Ves left the job of establishing contact to his publicist. Gavin worked efficiently and contacted the Fireflies for a sponsorship offer.
To Gavin’s surprise, Jarle expressed interest in obtaining a custom virtual mech. That left the door open to negotiations, which Gavin and Jarle’s agent quickly hammered out.
Since the deal did not require much formality, the two sides came to a simple understanding.
In absolute terms, Ves provided Jarle with an exclusive customized virtual DarkSpear. He’d design the unique machine after a talk with Jarle over the comm and after he received a list of specifications.
Since they wanted to get this done as quickly as possible before the new duelling season began, Ves would not take more than a few days to complete the custom design.
Once Ves had done his part, Jarle would pilot his custom job and promote the DarkSpear model for a certain number of hours per week. The mech athlete and streamer would continue to pimp the DarkSpear model for a month.
The actual contract looked a lot more complicated, but put simply, Ves got his first spokesperson for the huge and largely untapped Bentheim market.
Gavin visited the workshop to brief Ves on the contract and get him to sign a few documents. He also had a lot of questions about the deal.
“Isn’t it premature to expand your brand presence in Bentheim? I thought we already agreed on our marketing strategy. Diverting too much attention on the virtual market makes no sense. The real and virtual markets are too different from each other. Even if you spend a lot of effort on your virtual models, your actual earnings won’t increase by all that much.”
Ves understood Gavin’s doubts, but he had to grow his ability to earn lots of DP. “I don’t entirely agree with you on that point. Marcella tells me that many of my customers who bought the Mark II became convinced of its craftsmanship after trying out some of my virtual models. In addition, higher sales figures of my virtual product lines will also translate to confidence in the quality of my real mechs.”
“It will be a blip in the ocean. Jarle is hardly the most popular celebrity from Bentheim. Without a constant media presence, your brand will quickly fall into obscurity.”
His words rang true. As the local mecca of mech production and export, Bentheim was saturated with thousands of brands. At the LMC’s current scale, it had no hopes of competing with these long-established household names.
Still, Ves didn’t need to put in a lot of effort to cobble up a custom virtual DarkSpear, and he got plenty of short-term benefits out of the weeks-long promotion. As long as his sales for his latest virtual mech surpassed ten thousand units, he’d earn 100,000 DP in total. Ves needed the huge sum to shore up his skills and attributes to design a decent original mech.
Despite Gavin’s skepticism, Ves still went through with his plans. Before Gavin left, he wanted to ask a question that had been burning in his mind for a while.
“Boss? I’d like you to clear something up for me.”
“Well, it’s like this. I’ve been analyzing the sales patterns of your virtual mechs and compared them to your peers. One pattern happened to stand out like a sore thumb. Your customer retention is off the charts. Anyone who buys one of your virtual mechs is several times more likely to buy another mech designed by you. This usually doesn’t happen to newcomers in the market.”
Consumers never really paid attention to the mech designer when they purchased a product from the low-end of the virtual market. They only cared about specs and their personal feelings about the mech.
Most mech designers who started out wished to make a name for themselves and their businesses. A mech manufacturer with a steady amount of repeat customers would never have to worry about missing their sales targets as long as they didn’t screw up.
“I’ve focused a lot on improving the piloting experience.” Ves answered simply. “I’m guessing that my customers have caught on its benefits. I’m sure you’ve found that out yourself when you asked around.”
“It’s beyond that. Some of your customers are oddly attached to their mechs, to the point where they treat them as affectionately as pets. I’m rather concerned because this effect is very pronounced in certain cases. It reminds me of the Farund Affair.”
“Heavens no!” Ves immediately denied. “I haven’t messed around with the neural interfaces. This is nothing like the Farund Affair.”
The Farund Affair stood out as the first and only case where a company managed to brainwash its customers with its virtual mechs. Back then, the simulator pod manufacturers competed against each other on how well they could make their simulations come to life. They all increased the intensity of their neural interfaces with each new generation of pods.
This uncontrolled growth of neural intensity led to some companies taking advantage of this phenomenon by messing around with the neural interfaces of their mechs. Most tried to be subtle and added a minor addictive element to their interfaces. For a couple of years, these shady companies saw steady growth as their models grew in popularity.
Farund Inc. obviously didn’t get the message. Its brash CEO jacked up all of the settings to the maximum. In the short term, his company rose like a rocket as sales ballooned almost exponentially. It became a major sensation in the virtual market as its models became increasingly dominant in the mech simulator games of that time.
Sadly for Farund, the good times didn’t last together. A few mech designers got suspicious and started poking around at Farund’s many designs. Their actual specs were nothing special, but each test pilot became instant converts the moment they piloted the virtual mechs.
The horrifying consequences of Farund’s mechs finally came to light when researchers found out about the tampered neural interfaces. The scandal ruined the company overnight and the MTA arrested all of its executives and mech designers. They only took a week to sentence them to death.
Even then, many of its victims required years of therapy in order to wean off the urge to pilot any of Farund’s mechs. A million or so of its most devoted fans had played with the virtual mechs for so long that their condition became practically incurable. The MTA took them all in and nobody had ever heard from them again.
These days, virtual mechs received much closer scrutiny. Iron Spirit certified every virtual mech submitted to its marketplace and they often flatly refused any mech that included non-standard neural interfaces. In addition, manufacturers of simulator pods cleaned up their act and pulled back some of their most extreme innovations.
In this light, Gavin’s question made little sense. Even if Ves had any nefarious intentions, he’d never get away with it with all the precautions introduced after the Farund Affair.
After Gavin made the arrangements, Ves faced a projector which fizzled into the image of Captain Jarle Brenthill. The man truly looked gifted in both looks and talent. Even Ves felt a little bit oppressed when faced with a celebrity of this magnitude.
“Hello Jarle. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” The mech athlete responded perfunctory while he studied Ves. “You’ve got a sturdy body. Are you working out?”
“Ah, no. It’s due to a mishap that messed with my genetics.”
“Well, I still have some training to catch up to, so I’ll make it short. First, I got our resident mech designer to form up a list of what I’d like to include in my custom mech. I’d appreciate it if you can meet at least two-thirds of what I’ve noted down.”
Jarle sent the virtual document over to Ves, who opened it up and skimmed through the points. The mech athlete’s priorities had been formatted in precise language that told Ves exactly what to do. That made his job much easier than if he merely had a brief talk with Jarle.
“I see that you wish to change the DarkSpear’s default weapon from a spear to a pair of daggers.” Ves carefully noted. The document even included an exact set of dimensions for the pair of blades. “This I can see why you prefer the daggers, but my mech favors forward momentum over agile footwork. Those weapons will not be a good fit for my current frame.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make it work. As long as you can increase the range of motion and the responsiveness of the arms, I’ll be okay with my baby.”
“The arms are already optimized for thrusting and absorbing shocks. If you want me to increase their range of motion, I’ll have to take away some of its other abilities.”
“Then do so. I’m fine with such a trade.”
Fortunately, Jarle set realistic expectations for his custom mech. He set a few other reasonable conditions that Ves agreed to without much objection. As a consummate professional who piloted dozens of mechs in his career, he knew what kind of limitations mech designers faced. Most professionals picked up on some basic knowledge from the design world as they came into contact with different mechs.
Only spoiled brats like Vincent Ricklin who only ever trained with one or two models asked for something as dumb as a codpiece for their mechs.
Overall, Ves understood Jarle’s desires for his custom mech and it was his job to make it into reality. After cutting off the connection after an hour of discussion, Ves mulled on how to go about this project.
His main concern was to preserve the model’s excellent X-Factor. Ves faced a difficult puzzle in that the X-Factor for the DarkSpear had already been set in stone. Even if Ves updated its design in the future, the assassin mech always became defined by its ability to charge from stealth.
Ves recalled the few times he went back to a design and changed the schematic. The Marc Antony Mark II came to mind. Ves did not really depart from his vision, but he made such a radical redesign that it could even be considered an entirely new variant rather than an update from the Mark I.
Even then, Ves did not stray too far from his original vision. He merely defined them in explicit terms so that he had a better grip on the just-developed Triple Division technique.
For this project, Ves considered whether he could grant his custom design an entirely new gestalt.
“It’s worth a try. I doubt this will end badly. At worst, I’ll just scrap my work if I end up with a muddle-headed design.”
He activated his design suite and loaded in a copy of the DarkSpear’s design schematic. When Ves looked at the assassin mech, he felt that every shape and marking hid a portion of the Last Spear’s will. For a moment, Ves dreaded the thought of tearing this mental creation apart.
He shook his head. “What am I hesitating about? It’s just a copy.”
Even if he butchered this particular copy, it didn’t affect the main design. While he intuitively thought that every permutation of a design should share the same strain of X-Factor, in reality each copy took on its own separate existence.
This was one of the biggest reasons why the X-Factor could never show its full strength in the virtual world. The virtual mechs never lasted long enough to develop its history.
With this perspective in mind, Ves steeled himself and visualised a knife in his mind. With the ruthless care of a pet owner about to end the life of a suffering dog, he struck at the image central to this image.
The Last Spear’s manifestation showed up at the last possible moment and parried the mental knife with his spear! The rebound from the failed strike rattled Ves to the point where he took a few steps backward.
The image associated with the DarkSpear had developed its own instincts for life. It could even detect a threat against its existence and put up a defence!
Ordinarily, Ves would rejoice that he developed his X-Factor to the point where it developed a form of autonomy. Now, it made things harder, for Ves found to his surprise that the Last Spear’s manifestation possessed just enough strength to withstand his mental attacks.
In essence, Ves could not even overcome his own creation!