The Nova Migolatus System brought little to the Hafner System. Colonized and terraformed rather late, the first planet from the star had only been settled by Hafner because it made economic sense. A whole host of AIs calculated that adding an extra farming planet was cheaper than importing more food elsewhere in the long term.
Some time after Nova Migolatus I shaped into a planet fit for human habitation, Hafner latched on an additional purpose. One continent would remain unsettled. Instead, Hafner would import a variety of dangerous genetically modified alien creatures to run a preserve of some sorts. The propagation and mutation of these creatures would be strictly regulated to provide a sufficient and plentiful challenge to mechs.
In other words, Hafner constructed an entire continent-wide ecosystem for the sole purpose of breeding something to kill for the participants of an elite training camp. And they also did it covertly, covering the continent with expansive trees that reached up to a kilometer in height.
Normally, mechs threw enough weight around that they could flatten an entire forest with ease. However, if a mech charged straight at one of Nova Migolatus I's massive trees, the one who would lose would be the mech, not the tree.
The expansive tree cover also served as ways to shield the surface of the wild continent from prying eyes. The tree leaves had been genetically modified with various publically available biomods that blocked long-distance communications while interfering with any wide-area scans.
Of course, to prevent themselves from losing all contact, Hafner dug an extensive network of underground cables and communication nodes keyed to their own forces. It would be extremely difficult for an outside force to tap into this well-hidden network. This gave the forces of Hafner the homeground advantage.
Overall, hunting an expert candidate that tried their best to hide on this continent would not be easy. Without any additional intelligence, tracking Captain Relia Foster down in this megajungle was as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.
The problem was compounded by the fact that aerial mechs wouldn't be able to do much on the Kamwin continent. The trees were too impenetrable for mechs flying above the forest. With leaves, tree branches and tree trunks interfering with everything, it was impossible for aerial mechs to provide support for their landbound counterparts.
As for letting the aerial mechs fly through the forest, well, that was a very quick way to wreck a lot of expensive machines.
The Flagrant Vandals moved quickly after Verle announced their next assignment.
As the Verle Task Force emerged out of FTL, the entire star system must have hit the panic button. Agents loyal to Peace for Hafner relayed the broad movements around Nova Migolatus I via their own quantum entanglement node. If not for that, they would have to depend on lightspeed observations to determine the decisions the defenders had made, which would certainly be hours out of date.
"The local defenders are making a stand."
Only half of the stations in the command center was manned right now, as nobody expected a fight in the immediate moment. It would take almost two days of solid burning to reach Nova Migolatus I. Only then would the prospect of a battle come into fruition.
"The orbital garrison fleet is going on alert, sir. Transports are lifting up from the planet's main spaceport. They are loading battle supplies and recalling every crew member on leave!"
"The landbound garrison force is buttoning up as well. Old mechs are being pulled out of storage while their bases are going on full alert. Their capital city is becoming increasingly fortified."
Major Verle took on a pensive expression. "Keep an eye on what is happening at the capital city, but put it on a low priority. Only notify me if they are shuffling supplies or war materiel to the continent of Kamwin."
The Vandals didn't think much of the garrison forces. Their spaceborn contingent had been neutered when Hafner took half of them to the border. As for their landbound contingent, they prioritized the defense of their capital city.
Even if the landbound garrison mechs shifted over to the Kamwin continent, they would still be outnumbered by the Vandals.
While the Vandals had some targets of opportunity in mind, their main purpose in making landfall on Nova Migolatus I was to strangle an expert baby in her cradle.
Every expert was a valuable asset, especially one that had been indoctrinated from birth in your own culture. Though mercenary expert pilots existed, their loyalty always remained in question, and it was not a good idea for a state to rely too much on human-form weapons of mass destruction that could turn on them in a dime.
Thus, to Hafner, a young and promising expert candidate was much more valuable than ten old expert pilots such as Venerable O'Callahan. There was simply no comparison between the two. Even if O'Callahan was ten years younger, his potential had already been tapped, and there was no prospect for improvement.
As for an expert candidate like Captain Foster, as long as she received the right nurturing, she would be able to experience a period of rapid growth. There was even hope for advancing into an ace pilot, though realistically that almost never happened.
All in all, an expert candidate from your own ranks was like a blank slate which you could fill with whatever you wanted. Any state would salivate at the opportunity to shape their skills and beliefs. It was like designing your own personal superhero.
"And now we've arrived to spoil their plans." Ves muttered as he directed a major undertaking.
Ves was surprised as almost everyone else when Verle announced their commission. If no one knew about Training Camp Quistas at Nova Migolatus I, they would have guessed that the Vandals aimed to raid a more important star system.
As it was, Major Verle had not given Ves the courtesy of giving him a heads up. Ves expected the Vandals to raid an industrial system like the Hachew System back in Venidse. Urban combat was a very different beast from jungle warfare, and Ves had been forced to issue new orders to modify their landbound mechs for a safari.
Considering the nature of their commission and the difficulty of finding a lone mech on an entire continent, Ves prioritized the enhancement of as much sensor systems as possible. Improving the eyes and ears of at least five mechs in every mech company would vastly improve the odds of tracking Captain Foster down.
Below this top priority, Ves also recommended the Vandals to pay attention to maintaining communication lines. At least one mech in every mech squad should carry a communications backpack module instead of extra supplies.
"It's a good thing the Vandals employ the same Modular Fitting Standard for their backpack modules, though it's a pain in the butt as well."
The Vandals didn't build the majority of their landbound mechs. Instead, they stole them from the Vesians. This meant that they needed to adhere to Vesian technology standards, which included adopting a foreign MFS as well. Backpack modules produced according to the Bright Republic's MFS simply didn't fit on a Vesian mech. It was like trying to squeeze a square plug into a round socket.
Fortunately, the landbound contingent didn't need to bring too much spare supplies. They needed to complete the hunt in less than a day, so there wouldn't be any need to bring extra ammunition and energy cells.
"Still, there's also the local fauna to consider. Those genetically modified monsters are meant to provide a decent challenge against intruding mechs."
This might be a problem, because certain genetic modifications or cybernetic implants could make these creatures more susceptible to outside signals. The worst case scenario would be for the training camp to gather every monster and order them to attack any Vandal mech in a massive horde.
However, these safeguards could easily be subverted by anyone else. If certain spies grasped the right codes, they could turn the creatures against the training camp.
Therefore, Ves mentally ruled out such a possibility being true. "Training Camp Quistas won't be stupid enough to leave a backdoor for their enemies to exploit. The safest way to rule out subversion is to skip the backdoor entirely."
This was the rule for most critical electronics in this age. That was also why mech pilots controlled their mechs from their cockpits rather than through remote control.
"If the training camp is stupid enough to employ controllable monsters, then the hackers in our task force will have a field day."
With that worry subsided, Ves began to ready the Vandal mechs for period but not too intensive or frequent combat. According to the intelligence packages that Peace for Hafner passed on to the Vandals, the monsters generally gathered in squad-sized groups. This was hard-coded in their DNA. This allowed trainees to experience an even challenge when they grouped up into squads, but also enabled mech companies to bail them out if they fell into a spot of trouble.
For a moment, Ves wanted to laugh to himself. This game preserve came into being on the behest of Hafner, but now it seemed that the Vandals might become the main customers.
Then he remembered something. "Training Camp Quistas is an incubator for elites. It's meant to push the very best out of peak advanced pilots. With pilots of such skill, regular monsters won't be able to cut it. Only deadly monsters will do."
Despite this caveat, Ves was confident the Vandals could deal with the situation as long as they traveled in double squads or larger groups. Numbers trumped anything as long as the difference was big enough.
Having sent the necessary orders, Ves sat back and waited for the fleet to arrive in orbit.
Two days passed by without much incident. Vigilant against mines or stealth attacks, the task force constantly maintained a rotation of spaceborn mechs around their ships. Though Hafner did not have a track record of using either means, exceptions always existed, so the Vandals did not let their guard down.
Once the Vandals neared Nova Migolatus I, everyone tensed up for a battle. The big question was what the garrison mechs decided to do. For now, their landbound contingent hunkered down at the capital city, while their spaceborn counterparts seemed to adopt a looser pattern.
The Vandals wanted to mop up the spaceborn garrison quickly, so they didn't hesitate to approach their outnumbered enemy. The defenders on the other hand clearly didn't wish to tangle with the Vandals, and boosted away from orbit.
"The enemy garrison fleet is adopting a harassment strategy." The tactical officer stated calmly. "Any defense force that is largely outclassed by the invaders will not be eager to fight a conclusive battle. Instead, they've likely received orders to stall and disrupt our operations as best as they can without losing their mechs too quickly."
"They won't succeed." Verle announced. "We've restored a sufficient amount of spaceborn mechs to handle their garrison. A harassment strategy only works if your mechs are faster than the enemy's. As long as we allocate the bulk of our Inheritors and other light mechs into chasing them down, they won't be able to escape."
As long as the enemy didn't throw in other surprises, the Vandals likely didn't have to worry about anything from space.
The next hours proved this prediction as the attempted harassment fell short of what the defenders expected. The Hafner mechs mostly consisted of medium mechs. They were good in a brawl, but could not be expected to outrace an Inheritor mech.
The only snag in the plan was that the garrison employed second-hand combat carriers with peculiar modifications. Shipwrights stripped a large portion of armor from large and heavy ships and boosted their sublight propulsion. This gave the garrison carriers a hefty boost in speed.
Thus, while the defending mechs weren't able to outrun pursuit, they could still remain out of reach of the Vandals by hopping in and out of their nimble carriers!