The Flagrant Vandals calmed down after being flustered by the unexpected presence of the Caged. The infamous gang with a reputation as powerful as the Blood Claws on Bentheim was a force to be reckoned with. Their subtle opposition against Roppo's rigid and hierarchical culture had forged them into capable warriors.
If Ves listed out the combat strengths of all four fleets in the Remoss System, then the Flagrant Vandals still possessed an absolute advantage. At their root, the task force was detached from a military mech regiment, which utilized better technologies, higher quality mechs, disciplined mech pilots and brought more forces.
Even if they hadn't brought their entire mech regiment, even if they lost half their mech pilots due to attrition, their strength was simply incomparable to any private outfit.
The Vandals possessed another advantage. Unlike the other three outfits, they had been raised as a mixed combat force, but their emphasis lay on their spaceborn assets. They possessed abundant battle experience in space and didn't shy away from increasing their advantage in this area.
Their battle credentials had also been strengthened through their recent engagements. Though they lost a lot of mechs and mech pilots, the survivors gained valuable experience on how to tackle a tough defense-oriented mech force.
Lydia's Swordmaidens were robbers masquerading as pirates. Though they possessed some tricks when it came to spaceborn combat, most of their focus lay in their landbound assets. The Vandals valued the Swordmaidens for their landbound fighting capability, but placed modest expectations on their ability to fight in space.
Both the Masters of Combat and the Caged excelled in landbound battles as well. Naturally, they possessed enough spaceborn mechs to safeguard their fleets, but their bias in favor of landbound combat worked against them now that the nearest terrestrial planet or moon was at light-hours away.
"Now that we've linked up with the Swordmaiden fleet, we will be engaging the Masters of Combat and the Caged in combat. Ready yourselves for battle!" Major Verle announced.
The Vandals appeared ambivalent at this aggressive move. The higher ups who attended the briefing beforehand all supported ganging up on the Masters of Combat with the help of the Swordmaidens. With an overwhelming number of ships and mechs, they could easily defeat the Vesian mercenary corps without paying a bloody price.
That equation changed with the surprise appearance of the Caged. The gang from Roppo might not possess any advantages, but just the fact that they could throw a bunch of mechs on the battlefield posed a significant hindrance to the Vandals.
The Vandals expected to win a battle for free. Now that they faced the prospect of a slightly more even fight, some of the Vandals became discontented. Opportunism and exploiting weaknesses had been baked into their DNA. The upcoming battle threw them out of their element.
Yet Major Verle was not yet done. He had been holding a private discussion with Commander Lydia of the Swordmaidens for several minutes. Behind the privacy screen, they did more than hash out their strategies.
The mech major turned to his communications officer. "Hail the flagship of the Caged fleet. Make it a tightbeam and do your best to hide it from outside observers."
"Sir, the enemy ships are following a constant evasion pattern. At our current distance, the beam won't hold."
Verle waved the problem away. "Just make it clear to their sub-boss that we want to speak to him. He should listen to what we have to say."
The Shield of Hispania soon cast out an invisible tightbeam that resembled a laser. It traveled forth at lightspeed and briefly brushed against the hull of the Severed Tail, the flagship of the Caged fleet.
Ordinarily, if a ship was being pinged by a laser beam, the vessel in question would do everything possible to move away. Powerful laser weapons calibrated for extreme-range fire could stretch across light-seconds and inflict measurable damage, but the stupendous range also made it ridiculously easy to dodge the beams.
In general, it was considered a waste of time to pelt an enemy fleet with lasers at this distance. The crucial seconds of delay meant that the mechs who fired their laser weapons basically had to guess the evasion pattern of their targets.
The Severed Tail initially took the low-powered tightbeam as a laser strike, so she immediately intensified her evasion efforts. The surrounding ships of the Caged followed suit, afraid that they would be the next ones being targeted.
The ships of the Caged might not boast the best armor, but their mobility was better than average. Their agile ships gracefully weaved in every direction, making it impossible to hit them with an extreme-range beam for more than a fraction of a second.
The Shield of Hispania persisted nonetheless. The gunnery officer, normally in charge of managing the Akkara heavy mechs when slotted into the bunkers across the hulls of their ships, personally took over control over the tightbeam and used his best judgement to paint it against the Severed Tail.
After a minute of intermittent hits, the Severed Tail finally did something other than attempting to dodge the beam. The entire Caged fleet ceased their high-intensity maneuvers to conserve their fuel supply and prevent the build-up of excessive heat. While their ships still followed a dodging pattern, they at least wouldn't be running on fumes.
"Sir! We've received an unknown signal!" The communications officer spoke up again. "The Severed Tail has transmitted a burst of encrypted data to us!"
Major Verle smirked. He pressed a few buttons on his projected console. "I've just sent you the encryption key."
When the Vandals sent out a tightbeam to the Severed Tail, they demanded the utmost amount of prudence. Any reply had to come in the form of an encrypted burst. If anyone was listening in on their exchange, the encryption should at least delay their eavesdropping for a couple of hours.
That was enough time to get things done.
Once the communications officer unlocked the data, he recognized its contents. "Sir, the data describes an evasion pattern!"
The Caged transmitted the mathematical formula of their own evasion pattern! Normally, this was top secret information that was only shared among a single fleet to coordinate their movements. Leaking it to an outsider could potentially be disastrous.
Now that the gunnery officer received the data, he loaded it into the targeting system and activated the tightbeam transmission. This time, the beam unerringly landed upon the hull of the Severed Tail. The transceivers of the ship read the transmission and sent out their own tightbeam transmission.
A continuous connection formed between the two vessels. Though the Vandals and the Caged went through a lot of trouble to establish this channel, it was almost absolutely secure.
While it was easier to establish a channel through their quantum entanglement nodes, this form of communication was not entirely secure. The biggest problem was that it went through too many stops. If the subject of their conversation leaked at any stage, this opportunity would be wasted.
A lower-tech tightbeam limited to a couple of isolated systems aboard both flagships was much easier to control. A proper pair of tightbeams should be invisible to any other observers out the way.
A projection appeared in front of Major Verle's face. This time, he didn't bother erecting a privacy screen.
A weathered man's face looked straight at Major Verle's face. "Flagrant Vandals. I've heard much about you. I did not expect to see you again so soon."
"I am Major Quinlist Verle. Who am I speaking to?"
Ves almost spurted his breath. So his first name was Quinlist? No wonder nobody called him by his first name! Out of every Rubarthan-style name he had heard so far, Quinlist was at the top of the silly list!
Nevertheless, the commander of the Caged fleet did not display any amusement. Due to the distance involved, a delay of several seconds ensued as the tightbeam signals had to travel several seconds back and forth.
"My name is Alain Scornburned. I am the sub-boss of this fleet."
"Can you speak on behalf of the Caged?"
Scornburned growled. "My control over my forces is complete. There is nothing holding me back. Not even my boss will countermand my decisions on the field."
The command structure of the Caged was fairly loose compared to other Roppongan organizations. That didn't mean that anarchy reigned among their ranks, but the sub-bosses possessed enough autonomy to deviate from their directives.
The middle management of the Caged expected nothing less. If the higher ups kept a tight grip on power, then they would have proven themselves to be no better than the orthodox Roppongans.
"You know what I'm here for, Scornburned. Our goal is to annihilate the Masters of Combat. Hitching your battle wagons to a soon-to-be-deceased mercenary corps is a waste of time and resources. With or without you, we're not letting the Masters of Combat leave the Remoss System intact."
Those powerful words immediately set the tone in this negotiation, for that was what the Vandals had aimed for from the start. No matter what reasons the Caged may have to ally themselves with the Vesians, their current situation didn't seem wonderful.
Nonetheless, the sub-boss did not yield in front of the Vandals. "The Caged have made a pact with the Masters of Combat. We do not break our agreements lightly. Your efforts at dividing us is useless."
Both sides were basically posturing. An invisible war of words and implicit meanings was being waged between the two.
Verle eventually smirked after staring down the sub-boss for a few seconds. "Let me tell you what will happen if you won't buzz off. The Swordmaidens and us will catch up to the lumbering tubs of metals the Masters of Combat call their ships in an hour or two. We both know their acceleration is abysmal. Even if your fleet predominantly consists of swift and agile light carriers, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The only way you can combine your strengths is to move as one, and that entails moving as slow as their heaviest ship."
"We can split off from the Masters of Combat and circle around the Masters of Combat."
"If you dare to do so, we'll send out our fastest mechs to chase down your forces first. Your mechs and ships lack the resilience of the Masters of Combat. Though you're not our primary target, I don't mind it if I have to clean you up first."
Scornburned did not appear pleased. It was true that the Caged was in an awful position. Facing a superior enemy force, the only way the Caged could get the better of their opponents was to leverage their mobility. Yet the necessity of partnering up with the Masters of Combat meant that their crucial advantage in this aspect couldn't be unleashed!
"In fact, if you don't accept my suggestion, I can promise you our forces will focus our firepower on your mechs over those of your already-doomed allies. It will take a while to crack the shells of their mechs, but the mechs of the Caged aren't as difficult to break."
"Don't underestimate our forces." Sub-boss Scornburned replied with a glowered face. "Anything can happen in a battle. Combining our long-ranged firepower with the defensive prowess of the Masters of Combat is a match made in heaven."
Their combination sounded good, but the problem was that it gained the most effect on land. In space, the huge distances and the three-dimensional nature of the battlefield meant that the fragile ranged mechs of the Caged wouldn't be hard to reach.
"You know that won't help you in the end. Our patience is wearing thin, sub-boss. This is our last offer. Step aside and make your way out of this star system. We didn't come here to stomp you, but we will if it's convenient."
Verle grinned at the sub-boss of the caged. For a moment, Scornburned weighed possibility of yielding in front of the Vandals and the Swordmaidens. Nobody knew what went on in his mind, including his fellow Caged.
Eventually, he came to a decision. "The Caged does not yield in front of a couple of words! We have never shied away from combat, and if we continued to yield in front of a superior force, how can we call ourselves Roppongans?! Say no more, major. We fight! See you on the battlefield!"
The feed cut off, leaving the command center with disappointed Vandals. Nobody doubted their eventual victory, but going through two outfits instead of one would lead to greater losses than anticipated.
Still, even though the sub-boss answered with a rejection, Verle didn't appear to be disappointed. If anything, his grin had widened. "Sub-boss Scornburned was playing to his own crowd. They'll fight. That can't be avoided. Yet whether they will stay is another matter."