Ves felt grateful to Iris for opening his eyes. Learning the truth about the incorporation of manipulative neural interfaces in custom mechs and elite mechs gave him another goal to work towards.
Rather than lamenting the deplorable practices of today, Ves aimed to effect a change. Whether he was being arrogant or inspiring remained to be seen. He believed that no matter whether he was right or wrong, the best mech designers should be bold and confident in their direction.
After all, if Ves followed the most popular path, he wouldn't be treading any new ground. What was the point of becoming a mech designer if every mech he designed was no different from anyone else's?
"It's safer to imitate than to innovate."
That sounded somewhat familiar to Ves. He thought back to the time he looked up the first original designs of his colleagues within the fleet. Many mech designers who never started their own businesses simply opted to tread the path of least resistance by designing obvious rip offs of existing designs.
Ves disapproved of such a lazy choice, but he was realistic enough to know that copying each other's works happened all the time. A mech designer with a limited skill set could flex their design prowess in so many ways. Though they should have taken the effort to expand their reah and learn how to design a true original mech, Ves didn't blame anyone for opting for the convenience of cribbing a famous existing design.
"They'll only be limiting their own future progress."
This wasn't any great secret. Opting to stick close to established designs allowed mech designers to overcome the difficult hurdles at the start of their careers. Many mech designers weren't even able to get off the starting point, so the desperation was evident. An easier start was well worth the price of facing a harsher bottleneck in the future.
Where did that leave Ves, for that matter?
"I'm different from the others. Unlike most of my colleagues, I can depend on my comprehensive Skills and my Creativity to design an original creation. I won't be lost if I don't have any recipes on hand."
Naturally, he had to admit that making use of the System made it a lot easier to get to this point. If Ves remained a conventional mech designer, then he might have needed at least a century of dedicated study and work to reach this level. Having reached this point in two-and-a-half years since the start of his career sounded very promising.
"I can afford to be bolder in my choices since nobody can match my specific advantage. I don't need to follow a conventional track to advancement."
Working for the Flagrant Vandals may have curtailed opportunities do design his own mechs, but the circumstances he became exposed to help him in many other ways. Each difficult problem made him reflect on his design philosophy and forced him to make some tough decisions. No matter what answer he came up with, they all fleshed out his vision towards mech design.
"I probably won't be able to advance to Journeyman during my time here, but I'll be able accumulate more insights."
Still, all of those thoughts didn't help him with the task force's more acute problems. Ves needed to rest before the fleet emerged out of FTL. He wanted to be in the best condition.
Ves stretched his arms and retired for the day. Strictly speaking, he could go without sleep, but he still benefited if he kept to a regular human sleeping pattern.
The next day, the mood throughout the Shield of Hispania turned tense all of a sudden. The Vandal crewmembers traversing the corridors ceased their easy-going or jovial behavior and adopted a sense of preparation. Nobody appeared to slack off, and everyone aboard readied the combat carrier for heavy action.
Ves stopped by his office to confirm his last preparations and to see whether his subordinates hadn't slacked off. To his disappointment, the results the other mech designers had achieved in the last few days was inconsistent.
Many of the lower-ranked mech designers definitely worked harder than usual due to the reward he dangled in front of them. The real problem was that the higher-ranked mech designers failed to match the enthusiasm of their lessers. Certainly, a small handful felt motivated to compete for the reward, but other mech designers didn't even seem to try to win the privilege of borrowing a valuable textbook from the Mech Corps.
"Iris, can you explain something to me?"
She sighed. "What is it, boss?"
"Why aren't the higher-ranking mech designers valuing the opportunity to borrow a textbook from the central database?"
"That's easy to answer, Mr. Larkinson. They already enjoy similar types of access. Maybe they've earned a lot of merits, or maybe they are part of an organization that offers much of the same."
"Even so, good textbooks aren't easy to access."
"Don't underestimate the backgrounds of your underlings. Someone like Bovis Mercator isn't arrogant without a reason, you know. Though none of us have the benefit of being apprenticed to a Master Mech Designer, we all have our reasons for making it this far."
That was a fair answer, and it sounded logical as well. Higher-ranked mech designers almost always relied on a strong advantage or two to reach this point. To certain people, obtaining excellent textbooks posed no trouble at all.
"Seems like my first carrot isn't working for everybody. I'll have to figure out some other bait to attract the rest."
"I don't see why you need to bother, sir. You're obviously aiming to establish a connection with those who want to learn from you. As long as you've formed enough relationships, you don't need to befriend the rest."
Ves thought it over and figured that she had a better point than him. In any case, he would eventually relinquish the position of head designer, so it wasn't worthwhile for him to invest too much.
"Are you ready to find out what we'll face in the next star system?"
"Not really." Iris shook his head. "From what I've heard, Imodris has mobilized a significant amount of emergency assets to lock down this part of space. I don't know for certain what we'll face, but it won't be good."
"If we enter into battle, make sure your emergency gear is working all-right. You never know when you might be forced to evacuate the Shield of Hispania."
She laughed. "Thanks for your concern, boss, but I have a lot of tricks up my sleeves."
The next hours progressed agonizingly slow as the time to transition out of FTL soon came to pass.
Just like last time during a space battle, Ves had been invited to the command center by Major Verle. This time, he invited Iris as well, more for her contacts with the VRF than any insights she could provide as a mech designer.
"Miss Jupiter." Major Verle greeted cordially. "Per our agreement with the Vesian Revolutionary Front, we've unlocked a communications channel for your use. You can find the option embedded in the menu system of your secure seat."
Ves sank his body down onto a familiar-looking chair. He knew that should the unthinkable happen again, his seat would envelop him in a crash ball and keep him safe as best as possible while they tumbled out into space.
This time though, they would likely fight away from any planets or suns. That meant if Ves got flung away in a random direction, his skeleton would very likely continue making this millenia-long journey through the void.
"Ah, major, the VRF has just transferred a new update to us." She said after reading the notice that had been queuing up in her comm. "Their scout vessels have been sniffed out from their hiding places by their counterparts from Imodris. They've been driven out of the star system short time ago. Some of their hidden bugs remain, but they don't have the numbers and fidelity to scan an entire star system."
"It's better than nothing. Provide me with their fleet composition."
"There are too many unknowns! Before they had been driven out, the rebels have counted at least twelve scout ships!"
"Damn! That many scouts means that the main fleet is right behind our heels!" Major Verle erupted. "How did they figure out our destination?"
He instantly set the fleet to the second-highest alert status. Anyone acting suspiciously or wandering in the areas off-limits to them would be arrested or fired upon immediately.
Ves looked fairly relaxed compared to anyone, but that was because he finished most of his work beforehand. He knew he needed to reserve most of his energy to serve as a mech analyst in order to provide Major Verle with sensible suggestions.
"Five minutes until transition."
He looked at Iris who was currently having a private conversation with someone from the VRF. She hadn't forgiven him yet for yesterday's clash. Ves hoped she would mellow out and forget the clash in beliefs after today. They had more things to worry about than a philosophical disagreement.
"Four minutes until transition."
Ves actually looked forward to resuming his lessons. Neural interfaces formed somewhat of a black hole to his knowledge base. Becoming familiar with how they worked allowed him to gain a head start compared to his peers."
"Three minutes until OOOPHHH!"
The Shield of Hispania lurched, and their stomachs lurched as well. Fortunately, everyone had strapped themselves down so nobody flew in wild directions. Only a couple of unsecured objects fell from the tables or other surfaces.
"We've been forced out of FTL! Detecting gravitic anomalies in the vicinity! An unknown force has planted an artificial gravity disturbance on our direct path to the destination star system! We are several light-minutes beyond our estimated emergence point!"
Ves, Iris, Major Verle and many others realized the significance of this act. Imodris or whoever laid in wait had deduced their exact trajectory and laid a trap at the end.
One of the combat carriers of the fleet lurched again as something exploded against her hull!
"Detecting mines! They are homing in on our ships!"
"Bring our Akkara mechs into position and sortie our mechs! We need all hands on deck to beat back this ambush!"
This was an ambush, plain and simple.
"Are there any mechs or ships in the vicinity?!" Major Verle asked the sensor operator.
"None found so far, sir, but they could be lurking nearby in stealth and with most of their systems off! The disruptors planted in the vicinity and the mines that are constantly exploding around us is interfering with our proximity scans!"
A minute passed as several ships got battered by mines. Ves understood that whoever laid this field opted to go for quantity instead of quality. The mines also didn't seem to be of the most expensive variant, so most of the combat carriers could cope with the blasts.
The real danger lay in what was next. This mine field appeared to be endless and they hadn't even met the actual culprits in combat yet. Furthermore, while the combat carriers could cope with the mines for now, their transports and logistics ships wouldn't be able to survive more than a single mine. Protecting them from the mines that homed in on them proved to be a demanding task, especially since it appeared the mines received some sort of signal that changed their targeting priority.
"The mines are trying to go around our combat carriers! They are targeting our logistics ships!"
"Keep firing upon them!"
Mechs emerged from the hangar bay hatches and moved to intercept the rather stealthy mines. While their payloads weren't very impressive, they made up for it in speed and maneuverability. Many ranged mech pilots exhibited a lot of trouble in trying to shoot them down.
"Our adversaries are trying to exhaust us!" A tactical officer asserted. "From what our scans have detected so far, this mine field encompasses an estimated amount of 100,000 mines!"
That was enough to blow up the entire task force ten times over if they all hit their ships!