First, he called up Marcella. If the broker already had a deal lined up, then Ves was in big trouble.
"It's not a responsible move to spring this road trip on me all of a sudden." Marcella icely said. "Besides, do you think you even stand a chance? The Leemar competition is one of the fiercest stages in the entire star sector."
Ves shrugged. He had zero confidence in winning anything before he upgraded his mechanics, but now was different. "I have my own advantages. I think I can hold my own."
Despite Marcella's constant harranging, Ves remained steadfast in his determination to go to Leemar. Eventually the broker threw up her arms.
"Fine, be that way. Don't make me see you again only to tell you I told you so. I'll slow down and stretch out the negotiations for the current deal in progress. Maybe this trip might not be an entirely bad thing. If you stand out and perform well at Leemar, your business will pick up remarkably."
Unspoken was the fact that Marcella really held little confidence in Ves. Though he impressed him enough to do business with him, that was accounting his potential. Too little time had passed for him to really grow into his own. On paper, he stood zero chance of even reaching the top 1000 in Leemar.
Marcella took the time to explain the nuances of visiting the Friday Coalition. Unlike the Bright Republic, the Coalition is a lot more vigilant and scrutinized outsiders more strictly. The citizens also treated immigrants from third-rate states rather poorly, at least until they have proved themselves. All in all, Ves should keep to himself and do nothing to attract the ire of his hosts.
"Even if the Friday Coalition is one of the weakest second-rate states in the galaxy, it has still reached a height the Bright Republic can never achieve. They consider themselves the true rulers of the Komodo Star Sector and are not shy in demonstrating their might."
Ves eventually hung up after receiving an earful of caution from Marcella. He frowned a little. Did he underestimate the Coalition? It started as a refuge for persecuted people and still widely advertised their generous immigration policies for talented professionals. They blatantly poached the best and brightest of the surrounding third-rate states for centuries, keeping smaller states like the Bright Republic a remote backwater.
"There's more to the Coalition than meets the eye." He concluded. The only things he knew about the Coalition came from history books and the occasional drama broadcast. Now that he thought about it, the Republic probably didn't dare publish any material that was critical of the Coalition.
"I've got to ensure my safety somehow. Travelling alone to Leemar as a single mech designer is too dangerous. Though I'm not anything hot, someone might still try to find trouble with me if I'm all alone and defenseless."
It wasn't unheard of for vulnerable mech designers to get poached through one way or another. Simple physical intimidation was enough to make most of them sign a restrictive contract. After all, they spent their entire lives designing war machines instead of improving their personal combat skills.
"I should bring a bodyguard."
As Ves expected his trip to take up to two months, the price of hiring a bodyguard shouldn't be too exorbitant. "Luckily I completed the sale of my second mech. I'm not short on credits."
The only question was who to hire. Should he go to Bentheim and contract a mercenary? "Well, maybe I don't need to travel that far. If I recall, SASS should be a security company that originates from a second-rate state. Perhaps they extend the reach of their services to the Friday Coalition as well. It's worth a try."
He activated his comm and contacted the representative of Sanyal-Ablin. Miss Robyn's pretty face emerged from the projector with a smile.
"Ah, Mister Larkinson, a pleasure to see you again. How can I help you?"
"I'm planning a short trip to Leemar in order to take part in the mech design competition there. I'd like to ask if you can provide a bodyguard to accompany me there?"
Robyn maintained her smile though some tension appeared in her eyes. "We do offer short-term contracts for guards, but if you wish to extend this service to the Coalition, then it will cost you quite a bit. Your guard has to meet very high standards in order to cope with the caliber of opponents he or she may face."
"Give me a number."
She paused a little while she consulted some numbers. "Around nine-and-a-half million credits for a two-month contract."
He almost spurted blood at that exorbitant price. That was half a mech's worth of money!
"Do you have any more affordable options?"
"None that our company allows. This is already one of the cheapest quotes from our Coalition branch. I don't know if you are aware, but the bright credit is a very weak currency compared to the coalition credit. The exchange rates are unfavorable because it just costs more to do business in the Coalition."
Miss Robyn had a point. Ves knew that SASS wasn't out to screw him. The Coalition had access to abundant exotic resources. They used their massive population base to exploit these riches and build up their military and economy.
Merely the disparity in mech armies sent home how the Coalition trumped almost every other state. While the Bright Republic mainly used the cheapest currentgen mechs as their frontline models, the Coalition featured the very best currentgen mechs as their basic units.
It was rumoured that many elite commanders had already transitioned to nextgen models. Even the best mercenaries had access to mechs that could easily trounce the best of the Republic's Mech Corps.
"Let me consider my options for a moment. I'll contact you later in order to tell you what I've decided."
"Very well, but I should warn you that you won't get a better price anywhere else. Even if someone were to offer you a bargain, you will find that whoever gets sent will not be able to keep up in Coalition territory."
As the two closed the call, Ves thought back about her words. She sounded very certain that Ves would not be able to contract a capable guard.
He considered calling Melinda or someone else in the Larkinson family, but halted in his steps. Most of the capable Larkinson pilots served in the Mech Corps. It wasn't possible to ask them to leave their stations and accompany him on his trip.
A casual search on the galactic net revealed prices that Ves found hard to stomach. Robyn's words echoed in his head as he found that many security escorts came with a correspondingly high price tag. Expressed in coalition credits, it didn't sound too bad, but when converted to bright credits it was enough to drain all of his savings.
One of the biggest reasons why the price was so high was because short-term contracts came with a lot of upfront costs. It was more economical to contract a bodyguard over a longer period of time, though Ves would never do such a thing. He simply didn't have the money.
"It all comes down to money. Without enough credits, I can't gain any meaningful power."
He hadn't even travelled to the Friday Coalition and already he had a first-hand taste of its superiority. If Ves translated the relative strengths of its economic might to military strength, then the result painted a bleak picture.
Ves faced perhaps the most significant choice concerning this trip. Personally, he thought the risk of encountering a pirate raid or some other unpleasantry was not that big. Spending an excessive amount of credits allocated for future purchases might turn out to be a wasted effort.
"It's not like I'm going off the beaten path. Leemar is one of the core planets of the Coalition and the space routes are well-patrolled."
What Ves simply couldn't stomach was spending ten million credits for a bodyguard that only accompanied him for a whopping two months. Perhaps someone born with a silver spoon like Vincent might accept the price without batting an eyelid, but Ves was brought up in a frugal environment. Despite his father's generous salary, Rycol never spent any of it. In fact, Ves still had no clue where his father stashed his savings.
In the end, while he didn't doubt the integrity of SASS, he simply wasn't willing to throw away his hard-earned money.
He considered his alternatives. Pretty much all of the reputable security companies offered the same baseline prices. Some of the shadier firms offered cheaper rates, but Ves read enough horror stories on the net to realize that they posed the greatest threat to him if he enlisted their services.
Several scams existed where a person and his guards that happened to encounter a gang of pirates that overpowered them. While the two sides acted like they were enemies, they were actually in cahoots with each other. Though this sort of thing didn't happen often, it was enough of a possibility for Ves to rule out this option.
He wanted a guard that was cheap, loyal and strong enough to deter the most casual riffraff from starting any trouble. "With my budget and circumstances, I'll be lucky if I get two out of three. Now where can I find such a chump?"
His list of contacts was woefully small. Out of the names in his list, one group had potential, if barely. Walter's Whalers might be a small-time gang that ruled over a single rural planet, but they were not antagonistic to his mech business. They shared a common interest in helping Cloudy Curtain develop its economy.
Despite his better instincts telling him that it was a terrible idea, Ves decisively chose to contact Dietrich, the so-called Little Boss.
"Hey hey! Look who's back! What's up, my man Ves?" Dietrich greeted him over the comm even as he was doing something that required him to discard all of his clothes.
The smile on Ves' face grew cramped. "I'd like to inquire you about some business, but if you're indisposed, I can call you back later."
"Oh no, I'm not too busy. I'm the master of multitasking, baby!" The Little Boss boasted, and several enthusiastic voices cheered in the background. "Just spit it out. My ears are always open to you."
Ves already regretted contacting Dietrich. Perhaps he should reconsider Sanyal-Ablin's offer? But when the price tag came into view, his eyes hardened. He didn't want to waste his precious savings.
My story will be seeing some changes at the end of the month. I'm transitioning to a model more conductive to Patreon. That means my chapters will be a little bit shorter, but it will help me publish them more frequently.
You won't notice a lot of changes for the time being. I'll be working to stockpile my chapters in order to offer my Patreon subscribers early access.