"When we made plans to raid the Hachew System, I expected our mechs to batter the Vesians every step of the way." Ves spoke with a perplexed expression. "Rather than acting as the barbarians at the gates, I feel as if we are more like the tax collector coming to collect the annual tax."
When the Verle Task Force emerged out of FTL in the Hachew System, the local garrison immediately panicked. Instead of readying themselves to fight to the death, the outnumbered and outgunned defense squadron immediately fled to the nearest Lagrange point and transitioned to anywhere but here.
This allowed the Flagrant Vandals to waltz towards Hachew III, the only inhabited planet in the system. Once the combat carriers that conveyed their landbound mechs made landfall, they came across deserted cities, open warehouses and meagerly defended industries.
Not a single inhabitant took up arms to defend against the invaders. Without any signs of organized opposition, the Vandals practically acted with impunity on the surface of Hachew III!
While the Vandals remained alert and ready to switch to battle mode, there was also a palpable sense of ease running through their heads. Nobody in the command center seemed suspicious that they had entered a trap of sorts.
After slogging through the Detemen Operation and getting their butts kicked by the Calico Dancer Bats, Ves had a hard time trying to adjust to the lack of obstacles put in their way. What was it about the Hachew System that made them lose their will to fight?
"It's simple, really. The ruler of Hachew III is Baron Imica of House Sabanet. His lineage isn't as long and storied as that of a count. His defense force only consists of three companies of spaceborn mechs and four companies of landbound mechs. Do you think that's a lot? The Flagrant Vandals can easily smash them apart, especially considering we are talking about garrison mechs!"
"Even then, it would benefit Venidse if House Sabanet puts up a fight. They're outnumbered, but not to the extent where we can win an instant victory. If they resort to harassment and guerilla warfare, they can easily ruin our raid."
"There's the key, boss. What does Baron Imica have to do with Venidse? The Duke of Venidse doesn't care about a tiny baron at all! Certainly, Baron Imica can order his household troops to put up a valiant fight against us, but what will that accomplish? Victory is impossible, and at worst he might lose all of the mechs he painstakingly funded over several decades. The Hachew System barely ekes out a profit for the house, so each mech is extraordinarily valuable to him. Unless he stands to gain more than he loses, Baron Imica will absolutely refuse to throw away his mechs to a lost cause."
"That's surprisingly rational of the baron." Ves remarked as if he had never seen a rational noble before. "Won't he get punished by Venidse?"
"Hah! No duke can compel a baron to send the foundation of his power into a suicide mission. Garrison mechs stand no chance against proper military mechs, and that's not taking into account that we outnumber them. Conserving your strength and denying us an easy victory is par for the course. At worst, House Sabanet will suffer a couple of years of disgrace and become a pariah in high society, but as long as they maintain their strength, they won't have to worry about their rivals deposing them from power."
Ves frowned at that. "This sounds as if House Sabanet are more wary of their domestic rivals than a foreign enemy."
"This raid is a one-off chance. The chances that Vandals will return to raid their planet again is practically nil. They've probably written off their material losses as a consequence from a massive freak accident. Wealth and goods is easy to replenish, but control over an entire planet is harder to regain when lost."
What Iris said probably rang true. The Vandal mechs that made landfall sauntered over the planet like they owned it. Though many industry complexes brandished their company forces, when push came to shove, the company goons retreated without firing a single shot.
The previous displays of intimidation always turned out to be bluffs. The company forces had orders to dissuade the Vandals from picking a fight with them, but because they were vastly outnumbered, their owners were loathe to throw them away in a senseless battle.
House Sabanet already set an example for the smaller players to follow. If the big guys refused to make a sacrifice, why should everyone else be selfless? It was every Vesian for themselves!
"Compared to foreign aggressors like you, their rivals are more immediate opponents to House Sabanet." Iris continued her explanation. "In the eyes of their neighbors, they want nothing more than see House Sabanet lose all of their mechs in a lopsided battle. Once the Vandals take their spoils and leave, the rivals can swoop in to claim Hachew III from the hands of the now-toothless House."
"That sounds really messed up. If House Sabanet sacrifices their mechs in battle against us, they should receive a commendation!"
"Who would give them their commendation? Hm? Mechs are expensive. Even Venidse can't magically compensate two-hundred mechs to a small baron on a whim. The games nobility play is a ruthless one. When it comes down to it, the best players don't care about duty, honor or accomplishments. They only care about how many mechs you can field and how hard it is to dislodge you from power. Even between liege lord and vassal, relations are frosty to the point where they won't hesitate to stab each other in the back when they can get away with such an act."
All of this neatly explained the cynical decision-making of the nobles who ruled the various demesnes of the Vesia Kingdom. The more Ves heard the details, the more he grew confused. "I don't understand. How can this mutual lack of trust even work? The more you explain it to me, the more I think of the Kingdom as an unwilling collection of selfish Houses."
"Ah, but that's exactly why the Kingdom still stands! Relations, connections, favors and rules all prop up its stability, but only at the surface. Underneath it all, friends can turn into enemies on a dime, favors can easily be forgotten and only the victors make the rules. The fundamental basis that allows a House to stand on their own is whether they possess the power to defend what is theirs. Newly enfeoffed nobles are often met with a rude awakening when they are first introduced in the ways the powerful play the game."
The sordid way the Kingdom ran its power plays made perverse sense to Ves, but he still couldn't quite adjust his mentality around this reality. "If every Vesian yields in front of the Vandals when they are coming to raid them, what stops us from taking advantage of it?"
"Oh, this is only because the Vandals are currently in the inner reaches of the Kingdom. Normally, these well-off territories are protected by the peripheral and border territories, so they never had to deal with any foreign raids. It's different at the border system. At first, these poor and struggling border systems yielded without a fight when the Vandals came to steal their riches. After doing it once, don't you think the Vandals will do it again?"
"So the Vandals actually took advantage of this?"
"Yup, up until the border systems wised up. Letting the Vandals treat them as their personal bank account was just encouraging them to suck all of their wealth away. Once they wised up and banded together, the Vandals could no longer roll over an under-defended star system. No matter how badly they were outnumbered, the garrison forces always fought as if their lives depended on it. This deterred the Vandals from raiding their systems with regularity."
It was much like how a bully pushed around someone weak for the first time. If the victim acquiesced to the bully and let them do whatever they wanted, the bully would just keep coming back and push even harder. Only by standing up would the bully have to contemplate whether it was worth it to push the victim again.
Evidently, the border systems had all become jaded enough to learn that they should never let anything go for free. Compared to the tough border systems, the star systems in the core territories of the Kingdom hadn't learned this lesson yet. They continued to obsess over their closest rivals and dismissed the threat of the Vandals!
Even though Ves had a lot of misgivings about this situation, he sobered up enough to take advantage of the lack of opposition. He helped guide the Vandals in picking out the best locations to raid. He felt like a kid entering the biggest toy store in the galaxy with an unlimited credit balance. The only limitation that restricted him from robbing the whole place blind was time.
They didn't have enough time. Even with the lack of fighting, they still couldn't afford to stick around for long before reinforcements arrived. Fortunately, the Hachew System wasn't close to any military strongholds.
After some time, Major Verle came to ask him a question. "Since we aren't facing any opposition in this raid, we are gathering much more goods than we projected. Will it be sufficient to meet all of our needs?"
Ves shook his head. "Far from it, sir. The stockpiles we are obtaining are very much needed, but they don't come in enough volume. I'd say we can only meet eighty percent of our current needs, and that is only with regards to these specific materials. We need other metals and compounds to round out our other needs. All in all, our supply situation looks a lot better now, but it's far from perfect."
"Hm. Once we are out of this star system, we'll be conducting a trade with the Venidse Liberators. I hope we can obtain some of what we need from them. It's going to be our only trade until we cross into Klein or Hafner."
They wouldn't trade much but the bare essentials, Ves knew. After a bit more talk, the major turned his attention to other matters, leaving Ves free to direct the raiding Vandals into pillaging more goods.
It felt rather strange for him to wield such power. Though the Vandals only treated his directions as suggestions, they placed so much faith in his judgement that he might as well be commanding them directly. His every decision decided whether a business survived or fell in this ordeal.
Sometimes, Ves had the illusion that he was playing god.
He didn't feel particularly guilty in ruining the Vesian businesses. Their states were at war, after all, and stripping and destroying each other's industries was as common as drinking water.
Perhaps this was what a proper raid looked like. Ves only had the botched Imodris Raid on the Mech Nursery and the Detemen Operation to go on. In both cases, the attackers and defenders fought with conviction. Here, Hachew III didn't even wait for the first blow to arrive before it collapsed.
Ves found the experience to be oddly hollow. There was a break in tradition. An imperfection in an otherwise perfect image. There should have been more fighting before they obtained their prize.
Was the Vesia Kingdom really so weak? The way the nobles distrusted each other practically weakened their state by half.
He would never want to live in this confusing and contradictory state. The Bright Republic might not be perfect, but Ves gained a new appreciation of how sane it was being run.
After an entire day of peaceful ransacking, their landbound mechs packed everything up and entered their combat carriers, which slowly ascended into space. Laden with much-needed resources and supplies, the invigorated Vandals leisurely disappeared from the hairs of House Sabanet after transitioning into FTL at a Lagrange point.