Ves and his staff entered the base owned by an outfit called the Vindar Dustravens. They were different from many other outfits in that they exclusively fielded aerial mechs.
When times were good, their services were in high demand. Yet when the Chuko Republic's economy continued to tumble downwards, the Dustravens found themselves with very little jobs.
According to Commande Cinnabar, in order for them to keep paying the bills, they began to cooperate with the shadier organizations in Vindar.
Commander Inteo Meivin of the Dustravens greeted the commander of the Battle Criers with a hearty hug.
"Hugin! It's been almost half a decade!"
"Hahaha!" Cinnabar laughed as they let go of each other. "You look older than before! Times sure have changed."
"And not for the better." Commander Meivin commented. "Let's leave the unpleasant topics for later. Mr. Larkinson, welcome to Vindar VII. Although I can't promise your stay will be pleasant, as long as we are around, we'll do our best to make you feel secure."
Ves smiled at Meivin. "I'll take your word for that. What I've seen so far of this planet doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence."
"Let's discuss the contract further in my office. I've already prepared the arrangements beforehand."
Once they entered the administrative building of the Dustravens, Ves and Meivin quickly hashed out a limited agreement. The Dustravens would escort and accompany Ves during his entire stay in the Redwell Province.
"Are you confident you'll be able to protect us outside of the Vindar System?" Ves curiously questioned.
"Our mechs might not look like much, but we have many ties to many different organizations." Commander Meivin confidently replied. "We Redwellers have to stick together, you see. If every Redweller has to fend for themselves, then our province will quickly cease to be a part of the Chuko Republic."
Ves took that to mean that Commander Meivin was inclined towards the Bloodweller side.
"Alright. Commander Cinnabar is confident in your capabilities, so I'll take your word for it. I better hope your ties are as extensive as you've boasted."
It wasn't as if Ves could determine the truth. This kind of information wasn't mentioned in any public records. Even if Ves approached another mercenary corps, he would just face the same problem anyway. He might as well give the Dustravens a chance.
Ves left the subsequent details to Gavin. As the contract was being finalized, Ves started to pump Commander Meivin for information.
"How is the overall level of security on Vindar VII?"
"It's been better, Mr. Larkinson. Since Vindar is not a border system, we aren't plagued by frequent fighting. While violent incidents do occur from time to time, they're mostly scuffles at the infantry level."
"Oh? What about mech-on-mech violence?"
"That happens surprisingly little here. Outfits like us are already struggling to make ends meet with our existing roster of mechs. Replacing them when they get wrecked can get extremely expensive, so everyone with mechs will have to think twice before they risk them in battle."
That was a welcome piece of news for Ves. He did not fear any threats on the infantry level. It was only mechs that posed a significant threat to him. Shield generator or not, it wouldn't protect him for long if a mech kept stomping its feet into his body!
"What do you know about Terrence Reedan?" Ves asked.
"Old Man Terrence? He's the only remaining Journeyman Mech Designer in Vindar. He's getting on in his years. As far as I know, his business is all but dead and he's done nothing against it. Everyone knows the old man has given up on his life. He has no wife and no kids and his standing in the mech industry isn't very high."
According to the information that Ves had found, Terrence Reedan had turned out to be a mediocre Journeyman. He advanced rather late in his life and barely improved afterwards.
This signified that Old Man Terrence hadn't made any significant progress towards Senior. Considering the older man's Class VIII design philosophy, Ves wasn't surprised.
According to the limited record that Ves managed to access from the MTA's database, Terrence Reedan's specialty dealt with neural interfaces. The exact details escaped him as research into neural interfaces was a very sensitive subject matter in the mech community.
Ves spotted an opportunity ever since he came across Terrence Reedan's situation. This man was a potential goldmine of knowledge about neural interface technology.
Just like Iris Jupiter and the Jupiter Family of the Vesia Kingdom, Terrence Reedan was one of the few mech designers who received permission from the MTA to research neural interfaces!
From his own haphazard experiments with neural interfaces, Ves knew first-hand how thorny it was to connect the mind of a human to a machine.
Yet Ves couldn't stop his fascination for this field. The man-machine connection played a central role to his design philosophy, so the limited amount of knowledge he accumulated from various sources would eventually hamper him from developing better mechs.
"Has Terrence received any visitors over the years?"
"Not as far as I know. Reedan Mech Industries has already downscaled its production a long time ago, so hardly any business had come his way. I've heard that other mech designers haven't bothered to maintain their relationships with him either."
Ves understood why. The man was already old and had no hopes of advancing to Senior and thereby earn enough money for the first round of life-prolonging treatment.
In addition, domestic mech designers didn't have much interest in making use of customized neural interfaces during this period of decline. It was much safer and cheaper to incorporate the standard neural interface models that the MTA provided to every mech designer for free.
Only an oddball like Ves would still think to approach a mech designer who specialized in this controversial and problematic field.
As Ves and Commander Meivin continued to chat, the contract finally took shape. After both of them signed it, the Dustravens were officially under the employ of Ves for a maximum of two months or until Ves departed from the Redwell Province.
They shook hands.
"You've made the right choice, Mr. Larkinson."
"I hope so." Ves smiled back. "Please coordinate your deployments with Commander Cinnabar. He is already responsible for every mech-related matter."
The addition of the Vindar Dustravens to his mech protection detail plugged an important gap that the Battle Criers hadn't been able to address.
The aerial mechs of the Dustravens were fast and light. From what Ves heard, the Dustravens used to field medium aerial mechs in the past, but they gradually ditched them as their fuel or energy consumption became too burdensome to a declining mercenary corps.
The light aerial mechs that remained were mostly of the harasser type. They were designed to pelt distant enemies from afar while maintaining their distance.
Overall, the Dustraven mechs fared poorly in melee combat, so any aerial light skirmisher that sneaked up on them could quickly dice them apart.
Nonetheless, the chances of that happening was low since the Dustraven mechs were already fast to begin with. They wouldn't allow an enemy mech to approach without paying a hefty price.
Perhaps the only other shortcoming of the Dustraven mechs was that their firepower was very light, but Ves already took that into account. He prized them more for their deterrence against assassins and other troublemakers on foot.
As the two mercenary commanders hashed out their arrangements, Ves and his entourage quickly entered their shuttle and slowly flew towards the headquarters of Reedan Mech Industries.
For such a grand name, the company looked anything but industrious. As Ves arrived at the empty parking zone of the headquarters, Ves studied the building with a critical eye.
"Nine out of ten offices are empty."
"I'm surprised that one and ten are still present." Gavin noted. "Is there any reason to clock into work at all? It's been years since Reedan Mech Industries sold a mech!"
"Maybe Terrence Reedan kept them on the payroll so that they wouldn't starve on the streets."
The structure itself had seen some better days as well. Rusty cleaning bots erased the graffiti splattered over its walls. The guard posts were empty. The defensive turrets and other installations had all been ripped away as the security company that used to guard it had moved away.
The group entered the lobby, where they were met with a single feeble-looking assistant.
"Ah, Mr. Larkinson. You are right on time. Terrence Reedan is waiting for you upstairs." The man who looked to be almost as old as Reedan said.
The assistant was probably Reedan's version of Gavin.
They stepped into an elevator that brought them straight to the top. Once there, they entered into an expansive office that should have displayed the power and prestige of a Journeyman Mech Designer.
Right now, most of the furniture and ornaments that used to decorate the office was absent. This gave Ves and the other visitors a very desolate impression of the room and its principal occupant.
"Mr. Larkinson." A husky voice whispered. A speech enhancer amplified the volume of the old man's voice. "Please step closer. As for your guests, my assistant will lead them elsewhere. You won't need them here."
"Sir." Nitaa stepped forward, but Ves raised his hand.
"Some matters between mech designers are best discussed amongst ourselves, Nitaa."
She eventually acquiesced after some convincing. Only Ves, Lucky and Old Man Terrence remained in the office after the others left.
Ves kept Lucky in his arms without asking permission, figuring that Old Man Terrence likely wouldn't mind.
The other mech designer indeed made no comment about the presence of his pet.
Once Ves approached the man's desk and took the only available seat, they began their discussion.
"So. A new Journeyman wishes to exchange with me?" The shaky old man chuckled. Among all the senile people Ves had met, only Venerable O'Callahan of the Flagrant Vandals looked closer to death! "I must profess my lack of understanding why a vigorous young mech designer like you are interested in my tales. There are many other mech designers you can hear from instead."
"That is true." Ves replied while stroking Lucky's back. His confident posture gave him the impression that he was the one in charge in the office! "I'm not interested in boring tales, though. Can you guess why I've come?"
The old man hackingly coughed. "I can think of no other reason than to obtain information that mech designers like you aren't supposed to obtain. That is dangerous, young man."
Ves innocently spread his hands. "I'm not interested in obtaining classified knowledge on neural interfaces from you. Instead, I'd like you to pass on your general insights related to this field."
"There is much that I can't say."
"I'm not asking for technical details or secret formulas, Mr. Reedan. I just want a better impression on the effect a neural interface has on both ends."
Ves knew his limits and he knew it wouldn't be wise to ask for more. Just learning some of the accumulated insights of a mech designer who had been in the business for over seventy years was valuable enough.
The restraint shown by Ves impressed the old man somewhat. Old Man Terrence fell into a thoughtful mood.
"Since I am not long for this galaxy, I might as well impart a portion of my insights to a fellow practitioner of the craft. You're not the first mech designer who asked me about neural interfaces, but you're the only one who approached in these declining times."
Well, that was easy. Ves thought he had to do a lot more convincing to get the old man to open his mouth.
"Thank you, Mr. Reedan. I'll do my best to make good use of your knowledge. A part of your work will always live on in my mech designs."
"You don't have to flatter me, kid. My legacy is worthless." The old man bluntly stated. "Well, enough about that. Let's get started with this exchange, shall we?"