Michael Crindon looked no different from the other computer and virtual security experts among the crowd dressed in business attire.
Of course, none of the other spies gave themselves away. He even wore the same kind of bulked-up comm module on his wrist.
While the ability to blend into a crowd or to assume another identity sounded useful, Ves sought something different.
Ideally, he wanted to get his hands on a spymaster, someone capable of setting up a network of spies and informers that worked on his behalf.
Crindon fell short of that. He was probably a reasonable spy in an individual capacity, but it would take time for him to gain experience and acquire the necessary learning for him to be able to set up a larger organization.
What Crindon did have in his favor was that he was quite competent in the fields counter-intelligence and virtual security. Working with computer systems happened to be one of his specialties, which was something that Ves always felt he lacked among his existing staff and personnel.
Hiring Crindon meant that Ves would immediately be able to put him to work in bolstering the security systems of his ship and many of his gadgets. They'd be much less vulnerable to outside intrusion.
And this was just the start. He intended to invest in all of his personnel. Michael Crindon was young and had plenty of years to earn back his value.
Spies happened to be one of the specialty products of the Kinner Tribe. Their loyalty premium was significantly greater than others!
In fact, he was three times more expensive than Fe Nitaa, which meant that Ves had to fork over the equivalent of 180 million bright credits to buy him out!
"No wonder nobody else snapped him up yet." Ves shook his head.
Anyone who wanted to hire a regular spy could easily do so with a fraction of the cost. Yet how reliable would they turn out to be? The absolute trustworthiness of Kinner tribesmen who pledged to serve their employers afforded them a value that was unsurpassed throughout the star sector!
Just like Nitaa, Crindon shared a similar background. Born as a vatter, he never knew or met his parents. Crindon grew up in a crowded camp on Bloodstone and began to excel in computer-related classes.
This allowed him to transfer to a different institution which specialized in turning Kinner kids into Kinner spies. Aside from gaining competences in the main fields related to spycraft, Crindon further excelled in examining computer systems and protecting them from tampering.
Unfortunately, many other spies excelled much better in these areas than Crindon. While a man like him was always useful, plenty of clients balked at the thought of paying the equivalent of 180 million credits to secure his services.
Even Ves was having second thoughts.
Crindon was perceptive enough to notice that. He smiled at Ves. "Mr. Larkinson, you will not regret buying me out. I am well-versed in detecting potential vulnerabilities. For example, I can see that your mechanical cat is an extremely advanced creation, likely custom-made from the galactic heartland or even the galactic center. However, most of your other gear is not as secure."
"Oh?" Ves raised his eyebrow. "What stands out to you, then?"
"Your smart clothing is a standard Coalition product." Crindon pointed out. "It offers many advanced features, such as allowing you to float in the air. However, did you know that second-class hackers can intrude in its systems with some effort and forcibly disable its antigrav modules?"
A few seconds passed in silence as the horror of this possibility dawned upon Ves!
If anyone hacked his smart clothing while he activated it to reach a floating structure, then he would definitely fall to his death if the altitude was high enough!
"Your holstered pistol appears to be a very expensive custom piece. While the software suite of a custom firearm is always better than that of standard weapons, it is not impossible for someone to pervert its programming. The weapon might misfire upon pulling the trigger, thereby robbing you of your ability to defend yourself!"
Crindon was just getting started!
"The multitool on your toolbelt appears to be extremely advanced. It is definitely not a product from this star sector. Its risk factor is low."
"From the material and appearance of your comm, it's a luxury civilian model. It's a fine product for most working professionals, but a Journeyman like you belong to a different caliber. I wouldn't be surprised if it's already compromised by half-a-dozen organizations."
"The underlayer vacsuit you're wearing underneath your smart clothing is a standard commercial product. Most people don't think about it, but a vacsuit runs on processors as well. I wouldn't trust its integrity with my life."
Ves felt like he was on the receiving end of what he usually dished out to others as Crindon factually exposed his weaknesses.
The man already started to move onto Nitaa's gear before Ves raised his hand!
"Enough! You have proved your point, Mr. Crindon! Since you are adept at recognizing these vulnerabilities, are you capable of addressing them so they will no longer pose any problems?"
The spy for hire let out a mild smile. "It depends on your budget. Some of your gear, particularly the more expensive ones, are fine as long as I replace their security suites with better ones. As for your cheaper gear.. I highly advise replacing them. Not just your own, but also that of your staff. Everyone in your orbit is a potential vulnerability."
His words rang true. Ves appreciated Crindon's honesty. The Kinner spy did not hesitate in criticizing the glaring vulnerabilities that Ves had always overlooked.
Even if Crindon's spying skills were not very exceptional, his worth as a trusted virtual security expert made it a lot easier for Ves to stomach the 180 million credit price tag!
Though Ves already decided to hire Crindon, he did not show too much enthusiasm on his face. Instead, he turned to Gavin and gestured to his assistant to negotiate a buyout contract.
The negotiations didn't last very long. While Crindon wasn't a pushover like Nitaa, he didn't have that much leeway in setting the terms.
To put it simply, Crindon was essentially a product of the state. This meant the Kinner Tribe essentially reaped the bulk of the payment.
"This is how it works for most Kinners." Kelandra clarified. "Our tribe invested significant resources in his training and upbringing. They expect to earn a healthy profit from his sale."
Considering that the state dictated the terms, Gavin failed to draw down the price. The most he could do was demand some adjustments to the contract to make it a little bit more favorable to Ves.
Once they hashed out the terms, they quickly formalized the contract. Once Ves and Crindon both handled the necessary paperwork, Crindon performed the same ritual as Nitaa did earlier in the day.
Once he finished swearing his loyalty to Ves, he made a very helpful suggestion.
"Before you proceed with anything, I highly advise you replace some of your more vulnerable gear. I know some stores on Bloodstone that sells premium vacsuits and other equipment that is much more secure than what you and your staff are currently using right now."
Since Crindon swore his oath, Ves did not have any qualms in trusting his latest hire's judgement.
"Check with Kelandra to decide where to go. Maybe she has some suggestions as well."
It turned out she did. Both Kelandra and Crindon held different ideas where they should go to buy the most secure gear. In the end, they took an aircar to the nearest store that served well-heeled customers like Journeymen.
The place reminded him of Renny's Outfitters, though it was a bit less classy. Everything was being taken care of by bots. Only a single human manager oversaw the store.
An afternoon went by as Crindon thoughtfully selected replacement gear for Ves, Gavin and Nitaa for equipment that was too vulnerable to patch with software fixes.
As for their more advanced gear, the store also sold various specialty security suites.
With his new boss' approval, Crindon bought plenty of spares for every member of the staff, including himself.
Fashioning Fe Nitaa with an entirely new set of combat gear took up the most time. While her normal gear was already serviceable, Ves could easily afford better.
"I've frequently faced threats to my life." He explained. "While I haven't been targeted directly lately, who knows if this streak will last. I'd rather spend some of my hard-earned fortune now than regret it later when we find ourselves outmatched and outnumbered."
Though Nitaa expressed some reluctance at the thought of buying expensive, custom combat armor and weapons, she quickly changed her tune once she tried them out.
Ves gave her a budget of 200 million bright credits, because why not. Even converted to the local currency, that was still a lot of money.
In the end, Nitaa opted to purchase a set of concealable light combat armor.
Called the Swiftback, it added a very subtle hump to Nitaa's strong back underneath her formal clothes. Upon a single activation, it could fold out and encompass the Kinner bodyguard's entire body in less than half a second!
Her choice surprised Ves a bit. "I would have thought a big bodyguard like you would opt for something more robust."
"The tougher the armor, the more it slows me down. Although the servos and the anti-grav modules built into the heavier combat armor mitigates this problem, my agility and reaction time will never be as good as now."
In the event of an incident, her main priority was carrying or escorting Ves to safety. The faster she moved, the sooner she was able to drag him behind cover.
Neutralizing the threat wasn't her main priority. She would only fight back when their way was blocked or if there wasn't any other choice.
"I'm not as defenseless as you think." Ves said.
Nitaa violently shook her head. "I would never allow you to come to harm, sir! My life is never as important as yours!"
She would rather die than let a Holy Son come to harm. Ves pressed his lips but let the matter go. She'd learn in time that this mech designer was anything but a toothless coward.
In the meantime, Nitaa continued to outfit herself with other pieces of gear. They didn't buy anything fancy this time as the Swiftback already expended most of the budget that Ves had set.
By the time the group stepped out of the store, Nitaa not only wore the Swiftback under a deceptively-plain suit, but she also hid some premium weapons and gadgets underneath her clothes.
Among the gear she carried was a pair of foldable swords, a pair of laser and ballistic pistols, a multiscanner geared towards detecting and analyzing toxins and more.
Michael Crindon stepped out of the store with his own new set of gear as well. Unlike Nitaa, Ves did not fashion him with an extravagant purchasing budget.
The spy simply made do with a simple-looking but deceptively durable business suit. His outfit offered reasonable protection against distant blasts, environmental hazards and limited weapons fire, but it was no suit of combat armor.
Aside from gearing himself up with some concealed knives and a noiseless ballistic pistol, he also carried a much-slimmer comm. In fact, it looked no different from a civilian-model comm!
Despite its smaller size, it featured much better hacking, security and communication capabilities than his old comm! Most of its internal parts incorporated exotics that vastly improved its processing power, storage capacity and more.
Though Ves inwardly smarted a bit at all the money he spent today, he didn't regret his choices. All of that money wasn't doing anything rotting in his bank account. He might as well trade it away in exchange for vastly improving his physical and virtual security needs!
He should have done this sooner!