Ghanso Larkinson suffered from an unlucky sequence of events. The Vesians hadn't been able to get past Alex's space knight, so they turned their firepower to an unprotected mech from a nearby squad.
The Starhawk mech in question hadn't expected to be targeted by an entire Vesian squad. The knight in his squad was already shielding another squad mate, so the targeted mech lacked any form of support.
The mech blew up as soon as its pilot ejected into the distance. Some of the shards of the exploded mech happened to have hit Ghanso's mech from behind, thereby dealing significant damage to its fragile flight system
The damage hadn't been extensive, but it took a long time for the flight system to regain its functionality. As Ghanso halted the uncontrolled spin, he looked back to the Starhawk formation to see how well they fared.
"Overall, they held up better than the Grand Chasers. The Starhawks suffered relatively few casualties, but most of the affected mechs had to be written off due to the intensive amount of firepower they sustained.
Even Alex's space knight had its shield chewed up at the end, causing his mech to endure the final volleys on its frontal armor.
"Don't look at me. I'm fine. This is all in a day's work for a space knight."
As the Grand Chasers arced their way back to their own fleet, the Volari Starhawks started to police the battlefield. They turned their formation around and methodically recovered the wrecks while rescuing mech pilots from both sides.
No matter how heated the war between the Vesians and the Brighters got, they quietly maintained a couple of basic rules of conduct. The most important of which was to take prisoners whenever they could and exchange them with each other at a later date.
It helped the two sides conserve their most precious and limited resources, which were trained and capable mech pilots. Such agreements hadn't always been the norm, but after several generations of endless rivalry, both sides saw the need to civilize their conflict in order to prevent their neighbors from casting their aspirations upon them once they exhausted most of their manpower at the end of another war.
Eventually, Ghanso's Vhendra-S had to be hauled back to the fleet carrier. Her hangars had become stuffed with mechs as she welcomed an influx of homeless mechs who lost their original berths aboard the ships targeted by the torpedoes.
Ghanso felt a little bad about the engagement. Any excitement about being a part of the first formal action between the Bright Republic and the Vesia kingdom had disappeared.
"Did we lose the battle?"
"It's hard to say." Old Man Alex replied as he zipped down from the cockpit of his beaten mech.The space knight looked like it had taken a stroll through a micrometeor storm. Its frame showed off lots of smaller impact marks. "The Grand Chasers underestimated us. We took out more mechs from our firing pass, and we've been able to capture every living Vesian trapped alive in their cockpits."
"Yeah, but we lost so many ships."
"It could have been worse. Twelve-hundred torpedoes is nothing special. Wait until they gather an entire division and throw out a wave of ten-thousand torpedoes. You'll really taste despair at that point."
In terms of war materiel, the Vesians clearly won the exchange. They took out seventeen ships at the cost of a lot of expensive but ultimately disposable torpedoes.
Yet all was not in vain. The Grand Chasers ships and mechs had to extend past the Vesian lines in order to perform their attack, which made them vulnerable to pursuit. After expending so much torpedoes and mechs, the exhausted Chasers had suddenly become the prey as another regiment of the 4th division initiated pursuit.
Both sides started to maneuver for control over orbit. Regiments shifted around like chess pieces across a large and intricate three-dimensional chess board.
Orbital mechanics played a critical role in the defense of the Glowing Planet. The 4th division took advantage of their proximity to the gravity well by slingshotting their fleet elements to hasten their maneuvers over the Glowing Planet's orbit.
The battle turned into a murky slog. Its outcome still remained in question.
Down on the surface, Ves didn't know one of his cousins experienced combat against the Vesians for the first time. The lack of bandwidth of their ground-side camps limited communication between the forces on the ground and the forces in space to a handful of often-repeated codes. Personal correspondence had no chance of making it through.
Right now, Ves oversaw the final adjustments to the mechs that enabled them to operate despite carrying bundles of bombs inside their frames. The last batch of normal energy cells had fully turned into overcharged ones by the capricious energy field emitted by the Glowing Planet.
After their initial horror passed, a sense of resignation overtook the Whalers. They pretty much accepted that they had to continue piloting their mechs and hope nothing struck their energy cells.
One of the mechs that had been affected happened to be Melkor's Stanislaw. Melkor hadn't made much waves ever since he touched down on the surface. Rather than enter the cockpit, Melkor instead aided the Whalers by shoring up their feeble electronic systems against enemy intrusion.
"How's their information security coming along?"
"Well enough that they'll hold against pirates." Melkor replied as he leaned against the foot of his Stanislaw. "I don't think it'll last more than a second against any Vesian hacking attempts. The Whalers are better off pulling the plugs from their connected systems."
"Sounds awful, but not unexpected. If you've seen the kind of mechs the Whalers are using, you'll realize that the Vesians don't even need to bother with hacking their systems. They can just overrun the entire base."
It felt refreshing for Ves to talk with someone other than a Whaler. Every member of the gang somehow fell into the delusion that they could put up a decent fight against a trained military mech force.
"So what did you do to my Stanislaw?"
"I added some compartments to the Stanislaw's internal architecture. Your energy cells are placed in a seperate box, as it were. It won't prevent your mech from being wrecked if they happened to blow up, but it will increase the odds you'll survive. I've beefed up the armor of your cockpit to make sure you'll make it out alive."
Melkor nodded in satisfaction. "That sounds good, but I know my Stanislaw. It doesn't have much space for all of those things you mentioned."
"That's right. I opted to remove a couple of energy cells and some redundant components. Your Stanislaw won't last as long in the field and it's also a little more fragile to being crippled. Regardless, I think it's better to trade these off in exchange for not getting killed in an instant if an enemy happens to hit your energy cells."
Ves only had time to modify one mech at once. The mech technicians lacked the extensive body of knowledge to develop their own modifications. A few of them had already tried to do so behind his back, and every mech that suffered from their ministrations had turned into safety hazards.
When Walter demanded that Ves modify the Whaler mechs to be less susceptible to abrupt explosions, he demanded he start first with his cousin's mech. At the very least, he wouldn't be worrying about Melkor while he sat in the makeshift workshop trying to turn a bunch of rotten ingredients into serviceable meals.
"You know, you told me once that you entered into the Mech Corps after graduating from an advanced academy. Why did you leave?"
"I didn't leave. I was forced out of their rolls at the end of my orientation."
Melkor's tone made it clear he didn't want to talk about it, but the issue had always been nagging at Ves.
"Did you get into a fight, or did you piss off a superior or something?"
"Let's just say I found out something I shouldn't have when I took my hacking hobby a little too far."
Melkor could have uncovered anything from classified documents to illicit dealings from his superiors. Ves had an imaginative mind and ran through dozens of possibilities in quick succession.
"Well, you didn't get killed or anything, so it must not have been something critical enough to earn the ire of the Larkinsons."
Maybe Melkor simply got his hands of some nude recordings or something. Ves tried to stifle his laugh as he finished putting the Stanislaw back together. Once he affixed the final plate, he floated down to the ground and stretched his body.
"It's all done now. Make sure to keep facing the enemy from the front. I know you rifleman have a tendency to turn your mechs to the side sometimes, but try to avoid that because it will expose the side and rear armor to the enemy. I haven't been able to do much with those."
"That's already enough." Melkor clapped Ves on the shoulder. "I'll get back on patrol to get used to the modifications. You stay safe, Ves."
He had a whole line of mechs waiting to be modified, starting with Walter's incredible Urman.
As a mech designer, Ves enjoyed digging into the guts of any remarkable designs, and the Urman offered plenty of excitement. Yet he also harbored some reservations about going through every mech one by one in order to make them more impervious against incidental damage that could set off their energy cells.
"It's going to be an awful slog."
Ves had no one to blame for himself for signing up to this expedition. He got exactly what he wanted, and he already earned a significant share from the income the Whalers expected to earn from their mining gains.
It was too bad that their current location didn't offer as much riches as their old location. The Mech Crops chose to establish their ground-side fortifications in the middle of the most defensive terrain within the red zones. They dragged their allies such as the Blood Claws with them, and in turn the Blood Claws forced the Whalers to take up one of the most awful locations at the flank.
The ever-present green glow had been covered by a grey, sooth-filled smoke cloud. Small but annoying vents littered the jagged cliffs and ancient hills that made up this portion of the Glowing Planet. Merely moving from one side of the camp to the other posed a significant challenge due to the substantial amount of deep cracks in the ground.
One careless pilot even fell into the gap with his mech. Its legs had been flattened to pieces while the pilot sustained significant impact injuries. Everyone learned their lesson from that point and made sure to cross the gaps from the ramps placed on top of them. It all seemed tentative and fragile to Ves.
He hadn't been paying too much attention to Lucky lately. His mood turned grumpy ever since Ves took him away from the riches laying on the ground at their old location.
This time, Ves installed a powerful tracking device around Lucky's collar, so his comm picked up the signal from further away. Ves donned his hazard suit and left the protected confines of the workshop. He followed the directional markings until he came across his gem cat who had just finished gorging on a lump of valuable exotics.
"There you are. Let me take a look at you."
Ves carefully handled his cat and took a closer look at Lucky's exterior. Over the past couple of days, his pet had undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. While he still remained level two, his overall quality had went up quite a bit.
Physically, that came into being by shifting his energy lines from blue to green, which matched the shade of the planet's grow. Once Lucky's glow had reached its saturation point, his exterior plating started to change as well.
"Your plates are paler than last time. Are you turning into a silvery substance?"
Lucky behaved awfully nonchalant despite undergoing fundamental changes in his physical makeup. It worried Ves a bit that he didn't know whether the changes benefited his pet or not. He currently leaned on the changes being beneficial because he didn't think that Lucky's remarkable design could be brought down so easily.
"So have you been turning your senses to sniff out the core of the Glowing Planet?"
"Meow." Lucky bobbed his head side-to-side in a very clear no.
"Damn. Do I actually have to find a way to dig past the crust of this planet in order to get my hands on a so-called core?"
The System's mission put a sense of urgency behind his stay with the Whalers. He doubted the gang possessed the hardware to dig that deep into this dangerous planet. He'd have to find a way to attach himself with a more capable force, such as the Blood Claws or the Mech Crops.
"The Whalers won't last long enough to maintain their own camp anyway."
He already planned his exit from their midst. The sheer amount of incompetence that hobbled the Whalers would bite them back in the end.
None of this mattered for the moment. It would take some time for the Vesians or the pirates or any scum to land their forces on the ground. Even then, they might not clash immediately, as every force would be scrambling to take up every available spot of land before they thought about contesting some of the more promising occupied regions.
Lucky suddenly turned stiff. He hissed at something behind Ves.
"What's wrong, buddy?"
Ves turned around to see a sight he had never thought to see again in his life.
His mother stood before him in the flesh. Even as his rational mind yelled at him that he'd been caught in a hallucination induced by the Glowing Planet, his emotions went out of control, scrambling him into paralysis.
"It can't be you. You're dead!"
"Vesssssss." The apparition of his mother hissed. "You are so handsome now. You're all grown up."
The image of his mother flickered closer until she stood right in front of him. The back of her hand brushed his cheek. Despite wearing a hazard suit, the translucent hand went right past the helmet as if it didn't exist and began to caress his skin.
Ves felt his skin deform as the chilly hand physically pushed and stroked his smooth skin. Tears fell out of his eyes. Whether his eyes grew moist due to his abject fear or his yearnings for his mother, he didn't know. He couldn't even move. Somehow, his body ceased to follow his instructions.
"Mother. You're dead. Your grave, I visited it last year!"
"Is that what you believe?" His mother shook his head. "Life and death are interconnected, Ves. One cannot truly die."
Her reality-warping hand trailed down his neck and followed his arm until it reached his comm. "I see you've been making use of your father's present."
"You know about the System?!"
His mother smiled at him in amusement. "You are always so impatient, my little Vessie. Have you been drinking enough tea lately?"
"Mother, answer the question please!"
The faded form of his mother suddenly disappeared from his sight. One moment, she hovered in front of him, smothering him with motherly affection like she always did when he was young. In the next, her image vanished out of existence, as if the Glowing Planet deliberately roused his hopes only to crush them underneath the heel of its booth.