"I'll keep your earlier advice in mind." Ves smiled. "Do you have any other suggestions?"
"You might want to hire a local mercenary corps."
"Oh? Do you lack the confidence to guard me, commander?"
He hired the Kinner mercenary corps with the confidence that they could cover most of his security needs. If Commander Cinnabar thought he couldn't do it, then what was the point of hiring them in the first place?
"I'm still sure that my Battle Criers take care of most threats coming your way, sir." Cinnabar quickly added. "It's just that having a local guide will help us avoid any trouble spots and introduce us to the right people."
"Why not hire an actual guide like Kelandra back at Bloodstone?"
Commander Cinnabar shook his head. "A civilian guide will help you navigate regular society better, but they're not much use when you want to navigate the murkier side of the local region."
"I already intend to visit a local mech designer who might help me on this front."
"That will help, but they won't be able to smooth over everything, particularly if you get into a conflict with the more unscrupulous groups. There are smaller mercenary corps for hire in the Chuko Republic who have made it their business to keep visitors like you out of trouble. They're a lot pricier than normal, but you're effectively paying tribute in exchange for a promise of safety."
"Are those mercenary corps in bed with the groups that might threaten us?" Ves asked suspiciously.
The commander grinned. "Very likely. That doesn't mean that the local mercenary corps are untrustworthy. Crisis situation or not, the Mercenary Association is still respected there, I think. If mercenaries become as trustworthy as pirates, then that's the moment when the Chuko Republic has really fallen."
That was a bold claim to make, but it made sense. The role of mercenaries declined during peacetime. Lack of conflict was bad business in their eyes.
When a moderate amount of conflict occurred, the mercenary industry enjoyed a boom time. There was plenty of work for them available and customers paid handsomely in order to secure their properties and trade convoys.
The situation at the Chuko Republic had gone beyond that. The awful security situation, the lack of trade and the deterioration of institutions meant that many companies had shuttered or were already teetering on the edge of solvency.
Many of these struggling companies hardly had the money to spare on hiring mercenaries.
The mercenary corps themselves found it increasingly more difficult to purchase fuel, supplies, mechs, ships and other goods. Without an adequate infrastructure, the prices for these goods and services increased to a level where many mercenary corps found it untenable to continue to operate in the Chuko Republic.
Many of them had packed up their bags and exited the Chuko Republic. Those that remained behind for various reasons barely made ends meet.
It did not surprise Ves to hear that these leftovers resorted to crooked means to supplement their income.
In the end, Ves decided to accept Commander Cinnabar's suggestion. Bribing the local power players in order to avoid any opportunistic attacks was a necessary price to pay for mingling in a troubled state.
"Please explore some options for me and send the list to me." Ves instructed. "I'm sure you know the local landscape a bit better than I. Try and sound them out as well to see if they can offer something special."
"Will do, boss. I made some old friends a long time ago. I'll get in touch with them again and see if they can give us a hand."
The commander did not have much to say beyond that. His knowledge of the Chuko Republic was rusty and out of date, which meant that most of his experiences were no longer relevant.
After Ves ended the call, he decided to contact someone else while he was at it. He called up Tristan Wesseling on a whim.
The call did not come through. After several minutes of ringing, Ves finally gave up with a disappointed sigh. "He's probably busy or isolated."
Just like Ves, not every mech designer appreciated being interrupted by comm calls while they were in a crucial phase of their design projects.
Who else could he talk to outside of business matters?
One name stood out. Gloriana would definitely answer his comm call. Yet the thought of talking to her made him nervous. There was only so much Gloriana he could handle at a time.
Ves had a hunch she might be watching him through the ship's monitoring system right now.
He turned his head to a random direction. "Gloriana, if you're watching me right now, at least give me the illusion of privacy. Also, don't bother trying to sneak a peek at me when I'm in the bathroom. I've already taken precautions."
No projection of a certain woman popped up after he had spoken, but he was sure she would get the message.
If he wanted to enjoy more thorough privacy, then he either needed to carry an active jammer all day or he should obtain a starship without any holes in its security.
He let out a rueful chuckle. "Unless I build a ship from the ground up, I can forget about obtaining a truly secure ship."
The best he could do in a reasonable amount of time was to start a shipbuilding company. He'd also have to hire some young shipwrights fresh out of university before other organizations got their hooks into them. Then he'd have to wait for years as they built up the necessary skills to progress from simple cargo haulers to being able to design and build more advanced spacecraft.
"That's way too much trouble." Ves shook his head.
Mech designers that diverted into shipbuilding were only distracting themselves from their actual work. People like Professor Velten of the Flagrant Vandals already warned him not to take other vocations lightly.
Right now, Ves ought to focus fully on reaching Senior as fast as possible. Not only would he have more say in matters, but he could also stay a step ahead of Gloriana.
"Who can I call?"
He wanted to try and call Carlos, but he figured that might just inflame his animosity towards him further.
After a bit of thought, he decided to call Professor Ventag. He had some questions about the way forward for a Journeyman and could use some advice from a friendly Senior Mech Designer.
Though Ves met numerous Seniors, he could only really approach two of them. Between Professor Ventag who he collaborated with and the insane Skull Architect, he definitely preferred to take advice from the former!
The call took some time to get through. He first had to get through a secretary before the Senior himself appeared in front of him as a projection.
The man looked a bit more tired and stressed than usual. Ves always found the professor to be a model of composure.
"Ves. It's been some time since we've talked." The professor sat down on a chair on his own end. "The Aurora Titan is still selling like hotcakes, though so far it has rarely seen battle."
"Only the wealthy outfits and security companies have bought the copies. It's no surprise that no one wants to test their mettle." Ves replied.
"Indeed. Anyway, I doubt you wanted to talk about the Aurora Titan. It's a great design and an enduring seller but not the kind of product that will achieve much market penetration."
"I wanted to ask for some advice, actually." He paused for a bit. "Recently, I've become a bit troubled by the.. changes in mentality."
The professor smiled. "I'm sure you've observed that mech designers like us can come in all shapes and sizes. Some are.. not as composed as normal people. This is a known phenomenon in the mech community. The MTA has poured a lot of investigation into this subject and the general consensus is that it's related to one of the secrets that you no doubt heard when you visited their sector headquarters."
Ves nodded. The professor referred to psionic power.
"I'm kind of worried about keeping my personality under control."
"This is a concern that every developing mech designer faces. My best advice is not to worry about it too much."
"It's simple. Mech design is difficult the higher up you go. People like you and me have displayed the drive that has allowed us to step past the limitations halting many ordinary mech designers from progressing any further. The moment mech designers become cautious and timid, they'll become a lot less likely to make any further progress."
"So mech designers ought to be more bold if they want to increase their chances of breaking through."
The professor shook his head. "It's not as straightforward as that. It's not the case that bold mech designers are always successful or that cautious mech designers are universal failures. In truth, there are many factors in play that affect a mech designer's probability of breaking through, and it's impossible to determine all of them and calculate the best behavior that you can adopt in order to maximize your chances."
"Mech designers are humans, and humans are complicated." Ves summed up.
"Exactly. This is exactly why mech designers exist. We utilize our human ingenuity to develop creative new solutions to service the demand for better mechs."
"So ultimately mech designers should just be themselves?"
"Within reason. The MTA's recommendation is to stick to their guidelines as much as possible, and I think they have a lot of merit. Controlled passion is the key phrase here."
The professor didn't tell Ves what he already knew. Mech designers ought to be themselves while balancing their passion and control. Although this did not ensure the best success, it was the best consensus position to take.
Perhaps the only reason why the MTA did not push for full control was because many mech designers wouldn't be able to restrain themselves anyway.
In addition, the MTA was still racing against time to improve the overall standard of mech design before warships made their inevitable reappearance. If a couple of nutcases like the Skull Architect occasionally popped up, then that was an acceptable price to pay!
"What do you think, professor?" Ves pressed. "Is there anything else you can tell me besides parroting the MTA line?"
Professor Ventag chuckled. "If you ask me, your concerns on this matter are wildly overblown. From my interactions with you, you're a bright and thoughtful mech designer. While your ambitions are great, they've mostly been a boon to you. As long as you are passionate in your craft, I'm sure you will grow farther. You're a lot more brilliant than I was at your age."
"Thanks for the compliment." Ves awkwardly smiled.
The professor evidently didn't know him very well. Their interactions had always been polite and Ves barely ever showed a different facet of himself to the esteemed Senior.
The two chatted about other subjects as Ves asked some minor questions. The professor's replies didn't tell him anything exciting, but his advice was very practical.
"How will the Bright Republic react if I continue my relationship with Gloriana?" Ves suddenly asked.
"You're not the first Brighter who has entered into a relationship with a prominent second-class citizen." The professor easily replied. "Miss Wodin is an exceptional woman. While the Bright Republic as a whole maintains various ties with the Friday Coalition, the state isn't concerned that you will do anything untoward unless you make explicit moves to influence government policy."
"Will the state really remain uninvolved?"
The professor crossed his arms. "Do you think you're the first Brighter who snagged a powerful lover? There are rules for this. The Hexadric Hegemony won't allow Gloriana to unduly exert pressure on the Bright Republic through her relations with you. The same applies to Fridaymen as well. The only reason for the Bright Republic to pay more attention to your relationship is if hostilities between the two second-rate states begin to flare."
"Will I be in trouble if that happens?" He frowned.
"It'll be fine. If the big boys ever come to blows, the Bright Republic and the other inconsequential states will merely be relegated to the sides. When the dust finally settles, everyone who aligned themselves with the losing state will probably become the friends of the winning state in short order."
Professor Ventag's words expressed the general helplessness the Bright Republic faced. Ves was glad of that, since it didn't sound as if Ves would incur any serious repercussions if he continued to associate himself with the Hexers.