Ves conveyed his suspicions about a traitor among the Vandals to Major Verle after the latter accepted his request for a private conversation. Privacy screens enveloped them both as they talked among themselves.
The mech commander didn't look pleased. "Even I can figure that out Mr. Larkinson, but what will that help? My ships and mechs are surrounded by mines and it will take hours for us to disentangle from them! If your solution doesn't help us get out faster, it's not worth my time!"
"Sir, we already inferred there is at least one Imodris stealth ship in the vicinity that is directing the minefield. What if the traitor in our midst is transmitting our telemetry to them? I want to find this traitor not to shut him up, but to piggyback on his signal to the enemy presence. Once we know the approximate coordinates of the enemy ship, we have more options available to us."
Ves actually didn't know how useful that information would be, but Major Verle definitely took note. "I'm intrigued, but I can't allocate any personnel to search for the traitor. You can be assured that our quantum entanglement nodes are locked down, so those who are attempting to transmit something will have to resort to regular methods."
The major basically foisted this task on his lap without any further help. Ves was only willing do pursue this matter because he didn't have anything else to do. Trying to crack the mines was impossible, while the enemy hadn't shown off any mechs for him to analyze.
Ves did keep one eye on the status of each mech designer in the task force. So far, they all remained at their stations and on standby. No mechs sustained any damage so far, and the most complicated operations the mech technicians had to perform was to replenish supplies.
They could do without his supervision. In any case, they wouldn't try to pull anything off while Imodris aimed to kill them all. With their survival at stake, the mech designers definitely did their best.
At least he thought so. "Could one of our mech designers be the traitor?"
The possibility was real. If they worked for the enemy, they could do a lot of damage. Their position enabled them access to many mechs, all of which they could tamper in various ways. They also possessed the technical acumen to screw around with computer systems, thereby installing some sort of backdoor through which they could transmit hidden signals to an unknown receiver.
After some thought, he eventually ruled it out. First, the Mech Corps already screened everyone's identities, and even if the Vandals got the dregs, they still passed at least a minimal security check. Secondly, mech designers never worked in isolation. All of their actions received scrutiny, whether it was from the everpresent security surveillance or from the mech technicians that received their instructions from them. A mech designer almost never worked alone.
Still, that didn't rule out mech designers entirely as a risk. Since they fell under his responsibility, Ves checked them out one by one. He pulled up live feeds that watched over the mech designers and skimmed them over, looking for any signs that seemed suspicious.
Though he eventually found a handful of figures who attempted to do some shady activities, Ves tentatively ruled out the possibility that they passed on information to someone else.
"Too many of them are working alongside the mech technicians."
He took a step back and regarded the Flagrant Vandals as a whole. If Ves wanted to put a traitor with the Vandals, who should he pick?
"Mech pilots are under too much scrutiny. It should be a ship crewmember of some sorts. Not enlisted personnel, since they often worked alongside their colleagues. It's more likely that the culprit is an officer. Perhaps a communications officer or a sensor officer."
Major Verle at least handed him a temporary boon that allowed him access to the task force's entire surveillance system. If Ves wished the Vandals ill, he could do a lot of damage with this expanded access.
Perhaps the only reason why Major Verle expanded his access privileges was because they occupied the same compartment. The mech officer would always be able to keep an eye on his actions while Ves did the heavy lifting.
Ves shrugged at that. They all shared the same goal in the end, and that was to make it out of this trap alive and free.
He began to scour through the feeds depicting the communications and sensor officers with a very wide sweep. He projected dozens of feeds in a grid and ran the footage simultaneously. He strained his enhanced mind to cope with the sheer amount of multitasking needed to interpret the footage.
None of the people looked suspicious. They all did their jobs with varying levels of enthusiasm, but Ves didn't care about that. Though there were many ways in which someone could hide something dastardly in front of someone's eyes, Ves wouldn't be able to tell. He didn't specialize in sniffing out deception. He only investigated these Vandals on a hunch.
"So it's not the officers, and looking through the enlisted spacers takes too much time."
Where did the traitor hide, presuming that the traitor even existed in the first place. This could all be a suspicion borne out of his habitual paranoia. Only a vague sense of intuition pushed him to continue his search. He thought it would be worthwhile to go through with his investigation. Even if he couldn't achieve anything else, he would feel better if he verified the trustworthiness of every Vandals.
After ruling out certain officers, Ves shifted his mind onto a different track. "What if it's not the ship officers at all? Many of our mech pilots come from shady or troubled backgrounds. Who's to say that they are all repentant and sincere in their time with the Vandals.
Questioning the loyalty of mech pilots was an exceedingly contentious issue. Nobody wanted to be foisted with a baseless accusation of being a traitor, and mech pilots often lashed out with physical violence.
"Eh, what do I care. They're either sitting in their mechs on standby or have deployed into space to intercept the mines. I only need a brief look to placate my concerns."
Ves began to do the same thing he did with the officers. He called up many feeds and stacked them next to each other so that he could save time.
From looking at their faces, Ves understood that the mech pilots lost some of their edge at the start. The constant and predictable stream of mines made it easier for the Vandals to cope. However, this in fact lulled the Vandal mech pilots into a false sense of security.
The worst thing about their complacency was that Ves couldn't tell them to pay more attention. The constant mine bombardment would definitely stretch out over hours, so every mech pilot had already prepared to deploy for the long haul.
As Ves swiped his hand over the projection and let another set of footage play in front of his eyes. The same pattern of complacency appeared yet again.
"This might even be the full scope of their trap. Imodris intends to delay our escape, wear down our nerves and lull us in a false sense of security."
Iris turned her head to Ves and nodded. "That's what makes it so important to get rid of this minefield. There are too many ways in which our opponents can mess with us. They're only stringing us along because it will take some time to gather enough ships that can match our half-regiment."
Ves already understood that. Imodris had cast a lot of nets, expecting most of them to accomplish nothing of note. The spread of traps over many star systems placed the punitive fleets in a fairly awkward position. They couldn't possibly split up their forces and garrison each planet with a small handful of military-grade combat carriers.
Ves bet that the main enemy force parked in the most centrally-placed star system. This meant there was an inevitable delay before they arrived at the star system that hosted the net that caught their enemies.
"It's strange for Imodris to employ this kind of trapping strategy. Do you think that Imodris has let down some of their pride and asked Venidse to collaborate on our capture?"
"That's simply not possible! Even if their capital planets are bombarded from orbit, they would never deign to ask their rivals for help. Their mutual disagreement is intense. Imodris believes that Venidse's suppliers charge too much for their export materials, while Vendise thinks that Imodris is taking advantage of them. The rivalry between them reaches the very top, from what we've gathered."
"Okay, I can see the chances of collaboration is low. Venidse might not even want to stop us as long as we are still inside the borders of the Imodris Duchy. They want to see their rivals suffer a humiliating defeat."
"That only make Venidse more eager to catch us themselves." Iris pointed out with resignation. "How better to show that they are better than Imodris than to catch a prey that their bumbling neighboring territory had let slip from their grasp?"
"We can worry about that tomorrow. Right now, we need to get out of our current fire."
Ves kept flitting over footage of mech pilots out in space or held back until their shift came up. His eyes raked over hundreds of faces, which all responded in a variety of ways at their current predicament.
Suddenly, Ves stopped swiping his hands to bring up the next set of pilot footage. His eyes narrowed into slits as he studied the peculiar behavior of one of the pilots.
He read out the brief summary of the mech pilot's profile. "Nemo McAllister. Male, twenty-eight years old. Three-year veteran. Light mech specialist. Known for being a violent drunk. Never let him close to a drink."
Nemo piloted an Inheritor mech. The light skirmisher didn't come with any ranged weapons that would have been useful in shooting down the mines, but the Vandals handed it a light laser rifle they had in stock. Nemo frantically fired at the mines that entered his arc like his very life depended on it. He wasn't too bad of a shot either.
This immediately caught his attention. "A three-year veteran isn't really a veteran at all. We might be facing an onslaught of mines, but they haven't reached the point of threatening our lives so far. This guy is way too panicky to match our current circumstances."
To Ves, it felt as if the man tried too hard to convey his fears to his observers. This act might not have looked out of place immediately after they dropped out of FTL, but now that a lot of time had passed, everyone should have calmed down somewhat.
"Iris, look at this fellow, will you? Do you think he's a fake?"
Iris took a brief glance at Nemo. "If he's a spy, he's a really bad one. Maybe he's faking it for another reason. No matter how long I stare at him, I can't see him as a spy at all."
Even if Nemo wasn't the phantom that Ves was looking for, his abnormal behavior still merited a closer look. Ves leaned forward and pulled up the Inheritor's telemetry. Having studied and worked at its design for an extended period of time, Ves gained a good understanding of its workings.
The biggest advantage to becoming head designer was that the Vandals finally pulled open the curtain that hid some of the inner workings of the core components. Parts such as the power reactor or the flight system no longer appeared in the form of black boxes. Ves could intimately study how they ticked at his leisure, though the risks of contaminating his design philosophy still remained.
Though Ves had been busy ever since he became the head designer, he hadn't neglected this opportunity entirely and briefly studied the uncensored versions of Inheritor, Akkara and Hellcat designs.
This was why he immediately spotted an anomaly in Nemo's Inheritor.