"These stripped-down combat carriers are pissing me off!" Major Verle barked with obvious irritation. "They should have been reclassified as light carriers instead!"
A true light carrier was a civilian-grade starship that was built for capacity rather than protection. In that sense, a combat carrier with most of her armor peeled off could justifiably be called a more durable light carrier, as her structure was still stronger than anything available in the private market.
Ships built for speed and acceleration would always be able to outrun a light mech as long as they received a head-start. Since the defenders already saw the Vandals coming, they had been able to time their optimal starting run down to the exact second.
The Vandal spaceborn contingent never stood a chance of catching up. Unless they resorted to a drastic measure such as overloading their mechs, the chase would never bear any fruit.
The tactical officer tried to console his superior. "Sir, the garrison fleet may be able to dance out of our reach, but destroying them is a secondary objective at best. It's sufficient for us to drive them away from orbit and turn them into a non-factor to the proceedings on the surface."
Basically, both the garrison fleet and the Vandal mechs chasing after them had been put out of play. This wasn't necessarily a good thing because an outside variable could overturn the situation in space at any moment, yet the odds of something like that happening was low.
The biggest threat they needed to worry about was reinforcements sent by Hafner from the surrounding star systems. Even if they raced towards the Nova Migolatus System at their earliest, they still needed to spend around two days to traverse from the outer edge of the system to Nova Migolatus I's orbit.
Even if Hafner sent out the biggest armada of mechs and ships, the Vandals would still be able to take action with two days of lead time.
"The situation in space can basically be ignored by us." Ves explained to Iris. Both of them had taken their customary seats in the command center. "Have we detected any hidden turrets or weapon emplacements?"
Iris had kept an eye on the situation on the surface. "None so far, boss. Hafner hasn't invested too much in fortifying Nova Migolatus I. The only turrets that our sensors picked up so far are located in and around the capital. As for the Kamwin continent, we can't say anything for certain. We've trained out most powerful orbit-to-surface sensors at the suspected coordinates of Training Camp Quistas, but it's completely covered in the same tree foliage that obscures the entire continent!"
"What does Peace for Hafner has to say? They still have agents on the inside, right?"
"That's correct, boss, though the rebel group isn't willing to expose anything to us. All they are willing to tell us is that they have multiple agents in the training camp, and at least one of them is highly placed. If it isn't absolutely necessary, this agent won't expose his true colors."
"The value of this spy must be very significant to Peace for Hafner. Ordinarily, organizations wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice their pawns if it meant they could take down the enemy queen."
The value of a young expert candidate couldn't be measured with money! Weighing her value at one-hundred billion sovvies or something wasn't possible because the utility of an expert pilot was inestimably profound.
While expert pilots were capable of inflicting a massive amount of damage to an enemy force, their true value lay in using them as a deterrence. The mere existence or presence of an expert pilot would already be able to snuff out most tricks directed against Hafner.
"It's time for the next step of the plan. Begin bombardment!"
Ves already developed an inkling of why the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan had been tasked with mass producing a lot of artificial meteorites. Now that they orbited over rural planet, these meteorites would finally meet their purpose.
Mechs began to emerge from the hangar bays of the combat carriers. Each of them teamed up to push forth the heavy artificial meteorites. Slowly, over fifty of the massive chunks of randomly-fused alloys emerged from the bowels of the ships.
The artificial meteorites received precise pushes that sent it into a precise trajectory. Miniature boosters embedded in the meteorites corrected their paths and kept them on track as their orbit slowly decayed. Each of the meteorites slowly plunged into the atmosphere of Nova Migolatus I.
The main projector displayed a wireframe model of their expected pathing. All of them had been aimed to land at a precise coordinate in the middle of the Kamwin continent!
It was the leaked location of Training Camp Quistas!
The reason why the Vandals dropped so many meteorites was because they needed to go through a lot of sturdy trees. Once they felled enough trees, the meteorites also needed to pound the ground, because the core of the training camp was at least a hundred meters underground!
The artificial meteorites were huge chunks of alloys that heated up enormously while they descended due to friction. Unless they were as blind as a bat, the Vesians on the ground would definitely be able to pick up the incoming meteorites.
"We've dropped more than enough meteorites to collapse tunnels deep underground." Major Verle remarked. "Faced with the threat of being buried underground, the camp commander will immediately choose to evacuate the camp he's responsible for. Even if they have bunkers deep and strong enough to withstand the successive kinetic impacts of over fifty meteorites, they won't be stupid enough to hole up in a single exposed location."
Because after the apocalyptic bombardment came to an end, the Vandals would immediately make landfall on the site of the annihilated training camp! If some Vesians chose to hold up in a nearby doomsday shelter, then they would certainly be killed or taken captive by the eager Vandals.
The events that played out in front of Ves followed everyone's predictions. By the time the meteorites crashed through the skyscraper trees, opening a path for the subsequent meteorites to bombard the training camp, there didn't appear to be anything valuable among the wreckage that Ves could detect from the long-ranged sensors.
A long, oval scar had been dug through the expansive foliage. This opening provided the Vandals that had been sent out immediately after the bombardment a sufficient gap to squeeze in transports.
This time, Major Verle and Captain Rakeshir decided against landing half their combat carriers to the surface. Not only was the highly-disturbed soil a poor landing spot for hefty ships, the surrounding trees made it very difficult for them to lift off in an emergency if the enemy decided to launch an all-out attack on them. It was a better choice to make landfall with more expendable transports, even if these vessels needed to make several trips up and down in order to land all of their available landbound mechs.
The Vandals also sent down some supplies and disposable fortifications to secure their temporary beachhead. The main purpose of the beachhead was to secure their line of retreat and to establish a firm line of communication.
The latter was especially important. The Vandal fleet in orbit needed to stay in touch with the beachhead on the ground. The temporary comm center at the heart of their fortifications would in turn serve as a powerful signal beacon to facilitate communications with group of mechs sent out to hunt their primary objective.
One of the upsides to this operation was that the beachhead needed the presence of several mech designers in case the landbound mechs needed servicing. Besides sending down some random low-ranking mech designers, Ves also sent out Vedette, Mercator and Trozin.
He decided to send down the latter two because he didn't like them very much. If anything tragic happened down at the surface, at least Ves wouldn't miss their presence.
As for the choice of sending down a potential protege, Vedette didn't register too much on his radar yet. Unless his potential bloomed later on, he was strictly expendable. If Vedette happened to meet an unfortunate end, Ves could simply direct his attention to one of his colleagues instead.
Predictably, Vedette immediately demanded a private conversation with Ves. "Sir, why am I assigned to the surface?! That is no place for a mech designer!"
"On the contrary. Being close to the action means you can respond much faster than us. Mech designers shouldn't be strangers to a little excitement. I don't hate you, Vedette. In fact, I'm doing you a favor. I hope you can use this opportunity to widen your perspective enrich your ability to design mechs."
No matter how many excuses Vedette weaseled out of his cowardly mouth, Ves resolutely rejected them all. The man had been ordered to shuttle down to the surface and nothing could change his mind.
After packing off the young and inexperienced mech pilot, Ves turned to other matters.
"Has Captain Foster's whereabouts been confirmed yet?"
"Sir, according to the rebel spies, Captain Foster had already set off into the wildlands a day ago." Iris explained to Ves. "She has a significant head start over our landed forces."
"The good captain will be looking to hide her tracks, though. Fleeing at full speed won't be an option because she also needs to ration her energy. In addition, a valuable expert candidate won't travel alone, though she won't be surrounded by too many mechs. Even a child would be able to follow the tracks in that case."
Everything appeared to go to plan for the Vandals, but Ves suspected that it would not be so simple. They already met some difficulties trying to clean up the spaceborn garrison. As for hunting down an expert candidate, well, the troops on the ground wasn't chasing after a herbivore.
"A peak advanced mech pilot with a resonance strength of 0.00001 laveres is vastly more dangerous than any other advanced mech pilot. It's not out of the question for them to defeat five or ten mech pilots by themselves."
Ves read up on expert candidates in the central database after Major Verle first announced the commission. A wealth of documentation described their exact abilities. While none of their attributes exceeded the human norm, some have experienced a rapid growth akin to injecting a handful of gene boost elixirs.
In addition to that, their skills developed in rapid tempo as well, as if the candidates had found themselves in a transition point between an advanced pilot and an expert pilot.
Some mech pilots believed that if some of their skills had improved up to an invisible standard, their minds and bodies would break through the cocoon of their mundane forms and sublimate into an entirely new life phase.
Ves scratched his head when the descriptions become too opaque. Much of the documentation became filled with jargon and incomprehensible theories that only biomedical researchers understood. He didn't necessarily believe in what little he understood either.
From his own understanding, he guessed that spirituality was actually the central factor in determining whether a mech pilot could reach the expert level.
It would be nice if the Vandals managed to capture Captain Foster alive. Ves would definitely have the opportunity to get close to the captive and probe her with his abnormally strong Spirituality.
"Sir!" Ves raised his hand and gestured to Major Verle. "Are we out to capture our target, or are we only interested in killing her?"
"Ideally, I'm not opposed to capturing her. An expert candidate is prime research material. Her corpse won't be able to tell us much. If we can apprehend her alive, we can do much to alleviate our difficulties. Though we can't hope to turn her against us, we can still trade her to the Mech Corps."
The fate of a captive expert pilot was not very pleasant. Brainwashing them was possible, but that was also very much taboo. Once word got out that a state brainwashed a captive expert pilot, their own experts would immediately revolt. The MTA would also send out a rebuke.
All in all, a captive expert was like a poisoned chalice.