"Have you met with these Vesians before, sir?" Ves asked as innociously as possible as he adjusted his formal burgundy uniform.
The 6th Flagrant Vandals regimental colors consisted of wine-red and black, though they mostly wore black uniforms in their day-to-day duties. The formal uniform that Ves just received would only be worn in their first meeting with the rebel delegation. After all the of the pomp and ceremony scheduled for today had passed, Ves would return to his standard dark green working uniform.
"We've had dealings with the VRF before. A lot of Vesian rebel movements are localized on a single planet. The bigger players only span the range of a single duchy at most. Culture and customs differ a lot between different duchies, so it's hard for these rebel groups to find any common ground with each other. The Vesian Revolutionary Front is one of the few exceptions to this rule."
"Are they the most powerful rebel group in Vesian space?"
"They're not. In fact, groups that span a single duchy can easily mobilize ten times as much mechs and sympathisers than a broader movement like the VRF. They're too bland and distant in the eyes of the rebels on the ground."
"Then what makes them so valuable to us that we have to greet them with a formal ceremony, sir?" Ves asked with puzzlement in his voice.
"Just because the different rebel movements don't agree on many matters doesn't mean that they ignore each other. Sometimes, they want to trade a resource their duchy has in abundance with another resource that can't be sourced from the same region. To facilitate this kind of trade in a completely lawless undergrounding setting, a trustworthy intermediary is needed."
Ves got it now. "Ah, so the VRF have profiled themselves as bridge builders that can connect different groups together, but only to the extent they are comfortable with. I imagine one of the reasons why they can engender trust is because they aren't big enough to threaten the position of these regional rebel movements."
"Exactly so." Alloc nodded as they began to move through the corridors. "Regional rivalries exist in any states, but it's magnified to an extreme extent in the Vesia Kingdom. Nobles fight against nobles and it's not unheard of for the rebels that exist to overthrow them to get into feuds as well. It's like internal conflict is baked inside their DNA."
That only made it more admirable for the VRF to stay above the infighting. "So if they aren't very strong, why are they sending their own mechs to us?"
"It's one of the demands that Colonel Lowenfield has set. Though we've always cooperated with each other without issue, there's always the possibility that they might stab us in the back. Hosting some of their assets aboard our ships will guarantee us against betrayal."
"So they are hostages?"
"You can look at them in that way, yes, but they are our guests as well. We've done well with the help of the FRF so it's important to treat them cordially at all times. They'll mostly stick to themselves so you won't have to be afraid of starting any incidents with them. Just don't ask them why they joined the VRF. The reasons are often traumatic."
The pair of mech designers in burgundy spent a few more minutes traversing the corridors in silence. Due to the size of the Wolf Mother, it would take them at least fifteen minutes to arrive at their destination on foot.
A proper capital ship incorporated several aids to get people to their destination faster, such as internal trains or lifter platforms. Unfortunately, the Wolf Mother's ad-hoc expansion hadn't taken these conveniences into account, and employing devices like lifter platforms posed a potential security risk.
Thus, Ves and Alloc had no choice but to trudge their way down the decks and towards the sides of the Wolf Mother. Walking through her cavernous depths gave Ves the illusion that he was descending into the belly of the beast.
"How are you holding up in your new assignment, Ves?" Alloc asked.
"Not very good." He replied honestly. "I haven't been off to a good start. Try telling Professor Velten that the development on the Inheritor design needs to undergo a U-turn."
The Journeyman Mech Designer chuckled. "I can imagine why you would suggest that. It's not the first time such a suggestion has been bandied about."
"If the same suggestion has come up before, why is no one taking it seriously?"
Alloc sighed. "Because it's about money."
"Everyone always tells me that the Vandals are short on money, but how could they? They have the Wolf Mother! That's a portable mineral processor and mech factory! They can easily generate a lot of income by fabricating and selling a lot of mechs."
"It's not so simple." Alloc shook his head. "First, the Mech Corps isn't allowed to enter the private market. It would open up a lot of can of worms if economic interests started to interfere with purely military interests. Second, let me fill you in on a secret."
What secret did he refer to?
Alloc leaned close to Ves and whispered something in his ear.
"The 6th Flagrant Vandals is heavily indebted. I don't have an exact figure, but my estimates is that the Vandals owe around 200 to 400 billion bright credits."
Ves almost tripped when he heard that enormous sum. "Billions, sir? Not millions?"
"I didn't misspeak. It's billions of bright credits. Yet that's not the most frightening thing. The question you should be asking is who the Vandals borrowed the money from. I can tell you one thing. It's not the Mech Corps. They wanted to cut off the funding for the Vandals in the first place, so there's no way they'll even consider extending loans to us."
All of this information caused him to remain off-balance. What was wrong with the Vandals? Was a mech regiment of the Mech Corps even allowed to take out a loan?
"Sir. Are the Vandals still leaking out money?"
"Yep. It's a waterfall. Even after we got rid of our fleet carrier and built up the Wolf Mother, we still can't break even. You have to realize that raiding Vesian space isn't actually profitable for a mech regiment of our scale. Pirates don't suffer the same problem because they're mostly running a handful of ramshackle ships and crumbling mechs. They hardly spend anything to keep themselves afloat. It's different for us because we're bigger and we have quality standards."
"Even if the Vandals are heavily indebted, slimming down the Inheritor won't necessary save a lot of money. I would argue that it actually increases the costs, since they get wrecked so often."
"Professor Velten doesn't think so. As I mentioned before, she has performed a whole raft of calculations that sets the Inheritor's current cost picture as its most cost effective position. The mech is strong enough to last a while but cheap enough that it won't hurt that much if we need to replace a copy or two."
"Still, the Vandals would only save a hundred million credits or so over an entire year. The costs savings doesn't seem to be worth it if it keeps weakening the design, sir."
"Just because the Vandals have accumulated a mountain of debt doesn't mean we are eager to raise it even higher. The main reason why we haven't been able to break even is because there's hardly any profit to be made in times of peace. If the war hadn't erupted by this time, the Vandals would have truly been forced to disband."
Ves looked at Alloc with an amazed expression. "Does that mean this upcoming raid is motivated by money?"
"Exactly." Alloc replied softly. He leaned in again to whisper something else. "I can't tell you our target, but you can bet it's a highly-populated star system that holds a lot of advanced industries. As long as we can rob it blind, we can take a huge chunk out of our debt off the table."
What Alloc revealed to Ves was a revelation. He hadn't fully appreciated how bad their financial situation affected their daily operations. Even as they showed off a lot of outward strengths, internally they barely made ends meet."
It became clear to him that the Vandals stakes a lot more than he thought on the upcoming raid. The outcome of this ambitious operation might very well decide whether the 6th Flagrant Vandals remained afloat or be swept away in the annals of history.
They finally reached their destination after another bout of silence. Heavily armored security officers dressed in dress garb or fully-enclosed exoskeleton suits checked them for any threats.
After confirming security that they were harmless, Alloc and Ves went through the armored hatch and entered into the largest hangar of the Wolf Mother. They joined a group of neatly-dressed servicemen standing in rows.
They didn't have to wait for long for their guests to arrive. A dozen mechs along with two sturdy military-grade shuttles flowed in from the hangar doors. They carefully settled down in the hangar set aside for them. The Vandal mechs that used to occupy this space had been transferred to another ship in the fleet.
They settled down one by one according to invisible instructions. The mechs arrived with their weapons bearing obvious seals, not that it would stop them from accelerating into the waiting crowd and stomping them all to muddy bits with their feet. That was why the really important Vandals such as Professor Velten or Colonel Lowenfield had been left out of the greeting party.
Instead, some captain Ves had never seen before led the delegation from the Vandals.
A few minutes later, the shuttles opened their hatches. A handful of formally but soberly dressed men and women emerged out of the Vesian shuttles, accompanied by a small host of lightly armored guards.
The makeup of the Vesians largely matched the delegation from the Vandals, only with much less people. It was as if both sides had agreed to send somewhat important people but not the truly indispensable ones from their organisations.
To Ves, such hedging defeated the purpose of taking hostages. Would the VRF truly care if the Vandals pulled out their guns and shot the Vesians dead before they could utter a word of protest?
"Ah, captain, it is good to see you again!" A jolly-looking fellow greeted their captain with a bear hug. "It is my pleasure to be aboard your fantastic factory ship again."
Mr. Meffeth smiled and glanced at the rest of the welcoming party as some musicians started to play a martial tune. "Very uplifting. I hope to see our latest cooperation to proceed in the same vein."
The captain laughed and pulled Mr. Meffeth by the shoulders. "With the help of your connections, I'm sure we'll both profit handsomely."
Ves listened carefully as the two leaders spoke about matters beyond what he should know. They never went into specifics, probably due to how many people had gathered here, but what little they revealed was very valuable in confirming what he had guessed beforehand.
Even as his ears stayed open to pick up the useful facts from the litany of empty platitudes, he scanned his eyes over the other Vesians who came out of the shuttles.
The majority consisted of friendly-looking men and women in their forties or fifties. Despite their drab uniforms, their posture and composure reminded Ves of diplomats or traders rather than partisans who eked out a marginal existence. They must be earning well for themselves as a mediator between different rebel movements.
Only a handful of Vesians carried themselves differently. Besides the guards and the obvious military types, the Vesians brought three people who all carried themselves in the same manner as Alloc and Ves.
The Vesians brought their own mech designers. And they all happened to be women as well. One older woman stood over a pair of curious-looking young women. The matron must be a Journeymen while the younger women must be Apprentices.
All three happened to be pretty as well in different ways.
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