The usually boisterous classroom in the academy abruptly fell into silence. Every potentate sat up straight as a uniformed mech pilot walked in front of the class. Joshua's eyes shone as he beheld the dashing man.
The man swept his view towards the boys and girls and mentally shook his head. What was the use of visiting these teenagers? They were at least five years away from being qualified to pilot mechs. Still, he had his orders.
"This is a time of war. The Vesia Kingdom has invaded us once again, and it is the duty of every citizen to repel them with the best of your ability. As mech cadets, your time has not yet come, but that is no excuse for you to slack off! The Mech Corps holds the frontlines so that kids like you can train in peace. Do not squander their sacrifice and continue to improve your skills. The Republic depends on you!"
Every boy and girl thrusted out their chest in pride. A veritable wave of enthusiasm passed over the cadets as they imagined wearing the mech pilot's uniform one day. Every mech regiment utilized a different uniform scheme, which led to a lot of variety in the Mech Corps. Joshua himself only recognized a couple of them, and the man's black-and-yellow uniform eluded his knowledge.
"As a potentate of the Republic, the most talented of you are treasured by us. Certain individuals here have distinguished themselves in their training. I am here to invite a number of you to accompany me back to Bentheim and enroll in one of their most prestigious academies on a fast-track training program. I won't lie, it will be hard, and the amount of drop-outs will be high. But if even one of you perseveres, you will have a bright future ahead of you in the Mech Corps!"
The majority of the cadets frowned or groaned. They knew their scores well enough to realize that they didn't qualify for such an extravagant program. Instead, they turned their attention to Joshua and a couple of other talented classmates. Out of all of them, their performance stood out the most.
"Cadets Joshua, Liss and Maye, you are deemed eligible to take up this opportunity. Are you willing to serve the Republic?"
The mech pilot smiled. "We will send out an information package to your parents. So long as your parents consent to the program, you'll be eligible to apply."
The rest of the classroom envied Joshua and the rest. None of them scored remarkably well in their training courses. In fact, their academy actually ranked at the bottom in the Republic. It couldn't be helped since Cloudy Curtain lacked a rich mech scene until recently.
The founding of the LMC and its subsequent rise changed all of that. Suddenly, their sleepy rural planet became a local hotbed for mechs as the LMC broke out of its shell with the release of the widely acclaimed Blackbeak model.
The mech manufacturer's ascension initiated a sea of change. Local politics had been thrown into a mess, while the influx of tax income invigorated public services. Culturally, the insular citizens of Cloudy Curtain finally opened up to the wider Republic.
Once stoked, the mech fever ran out of control. The enthusiastic younger generation flocked to the LMC like ducks and became the company's diehard fans.
The potentates among them formed a virtual fanclub called the LMC Association. They established a presence in every virtual game including Iron Spirit.
Joshua owed much of his recent success to the Association and the game. The only reason why he improved so quickly was that he wanted to pilot the LMC's higher starred virtual mechs.
Ves Larkinson published a handful of virtual mechs in his brief career. Over time, the members of the Association flocked to one dominant model in each tier. It became something of a badge of pride if the members could master every bestseller mech.
Currently, the list included the following mechs:
1-star: Fantasia 2R Seraphim - Aerial Marksman
2-star: TOC-1S Old Soul - Ambush Rifleman
3-star: HPL-100S Young Blood - Knight
4-star: FFL-25P DarkSpear - Assassin Mech
5-star: CA-1C2 Marc Antony Mark II - Hybrid Knight
The boisterous members of the Association generally reached a broad consensus on the first four mechs. Each of them represented the best mechs of their tier. Most of them consisted of Mr. Larkinson's latest virtual designs.
The only place the members couldn't agree on was the Marc Antony Mark II. As a Hybrid Knight, it was hard to pilot. Only the older members of the Association had reached the Gold League where they could unlock the ability to pilot a 5-star mech, and they all encountered significant difficulties trying to control the Mark II's many weapons.
Frankly speaking, the recently released Blackbeak virtual mech was much more suitable as a poster mech for the 5-star tier. As a pure knight mech, it lacked the complicated and uncoordinated weapon systems of the older design. While it didn't fare very well in small-scale duels, it still found a respectable place in Warntorn Instances and other larger game modes.
The only problem was the price. As a premium design, the Blackbeak sold for a ridiculous amount of gold or real credits. Only a handful of long-time players accumulated enough gold to exchange for the mech. The rest could only stare enviously.
In any case, Joshua had worked hard the last couple of years. Ever since he first came across Chasing Clouds' mechs, he had no idea that he was piloting a product of a homegrown hero. After Mr. Larkinson came into prominence, his drive to master Mr. Larkinson's mechs had grown into a deep-seethed obsession.
At his age, he should still be languishing in the upper Bronze League or the lower Silver League. Instead, he rocketed upwards until he finally broke through the Gold League.
His hard work paid off! The moment he promoted to the Gold League, he instantly spent the credits he'd been saving so far on a virtual copy of the DarkSpear mech, which had gained some notoriety in the Bentheim mech scene.
Joshua tasted bliss as he piloted the assassin mech. He utilized the skills he gained from mastering the Old Soul and achieved a decent amount of success with the assassin mech.
Still, it had been rough the first couple of months. His ranking fell as he struggled to adapt to the higher pace of the Gold League. His game account even demoted back to Silver League at some point, but the skills he learned from the high-pressure upper league allowed him to bounce back to Gold League in a brief amount of time.
His performance in game reflected back in his performance in the academy. Joshua sat at the top of his year in academy. Almost no one his age could match him in a duel.
To be honest, Joshua only accepted the invitation to attend an elite academy in Bentheim because he'd be able to promote his ranking faster.
"I'll be able to pilot Mr. Larkinson's 5-star mechs sooner if I go to Bentheim."
If the mech pilot who visited his class heard those words, he'd wring Joshua's neck. The Vesians have invaded the Republic's borders, and all you can think about is playing a game?!
Across Cloudy Curtain, Joshua consisted of a small number of mech cadets that recently showed a lot of promise. Each of them owed their improvement to the LMC in some way. The passion the mech company engendered among its fans had lit a fire inside their hearts
If the LMC initially stoked the fire, then Walter's Whalers fanned the flames.
Their participation and subsequent return from the Glowing Planet Campaign had captured the minds of the locals.
The proliferation of recordings from the Whalers and many other participants of the struggle to secure the Glowing Planet's resources had captured the minds of the entire Komodo Star Sector.
It sounded like an adventure drama. The Whalers arrived at the Glowing Planet and survived through several crises before they limped back home with a huge pot of gold. Billions of credits flowed into their account, and in the first couple of weeks they threw out party after party. The entire planet revelled in the success of the gang.
Only a handful stood still at the losses. Walter, Dietrich, Fadah and the other cadre quietly consoled the survivors and set aside two-hundred million credits for their pensions. It was the least they could do, and they didn't lack for money now in any case.
Once the partying had subsided, a contentious discussion ensued within the gang. Some of the older members wanted to retire with their riches, while others wanted to continue the good fight but with better mechs.
"Haven't we struggled for years in the mud for a big score like this?" An older member asked. "Look at how much we earned! We're richer than most companies right now! I bet we're worth even more than the LMC right now! The time to pilot mechs is over. If anything, we can hire others to pilot mechs in our stead!"
Even though a couple of members agreed with that position, Dietrich quickly thumped his fist on the conference table. "Is retiring all you can think about? Then go ahead and leave, but don't expect to get a large share of the prize. This money belongs to the Whalers! As far as I'm concerned, this is the time where our gang can flourish! With the Vesians knocking on our borders, the last thing we should do is to put down our mechs!"
The argument went back and forth for both sides. While many Whalers wanted to leave behind their old profession, others wanted to expand their organization and become more formidable in everyone's eyes. These hardcore members couldn't imagine a life of peace and leisure.
Once the two sides entered a deadlock, Walter finally intervened. "Walter's Whalers will continue on until we all drop dead or drop out. Those of you who wants to retire may do so. If you fought alongside me on the Glowing Planet, then I'll make sure you earned your fair share. As for the rest, don't expect us to be generous."
A substantial number of members who advocated for early retirement had in fact been left behind on Cloudy Curtain. They never shed their blood on behalf of the Whalers. Instead, they stared greedily at the tens of billions of credits the Whalers had earned from the sale of their mining haul to the Republic.
Walter's words instantly doused their greed. Most of the freeloaders subsequently quieted down and expressed no further interest in a retirement. Each of them could only expect to receive about fifty-thousand credits, which was a pittance.
In contrast, Walter treated those who experienced the tough campaign on the Glowing Planet and wanted to leave for one reason or another more sincerely. Though the Whalers still retained the lion's share of the pot, Walter issued a billion credits to the retirees, turning all of them into enviable pensioners.
Once everyone who still expressed a desire to leave had left, Walter addressed the loyalists who stuck by his organization.
"I won't lie to you. Much of the money we've made will be spent on mechs, ships and equipment. If you think you'll be able to drink the finest drinks and eat cloud rice every way then you're mistaken. We have a lifetime opportunity to become an elite outfit and I won't squander it away by wasting it on luxuries!"
No one outwardly objected to his decision, though plenty of members complained within their hearts at Walter's excessive frugality.
"In the coming months, we will build up our strength. Our first order of business is to fill up our roster and expand our scope. I hope to we can grow our numbers to the point where we can field a thousand mechs at a time."
"A thousand mechs!?"
That was half a regiment! So many mechs would turn the Whalers from a rural bully into a regional powerhouse. Though they'll never be able to surpass the Three Tyrants who ruled over Bentheim, such numbers gave them the qualification to contest over other minor star systems!
Each outfit that returned from the Glowing Planet intact experienced similar transformations. These lucky gangs and mercenary corps outpaced their rivals and competitors by far and began to recruit en masse.
The balance of power in the Bentheim region decisively shifted in their favor.