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His condition became so fierce that the medic hauled him to the tiny clinic set near the walls surrounding the workshop. By the time Ves recovered, he found out that everyone thought he collapsed from overwork.
“You worked for three days straight! Even with your abnormal body characteristics, humans are never meant to stay up for such a ma.s.sive stretch at a time!”
“I’m okay doc. I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep.” Ves waved away their concerns and hopped off the cot as spry as an energetic child. “Let me see the prototype before I sign off.”
He left the clinic and walked across the open courtyard to the workshop area. Once inside, he waltzed towards the other end of the hall where a crowd of bewitched employees gazed admiringly at the very first version of the Blackbeak.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s not yet even complete.”
The blackbeak’s dark coating gave the mech the illusion of an obsidian statue. The detailed carvings concentrated on its beak, its shoulder pauldrons and its symbol-laden armaments lent the prototype an air of gravitas.
“Well, you certainly did it.” Chief Cyril slapped his back when Ves approached. “The Mark II is like a toy compared to this beast.”
On the other hand, Jake looked a bit concerned. “I’m not so sure it will find its place in the market. It looks almost evil compared to your previous works, Ves. I don’t know where you got your inspiration, but as it stands now, your design looks more fit for pirates than for mercs.”
Ves belatedly realized that this might become a problem. “It will look better once the festive cloud generators underneath the shoulder pauldrons turn online. I’ve programmed them to emit some bright white vapor aided by some conveniently placed lights to add some life to my mech.”
A knight was supposed to be a protector, a team player. Unlike the Havalax, the Blackbeak boldly bucked that stereotype by taking on an aggressive but subversive appearance. It won by staying alive, and it did so through a mix of grit and dirty tricks.
He decided to stick with its current appearance due to that reason. Dumont’s Havalax could keep the white knights while the Blackbeak appealed more to the shadier crowd.
“Let’s prepare for departure.”
On matters as important as the s.h.i.+pment of a prototype, Ves didn’t want to take a risks. He booked a berth at the next convoy s.h.i.+pment to Bentheim for the prototype and the mechs of his cousins. He also called ahead to Sanyal-Ablin to make the appropriate arrangements for his security detail on Bentheim.
A lot of prep work went into their upcoming visit. With the growth of the company, the LMC had to comply with a lot more regulations as well as take a lot of industry-specific standards into account.
The introduction of an entirely new design demanded even more compliance compared to variants. An incompetent designer could take an unknown mix of components and mix them together into a powder keg that could blow at any time
The MTA took no risks with regards to potential hazards to public safety. It was up to the mech designer to prove his new design was safe to use.
On the day of the transfer, a couple of executives from the LMC accompanied Ves and his entourage aboard the Barracuda. This time, the corvette joined the slow and lumbering convoy for safety purposes and to ensure their s.h.i.+pment of mechs remained safe.
As a luxury yacht, the Barracuda easily accommodated the extra pa.s.sengers, though the executives had to bunk up in their cramped rooms. It elicited a lot of grumbling from the likes of Jake, Primrose and the people who originally came from Bentheim.
“Sorry guys. It’s a small s.h.i.+p so you’ll just have to make do.” Ves apologised before turning to Captain Silvestra. “How’s the Barracuda holding up these last few months?”
“The regular exercise has been great, sir!” The captain reported with a smile. “It’s good to stretch our legs by conveying your people back and forth. The frequent travel allows us to become intimately familiar with the gravitic geography between Cloudy Curtain and Bentheim. As long as we can keep this up for half a year, we’ll be able to develop a fairly complete chart that will allow us to develop fast and circuitous FTL routes.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’ll stand a higher chance of avoiding blockades and ambushes if the Bentheim System is taken over by the Vesians.”
“The Vesians have never pushed as far as Bentheim before. The Republic always fights tooth and nail the closer they get. We can’t afford to lose our only port system.”
“Be that as it may, sir, it’s best to be prepared should the worst come to pa.s.s.”
The prospect of a disastrous occupation of Bentheim weighed down in his mind. Even though the Vesians always failed to take the prosperous system in the end, it only took a couple of random mishaps for them to succeed.
Besides preparing for the release of a new design, the LMC also had to prepare for the inevitable war. That meant talking with the government, the suppliers, the security companies, the insurance companies and more.
“Do we have to bring so many people?” Ves quietly asked Jake.
As his COO, the Larkinson retainer had been very bold in expanding the company’s payroll. “We’re making a lot of appointments because our company hasn’t made any existing arrangements against various contingencies. It’s fine if you want to leave it for later, but once the war finally sets off, it’s going to be a lot harder to get a hold of important people.”
The LMC already entered into half-a-dozen agreements so far that granted them access to military convoys and strategic resource stockpiles.
Ves had to admit it sounded like a good idea to be prepared. He hadn’t even heard of half the programs in the list that Jake pa.s.sed to him. “I see there are limits to how much insurance is willing to cover us.”
“The entire Bentheim region is beset by difficulties in obtaining insurance now that the war is on the horizon. In the eyes of the insurance companies, Cloudy Curtain is even less secure than Bentheim, as our only real defense force consists of a single gang. The Vesians don’t have to allocate too many mechs to destroy all our infrastructure.”
Implicitly, Jake questioned the need to base their production facilities on a poorly defended rural planet. Ves ignored those unspoken thoughts.
“Is it unusual for the insurance companies to close up like that for our region before a war breaks out?”
“It happened a handful of times throughout the last two centuries. It’s a rough indicator on how bad the war might progress. The insurance industry is especially spooked by all the pirates and rebels running roughshod over the Komodo Star Sector.”
That gave Ves a lot of food for thought. He spent his remaining time on his s.h.i.+p reading up on the various preparations the company had been cooking up. They even formed an agreement with Walter’s Whalers to s.h.i.+p out their most expensive production equipment off-planet if the Republic failed to contain the Vesians!
The convoy touched down upon Bentheim more than two days later. They’d been delayed by additional security checks and the requirement to adhere to the speed of the slowest transports.
A guarded planetary transport waited them at the s.p.a.ceport. Loaders carefully transferred the prototype in the cargo bay while Melkor and Raella entered their mechs. Ves didn’t expect any trouble, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared. He also carried Lucky on his shoulders as an increasingly familiar custom.
Jake and a handful of mech technicians and aides accompanied Ves in an armored shuttle. His COO presented him with a secure data pad of the revised agreement between the LMC and Marcella’s brokerage.
The entire contract looked awfully dense and Ves was not in the mood to decipher them. “I don’t have time to read through these terms. Give me a summary.”
“We’ve pretty much come to an agreement on this set of terms. Mrs. Bollinger is willing to accept a reduced commission of ten percent of gross profits for any product released after signing this agreement. In exchange, we’ll a.s.sume responsibility for most forms of ma.s.s marketing as well as after-sales support. The latter change is a very impactful one.”
“Mechs often get damaged, so they often need to be repaired as well. In extreme cases, the total cost of repairs have even exceeded the cost to buy a new mech, so you can imagine the potential earnings of this industry. Sometimes an outfit wants to modify a mech or add more armaments, and that takes a substantial amount of money as well.”
“I see now. From the tone of your voice, you don’t sound that optimistic. Marcella wouldn’t have given us this concession without reason.”
“Unless we grow large enough to form our own repair company, it’s best to form a contract with an existing repair business on Bentheim. That means we have to form a branch office and hire some liaisons who can keep an eye on them. You don’t want the repair companies to work without supervision. They’ll rip you off in a thousand different ways if they think they can get away with it. Even a solid contract won’t help that much.”
“So they’re as shady as salvage outfits.”
“If you think about it, they’re two sides of the same coin.”
It turned out that the repair industry was plagued with a lot of fraud and pitfalls. A poorly managed repair scheme could easily pile the Bentheim division with a mountain of debt. Frankly, Ves admired Marcella for conducting after-sales support in his stead up to this point.
The entire agreement also hinged on Marcella’s approval of his new design. Ves had managed to keep it under wraps so far. He wanted to achieve the maximum possible impact for her first impression, so he didn’t even send along any doc.u.ments.
The armed procession of transports, shuttles and mechs traversed away from Dorum and neared the mech hub of Ansel, which previously hosted the Vintage Festival. This time, they skipped the exhibition center and instead arrived at the doorsteps of the Ansel Precision Mech Testing Grounds, or APMTG.
“Mr. Larkinson! Welcome to the APMTG!” A sharply-dressed young man shouted over the all the thruster noise. The representative of the testing grounds greeted their arrival with a handshake and a smile. “Follow me to the labs! Our testing personnel has already prepared for the arrival of your new design!”
Ves looked upwards at the transport that carried his mech. “What about my prototype?”
“We’re prepping our secure hangar for spying equipment before we allow your prototype to be transferred in our hands. At the APMTG, we take confidentiality as our highest priority! Our state of the art security systems is able to deter almost any spying methods known to the Komodo Star Sector!”
“APMTG is a mouthful.”
“Just call us the testing grounds!”
Once they stepped inside, they entered a control room that overlooked an empty hall. A duty manager greeted them and showed Ves around. “This is our first testing chamber, where we will be measuring the basic parameters of your mech in order to get a baseline. This is not to say we believe your product is defective!”
Ves nodded. “I understand. Before you push my mech to the limit, you need to determine if the mech isn’t already wrong from the start. It also helps calibrate your subsequent tests.”
“Ah, thank you for your understanding. Do you have a background in testing mechs?”
“I know a thing or two about salvaging them, which does some of the same stuff you do.”
That could be construed as an insult, as the salvage industry was well known for cutting corners. Fortunately, the duty manager didn’t take any offense.
“Well, our testing process adheres to industry standards and is much more exacting than what can be achieved in the frontier.”
They better be, because Ves paid over ten million credits for this service. He could get away with less if he took his prototype to the MTA, but it turned out that they had a waiting list over two months long.
At least the testing grounds performed a greater variety of tests, so Ves expected to get his money’s worth.
“I can’t wait to see how my prototype will perform.”
As they waited for the prototype to be brought from the hangar to the testing chamber, Marcella arrived with a faux-angry face.
“The nerve of you!” She slapped his back with her artificial limb, only to be surprised by his ability to remain unfazed. “Well, I forgot you went through that ordeal in the frontier. You’ve grown some b.a.l.l.s recently.”
“Hey, we can always stick to the current contract.”
“And risk letting you get away? No way! You’re the goose who lays the golden eggs!” Marcella firmly shook her head. “Ves, even if your early work resembles dog t.u.r.ds, you’ve been getting better and better with each new model. Your progress is especially p.r.o.nounced when you track the quality of your virtual models.”
Since they basically fixed all of the terms of their revised contract, Marcella didn’t feel any need to hold back her opinion. Ves got the sense that Marcella deliberately sang praises to make a better impression. It glossed over the fact that a mech broker like her more often posed as a ruthless shark.
They made small-talk while the testing grounds conveyed the prototype. Fifteen minutes later, the early version of the Blackbeak stood at the center of the testing chamber.
Everyone dropped their conversation and stared at its alluringly sinister frame in shock. His hand-crafted models always had that effect on those who saw his products for the first time, but even Marcella dropped her metaphorical jaw.
Eventually, she laughed. “When I heard you finally started working on your first original design, I didn’t expect a monster! This is one of the most impressive designs I’ve ever seen, appearance wise alone! I’m tempted to sign the new contract right now!”
The testing grounds proceeded with their first tests once a test pilot boarded the Blackbeak’s c.o.c.kpit.
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