"So anyway, I didn't only invite you here to talk about old times. To be honest, I wanted to ask you something."
"Oh?" Ves raised his eyebrow. "What's that?"
Carlos stopped paying attention to the match entirely and turned to face Ves with the most serious face he had ever seen on his friend.
"You know what kind of job I have now. Even if you say I'm likely to move out of my current position, it will take many years, perhaps even decades before I go anywhere near the development process of a new design And that's only if I resign and switch companies, as the current one I work for is just a wholesaler which buys completed mechs from other manufacturers."
"You can't rush a career, Carlos. I've seen you studying for nights on end back in college. You've got a good head on your shoulder. Any employer will be bound to appreciate your talents."
"But I can't wait that long." Carlos shook his head. "A successful mech designer always starts his career when he's young, we both know that. So what if I wait until I'm in my 80s or 90s until a company sees fit to include me in their research and development department? I'll be playing second fiddle to a 30 or 40-year old who is either a genius or who had the right connections for the job. I don't want to be an expendable cog in the machine."
Ves had an idea what Carlos was going for with his little rant. He wasn't sure if he liked it. "That's the way the world works. The ones with the silver spoon in their mouths already have their foot in the door. Us regular people need to either take risks or just keep working out butts off to close the disparity between us and them. There's no shortcuts."
Carlos' eyes burned. "I admire you Ves. I already said that, but it bears repeating. You've taken that gamble. You looked at that impossibly tall mountain and successfully climbed the top. From getting the equipment together to receiving a couple of production licenses as grants, you got through every obstacle in the way of starting your wholly owned mech business. I'm not like you. I can't take climb in your footsteps. But..."
"You want to work for me. Accept a lower position under my employ and grow along with me."
The pair stayed silent for a time. Carlos nodded then, looking a little bit pained as he had to accept a status that was lower than Ves. "I can't climb the mountain myself, but if you drop down some rope, I can pull myself up."
"I've been doing fine on my own so far. What makes you think I need an extra hand?" Ves asked with a bit of reservation in his tone.
"Having worked with many mech manufacturers delivering crappy mechs, I know a bit how they work. Someone like you can't shoulder all of the jobs of running an independent mech design and fabrication studio alone. You need someone to do the grunt work of fabricating mechs at the very least."
Ves released a sigh. He had indeed been thinking of hiring a fabricator "I appreciate your honesty in telling me your ambition. But it's going to be awkward if I'm going to be your boss. I'm looking for someone in the near future to fill up the fabricator position in my workshop, but since it concerns certain trade secrets, I'm hesitant in letting anyone else work under my direction."
"Then that's an even better reason to consider taking me under your wing. You know me and I know you. We've been pals for years. I'm a hundred percent sure you don't trust anyone more than me when it comes to getting your hands dirty with mechs."
He had a point. Ves did not have too many friends in the mech circles. Hiring a stranger was a complete gamble as far as he was concerned. He could spend an excessive time screening potential employees and still get burned by them. Sure, with the current laws in place, he possessed a lot of means to make abusers pay for it, but enforcing a punishment after the deed was done did not help him out in the long run if certain secrets were exposed.
Right now, Ves relied on two advantages to grow his nascent business. His implementation of the X-Factor was a delicate secret that if exposed might change the mech industry substantially if other designers could be convinced of its existence. However, that progress would come at a cost to his own competitiveness. He wasn't so good-natured enough to expose the secrets of the X-Factor to the public.
Besides, there might be a small but highly placed circle out there who knew about the X-Factor but kept it among themselves. If Ves somehow leaked the details of their golden goose, they may decide to make an example out of him. Ves wanted to avoid attracting such high profile attention.
As for the other advantage, the System could absolutely not be exposed. He had run through all the possible scenarios hundreds of times, and none of them gave him a good end.
"I need to think about it. I'm still working on my second ever sale. It's still too early for me to consider a hire. I'll reconsider your proposal once my mech business picks up in sales."
That gave Ves an excuse to hold off Carlos. He didn't want to reject him directly, but neither did he want to bring Carlos back to Cloudy Curtain immediately.
Having no other choice, Carlos slumped and nodded his head. "Okay. I'll be waiting for your answer. It's not like my current career is going anywhere in the meantime."
After moving past this conversation, Ves tried to lift their spirits and started to comment on the happenings in the amateur ring. As the matches went by, he noticed a pattern in the pilots that chose to exhibit their combat skills in the lowest ring.
Half of the mech pilots who performed in the amateur ring were often young rich hotshots with too much money and not enough sense. As such, the younger pilots often took daring risks, as the newborn calves are not afraid of tigers.
Ves found their mechs to be interesting. They ran almost the entire spectrum of close-to-medium ranged mechs. As this arena was fairly small, snipers and artillery mechs had no place in this setting. Still, with their souped up mechs adorned with various holographic stickers of tigers or pinup girls, these mech pilots behaved as if they were stars.
However, old ginger is spicier. The other half of the pilots on stage often consisted of veterans too impaired to serve in the field. Often suffering from various wounds, these grizzled pilots were not resigned to spend the rest of their days in retirement.
While their mechs were often cheaper compared to the rich kids, their extensive proficiency and battle experience made up for their gear. As they had more to lose, they often fought very conservatively, to the point of giving up the match before they were about to suffer catastrophic damage.
The contrast between the two types of pilots often led to the most exciting matches. The ultra-aggression of the younger generation often pressured the more cautious older generation into defending against an onslaught. Both the attacker and defender relied on different skills to capitalize on any mistake their opponents made.
"That's Leviticus coming up on stage!" Carlos yelled as he rose up from his seat. "He's my favorite pilot in the amateur ring."
Ves beheld the pilot and mech that caught the eye of his friend. Even without his expertise in mechs, he could tell the old machine was on its last legs. The armor was such a crazy patchwork of plates that it was hard to tell if there were any original plates left. The stride of the mech also looked uneven, as if the left leg held a fraction less power than the right one. As for its weapons, it obviously used to hold shoulder mounts, but only crude holes remained where they sat. It wielded a crudely shaped staff that might have been a reshaped construction beam as its only weapon.
"That's a really terrible mech. Why are you rooting for this guy?"
"Man, you don't know about Leviticus?" Carlos looked at Ves as if he was an alien. "Man, you've been living off the grid for too long. Is that backwater planet so remote you can't even keep up with the arena anymore?"
"Hey, I've been busy with work. I quit following the scene a half year ago."
Carlos shrugged and explained his fascination for Leviticus. "Anyway, this guy's special. Unlike all the other active pilots, he's a borderline potentate. He's really unlucky in that regard."
That surprised Ves, causing him to look at Leviticus and his mech a second time. Now that he looked closer, the movements weren't as fluid as a regular mech. The minute stutters and jerky shifts were the typical symptoms of either a malfunctioning neural interface or a pilot that possessed bad aptitude.
"They say that lacking the aptitude to pilot a mech isn't the worst thing in the world." Carlos continued, completely forgetting for the moment that Ves used to aspire to be a pilot as well. "There's a fate worse than being a norm, and that is being a potentate that barely passes the threshold."
"I see. Leviticus shouldn't be able to pilot a mech this good if he's a borderline case."
"That's because he's putting in twice as much work into piloting than any other potentate. You can't imagine the long hours he spent trying to speed up his response. If a regular pilot operates at a hundred percent, he's overclocking himself to perform a hundred-and-fifty percent of his potential."
That genuinely sounded impressive. He looked as the scrappy medium mech bowed at its opponent, a gleaming blue light mech that just happened to be the nemesis of Leviticus. The worst thing a pilot with a slowed response speed could encounter was a light mech that specialized in speed.
Yet still, more than half of the crowd still rooted for Leviticus, Carlos included. Ves was confused at everyone's enthusiasm. It was as if the possibility of Leviticus losing did not occur in their minds at all.
"What's up with the crowd?"
"Oh, you'll see. Don't think my man Levi can be beat so easily. He'll pull off a miracle, as he did many times."
The match started. Predictably, the blue light mech started to circle around the medium mech at close to the maximum possible speed. Leviticus stayed still, not even attempting to turn to keep up with the light mech's orientation.
Eventually, the opponent reached the rear of the medium mech and darted forward with its twin daggers ready. Yet before either blades struck, Leviticus caused his mech to fall over backwards. He did it in such a way that allowed him to place one end of the staff in a direct collision course to his approaching enemy.
The light mech tried to veer away, but Leviticus timed his improvised action just close enough for him to guarantee a hit. The light mech to its credit used the utmost of its maneuverability to shift its impact zone from the middle of its chest to its right shoulder.
A lot of people in the audience groaned as the staff managed to dig out a clump of armor but nothing else. Ves knew they didn't just groan for no reason. One of the more macabre attractions of the arenas was that fatalities were not uncommon.
If it happened once or twice, then so be it. But they happened so regularly that people recognized there was more going on. In fact, the safety measures built into each competing mech were of such an inferior standard that many suspected the owners of the arena deliberately cheaped out on them. It was a far cry to the extensive and reliable safety measures used to keep the YTE free from spilling any blood.
Nevertheless, the light mech hopped backwards and well out of reach of Leviticus. It took in the damage it suffered and started to calculate its options.
However, Leviticus did not give his opponent an opportunity to come up with another answer. With obvious effort, his mech started to jog towards the opponent. The light mech instinctively leaped backwards and continued to widen the distance in order to avoid getting caught.
The chase continued for several minutes, but Ves found it strange that Leviticus even attempted to chase. A medium mech could never catch up to a light mech, after all. His opponent realized that too, and started to calm down. Its retreating pattern became more exquisite and it always made sure never to get stuck in a corner.
"What's this guy up to?"
"Haha, no idea, but he always pulls something crazy that will tip the scales in his favor."
Looking closer, Ves recognized that Leviticus conserved his energy. He always made the best turns and moved to cut off the light mech with the least amount of steps. Meanwhile, the constant hopping around boosted the energy consumption of the light mech to an unsustainable rate.
"The energy reserves are only topped off up till twenty percent in the amateur ring, right?"
"Yeah, that hasn't changed. The last thing anyone wants to see is a battle of attrition."
In a real battle the mechs should be able to sustain their rate of consumption for a while. However, with just a limited charge going in the ring, a race to see who exhausted itself first always ended fairly quickly.
Indeed, the light mech's pilot seemed to realize his predicament, and stopped his endless running. He was facing the dilemma any light mech pilot faced when facing a superior opponent. He could keep running, but waste more energy than his opponent, or he could fight but risk coming off worse as his tonnage was smaller than the enemy's.
Eventually, he decided to compromise and made small, flanking attacks. Leviticus never seemed to keep up with the light mech's turns and dives, but with his lengthy if ugly staff, he always positioned it in just a way to force the light mech to abort his attack lest he impale himself onto the butt end of the staff.
"Damn, it's the weapons that decided this match even before it started." Ves commented, appreciative of Leviticus and his skillful use of his staff. "That light mech is not fast enough to go around the staff."
The light mech eventually decided to risk it all, and dove in deeper. The staff loomed before the lighter mech but its pilot clearly went in with a sacrifice in mind. It introduced a sideways motion in its approach, attempting to let the staff fall onto its left side. However, Leviticus somehow exploded in speed for just a fraction of a second. The staff managed to correct its path just in time for the light mech to get its power reactor squarely in the way of the weapon.
An enormous crunch sounded out as the light mech stopped in its track. The knives dropped as the staff end burst from its upper waist. The entire crowd went wild as they cheered for Leviticus. Some of them even screamed for blood.
Unfortunately for the thrill seekers, this particular light mech model hosted its cockpit in the lower waist. Only its power core got run through by the staff. If it was a cockpit, then it would have been a certain fatality. The arena's weak safety measures could never have stopped it in time.
Ves was pretty sure Leviticus had blood on his hands. Any seasoned gladiator couldn't avoid such occurrences, as it was simply too dangerous for them to hold back.
Leviticus slowed down his reaction speed now that the battle was over. With excruciating slowness, he pulled his mech's staff from the corpse of the other mech and let it fall to the ground. No one seemed to care such an action could have aggravated any injuries the opposite pilot suffered.
"So what do you think about my man Levi?"
"He's impressive. He manages to make the most out of his mech with minimal movements. He's the perfect heavy mech pilot."
Carlos nodded in agreement. "He's mentioned in his interviews that he's saving up his prize money for a good one. It will take a while, though. The amateur ring doesn't give out much rewards. It takes a lot of money to keep his current mech afloat."
A comm rung out. Ves lifted his wrist and saw that Vincent Ricklin was on the line. It was time for him to go back to work.
"I gotta go. My client is calling."
"Uhm sure. It was fun. I'll be staying here for a few more hours. Go ahead without me."
"Alright, see you later."
Ves picked up the call, hoping Vincent came with good news.