As Miss Robyn from the SASS supervised the work, she also approached Ves for a talk.
"As a mech designer, when do you think we will switch to the next generation?"
Taken aback by the question, Ves needed a moment to think through his answer. "It won't happen too soon. We can milk our current generation for at least 10 years. We mech designers don't like to see the value of our work plummet before we extracted as much value out of it as possible. I'm sure the big manufacturers are colluding to keep this generation alive as long as possible."
The security consultant nodded. "That fits with our internal assessment. However, the new technologies employed by the advanced states have already leaked out a little bit. We do not believe the mech industry can stand in the way to progress very long."
"Why are you asking about this? Are you planning to upgrade your security hardware?"
"For sure, and more besides that. You may not have heard about this seeing as you're young, but the mech and security markets are at their busiest just before the generational switch."
That sounded strange to Ves. "Why is that so? The new mechs aren't out yet. Why waste their money on goodies that will just turn lastgen a few years later?"
A smirk appeared on Robyn's narrow face. "Oh they aren't investing in new equipment, they are draining their existing stock as they wage wars and engage in high-risk ventures. Consider this. When was the last time the Vesia Kingdom and the Bright Republic went to war?"
"That was about thirty years ago. Right when.. Oh."
Thirty years ago was roughly a decade before the switch to the current generation. The war between both nations were by all accounts brutal, though both sides tried to minimize battles near large population centers. Mech pilots, support troops and logistical personnel suffered the most casualties in that war.
The worst thing about the war was that it ended inconclusively, just like all the previous wars between the two local rivals. A few planets changed hands and a couple of small cities got wiped off the map. The Bright Republic got a little worse off than the Vesia Kingdom, but that didn't prevent the Republic from touting that they held the line against the foreign aggressors.
"As a friend in the industry, I advise you to keep your eyes peeled. The impending conflict might not escalate into a war between states, but you will see plenty of provocations and reprisals in the news. I'm sure the SASS will be exceptionally busy during the coming times, and so will you. If it comes to it, you might find yourself drafted."
That sounded like his worst nightmare. If Ves got pulled away from his workshop, he could not generate any revenue or earn DP. While there were several provisions built into his contracts that allowed him to pause some aspects if the draft came for him, it still didn't leave him with much choice. If he came back years later with no money to invest in new equipment, he'd be stuck with obsolete assets that generated almost no value.
"Luckily I've been awarded with a privileged status. The government shouldn't treat me too poorly."
Robyn looked at him with a skeptical eye. "Don't think you can get a free pass with your award. On the contrary, the bureaucrats value privileged citizens even more. They get assigned to the highest priority missions, which can be good or bad for you. The pay and conditions you receive are generous, but the risks of getting caught under fire is very likely."
Ves already gulped at those words. He wasn't cut out to fight. He had given up his dream of becoming a mech pilot long ago and had fully adjusted to a civilian mentality. Give him a gun and he'd be liable to shoot off his foot.
He also realized he was out of touch with the core Larkinson family. He'd bet Melinda and the other serving pilots in the family already knew about this. Perhaps Melinda assumed he knew as well.
The people of Sanyal-Ablin packed up their gear when they finished beefing up the security. Ves eagerly said goodbye to Robyn and her people as they boarded their much emptier shuttles and flew back to Freslin. Though the people hadn't found anything egregiously wrong, it might happen anytime in the future once he built up a name.
"Speaking of which, when will Marcella deliver the next order?"
In the weeks since he sold his first Marc Antony, he came to enjoy spending money. He wished the ex-pilot turned saleswoman would work a little faster in managing his sales. He didn't agree to give her a 20% commission for nothing.
"Does she even want the money?"
He declined to pick up his comm and call her personally. It indicated a lack of trust and an abundance of insecurity on his part. He'd wait another week.
"What should I do now?"
His disappointing result from his last design put him in a bad mood. As Ves realized the importance of maintaining a positive outlook when designing a mech, he needed to spend some time doing something else in order to regain his cheer.
"A mech designer is much like an artist in that aspect." He figured as he looked over Lucky as the cat still slept like a log. "If we're not in the mood, we'll always be creating a work that misses the mark."
Everyone considered mech design to be an intricate craft. Though the big transgalactic corporations turned the industry into a mass market, small independent designers still had a chance to compete with the help of the Mech Trade Association.
"Speaking of the MTA, I never really looked into them when I started my business. Perhaps they have some advice for me and my situation."
As Ves had an abundance of free time, he skipped the terminal and instead hailed a aircab to Orinoco, the capital of Cloudy Curtain. The trip lasted a couple of hours due to the time it took to travel from one side of the planet to the other side. If Ves was in a hurry, he could pay for a trip on an entry-reentry shuttle, but the expense wasn't worth it if it only shaved off an hour of travel time.
Having visited the MTA before during his first certification, a receptionist greeted him without fanfare.
"Mr Larkinson, how may I help you?"
"I've been in the business a few months but I'm not entirely familiar with the norms and regulations surrounding mech design and production. Could you have someone guide me with the information that would be most useful to a beginner like me?"
The receptionist pursed her lips. "That is a highly unusual request for our branch. The advisers in Bentheim are much more equipped to address your needs. Hang on for a moment, I'll check with my manager."
After a short wait, the receptionist came back. "The administrative director would like to meet you in his office. He expressed some interest in Cloudy Curtain's first mech producer."
Ves agreed to the request. He figured talking with someone who could call himself a director knew a thing or two about the traditions of the mech industry.
"Am I meeting with Ryan Baldwin again?"
"Ah, no. Mr Baldwin is the officer in charge of combat operations. He's the military leader of our branch."
Led by the receptionist, he entered the lift and rode it to the top of the office building. He exited to a clean and elegant-looking hall. The enormous room took up the entire top floor, and was replete with windows and artwork. Every single nuance of design spoke of privilege and superiority.
"Don't mind the decor." An elderly voice came from the luxurious chair at the other end of the giant office. "It sometimes pays to impress the locals, but I'm sure I don't need to awe you with our association's prestige."
As Ves was not entirely a country bumpkin, he quickly shrug off the oppressive atmosphere. He had seen much worse when he studied in Rittersburg. The capital planet of the Republic reeked of elitism. Compared to his experiences there, the MTA director's office clearly appeared sober and tasteful.
Ves took a seat in the only available chair. He felt like a little schoolboy summoned in front of the principal for a lecturing.
"So you are the young man who bravely started a mech business in Cloudy Curtain. Curious. Can I ask you why you founded your business here rather than in a more developed planet?"
He took deep breath and spoke evenly. "The tax incentives are very attractive here. This is my home, and I'm familiar with the planet. Bentheim is a strange place that I've only stepped foot in once, so I was not inclined to join their crowded mech market. Besides, shipping between the two planets is fast and doesn't cost too much. I'm rather surprised more businesses haven't taken advantage of the friendly business climate here."
"It is because Cloudy Curtain is naked and vulnerable." The administrator spoke as he finally turned around to face Ves. His white-bearded visage gave the distinguished man an authoritative air. From his accent and appearance, he clearly came from a more advanced human state. "The best security this dirtball of a planet can offer is a bunch of criminal mercenaries who are more proficient in drinking themselves to stupor than fending off a serious pirate attack."
The director had a point. As the public port of the Republic, the Mech Corps regarded its security very highly. His cousin Melinda was just one in many thousands in the Planetary Guard. No troublemaker could kick up a storm and get away with it for long.
As for Cloudy Curtain, perhaps a rogue mercenary gang could easily wipe out Freslin and have plenty of time to escape before the authorities got their asses in gear.
"I haven't thought about that, sir." Ves plainly admitted, though he sounded a touch defiant. "I'm not moving my business, though. My mech boutique is tiny. It's not worth robbing."
The older man smiled at him. "You have a backbone at least. That is good. Those who bend too easily in adversity do not make good entrepreneurs. Since you are worth my time, you can call me Justin Chandler. Leave out director or sir."
"Yes, Mr Chandler." Ves replied politely. He relished the chance to question a senior official of the MTA. "I have a couple of questions. Do you mind if I can ask them?"
"First, do you know any way of obtaining a production license cheaper than what's available on the open market?"
Chandler shook his head. "There are ways, but none that apply to you. Through shortcuts, connections and improper methods, many mech designers have gotten their hands on these licenses. I believe that you yourself have received a couple of old production licenses as grants. Once or twice is okay. But don't base your business model around these easy licences. A successful designer must stand on their own feet and create a completely original design to achieve a lasting presence in the market."
The old man made sense, Ves thought. "But what about component production licenses? They still cost hundreds of millions of credits."
"Is that much? I don't think so. I don't have insight in your accounting, but I am rather sure that this sum won't be a problem for you to acquire. You need to put in the hard work and keep up at it diligently. If you are a good designer, your earnings will reflect that. If you are at a point where you are constantly worrying about being able to pay for licenses and upgrades, then you are just not good enough."
The advice sounded harsh, but true. If Ves was any random mech designer, he might have been cowed. With the assurance of the System, Ves knew he'd outgrow his novice mech designer status any day. He was very confident of his future.
"You're right. I shouldn't worry too much about it. I've only achieved one mech sale so far, but I expect that my sales will pick up. Perhaps I will make a couple of other variants that will enhance my earnings."
"As long as you are not at the end of your rope, you have many opportunities to achieve success."
Ves turned to his next question. "All of my resources come from the MTA's internal market. I'm paying out of my nose for the raw materials required to produce a mech. I've been wondering if you can help me connect with a few suppliers to reduce my expenses."
"You will not attract any fixed suppliers at your scale." Chandler shook his head again. "Unless you have formidable backing or an excellent referral, do not dream of negotiating better terms. The upstream industries think and operate on a scale unimaginable by your standards. A one-man startup like yours does not even qualify a second's worth of attention of their sales department."
"So it's impossible for me to get more favorable prices anywhere?"
"That is not true. You can look closer and look at the local industries in Cloudy Curtain and the surrounding star provinces. This region is poor and undeveloped, which means that most of the local mining and processing is done by small-and-medium enterprises, family businesses and cooperatives. The relative negotiating power between the two of you will be a lot less skewed."
"That.. that could work out, though I won't be able to source the more exotic resources from local suppliers."
"I can send you a list of references to approach some of these suppliers. I'm sure my name will open some doors for you."
The favor Director Chandler bestowed to him was substantial. Ves was deeply appreciative of the gesture. "Thank you, Mr Chandler. That is something I've always wracked my brains about. Receiving your reference helps me avoid a lot of pitfalls."
The two discussed a lot of other, minor topics. Ves and Chandler went over issues such as the production of munitions (bad idea), the cost of insurance (way too much), what to do when getting drafted (demand postponement of debt and any other time-sensitive issues), and more.
The conversation was productive. While Chandler rarely gave out an answer that satisfied Ves, the fog in front of his mech designer career had parted a little. He no longer became mistified when faced with certain questions.
At the end of the meeting, Chandler sent a couple of useful books to his mail. "It pays to read up on the relevant laws. Always remember that mech designers invent killing machines, not glamourous toys. Although it does not look like it, we of the MTA take a very dim view to any mishandling of dangerous weapons."
Ves gulped at that last warning. "Understood. I will be sure to treat my physical products seriously."
"Oh, I'm not worried about you. Instead, I'd keep a closer eye on your friends and associates if I were you."
Whether the advice was of any use in the future or not, Ves didn't know. He said goodbye to the insightful director and slowly left the opulent office. The director kept his sagely eyes on the young designer as he entered the lift and rode it back to the ground floor.