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 The next day, Ves stared at a glowing blue ball. He remembered that Lucky settled into his bed here. Overnight, he somehow turned into a dangerous-looking ball of energy. After stretching out his hand, he noted that the ball did not emit any kind of heat.

"Lucky should have warned me if he was up to something dangerous. I'd better leave this ball alone for now."

He remembered that he promised Lucky a million credits worth of minerals. Despite his apprehension at spending so much money, Ves still wanted to keep his promise. He went to his terminal and opened the MTA's internal market. After ordering a bunch of shiny-looking ores, he confirmed his order. He expected Lucky's present to arrive within the week.

He walked to his backyard and stared at the large containers that arrived in the morning. Ves summoned up his workshop's cargo bots and brought its contents to a secure storage room. He handled the boxes of Dortmund parts carefully.

As Ves did not plan to reconstruct the Dortmund immediately, he left the boxes unopened. Before he started work on reconstructing the industrial-scale 3D printer, he wanted to accumulate more skills. It would be foolish to ruin the reconstructed printer due to underestimating the difficulty involved in putting it back together.

"It's all about the skills." He said ruefully. "I'm never ready to do anything if I constantly chase after upgrades."

He couldn't help it. Reconstructing the Dortmund and updating the Marc Antony variant both required him to exert his utmost. Both were critical projects that Ves could not afford to screw up.

The extra office equipment he ordered yesterday arrived as well. Ves received the extra terminal, chair, drinks dispenser and other amenities and set them up in his workspace.

He reconfigured the workroom into an office space that complied with the local codes. He installed several privacy screens into basic cubicles that ensured a worker's privacy without isolating them completely.

Ves also activated the setting that prevented sounds from spreading. He had a tendency to talk to himself, and didn't want to bother Carlos with his ramblings.

Some of the work might not be entirely necessary at the moment. Ves wanted to prepare for the future.

"Speaking of expansion, I don't think I've thought up a proper name for my business yet. It's still registered as a sole proprietorship. That's fine when I'm just starting out, but now that I'm thinking of increasing my scale, I really should get around to registering a corporation."

A sole proprietorship basically meant that Ves and his business were one and the same. Any losses the business made reflected directly on him. This might be fine for small-time street corner stores, but for a company that dealt with goods worth millions of credits, it was wholly inadequate.

A limited liability corporation was a separate legal entity in the eyes of the Bright Republic and most other states. If his business somehow screwed up and incurred a loss of a billion credits, then Ves wouldn't be liable if it the company declared bankruptcy. Naturally, things weren't so simple, and Ves still had to deal with some of the consequences.

Registering a corporation was not a simple task at all. He had to set up a charter and enumerate everyone's rights.

"Ah, I'll take care of it later." Ves waved his hand, adding it to his increasingly growing to-do list. "First, I'll have to bring in Carlos to the fold."

His friend arrived at his doorstep at noon. Ves met him outside and hailed a high-speed aircar for them both. After boarding the vehicle, they were on their way to Orinoco, the planetary capital on the other side of the planet.

On the way, Ves explained his expectations for his new fabricator. "Once you're officially employed by me, you'll have to brush up your assembly. It's of prime importance that you can assemble one of my designs without my supervision. If I have to look over your shoulder every time you bump into trouble, then what's the point of hiring you in the first place?"

"I understand." Carlos dutifully nodded. "In the time I've been waiting for you to return, I dove into my old textbooks. I've got a solid grasp on theory."

"That's insufficient for my purposes. My first and only commercial design so far is a very complex advanced mech. Its maze-like internal layout alone is prone to faults. Just one mistake could set me back millions of credits. No, you need lots of practice before you can even think of using my machines for real. I'll register and pay for an Iron Spirit mech developer account in your name."

"What? You want me to play a game?"

"Hey, don't knock on the game. The realism is sufficiently close enough that you'll be able to master almost all of the fundamental steps to fabrication in a safe, virtual environment."

"Doesn't it cost a lot of money to start fabricating a virtual mech?"

"Don't worry, I'll cover the costs. With my current savings, I can afford to splurge a little. Consider it an investment. Just don't expect a raise anytime soon."

According to the current rates, it cost about 18,000 credits to fund the fabrication of a virtual Marc Antony. As a notoriously overstuffed advanced 5-star mech, Ves considered that Carlos needed at least a month of practice before he mastered the basics.

That was with the old version of the design. When Ves introduced the second generation of the variant, Carlos most likely had to do things over again.

Carlos smiled in appreciation. "I don't have time to be greedy when you've given me these opportunities. Thank you for taking care of me. I really appreciate all you've done."

"Then repay me by helping me grow my business. I need a trustworthy man by my side."

They spent the rest of the ride discussion the ins-and-outs of fabricating the Marc Antony. Ves did not have any notes about his insights, so all he could do was to pass them using his own words.

After a couple of hours, the aircar arrived at the MTA's local branch. Ves already scheduled an appointment, so they were led into an elegant meeting room by a low-level representative. Both Ves and Carlos confirmed their identities through numerous tests before signing a bevy of digital documents.

After leaving the MTA, Ves decided to stick around the capital. As they walked through Orinoco's modest shopping streets, Carlos whistled in appreciation.

"I can actually walk around without bumping into people all the time. I've got to say that it's a nice change of scenery. The only downside is that I still haven't gotten used to the constant cloud cover. It's even more disconcerting when the clouds adopt a rainbow sheen."

"Blame the original settlers for leaving the terraforming to the lowest bidder." Ves amiably said. "When you get used to it, you'll realize our sky is an endless canvas. Folks like to gaze endlessly at the clouds, taking inspiration from its infinite varieties."

It sounded incredibly boring to Carlos, but he kept his opinion to himself. Instead, he pointed at a nearby sculpture. "What's that?"

Ves did not answer his question immediately. Instead, he led his new employee to the foot of a thin but tall statue. It had been shaped into an archaic candle that reached above the tallest office buildings in the city.

A narrow trail of smouldering black smoke ascended from the top of the candle. Somehow, the smoke did not disperse, but maintain cohesion as it climbed its way into the clouds.

Both men looked up at top of the candle where its tip ceaselessly smouldered. Compared to the many monuments they onced toured in Rittersberg, the lone stone candle hardly matched up.

"Do you remember the founding story of the Bright Republic?" Ves suddenly asked.

"Sure I do. A bunch of marginalized idealists and pacifists from the New Rubarth Empire banded together and funded a colonization expedition to the galactic rim. They chafed at the stifling, militaristic culture of the Empire and wanted to create a paradise in the most remote corner of the galaxy. In their eyes, they wished to preserve the light of civilization in an unforgiving galaxy."

Every Republican citizen knew the story, and what followed after. The ancestors of the Bright Republic eventually reached the Komodo Star Sector, only to find the juiciest star systems claimed by expeditions funded by their more warlike rivals.

The few times the Bright Republic tried to wrest control of them ended badly, as pacifists did not make for very good soldiers.

Carlos continued the story. "After losing so many ships, supplies and men, they eventually came across a habitable world. They settled down on the planet and called it Rittersberg, the last refuge of a noble venture. The Bright Republic was founded there and then, and over time the colonists expanded and claimed the surrounding stars."

"And what happened to their dreams?" Ves asked in a tone that indicated he already knew the answer.

"Over time, the Bright Republic shed its pacifists roots. They had to in order to fend off aggression from aliens and regional rivals like the Vesia Kingdom. Still, in order to commemorate their origins, they built the Eternal Lighthouse at the spot where the first colonist stepped foot on Rittersberg."

Ves gestured his arm at the giant smouldering candle. "The descendents of hardcore pacifists consider the Eternal Lighthouse to be a farce. When the Bright Republic slowly increased its militarization, the most dissatisfied pacifists scrounged up their meager savings and founded the planet that would eventually become Cloudy Curtain."

"So they built this candle as a middle finger to the Eternal Lighthouse?"

"Yup. The Smouldering Candle is supposed to remind the people of this planet that the rest of the Republic has forgotten their ideals. The light is snuffed, and only a smouldering tip remains."

"Huh. Don't you feel strange about basing your mech workshop on this planet of pacifists?"

"It's already been hundreds of years since the founding of this planet." Ves replied without a note of concern. "Time has wiped away our roots. These days, the locals drink their beer and watch the mech arena duels like any regular Republican citizen. The bureaucrats hardly raised an eyebrow when my father and I registered my business."

Nothing was eternal. Dreams only lasted until the people woke up. Life eventually must go on.

After touring the streets and showing off the local sights, the pair decided to return. They took another aircar back to the outskirts of Freslin and returned at the workshop by evening.

Carlos said his goodbyes. "It's been great hanging out with you. It brings me back to our days at Rittersberg."

"Be thankful for the break, because your work starts tomorrow. You need to master your new role as a fabricator as soon as possible. I won't allow you to be a drain on my resources forever."

"I understand. You won't regret hiring me."

After a good night's sleep, Ves woke up the next day and started working on some administrative details. He keyed Carlos into the security system and granted him limited access to the facilities. He also prepared a new mech designer account for him and granted it access to the designs under his Chasing Clouds account.

When Carlos arrived at the workshop, Ves led him to the office room and pointed at the second terminal. "That's your new workstation. I've already configured it to allow you to login to Iron Spirit and practice your skills."

"Can I make use of your design software as well? It will help me out a lot if I can flex my other mech design skills."

"It's already done." Ves replied and drew his employee's attention to a greyed-out icon in the starting menu. "I've set the terminal up to unlock the design software after working hours is over. You can stay over after you finish your shift if you want to play around with designing your own mech."

"That's very generous of you. Thank you again."

"No problem."

Once Carlos finished registering a developer account, Ves went back to his terminal and logged into his own game account. He put off work for several days now.

"I'm still missing about 700 DP. If I want to upgrade my Mathematics to Journeyman, then I'll have to publish a new virtual design."

The problem was that he couldn't afford to waste too much time. He had to get back to selling actual mechs in order to keep up with his timetable.

"Rather than designing a whole bunch of virtual mechs, I should focus on perfecting a single machine."

With the attention he gained from the entire star sector, Ves knew he was being watched. Many industry insiders kept tabs on him. He didn't want to squander all of this initial interest by releasing a sloppy design. The first impression was the most important one to make.

His last two virtual designs consisted of Octagon variants. His Mist Prowler acted as a capable ambush predator, while his Speed Demon excelled in chasing down light mechs. Both were competent designs for a Novice Mech Designer, but they fell short to his current standards.

After advancing to an Apprentice Mech Designer, Ves felt it was time to move on to 3-star designs. He already had a taste of these designs when he competed at Leemar. He only held back due to the cost.

"My spending account has nothing left. I spent way too much money." Ves took note as he checked his bank accounts. "I've already started dipping into my piggy bank. With only 22 million credits left in liquid funds, can I afford to splurge on virtual licenses?"

Ves decided to take a look at the catalog. Most of the licenses for the mechs averaged around a million credits. This was a steep price that put most amateur mech designers out of play. The lack of clutter appealed to Ves, though he also had to compete against professionals with too much time on their hands.

"Even if I'm young, I can still stand firm." He concluded after taking a look at the best-selling variants.

It helped that he did not intend to top the sales charts. Ves was content if he earned 700 DP. With this modest goal in mind, Ves considered the type of mech he wanted to design.

"The ongoing tension has caused people to feel less safe. The game is experiencing an upsurge of players. In tumultuous times, they can only rely on themselves."

Many potentates intensified their training. They left behind the simple, generalist mechs and focused instead on mastering specialized mechs. Marcella already explained this ongoing trend during his last visit to her office.

Ves already had a plan in mind. In order to prepare for his upcoming redesign project, he wanted to work on a medium knight.

The Marc Antony was actually an overburdened hybrid knight. By working on this variant so early in his design career, Ves was actually putting the cart before the horse. He could gain more insight on hybrid knights by starting with the basic form of a regular knight.

In mech terms, knights referred to mechs armed with a single-handed weapon and a shield. Usually knights were armed with swords due to their versatility and popularity, though some relied on spears or axes.

A normal knight never wielded ranged weapons. Sometimes they carried a pistol, but never anything larger. Mechs focused on melee combat optimized their limbs for power. Ranged weapons did not make use of this. Instead, they demanded precision. A knight which tried to juggle both power and precision were called hybrid knights for that reason.

Regardless of their loadout, knights formed a bulwark of defense. They generally fared poorly when operating alone, but excelled in teamfights. With a knight holding down a position, any enemy had to go through a painful ordeal in order to dislodge the defender.

They also took on other roles if needed. For example, they made use of their tough exteriors to break through enemy lines. They also escorted vulnerable artillery mechs or any other kind of sharpshooter mechs. The synergy between a knight and a ranged mech was well-known.

"I'll have to design a knight that is able to work in a team."

Previously at Leemar, Ves designed mechs that operated alone. This was different. While he could still design a knight which excelled in solo duels, it had to seamlessly integrate into a team.

He settled a couple of parameters for his upcoming design. "The knight must be able to take a beating, so it will weigh at the top end of the medium weight class. It's going to be slow, but it should still be within the limits of a medium mech. The knight should also be a sufficient threat at close range, which means it is going to need strong arms and legs."

Most knights already took these factors in account. Certain designs fulfilled the basic requirements, but also emphasized some other aspects in order to distinguish themselves. What Ves sought in particular was a design with a powerful short-ranged dash.

After an hour of browsing through the catalog, Ves finally narrowed down his choice.

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