654 Shared Ambition
As the combined fleet of the Flagrant Swordmaidens collectively transitioned out of FTL at the edge of the small Mancroft System, they immediately noticed the company.
The red dwarf system was as sad and lifeless as always. The Mancroft Independent Harbor orbited around a sad-looking rock close to the weak red dwarf that formed the center of the system.
A bit further ahead, a small squadron of CFA warships patrolled the space around their slightly precious fueling station. Though the patrol only consisted of four frigates led by a single destroyer, it possessed more than enough firepower to chew through a third-class spaceborn mech division!
When Ves gazed at the magnified sensor readings of the small but deadly warships, he admired their deadly prowess in space. Their weaponry possessed enough power to tear through combat carriers within seconds. The range of their huge mech-sized missiles could cross entire star systems, while their state-of-the-art sublight propulsion allowed it to outrun the swiftest light mechs by an entire order of magnitude!
"Warships are the natural predators of spaceborn combat!"
Ves loved mechs with all his heart, but he was realistic enough to recognize the primacy of warships as humanity's ultimate weapons of war.
Ves coughed. "Don't call me that. If I'm supposed to tutor you, then you should call me teacher."
The young woman seemed disinterested in acknowledging him as her teacher. She was only a few years younger than him, so she still had trouble getting her mind around the fact that he was so far ahead in their shared profession. It also didn't help that she never interacted much with men.
He didn't care too much about her feelings. As long as she internalized his lessons, she could hate him for all he cared.
"Look at these warships. Even if they consist of the smallest and lightest classes, they are more than enough to wipe out our entire combined fleet off the face of the galaxy. How does that make you feel?"
The girl looked uncertain on how to answer such a question. "It's unfair. Why does the the CFA keep all the good things to themselves? If the people of the frontier were free to operate warships, then we could have gotten rid of the entire sandmen race ourselves!"
Ves shook his head. "I wasn't talking about politics. Put yourself in the perspective of a mech designer. What do you feel about warships?"
"I still feel they're unfair. They're too powerful for their own good. The best mechs we can design won't come close to matching a thousandth of the firepower that destroyer can spit out. It's like comparing a mouse to a tiger. No matter how good the mouse has adapted to its environment, it can't pose any threat against a tiger. And tigers are the least the mouse has to worry about."
"That's a common observation to make." Ves spoke neutrally. ""The largest limitation concerning mechs in comparison to warships is the scale of the machines and their weapons. A main cannon of a battleship can be up to several kilometers long and its main caliber is wide enough to wedge through an entire corvette. Against this awesome might, why not pursue a larger mech frame?"
"Is this a history quiz or something?" Ketis looked exasperated to Ves. "Mayra taught me that we tried once. The Juggernauts, right? The New Rubarth Empire barely got them to work, and they eventually found out it wasn't worth the effort. A single Juggernaut is as powerful as a destroyer or cruiser, but it's as slow as a snail and their size makes them an easy target to long-ranged artillery. It's got all the downsides of a heavy mech but multiplied by at least a hundred times."
The Rubarthans had gotten the Juggernauts to work in some cases, but these titanic mechs generally weren't worth the effort. Developing a single Juggernaut sucked up as much funding as raising another mech division, which could be employed with much greater versatility and flexibility.
"Mechs are not cut out to be warship-sized monstrosities. They are as large as a typical office building in a city district because that is the size that affords them the best balance between mobility, protection and cost-effectiveness. If you look through the history of mechs throughout the generations, you'll notice they've slowly inched upwards in size, as better technology allows them to move faster at the same amount of bulk. Nonetheless, they aren't going to grow to the size of a frigate anytime soon."
"Then what's the point of telling me this?" She growled. "Thinking about this stuff makes my head hurt. Why can't you teach me something that will help me design better mechs."
Ves tutted to her. "That's where you're wrong. It's true that your basic skills need work, but that can be fixed with study and time. What you truly lack is something that can't be learned from a book. Back to the comparison I was making, doesn't it make you frustrated that no matter how well we design our mechs, we can never match up to the power of even the lightest warship classes?"
That wasn't exactly true, as he once heard rumors of cutting-edge mechs in development from the galactic designer that could stand toe-to-toe with warships, but something like that wouldn't show up in the frontier.
"What are you getting at?"
"It's simple. While mechs are prominent and popular right now, in truth they play second fiddle in the defense of humanity. When the aliens decide to go on the offensive against us, it's not our mechs which will save us, but the warships of the CFA. Doesn't it rankle you that mechs are ultimately toys in the greater scheme of things?"
Though Ketis hadn't answered yet, a fire of indignation burned within her eyes. Ves smiled in satisfaction at achieving the desired effect.
"When mechs first came into being, they were new and impressive but could never match up against the power of warships. Four-hundred years later, mechs have become more powerful, but ships fitted for war have not remained stagnant either. Don't you think that this is a huge shame?"
She nodded. "I guess so."
"So do I! Mech designers aren't content to play the supporting characters in the story of human civilization. We call this era the Age of Mechs, yet its very name rings hollow! Won't it be better for us if mechs became powerful enough to defeat warships? It is the common mission of every mech designer to elevate the weapons we design into the ultimate machines of war! Tell me, don't you feel excited about this dream?"
"T-That's preposterous!" Ketis widened her eyes. "Those big battleships are impossible to take down! There's no way a mech can withstand that much firepower!"
"Just because it's impossible today doesn't mean the same applies tomorrow. Mech designers are constantly at work at new designs, new technologies and new combinations. We do this not just to pursue our own interests, but also to push mechs to greater heights."
For the next half hour, Vex explained and rambled a bit about the collective expectations and responsibilities of a mech designer. Being a mech designer was more than about designing a mech, though they at least needed to be proficient at this task to deserve this mantle.
While these huge and seemingly unattainable aspirations never interested most mech designers, Ves believed that everyone who was serious about their profession should at least be aware of it. Mech design had chugged along for more than four-hundred years now without a discernible change in the power balance of mechs.
It was rather depressing when mech designers thought about it. Several centuries of focused research from billions if not trillions of mech designers failed to elevate mechs into the supreme weapons of war the start of the Age of Mechs tried to spark. This failure rankled every mech designer who cared about it. Mechs had failed to live up to the promise as the perfect fighting machine.
Ketis didn't hide her gaping yawn. "This is interesting and all, but are you done yet? This lecture is one of the most boring ones I've ever endured, and I've been through some awful ones when Mayra forced me to sit through those virtual classes."
"I'm doing you a favor, you brat. You need to understand the importance of mech designers in human society."
"Yeah, as if. We Swordmaidens don't need to pay any attention to what goes on in civilized space. You just do your thing and I do my thing and we both won't bother each other. That's how it always goes."
Ves took a tired breath. Getting this brat of a mech designer to soak up the principles he tried to espouse was a bit more difficult than he assumed. He thought he had made a good attempt at shaking her out of her complacency yesterday, but he was very much aware that the process of fixing her up wasn't close to being done."
The vessels of the Flagrant Swordmaidens slowly entered the inner portion of this pathetically small star system. The dim red dwarf burned as lethargically as ever. Though it looked impressive up close like all stars, its low luminosity made it difficult to navigate towards. The only way to reach the Mancroft System was to jump to a closer and brighter star system before dialing in the much-closer red dwarf system.
Nonetheless, despite the difficulty of reaching this oft-frequented but largely forgettable stopping point, a lot of outfits brought their fleets to Mancroft for some reason. More than thirty different organized fleets had parked themselves at a healthy distance from each other in the proximity of Mancroft Independent Harbor.
Ves cursed a bit as he recognized a familiar outfit. "Damnit, what are the Caged doing here?!"
The powerful gang from the Roppo Principality attempted to join forces with the Masters of Combat after departing from the Harkensen System. If the Flagrant Swordmaidens hadn't dropped by to crash their party, then the Caged Masters would have become a force to be reckoned with, especially on land.
Major Verle decided to crush the Masters of Combat at all costs, feeling no qualms about letting the Caged abandon their allies and flee like rats. Though Ves expected the Caged wouldn't give up so easily, meeting them again so soon raised his hackles.
"Do you recognize the outfit the ships of the Caged have partnered with? They aren't transmitting any IFFs that correspond to a state."
Ketis stepped closer to the projection and studied the ships and what little information the sensors picked up. Her eyes narrowed in recognition.
"I know who these bastards are. They call themselves the Red Tongues and they're some of the worst pieces of trash in the neighborhood. The Caged have made a big mistake if they think they can trust their new buddies."
Ves wasn't familiar with any of the pirate organizations from the frontier. "What makes the Red Tongues so reviled by you?"
"Those lunatics all cut off their tongues and transplant the tongue of some disgusting half-ooze half-frog exobeast. Their new tongues are red and they're highly acidic. Their tongues can melt through combat armor if given time."
"Won't they melt their own mouths if they do that?"
"Oh, they would have done themselves a favor if they all died from that, but they aren't completely dumb. Before they transplant the tongues, they put each prospective member through a brutal regime of genetic modification. Their mouths and their digestive systems are all transformed beyond belief. By the time all of the operations are done, a new Red Tongue is born."
"Why go through all of this torture?"
"Because they like to eat. They disdain eating normal food that normal humans eat. Instead, they like to devour creatures while they are still alive, preferably. They get off on the fear of what they are chewing through. Their favorite foods are dangerous exobeasts, but there are rumors that they've acquired a taste for other humans."
Other humans! "They're cannibals?!"
"Oh yeah, but the Red Tongues are really good at covering their tracks. Nobody has ever succeeded in catching them in the act, but they'll slip up sooner or later."
"If these suspected cannibals are as awful as you suggested, why hasn't anyone done anything to them yet?" He asked with evident puzzlement on his face.
"It's complicated. Just like how we allied with a lot of pirate groups, the Red Tongues have taken shelter under one of the biggest pirate factions in the Faris Star Region. The Red Tongues fit right in with them, as they're the bloodiest and most ruthless factions in the local region. There are two major pirate factions in total who have the most say around there. The smaller pirate organizations can't hold a candle against their might and numbers."
Ves could hardly imagine why a pirate faction thought it would be a good idea to shelter a group of suspected cannibals.