jaded Sword.
A healthy distance already separated the two Vandal combat carriers from the three Swordmaiden vessels. This distance was a little wider than before, and showed that the two forces already started to guard against each other for possible betrayals.
Mutual trust between the Vandals and Swordmaidens already started to fray. If this went on any longer, the possibility of betrayal in order to steal their former ally's lockbox became increasingly more likely.
When Ves initially came up with his suggestion, he initially wanted to find a way to integrate the Swordmaidens into the Vandals or at least bind them closer to the Bright Republic.
He even dreamt of convincing the Swordmaidens to forsake their current backers. Still, his own understanding of the pirate outfit made him take a step back from such an ambitious goal. They would never abandon their ideals and their frontier roots.
"Even if they don't show it very often, they are very sentimental people."