The transport ship sluggishly separated from the military station and fell into formation alongside a convoy of vessels heading in the same direction. Most of the other transports would drop out along the way as they reached their destination star system. Only one ship was scheduled to reach the Tarry System, an important but fairly isolated defensive border system.
In the standard territorial depiction of the Komodo Star Sector, the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom were situated at the northwest portion the map. Any ship that travelled further northwards reached the borders to the vast frontier.
The Tarry System was located at the southern portion of the border between the two warring states. It anchored a vast stretch of low-value star systems with scarce resources and even scarcer population. The Tarry region therefore held limited value even for the Vesia Kingdom, because they would need to allocate far more mechs to garrison the region than what was economical.
This didn't mean that the Vesians ignored the border region entirely. Sometimes, desperate nobles shied away from the heavy fighting at the center of the border. On paper, the Tarry region only held a couple of mech divisions, so it should have been an easy target.
The truth turned out to be different. Located far away from Bentheim or Rittersberg, the Tarry divisions sat at the far end of the supply lines. Nevertheless, they learned how to make the most out of limited resources. The sheer amount of distance from the political and economic centers of the Republic granted the Tarry divisions a lot more leeway on how to operate their mechs, and they did well in adapting to the circumstances.
"From what I heard about the Tarry divisions, they form their own faction within the Mech Corps." Ves explained in front of Laida and Pierce. The strength he displayed during the training sessions elevated him to the forefront of their little group. "They're often the last divisions in line to receive new upgrades or additional resources. I think this is the case for us as well. There's no getting around the fact that we are the least desirable mech designers of our batch."
Somewhat surprisingly to Ves, the other two designers accepted his assertion without any challenge. Both Pierce and Laida encountered many disappointments in their lives.
"Let's make the best of things. At least we aren't being accompanied by some Journeyman Mech Designer that wants to boss us around. We can relax throughout the journey."
Ves studied the appearances of his newly assigned colleagues. Pierce looked similar to what Ves looked like before his various enhancements. Though he appeared rather skinny, his eyes reflected a very keen and measured mind. He possessed a black mop of hair not too different from Ves, though he let the grooming bots style his hair in a very neat and slick fashion.
As for Laida, Ves felt as if he faced a timid cat. The young woman's body language displayed her lack of confidence that shouldn't be present in Apprentice Mech Designers. She possessed dull light brown hair which was styled in a plain and boring bun. Her standard green uniform added a bit more sharpness to her body, and if not for her slouch, she would have looked moderately attractive.
Ves met a handful of female mech designers in his life. Those who achieved some success always held their heads up high and asserted themselves in some way.
For example, despite being just a Novice back then during the Leemar Open Competition, Miss Barakovski acted like she was a queen among peasants.
Patricia on the other hand acted in a more enigmatic fashion. Both at Rittersberg and at Leemar, she acted as if she was no one special, but her stellar performance made it impossible for anyone to dismiss her presence.
Therefore, Ves really didn't understand why Laida put herself down like that.
Through some prodding, they got to know each other a little better. Ves expected that they would be working together from now on, so it was important for him to establish a good rapport with designers of the same level.
Ves shared some of history to the two designers. What they found most impressive with Ves was his willingness to partake in dangerous expeditions.
"I don't have the guts to do the same." Pierce admitted with a rueful expression. "Mech designers aren't meant to be out in the field."
Ves understood the sentiment. "That's true in the strictest sense, but sometimes you won't be able to achieve your dreams without putting in some extra effort. With so many mech designers out there doing the same things over and over, it takes a lot of inspiration and a unique perspective to stand out from the crowd. The rewards are also good as well."
"It's too dangerous. Sorry, but I don't agree with you. Better designs come from hard work. As long as you study hard and apply your knowledge well, you should be able to achieve more solid results."
That only worked up to a point, Ves thought, but he didn't argue the point. Instead, he asked the other man a question. "You're an Apprentice as well, right? What kind of work did you do since you graduated?"
"I worked at at a major mech manufacturer and joined their design teams. It wasn't as large as the ones where we are heading into. The lead designer did most of the work and assistants like me only played a role in the debugging process."
"How good is the lead designer?"
"Oh he's really good. He's old but he's a very seasoned Journeyman Mech Designer. He often stopped by to teach some points to us. I really benefited from his tutelage."
Unmentioned by Pierce was that the Journeyman Mech Designer likely held an ulterior motive for doing so. The way Pierce spoke about the leader designer didn't carry a lot of endearment.
Likely, the Journeyman wanted to catch the attention of Pierce's father.
There was nothing wrong with that in his eyes. Both Pierce and the lead designer benefited from such an arrangement. The only problem was that it didn't look as if the lead designer succeeded in his goal.
"What kind of mechs have you worked with?"
"I have an extensive amount of experience in working with several different types of landbound mechs. I've taken part in the design process of at least eight different types of mechs."
That sounded very impressive, though it was easier to do when you spread the workload over multiple designers.
"Sounds like you have a lot of experience working in a team." Ves nodded. "I only worked on my designs on my own. I've never really collaborated with others when it came to developing an original design."
While Ves admired Pierce's experience in working on many collaborative projects, the other two mech designers expressed their own admiration to him for relying on himself to develop a functional design.
Pierce let out a weary sigh.""Even with my experiences, I only ever attempted to publish a single original mech. I couldn't get the lead designer to release the funds for me to fabricate a prototype. It wasn't a commercially attract product, he said."
It wasn't easy to make the jump from taking part in a collaborate project to designing mechs on your own. Ves only managed to do so by acquiring years worth of knowledge with the help of the System.
"If you want to design your original mech, there's no substitute for learning the theories on your own. Teaching can only go so far."
"I know. I have access to plenty of reading materials, but the things I need to learn are too much or too hard."
"Even so, at least you have access to them. THat's a lot better than what most mech designers enjoy."
After learning just enough about Pierce, Ves turned to Laida, who had been listening quietly all this while.
"What about you? What's your story?"
"I graduated from the AUMD."
It turned out she excelled in school in Haston and succeeded in applying to Ansel on a scholarship. This was extremely impressive for someone who grew up in Haston.
Still, Laida didn't talk too much about her experiences in the AUMD. She skimmed over her years in school and skimmed through her graduation.
"After that, I found a job at a design studio. I chose to specialise in designing aerial mechs, so I became involved in all of the designs that could fly."
"How many designs have you contributed to?"
"Over twenty different designs."
"That's a lot."
"It's not that impressive. Design studios work differently than mech manufacturers. We developed as much designs as possible, and many of them consisted of variants that shared a lot of things in common. Only one out of ten of our designs are licensed. The rest end up collecting dust in an archive."
Even so, Laida must have gained a lot of experience in working with different mechs. This was the norm for mech designers that worked in a team.
Though Ves still thought he had the edge in terms of independent design, he probably would fare a little worse if he ended up in a situation where he had to work together with others.
"I have one question for you, Ves." Laida blinked at him. "Why did you choose to stay in the Republic? With your opportunities, you could have made a name for yourself in the Coalition."
Ves and Pierce both shrugged their heads.
"The Coalition isn't so easy to establish a foothold on. There's more money to be made there, but there's a lot more competition there as well. The best and brightest of the Komodo Star Sector all flock to Coalition space in order to take advantage of the higher spending power and more abundant resources. What they don't realize is that as outsiders, they are already on the back foot compared to the locals."
"I'm doing fairly well on my own here in the Republic. My company has grown fast and I've already published two original designs. I would have never been able to achieve this much if I tried to do business in the Coalition."
The Bright Republic was also his home and the root of the Larkinsons. Ves felt at home here in a way the Coalition could never provide. Their cultures different too much for Ves to ever grow comfortable in that prosperous second-rate state.
Pierce knew a lot about this as well. "There are too many foreigners in Coalition space. The Carnegie Group is the most attractive destination for them as their institutions accept the most outsiders. What these foreign mech designers don't realize is that the Carnegie Group only picks out the best. The vast majority of foreigners aren't able to accomplish anything except to become saddled with mountains of debt."
"What happens to those with debt?"
"They hire themselves off as slaves, basically." Pierce answered grimly. "The Coalition doesn't call them that, though. They instead employ extremely restrictive hiring contracts that run for a period of fifty or even a hundred years, depending on which coalition partner you are dealing with. A mech manufacturer from the Konsu Clan can even get away with a contract that lasts for your entire lifetime."
"Who would ever accept that kind of contract?!"
"A lot more mech designers than you think. You have to realize that it's extremely expensive for someone from a third-rate state to live in a second-rate state. The price of everything you buy is a hundred times more expensive. That goes for rent and tuition as well."
In short, staying a single year in Coalition space cost as much as living a hundred years in an average third-rate state like the Bright Republic.
"Why don't they declare themselves bankrupt and start anew?"
Pierce shook his head. "The laws of the Friday Coalition only extends that right to its own citizens. Foreigners like you and Ves won't get away that easily. They'll put a metaphorical gun against your head and force you to sign a contract of indentured servitude. Don't think that you will end up designing mechs after signing such a contract. You'll mostly be used as human calculators that need to do jobs that require human judgement."
"Therefore, the Friday Coalition isn't that good of place to go unless you are supremely confident in your talent." Ves added after that. "And in most cases, they won't even consider employing a mech designer who graduated from an institution from a third-rate state. We're too low-class for them to take us seriously."
Laida looked crestfallen at the news. Ves figured that she might have held some hopes for starting elsewhere, but the truth was often brutal.