The Barracuda, accompanied by the ships of the Battle Criers, briskly crossed the stars in the next couple of weeks.
The small fleet left the territories of the Kinner Tribe without fanfare and cut through the numerous other states that led to their next stop, the Chuko Republic.
Though Gavin continually hinted that they'd be better off making a wide circle around the problematic state, Ves resolutely stuck to his choice.
"It's just a couple of isolated incidents, Benny. You're far too much of a worrywart. The odds of encountering raiders is exceedingly small." Ves calmly replied as he scratched Lucky's chin.
"That does not make our journey any less dangerous! Recently, there have been stories about convoys being waylaid by well-armed raiding forces! The attacks all took place on the major trading lanes as well!"
"Those attacks made sense because those ships were carrying valuable trade goods. Please recall our fleet composition. Does the tiny Barracuda and the shabby and skinny vessels of the Battle Criers look like we're carrying any valuables?"
"Exactly! Our cargo capacity is pathetic compared to conventional trade convoys! Any decent pirate with a miniscule brain could figure out that the Ion Tracker and the Glaze Hopper, our largest vessels, have devoted most of their capacities to carrying mechs! As for the Purple Star, Belfast and Okuri, the three support ships are so small that it's incredibly obvious that they are only carrying low-value supplies!"
"You're worth something, boss. The market price for a captured Journeyman Mech Designer is enough to make an entire pirate gang set for life! Heck, even the Barracuda herself is worth a great fortune if she's captured intact!"
"..That's true." Ves admitted. "Yet they'll have to get to us first. Our fleet is much more mobile than a typical trading convoy. None of our ships are floating tubs who require half a day to finish cycling their FTL drives. If we happen to stumble in an awful situation, the Barracuda can jump into FTL ahead of time, thereby depriving the raiders a reason to keep fighting against the Battle Criers."
He already thought about every likely scenario that might pop up during their entry into Chuko space. Even if the state degenerated into a microcosm of the frontier, Ves still expressed confidence that most of the belligerents involved would rather turn their against each other. There was no benefit to assailing a random bystander like him who was just passing through the state!
After packing off Gavin and his concerns for the day, Ves still had to spend some time with the other guests on his ship. He checked in with Nitaa and Crindon who were off performing their duties. Nothing much had changed on their end so the conversations remained brief.
Only then did Ves divert his attention to the more problematic guests aboard the Barracuda. Ves held Lucky in his arms as he entered the ship's lounge.
"Well. I thought I might find you two here." He spoke upon entry.
Imon and Casella Ingvar still dressed themselves in their impeccably sharp household guard uniform. It was as if they still clung to the illusion that House Ingvar still stood proud.
"Mr. Larkinson.""Mr. Larkinson."
"Have you moped enough yet?" He spoke. "I'm not paying you to act like passengers. I'm paying you to pilot mechs."
"We've been keeping our skills sharp by practicing in the simulators!" Casella protested.
Ves slammed his fist against his palm. "You're not doing your jobs! Even if we aren't forced into battle, there are plenty of responsibilities that mech pilots ought to fulfill. You used to be the commander of your household mech company, so you should know them very well, Casella!"
"We can't! Those uncouth Battle Criers disgust me! They disgust us both!"
"Imon Ingvar, are you a mercenary or are you a noble?"
His question cut deep. Both Ingvar siblings became downtrodden all of a sudden. They tried to reject the reality as long as possible, but they were simply staving off the inevitable.
"Look, regardless of your dark and dreary pasts, you are working for someone now. You may think little of the Battle Criers, but the Kinner mercenary corps has dutifully deployed patrols whenever our fleet arrives at a new star system. They've been keeping all of us secure without any of the whining that you exhibit. Tell me, please. Between the Battle Criers and you two, who has been productive and who has acted like lazy bums?"
The Ingvars looked more and more depressed as their employer confronted them directly on their lack of work ethic.
While Ves had been more than understanding of their personal circumstances, at some point they just had to pick themselves up and move on with their lives. He didn't hesitate to bring out his inner Devil Tongue in order to give the pair a good kick in the butt.
"He's right." Casella spoke. She had always been the more rational and calm-headed of the pair. "We are not doing ourselves and our employer a favor by avoiding the Battle Criers."
"But Casella! Those unwashed brutes are completely incapable of acting with decorum! They smell! They laugh! They get drunk whenever they aren't at their posts!"
"At the very least they refrain from intoxicating themselves while they are on duty." She replied.
Ves scoffed. "The first steps you need to take is recognize the reality of your new status. From the way I hear you talk, you still turn up your noses whenever you think of the Battle Criers. Are you really better than them now that you are fellow mercenaries? In fact, the Battle Criers are more than justified to laugh and turn up their noses at you! The reason why those Kinners mock you is that you act like you're better than them while you are technically their juniors in the mercenary community!"
Again, Ves landed another fatal blow at their fragile prides. To their credit, Casella Ingvar managed to accept the reality of their situation a lot better than he expected.
It seemed that her previous leadership failure in allowing her former household guard company to mutiny humbled her deeply. After suffering such a grievous blow to her self-inflated sense of worth, how could she still pretend that she was still hot stuff?
Unfortunately, her brother Imon still required more convincing. "The Battle Criers are more like civilized pirates then proper mercenaries! I wouldn't be surprised if they engaged in surreptitious piracy between missions!"
"Are you willing to say that to Commander Cinnabar to his face?" Ves pressed as he stepped closer.
That caused the brash brother to look a lot less sure of himself. While Imon was confident he could beat the Kinner mercenary commander in a fair mech duel, if it came to fisticuffs he did not possess as much confidence!
"..The commander is a fine mercenary leader."
Ves nodded in satisfaction. "There's nothing wrong with being proud. Pride in yourself, your heritage and your accomplishments is essential to maintaining your confidence. But pride without the requisite strength to back it up is arrogance. If there's one thing I know, it's that arrogant people don't last long in the galaxy."
The harsh lessons he shoved through their throats might hurt, but they all rang true. While Ves disliked adopting a tough approach, weeks had gone by without any hint of significant progress. At some point, something had to give.
Fortunately, Ves had built up quite a bit of experience in dressing people down. It was all about presenting himself as an authoritative figure who knew what he was talking about. The fact that he was their employer already gave him a lot of leverage.
In the end, the two reluctantly decided that it might be best to get their lives back in order. Ves heavily pushed them towards returning to the Ion Tracker and trying to see if they could get along with the 'uncouth' and 'barbaric' Battle Criers.
"Don't take their attitude too seriously." He advised the Ingvar siblings. "For all of their rough exterior, the Battle Criers are an accomplished mercenary corps who have been through more battles than you've been in school. All of them are blooded warriors who have a wealth of wisdom to teach you as long as you respect their honor."
"Truly?" Imon asked skeptically.
"Don't take my words for it. Look up their record at the Mercenary Association's virtual portal. They have a long list of verified battles to their name. While their list of victories is already respectable, they've suffered some losses as well, but they always managed to bounce back. That is truly worthy of respect."
One of the reasons why Ves liked the Battle Criers was that they had seen their fair share of hardship. Each time they suffered disaster, Commander Cinnabar always managed to lead his mercenary corps back up its feet.
They were no fancy ornaments who looked impressive but broke into pieces when knocked.
After Ves called for the Ion Tracker to send a shuttle to the Barracuda to pick up the two mech pilots, he returned to his stateroom.
Upon entering, he tossed Lucky into the air like usual and sat behind his desk.
"I've studied enough about bestial mechs and smart metal tech to start with the design process."
Too much theory and not enough practice led to overcomplicated designs. While Ves still had much to learn, his lack of experience in the two aforementioned fields meant that some of the most advanced literature became a bit too abstract for him to comprehend.
"Mech design revolves around application of knowledge. People like me fare best when learning by doing."
He was itching to unleash his pent-up creative desires. The last time he designed a mech was when he completed the Transcendent Messenger. A long time had passed since then, and more than enough time had passed for his once-depleted spiritual energy to return to an optimal level.
"If I don't start designing mechs very soon, it'll become crazier than Gloriana at this rate!"
Ves had no idea how other mech designers coped when they couldn't design mechs.
Having thought long and hard about how to resolve the inherent contradiction between bestial mechs and smart metal tech, Ves came up with a very practical soltuion.
"Bestial mechs sacrifice flexibility for rigid performance, while smart metal tech introduced flexibility at the cost of raw performance. Combining the two sounds like an awful idea, but who says the entire mech needs to be made out of smart metal?"
When Ves thought about smart metal tech, he instantly recalled the amazing smart metal mech that Axelar once witnessed during a mech games match. The mech dazzled him with its infinite transformations, but the machine eventually faltered against an opponent that beat its malleable form with overwhelming force.
"Bestial mechs and tiger mechs specifically will fare exceptionally poorly if their internal frames aren't robust enough to handle the stress."
His solution to that problem? Avoid incorporating smart metal in the internal frame of his mech design!
A much smarter application of smart metal would be to implement it to his design in a targeted manner. Only the parts that benefited from the properties of this soft but flexible substance ought to be molded with smart metal!
Framing the issue in this perspective gave Ves a lot more hopes about the viability of his design project.
"So the starting point will be a tiger mech frame. Which parts would perform better if they were made out of smart metal rather than rigid alloys?"
At first, nothing stood out. The tiger mech type had been refined over several centuries, and many mech designers worked to define a set of standards that worked great for everybody.
"The only issue is that those standards and conventions are fully geared towards mechs with rigid frames." He thoughtfully rubbed his chin while Lucky was ruffling up his hair in revenge for tossing his cat in the air. "If I want to apply smart metal onto a tiger mech that is more than just a gimmick, then I'll have to revisit the entire concept of this ferocious mech type."