The return of the first detachment of Avatars and Sentinels from the front was a much anticipated affair.

Surprisingly, Melkor already sent a message to Ves.
The Avatar Commander requested a subdued rather than a bombastic ceremony.

The war wasn ’t over yet.
Planets and star systems continued to fall while countless mech pilots and starfighter pilots sacrificed their lives every day.

In addition, the first batch of returning soldiers brought back the coffins of the fallen.

For that reason, Ves, Gloriana, and everyone else who worked for the Avatars or the LMC turned out to the landing zone of the Mech Nursery on a dreary morning.

In addition to his organization, Ves also invited the Larkinsons and the mech cadets attending their academy to take part in this event.

Every future mech pilot ought to become aware of what was in store for them.
Each mech cadet had to accept the prospect of returning to their homes in a coffin one day.

If they perished far beyond friendly territory, then their coffins would never make it back home! Instead, their comrades would have no choice but to launch them into the nearest star!

The ever-present clouds over Cloudy Curtain appeared darker than usual today.
A slight shower of rain poured down on the Mech Nursery, though none of the people present shied away from the rain.

The LMC already forecast the rain and installed a device that projected a wide-area rain cover over their heads.
A weak energy screen blocked the rain and diverted it to the sides.

”They ’re coming. ”

A single carrier emerged in the far distance.
Her hull already started to cool from the friction generated by her descent.

Slowly, the ship approached the Mech Nursery and landed her considerable bulk in the center of the landing zone.

Soon, her main hangar bay hatch opened up.
A large ramp extended from the opening, revealing a procession of Avatars and Sentinels in golden and silver dress uniforms.

Two columns holding coffins draped with flags of the Bright Republic emerged, stepping onto the landing zone in complete silence.

The ritual slowly proceeded according to some of the customs of the Mech Corps.
While the Avatars and Sentinels weren ’t soldiers, many of them used to serve in the military.

There was no need for them to fix what wasn ’t broken.
The familiar customs soothed their troubled souls.
No matter how much the mech pilots suffered at the hands of the sandmen, they had each fought for a noble cause.
The lives they directly and indirectly saved as a result of their sacrifice had elevated each of them into heroes.

As a trumpeter blew a sad tune, Ves stood as stiff as possible in order to convey his respect to the fallen.

The survivors brought over forty coffins back from the front.
Whether they actually contained any human remains, no one was sure.

Battles at the scale of mechs and alien constructs often resulted in a lot of damage.
The forces unleashed by a Sandbreaker rifle was enough to explode an unprotected office building! Even the lightest lasers released by a sandman drone was enough to vaporize a human body from existence!

Considering that most mech pilots perished instantly from a direct laser strike, the retrieval parties often came back with nothing but some floating ashes.

Therefore, no one ever asked what the survivors placed in the coffin.
Usually, the comrades of the fallen placed the clothes and some of the personal possessions of the deceased inside to take the place of the missing body.

The family members of the deceased looked at the coffins and started to cry and react under the darkened skies.

Seeing how much the families the dead have left behind were suffering made Ves feel a little guilty.
It was easy to dismiss the dead when they were just names on a list, but being confronted by their coffins and their saddened family members hit his emotions a lot harder.

He still steeled his face and presented a stoic front.
As a leader and one of the people responsible for sending them in battle, Ves could not show any remorse.

He stood by his choices.

The solemn ceremony slowly conveyed the honor and valor of the fallen to the audience.
The rituals had an especially strong effect on the normally energetic and rambunctious mech cadets.

Thousands of young potentates showed up to honor the dead today.
Each of them had grown up hearing heroic tales.
Coming face to face with the price they might pay for their chance of glory instantly doused their optimism.

They needed this wakeup call.
No mech pilot was invincible in battle.
Even expert pilots were mortal enough to lose their lives when faced with insurmountable opposition.

After more than half an hour of silent rituals, the ceremony finally ended.
As the surviving mech pilots eventually brought the coffin away, the Larkinson instructors slowly guided their pupils away.

The Avatars and Sentinels who remained home walked up to greet the veterans of the Sand War and guide them to their haunts.

Ves and Gloriana slowly turned around and departed while surrounded by their bodyguards.

Each of them held their cats in their grasp.
Due to the serious occasion, they remained remarkably quiet and well-behaved.
It probably wasn ’t easy for them to suppress their playfulness, but they knew when to listen to orders.

”Meow. ”

”I know.
Leadership is a burden that constantly weighs me down. ” He replied.
”I wasn ’t born to be a leader.
I don ’t even really enjoy ordering people around.
I only ever wanted to be a mech designer, you know. ”

”Meow meow. ” Lucky pressed his paw against his cheek.

You never know where life takes you.
That ’s the charm of living. ”

Life was precious and valuable because it wasn ’t predictable.
Perhaps some people were convinced that life could be modeled and calculated to a point where the future was already set in stone.

Ves did not buy into this belief.
He viewed life as a chaotic form of existence that provided endless variety.
It was exactly due to these properties that life must be cherished.

He shook his head.
How did he end up thinking about life after witnessing a ceremony that welcomed back the dead?

Somehow, he felt as if a part of him had sublimated after this event.
It was as if his understanding of life and death had shifted in a way that made him view reality in a different manner.

He looked around and saw many familiar faces.
Gloriana, Clixie, Nitaa, Gavin, Crindon, Raymond and so on had all stood by his side as they welcomed back the first detachment.

All of them were alive, but for how long?

If nothing happened to Gloriana, she was bound to live the longest out of all of them.
As a Hexer and a Journeyman, she would definitely be able to prolong her life by at least a century.

Clixie would also live younger than most people.
Rubarthan Sentinel Cats lived up to two-hundred years due to their excellent genetic properties.
As long as they were fed with high-quality food, it was no problem for them to reach the limits of their generous lifespan.

As for the rest, Ves couldn ’t really say.
People like Gavin and Crindon were very helpful to him, but not to the point where he felt inclined to pay for an opportunity to extend their lives.

Unless his fortunes improved enormously in the future, it was unlikely that he could make all of his valued subordinates live longer.

Eventually, they would grow older, retire their jobs and die long before Ves was even close to aging!

This was the inherent unfairness of modern society.
While it was amazing that humanity found a way to extend their lives, the treatments were so expensive that only a privileged few gained the opportunity to take advantage of them.
As for everyone else, they would only be able to live for up to 130 years.

Was this how an old geezer like Senator Tovar viewed life? Ves was only a tenth as old as this old fossil, but already he was starting to adopt the same cerebral mindset!

He was too young to view reality with jaded eyes! He still had a full life ahead of himself!

”I haven ’t even married or raised any kids yet. ” He muttered.

”What was that? ” Gloriana perked up next to him.
”Did you say something about having kids? ”

Ves awkwardly coughed.
”It ’s nothing.
I have to pay a visit to the Avatar base in order to check up with Melkor.
Please go ahead without me.
The Tovars are taking too long to fabricate the Deliverer.
Be sure to give them a good push. ”

”Uh, alright, Ves. ”

Some time later, Ves entered the Avatar base which had already started to take in the damaged, war-ravaged mechs of the Avatars.

Ves took a moment to inspect the machines.
Most of them consisted of Desolate Soldiers, and it became clear that none of them returned unscatched.

In his expert eye, he could see that even the most well-preserved mech exhibited a significant amount of wear and tear.
The Avatars fielded the mech way too much.
Sometimes, the mech technicians hadn ’t even been able to perform the most basic maintenance.

”How many battles have the Avatars been through? ” He wondered.

The reports and mostly-sanitized footage he received in the comfort of his office did not fully reflect the desperation that Melkor and his subordinates had experienced.

Seeing the mechs that returned with missing limbs or blackened holes in their frames made it clear why so many Avatars died.

To a mech designer, the damage to mechs told a much richer story than after-action reports.

”The sandmen are a dreadful foe. ” He judged.

They fought as if they embodied attrition warfare.
This was a difficult opponent to defeat for humans who were too used to fighting against other humans.

At the very least, their opponents possessed emotions.
It was possible to make them afraid so that their morale dropped to a point where they were ready to halt a conflict.

This wasn ’t so for the sandmen.
The sandman admirals exhibited no fear to speak of, and they apparently followed their orders to the letter despite facing certain death!

Ves felt a bit more respect for Melkor and the others who managed to return alive.
That was not to say that he belittled the dead.
It was just that living mech pilots were much more useful to him than those who weren ’t able to contribute to his security or prosperity.

He viewed the returning Avatars as treasures.
They formed the core of his Avatars of Myth!

After he finished inspecting the mechs, he moved into the headquarters and entered Melkor ’s office.

The two Larkinson cousins faced each other in the flesh for the first time in months.

Ves immediately paused as he sensed a different Melkor.

The cousin he sent off to war was gone.

The one who returned carried himself in the demeanor of a seasoned Larkinson veteran.
Ves even had the illusion that he was facing a smaller and less mature version of Magdalena Larkinson!

”You ’ve changed. ” He said bluntly.

”No thanks to you. ” Melkor replied.
He didn ’t hide the resentment in his tone.
”Do you know how much your restrictions have put us in danger? ”

”I know. ” Ves lightly said.
”I bear all the responsibility for your losses, but don ’t pretend that my Avatars died unjustly.
I ’ve given them several opportunities to withdraw.
They didn ’t.
They accepted the risks.
Now, they died in the service of humanity and our state. ”

”I really want to punch your face now.
Have you always been so callous when it comes to the lives of your own men? ”

Ves smirked.
”Go ahead.
I ’ll warn you that I ’m not as fragile as you think I am. ”

Of course, Melkor didn ’t punch his face, even if Ves practically invited it.
The mech commander had matured over the course of his wartime experiences.
In particular, he learned to deal with difficult superiors.

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