While Ves waited for Marcella to arrange an interview, he met up with Dietrich. The mech pilot finally sent him a subtle message that he succeeded in finding a buyer for the blackmail material they dug up at the abandoned base.
Dietrich embraced Ves in a hearty hug with almost crushing force. "Ves! Good to see you again. Let's go inside."
They entered a dingy little restaurant in downtown Freslin owned by the Whalers. Ves was leery of discussing sensitive matters in the middle of the city, but Dietrich insisted.
"The cloud burgers here are the best on the planet!" He said as he vigorously ordered a couple of burgers for them both. "And I'm not saying that because we own the property."
After a minute of settling down, Dietrich reported his results. "I've been putting the word out in the black market. It's been a little slow in spreading due to the need of staying discrete. I've finally found a single buyer who expressed interest in buying what we have on hand."
"That's good, right? What kind of price are they offering?"
The mech pilot pressed his lips. "The anonymous buyer is offering thirty-five million credits."
Considering the extremely expensive gear they found in the abandoned base, that was a remarkably low price. Whoever built that base must be swimming in money. Extorting a billion credits was not out of the realm of possibility.
"There aren't any other takers?"
Dietrich shook his head. "It's a matter of credibility. Anonymous sellers don't have much credibility in the black market. It's all about building a rep or getting to know someone who already has a rep. I'm just a fish in a pond of sharks."
"There's also the fact that only one of those sharks have taken the bait. He's basically setting the price."
"I don't know if the big boys are colluding to press down the price, but yeah that's basically what's going on. No one else has expressed any interest in our data even after weeks had passed. We either take the existing offer or leave it. The only upside to the trade is that the buyer wants to remain anonymous as much as us."
They weren't obliged to accept the low-ball offer. Yet Ves did not wish to hang on to dangerous material any longer than necessary. "Our safety is our highest priority. Getting rid of the dirty ledgers will deflect any potential attention away from us. The buyer might be offering peanuts, but he's also taking over all of the risks. Let's accept the offer."
Since Dietrich didn't benefit from the sale, he merely shrugged and promised to finish the transaction within the week.
As they ate their burgers, Ves asked how his gang had fared so far in their salvage operation.
"My father's staked a solid claim on the site. There's been a few opportunists who've tried to dislodge the Whalers, but they all backed off when they saw our numbers. The mercs didn't expect us to bring over half our entire manpower. We entrenched the hell out of the surrounding area."
If they Whalers managed to strip down the base and extract every piece of scrap, they stood poised to earn an enormous windfall. Ves predicted that the Whalers would quickly invest their money in mechs and fortifications.
The recent unrest has made every local power wary. They gathered their strength and waited for the other shoe to drop.
After finishing their burgers, which Ves admitted tasted pretty good, they went their separate ways. Recent troubles prompted Ves to visit the branch office of Sanyal Ablin Security Services.
Miss Robyn's exotic beauty greeted him with a professional smile. "Good afternoon, Mr. Larkinson. Are you here to talk about your security arrangement with us?"
"Yes. While I don't have the funds to pay for additional services on hand, I still wish to upgrade my current security setup."
"I am sure a man of your status has no problem paying the bill." Robyn replied and summoned up a projection that displayed a selection of security services. "We have an internal assessment of the likely threats you and your assets may face. From this, we have generated a number of optimized security packages at different price points. Please take a look."
Ves currently contracted their Cyber-Robo Service for just 500.000 credits a month. This might be adequate to a low-value local business, but for an up-and-coming mech workshop it was wholly inadequate.
He planned to spend most of his upcoming windfall on comprehensively upgrading his security. He skipped the cheapest package worth five million credits and the most expensive one at fifty-million credits. He settled instead for the middle option valued at twenty-five million credits a year.
"Tell me more about the Strategic Reserve Service."
"Ah, this package is a great and cost effective security solution tailored to facilities of strategic importance in the event of a raid. While it is not meant to clash head-on against a committed invasion force, it is nonetheless capable of fending off opportunistic raids. We do this by placing enough deterrence around your premises to scare off any would-be robbers."
SASS mainly accomplished this by installing a number of fixed defenses, from anti-air turrets to anti-mech cannons. A permanent detachment of three security officers managed the entire security grid.
A bolstered force of security bots handled all of the regular patrols, both indoors and outdoors, A dedicated guard officer from SASS kept an eye on bots in case they glitched or got hacked.
His workshop's cybersecurity also received a comprehensive upgrade. SASS would take the initiative to dig a secure hardwire connection deep underground that connected his workshop to the security company's planetary mainframe.
As long as the connection stayed intact, his digital assets benefited from the personal attention to the best cybersecurity professionals in the Republic.
Overall, the security package checked almost every box. Ves only missed an actual mech standing guard. The company only started offering mech patrols at much higher price points.
With no other choice, Ves signed on to the plan and promised to transfer the twenty-five million credits within the month. In the meantime, Robyn arranged the upcoming upgrades and construction work to his workshop.
"You should start seeing some of our men by tomorrow. They'll be measuring the land and planning the placements of our turrets. The real work will start as soon as we ship in the required materials from Bentheim, which may take up to five days."
While Ves spent as much as the price of a commercial mech, he got a lot in return. He did not have to worry about any assassins or sabotage for at least a year. Hopefully no one found out he still harbored forbidden research in his comm.
He returned to his workshop and took a much-needed break. He checked his hibernating pet and thought Lucky should almost be done with his transformation. The glowing blue ball had grown dim. Ves looked forward to the day he reunited with his lazy cat.
Later that day, Marcella finally called back. She sure worked fast. "I threw your name into the lake and reeled in some nosy fish. I've got a selection of three different news organizations that have expressed interest in conducting an exclusive interview with you."
That sounded pretty good to Ves. "Tell me about them all."
"The first to respond is the Bentheim Mech Affairs. It's the third largest news portal in our local area, though its influence is minimal elsewhere. It's a strong local organization that I've got a good relationship with. If you're willing to, 'ahem', donate to a particular charity, I'm sure they will portray you in a good light."
"How much of a 'donation' are we talking about here?"
"If you want a softball interview, then a million credits is sufficient. If you want to set your own questions, then you'll have to pay up to ten million credits."
Ves shook his head. "I've visited their virtual portal once in a while. No wonder all of their articles read like infomercials. It won't do my credibility any good if I hold my interview with these types of organizations. Their influence is also somewhat disappointing."
"Don't look down upon BMA and their like. They serve their own purposes." Marcella patiently explained before introducing the next organization. "The Junior Mech Hero is the Bright Republic's most popular news and entertainment portal for kids and teenagers. They wield a lot influence and they're interested in hearing the story of your new mech."
"That sounds pretty good. They fit nicely with the Young Blood's target audience."
"There's a catch. The JMH is a large organization that publishes hundreds of articles a week. Your interview will only be posted in a sub-site and not on the main page. The manager I spoke to isn't convinced you're newsworthy enough to warrant better treatment."
That sounded disappointing, but Ves understood their thoughts. He was not exactly a renowned mech designer. "I'm fine with the JMH's conditions. I used to read their news digest when I was young. What's the last option?"
"This one came as a surprise. The Rimward Star Herald is one of the most influential neutral news portal among the third-rate states in the Komodo Star Sector. It doesn't have much reach in the Friday Coalition, of course, but outside of that they have a very wide following, especially from the business community."
"The Herald is not a news organization that revolves around mechs." Ves pointed out. "People read the Herald if they want to find out which company they should invest in. It's not a news portal that allows me to reach my target audience."
Marcella spread her arms and shrugged. "The RSH is the most credible news outlet by far. A successful interview will certainly boost your prestige, which is helpful once you expand your business. They did warn me that they won't be gentle when they interview you. The RSH is one of the few organizations that prides itself on its journalism. Expect to face some pointed questions."
All of the organizations had their pros and cons.
The Bentheim Mech Affairs insured he had sufficient positive coverage.
The Junior Mech Hero allowed him to reach directly to his target audience.
The Rimward Star Herald boosted his reputation significantly if he survived the interrogation.
What did he need the most? Customers? Ves almost reached his targeted amount of DP. He could always use more, but he wasn't thirsting for DP at the moment.
Right now, Ves rather wished to be taken seriously by the mech industry. Raising his reputation didn't bring him any immediate benefits, but it could open doors that previously remained closed.
One aspect he always wanted to fix was to seek dedicated suppliers of raw materials. If he stopped being a noname wannabe, he might be able to meet with their executives.
"Let's go with the Rimward Star Herald. There's no use in trying to market my virtual mechs. It's enough if I can get a mention out of it. What I should really be doing is paving the way for the sales of my real mechs."
Marcella did not disagree with his choice. She gave him a small booklet of tips on how handle interviews and ended the call in order to arrange the interview with the Herald.
He didn't know if he made a mistake. Perhaps his ego grew too big. In any case, even if he failed the interview, he only risked his reputation. He could always regain what he lost by achieving a great feat. This should not be a problem with the benefit of the System.
Two days later, a reporter from the Rimward Star Herald arrived at Cloudy Curtain. Ves assumed the Herald wanted to conduct the interview over comm, but surprisingly they went for a personal touch. They even booked a suite in the best hotel in Freslin to record the session.
Ves arrived at the suite in his best clothes. He showed his appearance beforehand to Carlos, who merely shook his head and adjusted his look. Garbed in a rich formal suit of black and red, Ves cut a very mature look.
When he knocked at the door, it instantly slid open to reveal a chamber already prepared for the interview. Various bots finished placing the props and lights while a stately-looking woman sat on a furnished seat.
"Ah, Mr. Larkinson. My name is Jast Montefur. Just call me Jast. You are just in time. Please take a seat. I'd like to finish this interview as soon as possible so I can get away from this depressing planet."
She certainly sounded lovely. Ves apprehensively approached the set and took a seat placed at an angle facing Jast.
"First, let's touch up your appearance. Please don't move while the makeup bots do their work."
A handful of floating balls zipped in front of him and began to wash his face and apply the makeup to him. Ves wanted to ask if a man like him even needed makeup, but the bots kept crowding his face. They flew out of sight a couple of minutes later, leaving Ves to deal with his dizziness.
A score of high-quality recorders turned on, and Jast quickly fixed an authentic-looking smile on her face. "Good day our dear viewers, or if you are reading the transcripts, my readers. Today I'm visiting a quaint little planet called Cloudy Curtain, the home of its first and only mech designer. Ves Larkinson here is a scion of the Bright Republic's renowned Larkinson military family."
Jast did a good job describing his basic background, though Ves suspected she was reading a script from an ocular implant. She quickly wrapped up her obligatory introduction and served her first question to Ves.
"As a son of the Larkinson family, you surely wished to follow your family's tradition. How disappointed are you when you found out you do not possess the aptitude to pilot a mech?"
The question contained a number of traps. Ves paused and refrained from answering immediately. "Every kid likes to become a mech pilot. Few of them ever do, and that might not be so bad. Our society revolves around more than piloting. I have found a great calling in designing the mechs that pilots rely on to earn a living."
"You are the first and only Larkinson to study and choose a career in mech design. By all accounts, you have received no substantial support from the other Larkinsons. Have you already cut ties with your family?"
"That isn't true. We believe that a man or woman should stand by himself and make an honest living. The Larkinsons might be great pilots, but we do not have much in the way of wealth. The family is already doing enough to support the relatives of our fallen. I do not wish to burden the family's finances even more."
The woman nodded and flipped her fingers, likely calling up some kind of info sheet or something. "Let's talk about the start of your career. You've graduated from Rittersberg with average grades after five years of uneventful study. What happened in the months between your graduation and your success at Leemar that has turned you into a prodigy?"
This was a major gap in his personal records. Ves expected this difficult question to come up and already prepared an answer in order to obscure the System's intervention. "I had help. Before he went missing, my father left me some resources and contacts that I could make use of to kickstart my career."
"Your father's disappearance is a rather perplexing case. Ryncol Larkinson is a seasoned pilot who has seen much action in the border wars against our neighboring aliens. Could he be involved with something murky?"
"I do not believe so." Ves laughed as he tried to cover up his own mounting panic. "My father is by all accounts a straight shooter. You can ask any of his friends who still serve at the base how he has little ambition except to serve the Republic and raise his son. I do not know why he left me at the time, but he has given me so much help throughout the years. I still miss him."
Jast raised an eyebrow and looked at him pointedly, as if she wanted him to know that she wasn't fooled. "Your 'straight shooter' of a father sure has interesting contacts. A local mech pilot from a remote corner of the galaxy is somehow able to refer you to a secretive grant institution operating out of the New Rubarth Empire. How could he possibly be involved with the 'Future Sons Technology Institution'?"
"Do you think I know?" Ves threw up his hands as if he didn't have a clue. "It's a surprise to me, but so far I have only been contacted by them once, when they passed me a couple of aged production licenses. Frankly, they only did me a small favor, which they probably forgot the next day."
After a few follow-up questions, Ves did his best to deflect the suspicious woman's inquiry. Eventually, Jast stopped her digging and turned to another topic.
"Seeing as you've improved enormously since you received your father's gifts, participating in Leemar was a given. Did you travel to Leemar with the expectation that you'd triumph over all of the geniuses in your way?"
"We are all mech designers. I never took it as a given that I could prevail against any competitor. I merely came with the confidence that I could achieve a good showing. It was out of my expectation that I ended up at the very top."
They spent the next ten minutes discussing the competition, from the qualifiers that happened behind closed doors to the main event broadcasted to the entire sector. Jast repeatedly brought up the most notable opponents Ves had personally defeated, like Carter Gauge and Cynthia Barakovski.
Ves always spoke of them in a respectful manner, careful not to ruffle anyone's toes. Their influence extended far beyond their immediate circles.
After asking a couple of tame questions that Ves answered easily, Jas changed her tack and went for the throat.
"Now, the most interesting outcome of the competition is that two out of three of the finalists comes from the Republic. Many people happened to know that both you and Miss Patricia Schneider are in the same class in school. There must be something you are sharing with each other in order to keep up with each other. So tell me, are the two of you involved?"
For a moment, Ves considered if he was speaking to the wrong reporter. Did Jast work for one of the gossip rags those grannies always followed? How could a reporter from the sober and business-centric Herald ask such a question?