Avanaeon's attitude and active participation in this side project suggested something unsettling to Ves. The chief engineer never said anything concrete, but his actions betrayed a considerable lack of confidence in their survival odds.
What kind of swamp did the Starlight Megalodon lead them all into? Ves got the sense that it drew in moths to the flame. Any bug that approached only risked getting burnt to a crisp.
"It won't be long now before we arrive."
The Vandals all made preparations. Drills intensified while the Vandals started shedding their uniforms for hazard suits and combat suits for an increasing amount of time. Though the bulky outfits hindered their work, nobody wanted to get caught flat footed without protection!
The longer they wore the suits, the more they got used to moving and working with them. Once the critical moment arrived, they'd be able to stay on the ball without encountering any hindrance in their work.
Each Vandal kept themselves busy to an extent. The mech pilots all poured into the simulator pods while the mech technicians all put the finishing touches on the recently-modified mechs. Some crews who already finished their essential tasks early began to tune up some of the mechs, temporarily allowing them to run smoother and better for a couple of deployments.
Due to these final preparations, Chief Avanaeon needed to spend more time in his own department at the engineering bay. Ves pretty much took over the end phase of his side project. After meticulously testing and tweaking the different stealth mechanisms, Ves finally declared the shuttle to be cleared for use, at least without putting it to a live test.
Ves put a hand on the surface of the shuttle. His skin brushed over the fine patterned surface of the stealth plating in appreciation. "Ugly brick you may be, you're still the best invention I've ever made to date."
The value of the stealth shuttle surpassed his high-powered gadgets. Certainly, from a technological perspective, his ultracompact batteries won the prize in terms of sophistication. However, the utility of the stealth shuttle far surpassed a handheld gadget for its ability to hide its occupant from regular scanners and sensors.
Certainly, it lacked the power reserves to maintain its active stealth for a very long time, but that was plenty enough to slowly make a getaway and find somewhere safe and quiet to turn off the energy-hungry systems.
"It doesn't even have to be exclusively employed as a means of escape. I can also use it to infiltrate an enemy ship or space station, or to get close to a restricted area."
The only regret he had was that the Six-Sided Dice lacked the capability to enter a terrestrial planet's atmosphere. Its underpowered antigrav modules and sublight propulsion lacked the power to keep the shuttle aloft under standard gravity conditions for longer than a minute.
Even landing or lifting off from a shuttle bay subjected under standard artificial gravity became problematic for that reason!
To lift off under those circumstances either required dialing down the artificial gravity or a willingness to overload the antigrav modules embedded into the cube.
Naturally, each time they overloaded the antigrav modules, their effective lifespan decreased. They couldn't keep that up for very long.
It might still be able to land safely on a moon with a weak gravity, but it definitely couldn't land on a massive terrestrial planet with up to five times the gravity of Old Earth!
"For better or worse, this shuttle is a space hopper."
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Now that the project came to an end and delivered a result, Ves moved the Six-Sided Dice out of the workshop and back to the shuttle bay. He made sure to secure it in an out-of-the-way spot where the mech technicians and flight technicians wouldn't be able to stumble upon it and mess around with the cube.
As he returned to his office, he greeted Ketis as she stood behind her terminal with her eyes narrowed in thought. Ves had never seen her think so deep as now. It showed that she took her last and most difficult assignment with unprecedented gravity.
"How are you so far with formulating your design philosophy?" He asked as he approached her seated form and patted her shoulder pauldron.
Both of them wore their suits of combat armor right now. The contrast between light and heavy combat armor made him appear a little shorter and leaner than Ketis.
"I can't make up my mind. I've pretty made up my mind on devoting my attention to swordsman mechs, but that's not narrow enough for me to specialize in. I still feel as if I'm missing something unique, something that's exclusively mine. Do you understand?"
Ves nodded. "I do. My own design philosophy and specialty are like that. It's so rare and outlandish that nobody has ever thought of treading my path. That's exactly the way I like it, because retreading other people's paths won't contribute to the industry at all. Our design philosophies represent our legacies, Ketis. What we are working towards may not be achievable to anyone, but they will leave behind a record that will be part of your fundamental design makeup for the rest of your life."
To his knowledge, a design philosophy could change over time. Sometimes, a mech designer gained an epiphany or breakthrough in their work that allowed them to shape and direct their design philosophy to a different direction.
A mech designer could also become unduly affected by outside influences. To an Apprentice, a strong exposure to mental contamination almost always ruined their originality. To Journeymen and higher, their design philosophies possessed enough strength to withstand outside coercion. The only way they changed their form was if a mech designer allowed themselves to be affected by external stimuli.
As a design philosophy stood for a mech designer's belief in pursuing an ideal or turning something impossible into reality, they needed to be broad enough to clear a way to the top but narrow enough to keep them focused on a single path.
From what Ves had gathered from Ketis, she already set out a broad direction for her design philosophy. She wanted to work with swordsman mechs. Yet merely wishing that she could design the best swordsman mechs wasn't precise enough to serve as her goal.
What made a mech good or bad?
The best performance? What would be the criteria for the 'best' mechs? Best armor? Mechs with the best armor always turned out to be the slowest. That didn't sound like the best mechs at all. Mechs that focused on offense mostly sacrificed defense or speed, but balancing between all three of them meant that the mech excelled in none of those areas.
Mech designers who aimed to design the 'best' mechs almost never achieved anything substantial in their careers. The problem originated from a broad and inexact definition of what constituted the best mechs.
What may possibly be the best mechs in the galactic center may not fit the needs of those in the galactic rim. Even if someone designed the most high-performing mech in history, cost and resource considerations may make it impossible for such a machine to be built at all!
What was the use of a fantasy design if nobody in the galaxy could gather the resources necessary to produce a single copy of it? If mech designers could advance to the rank of Master by designing fantasy designs that had no basis in reality, then there would have been a lot more of them around by now.
Anyone who set their design philosophy to design the 'best' mechs always fell flat from the start. Ves specifically instructed Ketis not to go for this route.
"Ambition needs to be tempered by a small consideration of practicality." He said. "When mech designers initially compose their design philosophy, there's a tendency for them to become greedy and aim to design the best mechs, ones that are perfect in terms of offense, defense, speed and more. Yet such an ambition is impossibly large. It would be like trying to eat an elephant in a single bite. Rather than take on the whole animal, it's best you narrow down your ambitions and cut out a specific piece of flesh from the animal before you begin to eat."
"I already know that, teacher. It's just.. I can't decide what I want to pursue. I'm not as crazy enough as you for wanting to make my mechs come alive or whatever it is you're after. Yet I don't really feel for trying to pursue a single extreme such as designing the most agile or the most resilient swordsman mechs."
Creativity played a huge role in the formulation of a design philosophy. Ves actually didn't have enough experience in this aspect since his design philosophy gradually came into being after he became fascinated by the X-Factor due to the System's interference.
If Ves really wanted to, he could do the same thing to Ketis as the System did to him. He could manipulate her research interest and encourage her to aim for a specific ideal of his own choosing.
Yet as he looked at this dangerous, armored, hybrid human Swordmaiden, he couldn't bring himself to do so. Even if he compromised his morals to his personal advantage every now and then, he wasn't as rotten as to ruin this deeply personal choice to his very first successful student.
He may not be the most responsible teacher in the galaxy, but he still wished to discharge his responsibilities in good faith when it concerned a student he cared about.
He also wanted to see whether he had the chops to be a legitimate teacher. As his first student, Ves wanted to see whether his instruction put Ketis on the right track to a bright future in her mech design career.
Cheating at this stage only invalidated this experiment and ruined a potentially useful observation. It would be like participating in a foot race, only to hop inside an aircar at the final stretch and race through the finish line with the power of his vehicle instead of his own two feet.
As Ves waited for Ketis to come up with a personal ambition that uniquely suited her interests, a lot of minutes passed by without any results. She hadn't even managed to narrow down her range of interests to a specific field!
He started to get the idea that Ketis may not be suited to this kind of method of formulating her design philosophy. She was never particularly a deep thinker.
"Okay, let's try something different." He declared as he clapped his gauntlets.
Ketis jumped out of her fugue and stared at Ves with an expression of doubt. "What do you mean?"
"Each person and each mech designer is different. Some have very active imaginations, others think in logical patterns. Those kinds of mech designers are most suited to formulate their design philosophies into words from their desk. You're very different from those bookworm types."
"Are you calling me stupid?" She growled.
"No. Not at all. You can study and you can think if you really have to, but it's obvious you are forcing yourself. When it comes to finding a design philosophy that uniquely suits your upbringing, your skills and your interests, it's better to rely on your feelings rather than your thoughts."
"How do I do that?"
"Listen to your heart instead of your mind."
That caused her to pause. She contemplated the suggestion, but couldn't easily get into the right mood. Still, this method felt more promising to her than the last one.
"I think I need to have a mech in front of me to come up with a good feeling." She declared.
"Alright. Let me bring you down to the mech stables. I suppose we have a few swordsman mechs stashed aboard our ship, though they're predominantly spaceborn machines."
The pair exited the office and headed down to the mech stables at the lower decks. Once they finally arrived in front of a dormant swordsman mech, drawing the attention and curiosity of the mech technicians around them, Ketis entered into a peculiar mental state without warning.