The awful thing about the long-ranged artillery bombardment was that the Vandals lacked the means to stop it. The two mechs that guarded the base might as well be decoration for their complete inability to stop the artillery bombardment or chase down the artillery mech responsible for targeting their base.
While the first shell pulverized the office building in an instant, at least not a lot of Vandals should have been working there at this time. After Ves brought the last mechs online, Captain Orfan and some other mech pilots entered their cockpits and marched into the streets of Neron City.
The mech stables also turned into an empty shell. Ves dismissed most of the mech technicians, so besides some stragglers, not a lot of people got hurt.
That didn't reassure Ves very much though, because he stupidly took a break on the roof. Now, with the second shell detonating on the roof, his body fell in the air and dropped several stories down until his armored form crashed against the ground.
His light combat armor only offered a limited amount of protection to the fall. The suit played a very minimal in mitigating the impact, thereby causing Ves to take the brunt of damage.
Even as Ves cried out in pain, the damage wasn't as bad as he expected. His extremely sturdy body hadn't broken any bones as far as he was aware of. He just felt enormously bruised from the hard fall.
A third shell landed in the base, this time targeting the barracks. A couple of sleepy Vandals had woken up from the first two detonations and evacuated from the structure, but not everyone got away in time.
"Abandon everything and escape through the tunnels!" Lieutenant Burke broadcasted over everyone's comm. "If we get seperated, rendez-vous at Point Theta if you can!"
Some of the Vandals ran around like headless chickens, but once everyone became reminded of the evacuation tunnels, they poured towards the underground entrance.
Nobody thought about defending their position. It held no more value now that they managed to bring all of the intact mechs stationed back online. The Vandals wouldn't stick around long enough to use the base as a supply point anyway so no mech needed to return.
Simply put, the base had served its use and turned into deadweight. If Ves looked at it in a more cynical fashion, then he might even argue that Captain Orfan only cared about the mechs. Once she got her toys, she heartlessly cast off the support personnel with a token defense force.
"If Captain Orfan arranged more defenses, we wouldn't have ended up in such a sorry state!" Ves muttered as he scrambled to his feet and hurried in the direction of the tunnels. His scuffed and bent combat armor creaked as he moved. "Who's bombarding us anyway?!"
In general, only the larger private outfits or government forces employed artillery mechs, and only under a limited amount of circumstances. Resorting to explosive shells in a city came with lots of repercussions.
He also couldn't figure out who would target the base. Was it the government, or a private sector outfit? Why did they target a base with very limited utility to the Vandals?
Ves found no answers to his question. In the end, too many things happened outside of his purview. He had no idea what Captain Orfan was up to and why she had been so insistent in putting as much mechs on the streets as possible.
He didn't think about it anymore as he entered the protective embrace of the underground tunnels.
As far as tunnels went, the ones dug up by the Dastardly Handsome Bastards didn't go that far underground. Instead, it connected to a network of tunnels shared by a number of neighboring facilities. This spread around the cost and allowed multiple organizations to make use of the same tunnels.
Of course, breaking into a facility from an underground entrance was wouldn't be easy. The single point of entry allowed many facilities to erect a lot of defenses at their emergency exits, so no Vandal thought about breaking into them. Instead, they marched forth until they couldn't go any further.
They entered a sloping tunnel that slowly brought them back up to the surface. By the time the survivors poked their heads above the ground, they had reached a fair distance away from the ruined base.
Lieutenant Burke counted the survivors and pressed her lips. "Only twenty-three of us present here."
Perhaps some other Vandals evacuated through some other routes, but they would have ended up far away from her group.
Their abilities differed substantially as well. While they didn't have any mech pilots on hand, around half of her group consisted of mech technicians. Others knew their way around with weapons, and they even got the two exo-skeleton suited soldiers with them, whose presence managed to reassure everyone.
"It doesn't look good, men." The lieutenant said. "We ran with nothing but our clothes on our backs. Some of you are armed, but over half of us are empty-handed. We also lost our communication lines with Captain Orfan, the rebels and the main Vandal force. As far as I'm aware of, we are on our own."
Ves raised his hand. "Can't we contact the Vandals through the galactic net?"
"Out of the question!" Burke sternly rebuked him. "Communicating through the networks of our enemy is sheer folly. Even if we bypass the access points around us and track down the location of a quantum entanglement node, we'll still be exposing our communications because the other pair of the node is in the grasp of the Vesians. They'll be able to read everything we say."
"What's the plan, then?"
The lieutenant frowned even deeper. She scratched her chin as she fell into a somewhat indecisive state. Most of the Vandals present looked at her for hope. As the highest ranking officer in their midst, everyone relied on her to get them out of this fix.
"We should make our way to the main force of the Vandals. We'll have to cross at least half the city to do that, so the first thing we need to do is to procure some vehicles."
"We need more arms as well! We shouldn't rely on our tin cans to protect us in our stead."
"Good idea. We'll raid a weapon stockpile along the way if we can, but our highest priority is to obtain secure vehicles."
That was easy to say, but most of the vehicles that should have been buzzing in the air of Neron City had disappeared. They'd need to break in somewhere to get their hands on some sturdy vehicles.
Not any aircar would do. Preferably, they could get a hold of something that could survive a couple of missile impacts.
Lieutenant Burke opened up a projection that depicted a map of Neron City. She pointed out their current location. "As you can see, we're situated in a middle-class district with lots of small enterprises. I think we can grab what we want if we target some of the neighboring facilities."
Someone objected to the suggestion. Burke pointed at a tall and burly mech technician. "Lieutenant, don't forget our assailants are still at large. They could be trying to track us down right now."
"I understand your position, but I won't change my orders. We're in no shape to leave this district and enter the downtown area on foot. It's far too dangerous out there."
Lieutenant Burke studied the map and tried to find the nearest facility that could potentially supply them with their survival needs.
Ves looked on to the side and studied the same map. Different from his own map, Burke's version contained the last-known locations of Captain Orfan's mechs.
It turned out that they went straight downtown towards the palace district. They arrived there first in fact and clashed a bit with some of House Eneqqin's mechs before they linked up with the rebels forces that occupied the recently-abandoned palace.
Ves would need to cross several kilometers over some of the most chaotic districts if he wanted to reach the palace. He would be better off if he took a detour and reached the manufacturing district where he could finally return to the protective embrace of the Vandals.
Sadly, Lieutenant Burke had other plans in mind. "The way I see it, Lord Javier shouldn't have fled so far. Our invasion completely took him by surprise. If he's hiding somewhere in Neron City, he shouldn't have been able to reach the outer districts without tipping someone off. His likeliest hiding spot should be around the palace."
"Captain Orfan and much of the rebels are already searching there." Ves interjected. "Our presence there won't contribute to the search. We'll just be weighing down our own mechs."
Many of the mech technicians quietly nodded. They knew how dangerous it was for exposed human beings to survive around mechs as they fought. The potential for collateral damage was extremely high.
"Need I remind you, Mr. Larkinson, you are not in charge around here. Strictly speaking, you're a researcher. You hold no rank over us, so stand back and let us worry about your safety."
If Ves wasn't mistaken, Lieutenant Burke still held a bit of a grudge against him over the argument on kidnapping the hackers. It hadn't reached the point of affecting her professionalism, but she firmly refused to listen to his suggestions.
"Fair enough, lieutenant." Ves shrugged, conceding the point. It might not be such a bad thing for her to be the leader, as he wasn't quite a leader himself. Though Burke looked a little young for the job, she did her best to step up and enact her responsibilities as an officer of the Mech Corps.
"Our target is this facility here. It's twenty minutes away on foot, and there shouldn't be any dangerous elements along the way."
Lieutenant Burke increased the size of her projection, allowing everyone to see the facility in question.
"It's an intercity aircar depot!"
"Exactly, and a small one at that. While most of its vehicles consist of fragile civilian aircars, the depot also stores several armored shuttles for when they need to transport VIPs or sensitive goods. This is exactly what we need to obtain right now."
"What about weapons, ma'am?"
"It's unlikely the depot holds more than a couple of gun lockers. The company that operates this aircar depot never shoots back at its assailants."
If they tried to break into the aircar depot, their route wouldn't take them anywhere close to a company that might maintain an armory of weapons.
A lot of the Vandals present looked disappointed. They felt naked without a gun in their hands. Though they were willing to entrust their safety to the two exo-skeleton soldiers, they still felt ill at ease.
This was reality though. Lieutenant Burke refused to take a detour to rob a weapons cache. Time was of the essence, and they couldn't afford to linger in this district.
Burke looked at each of the men and women under her lead. "Don't forget that we have one more day until our welcome is worn out. We have to do our best to find Lord Javier. Who knows if our presence may provide a breakthrough in narrowing down their whereabouts. Let's go!"
They marched forth in a loose and spread formation. One of the exo-skeleton soldiers walked way ahead in order to scout the way for the main body. Other Vandals with soldiering experience hopped from cover to cover, trying to minimize their exposure.
An attack could come from any direction. The Vandals mostly feared the windows and rooftops to either side of the street. Though their sensors cleared these sites of threats, these devices could still be fooled.
Ves walked in the middle of their formation. As a helpless mech designer, the Vandals didn't expect him to contribute to any firefights. Obviously they hadn't found out about his Amastendira. As long as he didn't need to pull out his weapon, Ves was fine with being mistaken as a toothless civilian.
"Halt!" The exo-skeleton soldier up ahead spoke through their channel. "Enemy ahead! One light mech patrolling in our direction!"