The events on Harkensen I revealed that not even the Reinald Republic could escape the rising tide of war. Trouble lurked in every corner. It could pop up at any planet at any time.
The debates on what truly happened at that planet turned the galactic net into a separate battlefield. Public opinion see-sawed between one extreme to the next. One day, the prevailing opinion regarded the Reinald Republic as victims. The next, they were painted as greedy merchants who were wildly out of touch with reality.
In any case, everyone smelled a purge. Conflicts within the upper ranks in the government and military revealed stark contradictions between their factions. Reconciling their differences could only be achieved when heads started to roll. Many officials readied themselves for war among themselves.
The mysterious terrorists who had built up a massive presence on Harkensen I elicited many questions as well. Where did they come from, and what were their motives? Why did they spring their attack at this specific time?
Once the Reinaldans imposed some measure of order on the surface of Harkensen I, they finally picked off all of the wrecks and started to trace their origins. Naturally, if the terrorists had been even mildly competent, the mechs shouldn't have revealed any clues.
Ves knew this for certain, because he already combed over the Water Wraith the Vandals recovered.
"Other than the fact that their design comes from Vicious Mountain, there's nothing else that stands out."
Potential meddling from neighboring star sectors aside, Ves kept wrangling his head around Miss Calabast. Though she spoke with a distinct Vesian accent, his gut kept telling him her facade was only skin deep throughout their interactions.
"Is she from the Seven Stars? Or is she an agent from another intelligence agency?"
He frowned a bit. It would have made a lot of sense if she had been stationed in the Harkensen System as an asset of the Vesians.
There was no love lost between the Vesia Kingdom and the Reinald Republic. Undermining the hive of scum and villainy that was the Harkensen System definitely benefited Vesia the most of all. In fact, the galactic net had been leaning on that theory the most, objections from Vesian diplomats be damned.
He truly missed the presence of someone like Iris. Right now, he could really use a sounding board.
As the newly invigorated Vandals headed towards another star system, Major Verle finally called for another meeting. As Ves entered the conference room, he could tell the ones who lived through the mess at Harkensen I from the others. Those who survived the ordeal on the paradise planet kept their guard up at all times.
"Good. Everyone is here." The major said to his subordinates. "Let me begin by explaining our next mission. I know that many of you are hoping to return to the Bright Republic. That isn't on the table at this moment."
A wave of dissatisfaction ran through the officers in the meeting. Those physically present on the Shield of Hispania and those attending through projections both appeared rather frayed.
The shore leave was supposed to recharge their batteries, not drain them even further. Nobody had anticipated that everything had spun out of control. The Vandals still had to deal with the aftermath.
"I get it. You're tired. We're far away from home. We are squatting in the territory of a state that doesn't look kindly on us. However, we are soldiers! The war is still being raged back home, and the Bright Republic needs us here."
Captain Orfan spoke out. "Sir, we're with you and the Vandals all the way."
Not everyone appeared supportive of her statement. Many of them felt tired in a way. What did the Reinald Republic have to do with the war?
Fortunately, the major had a ready answer for that. He grinned at everyone. "What if I say we're about to get some payback on our enemies? During the previous escape, some of you came under fire from your erstwhile allies, the Masters of Combat. Those mercs from Venidse tested our defenses, and felled a number of our brothers."
The Masters of Combat shot down a couple of shuttles carrying Vandals and supplies. Overall, the casualties didn't amount to much in the larger scheme of things, but that was already a significant price to pay.
"Before they transitioned into FTL, I've ordered our navigation officers to trace the most likely destination of their fleet. As soon as we determined their destination, we've aimed at the same star system and followed suit."
Ves had a bad feeling about this. They hadn't even left Reinaldan space yet!
"Are we going to pile up on the Masters of Combat?"
"Good! They deserve to be taken down a notch!"
"They're Vesians! As far as I know, we should wipe them off the face of the galaxy!"
The mere prospect of beating up the Masters of Combat put a smile on everyone's faces. Uttering those confident boasts had lifted everyone's moods. Ves had to hand it to Major Verle. He truly knew how to pull everyone's strings.
The commanding officer pressed a button and a projection of fleet belonging to the Masters of Combat emerged.
"Before their departure from the Harkensen System, we've scanned the makeup of their fleet. Captain Rakeshir?"
The projection of the senior ship captain of the Antecedent stood up. "While we've failed to hack into their database, our analysts have drawn accurate models of their combat capabilities through a mixture of external scans and historical research. Overall, the Masters of Combat is a large Venidse-style mercenary corps that puts much of their emphasis on landbound combat. That's not to say their spaceborn assets are weak, but the Masters of Combat treat space battles as a necessary evil to secure their landbound forces from above."
The central projection cycled through different combat carriers, light carriers and large transport craft.
"Their fleet complement is rather barebones, but sufficient for a mercenary corps of their scale. Their most prized starships are their only two combat carriers. These twin vessels are slow and fat, but are able to perform a combat drop on a terrestrial planet securely due to their prodigious amount of armor. These ships are built like rocks and fly like one. The Masters of Combat have a habit of using them as the vanguard of an orbital drop near hostile territory."
The projection changed to display a number of light carriers.
"Their light carriers form the mainstay of their fleet. Although they are technically classified as light, their capacity is just as high as their combat carriers, and their armor is at the upper range in their ship class. They're tough as nuts and can take a beating any day. The only reason why they aren't classified as combat carriers is because they aren't rated to land on terrestrial planets."
A mercenary corps had to be frugal and couldn't afford to splurge on expensive ships. A combat carrier was the premier carrier class in the mercenary scene. The cost to commission and maintain a combat carrier could easily match the expenses of several light carriers. If the Masters of Combat replaced their light carriers with combat carriers, then it was impossible for them to turn a profit!
"The Masters of Combat utilize their light carriers to carry their second-line landbound companies and spaceborn companies. Their overall value is less, but don't mistake them for being pushovers. Their mech doctrine is nearly identical to Venidse's attrition warfare doctrine. The only element they are missing out on is high-tech stealth technology."
That was a big relief to everyone, including Ves. They'd been screwed by stealth technology several times.
"The scale of their operation is considerable for a mercenary corps." Captain Rakeshir summed up. "Currently, they are able to field five landbound mech companies and two spaceborn mech companies at once. Mind you, these numbers may not be entirely accurate, as the mech and personnel rolls of a mercenary corps is much more fluid than a military mech regiment like ours."
Ves raised his hand like a schoolkid in class. "What is the timeframe of the impending battle?"
"We'll fight immediately upon arrival at the next star system, a small industrial system called the Remoss System." Captain Rakeshir announced. "While the Masters of Combat and our fleet have departed to the Remoss System from different Lagrange points, the divergence shouldn't be too big. The gravitic tides our fleets are facing should be nearly identical, so very likely we'll arrive several hours and light-minutes away from each other. That is tight enough for us to converge on their fleet and force a battle before their FTL drives finishes cycling."
FTL drives sold in the private sector demanded longer cycle times than military-grade drives. Depending on the quality and condition of the drives, the total cycle time could take up to six hours.
The news that the Vandals intended to force a battle in the next few days was a little unsettling to the other Vandals. They didn't have much time to prepare and prep their men. Nonetheless, the Vandals would deal with it. At least they had some warning this time. The time where the Vandals were caught with their pants down on Harkensen I was a thing of the past.
Ves asked another question. "What are our exact objectives? Do we want to beat them up, wipe them out completely or are we after something more?"
He wanted to clarify this matter first, because he suspected that the Vandals hadn't chosen to stare at the Masters of Combat on a whim.
Revenge? Pff. As if the profit-oriented Vandals willingly threw themselves into battle over hard feelings.
Captain Rakeshir threw a gaze at Major Verle, who pressed his lips into a line. "The Masters of Combat is an extension of Vesian power. They maintain close ties to Venidse. Crushing them completely is a good deed for the Bright Republic, as we can deprive the Vendisans from hiring them as garrison troops. That said, their flagship should be captured and kept intact if possible. Besides gathering valuable intelligence from the Glazed Omen's database, there are also other valuables that we'd like to obtain."
Some of the Vandals already dreamt of obtaining luxuries or other riches, but Ves knew better.
Still, the challenge of boarding the Glazed Omen was very considerable for the Flagrant Vandals. The main problem was that the Vandals had to stop and disable any self-destruct mechanisms before the Masters of Combat got wind of their intentions.
Ves knew the capabilities of the Vandals. Their security officers may be able to moonlight as boarders, but casualties would inevitably be high.
A security captain couldn't help but become discolored. "Sir, will our men be needed for an offensive action?"
Verle nodded. "I'm afraid so, but not as the main thrust. Your men will be needed to secure a beachhead upon entry and attract their attention. As long as your boarders can hold their ground and withstand their counterattacks, the Glazed Omen will inevitably fall into our hands."
"If my men aren't the ones responsible for taking control of the flagship, then who will?"
To capture a starship, a boarding force essentially needed to take over two or three critical sections buried deep within the vessel.
"Don't worry about that. We've allied with another force which specializes in boarding actions."
This sudden bombshell came as a huge surprise to the Vandal officers. "Sir, which outfit did we ally with? Can they be trusted?"
Ves hoped the Vandals hadn't gotten in bed with Calabast or her ilk. Fortunately, Major Verle did not mention anything about her. Instead, their ally turned out to be a completely different outfit!
"We've conducted some back channel talks since yesterday, and our goals happened to align. Let me announce to you that Lydia's Swordsmaidens will be our ally for the foreseeable future.
Lydia's Swordsmaidens! The all-female pirate gang with vague ties to the Reinald Republic!
"They're Reinaldans, are they not? Don't they hate our guts?"
"Not every Reinaldan is the same." Verle explained. "While it's true that we've drawn the ire of the aggressive faction, that has given us a basis for cooperation with their political opponents. The Reinaldan faction that is propping up the Swordmaidens have approached us in good faith. While I'm not at liberty to reveal why we agreed to partner up, you should be aware that this alliance is not a short-lived one. We'll be leaning on each other in an upcoming operation."
Ves predicted something like this. Considering everything that Calabast had revealed to him, the competition for the Starlight Megalodon's encrypted data chips did not rule out any collaborations. As long as the Megalodon's vault contained multiple treatments, a team could always split up the spoils.
Yet of all the possible outfits the Vandals could team up, they settled for a pirate gang of all choices!
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