"The prodigal son returns!" Marcella Bollinger greeted Ves with open arms as he arrived at her office.
"Does that make you my mom?"
"Jokes aside, thank you for granted the Barracuda a berth in your private docking space."
"If there's one thing brokers don't lack, it's space. I'll be sure to keep your new toy secure."
The two sat down and began to discuss how the Bright Republic fared in his absence. The mech broker employed an entire department of analysts who kept track of the political and economic trends of their state. Marcella freely shared some of her insights.
"Everyone is smelling a war is brewing, but this time is different." She said grimly. She obviously predicted dark tidings. "We expect the Vesians to stir the pot a little, but the uprisings and terrorist attacks are much more severe than the Republic has anticipated. Every state in the star sector is suffering from some source of instability."
Ves scratched his head. Even the Vesians were dealing with their fair share of terrorists? "Could it be another star sector is having designs on our territory?"
"No, that doesn't make sense. The Komodo Star Sector ranks near the bottom in both exotic resource deposits and economic development. There's something bigger brewing behind the scenes. We won't know what's going on until they spring their plan on us."
"That doesn't sound reassuring. You're right, this isn't something we should stick our hands into. Better let the politicians from Rittersberg earn their pay for once."
"Your old friend Vincent is gaining prominence." Marcella added with a smirk. "He's one of the spokesmen for the so-called Bentheim Independence Movement. They want to secede Bentheim and its surrounding influence from the Republic, with violence if necessary."
"That's crazy! If Bentheim is our only port system. Without it, the Bright Republic is finished. Bentheim won't be better off either. Without the population and support from the rest of the Republic, the newly independent movement will only amount to a fourth-rate state at most."
"Don't underestimate their appeal. Bentheimers always consider themselves superior to the rest of the Republic. They resent the fact that they have to take their marching orders from Rittersberg. It doesn't help that much of Bentheim's wealth is used to subsidize the development of other planets and star systems."
The issue turned out to be quite the wedge between the people of Bentheim and the rest of the Republic. While Cloudy Curtain fell under Bentheim's sphere of influence, Ves had little sympathy for these delusions.
"So how's the mech industry faring these days?"
Marcella gave Ves an ambivalent smile. "The attacks are straining our industry's supply chains. Shipments get hijacked, factories get blown up or certain businesses get persuaded to cancel their long-standing contracts. It might only happen here and there, but each disruption has a ripple effect that affects all other companies down the supply chains."
"In other words, the saboteurs are trying to achieve maximum disruption with minimum effort. They shouldn't be part of a powerful group, then. Maybe they don't have a scary backing."
"Surprisingly, the chaos has only led to greater sales. The Mech Corps has expanded their orders by fifteen percent. Many mercenary leaders decided that they'd rather expand their arsenal immediately than to wait for the transition to the next generation of mechs."
"Looks like it's already high season for the industry. It's too bad I'm missing out."
"Are you sure you won't reconsider fabricating your current model? I already said I had a big order in store for you. It's easy money."
"The Marc Antony doesn't conform to my standards anymore. I can't allow any detractors to make an example out of it to convince the public that I'm not worthy to be an apprentice."
Marcella shrugged. "It's your call. Let me warn you that it won't do your credibility any good if you are halting your sales for an extended time."
A mech designer that was all talk and no show didn't go far in the business. Ves knew he risked squandering the goodwill he gained from becoming Master Olson's apprentice.
Ves asked for some tips on applying for a loan. Marcella briefly explained the procedure and what he should watch out for. She had a very daring suggestion when it came to collateral.
"You should put up your corvette as collateral if you're in need of a large amount of money. A genuine luxury corvette from the Friday Coalition is worth as much as a medium-sized company here. It's the best way to make use of a shiny but non-essential asset."
"No." Ves shook his head. "Absolutely not. I don't want to risk the ownership of the Barracuda. Besides, I'd be drowning in credits if I put up my ship for collateral. I can't grow my company that quickly without losing grip."
Marcella dropped the subject once Ves refused to budge on this matter. "Take a look at last month's national sales figures. Most of the skirmishes that have taken place are mainly hit-and-run attacks. Sales of light mechs have gone through the roof."
After discussing some minor issues, Ves ended his talk with his broker and left her office. He returned to the spaceport and met up with a waiting Dietrich and Lucky.
"Finally you're back!" The bored pilot spoke as he rose from his chair. "Are we done with this place?"
"I've finished all of my arrangements, yes. Your mech and my cargo are already being shipped back home. We've got a transport to catch."
They boarded the transport and took their seats without issue. The modest, utilitarian decor of the local spaceship contrasted sharply with the classier ships from the Coalition. This was the first time in months that he felt as if he finally felt at home. He didn't have to worry about class differences or watch his step in case of bumping into a powerful bigwig.
After two days of placid travel, their transport landed at Cloudy Curtain's spaceport. Their journey together finally came at an end.
Ves held Lucky close to his chest while making sure his floating luggage followed him out of the ship. He turned around and said goodbye to Dietrich. "It's been a wild ride. We've cut it close, but we made it through."
"I'd rather take a break from all the action." Dietrich smiled helplessly as he No offense, but you're a dangerous man to be around."
After a friendly pat on the shoulder, the exuberant mech pilot returned to the embrace of Walter's Whalers. The entire spaceport was a hive of activity as the gang finished their preparations for their upcoming scavenging expedition.
Ves had no further involvement in their proceedings. In exchange for forsaking all of his claims on the abandoned base, he'd receive the full sale value of the blackmail material they recovered from a stash.
"Let's go home, Lucky."
When the aircar arrived in front of his workshop, Ves sighed in relief. Nothing happened to his workshop. A lone security bot vigilantly patrolled the perimeter and the electric fencing sparkled ominously. Household bots neatly trimmed the grass and swept up any dust in their way.
A familiar face waited by the entrance. Carlos Shaw resolutely quit his job arranged by his father's connections. His friend severed his only opportunity to climb the ladder of a major mech manufacturer.
"Hey Ves. Look at you. Last time we met, you were just a fellow buddy. Now you've become an unreachable existence. You even look handsomer!"
Ves did change a lot since he left the Bright Republic. His mentality matured after winning the Leemar Open Competition and surviving two different pirate attacks. His appearance grew smoother due to the changes brought by the gene boost.
Finally, he set aside most of his normal clothes and started donning his gifted antigrav clothes all the time. The malleable high-tech clothes came preprogrammed with an entire library of stylish outfits. Even a fashion illiterate boor like Ves could not go wrong once he took advantage of this function.
"Let's step inside before we discuss your employment." Ves calmly spoke and led his friend past the security measures and into his shabby workshop.
Lucky escaped from his grasp and ran to his private little bed. The cat had grown less active over the past few days. Ves suspected his pet was about to undergo a fundamental transformation.
Once Ves finished arranging his luggage, he returned to the living room and stared at his friend. Carlos sat at the dining table with a data pad in front. The pad showed his employment contract.
"My broker arranged this cookie cutter employment contract. I've modified a couple of terms in order to suit my purposes better. You will work for my company in a full-time capacity as a mech fabricator. I'm not hiring you to be my designer, but you are free to use my licenses and facilities to play around if you finished your daily tasks. Your will receive a modest pay of ten-thousand credits a month before taxes. Do you have any questions?"
Carlos scrunched his face. "Yeah, it says here you will own all the rights for any commercial designs I register at the MTA. Isn't that a little overboard?"
"I don't think this is an unreasonable demand." Ves retorted with a firm voice. "Mech designers usually don't allow their subordinates to borrow their facilities in the first place. If you are taking advantage of my hard-earned equipment and licenses, then your designs should also belong to me. Don't worry, the contract states that you'll receive appropriate credit as well as a cut from any sales."
It might not be entirely fair to Carlos, but Ves wanted to make it clear who was in charge. He knew that Carlos wanted to work under Ves in order to develop his own mech designer career. Ves didn't want to invest in Carlos without getting anything in return. If Carlos thought he was going to be a selfless chump, then he was sorely mistaken.
"Okay, I can accept that." Carlos said and dropped his objection. "The next page states that I have to sign an MTA-administered disclosure agreement. You know the penalties for breaking a contract under the purview of the MTA, right? In the worst case, I can even get executed!"
"I trust you, but I've made quite a few enemies." Ves crossed his arms. "Who knows if someone offers you a couple of billion credits to pass on some information?"
"I would never do that!"
"Even if you are inhuman enough to resist becoming an instant billionaire, perhaps you'll receive threats. No one is infallible, Carlos. I don't want to consider the option of you betraying me. I can be assured you won't do anything stupid if I bring in the MTA. It will also send a signal to my enemies that there's no use trying to use their means on you."
Since it was a matter of life and death, Ves gave Carlos time to weigh the issue. If his friend insisted on change, then he would withdraw the employment contract. He had a lot of secrets in his closet. While Ves didn't intend to inform his employee about the System or the X-Factor, it never hurt to prepare beforehand.
"Okay. I don't know what you're hiding, but if you think it's serious enough to bring in the MTA, then so be it. I'll sign your darned NDA."
After going past these hurdles, Carlos brought up a range of minor issues. Ves patiently explained his thoughts even showed a little flexibility by changing some minor clauses. He hardly cared about when Carlos would claim his vacation days, or how much of a bonus he earned if he worked overtime.
"If that's all, then let's visit the local branch of the MTA to finalize the contract and sign the NDA. You'll start your work tomorrow. I'll arrange a spare design terminal and some other amenities in order to accommodate your presence."
After a firm handshake, Carlos left the workshop and went back to his new home. In preparation for his new job, he already rented a nearby home in the nearby suburbs of Freslin.
Ves returned to his workshop. He had to arrange the storage of his salvaged Dortmund parts. He considered taking another loan in order to fund the purchase of an alloy compressor. He also wanted to earn some very precious DP by designing a couple of virtual mechs.
In short, he was back in business.