Chapter 3364: Back On Track
Several weeks had gone by since the coronation of Emperor Rion Aaden. After the encounter with the Olympus Mons, no one in the expeditionary fleet wanted to stay in the Vulcan Empire any second longer than necessary!
Despite taking a faster but riskier route, the Golden Skull Alliance did not meet any resistance. The navigators had deliberately plotted a route that mainly threaded through star systems that were either far too marginal or had already been subjugated by human forces.
Just like before, of the regional dwarven military forces came out to take revenge on the expeditionary fleet. The other human groups that had joined the feast in Smiling Samuel still treated Ves and his clan as if they were plague bearers.
Together with the mercenary forces that at least made the expeditionary fleet more troublesome to harass, the cost of attacking the Golden Skull Alliance far outweighed the benefits. With so many rich but vulnerable dwarven star systems that were just begging to get looted, hardly any human forces took the initiative to acknowledge the passing fleet's existence!
This pattern continued even after the Larkinsons and their allies finally put the Vulcan Empire behind them. The alert level finally dropped down to green, permitting everyone to remove their protective suits and return to wearing more comfortable outfits.
The return to normality also restored everyone's morale. It was quite stressful to live in an environment where the odds of encountering threats was small but not trivial.
Most of those worries disappeared when they finally left an active war zone and traveled out of the reach of the fanatical and irrational Vulcanites.
"I'd be happy if we never stumble upon another dwarf in our lives!"
"We're finally back on track."
"I still have nightmares about fighting against the Olympus Mons."
"We're currently passing through the territory of the Consolidated Kingdom of Namais." Calabast's projection told Ves when he was at his office. "Namais is one of the many states that have teamed up with the Lost to carve up the Vulcan Empire's territories. Most of the kingdom's mech armies are either deployed to Smiling Samuel or have been stationed at its borders in order to deter incursions from its other neighbors. The threat of getting waylaid by one of their military fleets is almost nil. Namais simply doesn't have the manpower to spare."
It was sad that the Larkinsons even had to make a threat ȧssessment of every state they visited. Still, with their history of coming into conflict with states for various reasons, this was not a redundant precaution!
"What about the rest of the Cin Beta Star Sector? Do you foresee any threats?" Ves asked.
Calabast shook her head. "Unlikely. The mercenaries that we've hired are still worth their money. Their troop strength and the repercussions of attacking them is already sufficient to deter most opportunistic robbers who urgently need to pad their capital ship quota."
"Well at least we're not wasting our money." Ves snorted.
"Once we pass through the Consolidated Kingdom of Namais, we'll mostly be traveling through busy, well-established trade routes that have a relatively high safety index. It helps that we will mostly be passing through the various port systems of different third-rate states."
This was the fastest way of traveling through a star sector quickly. Port systems were easy FTL travel destinations and attracted a lot of space traffic due to their inherent advantages.
Even if the Larkinson Clan had no intention of buying anything from these third-class economies, just the convenience of skipping a week or more of monotonous FTL travel was enough to make the trip worthwhile!
Ves glanced at the projected star map. "It won't take long until we finally enter the Antilla Star Cluster. Tell me about this place. Is there anything I should know?"
"If the Gate Consortium hadn't chosen to set one of its gate systems in this star cluster, most people probably wouldn't have paid any special attention to it. We'll only be traveling through two more star sectors. First, we will be entering the Sticky Pernois Star Sector. The environment is slightly complicated here due to the numerous different second-rate states that occupy this region. They've been known to quarrel with each other, but they have all quieted down as of late."
"Because of all of the traffic passing through their territories, am I right?" Ves guessed.
The spymaster's projection nodded. "Ever since the gate system opened next door, many forces in Sticky Pernois are wary of provoking the prospective pioneers that are trying to reach the gate system. None of the people or groups that can arrange passage through the beyonder gates are average. That said, the pioneers themselves aren't always as restrained."
"I've read in the news that incidents of robberies have increased in Sticky Pernois."
"Correct, but we don't have to worry. The local authorities all pretend to be blind and deaf because it is too much of a hassle to intervene in disputes between notable foreign entities. Still, the overwhelming majority of attacks consists of a stronger fleet bullying a weaker one. There is never an instance where two fleets of equal strength fight a serious battle."
All of these battles revolved around profit, and there weren't many gains to be had if attackers lost half of their troops to defeat their prey!
The Golden Skull Alliance was already strong enough on its own. Its impressive battle record along with the mercenary escort added two more compelling reasons why it should be left alone. Calabast was right to minimize the threat of getting waylaid.
Only state-backed military forces posed a significant threat to the expeditionary fleet at this point, but Calabast judged that of them should jump out and make trouble with the Larkinsons.
"The only noteworthy detail about Sticky Pernois is that we'll be picking up our capital ship orders in one of its second-rate states."
Ves nodded. "The Gorgoneion and the Diligent Ovenbird will finally join our fleet. We've waited a long time for them. At least the recent delays have allowed us to splurge on more upgrades."
"Right. Once we pass through Sticky Pernois, we'll finally enter the star sector that we have all been waiting for. Tarnished Crown is a central star sector so it has always been relatively stable. The opening of the Red Ocean has profoundly lowered its danger index as the local states and groups find it far more profitable to cater to the demands of the visiting pioneering fleets rather than competing against each other. A lot of new companies have sprung up in recent years. Shipyards, mech manufacturers, supply companies, headhunting offices, you name it, there's probably a business out there that can meet our needs."
"At wildly overinflated prices, no doubt." Ves crossed his arms.
"That's a given. The supply of goods and services is growing, but it simply can't keep up with the meteoric rise in demand. You already know that the wait time to commission a capital ship has surpassed a decade."
No wonder nearby pioneering fleets chose to play pirate this time!
Calabast gave Ves a reassuring smile. "You don't have to worry too much about the risks once we reach Tarnished Crown. It's a much more monitored and scrutinized star sector since it hosts a gate system. Few people are eager to show their ugly side so close to a powerful MTA garrison. The beyonder gate is located in the Opalis Star System, which also happens to house the sector headquarters of the local MTA branch. Ever since the Gate Consortium has set up shop here, the MTA has heavily reinforced its security presence in Opalis and beyond."
A beyonder gate was insanely costly even for the Big Two. There were always crazies out there that wanted to blow up something valuable and the Crown Uprising had increased the risk factor by at least 100 times!
"Are the risks really low here?" Ves looked suspicious.
"Well, the good news is that threats from states, local power players and pioneering fleets are minimal. There are MTA ships stationed in many major star systems, so no one dares to fire the first shot in front of their noses. The bad news is that the beyonder gate is a magnet for a certain kind of trouble."
He already had a good idea what she was referring to. "Crown terrorists."
"Yes. While the numbers are rather fuzzy, hundreds of major terrorist attacks are taking place in Tarnished Crown alone. We're not talking about one-man shuttle kamikaze runs here. We're talking about exploding the power reactors of passenger liners, releasing toxic gasses across entire cities, rogue mechs opening fire at passing starships and so on. Each time, the Crown terrorists have managed to reap a significant amount of lives."
Terrorists attacks like these had erupted in other places as well. The Bardo Star Cluster and the Fermi Star Cluster that the Larkinsons had visited were also affected by similar incidents.
This was different, though.
"The risk of getting caught up in terrorist attacks is notably higher in Tarnished Crown." Calabast seriously warned. "It's not just because the Crown terrorists seem obsessed with taking down beyonder gates. It's also because of the name of the star sector. The mere mention of a crown, any crown, is enough to set off these delusional, brainwashed idiots."
Ves let out a deep breath. "Tarnished Crown is just a label. It's not a literal description of the star sector."
"We all know that, but the Crown terrorists can't be reasoned with. In fact, the original reason why the star sector is called this way is because all five second-rate states and all of the third-rate states are kingdoms. Each and everyone of them has chosen to adopt the feudal model. You can't find a higher concentration of kings and queens in any other star sector."
"I bet those monarchs are all regretting the fact that they wear crowns." Ves chuckled.
It did not surprise Ves at all that the crazy Crown terrorists surged to the Tarnished Crown Sector like moths to a flame. The entire place pretty much did everything they could to provoke the nutty anarchists who kept yelling about returning a stolen crown!
As much as Ves found it interesting to hear about all of the ȧssassination attempts on these monarchs, these troubles didn't matter to migrants like him. As long as the expeditionary fleet remained in the outer systems of the places it passed through, it was unlikely for any terrorists to be able to get close enough to launch a serious attack.
"What about the Opalis System itself?" Ves asked. "Have the terrorists ever managed to launch a successful attack in this highly guarded gate system?"
"The MTA has already maintained tight security in the systems that house their sector headquarters and this is no different. While the heavy patrols cannot prevent every possible terrorist attacks, they can respond extremely quickly and isolate any outbreak with the help of powerful tech. The damage is always confined to a minimum."
Ves became reassured after hearing that. So far, the expeditionary fleet only endured terrorist attacks at the start of the Crown Uprising. After the alliance partners all made use of kinship networks to root out the hidden dangers among their personnel, the galaxy-wide upheaval no longer affected the Golden Skull Alliance.
Everyone in the fleet had been spared from the fear and mutual suspicion that infected other organizations.. This was why many Larkinsons grew complacent as they developed the impression that the Crown Uprising was merely a sideshow. This was a dangerous mentality because the terrorist attacks had taken a serious toll on the rest of human society!