The sighting of the enemy mech unsettled the Vandals under Lieutenant Burke. The woman made a gesture that forced the men and women to cut the chatter.
"Type and markings?"
The exo-skeleton soldier reported back after a few seconds. "Cat-like bestial mech, no ranged hardpoints. It's coated in astral blue and silver with a prominent emblem of House Eneqqin."
A couple of Vandals quietly cursed while Lieutenant Burke started to frown.
"Strange. House Eneqqin should be directing all of their mechs to stop the main force. Why did one of their mechs stray to this part of town?"
Ves widened his eyes. "There's a high possibility that it's a scout mech! Be careful, its sensors are powerful enough to detect an exoskeleton suit from a distance!"
A loud, primal growl suddenly thundered over their heads!
"It detected my presence!"
"RUN! That's an order!"
The thunderous steps of the four-legged mech echoed throughout the streets as the beast in metal skin rapidly surged towards the hapless exoskeleton soldier.
Ves heard distance weapons fire being discharged. The heavy rifles wielded by these soldiers possessed enough punch to chew apart a small vehicle, but against a mech, it must have been nothing more than a pinprick.
He could guess the outcome of the clash before its conclusion. With a distant crunch, the weapons fire ceased and the mech let out another artificial roar.
The Vandals hadn't been standing still all this while. Under the lieutenant's urging, they ran towards the nearest tunnel entrance that she marked out beforehand.
In the meantime, the mech started moving again. The echoes of its steps rang louder and louder.
"It's heading straight for us!"
"How did it know how to find us?!"
"Johnson! Is your anti-observation gear still working!?"
"It's still working fine! There's no microbugs in the vicinity!"
"Don't forget that this is House Eneqqin's home turf! They must have embedded bugs resistant to anti-observation fields into the streets."
The theory was sound, but Ves started to doubt that conclusion. In any modern city in this age, the authorities littered the public spaces with all manner of sensors and observation gear.
However, the quality of these sensors only extended to how much their owners were willing to invest in them. In the galactic rim, most authorities only utilized the most basic and affordable sensors. They were cheap and easy to maintain, but came at the cost of being very easy to manipulate.
Anyone with means would be able to get their hands on software or devices that could hack, block, interfere, disable or even outright destroy these sensors. That was why crime and shady dealings still proliferated in the Komodo Star Sector. The ability to circumvent observation was too ubiquitous.
Naturally, not every method of observation could be stopped so easily. Enough investment allowed them to be resilient enough to withstand the most conventional means of blocking them out.
However, even if that was the case, the Vandals didn't use run-of-the-mill countermeasures. One of the Vandals in a hazard suit carried a big anti-observation backpack module. It didn't quite provide them with total stealth, but it somehow disabled several of the most common means of observation in the vicinity.
It actually worked quite similar to the Privacy Shield in his old comm, but it was a lot bigger and cruder.
With such a device in their midst, chances should have been low that House Eneqqin detected them, but somehow that wasn't true. Were these streets so important that the authorities installed much more effective means of observations, or had the Vandals slipped up somehow?
Ves thought back on how the former base of the Dastardly Handsome Bastards suffered from an artillery bombardment out of the blue. The kind of mechs that can lob those kinds of heavy explosive shells shouldn't have been very common. House Eneqqin absolutely couldn't afford to divert one of them from the battle with the main Vandal ground force.
Yet they did so anyway against all common sense. Even if the Vandal ground force eventually managed to break through the defense lines, the absence of a single artillery mech must have exacerbated House Eneqqin's defeat.
So why did they not only divert an important mech, but also managed to accurately bombard their key positions?
The Vandals had taken all kinds of precautions. They cleaned out and chased away all the occupants in the neighboring blocks. They employed powerful blockers that made it difficult for anyone to spot anything unusual about the base. If House Eneqqin wasn't specifically keeping an eye on that base, then they shouldn't have known about their presence.
Even as Ves could almost feel the mech bounding closer towards him and the fleeing Vandals, his mind finally made a possible connection.
His self-made comm!
Ves currently carried two comms. One of them was his military-issued one, which still couldn't do a lot of things, but at least it possessed an extremely high degree of security.
The same couldn't be said for his other comm, which he crafted to grant him access to the galactic net and to facilitate in hacking simple devices. As much as the black market designs for this series of comms claimed that they wouldn't leave a trace, how much could Ves believe in them? Certainly not very much, especially since he reproduced one of the cheaper designs.
He hadn't done much with the comm since he made it. His unexpected arrival at Captain Orfan's temporary hideout changed his entire planning. Instead of using his comm to hack into locked aircars and hijacking them to bring him closer to the manufacturing district, he used it to hack into some of the mechs and enter the virtual portal of the Clifford Society.
Ves briefly hung on the latter. Who on this planet would connect with the network of the Clifford Society all of a sudden while Detemen IV was burning? No average mech designer would resort to such an action. Any Vesian who kept track of the comings and goings of the galactic net would immediately investigate the unusual connection.
Dread ran through his body as Ves almost faltered in his flight. One important question dominated his mind.
"Is it my fault that House Eneqqin bombarded the base?"
The possibility existed that Ves had directly led the Vandals to their doorstep and offered them a prime opportunity to massacre a lot of Vandals at once. The enemy might even be tracking their position right now through his unsecure comm!
"I got to get rid of it!"
Ves faintly slowed down in his flight so that he fell behind the formation. He fumbled with his suit while he ran, eventually managing to open up a narrow slot that allowed him to remove his second comm from his wrist. He looked at it with a mixture of guilt and regret.
"I don't know if it's my fault, but you've got to go! Sorry!"
He crushed the comm with his armored gauntlet and scattered the pieces behind him. Almost the instant he did that, the thundering steps approaching them from behind started to slow down for a few seconds.
Then the chasing mech bounded faster as if it wanted to catch the last glimpse of whatever it pursued.
Ves had his answer. His heart sank to the bottom at the realization that his negligence had indirectly led to the deaths of tens of Vandals. Even though he sometimes questioned their loyalty and commitment to the Republic, most didn't seem all that bad. Their circumstances just dealt them a bad hand in life.
"Damnit. I can't feel sorry for myself!"
Guilty or not, the milk was already spilled. He first needed to save his life before he had the luxury to repent!
The mech that chased after them might have lost a direct trace, but scout mechs came with a lot of other means of tracking. Ves knew that its capabilities would easily allow it to track the footsteps of more than a dozen people.
Lieutenant Burke tried to lead them through narrow alleyways and cramped streets, but the scout mech always seemed to find the right detours.
"How far to the tunnels?!"
"A few hundred meters ahead! We're almost there!"
Just as they crossed an unavoidably wide street, the scout mech finally came around a corner and sighted the fleeing Vandals.
"It's approaching us!"
From what Ves gathered so far, the cat mech didn't possess any ranged weapons. That was hardly a consolation for them though because its powerful legs closed the distance at a very rapid tempo.
"We can't outrun it! Fight!"
The Vandals shot at the mech with their pistols and rifles, but none of them dealt any noticeable damage to its exterior armor. Compared to infantry, mechs fell into an entirely different category. None of their weapons possessed any chance of leaving more than a dent on the Vesian mech's armor.
"It's coming close!"
"I don't want to die!"
"For the Republic!"
At the precipice of death, the Vandals partially collapsed. Some fled in random directions while others kept firing their useless infantry guns at the nigh-impervious mech. Others looked to Lieutenant Burke for leadership, only to see that she had knelt down with her hands above her head in surrender.
"Stop shooting! Put down your arms and surrender! There's still a chance we can live through this!"
This caused half of the gunners to drop their weapons and follow suit. Unfortunately, some of their other comrades wanted to fight to the end or didn't believe the Vesian mech would show mercy. They didn't have any obligation to accept their surrender in the first place.
"Put down your guns! That's an order!" Burke yelled at the stubborn Vandals.
"If I go down on Vesian soil, I want to go down fighting!"
While the mech sprinted closer and closer with its violent steps shaking everyone's foots, Ves stood paralyzed with indecision. Out of all of the Vandals, perhaps only he possessed the means to repel the bloodthirsty mech.
His gauntlet already flexed in a grip that would allow it to grip the Amastendira should he chose to materialize it out of his Inventory. If he dialed it up to maximum power and aimed with care, he should be able to take out a leg or two from the dangerously closing mech.
While no common infantry weapon could make any dent in its armor, the Amastendira had been built for this. The light mech's armor shouldn't be able to withstand a full-powered laser beam from his powerful weapon.
Yet Ves still hesitated pulling it out. The Amastendira was his trump card and he dearly hated bringing it out. Using it upon landing was already a reckless enough action, and he didn't wish to expose it any further.
What if the Flagrant Vandals wanted to confiscate his precious weapon after the battle? Despite their many differences from a regular mech regiment of the Mech Corps, they completely inherited the control freak tendencies of their parent company. They would never allow a mech designer like Ves to hold onto such a dangerous weapon.
"I can't expose it. Not here."
Still, was this the right time to hold something back? The mech almost reached close enough to stomp the Vandals with its paws and chew apart anyone into pieces with its jaws.
"Mr. Larkinson!" Lieutenant Burke suddenly shouted at him. "Tell us where its weak points are, now!"
Her request momentarily broke Ves out of his fog. Even though his attention preoccupied itself with the decision on whether to reveal the Amastendira, his eyes never left the bestial mech.
"It's a fairly well-made felinid mech, but its armor is too light. Target its lower limbs joints if you can!"
"Did you hear that?! Target its limb joints!"
For a moment, Ves expected the surviving exo-skeleton soldier to pop out and fire his heavy gun at the joints. It wouldn't work, as his heavy rifle still needed minutes to chew through the thin cover of armor around the joints.
Instead, something much more devastating fired from the side. A small volley of ballistic projectiles fired out. Some of them successfully hit the legs but only dented the armor. A second volley burst out, and this time the cat mech failed to safeguard its limbs. The mech suddenly collapsed after losing two of its limbs at once.
Subsequent volleys chewed apart the damaged mech to the point its mech pilot ejected away from the fallen mech.
A strange silence spread out as the Vandals regained their senses.
Ves turned to the side to see what had shot it apart. Who or what had rescued them at the last moment?