Ves did not want Leland anywhere near him right now!
"As far as I know, Flashlight is a military intelligence agency. We've never gone to war to the Protectorate before and the chances of them turning against us is low. If any spy agency wants to butt their heads into my business, shouldn't I be welcoming someone from Searchlight instead?"
Leland snorted disdainfully at the mention of the Bright Republic's foreign intelligence agency. "While Searchlight is more competent than Spotlight, they don't hold a candle to us. As for the matter of jurisdiction, don't forget that our front company Sibilant Asset Management owns twenty-one percent of the LMC. Any business you do automatically makes it our business as well."
It seemed like Ves couldn't prevent Flashlight from meddling in his business, not that he realistically expected to succeed in the first place. If Flashlight wanted something done, they just did it without any regard for existing laws and customs!
"You should be happy, Ves. Flashlight has taken notice of your recent achievements. Remember our earlier visit? Well, our analysts had to revise our estimates of you and your company's potential yet again! It's becoming more and more clear to us that you are one of the most promising Brighter Journeyman to have arisen in recent times!"
"Isn't that a bit overblown? There should be at least a couple of other Journeyman who advanced just as fast or even faster than me. I hardly broke any records."
"They're different." Leland dismissively waved his hand. "Prodigal mech designers born in the Republic like Edwin McKinney are spending so much time in the Friday Coalition that they are basically only Brighters in name at this point."
Even though foreign mech designers faced numerous uphill battles if they decided to put down their roots in the Friday Coalition, a lot of them still pulled the trigger. The mech market there was far more prosperous and the scale was enormous!
Ves also became tempted to move to the Friday Coalition a few times.
"I'm glad that Flashlight considers me to be a loyal Brighter. Shouldn't you guys just trust me then?"
"That's not how the game is played, Ves. Your entourage sorely needs someone like me to keep your head above the water while you're diving head-first into a foreign lake. In fact, I won't be leaving at the end of this special business. I'll be staying at the LMC in a more permanent capacity from now on!"
No matter how much he argued, Ves could not prevent the annoying stain that was Leland from forcing his way into his company. Flashlight had already made up its mind to place one of their agents directly by his side!
The Flashlight agent already arrived with all the paperwork that supported his cover identity as an unimportant secretarial worker for the LMC.
The thought of Leland becoming one of his company's employees did not sit well with Ves at all.
When Gavin arrived in the office soon after, he was flummoxed by the new addition as well.
"Who is this?"
"This is Leland Toll. He's been sent by Sibilant Asset Management to join my staff and advise me on matters pertaining to government affairs. I expect the two of you to get along closely."
It looked as if Gavin picked up the discomfort in Ves' tone, because he immediately gazed at Leland with a wary eye.
As for the devil incarnate himself, Leland offered casual smile and handshake to his new colleague. "Pleased to meet you, Gavin Neumann. Ves regards you very highly. I hope you keep up the good work."
"Thanks." Gavin hesitantly replied while shaking the newcomer's hand. "So you're basically here as a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?"
"You can look at it that way. The government can't let Ves go to the Ylvaine Protectorate without supervision, after all. Who knows what diplomatic incidents can arise if he makes a misstep. It is very risky for Brighters to visit the Protectorate because most of their citizens are rather xenophobic towards non-believers."
While Gavin still looked uncertain, he largely bought Leland's story.
Only Ves knew Leland and Sibilant Asset Management's true allegiance to Flashlight. To everyone else, Sibilant Asset Management was merely one of several holding companies managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Leland's abrupt involvement in the business trip made it clear that Ves had entered into contentious territory this time. By now, it was impossible for Ves and the LMC to disassociate business from politics!
While Gavin took Leland away in order to help the latter integrate into the LMC, Ves remained in his office while stroking Lucky's back.
For some reason, he couldn't help but suspect that Leland wouldn't be staying obediently by his side during his stay in the Kesseling System.
"What does the Bright Republic want with the Ylvaine Protectorate?"
The two states may not be the best of friends, but they never entered into any major spats. Both of them had their own rivals to contend with to bother too much against each other.
Ves found it amusing that a highly religious state like the Ylvaine Protectorate tolerated a secular state like the Bright Republic but could not get along with the Star Faith Collective, which was another religious state!
If there was one thing a religion couldn't tolerate, it was another religion that advocated for completely different beliefs!
Lately, it seemed the Ylvaine Protectorate became more and more embroiled in conflict against the Star Faith Collective.
Many outside observers in the Komodo Star Sector even equated their relationship as another version of the irreconcilable hatred between the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom!
While Ves didn't think the conflict between the two religious state was equivalent to the Bright-Vesia Wars, it did mean that the Protectorate was in desperate need to shore up its military and industry!
"The Protectorate will rather go in bed with the Bright Republic than the Star Faith Collective!"
Ves wasn't really interested in the Ylvainan Faith. He didn't have a bone in their religious conflict with the Star Faith either. He only wanted to expand the LMC's market presence in the Protectorate in order to sell more mechs and make a lot of money!
By the time the local afternoon rolled in, everything at home had been arranged.
While Melkor and the Avatars of Myth already boarded the Greenfeather in orbit ahead of time, Ves and his entourage stepped inside the Barracuda.
With Ketis, Lucky, Gavin and Leland on the corvette, Ves did not have to worry about running out of company.
Therefore, his announcement of locking himself in his stateroom for a few days or weeks came as a surprise to the rest.
"What are you up to?" Ketis asked with narrowed eyes.
"Nothing much." Ves tried to brush the matter off. "I just want to be left alone so I can immerse myself in my own studies. You know how I work, Ketis. I am always at my best when I'm completely alone and undisturbed."
"What if there's an emergency?"
"I doubt matters will arise that require my intervention. If I'm not available, you can defer to Captain Silvestra or Melkor for instructions."
"What if there's an issue that requires your direct attention?"
Ves already took this possibility into account. It would be highly inconvenient if the Barracuda and the Greenfeather bumped into trouble while his mind was still stuck in the past!
"You can go ahead and knock on the hatch to my stateroom. Lucky will decide whether it's worth bringing to my attention."
In truth, Lucky's job was to prevent anyone from entering his stateroom and uncover his seemingly comatose body!
To that end, Ves turned his attention specifically to Leland. "Without permission from Lucky or myself, no one enters my stateroom. I can't guarantee your safety if you decide to barge in against your better judgement. Is that clear?"
Leland slowly nodded. The Flashlight agent must be wondering what security measures Ves set up to keep out intruders. Perhaps some of the gadgets he brought along could help him circumvent those safeguards.
He could try. Lucky would be ready to meet any intrusion with violence.
Everyone brought their gear for this trip. Ves and Ketis did not forget to bring along their custom suits of armor and fancy weapons.
As for Leland, who knew what gadgets he brought along in his boring-looking floating coffers. Perhaps only Gavin stuck to bringing in plain civilian luggage.
As the Barracuda slowly lifted off into orbit, the corvette quickly flew alongside the Greenfeather and formed a small group.
The pair of ships deftly traveled to the nearest Lagrange point and simultaneously transitioned into FTL.
The LMC's business delegation had at least two weeks of travel ahead of them. While the Barracuda could have reached her destination faster, the Greenfeather was not as swift.
"Two weeks should be more than enough time for me to finish my private excursion." Ves muttered as he closed and locked the hatch to his stateroom.
"Yes, I know the timing isn't great and all. The crew and passengers are already looking at me with suspicion, but what can I do? A hero mech isn't easy to work with! Reading a bunch of literature won't be enough to bring me up to speed on all of the nuances of this complex mech type."
Ves set up an automated feeding system attached to his bunk while Lucky floated down from the ceiling.
There was no way for Ves to predict how long his upcoming Mastery experience would take.
If it dragged on for more than a week, then at the very least he didn't have to worry about returning to a starving body this time!
He raised a lot of eyebrows from Captain Silvestra when he ordered the Barracuda to integrate this system, but he didn't need to explain himself. He was the boss after all, and the Barracuda was his private property!
After setting everything up, Ves laid down on his bed and let the automated feeding system scan and connect to his body. Only until he triple-checked the diagnostics of the device did he move on to the next step.
He activated his Privacy Shield before engaging the System. He immediately entered the Skill Tree and sought out the Mastery he desired to acquire.
[Hero Mech Mastery I]: 80,000 DP
Ves almost puked out blood at the price. "You greedy System! Why does this Mastery cost twice as much as the others?!"
Like usual, the System didn't deign to answer his question.
In fact, Ves knew it was futile to complain. The System charged more for every Mastery related to more complex mech types.
"I hope it doesn't last longer just because it's more expensive."
With his ample reserves of DP, Ves could still stomach the doubling in price, even if it left a foul taste in his mouth.
"You're getting greedier and greedier, System!"
With no other choice, Ves confirmed his purchase.
The System's interface quickly faded away. As Ves laid down on his bunk hooked up to a feeding machine, invisible hooks quickly latched onto his consciousness and dragged it through a portal that led to the past!
As Ves' mental consciousness endured the ravages of this extremely incomprehensive mode of travel, he tried his best to retain his wits. He needed to be ready to hide his presence in the mind of his next host!
After what seemed like hours, the System finally deposited his consciousness in the mind of a stranger!
The sudden entry caused the host to jump.
"Is there something amiss, Mr. Axelar?"
"No, Benny. I think I've spent too long without a dose. Can you hit me up again?"
"As you will, sir."
A sturdy bodyguard-like figure withdrew a sophisticated syringe and pressed the soft tip against Mr. Axelar's neck. A quick injection later, a flood of chemical euphoria flooded the young highborn's mind!
Having just entered Mr. Axelar's mind, Ves' consciousness almost became swept by the rush of artificial pleasure emanating from all around!
"Goddammit!" He inwardly screamed. "Of all the candidates that the System could put me into, it chose a junkie of all people!"