The Barracuda quietly traversed the stars. By visiting out-of-the-way star systems, the Barracuda avoided most of the bustle. This led to a quiet series of hops as the Barracuda kept engaging her FTL drive with just a few hours of downtime.
While Dietrich was steadily sampling the ship's alcohol, Ves consolidated his gains from Leemar. The pressure and the lack of time during the competition caused him to unleash his potential. In his inspired state, he made several risky design choices that gave him a new perspective on design and implementation.
"Even if the System stuffs an entire library of knowledge in my brain, I still have much to learn. I thought I thoroughly mastered journeyman mechanics once I upgraded it through the System, but now I've found out it's just the start."
Books remained useful to him even if he still relied on the System. Different sources of knowledge provided contrasting perspectives. Some shined a light on issues that others neglected. Ves could never read too many books, though in practice he still needed to work for a living.
He sighed when he thought what he might face when he returned home. While the industry insiders from the Coalition only raised an eyebrow to his status, the hicks from the Republic might start treating him like the Vesian king.
No matter what, Ves was certain he could milk his status into increasing his sales. Brand and reputation mattered the most in the mech industry. They also hung on his neck like shackles. Any designs he sold had to meet a minimum standard of excellence. Anything he released that turned out to be lacking would affect not only him but also his master.
He didn't want to wait until the Barracuda arrived at her destination. Ves raised his comm and summoned up his list of contacts.
His finger hovered over Carlos Shaw's name. Compared to the Squires of the Clifford Society who were begging to be hired, Carlos fell awfully short. After a few minutes of consideration, Ves decided he'd rather have someone he trusted over someone who's only in it for the merits.
"My first employee should be someone I can treat as a partner. I'll be far too busy coming up with new designs to bother with managing my future subordinates. With Carlos on hand, he could act as my Horatio by keeping an eye on his expanding business."
Ves had been ambivalent about expanding the scale of his business. Not to mention the cost of equipment, he simply couldn't afford to split his focus.
After his ordeal in Leemar, he gained a different perspective. Every great mech designer needed a mountain of resources in order to advance. Designing and fabricating one mech at a time took too much time and earned only a limited amount of revenue.
If Ves wanted to accelerate his timetable, then he had to let go of his need for absolute control and delegate responsibilities. Though he hadn't started to expand his workshop yet, he wanted to bring in Carlos early.
His finger pressed the name, causing his comm to connect to the galactic net and route his call across the star sector. The Barracuda's quantum entanglement node allowed him to connect successfully to the galactic net without any shenanigans happening due to the ship travelling in FTL mode.
"Ves!" His eyes brightened with hope. "It's good to see you again! I've watched your performance at home. Patricia and you have really made our little Republic famous. The two of you are heroes now!"
"That's great news, but I didn't call you to rest on my laurels."
He briefly explained his future expansion plans to Carlos. Though he warned his friend that it might take a year or two to get the ball rolling, Carlos wouldn't be sitting idle in between.
"That's a great offer!" Carlos replied with emotion. "I can finally say goodbye to my stupid quality control job."
"I'm not hiring you to be a full-time mech designer, so don't get your hopes up yet. For now, I'd like you to polish your assembly and fabrication capabilities. You'll be taking over my machines whenever I receive a routine order."
"Don't worry Ves. After working in quality control, I've learned all the ways the fabrication process could go wrong. I can guarantee you that I won't be sloppy!"
After finishing his talk with Carlos, Ves hung up and called his cousin Melinda.
"Hi Melinda, did I call at a bad time?"
"I'm still on duty, but my boss doesn't mind a short break." Melinda said as she was fiddling with her Planetary Guard uniform. "You're a big deal now back at home."
"I've heard. I called you up because I want to ask you if I'm still under investigation."
One of his mechs had been used to commit atrocities in Bentheim. Last he heard, the Republic's investigators wanted to bring in Ves for a very firm talk.
"All inquiries involving you have stopped." Melinda responded with a smile. "Your impressive achievement gave the investigators a scare. They changed their stance overnight and quietly pulled back their feelers."
The influence of a Master Mech Designer was so dreadful that people proactively bowed out of his way. He didn't even have to say anything for others to accommodate his needs.
"What does the family think?"
"Grandpa is proud of you, as ever. As for the rest, well, we know the importance of mechs, but they think you're still too young to exert any meaningful influence on behalf of the Larkinsons."
Melinda's assessment rang true. Just because he became an apprentice did not mean he wielded a lot of personal influence. Master Olson had her own dignity. She wouldn't direct her attention to the small and weak Republic and start to meddle in their affairs.
After exchanging some small talk, Ves ended the call so Melinda could return to her duties. He made a final call to his broker.
Marcella Bollinger's stocky face stared at Ves with an intriguing expression. "You've made quite a leap. I didn't think you were capable of stealing the show at Leemar."
As a dealer of mechs, Marcella knew far more about mechs than the typical mech pilot. The Ves who designed the Marc Antony could never match up to the geniuses from Leemar. The sudden leap in strength was perplexing.
"I've recently come across a chance. I considerably improved my skills." Ves stated simply, deciding to leave Marcella guessing. "How is the demand for my designs?"
She adopted a greedy grin. "They've been barging at my door for days. While I suspect that much of the enthusiasm will die down over the week, you won't be lacking customers anymore. Your name recognition alone has broken through the roof."
Marcella sent Ves a marketing report that detailed his increased brand value. Even if he only fabricated two physical mechs, the value of his brand far surpassed the small-time mech manufacturers from Bentheim.
In fact, his value came close to matching the brand of a medium-sized mech manufacturer.
"The problem is that while your brand is bigger, your scale is still too small. What are your plans?"
"First, I intend to halt my sales. My Marc Antony variant is too outdated so I intend to update its design. You can expect a substantial improvements in its specs once I'm done."
"That's good. The Marc Antony's main selling point is that it's cheap. For an advanced mech, its performance falls woefully short. If you can close the gap to the most dominant models in the market, then I'm sure you'll attract a steady stream of orders."
Ves nodded in agreement. They both knew that the Marc Antony could never match the currentgen designs that maintained a stranglehold on the market. By increasing his variant's performance, they both hoped that his meteoric rise in fame was sufficient to divert a portion of the customer base.
"I've also revised my pricing and labelling scheme." Ves added as he sent over a single-page document outlining three distinct labels. "Since I'm planning to expand my workshop, I'll be handing off the fabrication to my employees. The mechs they make won't be as solid as my own, but I will make sure they will meet the specifications set by the design."
"This is your silver label, I see. A good choice of name. Silver is traditionally associated with valuable but affordable products. It fits well with your mass-market products. Your clients won't hold unrealistic expectations for your cheapest products."
"The next step up is the gold label. These are the mechs I've fabricated personally. As you know, I don't want to do this too often. Since my brand value has increased, I think a premium of fifty percent compared to the silver label is viable. Do you agree?"
Marcella hummed in thought. "This is a difficult question. I can do some market research for you, but it's better to implement it directly and see how many clients are willing to pay. I can see the appeal, but the price is very close to the maximum acceptable ceiling."
If Ves proved mistaken, they could always adjust the price. Marcella determined the final sale price in any case, so she only treated his suggestions as guidelines.
Her expression turned into a frown when she addressed the third label. "While the market will easily accept previous two labels, this ruby label of yours breaks the mold. Not only will you charge seventy-five percent above the base price, you also set the minimum order amount to four mechs. I don't know if you're aware, but we regularly offer discounts when clients order multiple mechs."
"I know that you're bewildered, but my ruby label is absolutely worth the price. It's an exclusive service meant to meet the needs of squads and close-knit mercenary corps. Just like what I've done for Vincent Ricklin, much of my time is spent on getting to know my clients and customizing my design to fit their profile. It's not worth it to go through all of that effort only to fabricate a single mech. By setting a minimum amount, I can make the most effective use of my time."
Left unspoken was that Ves wanted to develop his X-Factor. In the final round of the Leemar Open Competition, he became struck by how a handful of identical mechs strengthened each other's auras. He wanted to explore this phenomenon and turn it into a commercially viable benefit. If his speculations were true, his ruby label might turn into his biggest treasure.
"I'll put the word out, but don't expect any takers." Marcella replied with a hint of hesitation. "For now, you have to strike while the iron is hot. The market has a short-term memory. Before you fade away completely, you should find some way to solidify your reputation."
"I already plan to revise the Marc Antony. Once I've sold enough gold and silver labelled mechs, I intend to purchase an alloy compressor."
"Those things cost quite a bit of credits. You can get a second-hand one for about three-hundred million credits, but I don't recommend you take this route. Alloy compressors often deal with extreme pressures. They wear out faster than any other machine in a mech workshop."
"This is true, but the profit margin of the Marc Antony is too limited. There are two ways I can increase my earnings. First, I can expand my production scale. The problem with that is that it costs even more to do so. I'd rather take the second option and make a smaller upgrade to my workshop so that I can produce a higher quality mech."
"You want to design and sell a Caesar Augustus variant, right?"
"That's the only choice I have." Ves nodded his head. "I've advanced a lot, so I'm confident that I can tackle this design. I've already prepared the groundwork and have a new design ready in a couple of months."
The profit margin of Marc Antony paled in comparison to the Caesar Augustus. The faster Ves started to incorporate alloy compression in his designs, the faster he'd accumulate enough credits to fund the development of a completely original design.
Marcella looked intrigued. She thought over his words before formulating a response. "You should build a track record first. Once you've proven that you can earn a steady income, you should apply for another loan in order to purchase a brand new alloy compressor."
"What?!" Ves rose up from his seat. "I still have to pay off my existing debt!"
"Your debt ceased to be a burden a long time ago. Tell me, how much effort do you have to make in order to pay off your annual interest payment?"
"I can cover the payment with a couple of sales."
"This means your business is underleveraged. Debt is not a scary monster, Ves. It is a tool that you can use to fund the rapid expansion you have always dreamed about. You don't have to be patient and slowly save up the required amount of credits. You can take a shortcut by maximizing your leverage."
"I own all the shares of my business. If I screw up, all the consequences are born solely by me."
"What's a bankruptcy or two among entrepreneurs? You're still young. And are you so insecure that you lack the confidence to take the next step? I thought you are a genius."
Marcella also had a point. Ves gained a lot of confidence recently. He had high hopes for his future earning potential. If he could successfully sway the bank in giving him a couple of hundred million credits, then he'd be able to accelerate his timetable by at least a year.
"I'll do it. I'll make an appointment with the bank once I return." Ves said with conviction. Even if the bank remained skeptical, Ves was not above using his status to apply some pressure.
As Ves closed the call with Marcella, he thought about what else he should be acquiring. The Caesar Augustus utilized an amazing armor system, one that required more than an alloy compressor in order to fabricate.
"I'll have to procure a chemical treatment machine as well. The armor plates have to be processed by a patented chemical formula first before they undergo compression. Without access to the CTM, I won't be able to insure the chemicals will penetrate the alloys."
Armor compressors could still be bought from the open market. As for the CTM, they were usually in the hands of the big boys. Getting ahold of one required good connections. Fortunately for Ves, the Clifford Society provided him with a channel. He found several stores in the Society's market that sold affordable CTMs.
"I just have to save up fifty merits."
Even as a Knight, Ves had to work for his merits. The most lucrative missions either tied him down for years or sent him straight into a battlefield. He had no stomach for either, so he waited patiently for other opportunities.
Ves learned that the Society's Mission Hall sometimes issued time-sensitive missions. Those who took the missions often had to handle difficult situations. The rewards were ample and the risks were manageable.
"Hopefully I can grab a suitable mission in the coming months."