Ves entertained the first guest to his office of the day. Appearing older and more weary than a couple of years ago, Jake Altern calmly trudged towards the chair and sat down with contentment.
"Ah. What a comfortable chair." The old man sighed. "How have you been, Ves? We haven't spoken alone for a while."
"I'm.. not doing very well right now." Ves replied while watching the Chief Operating Officer like a hawk. "You see, I'm dealing with a thorny relationship with the state right now."
Jake quickly frowned. "What is the matter, Ves?"
"I don't have the patience to explain it to you, but in short the state and certain powerful people think it's alright to push me around."
"That's a very cynical view, Ves. If you haven't noticed, the Bright Republic is in the middle of a war for survival. The sandman race has already annihilated the border states. Now that the Coman Federation has fallen, our state is the next in line. It's not surprising therefore that the government and various factions are resorting to many means to save as many Brighters as possible."
"They're being very heavy-handed, Jake. So much so that my patience is wearing thin."
The old man looked troubled at his words. "Tough times call for tough measures. The Bright Republic is on a war footing. The comforts we've enjoyed in the past are no more. Every citizen has to make some sacrifices. Those who are wealthier and more capable must be ready to make even greater sacrifices."
"Because of duty, right?" Ves directed a playful smile at his old friend.
"Because we are fighting for something greater than ourselves." Jake replied, sounding a bit more forceful despite his frail form. "The LMC and you are in a position to do much good. You've already made a great contribution by developing the Desolate Soldier. Once you've completed the two variants in the pipeline, I'm sure the state will be intimately grateful for your help."
"I'm not so sure about that last part. I've been thinking that the government has taken me for granted for a while now. It's difficult to shed the impression that they are using me in the same way as before."
Jake began to frown. "I think you're overreacting, Ves. While the government can come across as heavy-handed, they are shouldering an immense burden. The lives of trillions of citizens and refugees are at stake. How can anyone hold back in such a precarious situation? Saving lives is a noble calling, Ves, but it is never an easy one."
"I'm getting rather tired of hearing that. Everyone keeps lecturing me about duty, calling and sacrifice, but what about me? Does anyone care about me at all, or do people just see me as a gullible fool who easily succumbs to manipulation?"
"I wouldn't say that, Ves. You're a mech designer. You climbed your way out of a humble background and you have made many stunning achievements that allowed you to eclipse your peers. I don't think any Brighter mech designer of your generation has shone as brightly as you. Even Edwin McKinney, that famous prodigy of yesterday, is still begging for scraps in the Coalition. Now that the Komodo War has broken out, I think he's quite remorseful for abandoning our state."
Ves crossed his arms and straightened his back. "That sounds nice and all, but I don't think that the people in power are treating me like an adult."
"Please. Before you grow angry, think about what is going on. Your Avatars of Myth and Living Sentinels are risking their lives to fight the sandmen. Aren't they fulfilling their duty? As mech pilots, they have an obligation to put their capabilities to good use. The situation is no different when it comes to you. As a mech designer, there is no expectation of you to risk your life."
Ves chuckled at this remark. "I earned my combat awards for a reason, you know."
"And you got better after you've completed your service, right?"
"I can't argue with that." Ves responded while scratching his smooth-shaven cheek. "I've fulfilled my obligations, though. Even if a great and terrible war is going on, I'm not a young and powerless Apprentice anymore. I'm a Journeyman with great influence and ability."
"I would be careful with your words. You're sounding rather full of yourself."
"Do you think any mech designer can achieve as much sales as me? I think I deserve a pat on the back."
"There's a line between confidence and arrogance. Young men like you who have grown a lot are always straying towards the latter. I've seen it many times in Larkinsons like you. The expert candidates in your family are especially prone to overestimate their abilities."
"I'm not a wannabe, Jake. I'm the real deal. Just like the expert pilots in our family, I have the strength to back up my confidence."
The atmosphere had grown more and more strained. Jake started to sense some problems. In his memories, Ves had never been so blunt and forceful in his views.
"What's going on, Ves? Obviously, you didn't call me up to have a chat."
"I'll get to that. We're not finished with this discussion yet." Ves smiled in a compelling manner. "How do you see the LMC in ten years?"
The question came out of the blue. "I don't know. It depends on the outcome of the wars that are currently raging in the star sector."
"Let's assume we've won the Sand War while the Hexers kicked the Fridaymen out of the star sector."
"Then I would say that the LMC enjoys a bright future. While I'm not sure what Hexer dominance will mean in the star sector, your relations with Gloriana will probably be of great assistance."
"How big do you think my company can get?"
Jake paused for a bit. "If your other products are just as promising as your Desolate Soldier design, then you have the potential to penetrate the entire star sector. Maybe you'll even find a way to break into the Hegemony's mech market."
"Who do you think is bigger at that time, my mech company or my home state?"
"Such a question is moot. Companies and states can't be compared. No matter how fast the LMC grows, it will never be able to employ more people than the citizens of the Bright Republic. This apples and oranges comparison is extremely unfair."
"You haven't answered the question. Let me specify a bit further. Do you think there will come a time where the value of the LMC exceeds the gross domestic product of the Bright Republic?"
Jake frowned as he fell in thought. "I'm an old man, Ves. I doubt I will live long enough to see that happen, but I admit you have the potential to do so. The only question is whether I will live to see that happens. It would be the proudest moment of my life."
"Since my company under my leadership has the potential to reach this point, don't you think there is something wrong about the Bright Republic imposing their demands on me?"
"Potential is just potential. There is no guarantee that you will reach this promised future. Many Journeymen that have made waves in their youth have fizzled out in their later years. In addition, anything can happen in between. You are not an esteemed Senior or a powerful Master. Right now, you still have a lot to go before you reach those heights. Until then, I suggest you remain humble and play the role that is expected of you. Only by working within the system will you be able to maintain your support."
"What if I don't necessarily need the support?" Ves proposed.
"Everyone needs support. That is the way society functions."
"I don't think you're wrong, but some support is better than others. Though you just disparaged McKinney, I don't think he's made the wrong choice. He just made his move too early, that's all. I'm already starting to forge relationships with greater powers. Why should I let the Bright Republic hold me back?"
This time, it became very clear to Jake that this was a different conversation from what he envisioned.
"That sounds.. treasonous."
"Nothing so extreme. I just want to reboot my relationship with the Bright Republic, that's all. Doesn't it sound fair if the state actually affords me the treatment I deserve?"
Jake continued to look troubled. "While your argument sounds reasonable, your rhetoric is disturbing."
"Some people call me the Devil Tongue."
"I'm aware. I thought you only reserved your Devil Tongue for your enemies."
Ves looked sharply at Jake. "That's true."
A tense silence followed as a slow realization began to dawn on Jake. The old man closed his eyes and began to process the situation calmly. Ves allowed the COO the time to think through the situation.
The old man eventually opened his eyes. "Just to be clear. What turned you against me?"
"Spotlight." Ves spoke out a single word.
"I see." Jake sighed. "I see. I see. I see."
"You see but you don't see. If you remained loyal, you would have made great achievements and leave behind an enduring legacy. Now, just as the LMC is experiencing another round of meteoric growth, I find out that you've been blind all this time. You know my stance on spies. Why did you ever think it was a good idea to associate yourself with Spotlight?"
Now that the truth came out, the COO looked at Ves in the eyes without any regret or remorse. "I won't deny your accusations or make any excuses. You deserve better than that, Ves. All I'm willing to state is that we are both Brighters, and that has never changed. We all serve the Bright Republic in different ways."
"You could have stuck to your job description and serve the Bright Republic by ensuring that one of its most promising mech companies is running smoothly."
"That's not enough for the state. The more the LMC grows, the greater its value to the state. It's impossible for organizations such as Spotlight to leave your company be. Some monitoring will always take place."
Ves snorted. "Don't make it sound as if you're innocent. Perhaps Spotlight only started off with some light requests, but what if they don't like the direction of my company? What if they come up to you one day and tell you to convince me to change my mind?"
"I'm doubtful that such a thing would ever take place. As long as you don't pose a threat to the state, the intelligence agencies will never do anything drastic."
Obviously, Jake did not know to what lengths that Flashlight would go to achieve their objectives.
From what Ves heard, Spotlight was a lot tamer than Flashlight. That did not mean that the former was squeaky clean. Ves preferred to assume that all spy agencies were threats regardless of what others have professed.
Perhaps Spotlight's bumbling reputation was just an act. The Bright Republic wasn't as fractured as the Vesia Kingdom. If his state's domestic spy agency was really so inept, then it should have been abolished a long time ago.
For an agency that was meant to spy on its own citizens, the last thing Spotlight wanted was to gain notoriety.
Even Ves had been tempted to dismiss the spies and informers of Spotlight when Crindon first brought them up.
"You don't have to make excuses for Spotlight. You've made your bed. Now lie in it." Ves spoke with a tone of finality.
Both sides saw no further gain from continuing this conversation. Jake rose up with a heavy heart and looked at Ves with a forlorn expression.
"You grew up so much in these past few years. Almost a decade has gone by and you have already grown to be the pillar of the Larkinson Family. It is amazing for me to be a part of your early growth. No matter what you think of me, the LMC will always be my pride and joy."
Ves already diverted his gaze from the old man.
"You can tender your resignation by the end of the day. Don't do anything stupid."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Ves. I'll make sure to leave behind some notes so that my successor to my position can start off right away."
When Jake walked out of the office, Ves had a feeling that an era had come to an end.