The Mech Touch Chapter 645

644 Another Tes

Time passed by as the Flagrant Swordmaidens made their way out of Reinald space. Along the way, they ditched the loot they obtained from the Masters of Combat at a Reinald stopping point.

Commander Lydia's connections with the Reinald Republic proved useful here. She enabled the Vandals to cut through the red tape and complete their transactions within a matter of days.

The Vandals used up their extra funds to load up additional supplies. Ves prioritized the stockpiling of rare materials, as it would almost be impossible to obtain them in the frontier. The fleet also stockpiled entire tanks of ship-grade fuel, perhaps anticipating that the journey up ahead would be a long one.

In between her design assignment, Ketis proved to be a useful source of information on the frontier. "Fuel is one of the most precious resources in the Faris Star Region. There's no shortage of gas giants and planets where we can extract the ingredients to synthesize the fuels, but the problem is that we can't defend most of them. If pirates pass by the harvesting facilities for some reason, the sandmen will come across them sooner or later."

"How do you get anything running in the frontier then? Every starship runs on fuel. Every shuttle requires fuel as well. Even mechs run on fuel, though not always directly. Direct energy cells are charged by reactors that run on fuel. So in short, how can anything be run if there's no fuel production?"

Ketis blinked a bit, as if Ves asked about something that was common sense. "The major pirate factions all operate well-defended fuel refining operations. That said, most of our fuel is imported from civilized space. We pay at least five times as much as you do for fuel out there!"

The price of lower-grade fuel was never a big consideration in civilized space, but if Ves suddenly had to five times as much for the same amount of fuel, he'd go crazy.

It initially sounded like a ripoff, but Ves knew that the forces of supply and demand was at work. Exporting bulk materials like fuel required massive tanker ships that were awfully slow and easy to attack. Providing a sufficient amount of escorts to keep them safe in the lawless frontier was costly in itself. The massive distance involved also increased the risks of encountering a mishap. If anything went wrong, the nearest help would definitely be many light-years away.

So upon second thought, it wasn't such a big surprise that the price of fuel reached so high. The only issue that Ves couldn't wrap his head around was how the pirate gangs in the frontier managed to operate with that much upkeep.

"Since fuel is so expensive, how are you able to keep running?"

"We pay favors. We make friends with the factions that own their own refineries. We loot something from the treasure hunters that you civilized folk always pay a lot of money for. There's lots of ways to make money if you don't have to abide by any artificial rules."

That was true. The untamed stars largely remained unexploited. Exploration of the Faris Star Region alone had only reached the tip of the iceberg so far. Treasure hunters who managed to hit the motherload tended to hoard the coordinates of their cash cows. The secrecy surrounding their exploitation of these treasure stars meant they needed decades or centuries to deplete the natural bounty of those prized locations.

Once something happened to the treasure hunters, those hidden stars might fall into obscurity again, only to be uncovered again when the next batch of explorers encountered it. In short, opportunity could be found in any corner of the frontier. The problem was that anyone could take away your assets and your gains.

Without the protective umbrella of a state, stealing became the norm rather than the exception. Weaker outfits constantly endured bullying from the bigger players. The only way to escape this fate was to befriend the major factions on your own initiative.

"When the Swordmaidens started off, Commander Lydia faced a lot of difficulties due to this." Ketis explained. "It was worse for her because she insisted on recruiting women."

"So she tried to make friends, I gather."

"Receiving the backing of a major faction is the way to go. As long as you aren't too useless, you can earn their recognition which allows us to wave their name around whenever we come across a rival."

"Does that recognition cost anything?"

"A lot. We have to pay a lot of tribute and give them a hefty cut of our earnings. It's not even worth it as some of our enemies don't pay any heed to our backers. That's where our strength comes in. The best way to protect ourselves is to be scary enough on your own. We've become quite good at that over the years."

This also explained their posturing at their first formal meeting. The dramatic show of strength and aggressive attitude served to deter others whenever they met a new outfit. Over decades of performing the same song and dance, it became an ingrained habit to them. The line between theater and reality became blurred.

"What is the end goal of the Swordmaidens?" Ves asked, genuinely curious why the Swordmaidens risked their lives every day to make a living in the frontier.

Ketis eyed him with a sour expression. "That's none of your business. If you really want to know, then ask Mayra or Commander Lydia. It's not for me to tell."

That ended this particular line of questioning. While Ves expressed curiosity on the reason that drived the Swordmaidens to such devotion, he figured he would stumble upon it sooner or later.

Later that day, Mayra finally contacted him. The Swordmaiden mech designer called him up from Jaded Sword, the flagship of the Swordmaidens. The Jaded Sword was an angular combat carrier that specialized in quick orbital insertions through hostile territory.

"There's good news, Larkinson." Mayra began as soon as they established a communications channel. "I've managed to get in touch with the Skull Architect."

"What did he say?"

She sheepishly shrugged. "Well, he's not pleased with me for attempting to introduce a random Apprentice Mech Designer to him. He's a very busy man, and he's involved in the middle of a major project. He's not even willing to chat with an old student like me. His attitude can be impatient and prickly at the best of times."

"That doesn't sound like good news." He frowned.

"Oh, you should see him when he's mad or when he's immersed in an important project. He can shut himself off in his labs for months on end. No amount of pleading can drag him away from his preoccupation. I'm lucky that I caught him at a good time."

"So what is his response?"

"Well unfortunately, he's not willing to spend even a single minute of his time to talk to you. You have to realize that many Novices and Apprentices in the frontier dream of obtaining his favor. Even with my recommendation, he refuses to take the time to give you a chance to make an impression."

Ves didn't expect the Skull Architect to be so abrasive, but perhaps that came with the territory of being one of the few prominent mech designers in the Faris Star Region.

He wouldn't like it either if hundreds of Novice Mech Designers knocked on his door every day to obtain some advice or begged to be taken in as his student. The higher one's position, the more people wanted to hug their thighs. 

"However, you're in luck." She quickly said. "My mentor put forth an alternative. Mech designers like us can communicate with words or with mech designs. It takes hours or days for us to explain the specifications of a design, but it only takes a couple of seconds for my mentor to interpret a design from its design schematics. Do you get it?"

"I understand. Your mentor wants to judge from my work whether I'm worthy enough for him to take his time out for me. However, I'm not looking to be his student or anything. If he can just share some of his research on stealth tech, I'll be more than happy with my gains."

Mayra shook her purple head. "I've already tried. Stealth tech is too sensitive for him to give away. Not even I'm worthy enough in his eyes to receive this knowledge, so it's nothing strange for him to withhold it from you. According to him, he'll draw many formidable enemies if he disseminates this knowledge too widely. The handful of people who are in possession of stealth tech like to keep it to themselves."

"So the only other option is to earn his recognition." He sighed. "This is not what I expected. I wanted a way in. Instead, you brought me to the door and left me there to fend for myself. This exchange of favors really doesn't benefit me at all."

"Look, my recommendation at least got you a foot in the door. That has to account for something! That he has agreed to take a look at your design at all is a major concession on his part. Otherwise, he wouldn't waste his time on a junior of the profession. Even if the frontier is barren of talent, he attracts many mech designers that are even more impressive than you."

Ves closed his eyes. "Very well. I understand what a supposed amazing opportunity this is to prove myself. Let's get on to business then. How does he intend to test me?"

Mayra looked down at her comm and transferred some files to his account. "I've just sent you a couple of design schematics. They are some of my mentor's old designs."

"Let me see." He opened up the files and saw they consisted of various mech types. He quickly identified a major deficiency to the schematics. "They're full of holes. They're incomplete!"

"That's going to be your test. Pick a design you're comfortable with and fill in the blanks with the best of your ability."

Ves felt as if this entire situation was a little surreal. A few days ago, he served a similar test to Ketis. Now, the Skull Architect utilized a similar method to scope out his mech design ability.

This also highlighted the usefulness of this method. Mech designers truly communicated better to each other through their designs than any flowery words.

"Am I allowed to modify the parts of the design that are already in place?"

"No." She shook her head. "The existing parts of the design is there to serve as your guide and your shackles. Working around the limitations and making use of the possibilities embedded in the designs is the main component of this test. The design choices you make and the design philosophy you impart in your solutions will say much about you. Do you understand?"

"I do. It's quite a convenient way to test a mech designer's ability."

Ves actually found this test to be ingenious in its focus. He should have subjected Ketis to the same kind of test instead of dropping a random mech design on her lap. Not only did it take a lot of time to design a good variant, the total lack of structure and guidance meant that Ketis might focus too much on areas that Ves didn't really care about.

He would definitely steal this method and use it for his own ends.

The two discussed some of the parameters of the test. The work he handed over needed to be a reflection of his own work. He wasn't allowed to involve anyone else.

"He'll know if you attempt to cheat." That was all she said about the matter, and Ves believer her. The truly skilled mech designers possessed an extremely high level of discernment.

"Is there a deadline?"

"Not exactly. He hasn't mentioned anything about time limits, but he was probably too distracted or something. Taking too long will reflect badly on you, though, and you shouldn't forget about the communications blackout once our combined fleet crosses into the frontier."

That meant Ves had less than ten days to submit his attempt to impress the Senior Mech Designer. According to the planning, Major Verle and Commander Lydia intended to stop by at Mancroft Independent Harbor for a day or two. Once they loaded up their final supplies, they would formally cross over into the frontier.

At that point, access to the galactic net became a thing of the past.