The Flagrant Vandals made their way back to the Bright Republic without any incident by following the main commercial space routes between the frontier and the Bright Republic.
Many ships plied this route, and the Bentheim System formed an indispensable link in one of the main trade routes from the frontier to the coreward side of the Komodo Star Sector.
All of this traffic meant that the Flagrant Vandals constantly passed through well-trafficked and well-guarded star systems, precluding the chance of any attacks from pirates or Vesians.
While plenty of risks still existed, the Vandals already planned for their return trip. Nothing dangerous of note ever sprung in their faces during their long way back to the Bright Republic.
Ves breathed a little easier once the Flagrant Vandals actually passed through the borders. Now that he finally returned home, he didn't have to worry as much about being jumped by unknown forces trying to steal the lockbox they retrieved from the Starlight Megalodon.
Instead of heading to the Bentheim System or the Tarry System, the Vandal fleet instead traversed to the New Foundation System, the second-most important star system of the Rittersberg region!
While the capital of the Bright Republic formed the nexus of the Rittersberg region, the New Foundation attracted almost as much attention due to the sole fact that it housed the headquarters of the Mech Corps!
As a star system occupied by the military, several mech divisions constantly stood by or patrolled the system and its occupied planets. Countless fixed defenses, minefields and orbital defense platforms constantly defended the headquarters and all the other important military infrastructure of the Bright Republic's main military branch!
"Is this your first time to the New Foundation System?" Laida asked.
"Huh. I figured a Larkinson like you would have been familiar here."
"I'm not the average Larkinson."
Many Larkinsons passed through the New Foundation System at some point or another. It hosted the bases of many elite mech regiments on its various fortified planets.
If Ves ever bothered to look the information up, then he'd probably be able to learn that over a dozen Larkinsons were stationed in this military star system right now!
Of course, Ves couldn't casually lift his comm and call them up. Right now, the war still raged on and many active duty service members possessed a comm just like his which completely restricted any outside communications.
"I miss my CFA comm."
Compared to the magical capabilities of that highly-advanced device, the replacement comm he received from the Wolf Mother's armory was like a toy to him. Each military-issue comm was a toy, actually, but Ves once again went back to square one by receiving the most basic one that didn't do more than take notes and answer calls from officers.
His exasperation regarding his current comm aside, Ves did look forward to his visit to the New Foundation System. As the ships of the Flagrant Vandals took up orbit over one of New Foundation V's moons, Ves and a large number of Vandals transferred into shuttles that brought them all the way down to the surface!
New Foundation V not only housed the headquarters of the Mech Corps, but also housed many other institutions falling under their umbrella. The soldiers picking up the Vandal officers never told them where they were being transferred, but from what little Ves could observe, his shuttle flew all the way to the surface and entered a guarded tunnel that led deep underground.
The lack of windows, projections and other sights made it difficult for Ves to be sure. The only information he had to go on was the slight noise, vibrations and air pressure carried over to the interior.
After this lengthy trip, the shuttle finally touched down upon a landing pad in a vast underground parking hall which housed numerous shuttles and even transports. The hustle and bustle of all of this traffic showed that this place saw significant traffic.
It was only after Ves observed the emblems affixed to the walls of the massive hall that he learned where they landed.
"This is the Bureau of Sector Affairs!"
"Correct." Major Verle said as he stepped out next to him. "Sector Affairs is responsible for any deployments, commands and other matters of the Mech Corps outside the borders of the Bright Republic. In short, that means that most military expeditions outside our borders falls under their purview. We will have to account for our actions during the mission today, but remember your instructions. Your back is already covered, so feel free not to answer any questions that you don't want to answer."
Ves and the other Vandals saw little of the neat and brightly-lit interior of the Bureau of Sector Affairs. Instead, armed security personnel led them all through a familiar parade of debriefings and interrogation.
Having gone through this particular rodeo many times, Ves answered the questions that he didn't mind answering and kept his mouth shut on matters that he would rather not voice.
Of course, that didn't earn him any favors from BuSecA, as the bureau was sometimes called in shorthand. Still, the attempts at applying pressure on Ves mostly fell flat because they both knew the interrogators were toothless.
After several days of mostly pointless questioning and an endless amount of repeating himself, the people of BuSecA finally gave up on Ves and kicked him to a waiting area which housed various servicemen visiting the Bureau for some reason or another.
After spending a few more days in limbo with the rest of the Vandals that survived the inquiries, Ves and the rest of the Vandals were finally summoned again, this time to attend a closed award ceremony!
Major Verle clapped his back. "This is a good sign. It means all the bureaucratic boxes are ticked and all of the questioning is over. The most important point is that we fulfilled our mission and successfully handed over the lockbox to BuSecA, who will make sure its contents will be transferred over to Rittersberg where it will be immediately put to use."
Ves nodded in understanding. "Some lucky geezer will probably see a new lease in life, then. Is that right, sir?"
"Maybe." He smirked. "Now, chin up, Mr. Larkinson. Even though it's a shame that our award ceremony will take place in an empty hall due to the classified nature of our mission, it is still supreme honor to participate in it. If you look around, you are the only non-mech officer of the Vandals to take part!"
This was true. While Chief Engineer Avanaeon and Chief Technician Haine made plenty of contributions to the mission, they would only receive a smaller award along with the rest of the Vandals of the Verle Task Force.
The main stars of the show appeared to be Major Verle and Captain Orfan, with Ves coming along as a guest star. A handful of other mech officer and mech pilots that displayed individual valor in battle came along as well, but the former three stole the spotlight.
Their escorts brought them to the upper levels of the headquarters of Bureau of Sector Affairs, whereupon they went through several intensive security checks before being led inside a grand auditorium hall.
The cold beige interior and the formal banners and symbols representing the Bright Republic, the Mech Corps, the Bureau of Sector Affairs and many other institutions gave the place a sense of military grandeur.
Giant statues of mech pilots and officials holding torches lined the rectangular hall. In between, a vast amount of empty space that could have offered room for thousands of attending people made it clear that this award ceremony would happen completely out of the public eye.
Neither Ves, Major Verle, Captain Orfan or the rest would be able to show their faces to the entire state in a massed broadcast.
He found that to be a shame, because a public award ceremony would certainly boost his business prospects. How could he make people know he distinguished himself in the war if hardly anyone heard of his awards?!
After a long and desolate walk surrounded by giant statues of past heroes of the Bright Republic, they finally reached the raised stage where the Vandals all took up their assigned places.
A number of military officers and officials stood close. Behind the backdrop of the giant banners representing the Bright Republic and the Mech Corps, the award ceremony started in near-complete silence.
A major general that Ves recognized as the head of the Bureau of Sector Affairs stepped forward!
"Today, we are gathered here to recognize the collective and individual valor of the 6th Flagrant Vandals." Major General Reginald Clesse began.
The award ceremony followed through a few rituals, but the oppressive nature of the vast and empty auditorium made everyone present a little uncomfortable, as if the Bright Republic was too massive to care about their individual efforts.
The old, grey-haired and strong-bodied head of BuSecA treated the occasion in a solemn manner, doing his best to banish away the eerie nature of the empty hall.
Once they went through the rituals and the introductions, a soldier holding an antigrav pad that levitated a large number of medals and ribbons stepped forward. Major General Clesse stepped to Major Verle and began to bestow the awards to the Vandals present.
"Mech Major Quinlist Verle, for your commendable leadership and..."
"Mech Captain Rosa Orfan, for your individual bravery and going above and beyond the call of duty..."
Both mech officers received high awards. While Ves didn't pay attention to all of them, he did note that Captain Orfan received the Darkness Eater, which was the second-highest distinction that the Mech Corps bestowed to its servicemen!
After General Clesse finished gushing over Captain Orfan, not just because she was the principal Vandal responsible for securing the mission object but also because she was an expert candidate. It never hurt to suck up to a future expert pilot, even for the head of the Bureau of Sector Affairs!
The general finally walked up to Ves after that. The soldier bearing the medals in the air activated a command that sent over three of them in front of Clesse.
"Ves Larkinson, mech designer attached to the 6th Flagrant Vandals. When I heard that a mech designer is eligible to receive these rewards, I first thought it was a mistake. Mech designers aren't eligible to receive some of the awards of the Mech Corps, and the ones they are almost never find their way in their hands. Do you know why?"
"It's because mech designers are non-combatants, sir." Ves replied as neutrally as possible. It wouldn't do to say anything too sloppy in front of this important figure!
General Clesse chuckled. "It is because mech designers are generally known for their cowardice. Hardly a day passes by for another mech designer to be accused of severe dereliction of duty. However, brave mech designers, while rare, do exist. When I saw that you are a Larkinson, everything is explained."
This was one time where the Larkinson name saved Ves a lot of trouble. He didn't speak up to deny he wasn't like the other Larkinsons this time.
"Aside from the awards that are bestowed to the entirety of the Flagrant Vandals, Mr. Larkinson, you are entitled to receive three as recognition of your individual merit."
The general grabbed the medals and ribbons from the air and placed them on the chest of his dark green uniform, whereupon they automatically fixed into place.
He first received the Darkness Eater, the second-highest award which only Captain Orfan received as well! Just carrying the Darkness Eater was a massive recognition of individual merit, and even if Ves was forbidden from ever sharing the reason why he earned it, just showing it off would be a massive boost to his reputation in the domestic market!
The second award he received was the Torchbearer, which signified that Ves directly took action that saved a lot of lives! He received this award specifically for the initiative he showed in saving and assisting the remnant of the ground forces aboard the Starlight Megalodon, and also for his legendary feat of defeating the Blind Men pirate gang with words alone!
Personally, Ves thought that the Darkness Eater already covered for the latter feats, but he didn't say no to receiving more medals!
"The final award is one that is specifically reserved for mech designers that have performed a supreme service to the Bright Republic."
Ves' eyes shone when he received the Golden Mech. This was one of the most coveted awards to mech designers in the service of the Mech Corps!