An alert sounded out in the command center just as the task force was about to emerge past the minefield. The mines turned out to be a slightly modified version with shorter reach in exchange for a reduction in cost. This was why the 3rd Imodris Legion hadn't hesitated in laying down millions of mines.
Ves didn't recognize the alert, but most of the officers looked up in alarm.
"The Finmoth Regal is reporting internal damage! Explosions have set off in one of her hangar bays and engineering. Her thrusters have lots propulsion!"
The Finmoth Regal! That was the ship where the two suspicious Inheritor mechs came from. After Ves identified the strangeness in Nemo McAllister and the other pilot's mechs and passed it on, Major Verle immediately tasked the security department to pick up the thread.
No matter what, a hidden and unauthorized transmission device represented a profound betrayal to the Vandals!
"Give me a sitrep! Why is the Finmoth Regal losing propulsion?!"
"Sir, the security department has attempted to apprehend the three mech technicians that have serviced the suspect mechs. When the mech technicians at the hangar saw the approaching officers, they panicked and self-destructed. The hidden explosives on their bodies killed the security officers along with several other mech technicians! In addition, another explosion went off at engineering that killed two junior engineers and heavily damaged the engines!"
"The Finmoth Regal has stopped accelerating! She's falling behind!" Another operator warned.
Major Verle clenched his fist but maintained control. "Command the Antecedent and the Gorgon's Gaze to hook the Finmoth Regal and drag her out of this minefield! Tell the Regal to get her engines back online!"
The ships adjusted their formation as the Antecedent and Gorgon's Gaze drifted in front of the faltering Finmoth Regal. Major Verle deliberately picked out these two combat carriers because they possessed some of the more powerful engines among the ships in the task force.
After aligning themselves in a triangle, hatches opened up from the rear of the two carriers. Thick but flexible alloy cables shot out from the openings and latched onto specialised slots embedded along the exterior of the Finmoth Regal.
Once Regal secured the cables through various means, the two ships in front increased the power to their engines and thrusters. In truth, every ship in the task force matched their speeds with the slowest ships in the fleet. In this case, the fat, lumbering logistics ships weighed them all down.
However, this also served as a benefit in their current circumstances as the powerful combat carriers never engaged their sublight engines to full capacity. Right now, the Antecedent and Gorgon's Gaze almost managed to catch up to the rest of the fleet even as they towed the entire weight of the Finmoth Regal.
Major Verle ordered his other ships to match their pace to the acceleration of the towing combination. This extended the time they would be able to escape, but no one disagreed with the choice. They didn't want to leave anyone behind.
Ves had seen towing actions like this before. Evidently, towing happened often enough for the ships of the Vandals to incorporate a standardized system of cable launchers and attachment points.
"Thank heavens we aren't slowed down too much."
Besides him, Iris nodded in relief as well. "The combat carriers are very powerful. If not for the need to accompany and shield the supporting vessels, we could have raced out of this minefield hours ago."
Certainly, the one course of action everyone had in mind was to evacuate and abandon the transports and logistics ships. Taking none but the extra crew, the unburdened combat carriers would be able to depart from this star system with significant haste.
The only problem was that they would lose virtually all of their gains from the Detemen System, as well as make their supply crunch worse. Verle couldn't afford to destroy their long-term hopes by pursuing a drastic short-term benefit.
After the immediate problem was dealt with, Major Verle directly called the chief security officer that presided over Finmoth Regal.
"Explain to me why your ship has blown up from the insides! Is every threat taken care of or is there still an ongoing crisis?"
Against Verle's pressing questions, the chief security officer looked haggard and not at all prepared.
"We're still surveying the damage. Several fires have broken out that we are in the process of putting out. One of our hangar bays is completely locked down while the other ones are paralyzed due to fears of other bombs. We are sweeping the Finmoth Regal back and forth but it will take at least an hour to scour every nook and cranny. Even then, I'm afraid we won't be able to catch everything, sir."
"I don't care about that! How long do you need to get the engines back to work?!"
"Sir! The chief engineer has told me that the damage is limited but precise. Key components need to be fabricated on the spot, while the damaged engines need to be disassembled and reassembled almost completely. The shortest time frame our engineers can give is four hours."
Four hours was a long time to go for the task force to traverse. Major Verle heavily depended on the acceleration of the ships under his command to shrug off their pursuers.
As long as they possessed enough speed, they could outrun every opponent and transition back to FTL where they would be safe!
"If it speeds up the repairs, don't hesitate to borrow additional engineers from our other ships! Every second that the Regal is immobile will only delay our departure further!"
"U-U-Understood, major! We will get on it and restore the engines as quickly as possible!"
That was the best they could hope for. Like any ship component, their engines converted an enormous amount of power to propel the vessels forward. They served different purposes from mech engines, and all of them looked huge and imposing in many ways.
Ves knew that damaging a critical part such as the engines of a ship needed a lot of time to resolve. Their size added a lot of complexity to their workings. While that made the engines more powerful or flexible, it also made it harder to get around their dimensions and weight when they needed to repair or service them. Repairing damaged ship engines within four hours already sounded like a stretch.
Fortunately, a ship didn't require any working sublight engines to transition into FTL.
Ships traversed through the higher dimensions through some esoteric means via their FTL drives. The principles involved were exceedingly complex and not something that Ves would ever understand. He only knew the bare basics that was taught to any school child.
In any case, they hadn't fallen into despair yet. A ship could lose its sublight engines, but it could never afford to lose their FTL drives.
The FTL drive and power reactor therefore enjoyed the highest level of protection. They would be much harder to tamper with compared a slightly less important component such as the engines.
No matter how Ves looked at it, the suspect mechs and the three suspicious mech technicians shouldn't have led to catastrophic damage to the Finmoth Regal.
"Did everyone let down their guard or something? That chief security officer doesn't inspire much confidence."
"That's how it is with the Vandals." Iris remarked. "They receive way more incompetents than any other mech regiment of the Mech Corps. It shouldn't be a surprise that the ranks are rife with incompetents. Positions still need to be filled even if there is no one suitable to take the place. I would argue that your temporary field promotion is out of helplessness as well. They wouldn't have chosen to promote you to head designer."
Ves couldn't refute her words, especially since he directly benefited from it. Still, Ves inwardly complained about the lack of competence and professionalism around the Flagrant Vandals. The mech regiment's inherent nature forced them to accept subpar recruits even if they wished to kick them away.
The entire mech regiment still needed running somehow! If the Vandals constantly tilted up their noses and arrogantly rejected most of the people they received, they would quickly lose their strength and reputation.
Ves tried to dig in more at what happened at the Regal. The latest updates on the internal network suggested that the Regal's security officers had already flagged the three mech technicians as people that warranted extra attention.
Somehow, the security contingent aboard the Regal never followed up on the early warnings. The alert notices got lost in the system and became forgotten, all the while the trio started to scavenge and cobble up something together during their off-hours.
Naturally, the incompetent security officers of the Finmoth Regal only found out about the latter after the explosions occurred.
The issue didn't appear to be so simple. An average mech technician would never be allowed to enter the hangar bay. It was off-limits to anyone except ship crew that needed to be there for some reason.
"Are the mech technicians really spies, or did they have something else in store for us?
The most obvious signs pointed towards a straightforward infiltration by pirates. His overactive imagination blanked out for a bit as he considered various alternatives. Yet without any proof, it was useless to speculate.
In the end, this incident only served as a distraction for the main event. If nothing else, the sudden sabotage prompted every other ship in the fleet to double-check their critical sections for similar signs of sabotage.
This was mainly a concern for the ship officers. The mech officers on the other hand urged some of their squads to return to the hangar bays and replenish their supplies before going back out again.
Within minutes, the mechs would shift their priorities from shooting down mines to taking down the Calico Dancer Bats. The coming engagement was a critical one where the Vandals needed to escape the entanglement of the Vesian light mech regiment.
Ves felt regretful that he hadn't come up with any clever tactics or any other tricks that could land them an easy victory. The Dancer Bats were simply too well-funded to field mechs with numerous vulnerabilities.
On the face of it, the entire match-up seemed ridiculous. How could eighty light mechs contend against a force of over five-hundred spaceborn mechs?
"The answer is speed, or rather distance."
The flotilla from Imodris split up in two. The corvettes nimbly spread out to serve as additional eyes on the battlefield while the lumbering transports escaped before they could be targeted.
Only the combat carriers mattered. They possessed slightly better specs than the combat carriers fielded by the Vandals. Even when it concerned their combat carriers, the Calico Dancer Bats never stopped prioritizing their speed!
This absolute suppression of speed gave the Vesian mech regiment ample confidence in preventing their prey from escaping. The only thing they needed to do to prevent the Flagrant Vandals from escaping into FTL was to throw a bunch of gravitic mines at them. These didn't need to be expensive or all that powerful. If they brought enough gravitic mines, they could even drag it out for several days.
Ves looked depressed when the Vandals hadn't managed to come up with another solution besides a risky one he happened to disagree with. The only way to overcome the acceleration gap was to overload their fastest mechs, which in their case happened to be the Inheritor mechs.
He couldn't help but warn Major Verle of the consequences of his decision. "Those mechs will be ruined after an hour or more of fighting. Even if they can end the battle faster, they'll need extensive servicing to bring them back to a usable condition."
"At this stage, we don't have any other choice. The only way we can satisfy our thirst is to drink poison. Considering our options, overloading the Inheritor mechs is less lethal than any other poisons we can opt for. It should be sufficient to overload a hundred of them for a start."