After a short trip that went way over the speed limit, the aircar finally landed in a more sleazy part of town. A handful of rough-looking potentates wearing pilot suits congregated together on the cracked streets. As for the norms or non-pilots, they all toted some form of gun or rifle on their bodies. Ves was marginally reassured they kept the weapons securely holstered.
"Welcome to the Whalers' second hangout!" The little boss introduced the streets to Ves. "We own the entire neighborhood here. You can get almost anything you want, for the right price. Whether it's chems, girls or games, we've got you covered!"
"Thanks, but I'm okay." Ves replied simply as he kept his answers short. He was scared that if he said anything more, the pilot might drag him somewhere murkier.
Fortunately, Dietrich led Ves into the classiest-looking structure. The nightclub was in its low period due to the daytime hour, but the couple of regulars drinking at the bar showed that it was a favored hangout to the younger generation. A pair of doll-like girls shrieked and left the young pilots they previously curried for favors.
"Welcome back little boss!" They greeted him and smooched both sides of his face with kisses.
"Hahaha, hang on for a moment! Jemry, Kayden, this is Ves. Serve something up for him, will ya?"
"Sure thing boss."
As the two girls left Dietrich's side and hopped over the bar, the little boss gestured Ves to sit at a stool. When they seated themselves, Dietrich waved at a projector that was showing a news broadcast and changed it to an archived footage of the Fusion Cup. The faces of Ves and Charlotte were clearly displayed as they received their silver medallions.
"So, is that you up there?"
Ves nodded. He didn't know whether it was a good thing the Whalers knew about his recent accomplishment. Fame wasn't always a good thing if it attracted the bad kind of attention. Attracting the eyes of a mercenary gang often led to unsavory paths.
"Haha great!" Dietrich laughed and slapped the mech designer's back with the force of a punch. "We finally have our own mech designer! The days where we pilot crappy outdated mechs will be history!"
Ves awkwardly coughed. "I think you overestimate my capabilities. I've only started my business a few months ago. My mech boutique's production volume will remain small as I'm focused on producing high-end mechs."
That dampened Dietrich's enthusiasm. "So you're not setting up a large manufacturing plant on Cloudy Curtain?"
"The cost of doing such a thing is prohibitive. And even if I have the money, without a rep my mechs won't sell very well."
Ves could see the gears turning in Dietrich's head. Despite his playboy appearance, the little boss was not a wastrel.
"Alright. Understood. It's too much to hope that a major industry will start up in this quiet backwater."
"Bentheim is near enough for most of this planet's needs."
"Yeah, but anything we buy from there means we have to pay a big cut to the gangs in control of that place." Dietrich took a deep breath. "Alright, let's change gears. Let's talk about what you can do right now. Are you producing any mechs?"
"Only one design so far, based off a lastgen mech. I just completed my first sale a short time ago."
When Ves threw the files of his model to Dietrich, the little boss studied the information carefully. He ran over the spec sheet of the Marc Antony with practised familiarity.
"The specs are kind of good, and the price is rather decent. Shame it's a lastgen mech though. I wouldn't buy anything lastgen now that the big switch is happening within a decade."
"I don't have much choice in the matter. I've received the base model as a grant. It's the only way an independent mech designer like me can get a foot in the market."
While the Marc Antony's virtual combat footage impressed Dietrich somewhat, he just couldn't get over the outdated technology of the frame. Ves realized that he wouldn't be the only pilot who thought that way.
Plenty of his potential customers took longevity into account when they bought a new mech. For the poorer mercs, a mech represented their livelihood for at least two decades if they chose their assignments carefully. The only way Ves could tempt these penny pinchers into buying his mech was if he slashed the price.
"Right, for now, just do your own thing." Dietrich finally said, as if he was ordering a subordinate. "When you manage to come up with a more modern design, you should start to pay us back for our generous protection. Don't worry, we won't let any trouble fall in your way in the meantime."
Ves was smart enough to read the underlying intentions of that statement. Dietrich's interest in Ves lay more in his mech production capability than his earnings. Walter's Whalers considered him and his workshop as one of their own pretty much, and won't allow any other gang to lay a claim.
The offer of protection was not delivered in a sarcastic undertone. Small-time planetary gangs like the Whalers often provided genuine protection to the businesses they held an interest in. It was a way of legitimizing their underground rule and put themselves in the good books of the local government.
As to why the Mech Corps didn't kick these gangs off their thrones and took charge of planetary security by themselves? It was impossible to eradicate the criminal underbelly in any civilized settlement. Rather than engage in an endless war of attrition, the Bright Republic decided to tolerate these shady mercenary gangs and let them fight for turf among themselves. As long as they didn't went overboard and caused mass civilian casualties, the government was willing to turn a very blind eye.
Naturally, Ves realized such offers of protection came at a cost. He nodded his head at Dietrich. "I'll be sure to repay your generosity once I've expanded my business."
The pair spent the next hour trying out drinks and chatting with the two girls. Well, Dietrich did most of the drinking and flirting. Ves sat at his side trying to sip as little alcohol as possible.
Once he finally managed to squirm from the little boss' grip, Ves hailed an aircar and went straight home. Somehow, Ves lost the mood to hang out in Freslin any further.
After returning home to an empty workshop and a sleeping gem cat, Ves sank down his sofa and sighed. "It's a good thing I've come with an accord with Walter's Whalers."
Unlike mech pilots, a designer like Ves lacked the power to protect himself and his assets. His pathetic physical stats were on full display today when Dietrich casually thumped his body several times. If Dietrich bumped him a little bit harder, Ves would end up with bruises on his body.
Mech pilots also had it easier when they needed to leave a planet in a hurry. Their main belongings often consisted of a personal mech and anything they could stuff in their cockpit. They could easily board a passing shuttle or transport and zip away from the star system in a jiffy.
As for mech designers, their most valuable assets consisted of heavy, cumbersome industrial equipment. Heavy assets such as a 3D Printer and an assembler system often required days of dismantling and repackaging before they were fit for transport.
If Ves somehow ran afoul of the Whalers, then he could kiss all of his assets goodbye. Even with the System on his back, restarting from scratch was an impossible talk.
Just like Lucky, Ves took a deep sleep that night. Unlike the lazy cat, he had to wake up properly next morning. The experiences yesterday had rekindled the fire that drove Ves to reach the top. He received too many reminders that he was still a nobody in the eyes of others. Without improving his skills and getting a few good designs under his belt, Ves could never break the suppression of others.
He turned back to the drawing board and envisioned his next design. Ignoring the Mist Prowler, Ves instead revisited the base model.
"The Octagon design is fairly fast, but it's still limited to the realities of its medium weight class."
As an urban hunting mech, the Octagon's priorities lay in its agility, not its top speed. While its lighter-than-usual armor allowed it to run briskly, it did not even come close to any records.
What if he made a variant of the Octagon that was capable of moving much faster?
"It'd be a nightmare to all light mechs."
Light mechs boasted unparallelled speed in exchange for thin armor and weak weapons. Though they might strengthen one of the two, it always came in expense of speed. No light mech truly excelled in all three aspects.
In comparison, even the lightest medium mech could crush them in terms of weapons and armor. The only reason why medium mechs couldn't leverage their advantages properly was that light mechs often outran any opponents coming after them. Light mechs always held the initiative in a skirmish.
If a medium mech was able to catch up to a light mech, the tables would turn. However, not everyone could make such a miracle possible. A medium mech possessed a baseline amount of weight. If the mech's internal frame, engines and power reactor got any weaker, then they couldn't even be called medium mechs anymore. At best, their performance resembled light mechs so much that they'd effectively be one.
What Ves had in mind was to design a mech with enough speed to close the distance with light mechs while still maintaining some of the advantages of a heavier weight class. Thus, Ves opted not only for weight reduction, he also wanted to look into short-term burst acceleration methods.
"The only way a medium mech can catch up to a light one is if it has an auxiliary mobility module."
Flying was the easiest and also laziest solutions. Designing a medium flying mech came with so many considerations that Ves might get overwhelmed. Besides, the Octagon's advantages worked best on the ground.
"Looks like I can only turn to boosters." Ves concluded, and visited the booster section in the virtual market.
Iron Spirit offered a decent variety of boosters in the 2-star range. Plenty of wild-eyed inventors came up with booster systems. Not all of them worked as well as their makers had thought. Ves could choose from a lot of cheap but crappy systems, or fork out some serious dough for something that actually worked out decently in the battlefield.
Boosters generally came in two variants.
The slow burners used up energy in a more efficient way. While they were unable to provide a high amount of thrust, any mech that incorporated these boosters enjoyed a substantial reduction in travel time.
The fast burners on the other hand worked in the opposite way. They provided a substantial amount of thrust, but placed very high demands on the kind of fuels they consumed. They were much more expensive to start, but sometimes a sufficient amount of speed trumped all other considerations.
Ves thought the same. He settled for a run-of-the-mill fast burning booster system for 150,000 credits. While the Subomi Accelotron A-2W got stuck with one of the worst names for a booster system, but delivered a respectable amount of speed. The only downside to the system was that it guzzled up a lot of high-energy fuels and lasted only for a short time before the system engaged its forced cooling cycle.
Nonetheless, a smart pilot who engaged his boosters at the right moment could easily overtake an overconfident light mech.
"Now that I've bought the boosters, lets see how I need to accommodate the frame."
The boosters were only responsible for closing the distance after spotting an enemy light mech. What could give the Octagon a more durable way of moving fast was to pull the oldest trick in the book.
"I'll have to shed some weight off the frame."
A clever choice of reducing weight could make the Octagon retain most of its effectiveness while making it substantially faster. However, such a thing was not that easy to do. The designers of the base model already worked hard in offloading excess weight. For Ves to do it again meant he'd have to make some tradeoffs.
"First, the armor could use some trimming. If I want to save weight and maximise the utility of my variant's armor, then I should stick with the stock armor instead of opting for the more exotic modular armor."
The default armor the Octagon sported served its purposes well enough. Ves only needed to do some tweaking to its armor design in order to emphasize the speed aspect. While it was nice to increase the mech's speed once it accumulates more damage, if the armor had already shrunk a bit, a modular system somewhat lost its purpose.
"I can also do something about the energy cells. I can exchange the mech's high endurance for something else."
He sketched a new energy storage scheme where he cut off a couple of cells in order to make space for the boosters. Some energy cells provided the specialized fuels for the new system.
"Now I'll have to place the boosters in a couple of good locations."
You couldn't just slap a few boosters in a few random spots and call it a day. A badly-placed booster could easily unbalance or even topple over a mech. Ves chose to employ six of the Accelotrons and place them somewhat evenly onto his new design's back. He could figure out the precise placements later with the help of the System's tools.
"Hm, what should I do with the mech's agility?"
Does the Octagon need to keep its limbs nimble and flexible? It was not necessary for a light mech hunter to possess exceptional agility. Merely speed and power was enough for such mechs to smash light mechs into pieces. Nevertheless, the number one strength of the Octagon was its enormous range of motion.
If Ves eliminated this aspect entirely, he'd end up with variant that lost its roots to the base model. The decisions involved with this aspect paralyzed him for a time.