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 Ves watched Marcella leave his office with a mixed expression.

For old times' sake, he refrained from pushing back too hard.

Yet his forbearance had its limits.

His relationship with the Bright Republic had gone through a sea of changes. While he was not yet the equal of Seniors in several ways, his specialty and his future potential was much more promising.

Ves thought that his allies would have recognized his new value the best, but evidently not everyone received the message.

He had to offer a rebuke to that old coot who was used to treating people as pawns that he was already reaching the end of the board.

The fantastic sales of the Soldier product line and its increasing proliferation in the star sector already hinted at his great appeal.

No other product in the market could match the benefits brought by his mechs. His Transcendent Messengers already transformed the Ylvaine Protectorate and now his Soldier product line was about to take the Komodo Star Sector by storm!

He was no mere pawn. Not anymore.

If he was by himself, then the people at the top might have been tempted to strengthen their control over him. There were many ways for Senator Tovar, Flashlight and other factions to exert pressure on him. If Ves would just let himself get rolled over all the time, then how would he ever get rid of the shackles that bound him to petty officials and regional snakes?

"Fortunately, I'm not alone. Gloriana is my biggest talisman."

Even though his girlfriend was a foreigner, her status was incomparable. Few Brighters would ever dare to mess with her directly, let alone touch someone she professed to love.

While her presence at Cloudy Curtain was rather awkward due to the heating Komodo War, as long as the Hexadric Hegemony remained in contention, there was no way the government would dare to go too far.

However, that did not preclude smaller actions and more indirect ways to influence him. Sending Marcella to convince him to repay the favors he received from the government certainly qualified. Though his business partner approached him with a smile, it did not change the fact that she convinced him to design a custom mech for someone he hated.

"Can I still trust her?" He seriously questioned.

Right now, the answer was no. Ves highly suspected that she had been bought by Senator Tovar or Flashlight because of her relationship with him and her minority stake in the LMC.

"Someone like Marcella is a nobody in the eyes of the higher ups. They don't have to put much effort into converting her to their cause."

He learned an important lesson today.

He had outgrown his old friends.

Perhaps at the start, Marcella used to be a figure he looked up to. Her wealth, connections, experience and capabilities were far beyond his reach.

Back then, he needed to borrow from her strength to gain a footing in the mech market.

Yet that was in the past. Now, the tables were turned. Ves succeeded in designing a mech that sold over 100,000 units a month. His products sold well in dozens of markets and several variants derived from the original design also fared very well!

In comparison, how did Marcella do? Though she had benefited hugely from her bet on Ves early on, she was still the same mech broker as before.

The only thing that had changed was that she invested much of the dividends she received in expanding her firm and setting up branch offices in many foreign states.

"All that is well and good, but at the end of the day, Marcella is still bound in Bentheim. Her network doesn't extend past her home planet."

As the LMC continued to focus on expanding outwards, his old business partner became less and less relevant. The LMC's Marketing Department could already take over her role entirely with just a modest drop in effectiveness.

Once his company got used to establishing relations and opening up markets on its own, there was no meaning in keeping Marcella around anymore.

"She should relinquish her 5 percent stake in the LMC." He muttered.

Unfortunately, this was not the time to do so. For now, he had to let Marcella maintain the illusion that she still had the ability to influence Ves and the direction of the company on account of their friendship.

"I should still send a signal to express my dissatisfaction." He mumbled.

Ves began to rub his clean-shaven chin while contemplating ways to change the status quo. He originally wanted to keep his head down and quietly design mechs, but the situation forced him to reconsider his approach.

"I should throw my weight around."

He spent a few minutes to consider his options before settling for one of the plans he had prepared. He activated his comm and sent a quick summon to one of his subordinates.

Fifteen minutes later, the door to his office opened to let in Captain Crindon. The Kinner walked all the way up to the desk before calmly sitting on the chair vacated by Marcella.

"You called, sir?"

Ves nodded. "How much progress have you made in your spy hunt?"

"At this moment, I've identified over a hundred suspected personnel that I'm reasonably confident are spies or informers. It's difficult to determine who they are answering to. Even with... your cat's help, there is far too much data to comb through."

"Let's just get rid of them all."

"Pardon?"

"Fire them all. I want to get rid of them immediately!"

"Sir, let's not be too hasty here! Some of the suspected individuals occupy key positions in your company! Simultaneously terminating their employment will disrupt many operations and lead to preventable mistakes and interruptions!"

"I don't care!" Ves roared and slammed his fist against his desk! "We need to draw a line here! People are messing around with me, thinking that I'll just take it like a good boy! Well, no more!"

Though Crindon cautioned calm and suggested further deliberation, Ves did not see the need to delay. He wanted to send a powerful message as soon as possible. To delay his actions for a few days would signal that he still had scruples.

"Crindon, while I respect your opinion, frankly I don't give a damn right now. I'm confident that the LMC is robust enough to weather this storm. There are so many capable people under my employ that I'm sure that there are plenty of replacements for the traitors I plan to get rid of. Even if some friction occurs.. it's better than leaving these parasites in place."

"This isn't how the game is played, sir. Didn't we agree beforehand that we would depend on tact and patience to remove the suspect people from your company?"

"Patience is a virtue, but too bad I'm a devil." Ves smiled deprecatingly at himself. "It's time to let the rest of the galaxy know that. Execute my orders, captain."

Crindon looked troubled, but he had no choice to obey. "Very well, sir. I will work with Miss Calsie to see if the people on my list can be removed without any incident."

Though Ves clearly dismissed his subordinate, Crindon remained on his seat.

"What's the matter?"

"There's one notable individual on the list which requires special attention. This person's position and influence in the LMC is exceedingly high."

"Who?"

"Jake Altern. One of the longest-serving executives and the Chief Operating Officer of the LMC."

A small shock went through Ves as he heard the name. He slowly closed his eyes and began to recall the early days when his company still operated from a modest workshop in the suburbs of Freslin.

The Larkinson Estate bequeathed Jake to him in order to beef up the early management of the LMC. With the help of an old and experienced hand like Jake, the LMC grew from operating a single workshop to a major mech manufacturer that produced thousands of mechs in-house and many more through external partners!

Ves never worried too much about Jake. As a Larkinson retainer, the most he might do was pass on information back to the Larkinson Family.

"Tell me more."

Right now, Ves needed to know whether Jake answered to the Larkinsons or to some other party.

If the latter was the case, then Ves had no choice but to see another old friend out.

Crindon activated his comm and projected some of the evidence he gathered.

"Mr. Altern initially did not come to my attention, but due to his high position in the company I diverted a lot of time in monitoring the actions of the LMC's top management team. My patience has been worth it, because I've caught Altern acting very suspiciously in several instances. In particular, his routine business trips to Bentheim, supposedly to manage the affairs of the LMC in the port system, are very concerning."

The evidence his Kinner spymaster gathered did not reveal a lot. Possible dead drops, innocent conversations with supposed business partners, odd movements and more did not serve as definitive proof that Jake was communicating in secret.

However, the prevalence of so many strange incidents suggested a deliberate pattern.

"Was he contacting the Larkinsons?"

Crindon shook his head. "I've already ruled them out. It's a different party. After a lengthy investigation, which includes borrowing your cat's hacking ability, I've managed to ascertain the identity of the other party."

"Who?"

"The Bright Republic's domestic intelligence agency."

"Spotlight." Ves snarled. "How sure are you?"

"There is always the chance that I'm wrong. Perhaps the other party is merely pretending to be Spotlight."

Ves squeezed his hands, trying his best to remain in control. "Regardless of that, this doesn't change the fact that Jake has betrayed the LMC."

"Did he?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ves narrowed his eyes.

"It's the same with your assistant Gavin. Jake is not only the COO of the LMC, but also a loyal citizen of the Bright Republic. If an arm of the state requests his assistance, is he a traitor or a patriot?"

That was a difficult question that Ves still couldn't answer. Nonetheless, Ves had enough with dealing with this ambiguity.

In his eyes, it was time to cut the Gordian knot.

"I won't tolerate this double-dealing anymore." Ves emphatically stated. "I'll deal with Jake in person. You can let Calsie deal with the rest. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then go."

Once Crindon left the office, Ves let out a tired breath and leaned over his desk.

Flashlight and Spotlight wouldn't be pleased with his decision, he was sure. While Ves didn't blame them for trying to keep an eye on him and his company, that did not mean he would let their spies and informers in place once their double-dealing became known.

"It's time to clean up the rot and make a new start. I have to clean up my company to take advantage of the end of the Sand War and the start of the next mech generation."

How many old friends and allies did he need to get rid of before everyone got the message?

Just because he was young didn't mean he lacked the ruthlessness to swim with the sharks.

Though Ves held several doubts, he did not regret his choices. Taking any action, even an ill-advised one, was better than taking no action.

By responding proactively to the circumstances, he would let everyone know that he had teeth.

"The Bright Republic will always be my home, but that does not mean that I'll work selflessly for the state. I'm not like the other Larkinsons."

Perhaps he was being selfish, but so what? He knew he would outgrow a third-rate state sooner or later. Once he became capable of designing second-class mechs, his value and earning potential exceeded anything the Bright Republic could handle!

By then, his home state would have zero leverage over him! No matter what kind of agreements he made in the past, there was no way the state could continue to enforce their old rules!

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