Not everyone knew about Colonel Lowenfield's past, and those that did generally kept their mouths shut. Due to the eclectic backgrounds of the servicemen, the Flagrant Vandals developed something of a custom of not looking into anyone's past.
Ves hoped no one minded his attempt at digging into the colonel's backstory. He left Captain Branser to sober up with the help of a pill and left the lounge.
What he learned up to this point weighed increasingly heavy on his mind. The more time he spent with the Vandals, the more he learned they weren't so simple. The rest of the Mech Corps treated the Vandals with disdain, but this also allowed them to bend or break the rules with impunity.
Nominally, the 6th Flagrant Vandals Regiment answered to the 3rd Tarry Division. In practice, the 3rd Tarry exerted almost no measurable influence or control over their erstwhile subordinates. If they placed observers within the ranks of the Vandals, then they must have probably been bought or subverted somehow, because some of the things they did would never fly in the Republic.
"Collaborating with the Vesians, taking loans from unknown entities, exceeding the limits on fieldable mechs, this sure is a doozy."
Ves felt sure that this was just the tip of the iceberg. The Flagrant Vandals had been left to their own devices for so long that they had almost gone feral.
Nobody he met except for those transferred in recently held any belonging to the Republic. Perhaps even those who left family behind became increasingly estranged to their former ties as the strict isolation left them to turn to their fellow servicemen for comradeship.
It seemed as if the only reason they hadn't cut ties with the Republic was because they wouldn't get access to the central database anymore. In every other area except research and development, they achieved tentative self-sufficiency.
"Oh, I can't forget about the debt as well."
He didn't know how reliable Alloc's statement of the Vandals being over 200 billion bright credits in the red. From what he had seen so far, the Journeyman might have lowballed the actual figure.
Keeping two-thousand mechs and mech pilots in fighting condition was hard enough. Adding an extra thousand on top of that would bankrupt any force trying to stay afloat by themselves.
There was a reason many private outfits tended to field a hundred mechs or less. The amount of overhead ramped up pretty hard as larger outfits needed to provide more services. Gathering so many mech pilots in a single place also tended to be difficult to manage, as without sufficient discipline, they had a habit of getting into ego-fueled duels and brawls.
The Flagrant Vandals could count on their professionalism to stem the tide of these phenomena, but only to an extent. Working in the restricted area provided him with plenty of signs that discipline had already begun to strain.
A mech regiment that resembled criminal gangs more than a proud unit of the Mech Corps could not expect its mech pilots to
That left Ves with the most pressing question on his mind.
"What is their endgame?"
Ves did not hold any delusions that the Flagrant Vandals fought out of duty, loyalty or patriotism. The Bright Republic was worth fart for these marginalized servicemen.
Colonel Lowenfield seemed to be steering them towards some other goal that he couldn't quite figure out yet. Whatever it was, she felt it necessary to expand their numbers by half. Given her background as a logistical officer, much of her plans would be well out of sight. People like her knew how to hide plenty of secrets in plain sight.
"The Vandals think that Lowenfield has rescued them from ruin. It's the opposite. She's leading them to eventual damnation."
The worst thing about it was that Ves had no means of conveying his suspicions to the Mech Corps or anyone else back home. If he had access to his personal comm and the System, he might have been able to covertly send a message to the right people, but without his toys, he possessed very little means to halt this dormant but threatening crisis.
"It's like boarding onto a passenger ship from orbit, only to find out that she is slowly descending into atmosphere and will eventually crash onto the surface of a planet. It's a one way trip, and all the escape pods are tightly guarded by the whole crew who are intent on riding this ship to her final destination."
If Ves threw all caution to the wind, he might be able to storm the communications center in the restricted area with the help of the Amastendira. The dematerialized weapon was his only hidden asset, and could deal an awesome amount of damage, enough to pull off a surprise attack, but only once.
He quickly discarded the idea of pulling off such a hairbrained gambit. The Vandals would surely kill him even if he got his message out.
He was like a fly who got entangled in the web of a spider. Colonel Lowenfield would never let anyone go, least of all Ves. His only choice was to wait for an opportunity.
The next couple of days, Ves continued to act as if he hadn't't realized anything. He played the dutiful mech designer who occasionally assisted the planners in getting the right supplies to the right people.
The overhauled mechs took shape. With almost all of the mechs in the fleet configured anew, the anticipation building up inside everyone's heart had almost reached their bursting point.
The mech pilots of the Inheritors particularly enjoyed the rare enhancements, even if most of it turned out to be illusionary. Ves personally paid a visit to the revamped mechs and found that though extremely weak, they at least held a shadow of a presence in the imaginary realm.
While it hardly made a difference, the Inheritor pilots celebrated even a minor increase in performance. How could they not, when they had been deprived for so long?
Still, many mech pilots were rearing up to go against the Vesians. Morale couldn't get any higher. They needed an outlet soon, or else this temporary increase in battle spirit would be wasted.
"What's it like for the Wolf Mother to enter into an active battlezone?" Ves asked Alloc one day during breakfast.
"That rarely happens, but this isn't a usual raid." Alloc grunted as he formed his thoughts. "It's nerve-wracking. Even if the chances of getting directly attacked are low, it still happened a couple of times in the past. Stealth technology being what it is, there are many ways the Vesians can circumvent our patrols and sneak up to the hull of our factory ship."
Ves knew how different stealth technologies worked when utilized by mechs, but he didn't have a good grasp on their effectiveness in spaceborn combat.
"Is it easy for an inflitrator ship to come close?"
It's easier to approach a small ship than a larger one. It depends on the scanners, really. The Wolf Mother possesses an excellent array of sensors, but most are geared towards detecting minerals. While they can still be repurposed to detect approaching infiltrators, most of them are constructed out of non-metallic composites. Together with other stealth technologies, and it becomes damn hard to spot any infiltrator trying to come up alongside our ship."
That explained the ease in which some of the last ships Ves had travelled upon had been boarded so easily.
"Is there a downside to this?"
"Just like with mechs, an exterior geared for stealth is paper thin. They don't make for very good armor, frankly. A single rifleman mech can blow them out of space within seconds. We've taken out more infiltrator ships than we can count. There's an easy method to counteract their approach if we make the right preparations."
The countermeasure turned out to be the spread of very fine microparticles. These little bits of metallic dust would constantly be fanned out from the Wolf Mother in an all-encompassing sphere. While the cloud of microparticles would rapidly dilute the further away from the Wolf Mother they traveled, within a certain range they remained highly effective in revealing the presence of anything material trying to approach the factory ship.
"That's surprisingly low-tech." Ves commented. "It's like throwing powder in the air and looking at them carefully as they float in the air. As soon as something invisible bumps into them, they'll leave an discrepancy in the uniform cloud."
"As long as it works, it doesn't matter how simple the idea is. In truth, there's plenty of downsides to this method. First, we have to stockpile a lot of materials to keep pumping out these microparticles. Second, the effective range is very limited. Beyond a kilometer or more, the cloud is so diluted that we won't be able to track any approaches being made by smaller vessels such as stealthed boarding torpedoes."
More advanced states used more sophisticated means to detect the stealthy buggers, but those weren't anything the Vandals could get their hands on. They had to settle on the spaceship equivalent of throwing powder in the air.
At least Ves received some reassurance that trouble wouldn't likely come and knock at the Wolf Mother's door. As a factory ship, she could hardly take on a determined force of enemy mechs.
As the time of the operation became imminent, Professor Velten called every mech designer for a final briefing. Everyone filed into the conference room and took their seats. Ves and Iris automatically sat together at the far end of the room.
"Everyone is here. Good." The old lady nodded sternly. "Now, since the main fleet is at the cusp of beginning the operation, I am finally allowed to lift its curtain."
A projection shimmered in front of them. It depicted a fairly standard binary star system. One star consisted of a yellow dwarf while the other one was a much-weaker red dwarf. Both suns exhibited normal behavior for stars and orbited rather tightly around each other. Several planets orbited beyond both stars in roughly circular orbits.
"This is the Detemen System, a moderate industrial locus of the Imodris Duchy. It is ruled by two noble Houses, each of them occupying an inhabited planet each."
"Detemen II is smaller but closer to the twin suns. It's a hothouse that's barely habitable to humans, but is a hotbed to local industries due to their proximity to such a massive heat source. If you look at the artificial satellites around orbit, they all consist of highly automated solar forges. They present Detemen II with a fairly slow but highly efficient method of refining ores into usable materials. If more heat is required, they will make use of the starforge that occasionally orbits in between the twin stars."
One mech designer raised a hand. "How much ore is being processed at this planet?"
"A considerable amount, enough to supply the neighboring industrial planets with a portion of their material needs. The Detemen System sits at a strategic route that makes it a convenient stop for traders looking to refine their raw materials and decrease the amount of mass they are hauling from planet to planet."
"Ma'am, are there any valuable exotics being processed at Detemen II?"
"Sadly, no. The System is too unimportant and doesn't offer any facilities that are capable enough to work with highly reactive exotics." Professor Velten pointed at the projection and highlighted the starforge. "This is the only location in the system that holds a considerable amount of exotics. However, its proximity to the sun makes it very risky to relieve it of its booty. As of this point, we do not have any mech in our roster that can withstand the heat long enough to approach this satellite."
Ves stood up to ask his own question. "Professor, pardon my question, but what makes Detemen II valuable then? There doesn't appear to be much production going on at the surface of this heat-ridden planet."
"You raise a valid point." The professor switched the projection of the planet into a wireframe model. At one area on the surface, a large maze of tunnels stretched tens of kilometers underground. "This is the true jewel of Detemen II. When the Vesians terraformed the planet, they learned that it contains a trace amount of exotics. Under the heat of the twin suns and some special circumstances unique to Detemen II, they found out that these exotics are duplicating themselves from the regular soil of the planet."
That caused everyone to raise their eyebrows. What Velten referred to was basically a renewable exotics mine!
"I know what you are thinking. It's true. It is a low-grade exotics mine. However, it only produced a moderate amount of junk exotics each year, which is hardly anything to get excited over. Nevertheless, it produced enough wealth that Detemen II's stockpile should be of substantial value. This stockpile is our first primary target."