After that day, reality started to sink in the mech designers. Even the most ignorant among them learned that the Mech Corps did not care about their status and their achievements. No matter how many mechs they designed or how many pilots used their products, everyone started from scratch.
The ongoing pressure from the exercises and the inhuman way the processing center treated the mech designer really took a toll on everyone. No one had the time to smile and chat with each other. They needed to conserve every available moment to rest and regain their strength.
This suited Ves fine. By now, his alienation among the other mech designers reached the furthest point it could go. The only reason why his status as a pariah didn't bother him was because the mech designers didn't treat their closest friends that differently. The constant frustration and exhaustion sent everyone into a pit of self-wallowing isolation. Everyone was too numb to do anything more.
It was at this point that the training regime started to move beyond senseless exercises. They entered classrooms which served them with images of the Bright Republic.
A pair of bedraggled mech pilots leaning against a wrecked mech.
A city bombed to oblivion, only to be rebuilt anew.
An enormous fleet carrier surrounded by a flotilla of combat carriers orbiting around a glittering planet.
Throughout the inspirational visuals, it repeated a constant refrain.
"We are the bastion of reason."
"We are the torch that lights up the end of the galaxy."
"We are all that stand in the way between freedom and tyranny."
In their tired states, most mech designers soaked up the message without resistance. Ves on the other hand possessed a much more potent recovery speed, so he remained very aware throughout these indoctrination sessions.
Frankly, he didn't know what to think either. Most of the footage sounded inspirational, but to Ves they largely fell flat. He already possessed a lot of attachment to the Republic and hardly needed any reinforcement in that area.
Along with indoctrination, the mech designers also started to learn other necessities. They memorized the hierarchy of the Mech Corps, how they should behave among themselves and to the servicemen of the Mech Corps, and what they needed to do if they ever fell into a precarious situation.
It became clear to Ves that the Mech Corps explicitly didn't train them to be servicemen. They didn't fit in the usual hierarchy. Instead, mech designers took on an auxiliary role that existed apart from any existing bureau.
They weren't taught how to handle a weapon, nor did they need to salute to any officers. Instead, they learned how the design teams of the Mech Corps worked and in what place they fit in. They learned the many different roles mech designers played and how their work impacted the regiments that made use of the designs.
"The war between the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom is a conflict that is fought with mechs. It is vitally important that the mech pilots fighting on the frontline have access to the latest designs. Each mech model possesses their own strengths and weaknesses. Once a vulnerability is known by the enemy, that model loses its advantage on the battlefield."
Regiments constantly demanded new designs to replenish their wrecked mechs and become less vulnerable to the known faults of their current designs.
"Your only role is to assist the lead designer and his main assistants in optimizing their designs. It is not your responsibility to suggest new features or perform additional changes to the design."
The lessons hammered home that as Apprentices, they possessed no right to speak in front of a room filled with Journeymen and Seniors.
Ves really chafed at that restriction. The lessons obviously aimed to turn them into obedient cogs in a giant design machine. Instead of being able to design a part or suggest some modifications to an existing design, the Mech Corps only expected them to perform grunt jobs.
He distinctly felt his competences should have elevated him to a greater role. Too bad no one cared.
Two months went by in this vein. The training program superficially molded them in a way that allowed them to seamlessly slot into any working design team.
After the end of their training program, hundreds of mech designers assembled into neat ranks at an open area. As Ves discretely glanced around, he found that many mech designers looked as if they lost their spirit.
Even the likes of Morgan and Bart adopted the same numb expressions. Both of them dealt with the pressure in slightly different ways. Morgan developed a tendency to mutter to himself to sleep while Bart often needed to pace around in their dorm before collapsing into sleep.
Throughout it all, the mech designers hardly spoke with each other in whatever free time the schedule granted them. Ves hadn't spoken anything aloud in weeks.
At this moment, they heard footsteps. A pair of hard boots clattered forward as a uniformed officer of the Mech Corps strode to the front of the assembly.
"Mech designers of the Republic. Your two-month training program is at an end." The man immediately began. "Seventeen of you have been declared unfit and are now serving out their penalties."
The crowd cared little about the likes of Jim and a couple of other mech designers who broke down and went crazy. They just craved to return to a somewhat normal society. The arrival of another human being actually provided mental succor to the deprived mech designers.
"The war waits for no one. Although your training program should have been much more extensive, the fighting at the frontlines has heated up. The Republic needs you you serve your state. Are you willing to bear the torch?"
Everyone automatically raised their arms as if they held up a torch and roared a resounding cry.
"Good." The officer nodded. "Your new assignments await. I bid you good luck and hope your work will help save the lives of our pilots at the front."
After that, they enjoyed their first period of rest and relaxation in a very long time. With no expectations being thrust upon their shoulders, they looked around with clueless expressions.
Moments later, they received a new set of documents in their military-issued comms. Ves activated the device and skimmed through their contents.
They turned out to be his new orders.
"Is that it? Is this really the end?"
Some of the mech designers broke their stoic exteriors upon realizing that they no longer needed to go through what they considered to be the equivalent of torture. They were more than ready to move on from this horrible place.
Ves couldn't blame them. He felt the same.
None of the designers shared where the Mech Corps sent them off to. Even though their comms projected the documents before their eyes, it could only be read by them and no one else. The contents also carried a confidential label, which they learned should not be spread without an express order from their superiors.
Ves didn't know where Morgan and Bart would be sent to next, but his current assignment came as something of a surprise.
He'd been assigned to the design team of the 6th Flagrant Vandals Regiment. This wasn't an unknown regiment. In fact, it enjoyed a lot of fame or notoriety depending on who you asked. It was the last regiment of the 3rd Tarry Division, which mainly garrisoned a lightly populated region in the extreme 'bottom' end of the border between the two states.
Ves blinked in surprise at the assignment because the 6th Flagrant Vandals Regiment was a tried-and-true spaceborn regiment. To someone who dealt exclusively with landbound mechs, he was like a fish out of water if his assignment forced him to work with spaceborn mechs.
"What is the Mech Corps thinking?"
He quickly thought about the Flagrant Vandals. Though the public didn't hear too much about this regiment, Ves heard more than enough stories from the Larkinsons who served in the previous wars.
The Vandals didn't call themselves this way for nothing. They served as a dumping heap for problematic mech pilots. Any Larkinson who had the pleasure of fighting alongside the Vandals all mentioned how much they hated the ill-disciplined brutes.
"They're a bunch of thugs. I'm ashamed they are a part of the Mech Corps! They should have been cashiered en masse!"
"Don't think for a minute that you're safe with a Vandal. They'll cheat, scam or coerce all your wages from your bank account. Watch yourself well, and don't ever end up alone in a room with a Vandal."
"Scoundrels, they are all scoundrels! Ever since Colonel Lowenfield took over the reigns, it's gone downhill over there!"
Ves never heard anything good about the Flagrant Vandals. To him, who hoped to be assigned to a more renowned frontline regiment such as the Infernal Hellhounds or the Fire Fists, the news came as a huge disappointment to him. His performance should have entitled him to better treatment.
"Is it because of my complicated situation?"
Perhaps the Mech Corps didn't trust or expected much from him. To a basket case like Ves, it was much more convenient to dump him to a design team attached to one of the most expendable regiments in the Mech Corps.
As Ves went through the motions and let a bunch of bots guide him and the others towards a swarm of waiting shuttles, he started to recall more stories about the Vandals.
Though they apparently carried a bad reputation, they also possessed a lot of ferocity. Nobody accused them of cowardice. This was because the Vandals was one of the few regiments that took up the responsibility of raiding Vesian space.
Whereas almost every mech of the Mech Corps operated within Republic space, the Vandals eagerly snuck past the stretched southern border between the two states and revelled in causing havoc in star systems the Vesians thought would never suffer an incursion.
The more Ves thought about it, the more he realized that it might not be a misdemeanor for him to join their design team.
"It's not like I'll be stationed aboard their combat carriers as they pass through the border."
Ves felt better about that. The only thing he needed to figure out was how he could adjust his skillset to accommodate the peculiarities of spaceborn mechs.
It wasn't that simple for him to design a spaceborn mech without any prior experience.
As the shuttle lifted off from Bentheim, Ves looked around the cabin and figured that they wouldn't be sent to the Vandals. They probably had their own assignments.
Of all the faces seated in the chairs, Ves only recognized Morgan. The man happened to turn around and their eyes suddenly met.
"Nervous?" Morgan asked out of the blue.
"No. I'm excited."
A few seconds passed before Morgan spoke again. "Look Ves, I did some thinking in the last month, and I realized I went too far that day when Jim let his frustrations take him over. Thinking back on that time, it's pretty stupid of me to accuse you of being someone's tool. Can you forgive me?"
Ves did not know what to say to the other mech designer. While he felt indignant about it at the time, he long pushed the matter to the back of his mind.
"I won't forgive you, but I'm willing to let matters go." He eventually replied. "Don't be so quick to believe in conspiracies next time."
"Thanks." Morgan nodded and turned back around.
Naturally, Ves didn't believe that Morgan would change his ways. That man still believed that he needed to design every possible mech type in existence before he advanced.
While Ves didn't ascribe to that theory, he found the logic behind it to be too compelling to dismiss it entirely. Perhaps Morgan spoke some truths about the consequences of rushing through the Apprentice stage.
At this moment, he was still undecided about the matter. He didn't know if he should delay his advancement and absorb more experiences or continue his fast-faced growth and break through to Journeyman as fast as possible.
It was a good thing that Ves had plenty of time to choose. "I'll get back to this when I reach the point where I can advance."
Ves leaned back in his chair as the shuttle broke through orbit and zipped towards a floating military station. A whole mass off military transport ships moored alongside the station. One of them would probably bring Ves to the Tarry System or somewhere close.