"You're a bastard, you know that?" Iris remarked as Ves filled her in on his actions. "You sent your deputies out into space with nothing but shuttles and hazard suits to protect them from mine blasts and errant projectiles! If Professor Velten was here, she would have overruled your decisions on the spot!"
"Well, it's too bad that she's not here." Ves said as seriously as possible. Even if he possessed ulterior motives, he needed to act properly in front of any hidden recorders. "The issue is too delicate to leave for later, for if the mechs are hiding transmitters we should shut them down as fast as possible."
"And what if they contain bombs instead? Sending your deputies out to their deaths will not look good on your record."
"I don't really care about a leadership position among the Vandals anyway. I'd rather let a proper Journeyman Mech Designer take charge. All I want is to coast through this war with my life intact."
Ves had no opinion on whether Mercator and Trozin came back alive or not. If the mechs hid some sort of bomb or self-destruct sequence, then it would have been a shame for them to perish deep behind enemy lines. Ves would shed no tears for their passing.
He only accepted his appointment as head designer because he didn't trust the rest to do as well as him. The moment someone competent arrived, Ves would willingly relinquish his authority on the spot.
"I'm only doing this job because it's necessary."
He valued developing his abilities as a mech designer over learning how to lead. If it came down to it, Ves would always be able to find some trusted helpers to manage those matters on his behalf. The most important priority to Ves should always be to push his Skills to their limits.
Minutes passed as the two mech designers carefully opened up some ports along the frame of the Inheritors. They peeled aside some layers of armor and began to peer inside the hot and active internals. If not for their hazard suits, the hot rays would have cooked their flesh even through vacuum.
"They aren't carrying any bombs."
This news came as a relief to the deputies out in open space. Somehow, this news disappointed Ves somewhat. Still, he remained intrigued as the scans pierced past the clever electronic camouflage and revealed the truth.
"It's a transmitter!" Mercator exclaimed as he parted the veil a little faster than Trozin. "I've never seen a transmitter of this design in my life! It's larger than any other communications device I've seen on a mech!"
Trozin happened to know a little more of the hidden component. "It's a one-way transmitter that is built for stealth. It's ideal for subtle transmissions over a fairly short distance. The gravitic coils you see on its exterior is meant to propagate according to special frequencies. It's a way of communicating through gravity!"
"Does it contain any self-destruct?"
"None so far as I'm aware of in the rest of the mech, sir, but I'm unable to say for sure when it comes to the gravitic transmitter."
"That's good. I want the two of you to dismantle this gravitic transmitter in order make certain the mechs don't contain any hidden threats!"
"What about the mech pilots?"
"Have them put the mechs under remote command and tell them to board the shuttles. I don't want to take the risk of sparking a panic or emotional outburst."
Ves closed his eyes and sighed. So the Vandals carried some spies after all. From the looks of it, the culprits shouldn't be mech pilots who cluelessly or apprehensively brought their mechs out in the open.
It was possible to control mechs without a mech pilot. Some mechs came installed with so-called autopilots. While they wouldn't substitute for an actual mech pilot in battle, these stupid AIs still found some use as valets and if a mech pilot fell unconscious.
The autopilots of the two Inheritors kept up with the fleet as Nemo and the other pilot dutifully emerged from their cockpits while in space. Even though the mech pilots had a lot of questions, the current crisis didn't allow for them to make any requests. They needed to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
Ves had to hand it to them, but his deputies didn't get flushed. They utilized a variety of bots to operate their tools from a safer distance. This was fairly delicate work, but Mercator and Trozin appeared to possess some experience with operating tools through bots.
Thus, the transmitters carefully lost their protective layers, allowing Ves and his deputies to study their inner components.
"There doesn't seem to be anything dangerous, but it looks as if the transmitter might fry itself if someone tampered with it. This is a little difficult." Ves determined from his own inspection.
"What do I do, Mr. Larkinson?"
Both his deputies had finally realized the import of their findings. Despite their complaints to Ves, they withheld their acid tones because they truly needed to cooperate at this moment. This crisis was bigger than their internal rivalries.
"Continue to take it apart. Even if everything gets fried, it's better than leaving them active."
As his deputies resumed the dismantlement, Ves finally composed a report to Major Verle. The situation had grown to a point where the commanding officer needed to be informed. As soon as Ves sent the command, the major immediately began to read his words.
Verle looked up quickly. "Gravitic transmitters? Inside one of our mechs? Unacceptable!"
He quickly issued an arrest order for the trio of mech technicians that presumably installed the gravitic transmitters. Major Verle nodded to Ves in appreciation.
"You're doing a good job, Mr. Larkinson. You're more diligent than Mr. Brandstad in some ways. However, don't make any major decisions without my say so again."
"Understood, sir. I'll try to bring you into the loop sooner."
Now that Ves handed over his findings to Major Verle, he could rely on the Flagrant Vandals to continue the investigation without his help. Right now, they still needed to fight, but once their current crisis faded away, he definitely intended to follow up on the matter.
Ves thought about the implications. He strongly believed the gravitic transmitters had been installed to communicate with any nearby Vesian assailants. There shouldn't have been any other purpose to their inclusions because the gravitic waves easy lost a lot of strength as the distance stretched further.
"Who would do such a thing?" Ves asked aloud. "How can spies even infiltrate our ranks?"
Iris paused her own work and patted his back. "The Flagrant Vandals isn't a standard mech regiment, boss. They get the dregs of the Mech Corps, remember? Their background checks aren't as formidable as the ones performed by an elite mech company. All manner of scum could have slipped past."
"I happen to be one of them." Ves stated for some reason. "The Mech Corps was evidently concerned about my conflicts of interests and foreign ties that they didn't dare send me anywhere important. I think they must have wanted to put me away in some forgotten corner of the front. They probably never thought the Vandals intended to perform a deep raid."
"Well, it seems like the Mech Corps has proven their point, sir. This kind of sabotage would never work with a genuine mech regiment."
Ves couldn't completely rule out the Vesians as the culprits, but for lack of a better explanation, Ves simply rolled with it. He found the idea that a third party lurked while the Vandals and the forces from Imodris duked it out to be implausible.
"Occams razor. The simplest explanation for these gravitic transmitters is that they are intended to convey data to the Vesians, or perhaps Imodris in particular."
While Ves waited for the strange modules to be dismantled from their mechs and the battle to enter a new phase, he reflected a little more on what he discovered. He eagerly wanted to patch into the interrogation of those mech technicians, but internal security appeared to operate through a completely different set of channels, denying him the opportunity to request anything from the people who kept the Vandals in line.
This mystery really nagged at his mind. He felt as if he bumped into a huge threat, of which he uncovered the tip of the iceberg.
Fortunately, a mutation in the battlefield distracted him from this half-resolved issue.
"Detecting numerous FTL transitions!"
"Give me a count!"
"Seven ships have emerged from FTL! Our systems have tentatively identified them as three scout vessels, two transport vessels and two combat carriers. The combat carriers are launching mechs! Their hull markings match the emblem of the 3rd Imodris Legion!"
"Lady Amelia's bloodhounds! They're here to stall us while the rest of Lady Amelia's disposable forces can catch up to us!"
The Vesians didn't hide their intentions. This small flotilla of seven ships emerged right at the point where the Vandals tried to emerge from the minefield. This added an additional hurdle to their escape plan. The eighty-odd mechs of the Vesian combat carriers would never be able defeat the Vandals, but clever tactics might easily enable them to stall the task force for hours on end.
Trouble continued to pile up on their shoulders!
Ves didn't need to receive any orders to begin to analyze the Imodris mechs. If the Vandals wanted to fight past the newly emerged force after exiting the minefield, they needed to finish the battle quickly.
The automated system connected to the central database quickly identified the mech profiles to the ones that had recently showed up in the morale-crushing Bentheim raids. "The mechs match the profiles of the 2nd Calico Dancer Bats! They're a light to medium spaceborn mech regiment!"
The Calico Dancer Bats acted as the scouts, raiders, harassers of the 3rd Imodris Legion. They utilize some of the same designs as the Flagrant Vandals. While the latter fielded more medium and heavy mechs in order to operate independently, the Calico Dancer Bats exclusively focused on light and skinny medium mechs in order to fulfill their niche very well.
Their light mechs all obtained proper development support. Up to a hundred mech designers must have contributed to the refinement of each of their main designs.
All of this bode fairly ill for the Vandals. The Calico Dancer Bats was a proper military mech regiment, while the Flagrant Vandals routinely struggled to pay the bills. The disparity not only touched upon the design quality of their mechs, but also their relative cost.
Ves only needed to take a simple glance to see that the Dancer Bats employed significantly more expensive designs for their mainstay mechs. The Inheritors wouldn't stand a chance in an even fight.
Their only advantage so far was that the Dancer Bats only arrived with two mech companies! Faced with the five-hundred-or-so spaceborn mechs of the Vandals, the difference in quality wouldn't make any difference.
Ves conveyed all of his findings to Major Verle, who figured most of this out by himself. He opened a private channel. "The Dancer Bats are true frontline fighters. They have a rich tradition and enjoy ample support from Imodris. Yet worse than the two mech companies is the thought that Lady Amalia and her main force won't take long to arrive. The fact that they only sent out this light flotilla so far proves that they are confident that their reinforcements can catch up in time."
"Sir, if I may suggest something."
"Go ahead, Mr. Larkinson."
"I believe this minefield, while annoying, poses no threat to us. However, facing the experienced Calico Dancer Bats in a delaying action will only lead to further entanglement that we cannot afford. Their light mechs are faster, deadlier and more durable than our own. Our Inheritors are plainly not up to the task of defeating them all within a short amount of time."
"What is your point?"
"They only sent two companies of light mechs. While our regular mechs will find it very challenging to destroy them fast, it shouldn't be an issue for Venerable O'Callahan to do so."
Ves put forward the only suggestion that made sense to him. Only an expert pilot could save them from this predicament.
However, Major Verle did not appear to be relieved. "Impossible. O'Callahan will never choose to deploy in this situation."