He should have seen this coming. From what he knew about Raella, she had always behaved as if she had been cast astray from the path she initially set forth on. Her dream was to be a professional mech athlete.
Once she had been cast from the dueling scene, she never really knew what to make of herself. The Larkinsons likely sent her to Ves to find a new goal to work towards. The old fogies on Rittersberg likely wouldn't be glad to hear that she decided to hitch up with one of the most violent and infamous gangs on Bentheim.
"Raella, we've talked about this. You're making a big mistake. You only see the noble side of the Blood Claws. All of that power and wealth is earned through less than savory means. Joining them means you are contributing to the social ills of Bentheim."
"I know all of that! I'm not a naive little girl anymore." Raella grumbled as she pushed away her empty glass. "But you don't see the good they do as well. The Blood Claws sound scary because they want to be feared. If you look underneath how they work, you'll see that they're not so bad as long as you play by their rules."
"Those rules have no leg to stand on in the Republic's laws. Gangs operate in a very different layer of society than the military or the regular private sector. Once you formally join the Blood Claws, you'll shut the door to a legitimate job. There is no way you can remain a Larkinson as well."
"What do you care about it?!" She spat back vehemently. "Is it great to be a Larkinson, when you're consigned to join the Mech Corps from birth? That sounds a lot like slavery to me! Well I've had enough of nagging uncles and aunties telling me what to do. I quit the family!"
Plenty of Larkinsons have distances themselves from the family over the years. Unlike some of the other military dynasties, the Larkinsons have been very relaxed about the issue.
Don't want to be a Larkinson? Okay. We'll update our registry. Henceforth, you are not an official member of the family anymore. Just don't come crying back when you encounter a setback and you don't have a shoulder to lean on. You made your bed.
The choice to quit your family association meant you embraced freedom over duty. The Larkinsons didn't quibble too much over the loss of free-thinking offspring, thinking that it would be better to let them spread their wings rather than hold them captive in a cage. In that regard, if Raella really wanted to cast herself from the family, Ves had no means to prevent her from going through with her choice.
He still found it to be a very bad choice.
"Raella, please, think it over. There are many other outfits you can join instead. If you fancy a rough life, there are many reputable mercenary corps you could choose from. They'd love to employ a Larkinson like you."
She shook her head. "I'm not doing this for the money! You don't understand a single thing what I'm saying! It's like this. I don't fit in with the Larkinsons. They're all so serious about pursuing a career in the Mech Corps. Well, I don't want to be a cog in a machine. What I want is to fight alongside real comrades who I can trust to watch my back. Mercenaries don't cut it. They fight for money and for a cozy retirement."
"Is fighting alongside a bunch of thugs and criminals any better?"
"Hey! They're not all brutes like in the dramas! Many of them are like Fadah and Dietrich. I envy them, you know. All of the Whalers act like brothers to each other. The Blood Claws already treat me like a sister that I feel more welcome in their midst than back at the Larkinson Compound. All I get from cousins like you are snide remarks and disapproving looks. I'm fed up with that!"
Ves understood that he couldn't convince Raella to reconsider her decision. He wasn't a man of eloquence, and neither did he have any experience in dealing with obstinate relatives.
After a couple more back-and-forths, Ves resigned himself to this undesirable outcome. This looked to be a real mess, especially considering that Melinda served in the Bentheim Planetary Guard. What if Raella and Melinda faced each other on opposite sides one day?
When Raella drunkenly stumbled back to her bunk, Ves sighed to himself. "The family won't like it if she jumps ship with the Blood Claws when the Republic is at the cusp of war. They'll take her defection as a betrayal."
Even though Raella wouldn't suffer any concrete punishment from her abrupt departure, henceforth she'd never be welcome at any of the family reunions.
"Whatever. It's her choice in the end. A gang is pretty bad, but at least she hadn't gone pirate."
At the very least, gangs operated in a grey area and could be relied upon to defend their territory when the Vesians came knocking at the door. Pirates on the other hand would cut down their own mothers in an instant and did not possess a single responsible bone in their bodies.
Ves spent the rest of the day preparing for the impending departure. Whatever plans the Mech Corps cooked up, he had no doubt that the pirates objected to their departure.
Everyone knew that the Mech Corps extracted a massive fortune from the red zone. Even if they hadn't heard about the Rorach's Bone the Gregarious Wrath recovered from the core of the Glowing Planet, the pirates would still attempt to chip away at their transports.
In the meantime, the Glowing Planet experienced a lot of turbulence. The sudden onset of earthquakes and the temporary spike in spacetime anomalies alarmed every outfit operating on the surface of the planet.
Even if the Glowing Planet's rage eventually subsided, many people held suspicions on what could have triggered the outburst. Both the Mech Corps and the Mech Legion received increased scrutiny for that reason.
Naturally, this also made it difficult to plan out their evacuation. Ves vaguely heard rumors that the Dragons of the Void had been organizing the disparate pirate alliances into opposing any departures by the two military forces.
This reality put the Mech Corps in a weird spot where they had to cooperate with the Mech Legion in order to maximize their chances of making it out intact. If they lifted off from the planet by themselves, then the pirates would completely commit their entire forces on a single target.
"Will the Mech Legion cooperate?"
The Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom had been locked into a bitter, generational struggle for supremacy. They almost never looked eye-to-eye to each other. How could they forge an agreement when they hardly shared any common ground?
As Ves had never personally taken part in a war against the Vesians, he found the idea of cooperating with the Mech Legion a distasteful but pragmatic choice.
Unfortunately, much of the 4th Bentheim Division disagreed. Off-duty mech pilots practically spat at their names when they talked about the Vesians. He imagined their Vesians counterparts doing the same on the opposite side of the planet.
Nevertheless, a small figure like Ves had no chance of taking part in the planning of such an important operation. He had to mind his own business.
"So the Whalers are leaving most of their non-mech hardware behind?"
"That's right." Dietrich said as he lay on the bed in one of the infirmaries. He suffered a minor breach in the cockpit that had mangled his arms. "While they're still worth a couple of million credits, they're all junk and they take up way too much space. My father would rather want to fill up his ships with containers full of exotics."
That made sense. Ves figured most of the other outfits would be doing likewise. "Still, all of those containers will weigh down the transports. Many exotics have a much higher density than regular alloys."
"We know, but we owe it to those who died to make it out with as much booty as possible. Dad wants to set up a fund for their families."
The mood turned a little grim. Though Ves hadn't witnessed any frigid battles, he could tell that the Whalers had changed.
The constant fighting grinded away their confidence and harvested the lives of their brothers. They lost at least half of their mech pilots and most of their mechs. Even if they mined a fortune in exotics, such a massive loss had dampened any enthusiasm about getting rich.
"We'll recover." Dietrich whispered. "My dad already filled me in on where he plans to spend all of that money. We'll be beefing our numbers. Besides recruiting mech pilots, we'll also purchase better mechs. Dad is actually thinking about buying some of your models."
"Good choice. I'll personally fabricate some for Walter if he knocks at my door. It's the least I can do."
"Have you seen Raella?"
"Yeah. She told me she wanted to join the Blood Claws. Please don't tell me you have a hand in that."
"It's not my fault!" Dietrich raised his healthy hand in innocence. "She can be a bit intense when it comes to earning fame. She doesn't think she'll be able to distinguish herself if she's serving in the Mech Corps. It's much easier for her to earn some fame among the Blood Claws."
Ves grew suspicious. "Is it because of Melinda?"
"Don't even start on Melinda." Dietrich groaned as he palmed his face. "You can't imagine how jealous Raella is over Melinda's duel against Captain Vicar. She's always thinking about a way to trump that achievement."
"Are the two of you still together?"
"Yeah... well, sort of. I don't think we can maintain a long-distance relationship." Dietrich hung down his head. "Ever since she hitched up with the Blood Claws, she became incredibly focused on her training. All of those battles polished her piloting style, so right now she's improving pretty fast. Compared to that, what's the use of a boyfriend? I should have never taken her to Bentheim in the first place."
Ves clapped Dietrich's shoulder in encouragement. "Man up, Dietrich. I'm not really good in relationships, but I think you still have a chance with her. Keep training and make sure you can keep up with her improvement. As long as you're strong, she'll continue to respect you."
Actually, he had no idea what he was talking about. Ves merely wanted to console the Little Boss and encourage him to keep in touch with Raella. After all, how would Ves be able to keep tabs on her if she stopped corresponding with Dietrich?
"What about your own love life?" Dietrich pricked back at him. "I've never seen you with a girl, and you rarely go out in the city to get to know someone. You're not growing any younger, you know!"
"Ahem, that's none of your business." Ves stubbornly closed himself off. "Go back to healing. I expect the Mech Corps will begin their evacuation tomorrow. Even if you aren't fit to pilot a mech, you should at least be tough to endure some shocks."
The man on the bed began to frown. "It's going to be that bad?"
"I really don't know, but we should plan for the worst. Many pirates haven't brought sufficient mining equipment so they only harvested scraps compared to the bounty that the Mech Corps earned. Those pirates won't be able to hold back I think. Stealing other people's hard work has always been their modus operandi."
After discussing a bit with Dietrich, Ves left the infirmary and began to consider his own options. He considered using up his golden lottery tickets, but found no opportunity to be alone. The base was packed full of people and the Mech Corps kept a close eye on all of them. He also figured that the lottery tickets mostly held items related to designing mechs.
"With my luck, I won't receive anything relevant that will help me survive the coming days."
He returned to the Whalers and made his final preparations. Since the Barracuda remained up in space, Ves had to borrow a ride for himself, Melkor and his Stanislaw. He walked over to the rusty little mech carrier that would bring them into space and frowned.
"How old is this ship?"