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 Throughout the evening upon his return to Cloudy Curtain, Ves managed to worm out a few more details on what Carlos had been through.

After a brief bout of training, the Mech Corps immediately assigned him to the 5th Root Raiders of the 5th Havensworth Division.

Ves immediately understood what Carlos might have gone through once he'd been assigned to the Root Raiders. The mech regiments of the Havensworth Divisions usually saw the most action as they were based at or around the Havensworth border system.

The Root Raiders served a very specific role in the 5th Havensworth Division. They excelled in operating in arboreal terrain. Forests, trees and abundant alien or Earth-standard fauna posed fewer difficulties to them than other mech regiments.

They fielded a large range of light mechs and slimmed-down medium mechs. Their mechs either wormed their way through trees or chopped them down with the axes that every Root Raider mech carried in their default loadout.

In fact, the Root Raiders were famous for not issuing a single sword to their melee mechs!

The reason the Root Raiders developed such a specific mech doctrine was because they were mostly employed to contest the rural, underdeveloped border planets at the frontlines.

Although the systems they fought at weren't necessarily important in a strategic sense, the Root Raiders still played a vital role in forcing the Vesians to divert additional forces to root the raiders out.

Naturally, the Root Raiders often had to play with fire when they deployed. Time and time again, they suffered major casualties when they overplayed their hands or came across more Vesian reinforcements than expected.

Knowing this, Ves did not feel the need to ask Carlos to share more of his story anymore.

"The fifth of the fifth are my brothers." Carlos said. "To be honest, sometimes I doubted whether I should return home after surviving so much with them. The Raiders extended an offer to me, you know."

"Why did you decide to return?"

"I promised to come back to you, right? Also, I don't think I can stomach more war. At that time amidst the explosions and hasty evacuations, I became aware of what mech designers are truly capable of. We design engines of destruction! Each mech is a killing machine! Destruction is central to what they bring to the table! And where destruction ensues, death eventually follows!"

Ves was taken aback by his friend's sudden outburst. "Whoa, there Carlos. Perhaps you should calm down a bit. The Republic is long at peace now. The Vesians won't return to rain down destruction on us. The Mech Nursery is one of the safest and most heavily-guarded sites on the planet."

"I.. I'm sorry Ves. I think my mood swings have gotten the better of me. The reason why it took so long for the Mech Corps to release me from service is because I had to go through a few months of therapy."

If Carlos was this bad right now, then he must have been quite a sight in the past!

"Are you taking any medicine?" Ves asked suspiciously.

"I'm on a prescription."

"Make sure you check up with our own doctors about your medication. The LMC should have a competent staff on hand, and if not you can always check with the doctors from Sanyal-Ablin."

"I'll do that."

"So now that you've left the Mech Corps, is your return to your expectations?"

"I don't know." Carlos admitted. "I feel as if I went through hell and back, but then I hear about you earning the Darkness Eater and the Golden Mech while possibly going through something ten times worse than I've ever experienced! Not only that, but you also managed to advance to Journeyman shortly after the war!"

"How does that make you feel?"

"It makes me feel as if I can never catch up to you. It makes me feel jealous of your sudden good fortune these past few years. It makes me feel that no matter how much sweat and tears I put into my work, it will never equal a minute's worth of effort on your part!"

This.. was very honest of Carlos. Ves could see why he would feel that way. His friend obviously suffered a lot, but he likely never received anything close to Darkness Eater as a recognition of the services he rendered during the war.

"I can't do anything about the way you feel about me." Ves replied after a brief but deliberate pause. "I've enjoyed some spates of good luck, I admit. However, I don't think it's healthy for you to compare yourself to me. What will that do except to strain our friendship even further? Mech design is not a race. There are Masters and Star Designers who are a million times more capable than me, but do you see me casting jealous glances at the success they enjoy?"

"They're all older than you, Ves. They have hundreds of years to develop a head-start. My situation is different. We were classmates! We attended the Rittersberg University of Technology in the same class in the same year group! We graduated at the same time with pretty much the same level of grades! How can you move so far ahead since then? You're a Journeyman now, for heaven's sake!"

"Not officially. Technically, I'm merely a de facto Journeyman."

"Don't be pedantic with me. I'm not the Carlos you knew back then. There's something very odd about you. Between the time you graduated and since you designed your first variant, something weird must have happened that gave you a leg up in your mech design career. What is it, Ves?!"

Carlos was not the first person to cast doubt on Ves' unusual background and his abnormally rapid career progression.

Normally, Ves would have denied every accusation for fear of exposing the System. While this concern never went away, he had grown a lot more confident about himself lately.

Even if others found something suspicious about Ves, so what? With all of the pervasive influences at work in every layer of society, it could be anyone who secretly backed his ascent.

Ves figured that the best way to deflect these questions was to simply leave them open and let the person make up their own guesses.

However, on account of his friendship with Carlos, Ves believed he needed to supply some sort of answer this time.

"Carlos.. if you've seen a glimpse of the full extent of the galaxy as I have, then you'll realize that the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom are only tiny fishes in an unimaginably huge pond. I think in the coming years you'll begin to realize that only the greater powers truly matter."

"What kind of answer is that?"

"It's the truth. Whether you believe me or not is up to you. All I want to add is that if you are not comfortable working under me anymore, you are free to go. As long as you abide by the NDA's you've signed, I'll support you whether you want to return to return to the Root Raiders or work for another company?"

"Will you support me if I want to found my own mech company?"

"I'm even willing to do that if that's what you want. However, my help will come in the form of a business investment rather than a personal handout. I will expect to have a say in how your company is run and be entitled to a commensurate share of dividends."

"What if I don't want your help?"

"Even if you manage to secure alternate funding sources, I will still insist on owing a small share in the profits your company has earned." Ves bluntly replied. He firmly shook off the velvet gloves this time. "With all the assistance I've provided over the years, you owe me at least that much. I invested in you because I'm hopeful that you'll be a fine addition to my design team. If you want to walk away, then I will at least demand a small proportion of the profits or income you make in any future endeavors. This is the custom among mech designers in the mech industry."

The harsh dose of reality poured cold water on Carlos' increasingly wild ambitions. Even though he had become much more competent as a mech designer lately, what would he be without Ves?

As much as Carlos yearned for more, he needed to consider whether he had the ability to make it on his own in the first place!

Unless his buddies at the Root Raiders provided the seed money for him to found his own mech company, Carlos could only turn to his old friend and employer for funding. Yet where would that leave him? Having Ves as a major shareholder of his new company was no different than working for Ves directly at the LMC!

Either way, there was no escaping the fact that Carlos needed to continue to work for Ves if he wanted to get his mech design career off the ground!

As Carlos went through various calculations and considerations, Ves calmly observed his friend while maintaining a calm facade.

Ves did not want to coerce his newly-returned friend. He hoped that Carlos would set aside his overblown ambitions and fall in line.

The two might have been classmates once, but as a Journeyman Ves had gone much further ahead in his career!

The disparity between the two had widened so much that Ves would only be doing Carlos a disservice by coddling him. They were both adults. While their friendship and their shared past counted for a lot, as a successful mech designer Ves could not set aside basic realities when deciding how to handle this thorny situation.

Stuck between a gentle approach and a firm approach, Ves decided to assert himself and put his foot down!

Sentiment may have counted for something, but Ves would not allow it to stand in the way of business to this extent!

After a minute of internal struggle, Carlos lowered his shoulders. "I don't know what I want to do with my life, Ves. I think I need some time to myself to figure it out on my own. Can you give me some time?"

"Sure." Ves nonchalantly waved his hand. "I suggest you go on vacation. Go on a trip to Moira's Paradise or something and clear your mind. Once you figure out what you want in your life and the best way to accomplish that, you can come back to me to deliver your answer."

"Thanks.. I know I've crossed a line, but.. I'm really tired."

"I understand. Some people come back from the war with more scars than others."

As someone who grew up in the military family, Ves was very cognizant about the psychological wounds that war could leave behind in someone's psyche. Not all wounds could be healed by replacing damaged portions with cloned tissue. When it came to wounds to the mind, aside from taking dubiously effective medicine, only time and therapy worked.

"Do you have any family, Carlos?"

"You've met my parents before, Ves."

"Then I suggest you visit them for a time. If there's anything the Larkinsons have learned about healing from the war, it's that spending your time around family is the best solution!"

"That's a good suggestion. I'll do that."

After packing Carlos off, Ves watched the high doors of his office close, leaving him alone in his imposing office.

At the beginning, he felt as if he reunited with a friend.

At the end, he felt as if he ended an inconclusive negotiation with a recalcitrant employee.

The two demanded different approaches to the problems that Carlos presented to him. Ves made the decision to prioritize business over friendship in this instance.

"Although I will always consider Carlos as my friend, I won't allow him to take advantage of me." Ves muttered to himself. "If he thinks he can resign from my company in order to pursue other prospects, then he better pay back what he owes."

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