"The Skull Architect taught me more than theory or how to design a mech." Mayra spoke, brushing aside her bright purple hair. Whether her hair turned purple because she dyed it or because her genes had compelled it to, Ves couldn't guess. "He conveyed the attitude of a proper mech designer to me. Not a crafter of machines, neither a merchant of death, but a servant for mech pilots."
Ketis scoffed at that. "That's a stupid attitude to take. Without us, mech pilots would still be piloting primitive machines that's half as good as what they are using now."
"Do you see?" The older Swordmaiden shrugged her shoulders at her young charge. "Confidence is vital to our shared profession, but arrogance is a deadly poison. When I grew up, the Swordmaidens was just an embryo of what we have accomplished today. I'm afraid that Ketis has taken too much of our comforts for granted. Back then, I had to compete against other mech designers, and work hard to earn the recognition of the Skull Architect."
Madman or not, a Senior Mech Designer usually possessed enough self-respect to adhere to the traditional customs surrounding mentorships. The pupil had to be worthy and compatible to the design philosophy he adhered to. Raising an unworthy mech designer beyond their level of competence reflected badly on the mentor.
"What about the Skull Architect? Won't he adopt your protege?"
"I've tried. He's a much more prestigious mech designer now. His standards aren't as low as they used to be. He only accepts the most promising pupils, or ones that will gain him favor among the pirate factions that rule over the Faris Star Region."
The Faris Star Region was the chunk of space adjacent to the Komodo Star Sector. For now, the classification purely existed on paper, but if the CFA ever decided to expand the borders of human space, the Faris Star Region would likely transform into the Faris Star Sector.
"I see. That's unfortunate for you. The opportunity to study under the wing of a formal Senior is very precious. Still, I'm not the equal of a Senior by any means. What is it you are asking me to teach, exactly?" Ves frowned.
He did not look forward to teaching what appeared to be the frontier equivalent of a spoiled brat. The attitude to mech design shown by Ketis meshed fairly poorly against Ves, who had always labored hard to the point that many people called him a workaholic.
"You see what I have to work with?" Mayra said as she threw an exasperated look at Ketis, who studiously ignored the two in favor of gobbling up a tart. "The way we Swordmaidens raise our kin is geared towards turning them into warriors and survivors. This is fitting for mech pilots, but not for mech designers. By the time I realized this difference, it's already too late."
"Weakness is never a mistake!" Ketis exclaimed. "You know what the untamed stars are like. There's danger every step of the way. The moment we let our guard down is the moment we're at someone else's mercy."
Ves tried to be patient. "This sounds fine and all, but there's a thing called specialization. An outfit where mech pilots moonlight as mech technicians and mech designers try to become soldiers is a messed up group that won't survive in the long run. One good mech designer is as valuable as thousands of average mech designers, and I'm not joking about this! Quantity means nothing in our field. The quality of your Swordmaiden mechs is directly proportional to the skill level of your best mech designer. What will happen to your group when Mayra is taken away from you all? Who will be left to pick up the pieces?"
In his perspective, Lydia's Swordmaidens lucked out when they managed to nurture a Journeyman Mech Designers. Countless mercenary corps in the Komodo Star Sector would envy them if they heard some lowly pirate gang managed to gain a mech designer that could easily found their own companies and earn billions in revenue within the span of a single year.
In fact, it wouldn't be difficult for Mayra and Ketis to change their identities, They only needed to clean up their hybrid appearances, and pretend to come from a secluded planet in a forgotten corner of the star sector, and fake some credentials by bribing some struggling schools and institutions.
Ves knew this happened a lot, because he'd seen a couple of vendors advertising these kinds of services from Harkensen's black markets.
Of course, Lydia had done a good job in binding her Swordmaidens together. Their bond of sisterhood was of a slightly higher degree than the comradeship of the Vandals. Recruiting them when they were at a young and impressionable age and indoctrinating them to be completely loyal to the organization had turned them into completely loyal pawns.
When he looked at it, Commander Lydia had done everything possible to bind the Swordmaidens to her cause. The ties of sisterhood, the strange and unique customs, the proliferation of genetic modification, all of these measures isolated them further and further from the general norm and turned them into a separate and distinct tribe of humanity.
It was no wonder the Swordmaidens regarded other people as filth, while those very same people dismissed the Swordmaidens as barbaric amazons. Breeding the feelings of isolation and contempt for others was a surefire way of keeping your underlings under control.
This realization had upped his regard for Commander Lydia by another notch. Ves could learn a lot from her methods. He was already taking mental notes of her methodology. Once he returned to civilian life, he could apply the best practices on the Avatars of Myth and his yet-as-unnamed shadow force.
"So what do you think, Larkinson?" Mayra prodded him. "I think you have a good point regarding specialization. This is even more dire in the frontier where there is a large shortage in skilled technical personnel and reliable fabrication equipment. When something becomes scarce, it becomes valued. Ketis, the best form of protection is to remain valuable to your sisters. Knowing how to swing a sword may earn their respect, but you will lose your place among them. The Swordmaidens don't have the room to accommodate a useless sister."
This argument shut Ketis up. The girl might have been brash, but the crux of the matter was that she tried hard to fit in. Her participation in all of these martial rituals allowed her to connect with her fellow sisters, but the more she spent time away from advancing her mech design ability, the worse off she would be at the end.
"Are you a Novice or an Apprentice?" Ves asked.
"She's a Novice." Mayra answered for Ketis when she looked peeved. "While she doesn't have the diplomas or MTA certificates to prove it, she's at a comparable level in every way you look at it. It is no problem for her to design a variant of the Misty Slasher or our other melee mechs. She can design variants of other melee mechs if she puts in more effort into her studies, but she's a long distance away from designing her first original mech."
Basically, the horned young woman with short green hair and an athletic stature was at the start of her formal mech design career. The status of a Novice wasn't very high, but at least it was better than someone who hadn't graduated at all. Ketis was a couple of years younger than him, so her current achievement was comparable to Ves at the start of his own career.
"Hmph." Ves considered the pros and cons. "I'm not sure my superiors will agree to this. I can't teach her very well over the galactic net. She has to intern on the Shield of Hispania."
Mayra waved her hand dismissively. "No problem. I'll tell Lydia to convince your boss to let Ketis be your guest designer. You don't need to hand over any classified materials to her. Just show her what you are allowed to show off. My main concern with Ketis' upbringing is that she hasn't been exposed to the essence of a mech designer's role. She's too familiar with the Swordmaidens and I, so she isn't able to divorce her feelings from business. I hope that you can bring her in a different environment and open her eyes in a way that can allow her to become independent when she comes back."
"That's a tall order, you know. Forget about mech designers from the frontier, even a huge chunk of classically-trained mech designers in civilized space aren't able to stand on their own two feet. For every success story, there are thousands of outright failures. I can't guarantee that Ketis can climb over this cliff."
He hadn't closed the door to this proposal entirely, which pleased Mayra a bit. She leaned back against her seat and crossed her arms. "I can make it worth your while."
"What can you offer? Mind you, I'm burdened by many responsibilities right now. I won't abuse my authority."
"Oh?" She raised an eyebrow. "I've kept an eye on your salvage parties. Many of them scoured over the debris field strewn with broken stealth shuttle pieces. Ordinarily, these pieces of debris shouldn't garner that much interest, as they're far too disintegrated to piece together a working machine."
His eyes grew sharp at the mention. He wanted to keep his interest in stealth technology quiet, but Mayra had been too perceptive for that. He might as well spill the beans, then.
"Investigating stealth technology is something of an interest of mine, primarily because I've been the victim of it several times. Who doesn't want to beat these cloaked bastards at their own game?"
The Journeyman smiled. "Stealth tech is unfathomable to most mech designers. Only the major factions have a grasp on this field, and they are very jealous about who gets to master it. Building an understanding of stealth tech from tiny pieces of shuttle debris is as futile as attempting to learn an alien language with only ten minutes of recordings. There are too many gaps that no amount of imagination can fill."
She wouldn't bring this topic up without a good reason.
"What is your offer, then? It's rather a stretch for me to believe you have access to stealth tech."
"You are correct." She laughed. "In the frontier, stealth tech is even more valuable, because it allows you to avoid pirates, sandmen and countless other threats. The few people who have access to this tech hoard it like a precious resource. It won't be easy to get in touch with someone who has an understanding of this tech, but I happen to know a very good mech designer who does."
Ves didn't have to think long and hard to come up with a name. "You're not talking about Skull Architect Jimenez, are you?"
"Correct! Before the Friday Coalition chased him away, he enjoyed a very high status in the Vermeer Group. He worked for many clients over the years, and as he advanced to Senior, the Vermeer Group drew him closer by inviting him to participate in several classified collaborative projects. In one such instance, he became involved with improving the design of a stealth mech. While he wasn't the specialist in charge of working with the stealth tech, he observed many details and is able to recall almost everything. Among the mech designers in the frontier, he is one of the great authorities on stealth tech for that reason."
She wasn't exaggerating. The Skull Architect worked on a second-class mech built to the standards of a second-rate state. The stealth capabilities of their stealth mechs far surpassed the capabilities of the stealth shuttles from the Masters of Combat.
Despite his recent resolutions, Ves couldn't help but salivate for that knowledge. His obsession with stealth technology sparked to life within his body, and were it not for the formal banquet occasion, he might have already bent down to his knees to beg the pirate mech designer for access!