Chapter 314: The Crimson Massacre

    Chapter 314: The Crimson Massacre

    The interior of Zeus-1 was not exceedingly large, but they were able to explain maneuvers and tactics with the help of a whiteboard. Sadly, the ship didn't come equipped with a sim pod, otherwise they'd do this in DreamNet where the results were likely to be better. But even if they had a pod, that idea was no good. DreamNet was in the midst of an upgrade.

    This sort of training was a blessed relief to the students. As far as they knew, the training was over - they could relax on the way back to school. In fact, the ARC classes had been a truly transformative experience. They were looking forward to the next few days, as they returned to normal life.

    They were somewhat surprised by how quick the flight was. When they peered out of the portholes on either side, they saw a queer sight.

    It was an asteroid belt, that stretched for hundreds of millions of kilometers. The background light of the universe shone between them, obscuring the details so all that they saw where hulking silhouettes suspended in nothingness.

    This isn't right! There was a specific flight path for the return to Skyfire, and to their knowledge they weren't supposed to be any asteroid belts this large on the way. Could they have gotten lost? Unlikely! All shapes came equipped with cruise control, especially combat vessels.

    In the midst of their confusion, Lan Jue turned on the ship's holographic projector. As the light sputtered to life, an enormous silver ship was revealed in the distance. A few of the students recognized it immediately. It was a cargo ship, for interstellar travel. It could be fitted to house both freight and passengers. Judging by the markings, it was an Eastern ship.

    It floated easily along the lane. The transport vessel hung in space, disappearing among the asteroids and re-appearing moments later. It looked almost like one of them.

    Lan Jue said nothing. He just returned to his seat, and kept his eyes on the ship.

    These ships were effective for their purpose - comfortable, and spacious. It was humming along at a good speed, he determined. Ships like this could sustain sub-light speeds for quite a long time, longer that normal patrol boats. They were both comfortable, and spacious.

    As they watched, there was a twinkling light in front of the silver vessel, and suddenly a massive net of shimmering light appeared. The ship collided head-on with the deterrent. Thankfully, it's shields were operational. They lost control, but the shields kept them from being destroyed. Instead, the silver cargo ship spun listlessly through space.

    Just then, seven or eight patrol ships of varying colors appeared from the blackness. They were like specters, arriving without notice. Obviously they had set an ambush: eliminate your target's ability to flee, and mop up.

    In no time at all, they were surrounded.

    The silver ship was fighting to right itself when the ships appeared. The pilot seemed to know what was coming, and tried to urge the ship forward. Unfortunately, although the ship's top speed was impressive, it needed time to reach that level.

    A barrage of guided missiles collided with the ship's shields. The attacks came in concurrent blasts, one after the other, that prevented the ship from gaining speed.

    The students, under careful observation, were beginning to understand. The beleaguered ship looked to have been stopped by a cloak mine. It was likely placed there by one of the Alliance from back in the day. It operated like any other mine, except that it was fitted with a cloaking device. It's sheer damage, and the fact that you could be right on top of one when it went off, made them exceedingly dangerous. Because of the insidious nature of the weapons, the Alliances eventually agreed to discontinue their use. After all, ships were expensive.

    Pirates. That's what they must be, those vicious boats surrounding the silver cargo ship. The ship came to a full stop as damage rendered it inoperable. The video's angle cut to the interior.

    Armed personnel stalked the halls bearing laser rifles, their faces set as they faced inevitable demise. Thousands of souls were on board, and at this moment they were clambering over each other in terror.

    At last, the shields failed. Without weapons to defend itself, the pirate boats were able to pull up right alongside. The hulk was cut and breached quickly, venting the ship's oxygen in to space.

    Several mecha suits fought through the hole. The screen flashes as laser fire was exchange. But the passengers were no match. Unequipped and unprepared, the interior of the ship became a hell-scape, with mountains of bodies and rivers of blood.

    Men, women, children, elderly... it didn't matter. They were put down without a second thought. Only a few pretty women were kept, locked in the hold below.

    The fresh blood and mangled bodies were reflected in the students' eyes. The images were terrifying, atrocious, sickening. They fought rage and nausea as they watched these mechas callously murder everyone they came across.

    The video panned to the side, revealing a pirate mecha standing nearby. It raised its alloy sword overhead. He brought the blade down on a child - he mustn't have been more than five or six. Screams and gasps sprang up all throughout the NEU trainees.

    Their cries had no power over what they saw. They could only look on in terror as innocent lives were summarily extinguished. They were Easterners, like them, just trying to get somewhere.

    In the end, the ship was a floating hulk of metal, home to nothing but the dead. The prettier victims had been hauled away, and the ship itself towed in to the black.

    The pirates knew when to go and when to stop. They'd only breached the outer hull, leaving the interior structure undamaged. Even in this condition, a ship of this size would catch a pretty penny, not to mention whatever cargo it may have contained.

    The image dimmed, and vanished. Lan Jue's dark voice hung in the ship's bridge.

    "What you just watched happened about six months ago. It as a massacre. It happened on the outskirts of the Shattered Starfields. That part of the lane was supposed be patrolled by the North, but they were inexplicably absent that day. The victims were our own, from the Eastern Alliance. Two-thousand three-hundred passengers, two-hundred sixty crew. Fifty-four women were abducted, and all the rest were put to death. They were pirates, the Crimson Flag. According to our intelligence reports, they were among the best equipped pirate clans in the Fields. Their base wasn't in the three main planets of that system, but that didn't matter - their benefactor was the Northern Alliance. It you were to claim they had no connection to the North, no one would believe you. More than two-thousand five-hundred lives, taken in this way. The Crimson Flag hid in deeper recesses of the Starfields after that, knowing that the East would send a fleet to answer for this crime. However, the North - who controlled the regions around the Starfields - blocked their passage. To this day those pirates have never answered for this atrocity. It's been known ever since as the Crimson Massacre."

    The students collectively glared at the space where the screen was. Their hearts were full of anger, and sadness. Many of the young men openly sneered, their knuckles white as they gripped their arm rests.

    Most of them had heard of the Crimson Massacre, some even knew the details. The Shattered Starfields were a chaotic and unruly place, where 'complicated' failed to describe it. Larger ships simply couldn't make it through due to this. On top of that, the East couldn't send ships through their own borders to the Starfields without having to traverse the whole of it to get to their last known location. The closest ingress was in the North's territory.

    But the North decreed their space unapproachable. Each request by the East to pass was met with cool refusal. They negotiated, but the North couldn't forgive the grievances that had built up between them over the years. This is one reason why many suspect the North were complicit in the massacre.

    Lan Jue had asked Chu Cheng about this when it'd occurred, but he didn't know anything about it. The Northern military was an independent force and the strongest of all human federations.

    The video they were watching had been given to him by Lan Qing. The vice admiral sometimes had his hands tied in the bureaucracy of the military machine. Lan Jue was not so constrained.

    The Mercenary King stalked the Shattered Starfields, decimating every pirate clan he came across. They would feel the cold gaze of death on their backs in every dark corner when he was finished. They dared to assault Eastern civilians. They slunk deeper in to their holes after that.

    Lan Jue rose from the captain's chair. "If you recall, before we left for An Lun I noted that our training period may increase as needed. Your training, is not yet finished. Specifically, this is our third phase. Originally I'd planned something else, but with some additional data concerning the Crimson Flag - plans change. Your task is simple: Annihilate the Crimson Flag."

    "Professor, put me at the front!" Jin Tao fiercely shot his arm up. His eyes were red - his grandfather had been one of the victims.

    Others followed, who originally had been loathe to interrupt their Drillmaster.

    Lan Jue looked out the porthole. "Accountant. Take us to the Starfields."

    The Shattered Starfields! Their Drillmaster's words set a fire for vengeance in their chests. They were headed for the legendary pirates' haven.

    If An Lun had been a common site on the map, how much truer it was for the Starfields. None of them, however, had ever previously had a yearning to visit.

    The pirate playground, a den of degenerates and scum. Danger lurked around every corner. That was where they were going.

    The heat in their blood cooled a few degrees. Only the confidence earned from their training and skirmish victory stopped some from outright fleeing. After all, they were students. Out there were pirates. What they were about to experience could mean life or death!

    But Lan Jue looked in the faces of each of his students, and he was satisfied. They remained calm, and in the face of this revelation that was no easy task.

    "We will head directly for the heart of the Crimson Flag territory. Your task will be to suit up, in the Bloodlust Warsuits that you have earned, and eliminate the clan. They should all die a thousand times, but you can give them one at least. In the process, your second objective is to rescue a compatriot under their control. This is the third phase of your training."

    Zeus-1 deftly maneuvered toward the heart of the Shattered Starfields under the Accountant's masterful control. The sapphire ship darted like a fish between the spiraling asteroids, failed planets and ship wreckage.
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