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 Ves took a small break after finishing up the latest mech. After that, he stopped by the office to speak with Gavin about the competition.

"How is Dumont doing these days?"

"He's very aggressive in trying to sell the Havalax." Gavin replied, and called up a projection of the ads that had popped up recently. "If you look closely, most of the ads emphasize the Havalax's amazing price-performance ratio. The standard price has dropped to 50 million credits, but a number of buyers are taking advantage of discounts that can go as deep as ten percent off."

The aggressive promotion coupled with the heavy discounts and price cuts served to slow the bleeding of Dumont's company. After losing a whole bunch of orders after losing the duel, the rival mech designer actually gained enough new orders to sell as much mechs as he could produce.

"I guess a month is long enough for memories of the duel to fade. If you leave out its recent history, the Havalax is a pretty decent design, so I shouldn't be surprised that its starting to sell again." Ves disgruntledly concluded. "Still, its production costs should be higher than the Blackbeak. I'm nearly certain that he's making a loss if he sells his mechs for 45 million credits."

"It's not about making a profit at this point. Dumont is trying to make everyone forget about the duel by putting as much copies of his Havalax in circulation as possible. All the stories his buyers spread as a result will slowly push away the past into obscurity."

Clearly, Dumont's strategy worked. He had essentially overwritten the collective memories of the public with a more positive message about his mechs.

The revitalized competition forced the LMC to up their game and boost their marketing. They already coordinated with Marcella to flood the Bentheim region in all kinds of promotions that raised the profile of the bronze label and silver label Blackbeaks.

The sad thing about it was that the LMC spent far more on these campaigns than what they got back from the EME in licensing fees.

"That's going to change in a couple of months." Gavin predicted. "The marketing is a bit heavy-handed because the public has only heard about your exclusive gold label mechs, which are very hard to obtain. We still have to let the market know that there are cheaper and more abundant alternatives available."

Ves didn't argue about the need to invest in marketing. He simply found it disconcerting to be throwing millions of credits away each day.

Still, unlike Dumont's company, the LMC earned far more money than they spent. Much of it could also be attributed to their new contract with Marcella. She kept her word and devoted a lot of her own money in helping to promote the Blackbeak.

"By the way, Calsie's been wanting to meet with you. A lot has changed on this planet as well."

Ah. With all of his attention directed to Bentheim, Ves forgot about his backyard. He did hear a few things from his employees on how Cloudy Curtain felt a lot of pride for his recent achievements. Still, he didn't hear too much beyond that considering he holed himself up in his workshop trying to finish his batch of orders as quickly as possible.

He nodded to Gavin. "Send her to my office. It's about time I received an update on the situation on the ground."

Ves took care of a couple of other matters, like feeding an increasingly radiant Lucky. He could clearly feel his pet had almost reached the point of saturation before he triggered another evolution.

"Eat well, but not too much, okay? I'd still like to cuddle you in my arms once in a while."


Lately, there hadn't been many threats for Lucky to take care of. The security detachment from Sanyal-Ablin easily took care of the occasional fans and crazies trying to sneak into the workshop. They also caught and disabled most of the microscoping spy drones sent in their way.

Fortunately, Lucky possessed keen enough senses to sniff out the remainder that proved to be too advanced for the workshop's current security suite to detect. Ves held off on upgrading his security package until the company moved to a larger site.

Ves winked at his pet before heading to his office. The cramped office attached to the workshop building became increasingly more crowded lately as the company started to do more than making and selling mechs.

It gladdened him to see he built his company up to the point where it could be called a genuine medium mech manufacturer. If Ves factored in the EME, then the goal of selling more than a thousand mechs in the LMC's second fiscal year would definitely be met.

"Ves! It's been some time since I last saw you."

"Haha, my apologies for that. I've been busy, as you know. Have you finished your studies yet?"

"Yup. I wasn't able to rush my courses as fast as Gavin, but I'm all done now!"

"That's great to hear. Even if Maisie Duval has taken over much of your duties, I still prefer to deal with someone I trust like you. I'll be depending on you to keep an eye on our home planet."

Ves rarely talked to his managers these days. Jake and Primrose kept everything running smoothly without his input, just as he intended. He didn't wish to be bothered by trivial minutiae that his underlings could take care of by themselves. He was far more comfortable in the workshop than the conference room.

He only made an exception for Gavin and Calsie. They were around the same age and they had been with him from the start, so Ves didn't feel the need to watch his words around the two.

"Let me brief you on what's happening on the streets."

Calsie handed him a data pad that contained a mix of local news articles. They all profiled the the shift in public opinion with regards to Ves and the LMC.





That last headline seemed especially important. "Tell me about the people at the top. Is the ruling coalition still thinking about raising taxes?"

"They shelved those plans for an indefinite time right after you won your duel." Calsie reported. "You don't have to worry about any new threats on that front. You and your company have pretty much become the public mascots of our planet. It's political suicide to propose any bill that hinders the growth of the LMC."

The LMC didn't pay much taxes to the local government, so it didn't actually benefit the local citizens directly. Maybe a couple of years from now, the LMC's profits might reach the point where it represented a significant chunk of Cloudy Curtain's GDP.

Still, the citizens mainly cared about pride. The LMC became the planet's standard bearer in a way the two major farming consortiums achieved. Calsie showed him plenty of indicators that noted this change of heart among the public.

"That's good to hear." Ves nodded. While he didn't need the public's love, it certainly didn't hurt to benefit from it. "What about the Pioneers? I've only been hearing good things from them lately."

Calsie had a strong connection to the Pioneers, so she should know best what went on with them these days. "The Pioneers recently became embroiled in a power struggle. The old guard wanted to stay aloof while the younger members supported more proactive policies."

"I take it the latter won the power struggle?"

"Yup. Most of those stubborn old goats got booted out of the member rolls by the new leadership that swept into power. Some of them retired, but a significant chunk defected to the White Doves."

"Is that bad?"

"Not really." Calsie dismissed any worries. "Sure, they know a lot of secrets, but by now most of what they know is obsolete. The Pioneers have transformed into a dynamic young movement now. And you can bet their main priorities is to see the LMC grow, thereby dragging the rest of the planet out of its squalor."

"That's a bit strong, don't you think? People are hardly starving on the streets."

"Neither are they finding any better opportunities. Lots of farmers are doing the same work their parents did, who in turn have taken over the work of their own parents. Social mobility is practically glacial compared to the glitzy Bentheim!"

Ves became a little worried at Calsie's enthusiasm. "Bentheim isn't the best role model for a planet you want to live on. The best cities like Dorum and Ansel cost a fortune to live in. Some time ago, I promised my cousin Melinda a penthouse in downtown Dorum. Do you know how much money I ended up spending? 15 million credits!"

"Still, the suburbs are-"

"It's even worse there. Places like Haston have become notorious for the breakdown in society there. It's not a coincidence the Bentheim Liberation Movement initially rose up from that town."

"Look, Ves, that all sounds worrisome, but Cloudy Curtain is not about to turn into a second Bentheim. With smart leadership at the helm, we'll surely be able to swim past the rocks in the river."

"Aspirations like that have a tendency to be derailed." He shook his head. "Anyway, it's not my business to meddle with the Pioneers. They have nothing to do with me."

"Your relations department doesn't think so. They've been cautiously discussing some cooperative initiatives with the Pioneers."

Ves forgot about that. He ordered the relations department to maintain friendly ties with the local power players. Mrs. Duval must have taken that as an order to move towards an informal alliance with whoever was willing to play ball.

"Look, no offense, Calsie, but I don't trust the Pioneers, even if they have a new coat of paint. It's not in the LMC's interests to get in bed with someone who can have a change of heart the next day."

"If you say so, sir."

This discussion went nowhere as well, so they quickly changed the topic. Still, Ves reminded himself to check with his chief relations officer and make it clear he wanted the LMC to remain neutral.

"What else is on the agenda?"

"There's the plans to expand to a new site. Several architects in collaboration with Sanyal-Ablin have selected a suitable site further away from Freslin and drew up a final architectural plan."

Calsie handed out another data pad, this time a thicker one with more enhanced security features. Ves actually had to authenticate his identity before he got to look at the drawings of the new manufacturing complex.

If Ves had to describe it, he'd call it ambitious. The schematics of the exterior defenses

reminded him of the star-shaped walls of the forward base on Groening IV. Sanyal-Ablin's influence could be felt throughout the architectural drawings. Everything had been designed to survive and repel a minor planetary raid.

"I see that much of the most important production occurs underground."

"That's correct." Calsie nodded. "As per your wishes, the surveyors have scanned and tested the terrain and found a site that provides a decent amount of buffer against limited orbital bombardment. It will hold out for a week at least."

Much of the construction above the ground consisted of gleaming office buildings that Ves intended to serve as the LMC's headquarters. Ves wouldn't have to deal with cramped corridors anymore by the time they moved into this new place.

Ves nodded in satisfaction after a couple of minutes. "I'm fairly satisfied with these plans. Still, it's obvious that I'll be paying a premium for all of this safety. What's the price tag?"

"Well, the architects have loosely estimated that it will take at least 500 million credits to construct the barebones version of the plans."

"Half a billion credits!"

His teeth already started to ache when he heard that sum. Just when he thought he could catch a break and rake in the profits, it turned out that he had to give the money away again if he wanted to prepare for the future. The LMC desperately needed to move out of their increasingly crowded location.