Hours went by as the Flagrant Vandals contracted their defenses and turtled up. Conventionally, starships tried to maintain a distance of at least five kilometers from each other. This rule of thumb varied from state to state and from star sector to star sector, but generally speaking it was unthinkable for ships to stray closer than a kilometer to each other.
There was no reason to do so. If ships needed to transfer passengers or goods to each other, they only needed to let their shuttles or transports do the work. These smaller spacecraft flew fast enough that a distance of one kilometer or ten kilometers didn't matter very much. The launch and docking maneuvers alone took up a lot more time than the brief trips.
Machines always posed a risk to their environment. If anything went wrong, their immediate surroundings came under threat. This didn't matter too much if it concerned an aircar. At best, it would crash against something and kill a couple of people.
When mechs malfunctioned or went rogue, it could do a lot more damage. A critical explosion may even take out half a city block in the process, though such an outcome was very rare these days.
More concerning was when something as large as a combat carrier suffered a disaster. Their power reactors outputted so much energy that they could easily power several mech companies without a sweat. If all of that energy ended up in the wrong destinations, the combat carrier could easily explode with the fury of a miniature nuclear warhead.
This was only one worry fleet commanders had to deal with when they drew up their formations. Many other concerns led to the convention that ships generally avoided sticking too close to each other.
The only reason why Major Verle and Captain Rakeshir went against their screaming instincts was because they genuinely feared a repeat of the attack that crippled the task force's mobility.
Now, they stood a fair chance of detecting any hidden approaches in the immediate vicinity. Inheritors and other light mechs formed the main line of defense against their hidden opponent. All of them entered into a spherical formation that provided overlapping detection coverage in every angle.
Their medium mechs on the other hand patrolled the outer perimeter. Their inferior sensors couldn't be used to sweep up stealthed enemies, but they were mainly there to defend against overt attacks and to catch any stealth units that attempted to flee after another successful attack.
In this way, they posed a certain level of deterrence.
"Boss! We've figured out how Venidse snuck up on us!"
Ves turned around to Iris. "Explain."
She summoned up a projection of a sensor recording. "This is the rear-facing sensor of the Beggar's Bounty immediately before the attack. Visually, there is nothing present. Only after a weapon is launched are we able to detect a minor disturbance. Through hours of painstaking research, we've finally been able to define the silhouette of the stealth unit that attacked us."
"Doesn't this look rather... small?"
Their attacker appeared to be a half-sized mech. It was severely undersized compared to what he expected, especially since their attacker employed an instant burst of firepower deadly enough to penetrate through several layers of ship armor.
Granted, the stern of a starship was always their most vulnerable facing. The thrusters and other systems that occupied the rear end of the ship couldn't operate if too much armor obstructed their functioning.
Even then, a mech that was substantially smaller than a light mech shouldn't have been able to inflict so much damage.
"Do you think this is a mech?" She asked.
Now that he thought about it, the silhouette didn't match any mech that he could recognize. It kind of looked like unbalanced shuttle married with an oversized weapon mount.
"This isn't a mech. This is a commando shuttle!"
"That's what our consensus has led to as well. Stealth is harder to maintain on bigger vehicles than smaller vehicles. It would make sense to employ a shuttle instead of a mech if the latter isn't needed. The only thing that is strange about this silhouette is that a very large torpedo tube is welded onto its hull. And yes, Venidse employed ultra-short ranged torpedoes against us. Each of them packed enough explosive power to tear through our ships."
Iris calmly explained the traits of the commando shuttle and backed up her inferences with sporadic evidence. Though much of it remained guesswork, Ves believed her assertions.
"I see how this can work for Venidse." Ves nodded. "Instead of endangering their precious mech pilots, they can apply their same superior brand of stealth to disposable shuttles. Slapping a torpedo mount on them is sheer genius. It wouldn't work on a regular shuttle, but a stealth shuttle has no problems getting up close."
The threat level of commando shuttles could not match the threat level of stealth mechs. Unlike shuttles, mechs possessed a lot more flexibility. Who knew what weapons or gadgets they brought if Venidse sent them to this star system.
Once Major Verle received the files, he finally started smiling again for the first time in hours. "Good work, Mr. Larkinson! At least someone scored some results. That's more than I can say for the rest!"
The Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan both required a lot more hours before they regained some of their space worthiness. Every ship engineer aboard the other ships had converged to the two cripples logistics ships in order to lend a hand with restoring their FTL capabilities. This was an extraordinary collaboration that left the engineering departments of the other ships dangerously thin.
Ves politely smiled back at the commanding officer. "We live to serve."
Iris softly bumped her elbow against his ribs. She probably built up some resentment when Ves failed to credit their contribution.
Once Major Verle turned away to adjust their defensive envelope to cope with the commando shuttles, Ves turned back to Iris.
"Right now, Verle only wants to hear results. I'll mention all of your accomplishments in the after-action report."
Of course, Ves planned to do no such thing, because that would be giving more kudos to his deputies. At best, he could push all of the credit to Iris, not that she needed it all that much since she was technically a guest designer.
That made Ves question her continued presence in their midst. Their journey was fraught with peril. Pretty much the entire Kingdom was out to kill them. For Iris to continue to accompany them meant that there must be a profound reason why she stuck around.
One possibility was that she had been assigned to the task force for the same reason Colonel Lowenfield split up the main fleet. They'd been cast out as bait and were never expected to return. Maybe the Vesian Revolutionary Front arranged her demise.
Another possibility was that their mission mattered more than Ves initially thought. For whatever reason the task force needed to reach the Reinald Republic within two months, the outcome of this mission might have far-reaching effects.
Personally, Ves was partial to the second possibility. It conformed to his growing suspicion that the events at Detemen IV only served as the prelude of a greater undertaking.
It could be that Trozin's conspiracy theory was on the right track, only that it swapped the bait.
Rather than assuming that the Verle Task Force served as bait, perhaps it was more accurate to state that the main fleet took on this role!
The logic behind this assumption sounded a little dubious, but Ves couldn't discount this possibility.
"The main fleet brought all the attention-grabbing assets with them. With the Wolf Mother, Professor Velten, the Journeyman Mech Designers, and Colonel Lowenfield herself as high-value assets, she turned the main fleet into a priority target that must be destroyed at all costs."
Taking down even one of them could serve as a massive propaganda victory for the Vesians. Whenever Ves browsed the galactic net in order to keep track of the main fleet's attempts to return to the Republic, the news surroundings their passing outnumbered the interest to the Verle Task Force.
Could it be that Lord Javier was actually imprisoned inside one of their ships, and that for some reason he needed to be brought to the Reinald Republic on a time-sensitive basis?
Ves imagined himself being flung into a deep dark ocean with very little visibility. The more he fumbled around, the more he bumped into shadows of creatures and objects, some of which posed a significant threat to his life.
He faced two different choices in this situation.
One choice would be to remain passive and stop his underwater thrashing. This minimized the risk of bumping into something threatening, but this also left him blind to any incoming threats. The downside to being passive was that Ves had to submit to fate to make it through.
The riskier choice would be to become more active and start to swim about. Whether he would be met with fortune or calamity, Ves didn't know, but it sounded better than leaving his survival to fate.
He made a decision then. If they survived this crisis, he vowed to get to the bottom of this mission. It was way too risky and inexplicable for Ves to believe that this mission was anything routine.
"This is a matter to consider for later."
Right now, they needed to wait for something to change. Either the two logistics ships regained their FTL functionality, or Venidse would finally reveal their fangs.
Unfortunately for him, the latter happened first.
Midway into the restoration process, a squadron of ships emerged out of FTL.
"Detecting eight unknown vessels!"
The new ships consisted of four combat carriers and four inconsequential transports. Everyone ignored the transports and focused on the combat carriers. Upon emerging from FTL, they regained their bearings quickly and immediately begun to approach the stranded Vandals.
It would take only half an hour for the newcomers to come into combat range.
"Identify the ships!"
"We've matched their visual appearances to ships of the 1st Frosty Meteors of the 6th Venidse Mech Legion!"
The majority of the Vandals in the command center reacted strongly after the sensor officer mentioned the Frosty Meteors.
The Frosty Meteors was one of Venidse's premier spaceborn mech regiments! As their moniker alluded to, they didn't tend to play around. Instead, they relied solely on force to crush their opposition!
They favored melee mechs and ranged mechs in equal measure. Their melee mechs acted as cavalry that relied on their powerful charge to smash apart their opposition. Their ranged mechs mostly consisted of gun platforms that unleashed a massive amount of firepower at medium range.
Worse, the Frosty Meteors enjoyed the best funding from Venidse, allowing them to field a substantial amount of heavy mechs. From heavy cannoneers that could outgun the Akkara, to heavy knights that could endure a mech company's worth of firepower, everything about the Frosty Meteors inspired dread.
Naturally, everything had a cost. The Frosty Meteors was a money pit. It cost Venidse a significant amount of wealth and resources to maintain this prestigious unit.
Their second and more relevant weakness to the Vandals was that all of their mechs were rather slow. Certainly, if their enemies let them build up a charge, then they could be very fast, but their actual acceleration was very sluggish.
If the Flagrant Vandals retained their mobility, then there was no question that they would be able to outrace the lumbering Meteors.
It was a pity that half of their ships lost their sublight propulsion. While a turtle may not be able to catch up to a hare, there was no question that it could catch up to it when it was crippled.
"Damn!" Major Verle slammed his fist against his armrest as he beheld the approaching might of the Frosty Meteors. Even though the four combat carriers could only field four mech companies at most, their quality was more than sufficient to smash their immobile fleet!