While Ves decided to do head to the Glowing Planet to help out his cousin Raella, he might as well accomplish something more. However, he still faced considerable pushback from the company. How could they allow the founder, CEO and lead designer of the LMC to stroll into an active warzone?
"What's wrong with you?" Jake hissed at Ves as he cornered him. "Are you some kind of adrenaline junkie? Why do you throw yourself into danger at the first opportunity that knocks at your door?"
"It's not about chasing after a thrill! I'm doing it because I have to help my family."
"We both know damn well that's not the only thing on your mind. Haven't you always said that you had an awful time in your last adventure and never wanted to do anything like that again? Aren't you working so hard to become an established mech designer so that when the Republic drafts you, you'll be sent to some cozy lab away from the frontlines?"
"What's your point?"
"You're too much of a Larkinson. I've witnessed this behavior of yours plenty of times with the other Larkinsons who don't have the aptitude to pilot a mech. They're so inured in the warrior ethos of the family that they feel they have to prove their courage even more."
Jake should know what he was talking about, since he managed plenty of stores for the Larkinson Estate. He must have interacted with the business-minded side of the family for decades and gained a keen insight on their overall culture.
Ves fell silent for a moment. Did he feel the need to prove himself? Not particularly. His rapid advance in the mech industry already earned him enough respect that it didn't matter if others branded him a coward.
Was it about the thrill? Seeking fortune amid chaos and death? His heart started to beat faster at the thought. Despite being terrified at the prospect of battle, it enervated him as well. His eyes shook in anticipation. Fear and fright seemed to have conflicting effects on his body and mind.
"The blood runs too deep." Jake softly whispered as he shook his head. "You're made in the same mold as your grandfather. Did you know that Benjamin distinguished himself in the previous wars by volunteering for some of the most critical and dangerous missions? Just when you thought he'd meet his death, he'll crawl away with the skin of his teeth. It's the main reason why he advanced to expert pilot so young."
He knew the stories. Every Larkinson who reached the exalted rank of expert pilot possessed something remarkable to be able to break through the bottleneck that stopped countless pilots in their tracks.
Some had been gifted with exceptional neural aptitude. They easily pierced the bottleneck like a needle through cloth.
Some started off average, but grinded themselves past the barrier through relentless training.
Some, like his grandfather, fought at their best when they put their lives on the line. Benjamin Larkinson rose like a rocket, but a single incident late in his career had finally been the straw that broke the camel's back. The venerated war hero had been forced to put aside his profession when he sustained irreparable damage to his body.
So maybe the blood did run thick. Even though his father didn't inherit any of Benjamin's grit, perhaps it had to take another generation for another daredevil to emerge.
Ves began to smile. "All of what you said makes sense. I don't have to go to the Glowing Planet. It doesn't make any logical sense. Yet my heart and mind is urging me to seek my fortune there. Don't forget that this company had been built from the rewards I gained from exploring the stars."
He salvaged the highly productive Dortmund printer from an old facility. He obtained the rest of his equipment along with a slew of rare and valuable licenses by completing a mission from the Society.
That reminded him to check out their Mission Hall. They might have issued another set of missions concerning the Glowing Planet. Even if the entire Coalition moved in after seventy days, they might want to test the waters first.
He had a feeling that the two dominant second-rate states deliberately took their time in claiming the planet. Any stellar body with a huge number of exotic mineral deposits always played havoc with man and machine. Any number of unimaginable dangers might lurk beneath its glowing facade.
And that was where Ves planned to find his fortune.
Even though Jake tried to convince his boss to stay, Ves would have none of it. He was dead set on being among the Whalers as they attempted to obtain a slice of the Glowing Planet's many riches.
He moved quickly that day. Ves hurried up with loading the Barracuda with Melkor's packed Stanislaw along with a set of high quality tools and critical supplies. He also got in touch with Walter's Whalers and let them know he was coming.
Arranging all of that work took little time, since his workers did the actual work. Ves thought about what he brought to the table, and found it rather lacking. He wanted to bring one of his mechs as well and present it to the Whalers.
"The problem is that I don't have any spare mech on hand."
Ves had to complete his contractual obligations first. The LMC immediately shipped all of the gold label Blackbeaks that he fabricated up to this point. He didn't have any spare mechs left, and he couldn't fabricate a new one from scratch in time to join up with the Whalers.
"Still, I do have one frame collecting dust in my warehouse."
It was his first production model. As his very first Blackbeak, it the mech had special meaning to him. The MTA validated his very first original design based on that copy. Melinda also piloted it to victory in the duel against Captain Vicar.
Many mech designers treated their first production models like a piece of art. They cherished them like children and waited for the right time to auction them off for an incredible sum of money, perhaps multiplying its value by hundreds of times in case of extremely successful designs.
Ves didn't want to risk the loss or destruction of his first production model, but circumstances forced his hand. If he worked quickly, he'd be able to repair the damaged mech in less than a day, which gave him sufficient time to catch up to the Whalers.
"Let's do it."
Once he gave out the orders, the mech technicians went into action. Even if they never repaired an existing mech before, they all knew the basics, courtesy of Chief Cyril's training. They brought the damaged mech out of storage and placed it in the assembly system, which carefully cataloged and disassembled the damaged portions of the mech.
Meanwhile, Ves cleared the production line again and started fabricating replacement components. In order to save time, he decided not to replace the lightly damaged components, but handed them off to his mech technicians so that they could attempt to repair the parts themselves.
Not all of them proved capable of doing so, but he expected some fumbling. Any successes went right back in the mech. Parts that proved more difficult to restore passed on to Ves, who put it in the Dortmund and used some of its more advanced functions to restore the component.
Not everything could be recovered to their original state. The armor plating proved impossible to repair with the equipment that the workshop had on hand. Ves had no choice but to fabricate new ones from scratch.
At least they'd be able to sell the broken plating to a professional recycler, allowing them to recoup the majority of the costs.
As Ves started making progress in the repairs, he constantly focused on the image of the Black Phoenix. Even though the mech had already gained a solidified mental presence, Ves used some of the insights he learned before to overlap its existing traits with a higher emphasis on toughness and endurance.
From what little he learned, the battle for the Glowing Planet would be fought over many battles under extremely hostile terrain. Supplying the mechs on the ground would be a huge challenge since all kinds of carriers vied for orbital supremacy.
His Blackbeak had been designed to excel in wars stretching for years. This presented a problem for him because he initially assumed the Blackbeak would fight a lot of skirmishes but only a couple of full-blown battles over the course of its service.
Thus, Ves consciously deviated from his initial design in order to harden his mech against a succession of intensive battles. He didn't take the time to form a new design and test whether the changes introduced new flaws. He eagerly modified his mech on the fly, relying nothing on intuition and some invisible guidance from a changing black phoenix.
Ultimately, the changes only led to minor differences, but Ves found the experience to be worthwhile. Acting on another whim, Ves decided to coat the feather pauldrons in a shade of red. He also changed the settings of the cloud generators to emit red vapor instead of varying shades of grey.
The added color looked spectacular, and gifted his mech with character.
"It's a damn shame you're sending it off to battle." Chief Cyril whistled in appreciation at the newly enhanced mech. "It's practically an heirloom of the company, you know. It's a piece of living history."
Ves sighed with regret. "I know, but when I'm short on mechs, I'll grab the first thing that's available, living history or not. What it can earn us down the line is not as important as satisfying an immediate need."
He knew that despite his good relations with Dietrich, he never really built any ties with the rest of the Whalers. Ves wanted his first meeting with Walter to be on good terms, and nothing expressed his sincerity better by gifting him one of his company's pride and joy.
A hauler arrived at his workshop and picked up the mech. Ves entered an armored shuttle as well and rode it to the lair of the Whalers. He brought no one else along but Lucky.
A few hours later, the hauler and the shuttle and its escorts touched down an expansive but haphazard base on the outskirts of Orinoco. It looked like a half-abandoned shell of its former self, as the Whalers already shifted much of their mechs to the carriers orbiting above the planet.
Ves stepped outside with Lucky following close behind. The cat meowed in confusion as the smells bombarded their noses. The smell of rust, alcohol and urine blended together in a unique ensemble that forced Ves to pinch his nose.
He hurried forward and met with some guards, who guided him to a gathering of senior Whalers. They looked at him as he approached.
"Ves Larkinson, at your service."
A bushy white-bearded man with a barrel of a chest and kegs for arms stepped forward. Ves recognized him at an instant. This was nothing less than Walter himself, who reigned over the Whalers since before he was born.
The man eyed him with a critical eye. "You've got guts. At least you look tough enough. Good, but you need more than that to make it out alive."
"I came bearing gifts, Mr. Walter."
The hauler unloaded the recently modified Blackbeak at that point. All of the Whalers around Walter gasped in surprise and admiration at the sight of the striking mech.
"Is that your new mech?"
"It's the very first production model, in fact. It's the strongest and most finely tuned copy of my original Blackbeak design. It's the mech that Melinda Larkinson used to beat Captain Vicar."
The Whalers might not be fully aware of what the Blackbeak brought to the table, but they all knew about the duel. The veterans erupted in a flurry of whispers.
"And you're giving it to us?"
"It's all yours from this point onwards."
Walter's face cracked into a smile. "I can't say no to a free mech, especially one of this caliber. You're in, Ves. Welcome aboard."
Ves successfully cleared the first hurdle.