Missions generally came in two flavors. Ves could either accept a risky but rewarding mission or a safe but less worthwhile one. The latter often took up more time so many of the less talented mech designers took up these tasks.
As for Ves, he'd been eyeing the riskier missions. Though he cherished his life like any human being, he knew he couldn't get anywhere without taking calculated risks. The Clifford Society's whole advancement structure encouraged their talents to temper their skills in exotic adventures.
"A mech designer who holes up in his workshop all day will only stagnate." Horatio had told him once when he guided Ves around the Society. "Even if they managed to advance by some fluke, their designs lack an essential spark. The mech industry has no need for clones."
In other words, a mech designer has to seek out the untold wonders of the galaxy and survive experience. Only then would they be able to find their own paths.
Ves didn't know what to make of this theory. Leemar strongly subscribed to the idea that the best mech designers were those capable of surviving under the most adverse conditions.
"It's more likely that mech designers who thrive under danger are already outstanding."
Whatever the case, many people paid well to enlist the services of a competent mech designer.
As long as they had access to the right facilities, they could easily design or modify a mech tailored to the situation at hand.
They also served as consultants, able to deconstruct any design and explain its inner workings to their clients.
Ves wanted to finish a mission quickly, so he ignored any mission that lasted more than three standard months. He also wanted to avoid antagonizing more people, so he drew his attention to join an expedition into the unknown reaches of space.
Despite humanity's dominance in the galaxy, vast swathes of space had never been explored. Even if an unexplored star system fell under the borders of a certain state, it might take decades before they sent a survey ship to catalog its planetary bodies.
This applied even more to the Komodo Star Sector, which had only been colonized for over half a millenia. Many of the sparser regions unclaimed by even the poorest fourth-rate states might hide some gems. If some of these star systems happened to contain some deposits of extremely valuable exotics, then an follow-up expedition would swing by sooner or later.
"Hi there!" A cheerful girl chirped at him from behind. "You're a Knight, right?"
"Great! Our team of five is thinking about taking the Hudson-Fairfax mission." She gestured at a couple of men and women a few steps behind. "We'll split the merits equally as long as everyone is doing their fair share of work. So what do you say?"
"Hold on a minute, let me study the mission."
Ves quickly called up the mission in question. It turned out to be a rather thorny job that involved mediating a conflict between two rival fourth-rate states in the middle of nowhere. Instead of going to war, they decided to hash out their differences by holding duels.
He admired such a solution, but didn't wish to enter these muddy waters. Who knew if someone powerful had something to gain from the results. The three-hundred merit reward looked nice, but Ves could only look forward to receiving fifty merits if he had to work in a team.
"I'm sorry, but I'll have to decline."
"That's a shame." The girl replied, her smiles all gone. "Goodbye then."
A handful of other Society members asked if Ves wanted to join their teams before someone told him to stand elsewhere.
"If you aren't looking for a team, then don't stand in the center!"
It turned out the Society had a tradition where if you stood at the center, you expressed an interest in working together. Ves quickly stepped to the side of the hall in order to put a stop to the incessant questions.
He went back to the list of missions and zeroed in on risky expeditions to newly surveyed star systems. After a few minutes of uninterrupted browsing, he found something of interest.
Something called the Groening mission stood out from the list. Different from many other missions, the Groening mission explicitly called for a single mech designer. Ves wouldn't have to share his merits with anyone else if he accepted this task. He eagerly pulled up the details of the mission in question.
"Four-hundred merits. That's a lot, even for an expedition."
The mission immediately noted its peculiarities. It kept most of its details mum, including the expedition's route and destination. Anyone who accepted this mission had to trust in the expedition leader's judgement as he or she led the entire fleet into uncharted space.
Ves didn't mind the risk. He planned to tag along this trip with his newly crewed Barracuda. If anything happened, he could always get away with one of the fastest interstellar ships in the star sector.
"The expedition must be looking forward to an extremely valuable haul." He noted to himself. "Why hasn't anyone accepted this mission yet?"
Lots of value meant lots of risk. Evidently, the mission had already been posted for a couple of months. No one took the bait. Who would be crazy enough to go in blind? The obscenely high reward aroused everyone's vigilance instead of their greed.
There must be some kind of catch for the mission to demand a single mech designer instead of an entire team. There was safety in numbers, after all.
"Still, if the Clifford Society is willing to offer this mission, then it should be an authentic request."
Ves could do a lot with four-hundred merits. His shopping list was small, but all of the items cost a huge amount of money if expressed in credits. If he could earn a huge sum of merits at once, he'd be able to speed up his already fast-paced timetable.
He gulped down his saliva. After considering the pros and cons, he decided to accept the Groening mission. His comm instantly beeped an alert.
"Report to the Mancroft Independent Harbor within twenty days. Forfeiting the mission is not allowed. If you are delayed or indisposed, then please inform the Mission Hall."
Ves frowned at the message. He knew about the Mancroft Independent Harbor. It was an independent star system that pretended to be a fourth-rate state. It wasn't even a port system, which made it fairly difficult for ships to reach the star system. It only enjoyed a modest amount of traffic because the Common Fleet Alliance maintained a small fueling station.
"Twenty days will be cutting it if I take a conventional ship." Fortunately, a swift corvette could reach Mancroft from Cloudy Curtain in about nine to eleven days. "I still have some time."
From the sound of it, the so-called Groening mission required a lot of preparation. While Ves had already packed some stuff, he didn't feel confident at all.
"Hopefully my latest design is catching on. I need a lot of DP to buy some extra goodies."
His latest release was met with mixed reaction. Many of his fans ran to the game centers in order to try out the training mech. Others held off as they questioned the mech designer's sanity.
Joshua happened to be one of the fans. As soon as he left school, he returned home and hopped into his private simulator pod. He immediately bought the Old Soul with credits and entered the massive 100v100 Wartorn Instance with his newly purchased virtual mech.
He still took in the strange vibe that radiated out of his machine. Somehow, he felt as if the Old Soul was as eager to try out its capabilities as him. He certainly looked forward to trying out this eccentric mech.
"Training mech or not, you exist for a reason." Joshua whispered to himself and his virtual mech. "I don't believe Chasing Clouds has gone crazy."
Its release came as a bombshell. Cloudy Curtain's own mech designer suddenly published a new virtual mech, and it was a 2-star training mech! As soon as everyone heard those words, they got excited.
Once they looked at the Old Soul's specs, their enthusiasm quickly dashed. Almost all of his fellow classmates scratched their heads at the many limitations.
"You're not able to dial down the power of the rifle? Why don't you call it a cannon then! More importantly, even cannons won't stop after firing a measly six shots. How can this retarded design kill any mech with just six opportunities?"
"It's only able to fire once every two seconds. Do you know how long that is? By the time my next shot is ready, a skirmisher is already in my face!"
"This mech is completely helpless in melee! Only a wimp who never stepped into a cockpit in his entire life can come up with something so pathetic. It can't even win a knife fight against a 1-star mech!"
A lot of his classmates disparaged the mech, but Joshua had faith in his idol. Many of peers missed the Old Soul's incredible stealth, precision and power. Sure, it only excelled as a sniper, but wasn't that a great way to learn the ropes of a rifleman?
Of course, Joshua didn't need to play along. Due to his extensive tutoring, he already mastered the basics of marksmanship. His Old Soul leisurely stepped onto a heavily urbanized battlefield.
The battle this time entailed battling over a research institute. Both sides had to fight to maintain possession over the structure. Whoever occupied its grounds for ten minutes won the match.
"Let's find a good position."
Joshua separated from the crowd and lugged his mech towards the sides. He ducked down his mech or hid behind a corner whenever an enemy scout flew over his head. The Old Soul's passive dampening armor insured the scouts never noticed the sneaky mech.
"It's a lot better than I thought."
The welcome surprise emboldened Joshua to seek out a forward position. His fingers already itched the pull the trigger.
After several minutes of skulking he found a collapsed structure that looked over a burning spaceport. Joshua carefully controlled the Old Soul to crouch behind the debris. The mech settled in as best it could for a giant machine and waited for its prey to approach.
The massive conflagration released a huge amount of constant heat. The abundant thermal energy helped mask his Old Soul's presence.
His patient wait paid off when a trio of mechs came into view. One medium knight and one regular rifleman mech escorted a heavy four-legged artillery mech. It appeared the four-legged crawler wanted to find a good angle to bombard its enemy's rear.
"That just won't do." Joshua whispered to himself. After a brief moment's thought, he pivoted his rifle at the enemy's rifleman.
The rifleman posed the greatest threat to Joshua while also boasting the least armor. The knight and artillery mech on the other hand employed substantially more armor, to the point where Joshua doubted he'd be able to penetrate past their layers.
Joshua calmed down and regulated his breathing. His marksmanship tutor already hammered home the importance of maintaining control. His rifle poked out a low depression of fallen rubble and aimed straight at the wary rifleman mech accompanying the artillery mech.
The Old Soul came to life. Joshua vaguely sensed some bloodlust as he waited for the rifleman mech to come into medium range. Advanced targeting systems went to work, providing Joshua with a prediction of his opponent's movements and its weak points.
A tiny shift caused the rifle to be pointed over the enemy rifleman's left chest. The Old Soul's sophisticated sensors detected marginally higher heat at that position.
Thirty seconds, twenty seconds, ten seconds...
The procession neared Joshua's position. Once they came into medium range, Joshua pulled the trigger.
The air thrummed as a narrow gout of light and heat blasted through the air and impacted close to intended target's chest. Only a small portion of of the laser beam could be seen with the naked eye. Most of the energy fell outside the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
This basically meant that the Old Soul's laser beams looked deceptively weak. Unlike the more conventional laser cannons which blazed forth its payload with a visible swathe of violence, the Old Soul's highly modified laser rifle poked a narrow hole into its target like an unexpected crossbow bolt.
Seconds later, the stricken rifleman mech suffered a catastrophic explosion! The two accompanying mechs were caught completely off-guard as their companion's power reactor lost containment.
"Sniper!" The knight suddenly yelled and held its shield close to the startled artillery mech. "He's close! Shoot!"
The artillery mech's pilot quickly regained his composure and fired off an immediate volley in the direction of the laser beam's origin. The explosive shells covered a large swathe around the pile of rubble, turning the entire area into hell.
As soon as the first shells landed, Joshua triggered panic button. The Old Soul's particle generator quickly exploded into action and spurted out a huge amount of particles along with dark-colored vapor.
"Damn it! This smoke is in the way!" The pilot of the artillery mech cursed. "My sensors aren't picking up anything!"
While the enemy pilot considered bombarding the entire area with shells, Joshua had already made his getaway and waited for his rifle to shed its heat. He only fired a single shot, so it did not take too long for the rifle to become an unremarkable prop in the Old Soul's hands.
Joshua slowly circled his bewildered opponents. He set up his mech for his next attack. As long as his opponents failed to spot his mech, he insisted on pressing his advantage.
His rifle aimed at the bewildered knight's back. His skills and judgement combined with the Old Soul's targeting system made him target the lower back.
His rifle fired again. The narrow beam struck the knight square in its weaker rear armor and punched through until it struck the engine. The knight lurched as its movements hitched up. The attack hadn't killed the mech, but it succeeded in slowing it down.
The third, fourth and fifth shots exploited the vulnerability and took down the hapless knight.