They called this era the Age of Mechs. It was not as if the weapons that men previously waged war with became obsolete. In the galactic war against the alien races that sought to conquer humanity's stars, other weapons such as warships and weapons of mass destruction still played a role. Yet to use such devastating and expensive weapons in internal conflict was a massive waste and a weakness that other races might exploit if humanity's overall strength declined.
Only by uniting all the kingdoms, federations and republics that humanity has founded would war between humans truly end. And a few visionary leaders have done so, for a time.
It never lasted.
Humans are too fractious, rebellious and diverse to stay united. The grand enterprise of unity failed time and time again. So they separated, still loosely allied by the bounds of their ancestral heritage but not much else. Wars continued, but a complex web of treaties limited the destruction of essential war materiel such as space ships and space stations.
It was all fine and dandy to conquer your neighbor's planet, but keep it on the ground and leave all the expensive stuff in space intact. Not the best solution, but somehow humanity muddled through.
With the stagnation of space warfare, the battle on the ground took on new significance. Infantry, tanks and artillery enjoyed a resurgence of popularity as the fractious human race fought over territory.
Naturally, the invaders didn't have it easy. Forced to operate on enemy soil, the conflicts often devolved into wars of attrition. Even if the invaders painstakingly triumphed over their enemies, they would find out in dismay that they lost more money from their army than what they gained in territory.
All the warmongers realized it became very uneconomical to wage war among themselves. Just as planned, the pacifists thought as they patted their backs. The treaties had been extensively drafted for just such an outcome.
It turned out they celebrated too early.
Ever since the legendary Mack Liu first stepped on the battlefield with a giant humanoid machine called a 'mech', the way men fought war had advanced. Able to perform ably in even the most inhospitable planets, the first mechs made a mockery of the slow-paced and static way of war of their enemies.
"The human body is the best weapon of humans." One of the lead inventors of the modern war mech commented after the first models blitzed half a federation's territory. "Everyone knows that infantry is flexible but fragile while tanks are tough but clumsy. So one day we thought, why not make a new weapon that takes the human form and simply scale it up?"
It resulted in a revolutionary weapon that charmed humans all over the galaxy for its evocative look and inspiring capabilities. Faster than infantry, more flexible than tanks and able to carry a variety of weapons yet limit its logistical footprint to a fraction of what a conventional army gobbled up ensured that dethroned all other service branches.
The Age of Mechs unfolded into splendor. Movies about mechs earned record views. Online and offline games brought the masses closer the glamorized new machines. Major arms manufacturers all opened up mech divisions while countless startups offering their own unique takes on the mechs popped up like mushrooms. The age of mechs seemed golden.
Unfortunately, the true world of mechs remained closed to a small number of elites. The most basic mech models involved hundreds of patents and other proprietary knowledge that would cost a fortune to license. Those interested in piloting an authentic war mech also needed the right compatibility to the highly arcane neural interface that allowed pilots to control their mechs as natural as moving their own bodies. From the latest statistics, only a mere 3.5% of all of humanity possessed the right genetics, upbringing and fitness to successfully connect to a neural interface without frying their brains.
These privileged elites, tested for compatibility from their tenth birthday, enjoyed admiration and worship from the 96.5% who were doomed to never step into a cockpit. Not all of the 3.5% would actually go on to pilot a mech, but even the poorest potentate from the most backwater planet would enjoy training and be added to the reserves. Just in case.
Ves Larkinson was born with the thought that he would pilot a mech. His father was a mech pilot. His grandfather also piloted mechs. He could name at least nine direct ancestors who all served honorably in the Bright Republic's renowned Mech Corps. Most of his aunts, uncles and the rest of the extended Larkinson family had a long history of piloting mechs.
His tenth birthday changed his life. Ves turned devastated when the Bright Republic's doctor pronounced him to be one of the 96.5%. In other words, he was a mech pleb. A commoner doomed never to enter a cockpit and fight in a mech.
"There's nothing dishonorable about having different genes." The doctor consoled the young Ves, apparently well-acquainted with this situation. "No one is good at everything. The rest of us 96.5% get by just fine. You just need to find the passion that suits your talents instead of your father's."
His dad, Rycol Larkinson half-hearted patted the young Ves' back as he led them away for ice cream. And so Ves turned from a precocious boy who dreamed about mechs into a sullen teenager drowning himself in games, partying and depression. With a deceased mother and a father absent from frequent tours of service, no one could rein Ves in. Until he graduated from high school with less-than-stellar grades.
With the impending question of what to do in the future on his mind, it took Ves a while to get back together.
"I'm not a pilot. I'm never going to be a pilot. But all I really know is mechs. If.. if I am never fated to pilot a mech, then I can still do something else that would make me a Larkinson."
Ves narrowed his goal to become a mech designer. Just as crucial as mech pilots, they came up with new designs of mechs and made them into reality. Some of them were just as famous as the heroes who piloted the mechs.
The most prestigious designers worked for the major arms manufacturers, able to deftly spit out a casual new design that would be manufactured in the millions in the entire galaxy. They were the star designers, the superstars who had CEOs and head of states at their beck and call. Even a casual sneeze could impact the stock prices of the companies they worked at, for they were just too influential. Most major human states relied on their exclusive designs to give them an edge in mech warfare.
Then came the middle class of the mech designers, the entrepreneurs with at least a complete series of mech designs. Adept in all facets of what constituted a mech, these seasoned engineers could take a pile of random parts and come up with unique designs that filled most of the conventional roles any decent state, mercenary company or planetary militia would find a use for. Some designers focused on churning out loads of mechs at the most affordable cost, while others might spend their whole lives on a single model that did its job a little better than the competition.
What was left was the bottom heap. The fresh graduates, the failed entrepeneurs and the wash-out old timers with outdated knowledge fell among their midst. They who couldn't design anything other than ripoffs or impractical designs that were more at home in cartoons than in the battlefield. Most of them were doomed to served as faceless cogs, working behind the scenes repairing or maintaining other people's mechs.
The lucky ones still get to make their own mechs somewhat by fulfilling a niche in customization. They took existing mechs and changed them in little ways, or licensed an old, existing design and added their own flair to it. The cutthroat competition in the saturated market didn't allow many to stay afloat for long. But some got by.
Ves hoped to be one of them. With his so-so grades, he could forget about entering a prestigious university. He only managed to scrape enough merits to attend a program at Cloudy Curtain's planetary university in the capital. All he got five years later was a bland degree from a bland institution. In other words, worthless in the eyes of employers.
That was okay. His father Rycol supported him all the way through. He even spent much of his time gathering the capital to kickstart his son's business. They both had a plan. They would start a one-man mech boutique with enough automation to print its own parts and allow Ves to assemble a mech from scratch. Rycol would refer him to his buddies in the service for cheap jobs and let him dip into the world of customization. Once Ves built up a small but recent rep, he might be able to move on to designing his own variants.
All those plans came crashing down when Ves returned to an empty home. Rycol enjoyed a good salary as a mech pilot so he could afford a grand townhouse in the suburbs. But he sold it in order to scrape enough cash to acquire a workshop slash two-bed studio.
The modular, prefabricated structure looked second hand off a battlefield or scrap yard with the amount of rust and scratches its exterior sported. When Ves stepped inside, he was relieved that at least the essentials were still in one shape. The insides looked fairly clean and all of the essential machines to start this one-man enterprise seemed lightly used. His dad knew his stuff.
He was also missing. That wasn't unusual as Ves was stationed at the border between the Bright Republic and the belligerent Vesia Kingdom. But after Ves called his father's friends, border base and even the local police department, it seemed that Rycol just up and disappeared. All of his galactic calls and messages fell off a cliff. No one could find his father.
That included the Cloudy Curtain Planetary Bank. It turned out the workshop components such as the spiffy and sturdy 3d printer that could take all kinds of materials and churn out factory quality mech parts cost much more than Rycol previously suggested. 330 million bright credits, or breds for short. He could buy a couple of decent commercial mechs with that much money!
Ves could spend his lifetime working for an average mech manufacturer and still not earn enough to pay back the huge debt. He instantly fell into a cycle of distress and panic when he read through the bank's polite but impersonal note. It took nearly three pages to say that all of the debt was in fact taken in his own name, and that he would have to hand over the workshop and all of its valuable machinery upon missing even a single annual interest payment.
In short, he had to scrounge up about 5 million credits in about three months to meet the next deadline. Ves lifted up his communicator and hopelessly switched the view to his credit account.
He only had about 1200 bright credits in cash. That was his spending money for the month. With his dad seemingly gone missing or AWOL, it was questionable whether Ves was entitled to the life insurance and other benefits the family of veterans enjoyed. He needed to start working right now in order to get all of that in order because he needed every penny he could squeeze out of the system.
Sighing, Ves swiped away the messages from the bank. "I'm broke. I can't even scrounge up the credits to buy the raw materials I need to manufacture new parts. How am I suppose to do business? The rates for repairs are almost at cost. Not that anyone would go to me for repairs in the first place when I have no rep in the business."
Within a day, he called the bank, the insurance company and the government. What he got back wasn't good.
The bank seemed to have already written Ves off, and wanted to get their claws on the workshop before Ves screwed something up and damaged its value. The only useful thing he received was a package that Rycol stashed at the bank in case of such sudden disappearances.
The insurance company claimed that Rycol was merely missing, and as an active serviceman he might return months or years later so Ves was not entitled to a single penny until either years had gone by or a corpse appeared.
The government was its usual incompetent self. Ves only got lots of 'blablabla' before he plainly hung up. He'd get nothing useful there.
Ves was alone.
He couldn't find anything at all where his dad had gone off to, and the only real clue he received was the package from the bank.
"To my son Ves, in case I'm not home." His father had pasted on the front of the package.
Opening it up, Ves was mildly surprised to pick up a secure datachip. Most data transfers today occurred entirely wirelessly. People only used datachips when they absolutely have to keep whatever they kept absolutely secure.
Ves turned off his comm's net connection before accessing the old datachip.
It took three seconds to load. An unknown program suddenly took over the holographic view.
"Initializing Mech Designer System. New user detected. Initiating deep scan in 2400 minicycles. Please prepare properly."
"Wait, what?" Ves asked the program, just before the communicator let out a huge shock. He passed out with a scream.
And so began Ves Larkinson's journey to be a mech designer.