The corvette entered a lifeless star system with no known settlements. Ves and the mech designers weren't allowed to know where it was located, which underscored the importance of this seemingly empty system.
After another day of coasting towards the inner system, they stopped by a vast asteroid belt that ringed around the dull yellow sun. From there, Ves expected to enter some sort of secret asteroid base, but instead the corvette came face to face with one of the largest industrial ships he had ever seen.
"Is that a factory ship?"
"That, and more. You're looking at the one and only Wolf Mother."
The so-called Wolf Mother was imposingly large. Larger than a fleet carrier, even, though both her hull and armor couldn't compare to a ship dedicated for battle.
As a factory ship, the Wolf Mother was basically a manufacturing complex compressed in a single hull with some thrusters and and FTL engine slapped to her. The Wolf Mother's design looked rather crude, displaying many gaps in the hull that led to empty cavities that hadn't been filled since her commissioning.
"So this is where the Vandals design and produce their mechs?" Ves asked in a weird voice.
"That's not possible! A ship of this size can't service an entire regiment's worth of mechs!"
A normal regiment fielded around two-thousand mechs at a time, but that didn't take into account the spare parts and spare mechs that would be necessary to keep the unit at full strength.
Despite its massive size, only a tiny portion of the factory ship could be dedicated to the production lines. Each production line expended an enormous amount of power and resources, so Ves estimated that the Wolf Den only held two production lines at most, and that would be straining the ship.
To that, the spacer sent a cheeky smile at Ves. "Who said we need to rely on our own mechs to fight?"
Ves forgot about the usual conduct of the Flagrant Vandals. They were so cut-off from conventional supply lines that they needed to steal or scavenge everything for themselves. This also applied to mechs.
The imposing manner of the Wolf Mother only grew as the tiny corvette approached one of her docking spaces. The factory ship looked so immense that her hangers even offered enough space to let in the Bloodless Dagger, not that they did so this time. The Bloodless Dagger didn't require any servicing.
"How old is the Wolf Mother?" Pierce asked.
"She's over thirty years old. She's actually a product of the previous war."
Ves didn't know whether he should feel afraid or reassured at that fact. The vessel definitely looked like she had been through a war. Much of her armor looked like a patchwork construction where different holes and battle scars had been covered up by any available armor plating the Vandals could get their hands on.
This led to a very shabby appearance. If not for her size and solidness, Ves would have mistaken the Wolf Mother for a floating junk heap.
The interior of the ship looked a little better compared to her exterior. Once the Bloodless Dagger docked with the factory ship and let out the mech designers, Ves felt as if he entered a cross between the Mech Nursery and a fleet carrier.
The Wolf Mother was completely geared towards logistics. Massive grinders and other processing equipment broke down asteroid chunks and extracted every useful materials from the remains. Elsewhere, mighty production lines churned out part after part for both mechs and ships.
The brief view he got as a guide led them across the corridors made it clear that the Wolf Mother had been built in a piecemeal fashion. She started small, but the Vandals tacked on more compartments over time, until she eventually reached her current size.
This haphazard method of expansion might have suited the Vandals well, but it left little room for protection. Even a much smaller combat carrier would be able to endure more damage than this tough-looking but fragile-shelled logistics ship.
After passing through a maze of corridors, they reached a large out-of-the-way compartment. "This is your stop. Professor Velten is expecting you."
They entered what appeared to be a design lab. Rows of terminals connected to powerful processors stood ready to perform any number of simulations. Further ahead, Ves spotted areas which facilitated the design process in many different ways.
For example, one open space contained a table that supported minifab. This tiny 3D printer only worked with a handful of materials, but through the application of different treatments, it was perfect for fabricating tiny models that could help with the visualization of the design.
The newcomers entered an office to the side. Professor Velten looked up from the data pad he studied and smiled. "Come on!"
The Professor was a short and aging woman. She obviously enjoyed a coupe of age-prolonging treatments, but they didn't seem to be of very great quality. Nevertheless, her status alone forced the three arrivals to show a measure of respect before taking their seats, because the professor turned out to be a Senior Mech Designer.
"Ah, it delights me to see new chickens have come." The professor smiled in a slightly creepy manner. "You are the fourth, fifth, and sixth mech designers to have arrived from the inner regions of the Republic."
The old woman spoke no further but eyed them as if they were exotics.
"Ahem, Professor," Ves began. "What are our responsibilities?"
That forced the absent-minded professor back into the present. "There is much that needs to be done! You may have realized that we are very short-handed. Even if we cut back our projects, we are barely able to keep up! There are a total of three Journeyman Mech Designers under my wing, and each of them lead a small design team of around three Apprentices."
That didn't sound like an impressive team at all.
"Due to… the difficulties in securing a sufficient amount of time, money, resources and manpower, I have restricted the development of new and improved designs to three different mech lines."
A typical design team with over a hundred mech designers working together could easily support the development of a dozen designs at the same time. Professor Velten's team barely managed to scrape by with only three designs.
Like a lonesome granny who only saw her grandparents once a year, Professor Velten treated Ves, Pierce and Laida like they were precious treasures.
"Three Apprentices have already arrived from the Rittersberg region. Along with your arrival, that makes six fresh faces. Sadly, that's the extent of their generosity. They haven't even sent us some much-needed Journeymen!"
After ranting a bit about the lack of concern from headquarters, Professor Velten returned to the topic at hand.
"It's best if the three of you split up and each take part of one of the three projects in development. It is not as if the addition of three extra Apprentices to a single project will make any difference compared to sending only one. It takes at least ten more mech designers for the synergy to become apparent."
The professor didn't let them choose their assignment. She briefly read their profiles and track records and arbitrarily added them to the teams that best matched their skills.
"Miss Nnvist, you will be joining the design team that is working on the Inheritor spaceborn skirmisher design."
"Mr. Yuvalis, you shall be joining the design team that's responsible for improving the Akkara heavy mech design."
"As for you, Mr. Larkinson, you will fit wonderfully with the design team that is developing the successor to the Hellcat spaceborn hybrid knight design."
What? A spaceborn hybrid knight design?
Before Ves could puzzle over the extensive challenges behind designing a hybrid knight with enough capacity to support a flight system, Professor Velten pushed them out and ordered them to meet with their respective design teams. The professor unceremoniously shooed them away from her office.
Once the hatch locked, they all looked at each other.
"The professor is a little senile, is she not?" Ves remarked.
Neither Laida nor Pierce dared to comment on Professor Velten's mental state. She was a Senior Mech Designer after all. Even if they left her presence, she could still be listening in through the countless bugs embedded in this compartment.
Ves sighed. As someone who met a Master Mech Designer in the flesh, the prestige of a Senior Mech Designer hardly fazed him. He even found the professor to be a rather pitiful person. Perhaps her erratic mind was the reason why she lead the design team of the Vandals.
After consulting their comms, they split up and entered different compartments. Ves entered a sub-lab area where three other Apprentices sat behind a row of terminals performing various simulations and microadjustment of the latest iteration of the Hellcat design.
The other Apprentices stopped their work once Ves entered the compartment. A thin man with a towering height in his late thirties looked up from the schematics of a power reactor and turned his attention to Ves.
"Have you come from Professor Velten?"
"Yes, sir. These are my orders."
Ves passed over a data chip to the Journeyman, who slipped it into his terminal and read the contents.
One tidbit caused the man to stop his perpetual glower for a moment. "You're a Larkinson? Are you related to…"
This was a familiar refrain to Ves. "Yes, I'm part of the Larkinson Family."
A few seconds passed.
"Very well then." The Journeyman nodded and resumed reading his records. "It says here that you have experience in designing hybrid knights."
"Not exactly, sir. I haven't designed a hybrid knight from scratch. I developed a variant of an existing model."
"Which base model?"
"The Caesar Augustus."
That caused the tall man to scowl. "That piece of crap?! Why did you waste your time on that bloated mess?"
"I didn't have any choice. I received its production license from a generous grant."
After making it clear that Ves didn't deliberately choose to work with the Caesar Augustus, the Journeyman calmed down. "Very well then. Despite your limit track record, at least you know your way around with hybrid knights. Do mind you, a spaceborn hybrid knight is a radically different creature from a landbound hybrid knight, so don't think you have the edge over your fellow Apprentices."
The Journeyman bobbed his head towards the three young Apprentices who sat attentively as they studied Ves.
"My name is Alloc Brandstad, and I'm the only Journeyman Mech Designer that lasted more than five years under Professor Velten's supervision."
Alloc spoke those words with an exhausted tone.He shook his head and returned Ves his data chip. "Keep that chip safe. Otherwise you'll get in trouble with the Wolf Mother's security contingent."
"Let me apprise you of the role of the Hellcat within the Vandals."
The 6th Flagrant Vandals used to be supported by a team of over fifty mech designers. That was only half as much as any other regiment, but it was more than sufficient to the undersupplied Vandals.
For some reason or another, the design team diminished to its current state. Professor Velten need to make a brutal choice and cut back the active number of designs in development. She chose to retain the most essential designs that formed the core of the Vandals.
The professor's choice of retaining the Hellcat in active development turned out to be very controversial.
"Hybrid knights are difficult to design at the best of times. Spaceborn hybrid knights are almost impossible to design even if you put over a hundred mech designers to the task. Nevertheless, both Professor Velten and Colonel Lowenfield put down their feet. The Hellcat is an essential mech that enjoys a place of honor among the Vandals."
Much like the Caesar Augustus, the Hellcat was a versatile mech meant to be piloted by leaders. The Vandals fielded less than twenty-five Hellcats at a time, mainly because they couldn't scrounge up enough mech pilots that could make good use of a hybrid knight.
"Make no mistake." Alloc said with emphasis. "Despite the small number of Hellcats in existence, they have served as the linchpins of the Vandals in every single battle in space since their inception. The hellcat is more than a single design. It is a symbol."