The Mech Touch Chapter 568
569 Last Meeting
After visiting Venerable Foster, Ves gained a wholly new understanding of the higher ranks of mech pilots. He now understood a little better why humanity worshipped them. Their strength and force of will transcended the boundaries of mortal men.
"They may even be the vanguard of the future evolution of humanity."
In the Age of Mechs, no human enjoyed more renown than mech pilots. There was a very strong desire for parents to give birth to potentates. Though mech pilots often risked their lives, there was no greater glory for a human to pilot a mech.
This had led to a very strong desire to breed for genetic aptitude. Though the proportion of potentates to norms hadn't changed all that much in the last four-hundred years, researchers understood more about genetic aptitude than ever before. Certain families and organizations such as the Larkinsons grasped some profound means to vastly increase the odds of birthing a potentate.
Of course, the Larkinsons paid a heavy price to fund these special treatments. Without money and the right genetics, it was impossible for the vast majority of humanity to enjoy the same opportunity. Even then, there were limits to human intervention. The occurrence of A-grade genetic aptitude was completely up to chance.
Venerable Foster was truly a unique specimen in the Hafner Duchy.
Almost a week had passed since they departed from the Nova Migolatus System. The entire task force fell into a depressingly familiar routine. The Vandals mourned their losses but also pulled up their sleeves and went to work. Countless mech technicians scoured over the damaged mechs and prioritized the repair of the least-damages ones.
Once they emerged from FTL, the fleet conducted the biggest space burial ceremony as of yet. Every Vandal shared the pain of loving a close brother or sister, and Major Verle had done his best to get them to look forward to the future.
After that, the Vandals mostly turned back to normal, though there was a rising undercurrent of discontent among the rank-and-file. Ves heard the usual talk of deserting the Mech Corps, but this time a lot more people shared the same opinions.
Ves didn't think this was a good sign. The Vandals always had a tendency to speak their minds. It was a way of venting their frustrations whenever they got dealt a bad hand. The battle on the Kamwin continent had been a lot more deadly than everyone initially expected.
People started asking again why they fought these battles in the first place.
"We're not a battlefield regiment! This high-risk journey through half of the Kingdom is insane!"
"If I was Colonel Lowenfield, I would have taken the entire fleet away from this depressing corner of the galaxy. With a full mech regiment at her back, she can mix with lots of different outfits."
"I should have joined a mercenary corps instead of the Mech Corps. Pah, what does all of this talk of pride and glory has to do with us? It's the big wigs who are earning all of the glory! They don't even have the guts to step on the battlefield in person, but they're the first ones to step forward when it comes to taking credit!"
No matter where he went, Ves continued to pick up borderline treasonous talk. It made him profoundly uncomfortable when he visited the mess hall to eat his meals or went down to the hangar bays to inspect the repair work.
It had even birthed a faint suspicion in his paranoid mind. Was their trip to the Reinald Republic a one-way journey?
"Whatever is happening, it shouldn't take too long for some of the truth to come out."
During their time of recuperation, the task force continued to approach Hafner's borders. It wouldn't take too long before they finally arrived at the barrier of heavily-patrolled star systems.
Ships that made use of standard FTL drives had no way to surmount this barrier. The stars on both sides tended to be dim and small, which meant they were far from energetic enough for ships to dial into their coordinates from afar. There weren't any port systems in the vicinity either.
This basically meant that ships crossing the border needed to take multiple stops in order to avoid any accidents. This was akin to walking through a forest in the dark. People needed to take one step at a time in order to prevent anyone from smacking into a wall.
Throughout this buffer time, rumors continued to disseminate about the negotiations. Some of them had a lot of basis in fact, but it was difficult for Ves to take them for granted.
Ves wanted to cut through the falsehoods, so he went straight to one of the sources. He invited Iris to come up to one of the Shield of Hispania's lounges after their shift had ended.
"Mr. Larkinson! Why did you invite me up here?"
The lounge that Ves had picked out was a prime relaxation area for the ship's warrant officers and more junior commissioned officers. The Vandal mech pilots and mech officers tended to favor their own watering holes in the lower decks.
The luxuriously-furnished lounge was situated at the upper deck and ordinarily featured an observatory that allowed everyone to look up at the stars.
Right now, the task force was submerged in FTL travel, so thick plates of armor shielded up the transparent dome. Looking out at the higher dimensions had a tendency to make some people nauseous or worse.
Ves waved at Iris and beckoned her to join him at a corner. A discrete privacy screen surrounded the corner, which prevented others from eavesdropping on them. This was very helpful for off-duty officers who wanted to discuss sensitive matters outside of their work environment. Naturally, the ship's monitoring system still recorded every word that was being said.
Once Iris sat down, Ves invited her to order a drink. "Come. It's my treat."
Seconds after they ordered their drinks, a small floating serving bot arrived to deliver their chosen poison.
Ves took a swig of his mug of heavy stout. He almost spat it out right after. "Damnit! How can the Vandals be so cheap?! This is synthesized from nutrient packs!"
The woman sitting opposite to him smiled amusedly at him. "What do you expect? They spend the vast majority of their funds on keeping their mechs and ships together. They have no energy to waste on procuring authentic food and drinks."
He had already become used to meals derived from nutrient packs. The only times he got to enjoy authentic food these days was when Major Verle held an elaborate dinner occasion. At least the big boss knew how to enjoy himself. Ves couldn't imagine what kind of foodstuffs the mech officer squirreled away.
"You must be wondering why I asked to meet with you here."
"The thought did cross my mind."
Both of them shed the veneer of formality they normally wore while on duty. This would have been a lot less common in Vesian circles. Even the rebels that advocated for the overthrow of the nobility still couldn't shake off the class system that had been imposed on them for all their lives.
However, Iris had mingled with the Vandals for almost two months now. Her continued exposure to how the Vandals treated each other had opened her eyes.
"Our journey is almost at an end. From what I can see, we'll be crossing the border one way or another within the week. This might be the last time our lives intersect with each other."
The female mech designer smiled. "It's been a wild ride, hasn't it?"
"It's not what I expected when the Mech Corps drafted me. I originally thought I would spend the entire war stuffed inside a hidden research base buried somewhere covert deep in Republic space. Did you know that I worked hard to advance my career in order to avoid getting sent to the frontlines? Hah! Look where that got me."
"Well, it doesn't appear you've suffered loss, Ves. Look at you now. You're the temporary head designer of this fleet. Although you aren't as capable as Professor Velten, you're gaining valuable experience in a role that is hard to come by."
"My job isn't as comfy as it sounds. I've been working very hard each day and it demands the utmost of my capability. Everything would be twice as easy if I was a Journeyman Mech Designer. My own subordinates wouldn't doubt me all the time."
"Are Trozin and Mercator stirring up some trouble again?"
"Not particularly." He shook his head. "They used to deviate from my orders or interpret them in an unusual manner. They've quieted down ever since we've departed from the Nova Migolatus System. Maybe their time on the field has done them some good."
"Didn't you send that other guy down there as well?"
"That's Vedette." Ves palmed his face when he thought of the low-ranking mech designer. "All I wanted was to stiffen him up. He hadn't even been exposed to any threats to his life, yet once he came back from his deployment it's like he turned into a mouse. According to the mental health professionals who examined him, he's actually suffering from PTSD!"
Of course, this condition wasn't hard to treat these days. The doctors injected Vedette with some drugs and put him through some kind of program that unscrambled his brains. The only problem was that it took some time for the treatment program to bear results.
"Not everyone can be like you, who survived all alone for a while on Detemen IV. You're a lot more dangerous than you look."
Ves laughed. "That's because I bump into danger far too often. It's partially my fault. The galaxy is a wondrous place. There's so much treasure to be unearthed from the frontier. Sometimes I yearn to follow in the footsteps of the treasure hunters that ply the untamed stars."
"I can't imagine living an uncertain life like that. For me, I have only the VRF in mind. The rebel cause is my cause. As long as my people remain under the oppression of the nobles and royals, my duty still remains."
"That sounds… admirable."
"I know what you are thinking." She shook her head. "You don't need to hide your true thoughts. We know each other well enough to see the truth in our eyes. You don't believe we have a chance of success, do you?"
"I can't understand why you are committed to your state."
"That's because it's my home. Even if I hate it, I can never let my fellow Vesians wallow in their misery."
Ves truly couldn't see the point. No matter how many times Iris explained her conviction, he would never understand her stubborn commitment to an ugly state.
They tactfully shifted to another topic.
"Anyway, the reason why I wanted to meet with you here is because I wanted to give you a gift before we say our farewells."
Iris nodded. "I can't say much about the three-way negotiations that is going on between the Flagrant Vandals, the Hafner Duchy and Peace for Hafner, but we're already in the process of finalizing an agreement. Hafner values Venerable Foster's potential a lot. That has given us a lot of chips to bargain with. You can bet that safe passage is highly possible for the task force."
"I don't believe that the rest of the Kingdom will be happy at Hafner if they grant us safe passage out of their territory." Ves frowned.
"Although the chance is minute, Venerable Foster has a small chance of advancing to ace pilot. Compared to the possibility of obtaining their own ace pilot, Hafner is willing to endure all sorts of recrimination from the other duchies."
Ves frowned a little deeper. He already knew her potential to be high, but it seemed he underestimated her value. "A part of me wishes that she'll never be let go. The prospect of freeing a potential ace pilot is giving me the chills."
There was no doubt that Venerable Foster had developed an undying hatred for the Flagrant Vandals and the Bright Republic. Letting her loose might lead to a calamity in the future. It was too bad that the Vandals really couldn't afford to hold on to her. If they didn't ransom her back to the duchy, the Hafners would likely hound them to the ends of the galaxy!