Before the task force moved on to the next step of their journey, the Flagrant Vandals paused for a very important matter.
While the operation at the Detemen System yielded much success, the Vandals paid a substantial price for their gains.
Not only did the bombardment of Heavensfall missiles strike down two combat carriers and damage a couple of other vessels, several mech pilots lost their lives in direct combat. The loss of life among the spaceborn mech pilots was fairly light, but over fifty precious landbound mech pilots never left the surface alive.
Ves recalled the last stand of Lord Javier as he slowly filed into the solemn hangar bay. The scion of House Imodris lashed out without mercy, often choosing to slay the pilots inside the Vandal mechs. Such ruthlessness happened frequently on the battlefield. Not every mech offered a path to escape for their cockpits.
Simply by knocking a mech down onto their back, that mech's ejection system became as useful as decoration. A cockpit simply couldn't drill into the ground.
The Flagrant Vandals recovered very few complete remains when they policed the battle sites. Beneath the immortal glory of mech combat, the road for victors was often paid with cruel deaths and unimaginable suffering.
This was why mech pilots deserved respect. Ever since humanity heralded the Age of Mechs, they managed to turn warfare from a conflict that sowed trillions of lives to a more manageable level. The primary combatant consisted of mech pilots, and they shouldered the most risk of death.
Even auxiliary regiments suffered less casualties overall, as they would only be involved in very few conflicts, and strictly in a defensive capacity. Against the might of mechs, they also tended to rout very easily or surrender after getting their morale crushed.
In contrast, mech pilots venerated courage and displays of valiance. A pack of timid mech pilots that ejected prematurely possessed no spine to hold their ground or push through difficult fronts. Such soft-hearted policies saved more lives in the short-term, but lead to drastically more defeats in the long term.
What was the point of war if one side constantly ceded important objectives over a desire to minimize casualties?
Sacrifices needed to be made, and mech pilots offered themselves up as the sacrificial lambs.
Mech pilots needed to acquire the judgement to eject at the right moment, but some simply pulled the lever too late.
It was not that mech pilots ejected too late, but by the time they recognized their dire situation, they already passed the point of no return.
Many casualties among the mech pilots tended to fall into this category. The men and women that fell in the line of duty all possessed the courage to match a hero.
Thus, the ceremony concerning space burials was one of the most important rituals held by the Vandals, or any mech regiment for that matter.
Practically every serviceman aboard the Shield of Hispania attended the ceremony. They filed into ranks with sombre burgundy uniforms. Banners in the same color hung from bots that floated high above their heads. They displayed emblems of notable battles and major events in the course of the mech regiment's existence.
Ves glanced at the ribbon-like banners hanging above and counted well-over thirty of them. That wasn't bad for a mech regiment founded less than a century ago.
Only major battles fought at the scale of several mech companies to an entire mech regiment counted among their ranks. The more prestigious mech regiments such as the 1st Volari Starhawks of the 4th Bentheim Division boasted as much banners as the leaves of a tree. When such frontline regiments showed off their banners, the public would spontaneously descend to their knees.
Behind each banner rested a story. Behind each story rested the souls of fallen warriors. Not just mech pilots, but also those who serviced their mechs or kept the ships running.
Over a hundred metal casks rested in front of the hangar bay doors. All of them were covered by cloths with the emblem of the 6th. Only a small number of them contained complete and presentable corpses. Others held only portions, while many more held nothing at all.
Several high-quality recorders transmitted the ceremony to the other ships, while projectors beamed the virtual bodies of the Vandals aboard the other ships. This way, almost everyone in the task force would be able to witness the occasion without leaving their ships empty and vulnerable.
Since tens of thousands of Vandals had to fit inside the hangar bay, the size of the projected servicemen was four times smaller. This led to a fairly unusual sight where hundreds of adults stood among tens of thousands of 'children'.
The lack of space in the hangar bay necessitated such a change. No one wanted to miss the space burial.
The time for the ceremony arrived. Major Verle stepped forward while holding the folded banner of the Detemen Operation. Everyone up close got a good look at the emblem, while those standing further back could look at the central projection above their heads.
The emblem consisted of two planets orbiting over twin stars. One star glowed red while the other glowed yellow. The planets didn't look like circles, but instead adopted complex shapes.
The symbol that stood for Detemen II resembled a rod-shaped crystal that glowed like the sun. It showed a lot of cracks.
The symbol for Detemen IV resembled a bleeding planet that was being bombarded by a trio of asteroids.
Once Major Verle reached a procession of guards, he handed over the banner to someone in a fancy uniform. The guard then proceeded to affix the banner onto a waiting bot and commanded it to fly the banner over the metal caskets.
A Vandal began to step forward as well and brought a trumpet to her lips. She started to play a solemn, lonesome tune.
The major stepped onto a small stage. "Men and women of the 6th Flagrant Vandals. It saddens me to see that there are less of you than before. I see a few new faces among you, but many older faces now rest in these lifeless coffins."
Several side projections appeared that displayed the portraits of the fallen. All of their faces looked dignified, as if they had already anticipated that they might one day be honored by a ceremony like this.
Some Vandals even broke out in silent tears as they gazed at the faces of lifelong friends and comrades that they always trusted to cover their backs.
In the meantime, Major Verle never stopped speaking.
"We are only human. Our mortality is our strongest nature. The drive to survive is the ultimate catalyst of our short-lived race. Through the revelry of combat, we experience ecstacy and fragility of life. Only in the heat of the moment do we touch upon a truth in the galaxy: water tastes the sweetest when you are thirsty. For mech pilots like us, our thirst for battle can only be quenched by the flames of war."
Ves looked at the faces that scrolled by in the side projections. Alloc's name and face remained absent in the rotation, which caused him to relax for just a bit.
That did not mean that chances were high that Alloc managed to survive. His status was ambiguous, and would continue to be marked as such for several more years even if he never showed his face again.
Some part of Ves believed that Alloc deserved a place among the fallen. He hated himself for thinking that way, and suppressed the thought immediately.
"We call ourselves the Flagrant Vandals with pride. Do you know why? Because we laugh at the face of death! If the endless embrace of the unknown wishes to drag us in their depths, we will not cry in despair, but fight its grasp with smiles on our faces. That is what a Vandal ought to do!"
A thrum of pride and acceptance swept throughout the crowd. No matter if they attended with their real or projected bodies, everyone appeared to resonate with Major Verle's words. Even Ves became swept in the esprit de corps on display here.
For a moment, Ves felt as if he was an authentic member of the Flagrant Vandals. His back thrust a little straighter and his chest lifted a little higher.
"The stars belong to humanity, and humanity belongs to the stars. Our life begins and ends from the nutrients provided by the stars. So we shall send the vessels of our fallen to the star of this Vesian star system. I can find no greater honor than to be buried in the territory of our enemies. Is it not preferable to being buried in a boring system back home?!"
"No!" Everyone thundered in unison.
Ves visibly felt the vibration of the deck from so many people speaking at once!
"This is the way of the Flagrant Vandals! We cheat, we plunder, we steal from our enemies, even in death! No Vesian shall bar our way! If we are hungry, we take their food! If we're short on mechs, we steal their machines! If we need more spending money, we will take their hard-earned sovvies from their feeble hands!"
For some reason, everyone stamped their left foot in unison. The entire hangar bay rang from the echoes of that one single step. Only a handful of newcomers like Ves remained transfixed with both feet on the deck.
"The end of their lives is the beginning of the new one. No matter whether you believe in god, science or aliens, life is too precious to be snuffed out after a single lifetime. Let us send these coffins off to help our fallen comrades on their way to the next step of their journey."
A moment of silence fell shortly after. Major Verle and every other Vandal saluted the caskets of the fallen. It wasn't appropriate for mech designers like Ves and Iris to salute, so they simply stood in a stiffened posture.
The trumpet played on for a minute or so, but ended right after. At this moment, absolute silence fell upon the hangar bay. Besides the ambient noise from a ship that floated in space, Ves heard nothing else.
Ves did not feel any oppression or awkwardness in this silence. Everyone showed tribute to the fallen and turned their thoughts to what the deceased might face next now that their life in this universe came at an end.
To think of their departure as an ending sounded depressing. It was easier to accept that the lives of the comrades that they would never see again would be smiling as they reached the next stop of their lives. Perhaps one of two might even look back and wave at the Vandals gathered here today in unison.
Once two minutes had passed, another guard stepped up to Major Verle and presented a simple device to the officer. Verle inputted a code and pulled a small lever.
The entire hangar bay vibrated a little bit as the hangar bay doors slid open. A security screen was all that stood in the way between the interior of the hangar bay and total vacuum outside.
Of course, in the event of an accident, many other invisible safeguards would spring into action.
The caskets began to hover above the deck and slide through the security screen one by one. Miniature antigrav modules gave the caskets enough of a push to sling away from the Shield of Hispania.
They would slowly begin their trek towards the inner system. Their journey only ended when the star at the center of the system swallowed them up.
Some of these caskets faced a perilous journey. Perhaps a few errant asteroids or particles knocked them off-course along their journey. Accidents happened. That was part of life. A space burial didn't necessarily lead to the boundary of a star.
Once every casket floated away, the hangar bay doors slowly slid shut. Major Verle departed through a hatch and everyone started to relax and speak with each other in low tones. No one smiled, but those who cried felt no need to cry.
Ves thought his concept of life underwent a subtle sublimation. "The end of a life is a new beginning."
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