Ves, Major Verle, Captain Orfan and a bunch of other senior officers aboard the Shield of Hispania entered the shuttle and traveled over to the flagship of the mech regiment.
The large and well-armored combat carrier flew close to the Wolf Mother, and looked like a beast. Large, modern and expensive, every other combat carrier of the Flagrant Vandals seemed old and shabby.
"That's the Princely Jackal, a recent acquisition when Colonel Lowenfield turned the fortunes of the Vandals around." Major Verle noted when he spotted Ves studying the flagship's projection. "She can field sixty mechs, thirty landbound and thirty aerial mechs, and is extremely well-suited to make landings on hostile ground."
"I would have figured the Vandals would opt to go for a spaceborn-focused combat carrier as a flagship instead, sir."
"The Vandals already have that covered. Combat carriers show their true value in closer proximity to battle."
The Princely Jackal certainly radiated a sense of class compared to the other carriers and support ships which generally looked worn and past their prime. As the shuttle touched down upon the shiny deck of the shuttle bay, a large procession of security officers greeted the new arrivals.
After the obligatory salutes and other trivial ceremonies, Captain Orfan personally stepped forward and handed over the lockbox to a security captain, who immediately placed it into an even larger and sturdier lockbox.
The Verle Task Force finally managed to hand over the mission object to the main element of the Flagrant Vandals! This marked the formal end of their perilous duty!
"We'll take good care of the contents, major." The security captain said respectfully before bringing over half of his men away to secure the mission object in the Princely Jackal's vault.
A handful of other security officers began to escort the remainder deeper into the ship. As Ves looked around, he couldn't help but find the clean, sterile interior to be a stark contrast to the older but more homely interior Shield of Hispania.
The Princely Jackal's crew members that traveled back and forth also differed substantially from the survivors that barely made it back alive from the deep frontier. There was a sense of freshness in their faces, as if they had never been pushed to the brink.
Ves found their straight backs and their mild optimism to be a very jarring sight compared to the cynical, worn-out looks of the crew of the Shield of Hispania. Every survivor of the Shield of Hispania and the Gorgon's Gaze was a fellow comrade in his books. Each of them shared a deep bond with each other as they lived, fought and died together many light-years away from home.
The other Vandals who served under Major Verle also became affected by the subtle changes. An unavoidable sense of alienation welled within their hearts, but they mostly kept it within themselves. No matter how long they'd been separated, the Vandals were still on their own side.
A whirlwind of questioning and debriefings ensued. Major Verle already warned Ves that many people would want to read his reports and hear him retell certain incidents in person. This wouldn't be the last time Ves retold the same stories over and over again.
Fortunately, Ves didn't undergo a hostile interrogation, as he was one of their own. After answering some mild questions and elaborating on some points they wanted clarification, he finally got shuffled to a row of seats placed just outside Colonel Lowenfield's stateroom.
The commanding officer of the Flagrant Vandals called up every participant of the mission to an individual meeting. Major Verle and Captain Orfan already had their turns. After Lieutenant Commander Soapstone exited from the hatch, Ves got called up to enter.
Compared to Major Verle's rather plain and spartan stateroom, Colonel Lowenfield added a bit more personal touches to her work environment. Fresh plants, projections of iconic sights from the Bright Republic and a display of diplomas and awards gave the impression that she was a loyal and hard-working officer of the Mech Corps.
Having heard so much about Colonel Lowenfield, he became surprised by her mild, plain appearance. Her groomed brown hair and thin stature made her seem almost invisible if not for her mech colonel insignia. She lacked the heroic bearing or the restrained aggression of someone like Major Verle who used to be a genuine mech officer who fought on the frontlines.
To Ves, Colonel Lowenfield completely filled the stereotype of a bureaucratic logistical officer who mainly stayed as far away from the frontlines as possible.
Yet she was also exactly the kind of leader the Flagrant Vandals needed the most.
Ves also reminded himself that besides her considerable administrative ability, she also wore the hat of an agent of the Firestarters!
As soon as he sat down and the hatch behind him closed up, a subtle interference field suffused the entire compartment.
"Mr. Larkinson. How very nice to meet you." She began in her mild, wispy voice. Still, Ves sensed a strong intensity hidden behind her words. "As you know, I am Colonel Lowenfield. Major Verle must have told you a lot about me, correct?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ves answered in a restrained manner. "He told me you were..."
Even though he didn't lack for confidence, he felt a bit subdued when talking face-to-face with the ultimate head of the Flagrant Vandals.
"There is no need to hold back here. It is true. Major Verle and I are both representatives of the Firestarters, which in official parlance is designated as the Unconventional Action Division of the Flashlight military intelligence service. You will be familiar with their meanings in time. Outwardly, you answer to the Mech Corps, but in reality you answer to Flashlight. Every Vandal already does so from the start, whether they know it or not. Most don't. Any questions?"
Ves couldn't help but frown a bit. "Are the Flagrant Vandals nothing more than a cat's paw for the Firestarters, ma'am?"
"That is not an unfair description of this mech regiment." Lowenfield replied in a slightly formal tone. "The 6th Flagrant Vandals are not treated fairly, and perhaps you share in their indignation. However, the truth is that it is set up to be expendable from the start. A certain amount of flexibility and resourcefulness is required to survive the tasks the Flagrant Vandals are meant to fulfill. From all reports, you have proven to be abundantly capable in both aspects. It's strange."
"Strange in what aspect, ma'am?"
She smiled at Ves. "You are so very different from the straight-laced Larkinson mech pilots. Compared to Colonel Ark Larkinson who is always as straight as a rod, Major Verle has described you as the most crooked mech designer he ever had the pleasure of working with. Do you agree with that assessment?"
How the hell should Ves even respond to that remark? "It has been a trying time for all of us. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Isn't that the Vandal way?"
Colonel Lowenfield actually chuckled. "You are very different from Ark. It is a wonder the two of you are part of the same family. Ah, but I digress. Your family lineage isn't on the agenda today. Instead, I've called you here is to ask for clarification on a few points of your report and to tell you what is in store for you on our return trip to the Republic."
The colonel then proceeded to put Ves into yet another interrogation. Though she asked a lot of uncomfortable questions about certain matters that Ves really didn't want to elaborate upon such as Miss Calabast or the reason why the Starlight Megalodon met her end so abruptly, she didn't press him too hard.
"I really can't elaborate on these points, ma'am." Ves said. He couldn't hide the fact that he deliberately left a lot of pertinent information out of his reports. "Some secrets of the CFA are best left in their hands."
"That's a decent excuse." Colonel Lowenfield gave him a mental thumbs up. "Be sure to mention that whenever the Mech Corps or Flashlight press you on those topics. There is much about the CFA that we find unfathomable, so there is a tendency for them to subconsciously cross out any further inquiries that may appear to be encroaching on their territory."
The meeting lasted for an hour but mostly progressed in an amicable manner. Despite his stiffness in front of Lowenfield, the colonel never did anything to make him feel uncomfortable.
Obviously, Colonel Lowenfield inherited Major Verle's trust and favor in him despite only meeting in person for the first time.
This also signified that the two were pretty much in cahoots and could be considered part of the same clique.
This was good. No matter what he thought about Colonel Lowenfield, at least he enjoyed her favor.
At the end of the meeting, Lowenfield finally dismissed him. "You have an appointment with Professor Velten aboard the Wolf Mother. For now, you are reassigned to serve directly under her at the factory ship. Don't keep her waiting."
After filing out of Colonel Lowenfield's stateroom, a security officer guided him all the way back to the shuttle bay whereupon he shuttled over to the massive factory ship that dwarfed anything the Beggar's Bounty and the Linever Swan could produce.
As Ves stepped out of the shuttle, he felt as if he returned back in time to the point where he first arrived at the factory ship. Back then, he was just another Apprentice Mech Designer who performed low-level duties in the development of several internally-developed mech designs of the Vandals at the design department.
It made for an extremely stark contrast compared to the hefty responsibilities he carried as the temporary head designer of the Verle Task Force. He shouldered an immense burden as he sometimes literally ensured that the Vandals kept their mechs functional enough to fight!
"I'd hate it if I have to go back to grunt duty after all I've done." He muttered.
Ves did not need an escort to navigate to the design department, nor did he need someone to knock at the hatch leading into Professor Velten's office. After passing by a handful of vaguely familiar faces, Ves finally entered the office of the only Senior Mech Designer presiding over the mechs of the Flagrant Vandals.
This old woman who seemed to have aged even further than before carried the real burden of the mech regiment! Having shared much of her responsibilities though at a smaller and more limited scale, Ves sympathised
Even though she looked as close to death as Venerable O'Callahan, Professor Velten still possessed enough lucidity to read his expression. She threw him a sharp glance.
"I don't need your pity, Mr. Larkinson. Now, sit and let's get this over with. I'm sure you are tired with all of the inquiries you've been through, but I'm not a security officer or a mech officer. I'm a mech designer, and so are you, so we will only discuss matters concerning mechs in this office. Let us begin with the very unique expert mech the Vesians has fielded at Aeon Corona VII, the Belisarius if I recall."
Ves mostly answered questions about the Belisarius, the breakdown effect and his methods of coping with it, the Enduring Protector design that never really saw an opportunity to fulfill its purpose, his stint as a 'Senior Mech Designer' in the hierarchy of the Starlight Megalodon, and more.
He generally satisfied Professor Velten's curiosity as none of these topics touched his bottom line. Of course, he still fudged a few details here and there, and he couldn't help but puff himself up just like he used to kiss up to Virtual Commander Cosit.
Unfortunately, the professor's senility acted up several times during the inquiry. She wasn't long for this galaxy, Ves privately concluded. He found it to be a shame that the life-prolonging treatment serum that so many Vandals had sacrificed their lives for wouldn't be used to give her a new lease on life.
A Senior Mech Designer such as Professor Velten simply wasn't worth the investment.