"We're being followed." Nolsen said as the group made it to the end of one of the mech avenues. "Don't look back, you idiots! It's nothing serious yet if our watcher isn't good enough to hide his presence from me."
Ves tried really hard not to turn around. He never had a clue that someone followed their group around.
Trian Earls, one of their mech pilots, spat on the pavement. "Why aren't we doing anything? Let's go beat the fellow up!"
"Making a move in the middle of Black Belle City's shopping district will only land us in trouble. Look at how many patrolmen of the Planetary Guard are patrolling the streets. We'll be sludged and put into custody the second we throw a punch."
Everyone glanced at the uniformed law enforcement officers. They patrolled in teams of two, and wore enough gear to repel a small riot. In addition to their personal capabilities, they were also followed by a hovering bot armed with non-lethal weaponry.
The bot alone was programmed to instantly stun someone from a distance the moment they pulled out a weapon.
"Who's following us?" Ves asked. "Can you tell?"
The lieutenant furrowed his brows as they pretended to look through the windows of another upscale mech store. "He doesn't look like a pro. Likely a local gang member. Or someone who never intended to hide his presence in the first place. Right now, the fact that someone is tailing us does not mean that we're in danger. For now, we can rely on the Planetary Guards and the Honored Ones to forestall any trouble."
Half an hour passed by without a single change. The group members calmed down and resumed their window shopping. The mech avenues truly formed a snapshot of all the mech models sold in the Komodo Star Sector.
Studying the mechs the shops had to offer gave Ves a good idea of the state of the mech industry in the Reinald Republic.
Different from larger states such as the Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom, the Reinald Republic was too small to foster a strong and relatively independent mech industry. Apart from supporting a couple of crown jewels, the bulk of the businesses operating in their territory consisted of foreign entities.
While the Frozen Leaf Alliance that the Reinald Republic was apart of gave them the strength to contend against the Vesians in a military fashion, it did not do too much beyond that. Each of the three member states still ran their territories as a separate entity. They refused to operate as a single market with shared borders and a unified economy.
This left the Reinald Republic without the strength to punch above its weight. Its own domestic market couldn't possibly satisfy a fully mature domestic mech industry.
It was a good thing that the Reinald Republic attracted a lot of foreign visitors. Plenty of mercenaries, gang members, treasure hunters and worse visited the small state to do business. Because each of their outfits based themselves in different states, the Reinald Republic attracted foreign mech manufacturers to set up shop in their trading systems.
After walking past numerous shops, Ves finally found a legitimate vendor for the mechs of the LMC. The group entered a store called The Brightest Mech. Both the Blackbeak and the Crystal Lord occupied a prominent place in the store that obviously catered to Brighters and fans of Brighter mechs.
"Wow. Is that your work as well? This knight mech looks so light!"
"Damn! 135 million marks for a Blackbeak? And it's only a bronze label? What a ripoff!"
Ves awkwardly laughed. "These mech models are aimed at the premium market. If you look at the spec sheet, you'll know why they cost so much."
The Brightest Mech featured tasteful decoration themed around torches and stars. It played out as an exaggerated caricature of Brighter culture, and every Vandal couldn't help but be amused. Whoever operated this shop probably knew nothing about the Bright Republic.
The shop only possessed enough room to showcase half-a-dozen physical mechs that sold the most. The rest only appeared as scaled-down projections. This also applied to the mechs of the LMC. Their high price tag threw off most potential customers.
"What a shame."
If The Brightest Mech devoted some of its limited physical space to showcasing a silver label mech of the LMC, a lot of customers would likely be swayed into buying them. The charm of the X-Factor couldn't be perceived from a projection, and even a simulation wasn't able to bring out its full strength.
Ves figured that the LMC might be better off operating their own stores. This allowed the company to exert full control over how to present and sell their offerings. The only issue right now was that his company didn't have enough original models to justify such a plan.
There was another issue as well. The LMC faced various hurdles each time it tried to enter a new foreign market. Sometimes, the only way they could enter the market was if they partnered up with a native company. The mechs would then be sold through the native company's own sales channels.
If the LMC wanted to keep their cooperation with the locals going, they had to refrain from snatching meat from their partner's mouths.
"How complicated." He shook his head. Ves left the matter for later.
Once the group of ten had their fill of seeing familiar mechs, they exited the store and wandered around aimlessly for a while. They eventually ate some lunch before deciding to stroll through a non-mech shopping district.
This time they looked at numerous wondrous products, from luxury comm models to mechanical pets that bore a vague resemblance to Lucky. The AIs that operated the tiny puppies and kittens was very sophisticated, enabling them to speak and interact with children.
Larger pets existed as well with some forms of self-defense. Mechanical dogs proved to be the all-time popular, occupying a full third of the entire store. Customers bought many of the dogs in order to enhance the security of their households or provide some protection against random thugs.
Naturally, truly important figures wouldn't resort to mass-market mechanical pets. Any determined hacker would be able to intrude their operating systems, so these pets mostly catered to the lower-middle class.
The most impressive pet model by far was an aircar-sized dragon. Sophisticated anti-grav modules and various other creature comforts turned it into an impressive flying mount.
Few actually bought it though. In order to make it harder for it to be hacked, it ran on a very advanced processor and operating system. Subscribing to the mandatory security suite alone cost more than 100,000 marks a year. This went well above the limits of the middle class.
"I wouldn't know what to do with such an expensive pet." Ensign Tiss said as she admired the mechanical dragon's exquisite construction. The store normally sold it with a plain metallic surface, but they also offered the option of covering it with life-like dragon scales. "Could you create something like this on your own?"
"Maybe. I'd have to approach it as if I was designing a mech. Hm, if so, it might be feasible. The only area which I'm not very sure of is the operating system."
Ves realized he might have talent in creating a pet as it wouldn't be too different from designing and fabricating a miniature mech.
Though a lot of mechanical pets got sold each year, their revenue and profit margins paled in comparison to the mech market. Ves had no reason to abandon his current vocation.
As the Vandals weren't allowed to bring anything back with them, they regretfully had to leave the shop behind. Interacting with all of the friendly pets in the store really helped lift some of their moods.
As the Vandals gawked at various curiosities, Nolsen spoke up again. "Hey, sorry to spoil your moods for a moment, but our watcher has a companion on the opposite street."
"What are these fellows doing? Can't they observe us from remote?"
The security officer discreetly shook his head. "There are too many ways to spoil such things. My comm contains a security suite that can easily scramble smaller probes. In addition, the Reinaldans won't tolerate excessive use of spying equipment in their shopping districts. The only observation tools allowed belong to the Reinaldans themselves."
"So are we being watched by someone other than the government?"
"I'd say it's likely, but we can't rule out the government, you know. The spies may be there to act as failsafes if we ever try to scramble all of the sensors in the vicinity. Trust me, my comm can do that. To guard against unexpected equipment failure, some plain humans can keep us under observation while they try to get new bugs on site."
Ves scratched his head. He hated playing games like this where he ended up in a passive state. He knew more than Lieutenant Feray and the rest of the group.
It caused Ves to see shadows where none should appear. The wide streets became a prison and every casual bystander might actually harbor ill intentions to the Vandals.
A faint instinct of danger tickled his mind. It was not enough for him to suspect a concrete threat, but it might be a sign of what was in store.
Some days ago, Lieutenant Commander Soapstone brought him to help negotiate the purchase of various specialized equipment. Right now, the broker must have started shipping the goods to a warehouse under the control of the Vandals.
Those who kept their eye on the Vandals must be wondering why they sought to procure so much equipment that would only be useful in high gravity environments.
"Don't mind the watchers. We're all innocent Vandals here. We've got nothing to hide."
They took it easy in the next hours. Besides visiting various stores, they also entered a museum and visited a few monuments that originated from the founding of the Reinald Republic.
None of the states in the Komodo Star Sector was very old. The entire star sector only opened up for colonization shortly after the Age of Mechs commenced.
At the later stages of the Age of Conquest, human warfleets scoured many planets of life. Once the flames of war died down, the MTA and CFA fostered a great undertaking where it became popular to set out for the furthest reaches of the rim to form new colonies.
The Reinald Republic was one of the losers for the mad scramble for stars at the opening of the star sector. The Bright Republic and the Vesia Kingdom might have been bumped from the resource-rich center of the star sector, but they found adequate clusters of stars to settle upon.
The founders of the Reinald Republic fought with the larger third-rate states for a time, but eventually had to admit defeat in yet again. The star systems that encompassed Reinald wasn't promising at all. This gave the smaller state a lot of distress until they found a lifeline in tourism and trade in illicit goods.
When evening came by, the group wanted to experience some of the latter by visiting a grey market. Black Belle City happened to host a modest grey market in a vast tunnel network beneath the capital city.
It was as if they descended into a dungeon. Light was purposefully kept dim, and various invisible defense measures made the tunnels a lot more dangerous than he expected.
Nolsen looked concerned at the people that frequented the grey market. "Tuck your pistols at your side. Don't hide them. You have to show the visitors here that you won't be easy to bully."
They did what the lieutenant instructed. Once all ten of them showed off their laser or ballistic pistols, the eyes set upon them had diminished by a fair amount. No one wanted to stir up trouble in the grey market either, but the Reinaldans didn't exert a lot of influence here.
Everything that happened in the grey markets came under the purview of the cartels that set them up. Immediately upon entering a large underground hall, Ves had the misconception that he returned to the mech plaza he visited in the morning. A lot of street stalls dotted the humongous underground hall.
"Now this is what I'm talking about!" A Vandal exclaimed. "This feels just like home!"
A lot of things could be bought here so long as they could pay. Ves already widened his eyes when he spotted a lot of high-value goods brought back from the frontier.