The LMC moved quickly in the next couple of days. They hammered out an agreement with Elemental Mech Engineering while Ves finished deriving the silver label and bronze label versions of the original Blackbeak design.
Both of the mechs featured near-identical specs to the gold label version. Ves mainly simplified the complicated sculptured exterior into straight, smooth surfaces that wouldn't be as much of a challenge to produce.
More specifically, he tweaked the silver label Blackbeak to go well with the Dortmund printer. He knew the capabilities of his equipment best, so he could easily retain any features that his company could still achieve on their own.
On the other hand, the bronze label Blackbeak truly represented a simplification of the original design. He not simplified the exterior even further, he also adjusted the internals to reduce the rate of errors.
For both designs, Ves did his best to retain their original X-Factor. Even though they'd lose much of their strength during the fabrication process, Ves still saw hope of some spark of survival in his products.
That was also an important factor why he went with EME. They offered the best hope of keeping the X-Factor alive.
He did his work on the flight back to Cloudy Curtain. Ves saw no need to remain at Bentheim. He wanted to get back to the workshop and start on processing his latest orders as soon as possible.
Three days later, the Barracuda landed at his home planet's spaceport. Ves and his entourage entered an armored shuttle that brought him back to home.
He idly played with Lucky while Melkor stared out of the viewscreen. Meanwhile, Gavin quietly corresponded with the office the LMC recently established in Bentheim.
For now, the branch in Bentheim focused on marketing and liaising with EME. Ves expected the branch to hire a lot of people to manage all of the responsibilities on its shoulders.
That reminded Ves of Raella's lengthy absence. "Where is Raella now?"
"She's having the time of her life, I bet." Melkor sighed, rubbing his visor with his palm. "Her parents won't approve of her boyfriend. Dietrich isn't exactly an upstanding citizen."
Ves shared his cousin's concerns. "I don't get what Raella sees in him. She can do much better."
Neither of them really understood girls, so they merely scratched their heads and remained clueless.
At least they understood mechs. Ves turned his attention back to his designs. The silver label and bronze label designs acquired the code names BP-B-01 and BP-C-01 respectively, making it clear where they placed in the hierarchy of the Blackbeak product line.
"Melkor, you've been keeping touch with the other Larkinsons in our generation, right?"
"I am. What do you want to know?"
"What do they think about the upcoming war?"
"It's an opportunity to make their mark." Melkor stated, as if the horrors of war meant nothing to him. "We've been raised on the stories of our parents and grandparents about the glory they earned from the battlefields of yesterday."
"So you think it's your turn now. Aren't you all afraid of losing your lives along the way?"
"If we die, we die. No Larkinson has shied away from death." Melkor stiffly declared. "It's our greatest responsibility to fight on behalf of the family and the Republic. No matter how tough it gets, we will never falter."
Ves had never underwent the kind of training that the potentates in his family had received. He found the blind devotion a little disconcerting.
It reminded him of Barley's unyielding loyalty to the Exilis Domain.
Sometimes, it was easy to forget that mechs depended on their human pilots. It didn't matter if a state boasted huge numbers of high quality mechs. Without a motivated fighting force, all of those mechs would collapse at the first blow.
In the endless wars that had been fought during the Age of Mechs, plenty of upsets had occurred. There were even times when a loose alliance of third-rate states had turned the tables against a technologically and numerically superior second-rate state.
These examples showcased the importance of raising everyone's morale. Ves realized for the first time how deep his family had committed to the Republic, and how much he missed out due to his inability to pilot mechs.
The shuttle eventually arrived at the workshop. Ves strode straight to the workshop with Lucky in his grasp.
"The boss is back!"
"Congratulations for your win, boss!"
The mech technicians laid down their work and applauded Ves like a hero who achieved glory on the battlefield. Ves considered these men and women to be his closest employees, so he took his time to smile and speak some words about his experience.
Eventually, he sent them back to work called over Carlos and and Chief Cyril.
"I heard about the licensing thing from administration." Chief Cyril spoke first. "Are you truly willing to let the Blackbeak be produced by someone else?"
"Missing out on those potential sales is even worse. It's best if we can do everything in-house, but if not then there's nothing wrong with leaning on a third-party manufacturer. These kinds of arrangements happen all the time."
Chief Cyril shook his head. "They happen all the time, alright, but they don't always end well. Mechs are highly complicated products that require the right equipment and the right people to produce. I can tell you a dozen horror stories at the top of my head where mech designers got duped by unscrupulous manufacturers."
"We've done our due diligence." Ves replied. "The contract we signed with EME is also fairly strict about these matters. They won't get away if they decide to pull the wool over our eyes."
EME's persisted in keeping their licensing fees as low as possible. Perhaps aware that their offer wouldn't be attractive, their negotiators relented on everything else, so long as it didn't lower their potential earnings.
"About those contract terms, I'm going to need a senior hand to keep an eye on their production." Ves pointed at Carlos. "You're it."
"Because Chief Cyril is indispensable. I need him to watch over my workshop. As for the other mech technicians, they're too junior to be of any value. That leaves only you. You're my best man. I won't have any concerns about EME if I know you're there."
Carlos slumped in defeat. "Okay, you're right. I'll do it then, but I don't want to be stuck there forever. I already did a stint at quality control, I don't want to end up doing the same job again."
Ves weighed the matter for a bit. "Two months should be long enough. By that time, they'll have gotten used to the standards I've imposed. We can set a regular rotation where some of our local mech technicians get to go on an extended trip to Bentheim to take over your duties."
"I'm not sure whether they're seasoned enough to spot any funny business, but that sounds like a good idea." Chief Cyril nodded in agreement. "Our mech technicians haven't seen much of how far mech manufacturing can go. Allowing them to experience a bigger company's production facilities will do wonders in broadening their perspectives."
Even though EME had idled all of their production, Ves still got a good impression of their work methods. Andar Neverland cared a lot about his mechs, to the point of going deep in depth to upgrade and expand his fabrication equipment. Unable to come up with something better than his Klemson design, he instead focused on improving his production lines.
"Hopefully, everyone will be able to get a turn. I hope the LMC will be able to expand its production lines in the same manner as the EME."
Chief Cyril bumped Ves on the head. "Mr. Neverland is how many years old now? He's in the business for at least thirty years. You've got a lot more potential than him when he was your age. Aim for something higher."
Ves appreciated the vote of confidence. The chief also reminded him that he shouldn't get too caught up in the present. The Blackbeak was merely the first of many amazing products coming from his hand.
"Alright, enough dilly-dallying around!" He clapped. "Let's get to work with fabricating those gold label mechs!"
Everyone released a minor cheer. Even though most of the mech technicians wouldn't be doing anything important, they would still get to witness their boss at work. Ves also hoped his mech technicians paid attention because he planned to sell only silver label Blackbeaks under his own company's auspices from this point onwards.
While Ves started pulling up his sleeves, light-years away from Cloudy Curtain, something momentous occurred in the depths of interstellar space.
A small convoy of trade vessels escorted by a trio of mercenary carriers quietly plied the trade routes between the Bright Republic and its neighbors. Trading directly between the Republic and the Kingdom was prohibited, but a lot of traders got around that restriction by stopping by a couple of neutral states before they reached their destination.
The convoy transitioned into FTL a couple of days ago, and had reached the midpoint of their final leg of their journey to the port system of Bentheim. At the head of the convoy flew the biggest carrier, the Calcardon.
The carrier owed her size due to her origins as a decommissioned cargo hauler. A Republican mercenary corps called the Barbed Lynxes bought the old vessel at a bargain and converted her interior to hold a mix of landbound and spaceborn mechs.
The Barbed Lynxes did well for themselves after they acquired the larger vessel. Although the Calcardon's speed left a lot to be desired, she excelled in convoy missions where she escorted fully-laden trade vessels as sluggish as the converted carrier.
Inside the bridge, the captain of the ship yawned in boredom. "Nothing ever happens on this trade route. Where have all the pirates gone to?"
"Knock it off, Captain Spencer. You're tempting fate with your talk. I'd rather we finish our mission without a fight."
"Oh, come on Commander Leife, I was just joking. It's just that you hear about the pirates stalking the trade routes and ambushing anyone who emerges into a remote system. It makes my hair stand on ends for months now."
The old grey-haired commander crossed her arms. "I'm close to retirement already. I'd like to get out of this business by the end of the year and leave the Komodo Star Sector before everything sinks into chaos. I'd appreciate it if you don't test our luck."
"Aye aye, commander!" The captain saluted her in a lazy manner.
Not a lot of officers manned the bridge right now. Nothing ever happened to the Calcardon during FTL unless the crew messed something up. Half the consoles faced empty seats.
An alert sounded out from one of the consoles. The officer in charge of sensors and communications woke up from his daze and blearily looked at the alert the Calcardon sent out. "Skipper, the gravitic sensors are glitching out again. They're telling me that we're about to enter a planet's gravity well!"
Captain Spencer adjusted his captain's hat and sat up straight from his seat. He pulled up a projections of the sensor readings in front of him. "Goddamn those yard monkeys. I told them to replace the sensor modules! They must have polished up the old ones while billing us the cost of installing some new ones! Those scam artists!"
"Uhm, skipper? What do I do about the sensor readings? Should we drop out of FTL as a precaution?"
"Out of the question! We'll have to halt the entire convoy as a result, and we have to wait for hours until our FTL drives go through their cycles. We'll also waste an enormous amount of fuel in the process. Remain in FTL. There aren't any planets or star systems on this route.."
The junior officer reluctantly dropped his caution, but his console suddenly lit up as the Calcardon received a number of messages from the other ships in the convoy.
"Skipper! The other ships report that they're detecting a gravity well in front of us too! We're getting dangerously close now!"
This finally woke the captain up. "Damn it! Some kind of stellar mass must have wandered into our route! Commander Leife, our FTL drives aren't calibrated to swing past that gravity well!"
"Then stop the convoy! Pull us out of FTL!"
After the commander passed the word, the entire convoy lurched out of FTL and transitioned into realspace. They drifted about aimlessly, half-clueless why they had to interrupt their sleepy journey.
Inside the bridge of the Calcardon, the captain called the entire crew to battle stations. Officers poured in from the hatch and hopped behind the empty consoles. They all furiously worked to figure out what happened.
"Skipper!" An officer called. "We've analyzed the sensor readings. According to our calculations, we're five light-hours away from a rogue planet!"
The captain cursed for a bit. Rogue planets basically consisted of planets that had been knocked away from their solar systems for some reason or another and traversed a wandering path, sometimes interfering with FTL travel. Most of the time, these rogue planets consisted of frozen rocks of gas giants.
"Sir new readings have come in! The planet is glowing! If our analysis is correct, the entire planet is riddled with exotics!"
That single announcement changed everything.