Ves had to be careful in answering this question. If he said something sensational, his words might be splattered all over the galactic net. It might even get back to Patricia herself, who doubtlessly had little appreciation for controversy.
He employed the most important trick Marcella's notes had taught him. Evasion.
"I am only casually acquainted with Miss Schneider. She is a talented mech designer who excelled in her studies since day one at Rittersberg. We walk in different circles and it's a complete coincidence that we both reached the finals at Leemar."
"I see." Jast said, her tone colored with scepticism. "The two of you make a natural pair. Have you expressed any interest in pursuing your rival?"
"I'm devoting all of my effort to growing my nascent business. Running a workshop and designing mechs on my own eats up all of my available time. I hardly have a moment's of rest."
Fortunately for Ves, the questions that followed turned into a decidedly neutral direction. Jast began to ask the questions Ves expected a business reporter to ask. He answered questions concerning whether he was committed to doing business in the Bright Republic, whether he sold mechs to foreigners, if he planned to scale up production, and more.
"No, Master Olson has not involved herself in my business activities in any way except for gifting me with some goodies. All of the assets that I'm in possession of is in my own name. I have not given her any shares to my business. She is an incredibly busy mech designer and has no time to hover over my shoulders."
Jast paused for a bit as she checked her internal notes again. Ves sat patiently, waiting for the questioning to resume.
So far, Ves did a decent job in portraying himself in a decent light. Certainly, he could have navigated through the suspicions more elegantly. He might suffer from repercussions to his clumsy answers.
In any case, Ves rather preferred that others thought he was a Rubarthan or Coalition plant. It beat people getting ideas that Ves possessed a piece of reality-defying technology. The Mech Designer System had to be kept secret at all costs.
"Let's talk about your product." Jast resumed her questioning. "Most of your mech designs are early works that already seem dated. Your sole production mech is an underperforming variant of a lastgen mech. Why have you decided to release a virtual mech instead of updating your physical mech line?"
"Come now, Jast. You know as well as I do that Iron Spirit is the biggest battlefield in the galaxy. Certainly, it's all virtual, but plenty of pilots have polished their skills in these kinds of immersive games. I do not share the disdain that most professionals have for taking part in this active ecosystem."
"Ah, your latest virtual release appears to be a variant based off the famous Hoplite. Please tell me what prompted you to design a plain sword-wielding knight."
Ves repeated the standard marketing spiel Marcella originally prepared for him. He emphasized that the Young Blood possessed characteristics that made it a great training mech for the younger crowd.
"Some might say that the Young Blood's special features act as cheats. The strengthened dash gives the knight more mobility than it ought to, while the enhanced shield bash allows it to easily push away mechs that come too close. Won't trainee pilots begin to rely too much these crutches?"
"That can certainly happen, but I think you underestimate their resolve. The young still have to pass their courses with their boring academy-assigned models. The Young Blood is explicitly designed as an offensive knight, allowing it to keep up with its compatriots in fast-paced battles. The extra mobility and flexibility also allows the knight to take the initiative, which provides pilots with many more options."
"When we compared your variant to the best-selling sword-wielding knights, we found its specs are rather underwhelming. Why should players even consider buying your mech when numerous amounts of better models are available in the game?"
Ves coughed a little and tried to maintain his smile. "My mech has its own merits. A dry list of numbers can't fully express a mech's capabilities. You've already mentioned the augmented dash and shield bash. There's also the fact that I've spent a lot of effort improving the Young Blood's ergonomics. Piloting my mech should feel significantly more comfortable."
"Do ergonomics even matter when you're talking about a virtual mech?"
"Oh, it should be. I'm talking about more than a comfy seat. My mech features many internal adjustments that makes it smoother to move its limbs."
The X-Factor also played a large role, but Ves left that out.
"Your rebuttal hardly sounds convincing. All of the amenities you've mentioned are luxuries that does not substantially affect the core performance of your model. The Young Blood simply can't stand on an equal stage to the best-sellers."
"It has never been my intention to compete against the top models in the first place. If you look at the bottom of the spec sheet, you'll find that my mech charges a good chunk less than the mainstream designs."
Indeed, the Young Blood held its own when placed in the budget segment. Ves had purposely skimmed a small amount of mass from its design in order to lower its cost.
After asking a few more questions about the virtual mech, Jast turned to the future.
"Now that you have finished a virtual design, do you intend to continue exploring this market or do you have some other projects in mind?"
Ves anticipated this question. It was a good opportunity to pimp his soon-to-be-redesigned mech. "As you know, I only own two production licences. I have not yet plowed the depths of these two fascinating licenses. Preparations for a rework of my Marc Antony design is already underway."
He kept the details mum, only hinting that the redesign was going to be a sea of change. Even the price will see a bump due to the expected increase in performance.
The journalist did her best to tease out the pros and cons of his first and only production mech. The cheap mass production armor remained a sore spot, but customers could easily afford two Marc Antony mechs instead of a single Caesar Augustus.
Jast closed the interview with a question whether he had any plans of moving to the Friday Coalition.
"While I am officially apprenticed to a mech designer from the Vermeer Group, I repeat that my relationship with her does not extend beyond matters of teaching. Any assistance Master Olson throws in my way will come with no strings attached."
"So you have no intention of moving to a larger state with a highly developed mech infrastructure? It is customary for talents like you who emerge from a third-rate state to move up to a better environment. Why not do the same?"
"The Friday Coalition is not my home. It's as simple as that. My father brought me up in the Bright Republic and taught me to respect and reciprocate the care and love I received from my state. I am still a Larkinson at heart, and we have always served the Republic with unswerving devotion."
"There you have it folks. Straight from the mouth of one of the youngest stars of the mech industry." Jast closed the interview and smoothly summarized the interview in a couple of sound bites. "His latest virtual mech is on sale starting tomorrow! Be sure to check out Iron Spirit's catalog if you are interested in piloting an affordable knight!"
Ves left the hotel and returned to his workshop wondering whether he did okay. Marcella hadn't lied when she stated that the RSH wanted to poke into his closet. He underestimated the amount of mystique he inadvertently accumulated with his sudden rise to prominence.
The next day, the Young Blood variant officially went on sale. Instead of sitting behind his terminal checking his real-time sales figures like an obsessive recluse, Ves very firmly stayed away. He only briefly entered the galactic net to check on the Rimward Star Herald's news portal.
The Herald worked quick. They already edited the interview and published both a recording and an article embellished with supplementary information. The news organization filed the interview under their financial section, though the military affairs section also hosts a copy.
In order to avoid fretting about his design, Ves distracted himself with work. He read through the dense repair manual of the Dortmund industrial printer. He taught Carlos how to overcome the most difficult hurdles in his way to mastering the Marc Antony. He accompanied the consultants from SASS and agreed with most of their upcoming construction plans.
He went to bed with a fretful cloud hanging over his head and woke up the next day with hardly any rest. He scratched his messy dark hair and finally had enough. "Okay, alright! I'll go and check my numbers."
After washing up and putting on his antigrav clothes, he approached his terminal and logged into his Chasing Clouds account. He slowly summoned up his sales tracker.
[HPL-100S Young Blood - silver label] - Amount Sold: 2194
[HPL-100S Young Blood - gold label] - Amount Sold: 1
Ves blinked his eyes. He rubbed them gently then saw as the figure changed to 2195.
To a mainstream virtual mech model, a sales volume of two-thousand mechs in the first day represented a flop. To a solo mech designer in the early stages in his career, his current sales blew his previous efforts out of the water.
Ves did not yet call up his Status. If he knew how much DP he already earned, he might go crazy.
The game's sales tracker allowed Ves to glean more insights from his customers. According to the model's sales history, the initial buyers of his mechs all ranked fairly high in the game. Most of the players who bought the model shortly after it's release qualified for the Gold or Platinum League.
Half of the buyers came from the Friday Coalition. A smaller proportion originated from the Bright Republic. The remainder of the sales came from the rest of the Komodo Star Sector.
"These are probably professional mech pilots in the service of industry insiders who are keeping an eye on me. The interview also helped attract a lot of attention."
A very strange marketing effect occurred when five-hundred highly ranked players bought a model upon release. Iron Spirit's automatic market systems designated the recently released Young Blood as a hot property and a trending product in the Star Sector.
Players who were already predisposed to buying a new mech got saddled with the image of the Young Blood. While not everyone wished to purchase a knight, those that did eventually gave his mech some serious consideration.
Reviews and comments already poured in from the casual players who picked up the variant. Ves couldn't help but smile when he read how many players appreciated the 'feel' of his mech. Even if the game's automated production system degraded a copy's X-Factor, much of it still stuck to the duplicated mech.
Some renowned influencers even bought the mech to showcase it on their online streams. This led to a growing interest in his design, to the point that mech portals started to review the quaint little Hoplite variant that appeared out of nowhere.
Ves called Marcella in order to hear her perspective. The mech broker praised him for a successful debut, but warned him not to expect too much.
"The virtual mech market is oversaturated in designs. The Young Blood is a decent mech, but it will only peak in the first week, and only in the local star sector. Once the game pulls your product from its recommendation page, your sales will likely plummet. You can expect a constant trickle of sales from that point, but not enough to get excited about."
Her realistic outlook on the situation sobered Ves into regaining his calm. While he indeed struck gold by releasing a good design, in the end he was still an Apprentice Mech Designer. His skills could not compare to the established crowd of designers who released superior mechs in their sleep.
"I understand." He replied. "The virtual community is not my primary market. It is merely a means to an end. My true purpose remains selling physical mechs."
"That's good. For a moment, I was worried whether I made a mistake in contracting you. How soon will you finish your redesign?"
"I'll start working on it next week." Ves responded after a moment. He wanted to milk the DP streaming in from his ongoing sales bonanza as long as it lasted. "I'm still in the preparation phase. The longer I wait, the better the end product."
"Don't turn your delay in an endless hiatus. You know what happens to designers who constantly put off their work."
Ves already knew the dangers of such behavior. Leemar spent a lot of effort hammering the lesson into him. "My timetable hasn't changed too much. I can afford the extra week."
After discussing some business, Ves ended the call and proceeded to plan his schedule for the week. "There's not much I can do to prepare for the Dortmund project without further documentation. Perhaps I can check into the Clifford Society. It's been a long time since I visited their Mission Hall."
He still sought to obtain an alloy compressor and a chemical treatment machine. Besides taking another costly credit loan, he could also exchange them for merits. Unfortunately for Ves, merits were rather hard to come by.