”About that… ” Jake sounded like he swallowed a sour lemon.
”I think it ’s best to switch you over to Melkor.
He ’s been coordinating the Mech Nursery ’s defenses. ”

Ves waited for the comm channel to switch to Melkor.

”Ves? I ’ve been meaning to speak to you. ”

”I just heard the short version.
Tell me about the readiness of the mercenaries.
Who did you hire and what kind of issues do they have? ”

Melkor sighed on the other side of the channel.
”It ’s complicated.
First, do you know what mercenaries do during times of war? ”

”Some of them join the Mech Corps or get conscripted by them, right? ”

”Yes, and it ’s always the best of them that get snapped up one way or another.
Usually, mercenaries prize their freedom and identity, so the Mech Corps usually contracts them to defend less important places that still need to be protected.
So right off the bat, the best mercenaries have disappeared. ”

”Leaving the hiring market with the non-elites and the small to medium-sized mercenary corps who aren ’t worthy of notice. ” Ves added onto Melkor ’s explanation.
He could predict where his cousin was going with this story from his own understanding of how the market worked.
”Since this is a time of war, plenty of companies are shivering in their pants.
They can ’t bolster their security forces fast enough, so they ’ve immediately hired the leftovers who are still worth a damn. ”

The latest war between the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom already raged on for a couple of months.
The most farsighted companies already made their moves long ago.

”When you tasked us some time ago to hire some mercenaries as well, the outfits that were still available at that time are like the last kids you ’d pick to join your team.
They all come with various amounts of baggage.
The only good thing about them is that they know their records look bad, so they ’ve all been setting reasonable prices. ”

”Did you hire a cheap group then? ”

”Not exactly. ” Melkor shook his head.
”Those guys are liable to cut and run when the going gets tough.
I ’m not stupid enough to put my faith on those types.
Besides, none of these cowards indicated that they wanted to take on an assignment that would force them to fight directly against the Vesian frontline forces. ”

Ves snorted.
”Good luck with that.
I don ’t think those mercenaries can afford to be picky.
They ’ll probably go bankrupt very soon. ”

”It ’s better to be bankrupt than dead. ” Melkor shrugged.
”In any case, there aren ’t that many mercenary corps who are willing to accept a high-risk defense assignment, which is what ’s applicable to our situation.
I ’ve had to spend days negotiating with various outfits available for hire. ”

”And the result? ”

”Well, after discussing it with the LMC ’s upper management, we ’ve settled on a medium-sized group called the Oodis Mudriders. ”

”Charming name. ” The name of the outfit alone did not inspire much confidence in Ves.

”The Mudriders specialize in extended patrols, wilderness reconnaissance and other missions of that nature.
They ’re really good at what they do, so I ’ve decided to contract them even if they don ’t specialize in defense. ”

His cousin must have a good reason to do so.
”Then what ’s the problem with the Mudriders? ”

”There ’s no way in putting it gently, so I ’ll just say it.
The Mudriders have a black mark on their record. ”

Ves instantly turned serious.
”Really? And you hired them anyway? ”

What was a black mark? In the mercenary circles, the Mercenary Association kept track of each mercenary outfit ’s performance and whether they fulfilled their obligations.
They were much like the Mech Trade Association in that regard, though they did not wield any real power or maintained their own defense force.
In short, they acted solely as neutral arbiters.

In their record-keeping, they frequently had to deal with mercenaries that failed to do their jobs for some reason or another.
The MA would often be called to investigate the circumstances if the mercenaries and their employers failed to come to an agreement.
Either the mercenaries would be acquitted, or they ’d receive a red or black mark on their records.

A red mark signified a warning sign.
It meant that the mercenary corps in question had fudged their job somehow.
These marks instantly lowered the valuation of the corps, but fortunately for them the MA offered plenty of options to redeem themselves, usually through demonstrating good behavior in the next handful of missions.

It was a different case with a black mark.
The mercenary corps had to do a completely unforgivable act in order to acquire a black mark.
This usually entailed actions short of becoming a full pirate, but still looked pretty bad.
Most often, this consisted of destroying something that they ’d been assigned to protect, fleeing too early in battle, or getting caught doing something wildly illegal.

Many mercenary corps gave up on the spot once they received a black mark Sadly, the mech pilots wouldn ’t be able to get away with it either, as the black mark persisted in their personal records as well.
Many pilots therefore chose to retire from the mercenary business entirely.

To those who for some reason or another desperately wanted to stay in the business, the MA offered a couple of ways out.
The most popular one would be to redeem themselves through completing a number of missions with exemplary behavior.

Unlike with red marks though, the mercenaries wouldn ’t be able to remove their black marks with a string of boring and safe guard or patrol duties in the middle of nowhere.
They specifically had to demonstrate their valor through completing high-risk assignments.

”This is the first high-risk assignment for the Mudriders. ” Melkor continued to explain.
”They received their black marks at the outbreak of the war when they were contracted to defend a lucrative natural preserve planet.
For some reason, they did not prepare for the war and got caught with their pants down when a deep-ranging raiding party entered the system.
You can guess what happened next. ”

These Mudriders already sounded like idiots to Ves.
Who didn ’t know that a war was imminent back then? ”Okay, so their peacetime contract obliged them to defend the operations on the natural preserve, but they never actually expected to face the fangs of the Mech Legion.
Did they run immediately or did they at least pretend to put up a fight? ”

”It ’s actually both.
They used to be a fairly large mercenary corps with over seventy mechs.
Half of them mutinied against the mercenary commander and fled the system just hours after the arrival of the Vesians.
The other half became so demoralized that even if the commander wanted to make a stand, the circumstances forced him to pull back as well, hence the black mark. ”

While Ves felt a lot of sympathy for the mercenary commander, that did not mean he appreciated the commander ’s leadership abilities.
”Right, and now we ’re the ones they ’re tasked with defending.
How many mechs do they have? ”

”There ’s only twenty-four left.
The good thing is that most of them are advanced mechs.
The Mudriders who piloted the frontline mechs didn ’t hold much loyalty to the corps and don ’t possess strong wills.
What ’s left are the true core of the Mudriders. ”

Twenty-four mechs, most of them on par with the mechs of the Avatars of Myth.
That sounded a bit better.
This brought the defending mechs to at least half the strength of what the Vesians might bring to bear.

It was still short of insuring victory, but Ves could not afford to be picky at the moment.

Melkor proceeded to tell Ves a few other details about the Mudriders that he should know before suggesting that he should meet with the mercenary commander in person.

”The Mudriders are based in the mech stables next to ours.
You should really speak with the commander and try to convince him that the Mech Nursery can hold as long as they are committed to the fight. ”

Ves nodded.
He knew how important it was to prop up the mercenaries after suffering an enormous spout of bad luck.
”I ’ll go do that. ”

He cut the comm channel and proceeded to leave the underground portion of the Mech Nursery with Lucky in tow.

As he briefly glanced at the various floor, he noticed that the manufacturing complex had gone into full crisis mode.

His people halted every non-essential operation such as fabricating mechs and began to stow away every loose component and material laying around in the open.

Under the leadership of Chief Cyril, the mech technicians also started to tidy up the production lines and began to wrap them up with makeshift armor plating in order to protect them against collateral damage.

Out of everything in the Mech Nursery, the LMC could not afford to lose its three production lines.
As the most valuable physical assets of his company, the Vesian raiding force would definitely do their utmost to pound the expensive machines into scrap.

Once he reached the surface, he saw that most of the office buildings had actually been retracted underneath the ground.
While that didn ’t guarantee they would escape unscathed, it at least made them less of an obvious target.

As for the mech stables, for various reasons these structures couldn ’t be moved, but their sturdy construction could take a fair amount of blows before the succumbed.
Ves and Lucky moved to the largest structure which had been assigned to the Oodis Mudriders.

Upon reaching the entrance, the Mudriders must have gotten prior word of his arrival because their mech pilots and support personnel all stood at attention in front.

Ves got the sense that a fair amount of pilots used to serve in the Mech Corps.
It stood to reason that they stuck to the Mudriders when everyone else left the group.

An older man stood in front and approached Ves.
”Welcome to the Oodis Mudriders.
I am Commander Merin Husaan, the man in charge of these bunch.
Isn ’t that right?! ”

The Mudriders shouted in unison.
The discipline of those who remained still appeared to be strong.
The display quietly allayed some of the concerns that Ves still held.
At least the Mudriders hadn ’t been left with the dregs.

Once Commander Husaan dismissed his men and women, he led Ves to an office that he appropriated for his use.
”I appreciate you coming to pay us a visit.
You don ’t seem like the corporate types who let their underlings do all of the work. ”

How was Ves supposed to respond to such a remark? ”Your Mudriders form a vital part of our defense, so I can ’t afford to to remain hands off.
Now, I ’m aware of your outfit ’s recent history.
It doesn ’t look good. ”

Husaan let out a deprecating smile.
”It is not a secret that my Mudriders are much-diminished.
In truth, we ’ve had it too easy in the last decade.
We ’ve expanded too fast and brought in strangers to fight alongside us.
We trusted them to watch our hides, but at the critical moment, they turned their own backs to us and left. ”

”Can you guarantee that it won ’t happen again? We truly need your commitment to this coming fight. ”

”I will stake my mercenary honor on this task.
I would rather die than to see the mercenary corps that I ’ve built out of my own flesh and tears dissolve due to another act of dishonor! ”

That sounded great, but Commander Husaan did not speak for his entire crew.
Even though his men showed an encouraging display of unity, who knew if any of them held second thoughts? Once a single mech pilot ran away, his departure might lead to a cascade of defections, especially in the heat of battle.

Ves crossed his arms.
”Actions speak louder than words.
I ’ll reserve my judgement until the Vesians actually come. ”

”That ’s fair. ” Husaan nodded.
”All I can tell you is that we ’ll do our best to defend these premises, but if you want to employ us at our best, then you must grant us the autonomy to operate according to our strengths. ”

”What does that mean? ”

”I ’ve been arguing with the man you ’ve assigned to coordinate your defenses, and we have a disagreement on how my Mudriders should be employed. ”

”And you haven ’t resolved your argument? ”

”No. ” The robust mercenary commander shook his head.
”We ’re trained to fight on the run.
We are a skirmishing force, not a frontline unit.
Standing behind the walls and letting the enemy come to us isn ’t what we do. ”

It turned out that Commander Husaan wanted the Mudriders to be deployed outside the Mech Nursery.
Instead of defending the walls, the Mudriders would harass the incoming raiding force from the flanks and force them to split up their focus.

The idea sounded good, but the problem was that nothing held the Mudriders back from running away if they chose to do so.

Ves understood why Melkor was hesitant in granting them so much leeway.
They already possessed one black mark in their record.

”Let me speak to my cousin about it before I make a decision. ”

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