167 – *Smile……
Editor: Thor’s Stone
“First, let me congratulate you on your excellent performance.”
The moment I arrived in front of her, Lieutenant Commander Serena gave me a smile that seemed to stick to my skin and made me involuntarily stand at attention.
We were currently inside Restalias. Specifically, we were inside Lieutenant Commander Serena’s private office. When the Mother Crystal kicked the bucket, the rest of the crystal lifeforms have also stopped functioning, so the battle was essentially over.
Right now, the rest of the ships were busy collecting the spoils of battle and gathering various data. The Restalias moved right next to the now-inert and dismembered Mother Crystal as well.
“Um, Serena-sama. Why did you call Hiro-sa– um, our captain here?”
Mimi was reluctant to call me ‘Hiro-sama’ in front of Lieutenant Commander Serena. Maybe it’s because the Lieutenant Commander was a bona fide Noble lady and a high-ranking officer of the Imperial Military. She was acting quite reserved.
“Let’s see. There are numerous offenses actually. He ignored orders, deserted his assigned position, engaged in dangerous stunts, and more. But I can’t really fault you mercenaries for every little thing, right? Of course, I won’t. And besides, you’re not part of the Imperial Military, so I can’t even hand you any punishment, ahaha.”
*Zumomomomo…… Somehow, I felt like a dark aura coupled with weird manga SFX was welling up from Lieutenant Commander Serena, who remained smiling. The area around her temple was throbbing! How scary!
“By the way, Mimi-san. Have you ever experienced working so hard for something only for it to be abruptly snatched away without any warning? If it was you, what would you say to the culprit?”
“U-Um, err…… H-How dare you? S-Something like that?”
Mimi trembled like a small animal after Lieutenant Commander Serena redirected her focus to her. Lieutenant Commander Serena nodded in satisfaction after hearing her answer.
“Yes, yes, indeed. I made up lots of stuff in order to hide the fact that my source of information was unreliable and unconfirmed. In the end, I even lied with a straight face and claimed that the information was the result of my own analysis. I went through rigorous questioning and felt like I was walking on eggshells the whole time. I finally convinced the higher-ups to send out a subjugation fleet, and the moment I felt that I was so close to victory, a clueless guy suddenly sweeps in and finishes the Mother Crystal right off. You can’t exactly blame me for feeling extremely vexed, right?”
Lieutenant Commander Serena’s tension gradually increased until she was practically trembling in anger.
“Um, y’see… I was just worried that the rear lines might incur losses if the situation was left as is, so I decided to perform multiple short-range FTL Drive jumps to close in on the Mother Crystal. I was hoping to bait the small-types heading your way by pestering the Mother Crystal, okay?”
“And just why did things actually turn out like that though……?”
“U-Um, maybe I was just really lucky, and you were just having a bad day, Lieutenant Commander? Whoah there! Stay, girl! Stay! Get your hand away from the sword handle and stay!”
When Lieutenant Commander Serena stood up forcefully and tried to draw her sword, I held up both hands to try and pacify her. Kuh, I should’ve brought Mei with us.
“I think that’s about enough fooling around, Lieutenant Commander…… So, what’s the real reason we’re here?”
Elma unleashed a sharp retort without a hint of hesitation. So the main reason wasn’t to sate her grudge against me?
Lieutenant Commander Serena deflated like a balloon after hearing Elma’s retort and let out a sigh. She sat back down behind her desk powerlessly. Just where did that spirit that seemed to say she would cut me down no matter what went to, I wonder?
“Well, even though you managed to clinch the victory, I’m still the one who proposed this entire operation. And so, it can be said that you taking down the enemy leader was proof that my proposed strategy was effective. No matter how it was achieved, the result still ended in our victory, so I was merely just venting my anger at having my prey snatched unceremoniously.”
“I’m sorry for acting without permission, Lieutenant Commander. I only wanted to prevent the rear lines from suffering losses.”
“Yes, I know. Your innocence will be proven through the battle records taken by Restalias. And more importantly, we can’t just punish the hero that managed to singlehandedly slay the enemy leader and claimed victory for us.”
Huh? Somehow, I’m getting a really bad feeling about this.
“We always adhere to the policy of appropriate rewards and punishments. Oh, I think we already had a conversation like this one a while back, didn’t we?”
After saying so, Lieutenant Commander Serena operated the console on top of her office desk and showed something to us via the holo-display. Judging from its appearance, it looked like a medal of some sort. It kind of resembled the Silver Sword Wings Assault medal I received previously, but its color was different. It was golden instead of silver. The shape was also quite different. A crimson jewel was placed in the middle of a cross-shaped medal. And there were silver rays protruding from its back that resembled a solid halo of light.
“That sure looks expensive.”
“Well, I suppose. This is called the First-class Star Cross medal. It’s more commonly known as the Gold Star. Are you familiar with it?”
I turned toward Mimi and Elma and found that Mimi’s eyes were as wide as saucers and Elma sported an expression that was akin to having swallowed an extremely bitter pill. It looks like both of them was pretty familiar with it.
“It looks like aside from the captain, the rest of the crew are familiar with it. This medal is only awarded to those who have achieved especially extraordinary merits in battle and is virtually the highest honor given to soldiers and mercenaries. However, instances of people being awarded this particular medal are exceedingly rare. To date, you are only the fourth person who will be receiving this in the entire history of the Empire.”
“Uhuh…… So I’m the fourth.”
Even someone like me can understand the significance of being awarded a medal that only three other people have managed to receive in the entire history of the Empire.
“Although it hasn’t been finalized yet, in lieu of your numerous achievements during this campaign, including your feat of eliminating never before seen crystal lifeform variants, there is a very good chance of you receiving this medal. Even if you do not end up receiving a Gold Star, a Silver Star is all but given.”
After saying so, Lieutenant Commander Serena changed the image displayed to a similar-looking medal, but with a blue jewel in the center of a silver cross.
“Well, the upper ranks in charge of the crystal lifeform extermination fleet, including me, all think you should receive the Gold Star. After all, that is but natural given your achievements.”
“I-I see…… So I’ll receive this award together with the rest of our remuneration when we get back to the Izrooks system, and we’ll be done after that, right?”
Although we were both smiling, one seemed to be enjoying the situation immensely while the other was sporting a forced smile with cold sweat running down his back.
After laughing for a while, Lieutenant Commander Serena’s expression suddenly turned serious.
“Of course not. We will be escorting you back to the Imperial Capital.”
“Right, of course, you would!”
I didn’t think such an important-sounding medal would be presented to me in a remote area like the Izrooks system in the first place. I already expected that the venue would be somewhere a bit more regal, but I wasn’t expecting it to be THAT regal.
“I would like to refuse……”
“So you intend to smear mud on the honor of the Empire?”
“Dammit! That’s a gross misuse of the power of the state!”
Although we lived a relatively free and easy life as mercenaries, at the end of the day, we were technically military sub-contractors. That’s especially true for folks who get the majority of their earnings from hunting pirates like me. The Mercenary Guild will protect me from unreasonable pressure from the military to some extent, but they won’t offer any excuses if I went and spurned the military by not attending the award ceremony.
“Elma-san, Elma-san, we’re going to the Imperial Capital, aren’t we? I’ve always admired it from the moment I first saw it on a holo-video.”
“I can understand. It’s the Imperial Capital after all. It’s the political and economic center of the Empire.”
Mimi and Elma were having a lively discussion behind me while I was gradually being plunged into the pits of despair. Well, at least some people are happy about this.
“But I think we, as his crew members, would have to participate in the award ceremony as well.”
Mimi seemed to have turned speechless. I see. So Mimi and Elma will accompany me, huh. That’s…… The fact that I won’t be alone in the spotlight does make me feel a lot better. Hahaha.
“Anyway, that’s how it is. After conducting some more investigations here, we will return to the Izrooks system, and after we get resupplied and maintained, we will immediately head for the Imperial Capital. Oh, and don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten our promise from back then either. They should have already made preparations back at the Izrooks forward base. This particular matter concerns the prestige of the Empire, so we will announce it to the public with great fanfare. You all will become overnight celebrities, and the loot and goods you will bring with you would become even more valuable as a result. You would be able to sell them for a very good price. Isn’t that great?”
After she declared that, Lieutenant Commander Serena smiled happily once more. She’s been trying to rope me into the Imperial Military for quite some time now, so she must be enjoying my current predicament immensely. Maybe she would even take advantage of the situation to enlist me as her direct subordinate. The reason I participated in the fight against the crystal lifeforms was that Lieutenant Commander Serena invited me, after all. I’m sure she’s gonna be making use of that angle.
“I have absolutely no intention of ever enlisting in the military, just so you know.”
“Yes, of course. I understand perfectly. It wouldn’t be good to force you into it after all. Or rather, I honestly do not want to have a subordinate like you, and a rigid place like the military would probably just serve to kill off your good points. I am aware of that much. We’ve been acquainted with one another for quite some time already, after all.”
Some unexpected words came out from Lieutenant Commander Serena’s mouth. Huh? I tilted my head in puzzlement.
“That said, it’s a different story when it comes to the military higher-ups. It’s pretty much the same situation with the Imperial Nobles. It would be advisable for you to rely more on the Mercenary Guild while you’re in the Imperial Capital.”
“……Uh, seriously, did you happen to eat something weird today?”
“If you continue to say rude things, I’m really going to draw my sword, you know.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Please excuse me.”
Lieutenant Commander Serena struck the handle of her sword, so I ended up standing at attention and giving her a crisp salute.
“That’s all from me. Please return to your ship and get some rest. And don’t even think of running away.”
Lieutenant Commander Serena nodded contentedly after hearing my answer.
“As expected of Master.”
When we got back to Black Lotus, I told Mei about the exchange with Lieutenant Commander Serena, and she showed a very satisfied expression. The corners of her eyes were slightly lowered, and the corners of her lips slightly lifted up. It was a very subtle change in her facial expression, but for her, whose expression was decidedly deadpan by default, it was a fairly obvious change.
“It’s all thanks to you hitting the Mother Crystal with an EML round with such exquisite precision and timing, Mei. You adjusted the timing so that it would hit directly after the Imperial Military’s bombardment, right?”
“Thank you for your praise.”
Although EML rounds boast the fastest speed amongst physical projectiles, they’re still incomparable to laser fire. I can’t imagine how exactly Mei read the timing of the Imperial Military’s synchronized bombardment, or how she accounted for the difference in projectile speeds, but it was an absolutely masterful feat.
“However, I really can’t compare to Master. You managed to deliver a fatal blow in one shot to that monster after all. That blow was what you’d call a masterful feat.”
“I’d probably get carried away if you praise me too much, so please stop.”
Although I said that, it still feels damn good to be praised, man! There probably isn’t anybody who won’t feel good when praised. Add the fact that the one praising me was a really beautiful maid. It’s the best.
“But as a result, you’ll have to attend some fancy award ceremony in the Imperial Capital.”
“Can you stop splashing cold water on somebody while they’re basking in success……?”
“B-But Hiro-sama! It’s the Imperial Capital you know! The Imperial Capital! It’s the center of the Empire and the holy land of culture and gourmet food!”
“You’re gonna participate in the ceremony as well y’know, Mimi……”
“Uu……! I think I’ll be fine since I’ll be together with Hiro-sama and Elma-san!”
Mimi was taken aback for a moment, but she managed to recover and declared something adorable. Mimi sure is cute. I’ll give her some head pats. There. Mofumofumofu.
“We’ll have to shop for a bit once we arrive at the capital. Hiro should be fine, but Mimi and I don’t have formal dresses yet……”
“Why would I be fine?”
“Remember what happened on Sierra III? You got formalwear from there, right?”
I hit my palm with a fist. Come to think of it, she’s right. Chris bought me some formal-looking clothes suitable for nobles there. They’re gathering dust in the closet right now though. But they should be perfect for the occasion.
Honestly speaking, I didn’t really dig such clothes, but I guess it’s fine since the ladies, including Chris, seemed to like them.
“I’ll pay for your clothes, so you don’t have to worry and just shop for what you like.”
“That sounds great, but we’ll have to buy some accessories too you know?”
“Even so, it still won’t cost as much compared to fully upgrading a Zabuton ship, right?”
“That’s true, I guess……”
Zabuton is the widely used nickname for the cheap multirole starship all the rookie pilots fly for the first time. A full upgrade would cost about 800,000 Enels, but I should be able to cover that cost with plenty of room to spare due to the rewards we’ll be receiving later on.
“I’m looking forward to our trip to the capital.”
“Ah, yeah. I guess.”
I wasn’t all that excited, but Mimi seems quite ecstatic, so I just agreed with her. I’m sure the security around that area will be pretty tight, so it won’t be a good place for mercenaries. Well, I guess it isn’t every day that I’ll get to visit the capital of a space empire. Yeah, I might be looking forward to it a little after all.