The Mech Touch Chapter 957
955 Immense Coffin
Once Ves and Chief Haine ascertained a huge problem in the amount of Vandals who lost their loved ones during the mission, they quickly brought it up to Major Verle.
To his credit, the commanding officer acted fast. Through accessing the records and through informal inquiries, the security officers quickly sought out every serviceman that posed a risk.
While not everyone appreciated being grabbed from their posts or their bunks by some armored goons, most of the crew showed understanding. They already heard about the attempted assassination attempt on Ves. What if these unhinged servicemen lashed out to the people next to them? What if they decided to go out with a bang by sabotaging a core component of the ship?
Within a single day, the security officers took over seventy basket cases into custody. Some resisted. Some even discharged their weapons. None of their resistance made a difference.
By the time the fleet emerged in a quiet star system close to the Aeon Corona System, the Gorgon's Gaze underwent the same upheaval.
As for the Jaded Sword and the two Swordmaiden light carriers? No one heard anything amiss from their ships. The Swordmaidens possessed a much sterner outlook on matters of life and death. Their harsh training along with the realities in the frontier already inured them against tragedies.
"If only the Vandals are as mentally resilient as the Swordmaidens."
If the surviving Vandals all underwent the mental resilience training sessions that Ves had devised on the ground, perhaps they wouldn't be so susceptible to their darker thoughts. Yet almost no one except Captain Orfan survived.
Having spent a long time working and fighting alongside the Vandals, he became intimately familiar with their good and bad points.
Ves liked them for their relaxed, liberal, tolerant and inclusive nature towards the conduct of their own men and women.
Yet compared to proper soldiers such as the Larkinson veterans that he often interacted with back on Rittersberg, the Vandals also seemed to fall short in many ways. Being treated as damaged and abandoned goods by the Mech Corps at large depressed their confidence and made them feel as if no one appreciated their earnest efforts.
This actually posed a huge threat to the Vandals whenever they suffered a major loss. In ordinary circumstances, the Vandals would never be involved in high-risk operations like this, so that was also why they were a bit slow on the uptake this time.
Fortunately, Major Verle moved quickly enough to take out the risk factors and made several moves to stabilize the morose morale that began to engulf the Vandal ships.
The most important measures to provide closure to the Vandals was to rush the military funeral ceremony.
Same as last time, the crew aboard the Shield of Hispania almost all filed into the largest mech hangar bay. Projections of the crew of the Gorgon's Gaze appeared in their midst as well.
Previously, the projections of the crews of the other ships had to be shrunk in size to make room for all the Vandals.
All the losses they suffered made that measure redundant. This only further emphasized that the Vandals lost many thousands of their own people.
The huge disparity made the hangar bay seem so empty and hollow.
Ves stood solemnly besides Chief Technician Haine and Chief Engineer Avanaeon. Shortly after his return from his negotiation session with Commander Dise, he realized that it would be inappropriate to continue wearing CFA colors and insignia.
He personally paid a visit to the armory and asked Chief Mandelsen to recoat his custom XV-99 Squalon in the dark green colors denoting his status as a mech designer in the service of the Mech Corps.
The new paint job covered up and removed the lieutenant commander insignia and all of the other symbols associated with the CFA. In their stead came the insignia that stood for his current position as head designer, technically temporary, and the sigil of a burning city that stood for the Vandals.
"You look a lot better now in your new colors. I don't feel as if I'm within the company of a poncy CFA officer now." Chief Avanaeon remarked quietly as Vandals kept pouring into the hangar bay.
Ves smiled at him. "CFA officers aren't as bad as they seem. They are only rather stuck up in the presence of space peasants."
"Is that how you see us now that you've ascended into their exalted ranks?"
"Don't joke with me, chief. I'm still a citizen of the Bright Republic. I won't be picked up by the CFA anytime soon."
The banter quickly died down as soon as everyone filed into ranks. In contrast to the last major funeral ceremony, only a single space coffin rested in the center.
In a major deviation from standard protocol, the Vandals who fashioned the coffin amplified its size by more than a dozen times. Ves heard that the coffin had actually been fashioned out of scrapped mech parts!
Such a huge coffin covered by the black-and-burgundy colors of the 6th Flagrant Vandals imposed a suffocating presence on the people present.
The ceremony started with a trumpet and a band of musicians playing a solemn tune. This helped up everyone in the appropriate mood.
When Major Verle finally stepped up to the raised podium, not a single Vandal showed any unruliness.
"This coffin resting before you stands for those we lost at Aeon Corona VII. Many of our fellow brothers and sisters will never see the light of the galaxy again, but are instead buried forever on the surface or in orbit of that deadly, forbidden planet."
The man spoke on for ten whole minutes. His simple, unpretentious speech lacked the usual tricks and wordplay intended to pump up everyone's morale. This time, the losses were far too severe for the Vandals to get over them with a single ceremony.
They needed much more time to make peace with the events in the Aeon Corona System. They also couldn't wait until they returned home to start their grieving process.
At the end of the ceremony, antigrav modules pushed the giant coffin out of the hangar bay and into the cold emptiness of space. Eventually, it would drift into the local sun, whereupon it would melt and break down into particles that would one day be turned into new stars or planets.
It wasn't a pompous ceremony, but it forced every surviving Vandal to undergo a period of introspection. The wild and unrestrained celebration of a few days ago had all but disappeared.
They could no longer push off the inevitable. Though morale dipped even lower throughout the ship, Ves saw it as a good thing as it was bound to happen sooner or later. The brass would rather keep it under control than to let every individual Vandal cope with the losses by themselves in a long, strewn-out manner.
"Still, we're not out of the woods yet." Ves said to himself. "We are still well into the deep frontier."
Under the guidance of savvy Swordmaiden navigators, the remnant allied fleet proceeded to transition in a slightly circuitous route back home.
They transitioned into several familiar star systems they once passed by on their way to the Aeon Corona System. However, the navigators also deviated from the route, sometimes landing them in empty star systems and other times interrupting the placid lives of the local sandmen colonies.
The aliens were definitely alarmed by the presence of human ships in their territory!
Fortunately, the Swordmaidens only intruded in the territories of marginal sandmen colonies. The sandmen admirals who patrolled these quiet systems may be numerous, but even a six-year old kid outmatched their intelligence.
Even so, a steady train of sandmen ships trailed after them even through FTL. The slow but persistent pursuit forced the Vandal and Swordmaiden vessels to keep transitioning as soon as their FTL drives finished cycling.
The only good thing about attracting dozens of sandman motherships was that it deterred the Dragons of the Void from continuing the pursuit.
"Haha! Those pirates won't be bothering us now that the aliens want to have their turn first."
"I don't know about you, but attracting all of those sandman motherships makes me nervous. What if they catch up?"
"I'd rather have a hundred stupid sandman motherships than half-a-dozen human pirate vessels on my tail."
Although not everyone agreed to this strategy of provoking and attracting the sandmen to deter their human opponents from continuing the chase, Ves couldn't help but admit it worked.
As long as they avoided attracting an old and highly developed sandman leader, the quicker vessels of the Flagrant Swordmaidens possessed ample confidence to remain ahead of any tagalongs.
More than a month passed by as they both skulked and raced towards the shallow frontier. Everyone slowly resumed their work, and there was plenty to do even if the carriers carried far too much personnel.
At some point, the remnant fleet reached an empty star system close to the Woolox System which hosted the further known human-owned space station in the Faris Star Region.
The Dragons of the Void stood behind that space station, so the remnant fleet had no intentions of dropping into the Woolox System for resupply.
Unfortunately, the remnant fleet really needed to supplement some of their supplies, especially with regards to fuel!
The situation couldn't be more clearer as Ves tallied the overall situation of the two surviving Vandal ships.
"Our supply situation is dire." He inputted into the logs. "In our pressing need to repair as much spaceborn mechs as possible, we've long run out of almost all essential rare exotics and bulk metals. The only critical materials left are reserved to maintain the Shield of Hispania and the Gorgon's Gaze."
He accessed the files that relayed their current fuel and energy supplies.
"Starship-grade fuel is running out and our overall energy reserves are dipping into dangerous territory. The lengthy mission and the route the navigators insisted on following has not been very efficient in terms of fuel usage. The Vandal combat carriers don't even have enough fuel left to make it all the way to civilized space. On the upside, we didn't waste too much time and we should be out of the deep frontier within a week."
Everyone from the inner circle already knew how dire their fuel situation had become. Ves was sure that Major Verle had a plan in mind for that. Perhaps they would be able to obtain some from the pirates or from an independent star station.
Ves turned his attention to the state of the crew. "Morale is low but stable. Many Vandals are simply tired of fighting and just want to get home. I doubt anyone even cares about the war anymore. While everyone still hates the Vesians, they're much too worn out to give a damn about taking revenge. They lack the confidence to win against our mortal enemies."
Their overwhelming defeat against the Meandering Monkeys and the Hostland Warriors in the final ground battle practically scarred the Vandals. While Major Verle did his best to keep the details and the logs about the battle under wraps, word nonetheless leaked out. The lack of solid details left every Vandal to imagine their own version of events.
It frustrated Ves a bit to see the Vandals so traumatized at the thought of facing the Vesians in battle again. Even the Swordmaidens showed more courage!
"Speaking of the Swordmaidens. Even through my regular chats with Ketis, I don't know what Commander Dise is up to these days. They're still undergoing a transition period. I don't think they're plotting to stab our backs, but we'll see what happens in the future."
One change from the monotonous pattern was that the surviving Swordmaidens finally met up with the backup ship they hid in this unremarkable system.
After the Jaded Sword transmitted an encrypted signal to a specific coordinate in a dense asteroid belt, a small and zippy corvette launched out of a hiding spot within an asteroid.
The corvette that emerged was called the Saffron Poke! While she only served as a courier vessel for the Swordmaidens, the most vital point about this little ship was that she carried a working, functional quantum entanglement node!
The survivors of the Flagrant Swordmaidens could finally reconnect with the galactic net!