"If there is one person among you Vandals who looks brighter than the rest, it's you." Calabast suddenly gestured to Ves while holding a bubbling cocktail. "Mr. Larkinson. Ves. I've met several mech designers, and I do say you're a cut above the others."
"Thank you, Miss Calabast." Ves replied stoically. "I do wonder why I've caught your attention. I'm just a mech designer, you know."
Calabast smirked at him. "Don't put yourself down. Compared to those spineless nerds who will never amount to anything in their lives, you've got the air of a leader. I see that your current posting as temporary head designer has done you good."
"An outsider like you shouldn't know stuff like that." Ves replied with sharp eyes.
"You Vandals are lousy at keeping secrets, especially when you are all running around the Harkensen System. It's like you are telling Vesians like me to watch you all. Well, we're here now. If you have something to say to us, speak your words."
"We're at war. The only dialogue that matters is whose fist hits the hardest." He said. His fellow Vandals all agreed. "Outside of that, we don't welcome you."
"Don't be so harsh, Ves. We can't help but pay extra attention to the young head designer who is responsible for managing the thousand mechs of your task force. Ah, excuse me, that figure is already out of date. If I'm correct, your task force is only capable of fielding five-hundred mechs. Is that accurate?"
"Don't answer that, Ves." Nolsen said to him before turning to the Vesian. "Miss Calabast, it's no use trying to show off what you presume to know of us. While we aren't allowed to come to blows under Reinald's auspices, I doubt the Planetary Guard will be pleased when we call them over."
"There's no need for you to go that far, lieutenant." Calabast said. Her smirk dropped a bit after hearing that. "We are friends, are we not?"
"There's no friendship between Vesians and Brighters."
Calabast shook her head. "I very much doubt that. To me, we are peas from the same pod. Think about what the rest of the Komodo Star Sector thinks whenever the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom are mentioned. Aren't we the dysfunctional twins of the star sector? Constantly at war, yet never winning. Some believe we love each other too much to destroy each other."
"What a joke!" Another Vandal erupted. "It's you Vesians who are constantly starting the war by invading our space! If you'd just leave us alone, billions of mech pilots wouldn't have met an early grave!"
Another Vandal joined in as well. "Yeah, don't pretend you Vesians have the high ground. We never asked to be your punching bags."
"If we never started our preemptive invasions, you Brighters would have come to us, I'm very sure of that. Our rivalry can't be melted with a single friendly gesture. Many innocent Vesians will suffer if we ever soften our stance against your state."
Some Vandals laughed at that. "What a hypocritical way of looking at the wars. You're like the butcher asking the pig why it wants to attack you. The entire wars are your fault! Bleating about suffering Vesians, what about our citizens?! I'm glad our mech regiment whalloped the Detemen System. You warmongers needed a reminder that the suffering can go both ways!"
"Calm down, everyone!" Nolsen barked in an authoritative tone. That shut down the belligerent tones. "I'm sorry, Calabast, but we aren't in a mood to discuss high politics with you. We're simple grunts, you see."
"As you say." The woman shook her head as if she found his response to be disappointing. "Despite our disagreements, we are very much alike. Don't forget our brotherhood in the coming days. Whatever we may think of each other, the rest of the galaxy is a very dangerous place."
With that, Calabast and her escorts slid from their chairs while bringing their drinks elsewhere. Once they walked out of sight, every Vandal sighed in relief.
Tiss rubbed her head. "That's weird. Why did that Vesian spook decide to approach us out of the blue?"
"Their motives are unfathomable." Nolsen said. "Don't read too much into their actions. That's exactly what they want. Just remember that nobody can do anything to us while we are out in public on Harkensen I."
Someone else agreed with the security officer. "Aren't we supposed to enjoy a holiday? They just tried to screw with our heads. I say don't let them win! Let's end our shore leave on a good note!"
Everyone tried to put the strange encounter on the backburner, but not everyone succeeded. When Nolsen contacted some other Vandal groups, they all mentioned an encounter with suspicious Vesian individuals. Their group was not the only one visited by spooks!
"How many Vesians are assigned to stare at us?" Ves asked with dismay in his voice.
No one knew the answer, but evidently their numbers was much higher than everyone had thought. It had to be mentioned that hundreds of groups split up in Harkensen I and Harkensen III. Any Vesian intelligence operation needed to invest in a lot of manpower to stare at them all, let alone approach them in person for some inscrutable reason.
Ves didn't have a good feeling about this. "You know, I think we should be more careful from now on. Let's not visit anywhere remote or isolated."
"I've always taken that into account in our planning." Nolsen said. "But I can see why we need to be more prudent. Even if this is exactly what the Vesians want, we shouldn't play with fire."
The group resolved to remain in highly trafficked places on Harkensen I from now on. Visiting an exobeast safari or renting a boat to sail out into the sea had to be crossed off their list.
"The night is stretching on. Let's go back to the hotel."
The group left the bar and took an aircar to the hotel on Harkensen I which the Vandals had rented out. Though the place was less secure than the temporary compound on Harkensen III, it saved them an unnecessary commute between planets. There were also a number of Vandal security officers on patrol, which reassured the Vandals who slept overnight.
"Good night, Ves!" Tiss waved as everyone returned to their suites.
As Ves entered his hotel room, he walked over to the wide open windows and stared out into the city they were in at night. Lots of lights flashed as many tourists still sought out entertainment in the night. Beyond, boats and ships sailed across the waters in an endless merry of partying.
It was easy to forget that a war was taking place. The Reinald Republic sat at the other side of the Vesia Kingdom, so any repercussions of the war only affected them indirectly.
Having spent some time in this star system, Ves envied the Reinald Republic. Despite being small enough for the Vesians to devour in a single bite, the Frozen Leaf Alliance was like a timely umbrella against the rain. Under the auspices of this ironclad defensive alliance, the Reinald Republic possessed much more security than it ought to. This was the blessing they enjoyed from their geopolitical situation.
Unlike the Reinald Republic, the Bright Republic doesn't have any good neighbors to ally with. One of their tragedies was that the Bright Republic was surrounded by belligerents or nutbags.
To their galactic east sat the Vesia Kingdom. It went without saying that their conflict was irreconcilable. Over three-hundred years of wars interspersed with temporary peace periods created an enormous amount of enmity between the two rivalling states.
To the galactic west of the Bright Republic sat the Ylvain Protectorate. The Bright Republic attempted to draw them into an alliance many times, but the Ylvainans repulsed every overture with the same isolationist stance.
The Protectorate didn't get along well with everyone because every Ylvainan was a religious fanatic. To a state like the Bright Republic whose only religion was rationality, such fervor clashed directly against their values.
Though the Brighters and the Ylvainans were like ice and fire to each other, neither side wanted to go to war against each other. The Bright Republic already had their hands full with the Vesians, and they weren't snobby enough to think they needed to impose their values on the Ylvainans.
The Protectorate on the other hand had their own concerns. To their galactic south existed a state called the Star Faith Collective. The Collective was made up of religious fanatics who believed in an entirely different faith.
Compared to the Protectorate dislike to faithless dogs like Brighters, their animosity against the Collective was much more extreme. Discussions on religious dogma was a surefire way to spark a fight between citizens of both states.
Strangely enough, the Ylvain Protectorate and the Star Faith Collective never came to blows for some reason. Unlike the many wars between the Vesians and the Brighters, the two religious states largely kept their conflict contained.
"In any case, the Ylvain Protectorate can't help us at all."
To the galactic north of the Bright Republic sat a state called the Coman Federation. If there was one thing that defined a Coman, it was their fervor for transhumanism. Their deviance on this matter bordered on heresy, though their beliefs wasn't strictly illegal in the eyes of the CFA and MTA.
Nevertheless, they attracted quite a lot of dirty looks. The Coman pursuit for transhumanism led them to blend their physical appearances with aliens or amputate their limbs and replace them with cybernetic equivalents. Their preoccupation with their fetishes practically repelled the entire Komodo Star Sector.
Detesting the outside galaxy became ingrained in every Coman. Every baseline human was a primitive in their eyes. Though they were known to field a strong mech military, they spent most of their efforts on holding back their regional rivals and exploring the frontier for more alien marvels. Comans were known to be the best treasure hunters in the Komodo Star Sector.
"It's too bad our differences can't make us into allies."
Brighter diplomats attempted to draw the Comans into an alliance many times, yet their conceit against baseline humans prevented them from taking their neighbors seriously. If not for being surrounded by rival states, their elitist attitude would have pushed them into a war against the Bright Republic.
As what lay at the galactic south of the Bright Republic, the Independent State of Pillis was an oddball of its own. Smaller than the Bright Republic, the Pillis was a state as crazy as the Coman Federation.
The best way to put it was that they were radical independents. They violently rejected any notions of alliances and other entanglements. If not for the overwhelming strength of the CFA and MTA, they would have rejected their rules as well. As it was, the Pillisers barely tolerated the Big Two, believing it was only a matter of time before those hegemonic organizations fell.
"Every Pilliser is a doomsday fanatic."
For some reason, the Pillisers believed that the human race had reached their peak in the galaxy. Their gains at the end of the Age of Conquest represented the apex of their achievements. Every Age that followed marked the decline and end of the human race in the epoch of galactic history.
Their beliefs essentially turned them into giant jerks whenever they interacted with foreigners. The relationship between the Bright Republic and the Independent State of Pillis was very poor as a result.
In truth, the Bright Republic could have conquered Pillis if they really wanted to. As long as the Vesians were held in check, the military strength of Pillis wasn't enough to hold back the Mech Corps.
"Pillis has a lot of big brothers though."
The Independent State was only a branch of a larger organization that spanned many star sectors in the galactic rim. Their doomsday predictions held them all together, and they were known to transfer their strength between star sectors whenever their branches faced a pinch.
The only reason why Pillis hadn't borrowed the strength of their big brothers was because the other enemies of the doomsday cultists wouldn't stand by.
North, south, east and west, the Bright Republic was surrounded by hostiles and crazies. This was because most entities that initially settled in the Komodo Star Sector consisted of exiles. In fact, the Bright Republic counted among the crazies as well in some people's eyes!