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 "When you told me you mastered ninety-nine percent of my design, you weren't lying. You did an adequate job." Ves nodded with satisfaction. "I expect you to focus on the remaining one percent. You've taken the wrong approach at some turns that has led you into a dead end. Even I can't resolve this issue without spending a lot of effort."

A tired looking Carlos pleaded at him. "Can you show me how to fix this first? It's been nagging me for weeks."

With his superior skills, Ves deftly threaded the needle. He emplaced the right components through a fairly congested portion of the half-built silver label mech. Carlos did a decent job with his first real attempt at fabricating the Mark II, but he made a few strange decisions during the assembly process that tightened the noose once he finalized the internals.

"It should pass certification." He judged. He should know, since he supervised the entire session, all seven days of it. "Don't worry about the speed. Perfect your techniques. Any flaws you pass on might prove catastrophic."

At its current scale, the nascent Living Mech Corporation couldn't afford to fail a single product. Not only would a failure throw his balance sheet into disarray, it also affected his reputation. The MTA kept track of every mech designer's performance. Customers paid a lot of attention to the ratio between failed certifications and total mech sold.

After overseeing the handover of the freshly fabricated mech, he turned back to his own work. The new year prompted him to catch up on his paperwork. The LMC's recent incorporation forced him to expand his administrative scope. He couldn't work in a slapdash manner like he used to. Nowadays, he had to track every material that came in and out of his premises.

Fortunately, a relatively small company like his who employed only a handful of people didn't require much overhead. For now, Ves could take it easy and implement some simple off-the-shelf systems.

He also had to segregate his finances into a number of different accounts. The majority of his money rested in the LMC's balance sheet. Ves wasn't allowed to draw on this massive pile of cash without a justifiable reason.

Not that it mattered, because he only answered to his shareholders. Currently, Ves was his own majority shareholder. After spending a fair amount of money getting the Barracuda to work, he also had to cough up about a million credits to cover his running costs and pay some miscellaneous taxes. The LMC only had about 50 million credits left in savings.

The 250 million credits he received from selling some of his shares technically belonged to him rather than the company. At this stage, it the distinction hardly mattered. He was the company, and the company was him. For now, Ves reserved the money for a future license purchase.

"I should hire a clerk." He thought as he installed a commercial tracking program onto his bots. With their new programming, the bots gained the new task of tallying up his inventory. "At least I've already hired a publicist."

Calsie found an interesting student at her university. When Ves first met Gavin Neumann, he thought he met an assertive nerd. Ves had read the senior student's CV and became impressed by his excellent grades and extracurricular activities. Since Ves wanted to find someone flexible, talented and independent, Gavin looked to be an excellent prospect.

He should have been studying at a much more prestigious university, to be honest.

Gavin started his job interview with a very surprising declaration. "I hate mechs."

"Excuse me?"

"I just thought I should let you know. I hate mechs."

"...Okay. Why are you applying to be my publicist if you don't think much of mechs?"

"Would you rather have someone working for you who's slavishly brainwashed into worshipping mechs? Love and obsession often clouds your judgement. I can guarantee you that as long as I'm in charge, I won't be fooled by the hype. As a marketer, it's my job to be the trendsetter, not the follower."

Once Ves understood Gavin's point, he had to admit it made sense. Still, letting someone who hated mechs take charge of his public relations could also backfire on him. Gavin might not fully understand the nuances the in-crowd took for granted. Also, his motivations also drew suspicion. Why work for the LMC if it didn't match his interests?

"That's because your company is at a stage of rapid growth. I've done my research. Despite the incredible risks, there's a lot of money to be made with mechs. I don't care if I have to sell mechs, dung or female sanitary products, as long as it has potential, it's worth my time.

"So basically, you want to work for me because there's lots of promise in my sector. Why not apply for a job at the Raleigh Consortium or something?"

"Pff, where else am I going to work? My talents will be going to waste if I apply for a job at the farming consortiums! Every year, they harvest the exact same crops and sell them to the exact same wholesalers from Bentheim. They're so stodgy and conservative that even a single change of color on their packaging requires an entire conference!"

Tragically, Cloudy Curtain didn't offer much in commerce. Even a high performer like Gavin couldn't compete against graduates from Bentheim and Rittersberg.

Ves eventually decided to hire Gavin. The assertive student might lack experience, but he had an abundance of enthusiasm. Gavin looked forward to be an integral part of the LMC's rise.

A mere week after he went to work, Gavin proved his worth by successfully getting the gaming centers to adopt the Young Blood as a promotional mech. The usage rate of his training mech had skyrocketed. Once Gavin and Calsie finished designing a publicity campaign, Ves looked forward to twisting public opinion against his political opponents.

"That will take some time, however." He sighed and looked back to the half-assembled Dortmund. When Ves hadn't been supervising Carlos, he had already started to reconstruct the frame of the massive industrial printer.

Ves made decent progress in the early stages of his reconstruction project. The blueprint and the repair manual he obtained from the Clifford Society proved its utility by allowing him to assemble the salvaged and reprinted components in the correct order.

Even if he didn't grasp each component's purpose, the printer should work as long as he handled them appropriately.

In fact, he assembled the printer a lot faster than he originally thought. Despite its immense size, the Dortmund's complexity lay mostly in its irreplaceable components. Starting from an inventory of salvaged parts allowed Ves to skip the most difficult phase and put together the Dortmund with relative ease.

Another week went by as Ves immersed himself with the reconstruction. It started to look more and more like one of those shiny new machines he saw back when he went on a school trip to a major mech manufacturer.

The good times ended when Ves hit a snag at ninety-eight percent completion. Most of its advanced components had already taken their places, but if Ves didn't do something about its processors, the massive block of machinery might as well be scrap.

This last stumbling block constantly gnawed at him like a bone stuck in his throat. The questionable legality of the project prevented him from contacting support.

He tried asking Dietrich to find a hacker on the black market, but Ves only received a couple of dubious offers so far. The main problem with trying to do business with shady hackers was that he couldn't trust them. What if they slipped in some backdoors on the sly?

"Even the System is of little help."

Learning to hack to the point of being able to tamper the processors required too many skills. Ves couldn't afford to divert his precious DP into exploring a side path. As for the Store, it sold all kinds of utilities, but Ves couldn't operate them without the required proficiency. As for the processors themselves, the System disdained selling such materials.

"I guess the only way to resolve this is through the Clifford Society."

Transactions between Society members had to adhere to the organization's rules. If everyone constantly scammed each other, its marketplace could never grow to so big.

Besides hiring a trustworthy hacker, Ves also wanted to purchase several essential machinery to upgrade his workshop to a fully functional operation.

"I guess I'll have to take a trip after all."

It might take one or two weeks until the shipyard back in Bentheim repaired his corvette. Marcella also expected it to take some time assembling a crew for the luxurious ship. She still had to do her job after all, so she left the grunt work to her assistants. Nevertheless, Ves appreciated her aid.

This meant that before he went on his way to earn merits, he had enough time to design a virtual mech. Ves wanted to stock up on DP and enhance his ability to survive another fight. While these missions aren't supposed to put a mech designer into the frontlines, they often entailed many unforeseen risks.

After coming back from his ordeal in Bentheim, Ves reflected on the best way to keep him alive. He realized that enhancing his stealth might be the most practical way to go. He could leave the fighting to others.

He left the giant workshop floor and the incomplete Dortmund and reached a spare workplace that his cousins turned into an improvised gym. Ves splurged on a couple of simulator pods along with some advanced workout equipment in order to pay them back and to alleviate their boredom.

Right now, Melkor and Raella engaged in some sparring. Their athletic physiques glistened with sweat as they jabbed and kicked at each other while appearing to dance. Ves didn't pretend to understand their moves, though he noted that Raella's momentary bursts of power unsettled Melkor.

After their session wound down, they left the improvised sparring ring and replenished their fluids.

"How are you two settling in?"

"It's kind of boring here." Raella remarked. "There's nothing to do around here. The people here are hicks and I don't have my friends to keep me company."

Melkor shook his head and tutted at his niece. "An assignment is not the time to have fun. We're on the clock now so you better keep sharp."

"That's all fine and dandy but how long do we have to wait until we can flex our mechs?"

Their mechs currently rested in a pair of containers in his workshop's backyard. Raella piloted a light skirmisher while Melkor brought a medium laser rifleman with him. Together, they made for a rounded pair.

Unfortunately, Ves had to leave a mech behind if he went on a trip. His corvette only fit one unpacked mech.

"I should be getting a permit back this week, but I've come to talk about something else. What do you think about taking another trip?"

Ves briefly explained the possibility to accompany him on an expedition. Raella jumped on the opportunity.

"Take me, take me! I'm so bored right now I could die! I can't even relax outside due to all of the weird clouds."

A stoic like Melkor didn't mind holding the fort. With his rifleman mech standing guard, Ves didn't have to worry about the safety of his very valuable workshop.

With all of his current matters taken care of, Ves could finally devote some time on coming up with a new design. He wanted to replicate the commercial success of his Young Blood, though this time he had to do it without borrowing the momentum of his public debut.

"I should also design something that will compliment my current strategy. Only older teenagers are able to pilot a 3-star mech like the Young Blood."

While Ves had also designed a couple of 2-star mechs like the Mist Prowler and the Speed Demon, they lacked the refinement of his later works. Their specifications couldn't match the dominant models.

Even if Ves had to regress back to the 2-star tier, he still wished to round out his catalog of virtual mechs. He started to think what kind of training mech might sell well among the younger teens who usually piloted these mechs.

Since he already designed a knight, he should begin to design a ranged mech instead. Besides a rifleman, Ves could hardly think of a better choice.

Best of all, Ves also had immediate access to an expert. "I need your help Melkor."

"What's up, Ves?"

"I'm planning to design a rifleman mech. Please tell me your thoughts on this archetype. What do you see in this kind of mech and what made you decide to pilot one?"