"Sir!" A mech captain called. "Is it wise to ally with Lydia's Swordmaidens? They're anything but innocent maidens. They're a bunch of bloodthirsty alpha females! They make their living by robbing and pillaging other ships!"
Any outfit labelled with the moniker of pirates inevitably carried a rotten reputation. Different from criminal gangs, they often went to further extremes, robbing and killing in the spacelanes without restraint.
In general, the most awful pirate gangs never dared to show up in civilized space, because the MTA routinely hunted them down whenever they revealed their presence.
"That's a valid concern." Major Verle responded calmly. "While the record of Lydia's Swordmaidens isn't spotless, it's not much worse than ours. The Swordmaidens prey upon treasure hunters and neutral starships in the frontier. While it is anything but an honest business, their victims mostly have themselves to blame for entering lawless space."
That mollified the Vandals a bit. There was a difference between pirates that attacked ships and outposts in civilized space and pirates that mixed up in frontier space. Though the line was often blurred between the two, the fact that the Swordmaidens had been allowed to berth in the Harkensen System meant they hadn't crossed the bottom line of the MTA or the Reinald Republic.
The captain remained stubborn, however. "I still think it's a bad idea, sir. People are already talking bad about us. Once we mix up with pirates, we'll be proving them right."
"Who cares about our rep?!" Captain Rosa Orfan retorted. "We've been painted as borderline pirates for decades. While pretending to be heroes for a month feels good, it should hardly matter to us. Deep down, we're scoundrels, and I'm proud of that!"
The majority of the Vandals happened to agree with her, if only because she commanded the most prestige among the mech captains. Though a lot of Vandals missed the benefits that came with being regarded as heroes, it wasn't as if their current low was anything different from before.
"The Flagrant Vandals have never taken reputation into account when we decide our actions." Major Verle finally settled the debate. "We follow orders and we fight for the Republic. What other people say about us is ineffectual noise. Talk won't win any wars. Only through battle can we affect a positive change."
Ves had to hand it to the major. The man sounded like a bona fide loyalist of the Republic. Whether he really meant it or not remained to be seen, but for now the Vandal officers didn't appear to be fostering any other thoughts.
"Now, regardless of how bad it may seem like, allying ourselves with Lydia's Swordmaidens will prove crucial in our next major operation, which will likely take place in the frontier. This is their home turf, and they possess some of the most detailed star charts among the local frontier outfits."
The men did not take the news that they would be heading further and further away from the Republic very well.
"What does the frontier have to do with our mission?"
"That's classified. Suffice to say, this will be our last major mission for the foreseeable time. As long as we complete this mission, headquarters has promised us we can take it easy for the remainder of the war."
That set off a storm of speculation. If the Mech Corps delivered their promises, that basically meant that the Flagrant Vandals would not be expected to complete arduous missions or fight any pitched battles. The Vandals loved it if they could spend the rest of the war on cushy missions such as patrolling the rear or garrisoning a sleepy little star system.
Of course, none of the Vandals were fools. The Mech Corps basically ignored them for decades. Why would they be so generous all of a sudden?
The most peculiar part about this briefing was that none of the Vandals showed too much curiosity of what lay ahead. Many of them were accustomed to living by the day. Long-term strategies was not their forte by any means. This happened to make it easier to keep upcoming operations secret.
The only thing the Vandals fixated on was returning home and the promise of being reassigned to the rear. The Vandals truly needed it as they had to replenish their ranks of mech pilots.
The meeting quickly ended after the Vandals got around to the notion of allying with Lydia's Swordmaidens. This would not be an incidental teamup, but a deeper cooperation where both sides fought alongside each other for months.
A few people got called to Major Verle's stateroom, including Ves. He waited patiently as Verle held individual talks with key Vandals such as Captain Orfan. Once Ves received his turn, he entered the stateroom.
The compartment hadn't received any new decorations since his last visit. It reflected their hectic schedule and their inability to rest.
"Mr. Larkinson, take a seat."
Once Ves sat, he waited for the man to speak. Inside, he hoped that the major would finally open up on what they were really aiming for, but realistically this was unlikely to happen.
"How long have you been with us?"
The question threw him off-guard. "More than half a year. It won't be long before I've been with this mech regiment for a year, sir."
"You've witnessed the high points and low points of our participation in this war. You came at exactly the right moment if you were looking for action. To many mech designers, what we've been through is a nightmare. What do you think, Mr. Larkinson?"
Ves thought his answer through. While he hadn't asked to be thrown into life-threatening situations, there was a part of him that revelled in the experience. Witnessing mechs in action and being responsible for servicing them was an unforgettable experience that would live with him for the rest of his mech design career.
"I feel blessed for being part of the Flagrant Vandals, sir. It's not what I expected when the Mech Corps called me up, but I never regretted it. As a mech designer, I may not be able to hop into a mech and fight on the battlefield, but this is the next best thing."
The major threw a rare smile at Ves. "Honest. I like it. No platitudes about honor. No half-hearted words about serving the Republic. It's all about you. That's okay, Mr. Larkinson. This is also what the Bright Republic aims to achieve when they push mech designers into the Mech Corps."
"So it's true, then? The Mech Corps really wants to cull their useless mech designers?"
"You make it sound cruder than necessary. This isn't any great secret, but the Bright Republic is not a wealthy state." The man waved his arms around him. "It can only support so many mech designers, whether you're talking about the private sector or the military. We're doing you mech designers a favor by squeezing out your potential. Only through the worst moments of your lives can you discover the greatness within yourselves. The Republic can't afford to support any silk pants mech designer who faints at the sight of blood."
This seemed to be a running theme among organizations that cultivated mech designers. The more Ves learned about how mech designers advanced, the more he agreed with this philosophy. Though their profession stereotypically consisted of nerds, in truth they did not make for great mech designers.
"I hope I've met the expectations the Mech Corps has set upon me, sir." Ves replied.
"That is what I wished to talk about. I've been keeping tabs on you, and so did Colonel Lowenfield and Professor Velten. All three of us are impressed with your contributions up to this date. Although there are some questionable points in your records, they are inconsequential compared to how pivotal you've been for our successes. The ability that you've displayed shouldn't be wasted."
"I hope to continue to be useful to the Vandals, sir."
Verle shook his head. "That's not in the cards for you. I wasn't lying earlier when I said the Vandals will be taken off the frontlines. We've attracted too much heat, and that's bad for a mech regiment like ours. If the frontlines don't collapse, we're likely never going to see much action again. Our next battles will consist of small skirmishes and raids that's beneath your attention."
Ves frowned a bit. The major was building up to something.
"Therefore, we thought it over, and decided it is best to transfer you to another assignment ahead of time. This is a great privilege for a conscripted mech designer such as you. Usually, it takes years of vetting before being sent to your next assignment."
The news of his impending transfer almost floored Ves. Just when he got acclimated to the rambunctious Vandals, the higher ups wanted to send him away.
The major made it sound like this was a reward, but he couldn't help but feel as if they wanted him out.
"As I said, the 6th Flagrant Vandals is thankful for your contributions. This is why we don't wish to bury your talent. There are other mech regiments that are fighting the good fight, and many more units besides that are awfully short on mech designers with your specific set of competences. While I can't reveal anything about your next assignment, I can assure you that many mech designers would kill to be in your place."
"Won't the Mech Corps intervene, sir? Back at the training camp, I performed better than any other Apprentice Mech Designer, but they still sent me to your mech regiment along with all the other untrustworthy folk."
Major Verle turned to his terminal and called up some records. "Hm, I can see why you formed such an impression, but not everything you cooked up in your mind is true. While you make a valid point, who says the Mech Corps isn't trying to kill two birds with a single stone? There is more to your placement with us than lack of trust. In any event, your performance up to date is more than enough to dispel any suspicions. No matter what you say, your reassignment is already set in stone. Understood?"
Ves truly felt ambivalent about this change. He had really grown on the Flagrant Vandals that he basically couldn't imagine working for a conventional mech regiment. Still, until he received concrete details about his next assignment, he shouldn't make too many assumptions.
"That said, it's not easy for you to obtain this great opportunity. Although you've already performed above our expectations, our mission is not yet at and end." The commanding officer leaned forward and crossed his fingers on his desk. "I'm not referring to our upcoming battle against the Masters of Combat. What I'm truly concerned about is the challenges we will face in our next operation in the frontier. Our mechs will be facing extreme conditions further away from Republic space than you can ever imagine. Your aid is indispensable to what we have in store."
Ah. He knew there was a catch. Major Verle never praised someone without an ulterior motive. The so-called great opportunity turned out to be a carrot that was meant to motivate Ves to perform his duties at his best.
"I will endeavor to keep our mechs in tip-top shape, major." He said. "Is this related to the batch of heavy-duty gravitic backpacks we recently procured?"
Right now, all of that heavy equipment took up valuable storage space in their starships. Ves was a little peeved at all of the deadweight.
"It is. I would prefer it if you prep our landbound mechs to deploy on Super Earth-like environments. I understand that normal mechs won't be able to endure the crushing gravity of such an environment without preparation."
Ves nodded. "That's correct, sir. It depends on the quality and design intentions of the mech designer, but most landbound mechs are optimized for standard gravity. Even the mechs that are advertised as tough may only be able to endure crushing force over very short intervals. They have no problem facing ten g's of force in a span of a couple of seconds, but withstanding five g's of gravity for a day will certainly degrade the most delicate components inside the machines."
He could already tell their current complement of landbound mechs wouldn't be able to last on a Super Earth even with the help of the gravitic backpacks. The mech technicians had a lot of work ahead of themselves to change this outcome, and this inevitably required his full attention.
No wonder the major treated Ves in such a friendly manner. Ves was the only mech designer in the Verle Task Force who could save them from their impending doom.