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 Ves spent a couple of hours at Melinda's place. They reminisced about the past and exchanged their thoughts about the war.

Unlike most Larkinsons, Melinda didn't seem so eager to distinguish herself in the great conflict. "I'm not so hungry to earn acknowledgement from our uncles and aunts. What's the use of making a name for yourself when you end up in an early grave?"

"You should be careful with such talk. Others might think you're a coward."

"So what if they did? I'm my own person. I don't need anyone's acknowledgement. Besides, I've more than earned my chops in the Planetary Guard and that stupid duel."

"What will you do if the war reaches the surface of Bentheim? It could always happen."

"Pah." Melinda dismissively waved her hand. "The Vesians never managed to set foot on Bentheim before and they won't do so for the foreseeable future. They can't break the Republic all by themselves."

"It can always happen. No one can be certain of how this war will progress."

"Even if the Vesians arrive at my doorstep, I'll continue to do my duty. There's no question about that." Melinda stated with conviction. "Just because I'm not eager to earn for glory doesn't mean I'll run away at the first sign of trouble. I merely don't buy in the glory that the other Larkinsons are talking about. I must be lacking those genes."

No one truly believed the Vesians could succeed in breaking through. They feared the possibility, but hundreds of years or unending failure inured everyone to the status quo.

Ves faintly found that attitude to be wrong. Maybe it was because he experienced these tumultuous times for himself, but his intuition told him that this time would be different. The problem was convincing others of the gravity of this current conflict.

"By the way, have you gotten in touch with Raella?"

Mentioning the current black sheep of the Larkinson Family sank Melinda's mood to the bottom of a pit.

"She isn't accepting my calls. From what I can gather, nobody else has managed to get in touch with her. She's completely involved in her own little world. From the intelligence that the Planetary Guard has gathered, she's become something of a champion pilot to the Blood Claws. They parade her out whenever they need to fight a mech duel."

"That sounds dangerous."

"I won't argue that. Raella's got as much balls as any Larkinson serving in the frontlines. Mech duels that take place in official arenas are already dangerous enough, but the underground arenas are ten times worse. It takes a real survivor to make it out alive from there."

Both of them looked a little worried, but Raella made her bed. If she thought she could handle it, then Ves couldn't do anything about her reckless choice.

"How influential are the Blood Claws? Are they a big deal?"

Melinda snorted. "Hah! Big deal? They're massive! They just hide it well. They control roughly a third of Bentheim's seedy underbelly. Nothing happens on their territory without them knowing about it. They're a violent bunch and the aftermath of their fights are always a hell to clean up. The only reason why they aren't mopped up is because we can never stamp them out and the cost would be too much for us to bear."

This was a familiar refrain that every authority figure repeated when someone asked why they hadn't mopped up the gangs.

"What are the Blood Claws good at?"

"Hm. They don't have any specialties as far as I know. They've dipped their fingers into gambling, extortion, stimulants, pirated mechs and more. Whatever you can think of, they probably have someone doing it. That's what makes them so pervasive."

"They sound like swell guys."

"They used to be worse. They only cleaned up their act once they couldn't expand anymore."

He enjoyed his time at Melinda's, even if he couldn't stay for long. It was inconvenient for him to travel to Rittersberg, so talking with one more Larkinson besides Melkor reminded him he was a part of the Larkinsons as well. Blood was thicker than water, and Ves had a feeling he needed to count on them sooner or later.

"This might be the last time I see you for several years." Ves said as he stood at her doorstep. "I hope you take care of yourself, and keep an eye on my company as well."

She shrugged. "Will do, though it doesn't look like your company needs it. Your new mech is catching a lot of attention."

"I'm glad to hear that."

Ves checked the updated status report on the exposure of the Crystal Lord. Interest in the mech grew significantly, mostly because several pilots tried them out in simulators. Their good impressions translated into glowing praise, which attracted their friends to try a hand at piloting the mech as well.

Even with the positive word-of-mouth, the amount of orders hadn't grown by much. Buyers still wanted to hear more experiences from those who owned and piloted the physical copies of the mech.

"They'll have to wait for a long time, since as far as I know, every bidder who won a mech at the auctions are pure collectors."

These types of people cared a lot about the condition of their mechs. The newer, the better. It would be best if the mechs hadn't been piloted at all since they passed their testing phases.

It would be impossible for them to show off their new purchases by sticking a pilot into their cockpits and increase the wear and tear of the mech by skipping around.

In any case, Ves wouldn't have to deal with this issues very soon. Instead, he needed to report for duty.

He entered an armored shuttle and directed it to bring him towards a processing center of the Mech Corps in the outskirts of Dorum. After a short amount of time, the shuttle and its escorts settled down onto a massive parking space that hosted hundreds of shuttle.

As Ves exited the vehicle, he took in the din of conversation and realized that he hadn't arrived as early as he thought. Many other mech designers had already packed their bags and waited for the moment the Mech Corps called up the second wave.

His comm beeped as it received an automated message from the processing center. They sent him a map of the processing center and his schedule for the next couple of days.

"Looks like I've got a lot of inspections to go through."

Ves sounded a little worried because his body and mind was nothing like a baseline human. Even though the Bright Republic must have noted down his abnormalities, it would still raise some eyebrows with the Mech Corps he thought.

At this stage, a lot of mech designers already arrived. Ves took a casual glance of the people disembarking from their shuttles and aircars and guessed that most of them consisted of Apprentices and Journeymen.

Ves easily distinguished the latter from their attitude, body language and privileges. They treated obvious Apprentices like air and only held an equal conversation with other Journeymen.

To be sure, Journeyman Mech Designers enjoyed a lot more prestige because it was at this point that the mech industry regarded them as fully competent mech designers. Before advancing to this rank, mech designers still possessed a lot of holes in their knowledge base and couldn't fully guarantee the soundness of their designs.

In contrast, regardless of the person involved, any Journeyman Mech Designer who received formal recognition from the MTA could be counted on to deliver battleworthy mechs. Their designs covered every base, and often carried something extra in order to distinguish their products from others.

This was why even if the LMC reached the point of selling thousands of mechs, the industry still regarded it as a small-time player. His low rank hobbled the reputation of his designs. He could forget about conquering a significant share of the mech market as long as his status remained the same.

"I still have a lot of work ahead of myself in order to reach their heights."

Most Journeyman Mech Designers looked to be in their middle ages, though it was hard to guess due to the use of age-prolonging treatments. Many Journeymen enjoyed enough success to be able to afford the most preliminary suite of treatments that stretched out their aging process. They couldn't get back their youth, but the time of their natural deaths could still be extended by at least a century.

People who enjoyed age-prolonging treatments couldn't be distinguished from a baseline human unless they exhibited some characteristic traits. Most of the time, their behavior could be described as wearing a young skin, but acting like an old person.

Ves only rarely saw so many people who behaved in this manner before. Age-prolonging treatments was something that was out of the hands of the general public. Even the Larkinson Estate couldn't afford to provide any treatments to their most famous family members such as Grandpa Benjamin or Uncle Ark.

This was also one of the shortcomings of age-prolonging technology. Ves didn't understand the science behind it all, but it was generally known that it took a lot more effort to extend the lives of a potentate or mech pilot.

Their brains operated in a different manner from the brains of baseline humans. Theirs was much more active and in fact wore out a little faster. Age-prolonging treatments needed to be calibrated very specifically to accommodate the unique brains of every mech pilot.

The higher their rank, the bigger the challenge.

The Bright Republic at its current state simply couldn't afford to subsidize any age-prolonging treatments for their expert pilots. This actually led to a lot of them to pack up their bags and emigrate to the Friday Coalition or some other powerful state in a different star sector. The amount of expert pilots who stuck with the Bright Republic was very little.

Naturally, these expert pilots wouldn't necessarily have a good time in their new homes, and it wasn't as if the Mech Corps possessed no means of retaining some of them. Usually, they signed contracts with talented pilots that stated that if they happened to advance to expert pilot while in active duty, that they still needed to serve the end of their terms before they could go.

This illustrated the disparity in treatment between different ranks. Even if the Bright Republic didn't possess enough means to please all of their talents, they sure tried their best to accommodate them. Ves witnessed the differences first-hand.

Whereas Ves only received a message on his comm and a projected AI as his guide, junior officers personally received every incoming Journeyman. They would quickly be led to a smaller building off to the side that nonetheless looked more luxurious.

"Some day, I'll retreat the same kind of treatment." Ves shrugged and continued to follow the blinking projected ball that led him across the parking area and towards a large hangar-like structure.

Inside the cavernous walls, large amounts of mech designers lined up to report for duty and to go through their first inspections.

Despite the enormous lines, Ves moved forward rather quickly. The Mech Corps didn't choose to conduct their business inside this giant hangar for nothing. Once Ves arrived at the front, a bland-looking serviceman checked his identity and signed off on a whole stack of virtual documents.

"Sign here to acknowledge that you understand the rules and regulations of the Mech Corps, and that you cannot use ignorance of these regulations as an excuse."

"Sign here to confirm you agree with the secrecy clauses. The Mech Corps takes confidentiality and information security with the highest level of importance. Report immediately if you carry any electronic or biological implants, no matter how small or unrelated they might be to spying activities."

Ves dutifully noted some of the abnormalities in his body, most notably the Jutland organ. Even if the Mech Corps likely knew all of this before, he couldn't afford to slip up right at the start.

"Note down the possible conflicts of interest that might occur during your service time. Be as detailed as possible, and include both foreign and domestic influences."

"Sign here to consent to invasive health checks. The Mech Corps reserves the right to unilaterally operate and modify your body and its physiological functions without needing to adhere to any medical justifications."

"Sign here to state that during your service, you will put the interests of the Bright Republic over the interests of any other state or comparable entity. In case of a conflict of interests, you should immediately report it to your superiors."