A ballistic rifleman mech emerged from the side. Ves didn't recognize its exact model, but it proudly sported a coating of burgundy and black.
"Friendlies!" Someone cried in relief. "We're saved!"
Lieutenant Burke quickly ordered them to regroup and line up. They wanted to meet the Vandal mechs with a semblance of honor.
They all complied. Those who fled sheepishly returned while those who dropped their weapons quietly picked them up. Everyone pretty much selectively forgot their disgraceful actions a moment ago. They lined up in rows as several mechs emerged from a narrow side street.
The squad of mechs that emerged turned out to have been detached from the main ground force. The Flagrant Vandals had managed to send some elements in their direction, just in time to bail them out.
Ves looked at Lieutenant Burke, who appeared to be communicating with the commanding officer of the squad through a private channel. Hopefully they would bring them away from this place and take them back to their ships where they would immediately depart for orbit.
Sadly, the Vandals had other ideas in mind. Once the lieutenant finished her talk, she turned to the motley group of survivors.
"We are not going back just yet. Command wants us to head to a nearby stronghold of the Detemen League and assist them in combing the city for Lord Javier's trace."
None of them seemed happy with the decision, but they had no choice but to follow orders. As much as they wanted to get away from this planet, as long as Lord Javier was at large, they still hadn't completed their main objective for this daring assault.
Some time later, Ves ended up in a small armored transport as it made its way towards the rebel position. A pair of mechs escorted their transport, so none of them worried about getting shot. This allowed the exhausted Vandals to let down their guard and rest.
"Close thing, huh? I truly thought I would enter oblivion at that moment." A warrant officer spoke. "This is why I hate being bound by land. I can't wait to get back in space."
Ves turned to the seat to his left and looked at the man who spoke. "Are you a spacer?"
"Aye. I had a nice time aboard the Rising Apple. I started off at life support before moving on to cargo handling. That lasted long enough before they busted me with skimming off the luxury foodstuffs meant for officers." The warrant officer chuckled.
"What happened to you after that?" Ves asked.
"They put me in charge of organic recycling! Basically, I became the ship's plumber! It was the worst job of my life! In a way, I'm glad the missiles hit the Rising Apple, because at least I'm out of my job now!"
Ves couldn't help but laugh along with the ship-based Vandal. "I see. So how is surface life treating you?"
"Ugh, don't get me started with the air. The temperature fluctuates like a drunken weasel and the pollutants floating around makes me want to wear a filtration mask. I don't understand how you landbound people deal with an environment that flips whenever it wants."
"Well, you can say the same about me. I don't understand how you spaceborn folk stay sane by spending countless years in fragile boxes in space. So many things can go wrong, and the more you travel through space, the more something bad will eventually strike your ship."
The warrant officer shrugged. "That's the beauty of it. Ships are artificial creations. We built them from our own efforts and understand exactly how they work. As long as you treat them right, they'll never go wrong on you."
"That sounds the same as how mech pilots regard their mechs." Ves nodded. He found it intriguing to hear such a sentiment from a spacborn. Perhaps that was how they stayed sane in space.
The armored transport slowed down and shifted onto solid ground.
"Looks like we've reached our destination!"
Once the hatch opened up, the bedragged Vandals emerged in an underground compound of sorts. The cavernous hall looked as if something crudely dug into the soil and reinforced the walls in a hurry. Mechs, vehicles, supplies and weapons all mixed in the same space as the rebels hadn't bothered to dig any other chambers in this hidden hole.
"Follow me." Burke said as she took charge again. Apparently, she received some instructions beforehand. "Make sure to keep your weapons stowed. The rebels are on our side, but don't forget that they are Vesians at heart. They don't look kindly to Brighters."
That quickly became evident as they moved through makeshift corridors. Piles of crates stacked up on either side of them as they squeezed through narrow openings one by one. The level of disorganization in this underground hall really irked Ves. The LMC would never stack up their goods in such a haphazard fashion.
After a few minutes of navigating the chaotic area, they reached some sort data center with many rows of terminals available for use. Several members of the Detemen League sat in front of the terminals, working on something with serious expressions.
A man in rebel uniform greeted Lieutenant Burke. "You must be the shipwrecked! Welcome to one of our cells. It's not pretty here, but it's safe."
"I appreciate your help. We could truly use a break, but I understand you have something in store for us."
The rebel leader nodded. "Our hunt for Lord Javier is closing in on his position. We've ruled out the vicinity of his palace as his most probably hiding spot. Our most up-to-date guess of his current location places him a few districts away from where we found you."
"Lord Javier is close?" Burke frowned. "How come he's here? There is nothing of note in this part of Neron City."
"That's the beauty of it. We know most of his hiding spots, because some of my fellow rebels helped build the underground bunkers. As far as Lord Javier is concerned, there can never be too few bunkers. So the first thing we did when we launched this operation was to crack open those eggs."
Obviously, they didn't find the elusive noble.
"He could still be hiding somewhere downtown. It's too big for us to comb through." Burke said.
"We thought of that as well, and sent most of our assets there. We found nothing except some decoys and a lot of useless Eneqqin loyalists fighting for a lost cause and an unworthy leader."
"Then what has made you think that Lord Javier can be found all the way here?"
"We caught his butler." The rebel leader grinned. "He's not a disposable employee like the rest. The butler knows a lot about Lord Javier, but we immediately focused on getting the location of where he hid."
The subsequent interrogation led to the rebels diverting their attention to this specific area. It was well out of downtown and the palace, and was situated far away from the manufacturing district. It had nothing going for it except for a lot of boring offices interspersed with medium-sized apartment buildings.
By all accounts, this area was one of the most boring parts of Neron City.
"From what we got out of the butler, Lord Javier is enamoured by the idea of hiding here, because he thinks he's outsmarting us by hiding in such an unremarkable location."
The argument sounded very compelling. From everything Ves knew about Lord Javier, he agreed that someone like him would think that way.
"What are our duties?"
"There are a number of tasks that need to be done if we want to comb through the neighboring streets. It needs to be done fast and it also needs to be thorough. We've got men out on the streets and the assistance of your unit's mechs, but that's hardly enough to sweep the entire area. That's where you come in. I'll explain each of the tasks."
The rebel outlined a number of areas where they could assist their efforts. One of them entailed supervising and performing maintenance on their vehicles. Another task involved sitting behind a terminal while sorting through any suspicious footage they pulled from the sensor bugs they released on the streets.
Nothing had to do with mechs. The Detemen League didn't work with mechs at all, so Ves found it to be a shame that he wouldn't be able to tinker with mechs.
After listing out the options, the rebel clapped his hands. "We can only sustain our search for nine more hours. Beyond that, we need to pack up our assets and make it out of the city before Vesian reinforcements catches up on our tail.
Nine hours?! That was a lot faster than Ves had thought. Everyone else looked at each other with a puzzled expression. Nobody believed that Lord Javier could be found within such a short timespan. The spoiled brat had done a good job staying out of reach.
"If our guess is correct and Lord Javier is hiding somewhere close, then you shouldn't worry about the nine-hour time limit. As long as you work diligently, we'll be ruling out more and more areas where he could be hiding until we finally stumble upon his location!"
Everyone quickly split up according to their expertise. Some expressed interest in performing maintenance on their vehicles, while others wanted nothing more than to sit back behind a terminal and do something that resembled their own duties aboard their former ships.
As for Ves, the rebels singled him out for some reason. "You must be Mr. Larkinson."
"I am. And you are..?" Ves asked a hard-eyed rebel woman that slinked from a narrow corridor.
"You can call me Addy. Come with me."
Addy led him through a number of other narrow corridors until they reached some stairs. Ves climbed up on it until they stepped foot on a ramp that looked down on the chaos of the underground hall.
Ves took in the sights as he kept pace with Addy. Though on ground level the interior looked chaotic, up here he thought he spotted a couple of methods to the madness. Perhaps the rebels hadn't stacked their goods without any thought. The layout looked a lot more profound than he expected.
That didn't matter much, though, because the open space above easily allowed a flying soldier to take in all the sights.
After climbing up another flight of stairs, they reached a enclosed room which Addy needed time to unlock. Once the armored hatch opened up, Ves and Addy entered into some kind of conference room.
"Take a seat, Mr. Larkinson."
An old man sat at the head of the table. Though they shared no resemblance, Ves thought the man radiated the same vibes as his formidable grandfather.
"May I know who you are and why I am here?" Ves asked. Apprehension grew at him when he was taken far away from the rest. What did the rebels want from a mech designer like him?
"I am Commander Breskin. I am in charge of this cell."
Breskin must be a big shot of the Detemen League, then. Ves sat up a little straighter in his chair. "I am honored."
"Now, please hold your patience, because the reason for your presence here requires some explanation. I can tell you now, though, is that your assistance may lead us straight to Lord Javier."
Ves became stunned at the bold declaration. The best and brightest of the Detemen League and the Flagrant Vandals had tried for days to track down that elusive fox. To hear from the commander that Ves of all people could deliver a breakthrough in the search sounded preposterous.
In truth, he wanted to ask if they needed to be looked at in their heads.
"I'm a mech designer. I make a living by working with mechs. I don't search for fugitives." He spoke simply, as if he tried to explain why things fell down to the ground to a little child.
The commander nodded his head over and over and over again. "That's exactly what we need!"
"Commander, he's confused." Addy sighed, and turned to Ves. "To be more exact, we are not expecting you to track down Lord Javier. Instead, we want you to track down his personalized mech."
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