Dumont had been drowning his sorrows in his private mansion. He sent most of the the staff away, allowing him to avoid the scornful gazes of his own men.
"Here I am, a drunk and a failure."
Despite setting up the board in his favor, he failed to secure a crucial victory. Dumont put his own reputation at stake when he pitted his Havalax against Larkinson's Blackbeak. It should have been a slam-dunk win considering the Havalax's high performance characteristics turned it into an excellent dueling mech.
Nothing was ever set in stone.
He learned that lesson in the most painful way. Even a captain of the Mech Corps failed to account for the treacherous terrain and the bewildering decisions made by his opponent.
Dumont raised a glass at Melinda Larkinson's resourcefulness.
"People always say that the Larkinsons can't be messed with. They're the Republic's mangy wolves."
People called them wolves because they fought in a ferocious manner. They also called them mangy because they weren't really a big deal compared to the other military dynasties that held more sway in the Bright Republic.
Obviously, the emergence of a talented Larkinson mech designer changed the old equation. For the first time, it appeared the famous Larkinson Family gained some actual financial muscle.
All of that had nothing to do with him, of course. The highly placed folks who opposed the Larkinsons had secretly pulled some strings to allow the elite Captain Vicar to duel on his behalf.
"Hmph." He snorted. "What an elite he turned out to be."
"What happened yesterday is not his fault." An incisive female voice spoke from behind.
Dumont practically jumped from his seat, spilling his drink in the process. Tiny cleaner bots quickly cleaned up the mess, but that hardly calmed his heart. "Heavens! How did you sneak up to me, Catelyn?"
"It's not that difficult to bypass your security systems when you dismissed most of your security." The Ricklin scion sneered. "Any two-bit thug with a gun can approach you before you notice it. And last I'm aware of, you don't wear a shield generator that can stop an attack."
"I figured it didn't matter if I put my mansion on lockdown." Dumont shrugged. "If you decided to get rid of me, nothing I do will matter."
Catelyn Ricklin shook her head as she tutted. "My dear, you always think the worst of me. Did you really think I wrote you off? Hardly. I've diverted a substantial amount of family funds to your endeavors. I'm not about to let my investment go to waste."
Wasteful spending and frivolous business decisions had caused the Ricklin family to decline. In Catelyn's eyes, Vincent Ricklin exemplified the degenerate old ways.
In any case, Dumont started to see the light again. He sobered up and faced Catelyn with his full attention. "You want to continue to collaborate? Even after half of my customers canceled their orders?"
"You're a businessman as well as a mech designer, Michael. It's not the end of the universe if you lose a duel. Certainly, all of the sensationalism surrounding your very public loss will depress your sales, but will anyone still remember you after a month? Just hunker down and ride the storm. Your prospects will surely improve after talk about the duel dies down."
"That still leaves an irremovable stain on my record. I'll hardly be able to climb back out of the pit I dug for myself. The Havalax is a tainted design."
"Then design a new mech! You shouldn't be pining over the fate of a single design! You should be expanding your catalog instead of putting all your eggs in a single basket. In the meantime, your company can muddle through if you sell the Havalax model at a discount. As long as your company stays afloat, there are plenty of opportunities to make a comeback."
Dumont nodded at her words. Earning an ample profit was a luxury at this point. "I get it now. As long as the price is attractive enough, buyers looking for a bargain won't care about the bad press."
The Havalax was still a fundamentally good design. Although its endurance didn't amount to much, the performance it delivered at the start made it suitable to be used as an elite mech. And despite the unexpected outcome of the previous duel, it still held a significant advantage in most situations.
Offensive knights couldn't display their full strength by themselves. They worked best if paired with other mechs, preferably rifleman or artillery mechs. The Havalax would really start to shine if it could do its job as a protector of other mechs.
"You've regained your senses now. Good." Catelyn nodded and turned around to leave the room. "For now, you should weather this crisis. We can make new plans after you stabilized your company."
As Dumont dreamed about reviving his prospects, Ves continued his tour of the potential partners he'd be working with to mass produce the Blackbeaks.
After leaving the industrial complex operated by Vaun, the armored shuttle brought him to the next mech manufacturer on the list. Gavin briefed him on the company.
"The next manufacturer on the list is a company called Vikaris Mechs. VM is a medium-sized family-owned mech manufacturer based in Haston. They started off producing spare mechs from salvaged fabrication equipment and expanded from there. Nowadays, they've grown to the point of running ten production lines. Also, starting from a decade ago, they entered into a long-term partnership with a big Journeyman Mech Designer."
Ves frowned at that news. "Sounds like a great deal for VM. If they partnered up with a Journeyman, then they should have been running their production lines at full capacity. Why are they turning to us?"
"They've fallen on hard times." Gavin replied without much sympathy. "The mech designer they worked with suddenly dumped them out of the blue. From what rumors I've gathered, the mech designer wanted to work with a major mech manufacturer, but had to give up all of his existing contracts to seal the deal."
That designer must have decided to work together with a major mech manufacturer because they could handle more complex designs. Many small and medium mech manufacturers didn't possess the hardware required to fabricate some of the more sophisticated parts that Journeyman-level mechs often hosted.
"VM should have anticipated that something like that might happen. A Journeyman Mech Designer can be very exacting about their designs."
His assistant shrugged. "Well, they obviously didn't take precautions, seeing as they presented us with the most favorable terms. Their negotiators seem very eager to work for us."
Ves took a data pad that contained a document that outlined their latest offers. They indeed conceded a lot of ground during the negotiations. The per-unit licensing fee had somehow climbed up all the way to five million credits.
With an expected sale price of 55 million credits per Blackbeak, that didn't leave much profits for Vikaris Mechs in the future. Everyone expected resource prices to soar once again at the outbreak of war, so Ves didn't assume the current production cost of 41 million credits to stay the same.
The shuttle arrived at Haston after an hour of flight. The working-class city looked as dreary as ever from above. The Bentheim Liberation Movement often found eager recruits from the disgruntled unemployed masses.
The premises of Vikaris Mechs reflected the lack of confidence in public security. It featured high walls and a number of worn but very functional turrets. The armored shuttle and its escorts had to land outside the walls and receive a fairly rigorous inspection before being allowed through the gates.
A portly gentleman greeted him just inside the gates. "Mr. Larkinson, it's a pleasure to meet you. Let me introduce myself. I am Frederick Yang, and I've been steering this company for more than twenty years as CEO."
Frederick looked exhausted and overworked. His black hair started greying early and he didn't bother to use any of the modern grooming solutions to revive them back to their prime.
As Ves shook hands with the man, they walked over to one of the two great halls VM had built up. "I've heard you've recently lost a major client. Can you tell me if your facilities are still up to par?"
The blunt question took the CEO aback. He returned with an awkward smile. "We've parted ways with a major client for reasons unrelated to our performance. Our equipment is fairly old, but we have lots of experienced hands to keep them running smoothly. There is no reason to doubt our capabilities. We are able to fabricate virtually any kind of design an Apprentice Mech Designer might present to us."
They entered a stale and rather worn out fabrication floor. Ves noted a few touches of rust and grime in some of the corners, but nothing truly serious. The CEO guided him to an array of printers which churned out a variety of parts. Each machine had a serious-looking mech technician or fabricator at the helm.
"We operate all of our equipment manually. We believe in providing employment opportunities to the disadvantages communities of Haston, so we bring in those with talent and teach them the essential skills to become a fabricator or mech technicians."
Many of the people indeed looked like they grew up under harsh conditions. Ves found the initiative to be admirable. It must have been difficult to educate a barely literate man or woman from scratch. "Do they have diplomas or certificates?"
"It takes too much money to send them out for examinations." The CEO shook his head. "A diploma doesn't matter too much in our circles because we already know what they are capable of. They don't need to prove themselves to us."
Ves bet that Vikaris Mechs deliberately discouraged certification for more selfish reasons. They spent so much effort bringing up their skills. If they actually gained a diploma, they'd be able to apply to other manufacturers that provided better compensation.
Still, even with this shady exploitation, the staff hardly looked aggrieved with their lot in life. They obtained precious opportunities to elevate their lives without paying any tuition at all.
As he toured the old and rusty alloy compressors and CTMs, Ves got the sense that Vikaris Mechs was a social project. They obviously didn't need to hire so many locals and spend so much effort on shoring up their skills. A score of sturdy bots could have taken over the jobs of as much as half of the people working in the halls.
"I'm very impressed with your setup, Mr. Yang." Ves cautiously praised. "Still, I'm a little concerned by the age of your machines. My design isn't very difficult to make, but Veltrex armor plating is very difficult to work with. Are you sure your gear and your men are up to the task?"
The CEO hastily nodded. "We have decades of experience with fabricating comechs. We can handle the majority of currentgen compressed armor systems. There is no cause for concern, no cause for concern at all!"
Ves nodded politely to him. From what he saw with his own eyes, the CEO didn't lie. As long as the alloy compressors didn't fall apart, they should be able to meet his needs until the next generation arrived. Without a substantial investment, they wouldn't be able to keep up with the latest armor systems.
He wrapped up his visit by talking to a few workers. The CEO seemed unafraid the unsophisticated mech technicians would slip up. They probably didn't know anything important enough to matter.
Indeed, Ves didn't learn anything strange that could change his view on the company. Vikaris Mechs didn't do so well after losing their most essential partner, but they made do for now by performing small jobs here and there. The workers appeared hopeful that their company would recover its pride.
After bidding farewell to Yang, Ves and Gavin returned to their shuttle and left Haston as fast as possible.
Gavin appeared to be glad to get away from the murky town. "Ugh, all of that industrial smell is getting to me. Please let me stay in the shuttle if you want to visit Haston again."
Cloudy Curtain boasted exceptionally clean air, so it wasn't a surprise to Ves that Gavin disliked stepping foot into Haston.
"What do you think about Vikaris Mechs?"
"It's a charity case more than a business. I don't know if the owner is a bleeding heart or not, but you can hardly step forward without bumping into another worker. All of their gear also seems rather dated, but I'm not an expert on those things. The most I can say is that they don't look nearly as professional as Vaun Industrial."
At least they knew how pathetic they looked, because Vikaris Mechs offered the most attractive contract terms by far. Ves told Gavin as much. "They're cheap and they're dedicated. I think we can rely on their sincerity because we'll be their only major client for the time being."
"You get what you paid for. Don't expect consistent quality from these guys."