Ves lacked the advanced equipment necessary to make sense of the open box. The materials incorporated in its construction were intricately exotic in nature, which meant their attributes weren't in any public databases. With only limited measurements to go on, Ves was no closer into figuring out the origin of the box. Even studying the strange patterns the creator of the box had used presented no results.
"My starting point is too far behind. I can't make sense of anything even if I have better equipment."
From what limited data he could gather, the box came from an extraordinary source. Nothing in the Bright Republic or elsewhere in this star sector could produce something so magical.
"This is actually an application of modular armor."
The realization stunned him. Not for its magical properties, but for the motives the sender of the package held.
There was someone out there that kept an eye on Ves. He or she knew about Lucky and came up with a highly unusual material to feed the cat. The unknown observer also knew about the Mist Prowler, for why else would he receive a box made out of modular armor?
"Who is it?" Ves asked himself, worried that his secrets were bared open all this time. He obsessively took out a scanning tool and scoured every corner of his workshop for cameras and other spying tools.
But that left out only one way of spying. His equipment such as his 3D printer and his assembler were second-hand. If someone messed with the intricate machines, Ves had no way of finding out as he wasn't a specialist in designing industrial equipment. Perhaps some spying methods had even infiltrated the software he used.
This incident reminded him that there were forces out there that could stomp on Ves like a bug. Despite his recent accomplishments, he was still vulnerable to outside manipulation. From what he could gather, the box could only come from two possible sources.
"It's either the creators of the Mech Design System or my father."
Thinking about his missing dad choked Ves up. He missed Rycol's steady influence. His father was the bedrock in which Ves pulled himself back together and switched his aspirations from piloting a mech to designing them. He couldn't imagine what sort of deeds his father committed in order to get his hands on the priceless System.
"There's too many secrets involved with the System." Ves reaffirmed, having gotten over the unpleasant implications of receiving this gift. "I can't be too complacent. Whoever let the System fall into my hands can easily take it back."
He put aside the box and left it in a secure storage area. It wasn't as if he wanted to spend more time, but he could not get any better results in a short time. With a possible order for his Marc Antony arriving soon, Ves wanted to make some quick gains in his skills in order to improve his products.
Having just released the Mist Prowler variant in the virtual market, Ves was flush with fresh DP. He quickly acquired the Speed Tuning II subskill that he had his eye on for a while. The unlocking of knowledge hidden deep within his mind went smoothly as he had experienced the sensation several times before. His mind had definitely adapted to high-density information transfers.
His ability to squeeze out more speed from a mech had improved. Speed tuning mostly look at optimizing the layout of artificial muscles. With this new perspective, Ves already thought of a couple of ways he could tweak the Mist Prowler's performance.
"It's not a good idea to go back to my old design. I'm better off designing another variant."
While his Mist Prowler was on the market for only a few days, the sales figures looked dismal. The variant's performance was decent, but it cost significantly more than the base model. Most Silver League players settled for something that was good enough instead of throwing their money for the very best machine.
What also didn't help was that Ves lacked a firm brand. Not many people opted to put their trust in an unknown designer. A couple of 1-star designs under his belt didn't make him stand out at all in the crowded mech market. As Iron Spirit offered many poor designers a viable way of earning money with just a modest amount of investment, the lower end of the virtual market was flooded with cheap mechs of questionable quality.
"I can only slowly build up my brand. None of my mechs are crappy if you leave out my first one. All of my designs are mechanically sound and feature unique strengths."
Just having a sound design wasn't enough to stand out. He needed to show off real strength. The Mist Prowler was just the first step in his plan. Its exceptional agility and speed as well as its remarkable performance in the later stages of a lengthy match should impress anyone who fought against it. Perhaps the sales of his latest mech might pick up in the coming days.
In any case, Ves could not afford to hang back and wait for the market's reactions. With his improved ability to design faster mechs, he already envisioned a new project for him to tackle. Still, after having finished a fairly complicated project, Ves wanted to take a day off to relax.
He took a last look at his sleeping cat before he locked the workshop and left the premises. His summoned aircab arrived at his doorstep within a minute. After entering the vehicle, Ves activated his comm and looked up his available funds.
So far, Ves was left with about 2 million credits in spending money. A much larger portion of money was safely stashed in his bank account, waiting to be spent on major investments in a couple of years.
"I shouldn't splurge all of my money too quickly. I still need to keep a reserve for any virtual licences that catches my fancy."
He decided to go on a shopping trip. His aircar sped past stately homes and winding parks. Cloudy Curtain might not feature the best weather, but the local residents made up for it by beautifying their neighborhoods. Bright flowers and lively trees dotted the streets as the residents leisurely gossiped with each other or brought their kids out to play.
Ves smiled as he looked down at the sights. This was his home. Rittersberg possessed a much greater heritage, and Bentheim was the economic center of the Republic. Nonetheless, Cloudy Curtain possessed its own unique charm. Peace was everywhere and one could escape from the wider struggles of the galaxy by settling at one of the planet's many plots of land.
Cloudy Curtain was neither too poor nor too rich. If one could name one vice, it was that most residents were rather lazy and unambitious. As a second-generation resident of Cloudy Curtain, Ves was keenly aware of this difference. No other local mech designer would have the guts to start a mech business by themselves. They were too content to go with the flow.
"Father, where the hell are you?" Ves sighed again. Rycol Larkinson always behaved as if he was driven, just like the rest of his notable family.
The aircar finally touched down at a quiet but upscale commercial street in the center of Freslin. The city was the second-largest metropolis on the planet, though in galactic standards it was just a slightly larger town. In any case, the workshop was located in the furthest suburbs of Freslin, so Ves found it much more convenient to travel here rather than the capital on the other side of the planet.
His first stop was the local branch of the Sanyal-Ablin Security Solutions. SASS was one of the pre-eminent security companies in the local star sector. It somehow managed to establish a firm market presence in both the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom. That led to many suspicions, but the Commerce Minister of the Republic himself vouched for the company.
As Ves wanted to shore up his workshop's anemic security, he went for the best. You couldn't get any better than SASS. After he stepped inside, an attractive, dark-skinned female attendant walked over. Both of them exchanged handshakes.
"Welcome to Sanyal-Ablin, Mister Larkinson. You can call me Robyn. I'm the head security consultant of the Freslin Branch. I'll be attending to your needs this afternoon."
While Ves was surprised with the woman's age, he was more interested in the mention of his name. "You know who I am?"
"How can we not?" She smiled. "Your face was plastered all over the news a few weeks back when you won silver in Bentheim."
Ves thought that such a small accomplishment would quickly be forgotten by the masses. Did he underestimate the fame he earned when he achieved second place in the Fusion Cup?
"Well Robyn, as you can probably guess, I'm here to invest in security for my business. Can we talk?"
After exchanging greetings, the woman led him to a small and richly furnished conference room. Ves took a random seat while Robyn set down a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. The security consultant pressed down the table, allowing a projector to beam a bunch of marketing material in front of him. It listed all the standard services the company provided.
"As a small business owner, we can offer you a limited selection of services. I doubt your annual revenue surpasses a billion bright credits, so we can leave the enterprise solutions off the table."
Ves nodded at the sensible selection. "I don't intend to scale up my production. My earnings will not be growing dramatically, though I hope it will stay steady. For now, I only hope to make my workshop more secure from spies and burglars. Let alone rogue mechs, right now, any drunkard can climb over my fence."
"Ah, so you wish to make a major investment into your cyber security and a minor investment in perimeter security." Robyn lifted a couple of fingers to push away most of the options in the projection. Most of the solutions that remained different substantially in price. "What is your budget?"
"I'd like to start with about five hundred thousand, but with the option of upgrading my choice later on when my business starts to pick up in perhaps a half year or a year."
One of the lower-end options dominated the screen. Robyn pointed her finger at the most notable features of this package.
"The Cyber-Robo service that we offer can protect your premises both digitally and in reality. We offer a standard suite of hardware and software security solutions to protect your intellectual property from opportunistic virtual attacks. You can always upgrade or downgrade this ongoing service at your leisure."
"Hm, that sounds great. What about protection from outside my doorstep?"
"We can offer you a team of four mechanical patrol bots to establish a basic perimeter guard. We can not offer you direct control over their programming, but we do allow you to designate priorities. You can designate an area that they must guard at all costs for example."
"What kind of armament will they carry?"
"The bots are licensed to carry anti-personnel and light anti-vehicle weapons. It won't stop even a light mech, but they can and will shoot down any aircars crashing in your direction. If you happen to upgrade your contract with a couple of million credits, we can augment your guard with a pair of our proprietary Arcbots. They possess enough firepower to fend off a light mech long enough for the Planetary Guard to respond."
The options on the table weren't to his satisfaction. Ves wanted a more substantial guard to have some piece of mind. Sadly, he wasn't made of gold, so he had to do with what his budget could withstand.
"I'll take the basic Cyber-Robo option."
The two hammered out the details within an hour. Within a week, a couple of technicians and security consultants would visit his workshop and start to implement his chosen security plan. Besides designating a couple of sections of his workshop that he wanted to protect the most, the people of SASS could take care of the rest.
Ves left the branch office with a lighter step. Though he spent five hundred thousand credits in one go, the extra safety he got in return allowed him to ease one worry off his mind.
"Once my business rises in value, I have to increase my security spending. I can't end up as a fat lamb ready for slaughter."
As Ves only recently started his company, he wasn't worth gobbling up. With the System's help, that could change fast. Once his skills improved and his mech designs incorporated a couple of unique strengths, Ves might be inundated with offers. Some of them may not come with kind intentions.
Chief among them was Walter's Whalers. As the local bullies of Cloudy Curtain, they took a modest cut out of every company's earnings. They were rather mild as far as gangs went. Cloudy Curtain was just too small for them to squeeze with any force. If they acted too heavy handedly, then no business would be willing to operate in their territory.
Therefore, the next destination of his trip brought him to one of their outposts near Freslin. The dilapidated-looking mech base only serviced a single squad of mechs, but Ves didn't underestimate the local organization one bit.
A bored guard sat right next to the gates, staring at the colorful clouds in the sky. "Who's there?"
"I'm a new business owner. I'd like to meet with the boss of this place."
That perked up the sleepy man. "Oh, so its money business, eh? You can go straight ahead. I'll call in the little boss."
Little boss? Confused, Ves stepped inside and walked straight towards the barracks up ahead. Much like the rest of the base, the structure looked as if it had seen better days. Ves thought it likely that the base used to be occupied by the Mech Corps. The lack of any value extracted from the local star system prompted the Bright Republic to scale down its local presence and allocate their resources to richer planets.
After Walter's Whalers took over planetary security, they clearly didn't value proper maintenance as much as the Republic's armed forces. Ves even saw a pile of wrecks stuffed in a corner. He lamented the enormous waste. If they hadn't been so exposed to the elements, a designer like himself could salvage much of the parts and cobble up a couple of cheap but functional mechs. He already had experience doing so in the Fusion Cup.
"Hey, wassup man?" A hand clapped his back from behind, giving the frail mech designer a fright.
He turned around and met his gaze with a handsome blond that matched his age. The young man looked similar to the elite pilots he encountered in the YTE. He wore a sweaty piloting suit, which made it clear the man just finished practice.
"I'm Ves Larkinson. Are you the.. Little boss?"
"Sure thing. And before you ask, I'm Dietrich, Walter's second son." The man grumbled a bit as he swiped his messy hair.
Ves straightened up a little as he realized he was facing a genuine big shot rather than just a sub-boss. Dietrich scanned over his body perceptively and dismissed any potential threats. A skinny guy like Ves could never overpower a trained mercenary.
"So you came for business, right?"
"Yes. I don't want any misunderstandings to occur between us as my business starts to grow."
Dietrich grinned and thumped his chest with his fist. The force behind the casual action could knock Ves right out his feet. "Don't worry Larkinson, us Whalers don't mistreat our own. I'm kind of thirsty right now, so come with me. I know a nice joint that has the best imported drinks in town."
Before he knew it, Dietrich dragged Ves to his personal aircar. The pimped out vehicle was some kind of luxury model Ves was not very familiar with, but he appreciated its sleek design. Dietrich didn't engage the autopilot. Instead he took personal control and raced out of the parking lot with the speed of a missile. The G-forces alone pushed Ves back into his chair.
"Could you please ease off a little? I'm not a pilot!"
"Oh, sorry bout that." Dietrich nonchalantly replied and stopped accelerating. "I got too excited for a moment. I'm meeting up with my sweethearts, you see."
"Er.. no worries.." Ves trailed off, wondering what he got himself into.