They entered the end sprint.
Ves personally accompanied the modified prototype to the newly erected testing grounds a fair distance away from the Mech Nursery. He witnessed each test in person and made his own observations about the prototype's performance.
From what he saw so far, his rifleman mech design performed up to expectations. It weaved nimbly around the obstacle, showing hardly any signs of slowing down. As a fast and nimble medium mech, the prototype demonstrated both speed and resilience.
Even the people who supervised the tests couldn't help but let out admiring gasps when the prototype finally revealed the power of the chest crystal.
After being hit by a number of laser beams, the crystal started twinkling in white. After the test pilot sent out a command, the chest crystal unleashed a powerful but controlled beam of light with almost the same properties of a conventional crystal, but with a lot more oomph behind its power.
"The beam is at least twice as powerful as a standard laser cannon!"
That wouldn't change any paradigms anytime soon, but it sounded impressive nonetheless. The capability to unleash a laser beam twice as powerful as a cannon should come as a nasty surprise to the rifleman mech's opponents.
It was too bad that the crystal couldn't be charged in any other way than firing lasers at it, not if you wanted to be safe. The crystal also didn't hold its charge for very long and fizzled out rather quickly, throwing up a lot of excess heat into the vicinity as a result.
"It's still a gimmick." Carlos noted at the side while Ves engrossed himself in studying the data readouts. "I really don't see this feature being very useful. Sure, it's impressive for a mech of that size to be able to unleash a powerful beam, but it won't have many opportunities to show off that feature. It can only be charged if it's shot at. Even if it carries a decent amount of armor, I don't see any mech pilot volunteering to go out in a laser storm."
Ves grunted. "You're right, but the crystal can be charged in other ways as well. It doesn't discriminate between sides, so there's no problem with asking other mechs to shoot at its chest crystal."
"As if anything like that will happen. It's more efficient if those laser rifleman mechs don't waste their battery packs on tricks like that."
Ves did not believe it was as straightforward as Carlos made it out to be. He could figure out several potential advantages to pre-charging the central crystal. He did not worry about the center crystal lacking any applications.
Although the crystal technology still hid a lot of secrets, Ves was pleased by the value it added to his design. Perhaps in the future he'd be able to bring out its full strength.
The testing grounds continued to grind away at the prototype. Ves gathered a lot of data on the soundness of its construction and the performance of each of its components. He paid a lot of attention to the targeting system, which turned out to be snappy and responsive, though it wasn't very accurate at longer ranges.
The further away his mech was from its target, the more effort it had to expend to break past the enemy mech's ECM. Against skirmishers which specialized in taking out ranged mechs, this effect could become very pronounced.
A skilled enough pilot stopped relying on external aids anyway. AIs and processors always glitched out and failed at the worst possible moments. Mech pilots had been taught to rely on their own skills instead of the comforts provided their mechs.
A mech pilot was there to pilot his mech, not the other way around.
From the fifth day onwards, the testing grounds started to subject the prototype to more demanding tests. This mostly involved subjecting it to extreme conditions. They had to find out if the design delivered all of its promises in terms of survivability.
It was at this time when a very important piece of news spread throughout the Republic. The Mech Corps sent out a formal message to millions of mech designers.
Within the LMC, only Carlos received a notification from the Mech Corps. It arrived in his comm with a special sound that his comm normally never released.
Both Ves and Carlos looked at each other with dismay.
"I knew this would happen." Carlos sighed and raised his comm to read the message. "I've been drafted."
Both of them saw it coming, though Ves always hoped that the Mech Corps would somehow overlook his friend. After all, despite graduating as a mech designer, he never did anything of the sort. He had no designs to his name. He didn't even publish a single virtual mech.
"When do you have to leave?"
"They already booked passage for me. I'm to board the next convoy from Cloudy Curtain to Bentheim. That's in two days."
"That's not a lot of time."
"The Mech Corps doesn't wait for anyone."
Now that the first wave of mech designers got called up, the war would probably enter a heated state very soon. The cautious probes and occasional raids that characterized the majority of the battles between the two sides would make way for harrowing battles in space and on the ground.
Ves accompanied Carlos they went through the paperwork. This ensured that Carlos would seamlessly be able to return to the LMC after his service ended.
"How long do you think the war will drag on?" Carlos asked as they ate a meal in one of the Mech Nursery's restaurants.
"If it's the same as the last ones, then it's going to last for four to six years."
That meant that Carlos might end up a very different man after the Mech Corps released him. The thought of what low-ranking mech designers had to go through during the war freaked him out.
"Hey!" Ves reached out and grasped his friend's shaking hand. "Working near or at the frontlines can be bad, but it's also a fantastic learning opportunity! As long as you listen to the chief technicians in charge, you won't get lost, I promise you."
"Wise words from someone who had seen it all?"
"You can say that."
What he experienced on Groening IV and the Glowing Planet changed his life and built his character. Ves might have encountered a number of close shaves, but he also came out stronger after he conquered every challenge in his way.
Over the course of their dinner, Ves proceeded to tutor Carlos on how to survive his coming tour of service. He enthralled his friend with tales and cautioned him to always watch his back.
"A crisis can happen at any moment. No one will watch out for you when all hell breaks loose. The only person who cares about your safety is yourself and no one else."
Carlos frowned. "Geez. That sounds really pessimistic. Is it really that bad?"
"It depends on where you end up, but even if you are assigned to the rearguard, you shouldn't relax too much."
"With my background, I don't have any chance of landing a plushy posting." Carlos said with a rueful smile. "It's straight to the frontlines for me."
Even Ves didn't hold out hope for Carlos to be sent somewhere far away. The Mech Corps was not a completely incorruptible institution. Ves grew up long enough among the Larkinsons to hear about how they really worked. When he studied mech design at Rittersberg, he heard other stories that confirmed all those tales.
The truth was that low-ranking mech designers with backing and connections always seemed to end up in the rear. As for mech designers who enjoyed nothing of the sorts, they somehow never ended up more than a stone's throw away from all of the action.
The only thing that Carlos had going for was that he worked for Ves, who in turn enjoyed a modest amount of backing from a Master Mech Designer.
Still, the connection between Carlos and Master Olson was nonexistent. No one believed that Carlos enjoyed any protection from someone who held an important status in the Friday Coalition. At best, Carlos was an extension of the LMC and Ves.
Despite his great strides in recent times, Ves knew that his prestige hadn't reach the level where people could recognize him on the streets or where the Mech Corps took special care of him. Carlos had to fend for himself at the frontlines.
"I don't blame you, Ves. I'm much better off than when I previously worked a dead-end job in quality control. My design skills have improved a lot, and I'll be able to offer a lot of help to a crew of mech technicians."
Ves nodded reassuringly. "I've kept an eye on your progress. At your level, you should be capable of modifying mechs."
Mech technicians couldn't make any significant modifications to existing mechs without locking them up. Most of the time, they overlooked something critical that led to the emergence of fatal flaws or compatibility issues. Only someone with a mech design background could safely perform major modifications such as adding extra armor to a mech.
"That sounds like a good idea. I can stand out in this way."
"Don't forget to check in with the chief technician before you do anything drastic. Just because a mech technician tells you something is okay doesn't mean he knows what he's talking about."
"You're always telling me to establish a rapport with the chief technician. Why is he so important? Shouldn't I be buttering up my superiors?"
"Who's going to be your superior? Most of the times, it's another mech designer! It would be great if your boss wants to be chummy with all of his subordinates, but from what I've heard, that never happens. Don't forget that you're competitors as well!"
Carlos started to get it. "If I perform better than my boss, he'll probably try to squash me down, is that right?"
"That's what all the Larkinsons told me back when I was young. The mech pilots seem to view conflicts between mech designer as an amusing distraction. It might be funny to them, but it's awful if that happens to you."
"What can I do then? Will I have to keep my head down forever? How will I be able to get a promotion out of the frontlines then?"
"That's where the chief technician comes into play. You see, all those mech designers sent to the bases are there to help with the repair and maintenance of all of the mechs of the Republic. You and all the other mech designers are the guests there. The true person is charge will always be the chief technicians on the base."
Ves made a lot of sense. Carlos nodded like an eager chick as Ves continued his explanation.
"Nothing happens in the mech stables and the workshops without the approval of the chiefs. All of them are career servicemen without exception and have the power to ruin the lives of any mech designer that doesn't play by the rules. They hold all the actual power there."
"I see! So even if they aren't all that high up on the totem pole, they're still more important than the base commander, is that right?"
"For you, yes. Base commanders don't have any reason to pay attention to you. Chief technicians do. They treat their mechs like their own children and hope that mech designers like you do so as well. In order to earn their acknowledgement, you have to demonstrate that you care."
"Isn't that a given? I'm a citizen of the Republic, of course I care!"
"Platitudes aren't enough. My uncle and aunts told me that chief technicians often blow up in front of mech designers who still can't get over the fact that the Mech Designers took them away from their comfy workshops and plopped them in the middle of a war zone. Even if you want to get out, don't do it in a way that disrespects he people who fight the good fight."
Ves graced Carlos with many other tips like that. Unlike somehow who had no clue what the Mech Corps wanted with all of these low-ranking mech designers, Ves heard a lot from his uncles and aunts who participated in the last war.
Both sides often targeted each other's mech technicians. As the war dragged on, the Republic and the Kingdom might experience a shortage in technical personnel. For that reason, the Republic didn't hesitate to rope in all of the marginal mech designers who barely eked out a career in the private sector.
"Mech designers like you are spares in their eyes."