As far as Ves was concerned, no one won the battle against the Frosty Meteors.
The Meteors lost ten heavy mechs and around a hundred other mechs. Such losses only amounted to five percent of the Venidse mech regiment's total strength, so they haven't suffered very much at all. Certainly, replacing the expensive mechs and highly-trained mech pilots lost in the battle was going to be a pain, but their abundant funding easily allowed them to recoup their losses.
The Flagrant Vandals on the other hand might have won the battle, but they also lost the war. They outright lost over a hundred spaceborn mechs and many more required urgent servicing before they could be put back onto the field.
The task force's ability to defend itself against spaceborn threats had reached its lowest point since their departure from the Detemen System. According to the latest data accessible to Ves, the Vandals could barely launch more than two-hundred space-capable mechs, most of which disproportionately slanted towards ranged mechs.
During the final phase of the previous battle where Major Verle basically threw his hands in the air and gave permission for the Vandals to discard all tactics, a lot of melee mechs got thrashed. It was the logical outcome when lighter melee mechs clashed against a tight, disciplined formation of heavier mechs.
"Fighting the Frosty Meteors on their terms is a road to defeat."
The Vandals only resorted to such a wasteful attack because they had no other choice. They needed to take out the incoming Frosty Meteors before they reached their vulnerable starships, and the mobbing tactic was the only one in which they could tear down the Frosty Meteors quickly.
Right now, every Vandal had become numb. While the task force might have succeeded in saving their logistics ships and escaped into FTL, the hefty losses certainly felt like a massive loss. Every serviceman Ves walked by in the corridors appeared to be torn with grief or resigned to a grim outcome.
Their confidence in the Flagrant Vandals had evaporated. No one could take such a massive loss and remain upbeat. The usually air of casualness and nonchalance that Ves found so charming about the Vandals couldn't be maintained in the aftermath of the battle.
"Too many mech pilots have lost their lives."
Another burial ceremony was on the agenda. Despite the urgent need to conduct repairs, some of the 3D printers stopped their current fabrication jobs in order to churn out coffins that would either hold bodies or mementos of the dead.
Ves did not like this diversion of vital production capacity, but he understood why it needed to be done. The Flagrant Vandals completely lost heart. In between the mourning of the dead, Ves heard an increasing amount of whispers of discontent from the rank-and-file.
"Why are we heading to the Reinald Republic? Can't our bosses send a message over the galactic net? This journey is pointless!"
"Jerry is gone. Akness is gone. Moezi has lost both his legs. How many mech pilots need to die? It's too much!"
"I don't know what we are fighting for. Aren't we supposed to defend the Republic? Why are we moving further and further away from our homes?"
"You know, the Bright Republic hasn't done anything to help us out. I say it's time we cut ourselves off from the Mech Corps. We've done our duty and more. Let the rest sort out the mess."
Calls for abandoning the mission and changing course grew ever-louder. Ves merely shook his head when he heard talk like this. It wasn't as if they could turn around and leave the Kingdom from any other angle.
Back in his office, Ves had his hands full trying to organize a coordinated repair effort. It was safe to say that his original timetable completely became untenable. Though it still served its use as a guide on what to focus on in future missions, they couldn't adhere to the schedule anymore. Their backlog of repairs threatened to overwhelm their logistical capacity.
Rather than sit back and give up, Ves decided to work with what he had. In his next conference call with the mech designers, he laid out their priorities. "The mission isn't over. We aren't out of the woods yet. I've prepared new assignments for you to fulfill. Right now, Major Verle has confided into me that we will be attempting to stay out of trouble when we are crossing through the Klein Duchy. Nonetheless, that doesn't preclude another ambush, so our highest priority is to get as much spaceborn mechs back online as possible."
Mercator's projection raised his hand. "What about our landbound mechs?"
"Frankly, they're irrelevant for the duration of this trip." Ves answered. "While I can't state whether we have any landbound operations on the horizon, they're in pretty good shape since the Detemen Operation. I don't see the need in allocating precious manpower and resources into polishing them into a shine. Our spaceborn combat capability is the foundation of our survival, so I want all hands on deck into lifting it to a smidgeon of its former self."
"How many mechs do you expect us to repair?"
"We've retrieved enough damaged and mostly-intact wrecks to restore about a hundred mechs, more or less. Any more and we'll need to dip into our stock of heavily damaged wrecks, which are a real pain to restore with the limited equipment at our disposal. It's safe to say that we'll be having our hands full with the easiest repairs for now. I expect this to be done within a single month."
"A month?! Sir, that's asking too much of us!"
"I'm not. I know we can do it. Some of you will need to work harder than before, but I'm certain you are up to the task. Make no mistake. Our survival is at stake. The more mechs you can fix, the more mechs the Vandals will have at their disposal when the next batch of Vesians come knocking at our door."
The mech designers swamped Ves with questions, some of which he replied with the same generic answers.
One question resonated a lot among the mech designers. It was the same issue that plagued the regular Vandals as well. Mercator stood up and asked the question that Ves expected to be asked.
"Why are we fighting? What is our true mission? Don't tell us that we have to reach the Reinald Republic! This ordeal is too unusual for it to be so simple!"
Ves wagged his finger, causing Iris to press something on her control panel. Mercator's projection instantly became muted.
"I would like to remind you who you are speaking to, Deputy Mercator." After giving the offending mech designer the stink eye, Ves turned his gaze upon the other projections. "I just met with Major Verle in private this morning. I asked the same question that you have. Did you know how he answered?"
The silence in the conference room became palpable.
"It is not our place to ask these kind of questions! I know this isn't what you want to hear, but you can bet that most of the Vandals in the fleet are similarly left in the dark. Letting our curiosity get the better of us is not in our job description. Just as how the mech pilots are expected to pilot their mechs, we are expected to service those machines. Nothing more is required from us, and continued inquiries will only land you in trouble with the Vandals."
Ves had made his stance clear, even if he didn't entirely agree with it himself. He hadn't spoken the truth just now.
Although it was true that Ves stormed into Major Verle's office to demand an explanation, he also conducted his own investigation beforehand.
It wasn't easy trying to peer into a secret that the brass wanted to remain hidden. Ves first started off by revisiting his earlier speculations.
His first assumption was that the Verle Task Force was required to head over to the Reinald Republic was because they carried something very sensitive.
His second assumption was that the object of value that required an immediate extraction from Vesian space was something utterly unique and irreplaceable. This ruled out important data, which could have easily been conveyed over the galactic net.
The only thing that stood out to Ves was Lord Javier. He had to admit that the conspiracy theories the Vandals spouted to each other when they were bored made the most sense. Having witnessed Lord Javier's arrest on the ground at Detemen IV, Ves became aware that the noble heir was in possession of something vitally important to the Detemen League and the Flagrant Vandals.
Like the brat he was, Lord Javier refused to hand over the so-called 'things'. Whatever they were talking about, Ves suspected that these things might have been important enough to justify a long-distance raid on the Detemen System in the first place.
Therefore, sending the Verle Task Force off into a crazy journey off to the Reinald Republic from the heart of the Vesia Kingdom sounded a bit more plausible if their objectives concerned these things.
Through logic, Ves tried to deduce where Lord Javier might be held among their fleet. He quickly ruled out every ship except two.
The Gorgon's Gaze was the most strategically important ship because she was the mothership of Venerable O'Callahan and the Parallax Star. Though the Venerable stated that he would only be able to deploy for battle one last time, he still posed a huge deterrent to anyone aiming to rescue Lord Javier.
The other possibility was that Lord Javier imprisoned aboard the Shield of Hispania. From what Ves had understood of Major Verle, the mech officer appeared to be the type that prepared for the worst. He wouldn't want their VIP to be out of reach. Thus it made a lot of sense for Lord Javier to be stuck on their flagship.
Ves took some time off his busy schedule to wander around. Despite the massive pile of work that demanded his attention, he made up an excuse of performing a personal inspection in other to get an impression of the mood among the crew to explore the entire ship.
He went from bow to stern, port to starboard, upper decks to the lower decks, and on so on. His keen cognitive functions constructed a mental map of the layout of the Shield of Hispania. While Ves never obtained a full map of the combat carrier, he still spotted several deviances from the schematics that Ves had gotten his hands on through various channels.
Certain compartments turned out to be a little more compact than usual. In other areas, the decks weren't quite even, though the standard artificial gravity made it hard for anyone to notice the discrepancy.
All in all, through various tricks, the original ship designer of the Shield of Hispania managed to incorporate several hidden compartments within the massive ship. They might not be very large, but they very much existed according to the mental map that Ves drew up in his mind.
The only problem was that Ves couldn't stick around long enough to investigate these cavities, let alone force an entry in them. He decided to resort to the one method that the Vandals certainly hadn't anticipated.
Ves attempted to employ his Spirituality. What he used to call his sixth sense was in fact a new and practically unheard-of way for him to interact with the spiritual side of reality.
Though he mostly employed this sense to design mechs or detect danger, he sometimes flexed it in other ways. Though he hadn't figured out how to turn his body into a semi-corporeal state like Lucky, he did sometimes succeed in brushing against the minds of other humans.
Every human possessed a unique mind. Like fingerprints, they were never the same. One remarkable feature about sensing minds was that stronger or more eccentric individuals stood out from the crowd.
Having seen Lord Javier in person, he instinctively memorized the noble's unique flavor. Ves scoured throughout the entire trip, making himself as circumspect as possible in an attempt to probe his spirituality through the bulkheads into the hidden compartments.
Most didn't contain anything alive. Ves had the sense that they only held a lot of important machinery.
One hidden compartment was different. Unlike the others, Ves faintly sensed a mind that matched the flavor that Ves remembered.
He was right! Lord Javier was truly aboard the Shield of Hispania!