The Flagrant Vandals used the next few days in FTL travel to pick up the pieces from the previous skirmish. Despite the relatively short and brief engagement, the fight resulted in a lot of material damage.
Fortunately, a lot of mech pilots escaped their crumbling mechs by ejecting in time. Though the task force had lost a fair amount of precious mechs, they could at least rebuild those in time. It was much harder to recruit and train loyal mech pilots. They represented the foundation of a mech regiment.
Ves spent a fair amount of time delegating the repair work. The Vandals recovered many Inheritor wrecks. Some came in incomplete pieces, and ordinarily Ves would have chosen to discard them, but in this time of scarcity they had no choice but to make the best out of what they gathered.
Thus, he formed plans to piece together and repair each Inheritor with minimum resource demands. He tried to puzzle together compatible pieces as best he could and rely on fabricating replacement parts as little as possible.
The repair work became highly complicated due to the inability of the ships in the fleet to exchange parts and resources with each other. They needed to wait until they transitioned out of FTL before they could perform all the queued transfer requests.
Carletta Haine, the chief technician aboard the Shield of Hispania, provided Ves with her own perspective when he dropped by the hangar bays for a visit.
"Kid, this ain't nothing yet. Back when I was a snot-nosed techie in the previous war, I've seen respectable mech companies descend into rags after they barely survived an extended pursuit. It's not the big battles that breaks their spirit, but rather the little fights here and there. Every battle saps their willpower and resources, and without any chance of replenishing both, they continued to fracture."
Ves frowned at her words. "Do you think we'll suffer through the same kind of ordeal?"
"I'm counting on it. Our mission is ten times harder than anything else like it. We're literally in the heart of the Vesia Kingdom. Do you expect us to breeze past the Vesians as if they're blind? Even if we are taking advantage of rebel help, the most they can do is pull off some tricks. We're essentially on our own here."
He didn't wish to argue this point, having heard it many times before, so he quickly changed topics.
"What do you think about Chief Elin's trial?"
"Ptuh!" The burly female chief spat. A cleaning bot quickly zipped close and cleaned up her mess. "I always knew he couldn't get his hands clean. It's no secret that some of us take liberties now and then, but as long as it isn't worth more than a few hundred credits, every chief wouldn't look too closely. That is until your new resource management system arrived."
"We need to save every milligram of materials that we can if we want to survive this gauntlet." Ves nodded in tacit acknowledgement to her implied words. "Fun times are over now. I believe that Alloc would choose to do the same if he was in my shoes."
"Mr. Brandstad is a decent man and a damn good mech designer! Chief Elin is the exact opposite! That man saw the Finmoth Regal as his own little kingdom. Nothing about mechs aboard that combat carrier escaped his sight. He was the Regal's own little shadow captain."
"Wow, if you knew about all that, why didn't you report it?"
Chief Haine looked at Ves as if he was stupid. "You're way too fresh to understand. Suffice to say, I'm glad that stain is gone. I can't wait to see him drift into space!"
Ves wanted to point out the fact that the trial hadn't come to a verdict yet, but he knew in his heart that the man's fate was sealed. Major Verle made his opinions on the trial very clear, and combined with the evidence collected over the course of a few days, a guilty verdict was practically guaranteed.
The reason why he left the office was to prepare the means of Chief Elin's slow execution. After waving goodbye to Chief Haine, Ves entered one of the Shield of Hispania's machine shop that normally fabricated ship components and utilized it to build up the cold coffin.
A cold burial happened enough times for the Mech Corps to maintain a standardized blueprint in its central database. They even came in many variants. The cheapest ones would crumble after being hit by a small piece of space junk, while others would bounce off and continue to go down their merry way in deep space.
Ves had been ordered to make a robust coffin, so he opted for a middle quality design that ticked all the boxes. Going for something more extravagant and expensive was a massive waste of time and resources.
He felt strange as he fabricated the coffin part by part. His personal involvement in building something which would be someone's grave forced him to reflect on his decisions as head designer.
He felt a little responsible for the mess that happened on the Finmoth Regal. "If I didn't caught the anomalies and pointed them out to Major Verle, maybe all of those deaths could have been prevented."
If he saved his suspicions until the battle was over, perhaps the Finmoth Regal's security department could have tackled the issue with more finesse.
Still, the situation back then demanded an immediate response. The two suspect Inheritor mechs had replaced their ejection systems with hidden transmitters that sent out who-knew-what to the Vesians. By tackling the transmitters the moment they detected them, the Vandals might have avoided greater calamity.
Ves did not feel guilty for reporting the issue. He only felt as if he could have done something more before the battle erupted.
"Since Chief Elin is one of the most prolific embezzlers, I should have done something more than wash my hands of the past."
He could have talked to Elin or check up on his past actions. Now, it was too late to remedy his mistakes. While Chief Elin didn't fall under his chain of command, he did hold some responsibilities for the low-ranking mech designer that Elin co-opted in his schemes.
Ves hadn't decided on what to do yet with Loke Vedette. The young mech designer that had been conscripted into the Mech Corps had been too impressionable against Chief Elin's devilish charisma.
Still, even if Vedette lacked a lot of experience, a mech designer should have never subordinated himself to a chief. A proper working relationship should have been the other way around.
For now, Vedette stewed in the Finmoth Regal's brig. Unlike most of his compatriots, he was fortunate enough to escape the fate of a court-martial. All in all, his involvement was very marginal so Ves had been tasked to carry out his judgement.
It didn't take more than a day to finish fabricating the coffin. It looked more like an oversized ball if nothing else. Built with pure metallic alloys and little else, it contained the bare necessities to form a functional coffin for the living. The shackles that restricted the victim was sturdy enough to resist fatigue and the passage of time, while the life support systems incorporated enough redundancies to keep it working even if thirty percent of its components stopped working.
Anyone who got thrown in this coffin would certainly live up the rest of their lifespan in existential agony. Ves made sure of that by fabricating it to the best of his ability.
The Vandals put it to the test the instant they emerged out of FTL in some nameless Venidse star system. Fortunately, the system was barren from any Vesian presence, so they had the luxury to rest their ships and transfer resources.
Ves boarded a shuttle carrying Major Verle and several other officers to the Finmoth Regal. Once they arrived at the combat carrier, they carried out another burial ceremony for the few mech pilots and ship crew that lost their lives during the previous skirmish.
Just like last time, many Vandals throughout the task force attended the ceremony through their virtual avatars. Major Verle kept his words fairly brief, and the coffins had all been launched towards the Vesian sun.
"Now that we have sent off our honored dead, it is time for someone else to receive the fate that he deserves."
A floater platform carried forth the hefty cold coffin that Ves had fabricated. At the sight of the familiar object, every Vandal began to scowl or frown. They knew what it meant, and they knew who was about to be buried inside.
A pair of security officers dragged forth a heavily restrained prisoner to the coffin. Chief Elin's court-martial had been broadcasted throughout the fleet yesterday, where he hardly stood a chance against the overwhelming array of evidence against him. With Major Verle bent on setting an example, the former chief was destined for the coffin in the very next day.
Elin's bloodshot eyes looked frantic as he tried to speak around the gag that kept his mouth shut. Maybe he wanted to profess his innocence. Maybe he wanted to curse the brass. Maybe he wanted to drag his comrades down with him. Nobody moved to take away his gag, because the words of the traitor was not worth listening.
Ves happened to sit besides Loke Vedette. He took the mech designer that had been duped by Chief Elin out of the brig so that he could witness the ultimate fate of someone who's negligence had led to deaths.
"Look closely Vedette. This is the chief you thought who knew how to do your job better. I hope you learn not to lean on others too much for guidance next time."
The two hardly differed in age. Both of them had not yet reached their thirties. Yet their wide gulf in status and capability separated them at different heights. Ves constantly improved and had a bright future ahead of himself, while Vedette was someone who failed to make a name of himself after graduating as a mech designer.
Thus, Ves had no compunctions in treating Vedette as a junior. He even felt a lot of pity for Vedette, to the point of giving him a slap on the wrist.
In any case, the task force was short on mech designers. They couldn't afford to throw capable help in the brig where they would rot for the duration of this mission.
In any case, Ves looked pleased at Vedette's outward reverence towards him. It made him feel powerful and put him in a good mood. He resolved to keep an eye on the young man and see whether he could grow from this potentially career-ending ordeal.
The final ritual almost came to an end. Major Verle stepped down from the podium and approached the well-made coffin. "Mr. Michael Elin, as the former chief technician aboard the Finmoth Regal, you have betrayed your oaths and your fellow Vandals in the naked pursuit for profit. Yesterday, you have been found guilty to every charge laid on your foot. Frankly, it disgusts me to be on the same deck as you."
Some of the more unruly Vandals broke the solemn silence by jeering at the gagged and frantic chief. Even now, Elin tried to weasel his way out of his macabre fate.
"We treated you as a comrade and a brother. When every other mech regiment rejected to take you on, we welcomed you with open arms. Whatever transgressions you had done in the past was irrelevant in our eyes. However, that does not mean that our ability to forget extends to the present time."
The major's eyes hardened as his full weight as a mech officer bore down on the former chief. Elin shied away at the intensity of Verle's stare.
"Out of everyone involved in this conspiracy, nobody is more culpable than you. There is no forgiveness for scum like you. Not even a quick death will suffice to atone for the damage you have done to us. I hope you will find some absolution in your endless trek into space."
Elin jerked his shackled body like his life depended on it, but the restraints and the grip of the security officers kept him firmly under control. The cold coffin's hatch opened up, allowing the security officers to haul their prisoner inside and affix him to the restraints of the interior of the coffin.
By all intents and purposes, it was a perpetual cell which would keep Elin locked without any chance of escape. Freedom from captivity and life would never grace the guilty chief until his natural lifespan ran out.
The Finmoth Regal turned around and oriented her hangar bay away from the sun and directly into deep space. With a soft anti-grav push, the hefty cold coffin began its Lonely Trek across the galaxy.
The Cold Burial came at an end.
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