Colonel Ares Huntington was an old friend of Marcella Bollinger. They came from the same crowd, and while a war wound forcibly put an end to her piloting career, Ares hung on for twenty more years until his age caught up. Nowadays he fought behind a desk.
"You've got them wrapped around your finger." Ares casually spoke to Marcella.
They both stood on a ramp overlooking an empty training ground. A handful of men waited their turn to pilot the Marc Antony Mark II. A couple of other guests impatiently hopped in the simulator pods in order to experience the virtual version of the novel mech.
It couldn't be helped. The first unveiling of the Mark II proceeded in a dramatic fashion as Marcella brought the guests inside a darkened stable and slowly revealed the mech. Its iconic red vapor crest lighted up first. Other lights revealed its masculine contours which included its heavy shield and its shoulder launchers.
Marcella knew her crowd. The Mark II explicitly appealed to the primal part of a human male. Most of her guests were men. The only women present either specialized in piloting knights or represented wealthy individuals who couldn't come in person.
"Ves has come a long way." Marcella said to her old friend. "I always knew the Larkinson family had a talent with mechs. Even if Ves lacked the aptitude, the love for mechs is buried within his bones."
Ares snorted at Marcella's fawning tone. "Don't pretend you spotted his talent back then. The Larkinson name is overrated. You merely took him on as a client because he got bamboozled into signing that ridiculous ten-year contract."
"Heh, you're only grumbling because Ark Larkinson stole your posting. Now he's stationed at the border to the Vesians while you are stuck reading data pads in Bentheim."
"He's too young to command an entire base! I don't care if he's been promoted to colonel, he doesn't have the experience to lead the vanguard!"
The incident still rankled Ares. He possessed all the right qualifications to be stationed at an important conflict zone, but some golden boy a dozen years short his age snatched his promised posting. Technically, Ares received a higher-ranking posting, but for a veteran of the previous Bright-Vesia War it might as well be death by torture.
Marcella shook her head while rubbing her camouflaged artificial limbs. "You're always chomping at the bit to smash their noses. I bet HQ passed you on because you're a little too eager to start the war early."
"I'm a professional! I don't let my personal feelings get in the way of duty."
The argument went nowhere so Marcella shut her mouth. Instead, both of them watched the lumbering Mark II navigate the obstacle course and defeat a handful of flimsy projections of mechs.
"So what do you think about little Vessie's latest work?"
The colonel scratched his white-bearded chin as he evaluated the performance of the mech. "There's something funny about this model. I can't quite tell what's going on. Whatever it is, it made your guests turn into instant fans."
The mech broker cleverly prefaced the first ten minutes of the gathering with teases and snippets of simulated combat footage. They all highlighted the as-of-yet unannounced mech in its best light. The heavy tower shield, the versatile missile launchers, the deadly short-ranged laser cannons, they all combined to present an image of indomitability in the face of overwhelming forces.
Of course, Marcella conveniently left out the Mark II's less than flattering features, such as its mass production quality armor system and its flash-in-the-pan endurance.
"If you want to know what's special about the Mark II, then go watch the duels over there."
The projections that showed the virtual Mark II's in action conveyed every duel and battle scenario in visceral detail.
At one side, a pair of Mark II's stood side-by-side leading the charge against an enemy fortified position. The hybrid knights used their heavy shields as disposable cover, trading protection for distance. Their shoulder launchers occasionally fired missiles that exploded in a cloud of smoke and sensor-blocking particles.
Another projection displayed a tense and even duel. A blue-striped Mark II tried to run circles around a green-striped Mark II and fired back with its wrist lasers. The defending mech easily blocked them with its shield and retaliated by firing a full salvo of homing missiles.
While the other mech defended against the sudden barrage, the green-striped mech closed the distance and bashed its shield against its counterpart. The sudden disruption of balance left the blue-striped mech vulnerable to an incoming chop. The lack of momentum caused the sword to leave only a shallow wound that hardly impacted the stricken mech's performance.
The anticipation grew among those who waited their turns. While they had all seen better mechs, most of them came with exorbitant price tags.
"This baby is more responsive than the Caesar Augustus!"
"That's natural. The CA-1 is two decades old."
"As long as the price is right, I don't mind ordering one for my son. It's a great mech for the younger generation to let out some steam."
"Careful with that. The armor of this variant is not as good as the original model. At least the cockpit's ejection system is still just as good."
Marcella didn't even had to steer the conversation directly. Her usual style of setting props to influence the mood generated an organic discussion about the Mark II's many merits.
She turned to the only guest who hadn't become entranced. "So, will you consider purchasing a model or two?"
"Not a chance!" Ares huffed. "The Larkinson boy is too wet behind the ears to design a mech that can withstand the rigors of a genuine war. The only reason I'm here is because I'm assigned to the Domestic Designer Support Program."
As a remote, third-rate state, the Bright Republic often had a hard time keeping grasp on its talents. Most of their most capable mech designers studied abroad at institutions like Leemar. Once they graduated, the majority became enamored with living in a sophisticated second-rate state and never returned to the poor and underdeveloped Republic.
The Mech Corps instituted the Support Program in order to keep their talents at home.
"Perhaps you should do your job for once. From what I've gathered, most of the participants of the Fusion Cup have already left the Republic."
The Support Program failed to attract the latest generation of promising mech designers. While it was too much to hope that Edwin McKinney would stick around, even second-tier talents like Michael Dumont and Patricia Schneider had left the Republic.
"What about the boy? When can we expect his departure?"
"He's a Larkinson." Marcella declared. "Every Larkinson I've met are unwaveringly loyal to the Republic. Vessie is no different from his family."
The colonel reluctantly nodded. "I'll give you that, but he's still too young to play a role. If the boy started his career a few years earlier, I might be convinced to lend him a hand. Right now he can't compete against the Journeymen we're already keeping an eye on."
"So you'd rather prepare for the war today than invest in the future." Marcella summed up the Program's current priority. "I can't say I blame you, but you're missing a prime opportunity to build a relationship with a future star. Anyone who caught the attention of a master will surely soar to greater heights."
"I've seen a lot of kids rise up like rockets travelling up the sky. Most of them fell after running out of juice."
Instead of continuing the argument, the two turned back to the crowd.
Everyone gained a decent impression of the Mark II, including its flaws. The lack of compressed armor put a limit to the application of the mech. The model's limited operating time put a lot of constraints.
Despite the reality check, everyone who personally piloted the physical model praised its excellent handling. Such a quality couldn't be expressed in numbers, so the gathering of guests eventually divided into two. Those who missed out wondered whether they misjudged the Mark II.
Marcella cleverly ended the trials at that point and proceeded to hold an auction immediately afterwards. She purposefully timed the auction when their curiosity reached its height. This led to a feverish round of bidding by competing collectors.
Most of them eyed the first production run of the Mark II as an investment. They did their homework on Ves. If the young man one day became a Senior or Master Mech Designer, the value of the first ever Marc Antony Mark II might balloon to ten or twenty times its current value.
Thus, a feverish round of bidding followed until a logistics magnate bagged the mech for a whopping 42 million credits.
Many collectors applauded the profligate fellow even as they thought he spent too much. The hobbyists and professionals among the crowd collected lots of mechs in order to increase the odds of a lucky strike. As long as they controlled their spending, they stood to make a handsome profit.
After the collectors had their fill of the auction, Marcella began to peddle the model in earnest. She offered an exclusive price of 32 million credits for a gold label mech, which deterred many of the guests. The mech broker ignored the doubters and worked to lock down orders from the small crowd who fell in love with the Mark II.
She pursued a deliberate strategy of maximizing the gold label's profit margin. Ves already told her that he lacked the time to fabricate a large number of gold label mechs. Marcella limited the maximum demand for the product by quoting a price
The relatively high price also set a psychological floor to the model's expected value. When Marcella eventually unveiled the silver label model, she could still make a handsome profit even if she charged a couple of million credits less. She expected to earn a lot more revenue by selling lots of silver label mechs.
Ares approached Marcella once she finished taking orders. Her assistants already approached her customers in order to hammer out the details.
According to the contract she signed with Ves, she was allowed to offer additional option such as insurance or repair services. They represented a major source of revenue to Marcella because she didn't have to share the earnings with Ves. It was one of the many ways she sneaked an additional benefit past her inexperienced partner.
"How many suckers have you reeled in?"
"Eight, which is quite a good haul. After all, Ves is not even a year into his career. Convincing eight adults to fork over their money for an untested product isn't easy."
"I suppose your marketing tricks have nothing to do with it, right?" Ares cheekily pointed out. "Whatever, I've got a shuttle to catch and another meeting to attend. I wish you both the best of luck."
A lot of guests already started leaving now that the party had ended. Marcella stuck around to supervise the immediate handover of the first production mech. Both the model and the client deserved special attention. She kept a vigilant eye to the proceedings.
Marcella tallied her earning at the end of the day. She made over sixty million credits from her cut alone. She earned an additional twenty million from the services she pushed.
After subtracting her expenses, she still retained a third of the total sum. Compared to her other commissions, she called herself lucky if she managed to hold on to a fifth of her earnings.
"The good times are about to start." She whispered to herself.
More than anyone else, Marcella looked forward to the outbreak of war. As a veteran, experienced the horrors of a protracted conflict. The wars between the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom usually amounted to a long and arduous battle of attrition.
Mech brokers like Marcella happened to love these lengthy and destructive wars. More battles meant more attrition. More attrition meant a greater demand for mechs. Even if the Mech Corps drafted the majority of Marcella's suppliers like, she still expected the demand for ready-made mechs to soar.