The day after the banquet, the Flagrant Vandals and Lydia's Swordmaidens hadn't killed each other yet. Though the Vandals still smarted from their abject defeat against the Swordmaidens in the sparring arena, neither side went over the line.
Mostly, the Swordmaidens succeeded in cowing the Vandals into keeping their hands to themselves. If they intended to frighten the wits out of them, the women had definitely succeeded.
The top leaders of both forces held confidential talks up until the late night shift. Besides their inner circles, the rank-and-file remained wholly ignorant of the substance of their talks.
The Flagrant Vandals were already accustomed to secrecy, while the Swordmaidens generally let others do the thinking.
In any case, both the leaders and their subordinates seem to mesh adequately with each other. Though tensions would doubtlessly flare if they remained confined in a single room, there was no issue with remaining polite to each other. As long as neither side felt the urge to shook or chop the other side in half, then sufficient progress had been made.
Neither Commander Lydia nor Major Verle expected their subordinates to become friends with each other. The differences in background, culture and goals prevented them from growing too close.
They hadn't solved their problems concerning coordination either. The two adopted completely different command styles. While the Vandals expected orders to be carried out with a measure of interpretation, the Swordmaidens mostly didn't bother with complicated maneuvers at all!
Instead, the Swordmaidens generally followed those they trusted. Relationships were tight between the sisters, and the officers among them enjoyed sufficient prestige to command the women.
Following the orders of others was out of the question. Even if the Flagrant Vandals knew what they were doing, the Swordmaidens never placed their trust in others. People from the frontier learned early on to never place their trust in others.
When the Swordmaidens departed from the Shield of Hispania, they left a couple of liaisons behind. Mayra somehow managed to convince his bosses to leave Ketis under his care. She promised to get in touch with the Skull Architect as soon as possible, but he was a difficult man to get ahold of, so arranging a meeting took some time.
"What will I do with you?" He sighed as he greeted Ketis in the morning. Major Verle acted entirely too nonchalant about the liaisons. Besides preventing the Swordmaiden mech designer to get in touch with classified Vandal secrets, Ves received broad discretion over how he treated her. "Well, at least you're not the first guest designer that I've brought under my wings."
He still missed the company of Iris Jupiter. The Vesian rebel was smart and tactful to the point where Ves regarded her as his equal. Her insights into neural interface technology granted him a crucial inside look in a sensitive field among mech designers.
The difference this time was that Ketis likely didn't know anything useful to him, at least in the area of mech design. As a recently graduated Novice, she was at the stage where learned the basics but lacked practical experience.
"Tell me about your studies." He began. "Mayra explained to me that you've been tutored by her, right?"
Ketis nodded. "I didn't go to any fancy school. They don't exist in the frontier. Mayra made me go through virtual classes from the galactic net. According to her, I've passed enough classes that would make me graduate from respectable mech university."
"I see." Ves did not put much stock in that achievement.
The quality of virtual classes tend to approach the lowest common denomination. That wasn't to say that it was impossible to become a mech designer through these classes, but studies from the MTA had shown that people who depended entirely on virtual learning never advanced beyond the Apprentice rank.
Anyone could cram the basic fundamental sciences required to become a mech designer. However, without practical experience and the imparting of the more esoteric aspects of the profession, knowledge alone couldn't elevate a bookworm into a designer of mechs. It just made the recent graduate smart in some of the sciences.
This was why there was such a drastic difference between the higher institutions. The Rittersberg University of Technology where Ves had graduated from was almost as worthless as the virtual classes that Ketis took.
The key lay in the fact that mech design was a craft. In other words, it involved art as well as science. Many people bandied about this expression without realizing what it actually meant, but this crucial statement expressed the duality of learning how to design a mech.
It wasn't enough to memorize a lot of books!
This complexity distinguished the good schools from the bad ones. Rittersberg may be the capital of the Bright Republic, but it couldn't hold a candle against the Ansel University of Mech Design on Bentheim when it came to raising successful mech designers. And this was also why many mech designers dreamt of attending the Leemar Institution of Technology in the Friday Coalition.
Therefore, Ves had good reason to doubt Ketis' qualifications. Still, she might possess a redeeming factor. Enjoying the personal tutelage of a Journeyman Mech Designer was an advantage that many would fight over. Depending on how well Mayra had taught the craft to her protege.
Ves briefly developed a plan on what to do with Ketis. First, he needed to take stock of her abilities. "I'm sure you know the basic sciences. What I don't know is if you have what it takes to design a mech."
"I'm not a kid anymore, you know!" She barked, brandishing her fists. Ves unconsciously stepped backwards, afraid she would abruptly release her sword from her scabbard. "I've passed all my classes! I've serviced hundreds of mechs! I watched Mayra design and tweak the Misty Slasher and her other designs for years! Let me do some real work for a change!"
"Calm down. If you think you have what it takes, prove it then. Let me put you to the test."
He guided her over to the empty desk in his office that used to be manned by Iris. Ves activated the terminal, registered it to Ketis, and opened up a mech design suite. After a brief moment of thought, he decided to load in an old and familiar mech design. He couldn't expose the detailed design schematics of the core Vandal mechs to a guest, after all.
"What design is this? It doesn't look like anything the Vandals use."
The gaudy and heroic-looking Caesar Augustus appeared on the projection. The majesty of the mech stood in stark contrast to the more down-to-earth and practical designs of the Vandals. Naturally, the coating had a lot to do with it as well. The Caesar Augustus gleamed in angelic white while the Vandal mechs all looked as if they reveled in chaos with their black and red color scheme.
"This is the Caesar Augustus, a lastgen landbound medium hybrid knight." He said. A mech designer like Ketis should instantly be aware of what this word soup meant. "It is one of the first mech designs I've worked with in my career. Even though it's a severely dated mech, it still uses the same modern design principles of today. Like all hybrid mechs, its internals are exceedingly complex."
"What do you want me to do with this shiny mech?"
"For now, I'd like you to design a cheaper variant of the Caesar Augustus. I'll supply you with the HRF armor system. I want you to utilize it in place of the base model's original compressed armor. You have one week to try and do your best to improve upon the attributes of the original design. I'll be able to get a good impression on where you stand after you finish your variant."
"Hmph. This is a waste of time. You're just trying to fob me off!"
"Look, Ketis, without knowing what you are capable of, it's irresponsible for me to let you loose on the shop floor. Prove to me that you're capable, and I will skip the kiddie stuff and involve you with real design work."
Once he dangled that carrot in front of her face, Ketis became a little more amenable to the test. She still held little respect for Ves, but he wasn't out for her approval anyway.
The horned young woman began to manipulate the projection of the wireframe model of the Caesar Augustus with her fingers. Ves nodded with satisfaction. He wouldn't have to worry about Ketis for a week.
Ves returned to his own work. He hadn't forgotten about his main responsibilities, and he also had to free up some of his free time on his side projects.
First, he held a conference call with his deputies and the other high-ranking mech designers. Besides getting apprised of routine matters, the larger concern of preparing the mechs for high-g operations dominated the meeting.
"It's too difficult to optimize all of our mechs to withstand five or six g's without protection." Mercator said. "We all tried our best but some of the mech models the Vandals have stolen from the Vesians are simply just that bad."
Ves was not amused with such an excuse. "I'm familiar with every mech model in our stables, and none of them are as ramshackle as you think. It's more likely that sloppy maintenance and deviances from the base model is to blame here. I'm not going to wipe your own buttocks because you're too lazy to do it yourself."
He briefly called up the mech models his deputies found problematic and quickly marked out some red flags. "The components I've marked out all look like questionable modifications to me. I don't know who came up with them, and I don't care. But right now they act as the first points of failure to these mechs. Instead of trying to preserve this sloppy work, why not revert it so you the mechs can actually withstand heavy gravity for more than a few hours? Working away these weak points will strengthen the mechs outside heavy gravity as well, so it should have been done yesterday as far I'm concerned!"
Modifying mechs depended heavily on the skills and experience of the mech designer in question. Just as in the case of designing a variant, modifications involved many tradeoffs. The key was to pay as little as possible while gaining more in return. Not every mech designer was as adept at juggling this equation.
"Let me make myself clear to you." He emphasized. "Stability is more important than pushing the limits of the mech frames. In an extreme-g environment, damage from wear and tear is magnified. It's as if you are carrying five times your own body weight for days or weeks on end. This isn't possible for humans, and the only way we manage to do so with mechs is because they are mechanical. As mech designers, we have the luxury of changing its properties. However, the changes we make are situational. What works best in standard gravity might instantly collapse in extreme gravity conditions. If something like this happens, it's okay to revert to an older state."
Ves felt kind of peeved that he even needed to explain this custom. Some mech designers thought that any improvement in the specs should be enshrined in their own temples. Their improvements to the mechs served as a way to validate their importance to the mech regiment. They didn't have access to any other means of comparing notes to each other, since none of them were allowed to design their own mechs.
Unlike these snowflakes, Ves cared little for their inventive solutions. The Vandal mech pilots deserved better.
Someone raised his hand. "I have a question, Mr. Larkinson."
"Why are we moving away from the war? The Vesian offensive against our borders has almost run out of steam by now. The perfect time to make a counterattack is close!"
This question again. Ves shook his head. He entertained numerous questions like this all the time. "The answer is the same as always. That's need to know and you definitely don't need to know."
Morale had already started to slide among the crew. The doubts didn't linger solely among the mech designers. Every other Vandal grew more skeptical about their mission. For now, there wasn't any way to placate the men. Ves could only hope that the Vandals wouldn't be pushed to the brink of mutiny.
"That's all for today. Now get to work!"