The hidden assailants caught the Flagrant Vandals completely off-guard! Their premeditated attack not only immobilized seven important ships, but they also went a step further and damaged the FTL drives of their logistics ships!
With the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan unable to flee from this star system, the entire task force turned into a sitting duck! If they couldn't get those FTL drives back online, they faced two very stark choices.
Either give up the logistics ships and force the rest to flee into FTL, or make a stand and attempt to restore their FTL functionality!
A matter of such import would be a bit awkward for Major Verle to decide upon alone. Therefore, he opened a communications channel to the Antecedent in order to connect with their fleet commander.
Ves had met with Captain Argil Rakeshir a couple of times during staff meetings. The man was a typical old salt with distinct spaceborn sentimentalities, though he kept that part of himself locked away when he met with others.
As the captain of the Antecedent, Rakeshir kept a very low profile. Nonetheless, he held the most seniority out of the ship captains and therefore took on the role of the task force's fleet commander. As such, he was usually the ultimate authority when it came to ships and fleet actions. Captain Rakeshir basically translated Major Verle's orders into concrete maneuvers.
"How bad is it, Rakeshir?" Verle asked. This time, he hadn't bothered to summon a privacy screen.
"Really bad." The fleet commander grimaced. "We can work on restoring our propulsion at our leisure once we dive into FTL, but the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan are dead in the water. Not only that, they've lost at least half of their engineers, so any repair works will face significant delays."
"Give me an estimate. How long will it take to restore their FTL drives?"
"The good news is that we've got spares. The bad news is that they've been calibrated for combat carriers, not logistics ships. We can slap them onto the Beggar's Bounty and Linever Swan in an emergency, but it will take hours to configure the ships and the FTL drives. You may not know this, but the latter comes with an extremely stringent safety lock. There are too many ways for FTL travel to go awry, so unless everything is in tip-top shape, the drives won't engage."
This prevented shenanigans such as capital ships attempting to transition into FTL with a tiny drive meant for corvettes. Any misconfiguration led to catastrophic effects. Therefore, FTL drive designers always erred on the side of caution and incorporated a very extensive safety check.
"How long exactly?"
"I can't give you an exact estimate. At best, eight hours, at worst, sixteen hours. This is already at our most extreme. Installing incompatible FTL drives onto damaged ships requires weeks of configuration if we want to do it properly."
"This is a time for haste, not caution. Sixteen hours is already too long. Venidse may arrive at any hour."
The captain shrugged. "This is the best our engineers can accomplish. It's impossible for them to cut anymore corners. Even now there is a substantial risk that the hasty repairs will turn out to be botched. You don't want to see the result of the aftermath of such an event."
Major Verle and Captain Rakeshir argued about this point for several minutes. No matter what Verle said, Rakeshir couldn't give them a better time frame for the repairs.
"Alright, do what you want, as long as you make it quick." Major Verle replied in an exasperated tone. "Since half of our ships lost their sublight propulsion, is there any way to get our fleet moving? If Venidse has sent a follow-up force after us, they'll be homing in on these coordinates. We won't be able to defend ourselves as well if they drop right on top of us!"
Captain Rakeshir frowned. "There is no practical way to get our ships moving. Our undamaged ships lack the propulsion to tow away our damaged ships. While I've already prioritized the restoration of their propulsion systems, they actually need a lot more time to restore because the material damage is very extensive."
This must have been Venidse's strategy from the start. They focused the bulk of their firepower in penetrating deep into the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan to anchor the Vandals to this star system. They then swept half-a-dozen combat carriers to paralyze their in-system maneuvers!
If not for their allegiance, Ves would have applauded Venidse! With just a single attack, they set the entire task force in a deepening spiral of doom!
"Can we utilize our mechs to help to tow the ships?" Verle suggested.
"Impossible! A combat carrier is unimaginably heavy! Even with hundreds of mechs, we don't have the cables to support them all. This move is only viable if the ship being towed is as small as a frigate or corvette."
There went that idea.
Major Verle ended the call after determining there was no way they could regain their mobility in the short-term. For better or worse, the task force continued to drift through space at the exact same pace, allowing any ambushers to calculate their position at any given time.
This level of exposure made the Vandals very uncomfortable. Part of their modus operandi was to stay unseen as they skulked behind enemy lines. They never fought upfront if they had the choice. In fact, unless they stood to gain a lot of wealth, they wouldn't hesitate run with their tails tucked between their legs.
This was their definition characteristic as a raiding unit. They stole what they could and ran whenever they met an opponent.
The only problem right now was that they couldn't run at all. Their legs had sustained damage and it would take approximately eight hours at minimum for it to heal. Until then, any enemy could come up to them and beat them black and blue.
Having listened to the high-level discussion, Ves knew that they had decided to commit to a turtling strategy. Neither Verle nor Rakeshir contemplated the option of abandoning the two logistics ships.
Though they contributed little in actual engagements, their true value lay in their ability to process ores and raw materials. They also formed miniature factories that fabricated and restored batches of mechs by the dozens.
Therefore, even if it seemed that evacuating and scuttling the logistics ships guaranteed a safe retreat, their subsequent situation only became more precarious over time. By the time they crossed into Hafner, all of their combat carriers might have exhausted all of their remaining resource stockpiles.
Times like these reinforced the limited power of a mech designer. Even vaunted Master Mech Designers such as Master Olson or Master Katzenberg had to resign themselves to the inevitable if they faced the same situation.
There might be a possibility that they dabbled in FTL theory. Ordinarily, mech designers never encroached upon starships, while ship engineers never involved themselves with mechs. While ships and mechs shared much in common, they exhibited a lot more differences. Mastering either of them required a lifetime's worth of study and dedication.
Understanding FTL drives was already an extremely high task for ship engineers. Only the most seasoned chief engineers among the Vandals possessed the bare qualifications to work with the drives.
If Ves forcefully tried to help, he would only make things worse as he possessed no foundation in FTL technology at all. "Let alone FTL technology, I don't even have a proper foundation in starship engineering."
He felt awful for being so useless at the moment. Every Vandal felt likewise, and they all prayed that their chief engineers got the newly-installed FTL drives to work again.
In the meantime, Major Verle tasked Ves with helping their mechs with setting up an anti-stealth perimeter. They never caught the stealthed assailants, so the possibility of another attack was very high.
Ves felt that he was lacking yet again in this matter. Venidse's stealth technology was a notch ahead of anything else he had encountered. Whereas other forms of stealth could be broken by throwing dust at them, Venidse had obviously developed specific countermeasures that insured their stealth forces blended in seamlessly in the most chaotic environments.
Breaking their stealth required more than a light puff of dust.
Obviously, Ves couldn't do much on his own, so he drew in Iris, Mercator and Trozin for support.
"Comb over the logs and try to pin down how Venidse ambushed us. Understanding how they snuck up on us is the first step in preventing a repeat of the same attack."
With those words, he left the three to do their own research. In the meantime, he helped the Vandals set up their mech patrols in a way that maximized their stealth detection. Each mech carried different sensor models, and some were more suited for anti-stealth than others.
Compensating for the extreme effectiveness of Venidse's stealth systems, Ves basically fixed the smallest detection ranges for every individual mech model. At those conservative ranges, it mattered little how well the enemy hid their traces.
For the worst mechs, this range did not surpass fifty meters, while the best mechs only boasted an effective detection radius of only two-hundred meters.
In the scale of landbound mech combat, those distances amounted to a couple of footsteps. In the scale of spaceborn mech combat, those distances were equivalent to two humans standing only centimeters away from each other.
The detection ranges was far too short to cover the entire task force!
He contacted Major Verle. "Sir, I have a problem to report."
"I'm busy, Mr. Larkinson, so this better be good."
Ves briefly explained the dilemma with the detection ranges. "Our fleet formation is too dispersed. Every ship is maintaining a distance of several kilometers away from each other. While I can understand the logic for assuming such a large minimum distance, our circumstances have changed. If you want full coverage against stealth infiltration, then we need to contract our formation."
A monumental decision like this directly affected their survival. Verle's frown only grew deeper as Ves burdened him with another concern.
"Have you identified how Venidse got the drop on us?"
"My men are working on it, sir. So far, we haven't turned up any results, which means Venidse has employed some new breakthroughs. It is possible that we won't be able to find any records of their latest advancements."
Verle nodded in understanding. "Even at the frontlines, Venidse never shows their hand too often. They cherish their elite stealth units. The more Venidse makes use of them, the more the Mech Corps is able to understand their underlying principles and develop a counter for them. Since your mech haven't found an immediate match, it is unlikely you'll found anything relevant in the database."
"I was afraid of that, sir. I'll still let my subordinates to continue their research. Who knows if they can figure out a clue. About the issue I brought up, have you made a decision?"
"Not yet. I'll need to bring it up to Captain Rakeshir. If he thinks the risk of collision or getting caught in an area effect is smaller than the risk of suffering another close-ranged stealth attack, then I don't see a major problem in contracting our formation."
Ves could not decide this issue for them. He dared not overrule Captain Rakeshir when it came to controlling ships. He had already done his due diligence by informing them of this vulnerability and providing them with an option to address the holes in their defense.
In the end, their paranoia overruled their common sense. Having failed to detect their initial attackers, Major Verle and Captain Rakeshir feared their enemy would grow bold and go for a reprise.
Several minutes later, every ship received orders to converge into a tighter formation. Ships with working propulsion helped get the immobilized vessels into the right position and heading by towing them one by one.
Slowly, the Vandals adopted the stance of a turtle.