The Flagrant Vandals feared Hafner for a very good reason. As a border territory of the Vesia Kingdom, the Hafner Duchy differed a lot from the interior duchies.
First and foremost, their main responsibility was to guard the border. Military priorities came first, everything else came second. Thus, it did not matter too much if the border star systems failed to turn a profit. As long as they maintained a sufficient garrison to deter pirate raids and the like, it was fine if they lost a substantial amount of money over time.
The Vesian propensity for infighting was remarkably subdued in the border territories. It was the same at the Bright Republic's side of the border. With the threat of external enemies so acute, the noble Houses that controlled the border systems had no time to wage pointless rivalries amongst themselves.
Another stabilizing influence was that the Kingdom as a whole subsidized the border territories by funding the military forces that kept the borders safe. This extra income came with many responsibilities, but in turn the noble Houses fielded substantially more mechs than their holdings could support.
Who would want to disturb such a good arrangement? Therefore, most of the star systems in the Hafner Duchy were relatively tranquil, and focused most of their efforts into repelling pirates and foreign invaders.
Furthermore, the differences extended to the regional rebel movements that agitated against the Vesians in Hafner. Iris explained the difference to Ves one day.
"Sir, the rebels in territories like Imodris and Venidse are fighting back against injustice, oppression and inequality. Like my Jupiter family, we are often impacted by these elements, driving us out of the light to seek solace in the dark. Our only goal is to work towards an upheaval in the Kingdom that will lead to the abolishment of the rule of nobles."
Good luck with that, Ves silently thought. Having sampled Vesian culture up close, his impressions of the Kingdom led him to believe that the noble Houses were like inextinguishable roots that had tightly gripped the state they derived their nutrients from. Destroying this pervasive system of governance could only be done if the entire Kingdom fell one day.
That would never happen.
"I'm familiar with this pattern." Ves replied, keeping his opinions about the viability of the rebel cause to himself. "A border territory such as Hafner is run very differently. Rebel movements are more than a nuisance in this kind of place. They can directly threaten their national security. This encourages the Houses here work harder to minimize discontent among the commoners. Receiving all of those subsidies makes this choice a lot easier to pursue."
"That's exactly right, boss. Yet despite these circumstances, rebel movements still exist in the border territories. Do you know how they are able to remain aloft?"
Ves crunched his brow. He gained some familiarity with Hafner, but he mostly studied their mech doctrine and their mech models. He hadn't looked too closely at the local rebels, as the central database didn't contain all that much information about them. The Mech Corps focused mostly on gathering intelligence on the border territories adjacent to the Bright Republic. They couldn't afford to allocate too many resources to study a border region on the opposite side of the Kingdom.
"I can't figure it out at the top of my head."
"Then let me tell you the answer, sir. It's the Reinald Republic. They've directly slipped their tentacles in the rebel movements that are causing quite some grief to the Duke of Hafner!"
"That sounds dangerously like an act of war! The Vesians shouldn't tolerate such a brazen effort at destabilizing their own territories!"
Iris shook her head. "It's much more complicated than that. Even though Hafner is pretty sure where the local rebels are getting their funding and support, there's never any hard proof of such. Testimonies are worthless because people can be brainwashed. Recordings are also worthless because they can be manipulated with ease. With how careful Reinald conducts their business, there is no way for Hafner to put the blame on their neighboring state."
"If these rebels are supported by Reinald on the sly, does that mean they are agitating for Hafner to be annexed by their masters?"
"Correct." She nodded. "There's a large amount of genuine Reinald sympathizers among the lower ranks of these movements. They think that all of their troubles will magically be relieved once they've separated from the Vesians and joined the Reinaldans. The upper management on the other hand are likely plants from Reinald. There's not a single bone of integrity in their bodies."
From the tone of her voice, Ves gathered that Iris didn't hold the Hafner rebels in high regard. "Why does it sound as if you don't respect them very much?"
"Because they're foreign agents in all but name! What they want is very different from what the VRF and the other regional rebel movements want. Though our opinions differ a little among ourselves, It's not our intention to break apart the Kingdom and integrate with another state. We are Vesians, and we will not allow our unique identity to be subsumed by others."
She didn't need to say that this counted for the Bright Republic as well. The Vesians would never accept the rule of Brighters, especially since their animosity against each other had grown over several centuries.
Ves still believed that they cause had no way of succeeding though, especially if they explicitly refused outside help. Their delusion was on par with the Bentheim Liberation Movement's fantasy of ruling the Bentheim region as a separate state.
"What about their mechs? Since they local rebels are being funded by the Reinald Republic, they must surely have some teeth."
"Oh, it's nothing special. Their mechs aren't any better from what you've seen in Imodris and Venidse. You have to realize that Hafner excels in tracking down pirates. If the rebels attempt to play the same game, they'll be hunted down and exterminated sooner or later. They play a very different role. While their battle capabilities are rather plain, they've infiltrated nearly every layer of Hafner society. There's no better source of insider information than their spies."
This was key information that Iris only revealed in an off-hand manner. Ves thought back on his suspicion that Major Verle planned to conduct an offensive raid on one of Hafner's star system. If the Vandals wanted to insure this operation went well, they couldn't go without sufficient intelligence.
"Is the VRF involved with negotiating with the local rebels for something?"
"I can't tell you that. Every conversation I have on behest of Major Verle is confidential, you know. Even if you're my boss, I'm still a guest here."
Ves nodded in understanding. "Is acting as a liaison to foreigners something that happens often?"
"Yes. In the VRF, it's actually considered a way to ascend the hierarchy. There are many people like me.who hunger for more. We can apply to various kinds of duties in order to earn more recognition. As long as we do a good job, we'll earn more trust which in turn will translate into more responsibilities."
"Sounds like maintaining relations with foreigners is very important for the VRF."
She sighed. "Waging a war against the Vesian feudal system can't be done by ourselves. We're sober enough to realize that, or else our organization would have been wiped out by now. I can't tell you how many states we are in contact with, but it's much more than you think."
This means that the VRF likely reached out to states beyond those that bordered the Kingdom! Ves felt as if this was another important detail that he inadvertently learned. Iris wasn't too careful in her speech.
"How are you guys able to remain focused on your goal when you are treating with so many foreigners? I can imagine that the VRF is introducing more and more competing interests."
"It's a challenge, but it's also a necessity, sir." She said. "We won't be able to realize our goals in the short-term, so we just have to build up the conditions that are necessary for an uprising to succeed. Foreign aid allows us to maintain our strength and get to that point faster. As long as we continue to gain benefits, our ultimate goal will be realized some day. We never lose hope."
That sounded a bit too optimistic to Ves. With all the money that changed hands within the VRF, there was doubtlessly a subset of the rebels who profited from these arrangements. They might not necessarily want to stop once they had a taste of wealth.
Still, that had nothing to do with Ves. As a citizen of the Bright Republic, Ves considered the VRF and the other rebel movements as a convenient weapon against their mortal enemy. To them, anything that hindered the Vesians should be lauded.
"Let's get back to Hafner. Whatever the Flagrant Vandals are about to do, it will likely concern the local rebels. I know you can't tell me anything directly, but are the Reinald-backed rebels good to work with?"
Iris pressed her lips into a thin line. Obviously she didn't hold them in very high regard. "Don't conflate us who are genuinely standing up for the commoners to those planted agents who pretend they care. The rebel leadership in Hafner merely want to exchange one group of tyrants with another one."
"That's strange. I haven't heard any bad things about Reinald. Sure, they're a little small and poor, but they're not so different from any other republic in our star sector."
"That's because you don't see what lies underneath. You've learned before that Reinald is secretly encouraging pirate attacks against Hafner, right? You can say that Reinald is a hotbed of illegal activity. It's a state with one foot in the light and one foot firmly in the dark. Their grey markets and black markets make up half of the wealth that flows through their hands."
Ves couldn't believe that the situation was exaggerated to that degree. Wouldn't that make Reinald a pirate state? The MTA would never tolerate such a thing!
"If Reinald is so bad, how come I haven't heard of their bad reputation?"
"Oh, they're very good at hiding their misdeeds behind their proper appearances. They've mastered the art of duplicity I should say. They are master cheaters and master tradesmen. Haggling with a merchant from Reinald is like giving away half your money. Don't ever get pulled into their traps. If you want to trade anything with a Reinaldan, you better hire another Reinaldan to negotiate on your behalf. It's as if their entire state consists of swindlers."
The animosity displayed by Iris truly reached an extreme degree. Ves unconsciously took a step back. He should definitely dive into the galactic net and conduct a more thorough research on the state that the Verle Task Force was desperate to reach.
Still, Ves was careful enough to take her words with a grain of salt. Even in the future, biases and prejudices couldn't be eradicated. Humans always felt the need to categorize different groups into neatly labelled categories.
"Let's get back to work. We still have a lot of repair work left on our plate."
After more than a month without any battles, the task force managed to gain a lot of headway into reducing their backlog. While the persistent shortages of resources, equipment and skilled manpower prevented them from repairing every wreck, the Vandals weren't as pathetic as before. Unlike a month ago, they could actually put up a competent defense against spaceborn assets.
The mood among the surviving Vandals had also lifted somewhat. The earlier period of gloom had mostly faded through the passage of time. The Vandals soldiered on and let the routine of their duties distract them from any dark thoughts.
Ves admired their resilience against depression. Though other units might have managed to regain their spirits faster, the Vandals showed their pedigree as a military mech regiment. Behind their sloppy veneer was a spine of steel.