Ves was not immersed in the whole shuttle racing scene. As someone focused on mechs his entire life, the sleek personal transport shuttles that were capable of both atmospheric and space flight held little appeal to him. That did not mean others found them unworthy of their time.
In fact, lots of norms worshipped shuttles. They paid fanatical attention to each newly released shuttles and liked to customize and tinker their own vehicles in their free time. Adding some decorative lighting was just one of the ways a fanatic distinguished himself among his peers.
He looked over some footage on the galactic net and found it to be a basic concept. It could be as simple as adding a few colored stripes to adding in an elaborate artistic pattern. It impressed Ves that these hobbyists cobbled up evocative looks for their shuttles.
"I won't be able to get Vincent's approval if I half-ass this job."
The best-looking vehicles didn't necessarily have the most lights. Instead, the artists who customized them used patterns and other artistic tricks to maximize the impact of each streak of light. If Ves wanted to keep up, he had to be a little inventive.
"Hm, what would fit my Marc Antony?"
He left the galactic net and opened the mech design program. As a software developed by the MTA itself, it possessed elaborate features. Still, they were not on par with the Mech Designer System's own suite except for the projectors. The MTA's design studio incorporated high quality projection systems that could bring any image to life.
When the imposing image of the Marc Antony appeared in the middle of the room, Ves circled the projection and slowly considered his ideas.
The mech looked like an armored soldier. With its vapor-generated helmet crest and heavy rectangular shield, it looked purpose-built for war. Ves also chuckled to himself that it looked quite dashing. What he had to do now was to figure out a way to enhance the mech's cool factor without being too overboard. Luckily, most lighting systems are cheap and don't require a license. After all, they were mainly made to customize shuttles.
"Getting my hands on a suitable lighting system isn't hard. What's a little harder is that their toughness sucks."
He faced the same problem as with the cape. These kinds of accoutrements just weren't designed to accommodate a fighting machine. While there were a few systems designed for traffic control or rescue mechs that possessed a little more reinforcement, they fell short when put into active combat situations.
"Maybe I've been influenced too much by the way these lighting systems are applied to shuttles. I don't have to follow the exact same scheme for my mech."
He considered designing a standard scheme as well as add something extra. As a mech accumulated damage, it generally looked worse. In order to placate Vincent in the event he ended up in a real battle, Ves decided to use that property to add internal lighting that wouldn't be visible unless the armor got torn open.
As Ves knew his design best, he already had an idea how to structure the internal lighting. He had no trouble marking out many small areas where a small but powerful light source could be placed.
As the lights didn't really suck up that much energy compared to other systems, Ves didn't even bother with adding power cables to keep them running. Instead, he added wireless power transmitters nestled deeper in the mech to provide power without relying on delicate and easily damaged cabling.
To be certain it matched Vincent's standard of coolness, Ves tested out his change. When Ves used the design program's simulation module to simulate accumulating damage, he found the mech to be glowing increasingly red from the cracks in its armor. Against the backdrop of the mech's predominantly black coating, the ominous red glow enhanced the menacing aura.
Inspired by this savage look, Ves took up a sketching program and drafted a couple of lines on the mech's wireframe model. He predominately added jagged lines, akin to the stylized lightning bolts on the shield which he also sketched over with some light streaks. He colored it mostly red except for the lights on the shield, which were shaded a bright yellow.
When Ves stepped back and let the design program simulate the lighting scheme, he was impressed by his own work. The light scheme enhanced the ancient warrior theme of his mech. The sharpness of the jagged, diagonal lines gave the mech the impression that it was a war god descended from the heavens.
"Hm, though it looks good, I'm not sure if Vincent will like it. He has a very discerning taste."
To be safe, Ves spent an entire day wracking his brain for alternate design patterns. He slept, ate and showered at the room's basic living facilities but spent the rest of his time crunching his brain. Lucky got so bored that Ves activated the guide program to release a projected ball that flew around erratically for his cat to chase around.
His hard work allowed him to come up with a few viable looking designs. He made a white lightning bolt pattern to evoke a lightning god feel and a green curving pattern to contrast nicely with the red accents. He finished his design session by forming a yellow pattern that evoked speed.
As he projected the different lighting schemes side by side, he had to admit that while they did the job, they fell short of greatness. Ves simply lacked the practice and proficiency to go beyond the basic one-color lighting schemes. Mixing two or three colors together in a harmonious whole was a lot more difficult than he thought.
"If Vincent is really dissatisfied by my attempts, he should just hire his own artist." He concluded. As someone who looked familiar with the shuttle racing scene, Vincent must have his own contacts.
He sent the sketches to Vincent and called it a day. He'd been staying in the design studio for more than a day now. Thinking of all the trouble he went through so far, he hoped Vincent was good for the money when Ves finally delivered his product.
After stepping out of the design studio, he called up an automatic guide that led him to the MTA's visitor cafeteria. Just because he ate some instant rations didn't mean he appreciated them. He looked forward to grabbing a more proper bite.
As thousands of pilots, designers and technicians visited the MTA each day in Dorum, its dining facilities were top notch. Those with more discerning tastes could enter the nearby restaurant while those who were fine with cheaper food prepared by the best bots visited the cafeteria. As Ves picked a couple of his favorite meats, he took a random seat and started to dig in.
Just as he finished chewing, a firm hand clapped his back.
"Ves! What a surprise to see you here!"
Ves turned around and saw a young woman he hadn't seen since his last visit to Bentheim. "Charlotte?"
Charlotte Hoffmeister grinned as she bumped the seat next to him and hopped on it. She dropped her plate of food with a small clatter, causing bits and pieces of food to spill to the side.
"We haven't been in touch for a while. So what are you up to?"
He shrugged. "I'm in the process of customizing my first commercial variant mech for a client. I recently completed a sale a few weeks ago and now I'm here to meet the needs of my second client."
Charlotte raised her eyebrow in appreciation as she gnawed at her chicken drumstick. "Looks like your business is already up and running. That's nice. There's way too many dumbasses who think they're all that but flounder when they finally start on their own."
"I was luckier than most." Ves said reservedly, not wanting to disparage his fellow designers. After all, before the System came he was one of them. "I'm not doing great, but I'm sure I can overcome my troubles if I work hard enough."
"That's the spirit!" Charlotte pounded the table with her palm. "Look at me. Despite coming up second to a side tournament, I'm one of only three new recruits for the MTA's Enforcement Division from this year's graduating class!"
"Oh, congratulations. No wonder you look so great in your new piloting suit."
Ves was genuinely impressed at Charlotte's accomplishment. The MTA's Enforcement Division might have a reviled reputation among outsiders, but mech designers in particular appreciated them for keeping the peace and deter shady manufacturers from stealing their designs. Their prestige was a step up from the Republic's own Mech Corps as their recruitment standards were incredibly stringent.
"I'm still a trainee for now, but you can bet I'm going to places you can't even imagine. Too bad I had to give the Kirby back to the academy. I miss that big old lug, even if it took a nasty beating in the tournament."
The two shared a few words on more inconsequential subjects before Charlotte had to go back to her training. "I'll see you around, Ves. Keep up the good work. I'll be sure to spread the word."
"Thanks a lot. I appreciate any help I can get."
Having met Charlotte reminded him he hadn't gotten in touch with any of his friends in a while. Of course, everyone drifted off to pursue their own career, but he should at least get in touch with Carlos now that he had the time. Ves dug up his name from his comm and called him up to see if he was available.
"Evening, Ves. Man, I thought you dropped off the edge of the universe. Look who's back!"
"Haha, I've been occupied with my own work, but I happened to be here on Bentheim for business. Do you want to meet up?"
"Sure! I know just the place to take you if you're visiting Bentheim for the first time. It's a must-visit attraction of our planet!"
Carlos sent a standardized set of coordinates to him that he could feed into a aircar service.
"I'll be waiting for you at that place!"
Shrugging, Ves finished his food and left the cafeteria. He boarded a small hovering platform to reach the exit of the complex faster. As he looked back at the imposing base, he sighed at the power of the MTA. They possessed military might far beyond even the best mercenary corps in the Republic.
After he hailed an aircar, he fed the piloting system the coordinates and let the car take him to where Carlos waited. He looked outside the window and admired the sprawling urban forest outside. Not even the dignified Rittersberg could ever compare to the liveliness of Bentheim.
The shuttle finally descended on the outskirts of Dorum. It turned out the coordinates Carlos fed was a large open-air mech colliseum, with several smaller arenas placed around the main attraction. It somewhat resembled the stadium and convention center where the YTE was held, but this one was obviously privately owned.
The mood here was much more dynamic. The abundant visitors all wore branded clothing that featured their favorite mechs or celebrities. Even from this distance Ves could feel the savage thrum and collisions of real mechs battling it out in front of an audience. The cost of operating this enterprise must run up to the billions, but from the amount of fans that visited the matches, it evidently ran very smoothly.
His friend waited just inside the gate. After paying the admission fee, Ves met up with Carlos and hugged him loosely. "Good to see you again. How's it going at work?"
"So-so. I'm still learning the ropes. It takes time for me to move up in such a large organisation. But look at you. You're a successful mech designer now, having at least one sale under your belt. Most of the other people from our class are really jealous at you, you know."
Ves wasn't bothered by the thoughts of others. "If they think they can do better, then let them start their own businesses."
Naturally, that was nearly impossible. Both of them smiled at each other as they knew that. Carlos shook his head.
"Well, enough about that. Let's head inside. I've been saving up these promotional tickets for the amateur ring for a year. Might as well use them up now."
They talked about what they had been doing since the last time they met. Ves talked about some of the challenges he faced. When he talked about the excitement of building a mech with your own hands, Carlos looked envious.
"Man, you're much further ahead in your career than me. I'm still stuck in the same old drudgery of checking mechs for faults."
"It's been a few months. Hang in there. With your skillset, you should expect a promotion soon enough."
Ves and Carlos had reached the entrance of the smallest an shabbiest looking arena. As cleaning bots were cheap nowadays, Ves figured the organizers intentionally kept its walls weathered. The scanners at the gates allowed them entry once Carlos showed his tickets. They climbed the stairs and entered the interior of a wide arena that could host up to a hundred thousand people if a major event was going on.
As it was just a normal day, the arena was only filled up to a third of its capacity. Frankly speaking, the promotional tickets Carlos won from who-knows-where we're not all that valuable. Ves could easily afford entry now that he potentially earned millions with each mech sale. Still, he wasn't used to being wealthy, so he still appreciated Carlos' gesture.
They found a pair of seats that brought them close to the middle of the arena. Several fans were chugging their beers or eating their junk food as they yelled at the duelists in the arena. Apparently, two light mechs were on stage. As they were rather fragile, they both played very conservatively. It led to quite a few boos from the disgruntled audience.
"Man, I always hate it when these light mechs are dancing around all the time. It's like they're competing on who will run out of energy first."
"Light mechs might be cheap, but it still costs quite a bit to repair any damage." Ves noted. "Personally, if I were to bring a mech onto a stage, I'd go for a mediumweight."
It was easy to say this, but not every pilot had the means to buy a good medium mech. Most of the lower rungs were unable to cough up enough money for a decently armored mech.
As Ves keenly knew, the most expensive component of any mech was its armor plating. In today's manufacturing environment, as long as the materials weren't too exotic, any delicate or intricate machinery could be replicated with 3D printers and other advanced manufacturing machines. However, no matter how advanced mankind's production capabilities had grown, they could not make gold out of lead.
Good materials led to great end products, and nowhere was this more evident than the current state of mech armor. Tricks such as modular armor, quantum-scaffolding and other buzzwords hadn't measured up to their promises. In the end, armor developers resorted to the simplest solutions of finding the best base materials to work with. The Milky Way galaxy was immense, and many unconventional stars proved breeding grounds of highly desirable exotic materials.
Natural, due to the special circumstances in which they were formed, they were also notoriously scarce. That meant that the mining companies that exploited these valuable mining areas made a killing. Ves heard a rumor in which a top-of-the-line mech from a first-rate superstate could cost up a trillion bright credits. That was an unimaginable sum of money in the perspective of the Bright Republic, but it would only cause a citizen of a superstate to blink their eyes.
In any case, Ves and Carlos talked a bit about their own preferences while casually paying attention to the slow-going dance-off on stage.
However, Ves felt a nervous tension from his friend. Evidently, Carlos had another purpose in mind when he asked to meet up with Ves. He wasn't even interested in the matches at all. No matter how exciting the amateurs fought on stage, Carlos never batted an eye.
Ves wondered what was going on. Carlos couldn't be in trouble, right?
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