Ves sent out a flurry of messages on his comm. First, he contacted Melkor, as he could trust his cousin to brief him without any bias.
"Are you safe, Ves?" Melkor asked over the comm. His projected bust radiated fatigue.
"I'm fine. I've had some close shaves, but we've dug up a fortune in exotics. Even if they have to relinquish the majority to the MTA, they'll still make it off with a tidy profit."
"That's good to hear. It's been rather hectic on our end. As you can see, this base hasn't fared well in the last couple of weeks. The pirates under the instigation of the Dragons of the Void have ganged up on us. They wiped out the smaller outfits first before they tackled the main forces of the Mech Corps."
"Is everyone else okay?"
"Raella suffered a minor injury when her mech got swarmed by enemy mechs. She managed to eject in time, but she's suffered a bruise to her ego."
"As long as she's breathing, I'm fine with that." Ves replied with relief now that he confirmed that both his family members survived. "What about the Whalers?"
"Walter's Whalers had been one of the first gangs to go. They lost most of their mechs and a decent amount of pilots. They didn't eject in time."
Ves bowed his head. He predicted such an outcome, but he didn't wish it turned into reality. The Whalers truly hadn't been prepared to fight a grueling campaign. Hopefully they took their losses to heart and implement some reforms. They needed to shape up really quickly if they wanted to survive the impending war.
"What about Walter, Dietrich and Fadah?"
"They're doing great. They're better than the rest, and their mechs are of much higher quality than the walking pieces of junk they ordinarily use. Together with Raella, they've made a name for themselves among the Blood Claws. Even the Mech Corps took note of their contributions."
"Sounds like you didn't fight alongside them. What have you been up to?"
"Nothing remarkable." Melkor shook his head. "The Blood Claws needed volunteers to patrol the outskirts and reconnoiter the approaches to the bases. I signed up for those duties because I've received prior training in these tasks."
Melkor earned a lot of contributions on his own by sniffing out enemy scouts. Even though he only skimmed over actions, Ves knew that Melkor had definitely risked his life a few times.
"Well, now that the Gregarious Wrath has returned to the surface, I think it's safe to say the Mech Corps will evacuate us any day now."
"There's only six days left on the clock. We don't want to be here when the armadas from the Hegemony and the Coalition arrive. DOn't forget that there are no Lagrange points in the Glowing Zone, so we have to take the long way if we want to transition out of here."
A Lagrange point was basically a point in space where the gravitational force between several stellar objects canceled each other out. For example, a planet with a moon would have a Lagrange point somewhere on the line between the two. Such points in space provided ships with a quick and convenient way to transition into FTL.
The problem here was that the Glowing Planet had gone rogue. It obviously used to orbit a star system like other planets, but it had been cast out into space on its own. The lack of Lagrange points served to delay their departure significantly.
"This is something that the big guys upstairs will have to tackle. We don't have many options but to go along with whatever they have planned.
Although Ves could stuff the Stanislaw and a couple of people aboard the Barracuda, he held no confidence his corvette could make it out of the Glowing Zone on her own. Too many pirate ships lurked in the Glowing Zone like an endless school of sharks.
"I'll go meet with the Whalers. Since I originally contracted with them, it's best I stick with them to the end."
Once Ves hung up on Melkor, he sought the encampment within the base that held the Whalers. He found them at a distant corner. A sad collection of ships and broken mechs greeted his sights. Even now, the Whalers still acted like cheapskates by trying to take along the wrecks that belonged to their opponents.
"At least they have good taste." He nodded as he noted the overall quality of the wrecks. Much of them could be sold for ten million credits in the salvage circle. If Ves worked to restore them to a functional state, he could easily increase their value by twenty to thirty percent. "The margins are too low for me to bother."
He already ran a profitable business selling brand-new mechs of his own design. Only mech designers who couldn't afford to license any mechs or components dove into the repair industry. As long as they mastered some basic skills and possessed some common sense, they could comfortably make a decent profit.
It still represented a dead end in terms of career progression. The mech industry rarely appreciated the repair business. It didn't take much to establish a footing there and there were countless of competitors.
In any case, Ves sought out Walter, who looked like he had taken a massive blow. All of those casualties had obviously took a toll on the gang leader. He even looked like he lost some weight!
"Walter. I'm sorry for your losses. I don't think any of us had really expected there would be so many pirates."
The burly man snorted a bit and chugged down another gulp of his cheap beer. "It reminds me of my worst days back on Bentheim. The things I did... back then, I was just a jumped-up grunt."
Ves remained silent as he took a seat at Walter's cafeteria table.
Walter burped. "Well, it's not your fault and none of your business. I can take care of my own house. So what brings you here?"
"Did you receive any word on how the Mech Corps is planning to get off this planet?"
"Hahaha!" The gang leader laughed. "Oh, they did, and it's a doozy. I'll send you the outline of their plan, though do try not to spread it around. It's sort of classified."
After Walter transferred the file to his comm, Ves briefly ran his eyes through the document.
The plan was crude and simple. Every ship on the surface would load up and claw their way up to orbit at the same time. The sheer amount of ships should deter any potshots, though the coordinated maneuver would also attract a lot of major pirate groups.
The spaceborn Mech Corps assets that hung in high orbit would pave the way for the surface fleet by beating back the pirates that gathered along their trajectory. After that, the spaceborn fleet would continue to shadow over the landbound as they collectively limped their way to the edge of the Glowing Zone.
"This will take way too much time." Ves frowned. While the Mech Corps ensured their safety in numbers, they also had to limit their speeds to the slowest ship in their midst. "How are your spaceborn assets?"
"They haven't fought at all, so they're at full strength. They're lacking in experience and equipment, though. I'd appreciate it if you can take a look at their mechs."
After making some small talk with Walter, Ves left to seek out his baby. He always cherished the first production model of his Blackbeak. Once he reached the nearby mech stables, Ves found his distinctive black creation in a much more rugged condition.
Even without a log, Ves could tell what kind of battles it fought and how well it fared. He spotted a decent amount of abrasions, evident of high-speed maneuvers gone wrong. He also located plenty of weapon marks such as laser pits, shell craters and sword scars.
All of these wounds added character to the mech. As Ves beheld the sight, he imagined his mech's X-Factor absorbing all of these experiences, taking them as fuel for growth.
Due to all of the recent excitement, Ves failed to enter the right mindset to determine if his Blackbeak's X-Factor had changed.
"Hey Ves!" Fadah called as he approached from the side. "I heard you just returned. I ran over as soon as you heard."
"So what do you think about the Blackbeak?" Ves suddenly asked.
Fadah appeared taken aback. "Well, it's a fine mech. It's hard to explain, but your mech has grown on me. It's a fantastic ride by itself and it's even better when I bring it to battle. I always feel as if the mech is giving me an extra push. That's not the case with my old mech. I often had to fight against her controls."
"What would you say is its best part?"
"Obviously her armor. It's amazing how much punishment it can take. Even if I always try to dodge every attack, I'm only human. The only reason I did well through all of those fights was because your mech always saved me from my own blunders."
Ves hadn't spent all of those merits in vain. The Veltrex armor system proved its worth in spades on this campaign. Its high upfront cost paid off in spades once the owners of the Blackbeaks realized how much money they saved on repairs.
"I see. Now that you told me what's the best part, what about the things that fall short?"
"My number one pet peeve is that your Blackbeak overheats too easily. It's mainly the fault of this environment, as my mech can't vent any heat through the air if there isn't any of it in the first. Still, I would never rely on the Blackbeak to fight in vacuum environments."
"I'll be sure to take that into account." Ves already knew about this problem. "I'll likely design a variant that specializes in these conditions. There's not much I can do about the base model, however."
"As long as you know. Another thing that's troublesome is that the Blackbeak guzzles up a lot of medium-density mech-grade fuel. That stuff is pretty rare in the Republic. Almost every other mech runs on low-density fuel."
"That's the price you pay to run an advanced mech like the Blackbeak. Low-density fuel is too inefficient to run a mech worth at least sixty million credits."
Despite these grumbles, Fadah didn't sound very hung up about this issue. The majority of the mechs that ran on pure energy cells either turned into bombs or switched over to the undercharged versions that frequently bottomed out quickly. Fuel-based mechs fared best of all on the Glowing Planet.
Fadah's experiences helped Ves a lot in confirming his own predictions. The modified Blackbeak hadn't suffered any inexplicable mishaps. Its excellent construction and personal tune-up by Ves had ensured that the machine was mechanically sound.
It didn't break when it faced a lot of pressure. This was the most important point that Ves wanted to confirm. He designed the Blackbeak specifically to last a generation. It had to hold up in the most intense moments of war, and from what Ves had gathered so far, the Blackbeak amply met this goal.
Once he finished picking Fadah's mind, Ves left the mech stables and sought Raella. It was time to hear her recalcitrant cousin out. He spotted her at some dingy makeshift bar the Blood Claws had setup as a form of relaxation.
Ves stepped up behind her barstool. "I've been looking for you."
"Eep!" The young woman jumped from her seat and almost spilled her cocktail. "Warn a girl next time, will you?"
"Him?" She snorted. Ves smelled the alcohol from her breath. "He's in the infirmary. When the pirates ganked my mech, he tried to ride to the rescue like a white knight in shining armor. Too bad he forgot that he pilots a rifleman mech. Don't worry, he made it out alive, but he won't be able to move his left arm for a while."
"Raella, this is no time to get drunk. We'll be evacuating from the Glowing Planet at any moment now."
The Glowing Planet's rage had subsided by now, or most of it had been absorbed by its landmass so that barely anything had reached the surface. The most anyone noticed the changes was when a small quake rippled their drinks.
"You're not my parents! I'm old enough to make my own decisions now! And you know what, Ves? I decided it's not worth it for me to stay with the Larkinsons. I'm forging my own path in life, now! I'm joining the Blood Claws!"