The Verle Task Force transitioned out of FTL at the outer edge of a boring red dwarf system. Due to minute variances in the FTL drives, tiny discrepancies got magnified into substantial divergences. Major Verle's ships spread out in a messy shotgun pattern that opened them up to a devastating ambush.
Fortunately, none of the ships detected any ships or mechs or weapon emplacements in the immediate vicinity.
Nobody let down their guard. The combat carriers adopted an immediate defensive posture and the entire fleet contracted in a defensive formation.
It took fifteen minutes of intensive scanning before everyone eased up the tension in their bodies. Besides a light rebel presence, the uninhabited star system contained no overt threats.
The fleet cautiously approached an asteroid field. It would take some hours to arrive and many more hours to mine some low-quality ores. While the asteroids didn't contain anything valuable, there were many uses for common materials, such as replenishing their ammunition which they used up at a massive scale during the Detemen Operation.
"The mech designers are on their way, boss." Iris reported to Ves. "Their shuttles will dock at the Shield of Hispania no later than twenty minutes. Inter-ship traffic is currently hectic so expect some delays."
"That's okay. Has anyone declined the invitation to meet?"
"Surprisingly not. Every high and low-ranking mech designer answered your summons."
With no problems there, Ves waited for the moment to arrive while Iris went off to prepare the conference room. He thought about his job and found fulfilling it to be a demanding job. Trying to solve every problem within his scope was frankly impossible, but somehow he had taken a liking of trying to achieve the impossible.
It was different from growing a business. Back when he built up the LMC until it could stand on its own two feet, he enjoyed a lot of freedom and held the ultimate authority over how it should be run.
Yet now he answered to Major Verle. Not only that, he needed to maintain relationships with everyone involved in order to get things done. It demanded a different approach where he became dependent on others to reciprocate.
Ves cherished this opportunity because it allowed him to build up valuable experience in leading design teams later on. As long as he got the knack of managing the mech designers assigned to the Flagrant Vandals, he would easily be able to manage design teams working for the LMC.
Half an hour later, the conference room became packed with mech designers arranged in classroom-style seating. When Ves entered the room, he observed an obvious division between two types of mech designers.
Those at the front looked familiar to Ves. He recognized many of them from the Inheritor, Akkara and Hellcat design teams. Excluding Ves, there was only nine of them present in the Verle Task Force. All of them had been cut off from the Wolf Mother which accompanied the primary Vandal fleet.
A larger number of mech designers sat at the rear. Iris must have arranged an obvious gap in the seating between the two groups to emphasize the differences between the two. Despite numbering around thirty people, none of them had a say due to their inferior standing and skills.
When Ves stared at the low-ranking mech designers. He memorized their names beforehand out of due diligence, but he didn't expect to call on any of them unless they screwed up their jobs. His weighty stare intimidated the low-ranking mech designers. All of them chose to lower their heads in a sign of submission.
Only a handful of mech designers tried to keep up a confident facade. Ves deliberately carried himself in a compelling manner and concentrated his mind in an attempt to conjure up an aura of blood and war.
The results were inconclusive. Some of the weaker-willed mech designers appeared to be affected, but any mech designer that worked alongside the Vandals got used to working with professional killers and raiders. Compared to a genuine mech officer such as Captain Orfan or Captain Branser, his own aura fell short.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the flagship." Ves began as he approached the front of the conference room. "I'm sure you already know this, but my name is Ves Larkinson, and I'm the temporary head designer of the Verle Task Force. I've called you here to explain my vision to you so that we are all on the same track. I'll also be introducing some new policies and directives so that we can be of more help to the fleet that has landed itself in a precarious situation."
Someone raised his hand.
"Mr. Mercator, you wish to say something?"
Ves encountered Bovis Mercator a couple of times when they worked aboard the Wolf Mother. He never saw too much of Mercator because the man had been assigned to the Akkara design team.
Mercator happened to be one of the older Apprentice Mech Designers among them. His outward appearance suggested that he reached his early forties.
"Mr. Larkinson, forgive my rudeness, but the leadership issue isn't settled yet. You're too new to the Vandals, and you've only been appointed to become the task force's head designer because you happen to be the closest mech designer to Major Verle. Now that we aren't fleeing at full tilt from the Vesian reinforcement fleets, we should revisit some of the decisions made in haste."
"Oh really?" Ves narrowed his eyes at Mercator.
The careerist mech designer didn't hide his ambition. In fact, he stood with a confident demeanor, as if his words made a lot of sense.
Over half of the high-ranking mech designers happened to nod in agreement. Most of them belonged to the same clique of careerists as Mercator. If it came to a vote, Ves had no doubt that he would lose. He was never one for popularity contests, and his background was too shallow among the mech designers working for the Vandals.
Ves minutely shook his head. He would never let this discussion come to a vote.
"Mr. Mercator, I think you misunderstand something. My appointment to head designer is arranged by Professor Velten. Major Verle might have a say in the matter, but it's the professor who put her stamp of approval in my field promotion. If you believe the professor has made an error, you are free to bring your complaints to her doorstep."
The older mech designer's face quickly turned red. Obviously, nobody had the guts to question one of the professor's decision. Even if her mind was wracked with senility, her dignity was inviolable to mech designers in the same way that mech pilots would never dare to offend Venerable O'Callahan.
Surprisingly enough, Mercator remained standing. "Even if that is true, it still doesn't change the fact that your abrupt elevation is a highly unusual irregular. As a young, conscripted mech designer, you are too new to the Flagrant Vandals. There are many, more experienced mech designers in this room that are a tad more suitable to the position."
The lower-ranking mech designers smelled a power play. Most of them kept themselves as still as possible to avoid getting caught up with a particular side. There was no advantage for them to commit to a single high-ranking mech designer when they would likely need to work under several of them in the foreseeable future.
Only a handful expressed support to Mercator's suggestion. There was no question these designers were in his camp.
Ves crossed his arms and smirked. "I suppose you're volunteering for the job, then?"
Maybe his confidence unnerved Mercator. Things weren't entirely going according to his script. The careerist visibly hesitated for a moment before he firmed up his resolve.
"I am." He stated and turned around to address the other mech designers in the room. "Most of you have seen me around. I've been working with the Vandals for over four years, and while that may not sound so much, I have worked in several other mech division of the Mech Corps over a span of fifteen years. My extensive experience in working in many different design teams makes me the best choice to lead you all. Think for yourself who you want to rely on more, a conscripted young designer whose heart isn't in it, or a mech designer who is fully committed to the Vandals?"
A low thrum of conversation broke out as several mech designers nodded or started to discuss the matter. Ves didn't enforce a silence because it hardly affected his own plan. It might even be better to keep them talking.
His evident decision to keep his mouth shut gave the mech designers the sense that Ves had no power to avoid this leadership struggle. Some even believed his silence at this moment was a tacit admission that Mercator had a point.
As expected, someone else couldn't let the older man hog all of the momentum. A woman in her thirties stood up. "Bovis, there are several mech designers among us that can lead us, but you aren't qualified. Just look at you! You're almost fifty and you're nowhere near advancing to a Journeyman Mech Designer! A talentless hack like you will command our respect!"
"Emlanin! Just because your uncle is a mech captain of the Vandals doesn't mean you're suitable! The only reason why you're so prominent lately is because your uncle constantly puts a good word for you in everyone's ears!"
Ves looked at the woman who stood up. He remembered her. Emlanin Trozin, a fellow colleague in the Hellcat design team. For her age, she possessed a decent amount of talent, and it was obvious that she used that advantage to attack Mercator's prestige.
"The job of head designer should fall on someone who can grow into the job!" Trozin claimed.
"Nonsense! Head designers must be capable right at the start! Someone like you needs years to get used to the job! The mission can't wait that long!"
Ves coughed and raised his palm. "Quiet down."
Raising his palm was a signal to Iris to dampen the conversation. She sat unobtrusively in the corner of the conference room. The moment she spotted the raised palm, she quietly activated a setting on her comm.
The conference room immediately fell into silence as everyone that opened their mouths only let out empty air. Hidden dampeners built along the walls neutralized all the sounds that escaped from their throats.
"Good. If I can have your attention please. It's obvious that the leadership issue needs to be settled today. I won't be a tyrant and insist on sticking to my job. In the interest of fairness, I believe that anyone who wants to throw their hats into the ring should compete against each other. Now, who wants to be the head designer?"
Four high-ranking mech designers raised their heads, including Mercator and Trozin.
Ves nodded. "Alright, that's five if you count me in. Now, we can settle the leadership issue in multiple ways. Rather than flap our mouths with endless boasts and empty promises, I think it's better to resort to a more objective means of comparison."
This was where he sprung his trap. His grin grew wider.
"Let's hold a five-way design duel."
Iris released the sound dampening at that moment, causing the 'contestants' to erupt in protest.
"That's not fair, Mr. Larkinson!" Mercator yelled in a shrill voice. "We are not brutes like mech pilots who like to settle every difference with a duel! We are mech designers! More than that, we work for the Mech Corps, not for ourselves! This isn't the private sector that you are used to. We work in cooperation, not in competition with each other!"
Trozin put in her own objection. "I don't often agree with Bovis, but he's right. Design duels simply aren't done in our circle. As mech designers of the Mech Corps, we are always put to work on smaller aspects of specific projects. We have never been given the opportunity design a mech or variant on our own. It's highly unfair for you to propose we duel someone like you who possess ample solo design experience."
Both of them put up valid objections, but Ves chuckled in amusement. "You want to take over my job? Then show me that you're qualified! I don't care about seniority, connections or other nebulous factors, and neither do our enemies! I will never surrender my post to someone weak! Show me your strength. Prove to our audience here if you are skilled enough to take on this responsibility."
His argument immediately turned the mood against their favor. The four aspirants all looked ill in some manner.
Though a few of them tried to squeeze out an excuse or two why design duels shouldn't be the deciding factor, none of them sounded convincing. The more they whined, the more they damaged their standing.