"Hi, Ves. I'm sorry I've been out of touch lately." Ketis wearily spoke.
Her projection showed a lot of stress and worry on her face. Ves doubted that she enjoyed a good night's sleep lately. He immediately grew more concerned.
"What is the matter?"
"The sandman invasion!" She burst out. "Before they crossed over into human space, they swept through the frontier! The Faris Star Region is riddled with sandmen right now and nowhere is safe anymore! The Swordmaidens under Commander Dise have taken a battering in an attempt to avoid the aliens!"
Ves knew this, but in his preoccupation of his own affairs he overlooked the implications the invasion might have on Ketis! That was a mistake!
While Ves thought highly of the Swordmaidens, they mainly fielded swordsman mechs.
It just so happened that sandmen ate melee mechs for breakfast!
This turned the sandmen into the worst possible enemies that the Swordmaidens could face on the battlefield!
"Why didn't you tell me, Ketis?"
"I don't want to bother you while you were on your trip. I know it's important to you and that dragging you into this mess will distract you. That's why I also told Calsie and Melkor to refrain from mentioning anything."
"Well, Melkor just told me that I should speak to you. He's right."
She grimaced a bit. "Traitor."
"Why do you want to keep me out?"
"I knew you couldn't do much for the Swordmaidens. Not only are you far away from home, but even if you were here, you can't possibly do anything to save them. Besides, I already asked someone else for help. Someone who is better positioned to save them and shelter them from the sandmen."
Ves frowned. "Who?"
She glanced at him with a deliberate expression. "Your friend whose name starts with the letter C."
Calabast. It made sense. Of all the contacts they knew, only Calabast possessed the resources and reach to rescue the Swordmaidens!
Yet why did she agree to do so? Ves struggled to find the meaning of Calabast's decision.
"What did C want in return?"
"C agreed to rescue my sisters as long as they are willing to work for her. Since she was very sincere in her offer, Commander Dise jumped at the opportunity!"
Ves hadn't been the only person to go on a recruiting spree, it seemed. While Ves still doubted how useful it was for her to turn the Swordmaidens into her subordinates, she actually picked up quite a bargain!
This was because Commander Dise was actually a secret expert candidate! Their adventures on Aeon Corona VII inadvertently tied her to Qilanxo and Captain Orfan. Ever since they escaped the heavy gravity planet, the Swordmaidens would never be the same under her leadership.
In fact, Ves harbored some ambition to take them over himself, but it turned out that Calabast had already been several steps ahead of him! She hadn't been sitting still all this time!
He didn't blame Calabast for making good use of this opportunity. He had been splitting his time on way too many affairs that it might be better if his supposed partner took some responsibilities off his shoulders.
"Does this mean you work for C now?"
"You know where my heart lies. I have always been a Swordmaiden. That has never changed."
Ves accepted this answer. He did not begrudge her for staying true to her heart. Besides, working for Calabast did not mean that she left his orbit.
"So.. how are the Swordmaidens doing?"
"C managed to rescue them, or at least their survivors. Due to the current sandman crisis and the huge amount of refugees fleeing from their homes, it's not very difficult for C to arrange new identities for them and mix them among the former citizens of the fallen states. No one really cares anyway, and the veracity of their identities can't be confirmed considering that the sandmen have eaten most of the databases situated in the fallen states."
This was the perfect time for pirates and other scum to gain new identities. With billions or even trillions of refugees and dispossessed citizens on the move, it was extremely easy for someone like Calabast to make the Swordmaidens adopt the identities of those who died!
Perhaps her covert actions might have invited some scrutiny during ordinary times, but with how the crisis swamped every administration, there was no way any authority could spare the time to hunt for pirates among the refugees!
"So what will your sisters be doing?"
"Once they recover and rebuild once again, they'll do whatever C tells them to do. In any case, Commander Dise has hit it off pretty well with our new boss. My sisters are very happy with our savior."
That was something that he could easily imagine.
"Okay. I'm glad to hear that the Swordmaidens have ended up in good hands. What about you? Will you still remain with the LMC?"
She nodded. "I still have much to learn. The Swordmaidens don't need my help right now. Not in my current state."
"I'm glad to hear that. Whatever you or C decide, I'm willing to accept your choices."
As his first student, he wanted the best for Ketis. He did not particularly mind if she stopped working for the LMC, as he now gained a much better helper in the form of Gloriana.
It seemed like he needed to have a good talk with Calabast when he returned home. Ves gained the sneaking suspicion that she was up to something.
They turned to other topics. Ketis briefly reported about the ongoing testing of the prototype of the Desolate Soldier.
"So far, none of the test results yielded too many divergences from the simulations. Your mech is really basic but very well put together. Since it's not a very complicated mech, I'll have a report ready for you in the next few days."
The short testing period matched his expectations. The Desolate Soldier differed a lot from the Aurora Titan and Transcendent Messenger, both of which required weeks of continuous testing!
"I look forward to receiving the results, though it sounds like there are only small discrepancies."
They quickly ended the call after that, leaving Ves to ruminate over the revelations he heard.
It appeared that Calabast was making a move to form the shadow force he always wanted to form.
"It's better to leave this matter in the hands of an expert." He muttered.
Ves already had his hands full in managing three different mech forces under his command.
First, he planned to place most of his attention and resources into cultivating the Avatars of Myth into his premier elite mech troop.
He wanted to uplift its mechs and mech pilots to second-class standard. While this took a lot of money and effort, so long as his collaborations with Gloriana bore fruit, Ves didn't think that money would be an issue.
Second, he wanted to form a more expendable mech force in the form of the Battle Criers. Ves planned to utilize the Battle Criers in a different capacity and make them do the jobs that would sully the Avatars.
While some parts of their job description overlapped with Calabast's shadow force, the most important merit of the Battle Criers was that they only answered to him! Ves was not foolish enough to depend completely on Calabast for certain matters in the dark.
"Besides, as long as they can be retrained into second-class mech pilots, they can accompany me on my grand expedition."
The final and largest mech force consisted of his newly-established Living Sentinels. Melkor and Calsie were still in the process of setting them up under the umbrella of the LMC. Nonetheless, by the time Ves returned to the Bright Republic, Ves expected them to complete the transition of the more casual and less committed Avatars to the new company force.
Unlike the former two outfits, Ves did not care too much for the Living Sentinels. The reason why he planned to put them under the LMC's management was because they were beneath his attention.
"It's fine if they turn into glorified security guards. They don't need to do anything else."
The relentless sandmen invasion would serve as a useful test for all three forces.
Once he finished his affairs, he returned to work.
During the next few days, Ves received the complete testing report from Ketis. The prototype performed close to his expectations.
Nonetheless, the results yielded by the prototype weren't as relevant as he initially expected as Ves already implemented numerous changes to the Desolate Soldier design. Gloriana already exerted influence on the direction of his work.
While the project had already reached a very advanced stage for her to make a bigger contribution, she was already responsible for suggesting numerous small changes.
Ves applied the testing results to the second iteration of his mech design as best as possible before ordering the LMC to test his second prototype.
Due to Gloriana's meticulousness, Ves was very confident that his second prototype would incorporate a lot less flaws. He believed the Desolate Soldier design was ready to be published as soon as he addressed the flaws revealed by his second prototype.
Time began to pass as the fleet raced back to the Bright Republic as fast as possible.
Fortunately, many of their ships were quite fast. As long as they took the most direct route by passing through as many port systems as possible, Ves expected to be back within two months.
That was still too slow in his book.
"What's worrying you, Ves?" Gloriana asked as he furrowed his brows after another design session.
"It's taking too long to return to the Bright Republic. Already, my competitors at home have already begun to publish the mechs that are adapted to fight the sandmen threat."
Ves gestured his hands towards the terminal, which displayed a catalog of newly-introduced mech models. All of them consisted of mechs armed with ballistic and kinetic weapons! Even Professor Ventag published a rifleman mech design that adopted a similar premise to his own work!
"It's not too late." She spoke after she briefly studied the competition. "You'll just have to publish your mech design within a week."
"That means that I won't be able to hold a press conference in person. I've never introduced a new mech design while I was away."
"Ves, Ves, Ves. I think you are being a bit too dramatic. Many of the mech models put on the market recently haven't been accompanied by elaborate press conferences. The press and the public have better things to worry about than attending some extravagant product reveal. You don't have to do everything in person. Trust in your company to do its job to market your mech in your stead."
Ves really had a difficult time accepting her advice, but eventually he recognized that she had a point.
"You're right." He slumped. "The LMC at its current state already owns a formidable marketing operation. Combined with our existing fanbase, I won't have to be afraid that my Desolate Soldier will be buried amidst the hundreds of other mech designs that are introduced to the market at this moment."
Despite surrendering himself to the circumstances, he still worried a lot about whether his Desolate Soldier could gain enough momentum upon releases. Other mech designers weren't slacking off in promoting their new products. It was very hard for Ves to put his considerable fame in the Bright Republic to use when he wasn't there to attract the attention of the press!
"Why not rely on the Ylvainan mech market to form momentum for our product?" Gloriana suggested with a reassuring smile. "From what you've told me, you enjoy many fans there. As soon as you release your Desolate Soldier model to the Ylvaine Protectorate, you can expect to generate a lot of sales at the start!"
Ves rubbed his chin. "You're right. And as long as my Desolate Soldier is in such a high demand, the mech market of other states will definitely take notice!"
Only two issues stood in the way.
First, he needed to spend some time and effort to adapt his Desolate Soldier to the tastes of his Ylvainan customers. This not only entailed modifying its exterior, but also find some way to introduce an element of the Ylvainan Faith in the localized variant.
Second, he couldn't rely on the Mech Nursery to produce the Desolate Soldiers. The LMC's main manufacturing complex should reserve most of its production capacity to fulfill local demand.
Exporting copies of the Desolate Soldier from Cloudy Curtain to the Ylvaine Protectorate didn't make much sense anyway. It took too much time to get his mechs in the hands of his Ylvainan customers.
The best way to solve this problem was if the LMC partnered up with some native Ylvainan mech manufacturers!
"I guess it's time to make a call to a certain woman." He muttered.