Despite turning on the charm, Ves only managed to generate noncommittal interest for his mech. He expected it to be a challenge, but the soldiers and mercenaries all treated him like a fly. Oh, the potentates were polite about it, but the disdain and dismissal was clear in their eyes. His status as a promising young mech designer who just got through the qualifiers meant nothing to them. He lacked the opportunity to show off the Marc Antony as they brushed him aside after a minute of polite talk.
"My apologies, my department is not in a hurry to procure a new mech."
"Our budget is tight. We don't make a lot of profit per operation. We can barely keep our mechs afloat. I'll look into your products a couple of years later when our current fleet of mechs needs replacements."
"The crew I'm running already trained in a specific configuration of mechs. Introducing a different type of mech will disrupt the balance."
"I'm not specialized in melee combat. A mech that uses a mace and shield is not suitable to an unskilled pilot like me."
The excuses sounded the same no matter where Ves tried to find a customer. As the people left the venue in order to grab a bite or visit the main event in the central stadium, Ves was left with empty hands.
"Hello there Ves."
He turned around to see an unexpected sight. Hans came up and addressed him personally. "Hans! What brings you here?"
"I just want to let you know that out of all the mechs I've piloted today, yours is one of the few who took the comfort of the pilot into account."
Ves raised his eyebrow. This was definitely the X-Factor at work! "I design my mechs with the user in mind. My products are more than the sum of its parts. I put my heart into each of my designs. I've refined my craft by designing and producing many mechs for Iron Spirit, where I've enjoyed a substantial amount of sales. I'm currently trying to branch out my real world business."
That sounded professional enough, right?
The pilot nodded, and looked interested. "I'd like to see more of your work."
"Ah." Ves quickly activated his comm to swipe his virtual sales page to Hans. "My digital storefront is here. Please feel free to browse my wares, though I advise you to look at my Marc Antony variant first. It's based off the Caesar Augustus, but I've reworked it extensively with more affordable armor. This is also the design that I'm offering for sale from my real universe workshop."
"You are able to produce a variant of the Augustus?" Hans sharpened his eyes a bit at that news. "I don't know much about the business, but I do know that the production license alone must cost an incredible sum of money. How could you get a hold of such a premium license?"
"I've been fortunate to attract the attention of some people who took note of my talent in mech design." Ves said as he shamelessly weaved a tale of bullshit in order to cover up the existence of the System. "A renowned Rubarthan grant institution even granted me a couple of production licenses to give my startup a push."
"That is impressive. It is not easy to attract the attention of the Rubarthans."
"Ah, don't misunderstand me. The institution is only based in the New Rubarthan Empire, probably for financial and privacy reasons. The real owners probably have a more modest origin. As for their exact identities, I'm not sure, but with such deep pockets they certainly have clout."
Ves chose to steer the conversation in a risky way. By not-so-subtly talking about the non-existent rich people behind his back, he was weaving an illusion of having the support of a mysterious and powerful backer. While rich people often like to waste their money, they never threw away their wealth to useless people. Ves therefore implied that he possessed a unique talent in mech design that distinguished him from the hundreds of other contestants who took part in the qualifications.
The fact that it was one of the few truths he tried to convey helped sway Hans over. The man rubbed his blond stubble. "You're an interesting fellow. I'll keep my eye on you."
Hans stepped past Ves and exited the building. Ves felt as if his tricks were seen through somehow, but then he shrugged. Whether Hans committed to looking up the Marc Antony in the game was more important.
"Gee, at least give me a solid answer instead of letting me hang."
He left the building and joined Carlos for dinner at one of the many eating venues available. As Ves took a bite out of a meat pie, Carlos enviously gazed at his friend who seemed to be reborn ever since they graduated.
"I feel like you took everyone's luck except Patricia for attracting such a ridiculous grant. C'mon, how many billions of credits does the Caesar Augustus license sell these days?"
Ves shrugged again and again as he denied any wrongdoing. "I really don't have a sugar mommy, let alone a daddy. You know I don't swing that way."
"Pff. Give me a couple of million credits and I'll gladly go down on my knees no matter how old and smelly."
"Ugh, thank you for that image. I still haven't finished my lunch."
When Ves described his difficulties getting his first sale, Carlos shook his head.
"You haven't grown up here in Dorum, so you don't have a good picture of the people who buy mechs. You're expecting too much out of the Mech Corps and the mercenary corps. Forget about selling a private mech to a government mech. They have no decision making power in the spending of their units. They pilot whatever mechs the brass shoves at them. As for their private lives, no serviceman has enough credits hanging around to buy a mech for off-duty use, at least not before they are retired."
"And the mercenaries?" Ves asked, feeling rather grateful Carlos was willing to lay it all down for him. He wasn't a local of Bentheim so his knowledge about the business mainly came from textbooks.
"Their finances are tightly regulated. A good contract can set them up with a couple of millions, but a bad luck streak might wipe out tens or even hundreds of millions of credits off their balance sheet. Sure, they have a large stash of credits in the bank, but that's their plan B, or in the worst case their retirement fund."
From Carlos' words, there was still a small a chance Ves could push his product on them, but it had to be worth spilling their savings. "So I have the best chance if I approached retirees or those close to retirement?"
"That's a decent angle to take. The old guys who retire from active duty can't scratch their itches unless they hop into a real cockpit. The popular simulations such as Iron Spirit is too casual and fake to satisfy their needs. Don't underestimate the pensions they earned in their years of service."
Mech pilots were hard to come by, and their services were important in securing locations and projecting power. They earned a nice share of wealth of whatever it was they were defending of attacking as 'taxes' or 'protection fee'. It was an accepted reality in human space that the fist trumped over laws. Only the fact that the Bright Republic was just a poor, third-rate state kept it from being embroiled in constant wars over territory.
A lot of money exchanged hands whenever mechs took to the field. However, most of it got spent on maintaining the mechs and paying off other expenses.
"I do have an idea." Carlos said as he finished his burrito. "You should try to approach the rich guys, in particular the collectors. They love collecting unusual mechs and admire them for hours in their private mech stables. Some of them aren't even potentates. They just love the feel of owning unique mechs."
Ves thought his chances there were bigger. "That's a good angle, but they're often inapproachable, right?"
"If you're some average hobo, then yeah the security won't let you come close. But what if you're the winner of the Young Tigers Exhibition? Collectors love unearthing gems in the rough. If they can snap up the very first handmade mech of a budding mech designer with bright prospects, they don't care about the piddling millions of credits they have to throw at you. It's peanuts compared to the potential collector's value when you become a household name in the Republic."
This was a tall order for Ves to fulfill. This year's competition was incredibly tough, and even he couldn't guarantee victory against seven other talented geniuses. It all depended on the format of this afternoon's competition.
After finishing their dinners, they walked over to the gigantic stadium at the center of the exhibition. A large crowd of fans cheered as they saw their favorite pilots triumph over their opponents. It took quite a bit of squeezing for Carlos and Ves to reach the crowded entrance. The security portal let both of them pass without issue once they identified themselves as mech designers who participated in the design competition. It was a nice freebie given to them by the organizers. A regular ticket to attend the competition in person reached in the tens of thousands of credits.
The well-planned layout of the interior of the stadium allowed the two young designers to get a glimpse of the excitement all around. Through the clever use of height and depth, the entire venue was transformed into a three-dimensional set of arenas where spectators could sit and watch the matches safely from above. Highly durable protective screens protected the onlookers from incidental projectiles and impacts, though the violence still led to some frightening moments.
The Young Tigers Exhibition introduced the true world of mechs to its visitors. Ves gobbled it all up like a junkie getting his fix. He eagerly approached the nearest arena battle, showcasing a tense sword duel between two nearly identical medium mechs. Both of them had been at it for a while, damaging their shields to such an extent that they were forced to throw it away.
The red mech, piloted by a talent from Bentheim, circled around the purple mech painted in the livery of an academy in Rittersberg. The two core planets of the Bright Republic often competed against each other in any field imaginable, from sports to mech competitions like this. The usual stereotypes were that the people of Rittersberg were polite and stuffy, while Bentheimers were cosmopolitan and greedy. However, when one met the other, they both turned into raving madmen eager to put the other down a notch.
As a native of Cloudy Curtain, Ves had no stake in the match. Even though he studied at Rittersberg, he possessed no sense of belonging of that beautiful but ultimately elitist planet. As for Carlos, he felt a bit torn between rooting for his home planet or the planet where he spent much of his time partying.
"Shit, who's going to win?" Carlos bit his lips.
Neither of them were pilots, nor did they possess the aptitude to become one. Their knowledge on mech fights largely came from entertainment and the occasional classwork in college. Ves only possessed a slight advantage over Carlos due to his Larkinson military family background.
"The Bentheimer is a bit too impatient." Ves judged as he took in the tempo of the match. Both sides looked evenly matched, but his eyes discerned a little bit more due to his studies of the X-Factor. It left him more sensitive to the emotions of the pilots running the mechs. "He thinks he's running out of time. The longer the wait, the more the Rittersburger is accumulating strength. The Bentheimer is trying to find an opening before his opponent erupts."
The blue mech sporting Bentheim's planetary symbol darted forward and poked with his sword. The Rittersberger refused to take the bait, slipping back just out of range. The two mechs continued to circle around as they let the anticipation among the crowd grow.
The purple mech took the blue mech by surprise as it jumped forward. The mech from Bentheim hastily parried the sword slash, only to receive a punch on the mech's face when it tried to retreat. The disruption of the mech's main sensors gave the Rittersberger enough of an opening to stab his sword past its defenses.
As the tip of the sword touched the armor plate just in front of the cockpit, both mechs immediately immobilized. The safeties had engaged, bringing the match to an end in favor of the purple mech.
"That was a good show." Ves commented with appreciation. "The Rittersburger had a great grasp of timing. He struck when the Bentheimer thought he was in for the long haul."
Carlos shook his head as he looked perplexed. "Dunno. The guy from Bentheim should slap himself for letting his opponent get close enough to deliver that punch."
They took the time to spectate the other matches, enjoying the visceral feel of real mechs clashing against each other with the naked eye. Experiencing such mech battles personally was a treat, and Ves improved his understanding of mechs every time he watched the pilots exert their mechs to the utmost.
After having his fill of mech battles, Ves parted with Carlos and reached the backstage area. After a stern search by security, an attendant guided him to a waiting room where the seven other finalists of the mech design competition waited. None of them smiled or took any note of Ves. Only Patricia gave him a second look, and it was more of the likes of recognizing a tiny mouse that scurried underneath her feet now and then. The group hadn't acknowledged him, which suited him fine.
A lull appeared as the sounds of weapons fire and crashing mechs ceased. A couple of attendants exhorted the mech designers to get ready to step onto the main stage.
An announcer introduced the upcoming event. "Citizens of the Republic. I hope you have enjoyed the clashes happening so far. I certainly have! Well, if you think we're holding the quarterfinals next, then be prepared because we have something special to introduce to you this year!"
The projectors behind the announcer lighted up in a collage of mech designers and fabricators working diligently on their mechs.
"A good pilot can't do without a good mech. For every pilot on the field, there are at least ten to twenty people supporting him from behind. It is at the hands of mech designers that a new mech comes to life. We here at the Young Tigers Exhibition wish to do our part in honoring this important profession. Now, let me introduce the eight brightest mech designers of the year!"
The eight of them stepped forward onto the stage. The audience gave them a polite applause. There was modest interest in their appearance, but they'd rather go back to seeing mechs bash their heads against each other.
After a brief bow, the announcer detailed the upcoming contest. "I'm sure it's fascinating to see our budding engineers tinker with machinery, but it can get a little tedious if they go on for days. We've taken your comments to heart about last year's event, and decided to put a new spin on the format this year!"
Uh oh, that didn't sound so good, Ves thought.