Lydia's Swordmaidens appeared horribly out of place with the elegant, wood-paneled dining room. The earthen, classy interior clashed violently against their colorful exobeast garments.
Nonetheless, the Swordmaidens remained relatively composed. They showed no signs of unfamiliarity with formal settings. Though the Flagrant Vandals wasn't the strictest mech regiment of the Mech Corps, they could be very traditional when they were serious.
The dining room hosted several large square dining tables. For clarity, the Swordmaidens were invited to sit on one side of the table, while the Vandals claimed the other side.
When the Swordmaidens were about to take their seats, they first detached the scabbards from their backs. Each scabbard incorporated a small antigrav module that allowed them to float in the air. The Swordmaidens placed them behind the backrest of their chairs, keeping them in easy reach and allowing them to draw their blades in an instant if necessary.
Not a single Vandal had the guts to request them to leave behind their swords. Many servicemen regretted leaving their backup pistols in the armory.
Commander Lydia and Major Verle took their places at the head of the main table. As soon as everyone took their places, the major stood up.
"Ladies and gentlemen. Vandals and Swordmaidens. We appear very different at first glance. Ordinarily, we should be facing each other on the battlefield. Yet circumstances have made us strange bedfellows. While I am aware that many of you have doubts, answers will soon be forthcoming. Suffice to say, I can think of very few combinations that are both flexible and formidable in battle! Together, we have wiped out the Masters of Combat from history!"
That gave both of them a lot of pride. If there was anything that lifted up the Vandals, it was a clean victory against a formidable opponent. Even the Swordmaidens felt pleased at this achievement.
"Despite our successes, many of you harbor questions. Questions about our mission. Questions on why we are heading to the frontier. Questions why the Swordmaidens and the Vandals need to combine our strength in the first place. Answers to all of these questions will soon be forthcoming. Due to the extremely confidential nature of our mission, the briefing will have to wait until we cross into the frontier and disable all of our quantum entanglement nodes aboard our ships, with the exception of our flagships. These extreme measures should already underscore the importance of our mission."
A lot of Vandals looked mildly alarmed when their commanding officer informed them that they would disable most of their quantum entanglement nodes. This was because the process of shutting them off was irreversible! Pulling the plug on the hardware would turn the machinery into an extremely expensive piece of scrap! These nodes communicated instantly across countless light-years through the interaction of matched pairs of particles.
Creating these matches pairs could only be done in a lab or a specialized production facility. Not a single mech regiment possessed the capability of producing new pairs of entangled particles to replace the ones that fizzled out.
Basically, the Vandals and the Swordmaidens willingly cut themselves off from the galactic net. Though they left two lifelines intact, Ves imagined that the remaining nodes would be put under heavy guard, to the extent of denying routine use of the nodes.
The impact of this announcement to the Vandals was profound. The idea of heading into the frontier with only a tenuous connection to civilized space was as frightening as crossing a cable over an endless chasm on foot. Only a single misstep was required to throw them into a fall they might never recover from! What kind of mission required such an extreme level of discretion?
Verle did not let his subordinates stew over this declaration too much. He silently clapped, causing numerous bots to float into the dining room and drop off the dishes to the hungry Vandals and Swordmaidens.
"Hmm!" Ves sniffed with a smile. "Finally, some real food! I'm sick and tired of those meals synthesized from nutrient packs."
A small piece of lizard-like leg had been served in front of him. The meat was topped with grey sauce and was surrounding with purple garnish that smelled like fresh ocean. Ves didn't recognize any of the ingredients, but it didn't matter too much. Every exomeat and exoplant safe for human consumption tended to taste the same after sampling enough of them. Human taste buds could be surprisingly lazy in some ways.
"Tastes like chicken." Chief Avanaeon muttered as he chewed his lizard leg like a piece of gum. "Correction, it tastes like a chewy piece of chicken."
Everyone from the technical branch of the Vandals sat around their own table. Ves, Chief Avanaeon, Chief Haine and a couple of other familiar figures faced a smaller number of unknown women.
Disconcertingly, the Swordmaidens sitting across the table looked no different from the Swordmaiden mech officers. Even their support personnel possessed the ability to chop someone up with their swords.
As the most sociable among the Vandals, Chief Haine broke the ice. "How's the food?"
"Adequate. Not as good as the meat we have harvested from our own kills."
"So did all of you grow up in the frontier?"
The Swordmaidens nodded. The oldest woman among them who looked as if she came from the same generation as Lydia spoke up. "We know you civilized folk think the frontier is a wasteland of alien and environmental threats. You are right to think so. None of our planets have been subjected to the fancy terraforming you take for granted. The frontier isn't referred to as the untamed stars for nothing."
"How do you manage to live on those planets in the first place?"
"By the thread, mostly. By relying on our filtration systems, our hydroponic farms and our oxygen recyclers. Nearly every settlement is based around a life support system. Breathing air and drinking water is thousands of times more valuable there. We have all grown up to respect and fear the planet we call home. To many of us, leaving them is a dream."
Her eyes grew fervent and she threw a glance at Commander Lydia in the distance. Obviously many of the Swordmaidens owed everything to the woman who founded her own pirate gang.
They soon introduced each other. The oldest Swordmaiden turned out to be their head designer!
"You can call me Mayra." She spoke calmly. "We don't tend to use last names. They have no meaning among us. Every Swordmaiden is a sister."
Ves looked interested upon learning she was a mech designer. He quickly introduced himself before asking something that burned in his mind. "Are you the designer of the Misty Slasher?"
"It is one of my designs."
"I see. Your design is very capable. The implementation of miniboosters has doubled its effectiveness in spaceborn combat."
"Many of our Swordmaiden mech pilots don't like to wield a rifle. They're fussy and demand a lot more maintenance. Many times, our mechs are stranded on a planet for weeks. Running out of ammunition or batteries happens far too often during those times. The reliability of a plain alloy sword is what allows us to endure."
"That's on land. What about in space? Melee weapons are far less popular in spaceborn combat."
Mayra snorted. "Maybe in civilized space, that is so, but in the frontier it makes no difference. Navigating in the frontier is fraught with peril. If we are being chased by the sandmen, we could be driven far away from the stars we are familiar with. Without knowing the lay of the stars, we might not be able to encounter a port or trading settlement for months on end. Those fancy rifles we brought will break or run out of ammunition soon enough."
The Swordmaiden mech designer described a harsh life. Each sentence painted a bleak picture of living on the edge. Perhaps their ships were one oxygen recycling system away from suffocating in space. Mayra's design philosophy bore the scars of living in a region where safe harbor was nonexistent and where sandmen and other pirate scum was constantly out to get them. Ves widened his eyes at the woman once he realized an important fact.
"Please excuse me if I'm rude, but could I ask how far you've advanced?"
"I'm a Journeyman Mech Designer. I advanced more than a decade ago."
Not only Ves, but the chiefs sitting next to him all looked impressed. There were lots of mech designers struggling to make Apprentice or Journeyman back in civilized space. So many men and women have failed despite growing up in the most prosperous human Age, yet one single frontierswoman who probably never attended a school in her life managed to reach Journeyman anyway.
Was there any justice in life?!
"I-I-I see." Ves stuttered, having lost control for a bit. His respect for Mayra shot up tremendously. "No wonder the Misty Slasher is such a stable mech model. I've studied the battle footage several times and I'm amazed at how the miniboosters have never malfunctioned even once! How did you come to be such a good mech designer when you.."
"Grew up in the frontier?" Mayra smirked sardonically at Ves. "Kid, there's more than one way to become a mech designer than attend one of your elitist mech universities. Haven't you heard about mentorships and apprenticeships? You'd be surprised at how many mech designers are driven from civilized space. Commander Lydia happened to sponsor my apprenticeship to one of these exiles when I showed a lot of promise in tinkering with machines. Meeting my mentor was the best day of my life. I can't thank Lydia enough for introducing me to the old pervert."
As Mayra chuckled to herself, Ves grew curious about who could have mentored her into becoming a Journeyman. From her wording, he ruled out the possibility of her teacher being Master Mech Designer.
That possibility would have been ridiculous regardless. Each Master was a treasure of humanity. Even Master Null of the Leemar Institute of Technology stopped his flight once he reached the Komodo Star Sector.
"My mentor is one of the greatest mech designers in our region of the frontier. His talents might not be the equal of your impressive Masters, but there is hardly any better mech designer that can design a great mech with so little means. Among the pirates and the outcasts of the frontier, his name ranks among the top of their community."
"Who is he?" Ves asked with bated breath.
"He is Skull Architect Jimenez."
This caused another ripple of shock among the Vandals at the table. Skull Architect Jimenez! While his name inspired awe and respect in the frontier, the Komodo Star Sector mainly associated his name with fear!
"Isn't he the.. eccentric who incorporates human bones in his mechs?"
Ves almost called the Skull Architect a madman, but thought better of it at the last second. After all, Mayra hadn't grown up hearing horror stories about the promising mech designer turned serial killer! Skull Architect Jimenez earned his moniker by his crazy beliefs that mechs inherited a shadow of the soul that lingered in human remains.
Supposedly, Jimenez was one of those mech designers that had been driven mad in his relentless pursuit to uncover the secrets behind the X-Factor!
What would Jimenez think if he got wind of what Ves had accomplished? Perhaps his skull would decorate the Skull Architect's latest mech!
Mayra recognized the expression of fear on his face. She boldly laughed. "Don't be a scaredy-cat, kid. The only thing you need to be afraid of old pervert is his grabby hands. It took me years to unlearn my instinct of drawing my sword upon feeling his wrinkled hands brushing against my body. His days of killing people and embedding their bones in his mechs are long past."
Ves took those words with a grain of salt. Of course his protege would defend him. It wasn't as if she was one of the many thousands who ended up missing to fuel his mad experiments!
Up to this date, the MTA still maintained the bounty issued upon the Skull Architect's head!
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