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 Ves sat in front of Professor Enoch at his office. Just like the professor and any other mech designer, he wore his service dress uniform. The only difference was that the ribbons he showed off caught a lot of attention to those who knew how to read them, which was actually pretty much everyone assigned to Frozen Point!

"Mr. Larkinson, you've been with us for half a year, have you not? I hope that your comfortable and placid stay at Frozen Point hasn't distorted your perception of Flashlight. Analyzing and interpreting data is one of our mildest activities and only scratches the surface of our mandate. I hope you realize that your job for the last few months was a trial to see if you have what it takes to work for Flashlight. Even if you dropped the ball and failed to deliver the work that is expected from the Second Analysis Team, every report still has to go through my office, allowing me to catch anything you've missed."

He understood the Senior Mech Designer's underlying message. Having worked in Frozen Point Research base for months, he began to get a feel for the subtlety underlying the words of those who embodied Flashlight's secretive nature.

"So all this time, sir, I've been in some sort of trial period to see if I have what it takes to work for Flashlight?"

The professor smiled at Ves. "Indeed. The nature of your transfer is rather unconventional, to say the least. Many of us here at Flashlight questioned whether certain authorities stretched the rules too much when they issued your awards. Some of us wanted to wait and see if you have the ability to be one of us, while others investigated your background and recent exploits."

"And that took months?"

"We aren't in a hurry. At least we thought so. The investigation of my colleagues are still in progress, but events prompted by the latest actions of our enemies have overtaken us. You have followed the progress of the war, right? It has become clear to us that the Vesians are preparing a direct push for the Bentheim system at all costs this time. This has alarmed our entire military apparatus! At this critical time, Flashlight needs all hands on deck."

This sounded quite serious, as Professor Enoch was not prone to exaggeration.

"Therefore, there is a different assignment in store for me now?" Ves asked.

"Indeed. While we would rather use our more dedicated agents for the missions that needs to be done on Bentheim, this critical planet is so large and complex that we find ourselves shorthanded. This is why we are reaching out for alternatives, and your name has come up for one of our missions. You see, your Larkinson lineage and your awards has shown that you are not averse to danger. Have you not complained to me that you feel unfulfilled with your current duties? This is your chance to escape the drudgery of herding a bunch of brats!"

When Ves expressed his dissatisfaction, he hoped that Professor Enoch would transfer him to a design team or allow him to assist in research.

He did not intend to volunteer for a dangerous mission in the field as the professor hinted what was on the table right now!

If Ves knew that his complaints led to this result, then he would have kept his head down! After spending the bulk of his time in the war on the Aeon Corona Mission, he was more than tired of dangerous missions!

"The last months have allowed us to confirm that you haven't been promoted above your station. As the bearer of the Darkness Eater, Torchbearer and Golden Mech, it is an enormous waste for Flashlight to keep you behind enemy lines. No, a Larkinson such as you must crave for action! Well, I have good news for you, for there is a perilous but important priority mission that has a need for a mech designer that isn't averse to

Ves returned a brittle smile. "Oh, I do not wish to be presumptuous. I am not a trained intelligence operative. I barely know how to hit a target with a pistol! I am sure that Flashlight has better, more trustworthy and more reliable mech designers for the job."

"Ah, but that is the thing? We mech designers aren't known for our courage and daring. Our constant need for study and practice has left us with very little time to improve our survival abilities. You appear to be an exception to the rule, no doubt helped by your Larkinson roots!"

"I believe you are overstating my upbringing. Even if I share the same last name as the other Larkinsons, as a norm I have never underwent any of the focusing combat training that my mech pilots cousins have undergone."

This was one of the times where his Larkinson background bit him back in butt! Every Brighter seemed to have the misconception that anyone who bore the last name of Larkinson was trained to fight from birth! Ves enjoyed no such thing, and the only combat training he went through was the basic mandatory training courses he went through when he attended the Rittersberg University of Technology.

The professor practically ran over his objections. "Ah, you do not have to be so modest, Mr. Larkinson. The job that Flashlight needs fulfilling is a very special one. It requires a very good mech designer of Journeyman caliber to undergo significant risks. To send one of our precious Journeymen into danger is far too risky and the higher ups would never allow it. You, however, closely approximates the ability of one yet you are still an Apprentice."

In other words, Flashlight needed someone good but also someone expendable if anything went wrong. Even though Ves considered himself to be a single step away from advancing to Journeyman, the truth of the matter was that he was still regarded as an Apprentice!

The Bright Republic was already home to so many Apprentice Mech Designers that they didn't really care if thousands of them died. Senator Tovar's opinions made that painfully clear.

In contrast, the difficulty of advancing meant that the number of Journeymen that emerged never satisfied the Republic. Journeymen enjoyed special consideration by the state because each of them was a potential money maker for the economy. The most successful among them designed attractive mechs that sold well throughout the star sector or beyond.

Seeing that all of his attempts to fend off the request fell on flat ears, Ves sighed. "Can you at least explain what this mission entails, sir?"

"Not without receiving your commitment to participate in this mission." The professor shook his head. He reached down from his desk and placed a secure data pad before Ves. "The mission we have in mind for you is fairly sensitive, so we first need to bring you aboard before we can reveal the details to you. Please sign the documents in the pad."

Ves gazed at the secure data pad as if it was a venomous snake poised to bite his hand. He was practically being railroaded in participating in this special mission!

"I believe Flashlight would be better served if someone with the right training and qualifications undergoes their missions rather than an amateur like me. To be honest, much of my earlier accomplishments are highly overstated. The only reason why I got these awards in the first place is because it served the political interests of someone powerful."

Professor Enoch paused and tapped his finger against his desk. The small smirk on his face showed that he wasn't unaware of what Ves was doing right now.

"The Bright Republic is a meritocracy. We have to be. The Vesians, for all of their barbarity, are remarkably effective in motivating their commoners by dangling the hopes of obtaining peerage. As your awards have already shown, the Mech Corps can be generous to their heroes. Flashlight is no less reserved when it comes to rewarding success."

That caught Ves' attention. "What kind of... remuneration is in consideration if I make a good effort?"

"There are a number of benefits should you choose to engage with Flashlight in earnest. As only agents of a certain status within the organization are able to participate in this mission, we will upgrade your status from a conscripted mech designer attached to Flashlight into an external collaborator of our esteemed organization."

"Does that mean I'll formally join Flashlight?"

"Not exactly." The professor shook his head. "The difference between a collaborator and a member of Flashlight is that the latter are direct members while the former are merely people who cooperate with some of our initiatives. The benefit is that we will not expect you to dedicate your entire life to the service, but in turn you won't be able to climb in the service. It's a shame we didn't get to you earlier."

"If I'm upgraded to an external collaborator for Flashlight, what benefits am I entitled to receive?"

"Certain individuals in Flashlight has impressed upon us to take over the role over supervising your mech company from the Ministry of Economic Development. You have to know that this particular ministry is very greedy about the companies under their benevolent rule. We need to pay a substantial price to pry one of their companies from their grip. Therefore, I'm sorry to say that this particular favor hasn't been fulfilled. If you suddenly become an external collaborator, then the situation is entirely different."

Ves understood. If Ves maintained an ongoing relationship with Flashlight, then it would make sense for his company to come under their supervision. This would allow them to leverage his company to further their interests.

While Ves wasn't pleased at all to have any government entities interfering with his business, he slowly learned over time that all major businesses became subject to government control in some sense. This was the standard in the Bright Republic and much of the Komodo Star Sector.

Therefore, rather than surrendering his company to the bloated Ministry of Economic Development, Ves would rather accept some constraints from Flashlight which was much less inclined to exercise any overt control due to their covert nature.

It would defeat the point of maintaining a veil of secrecy if the LMC became a known front for Flashlight!

"Are there any other rewards for becoming a collaborator? What's in store for me if I perform the mission to Flashlight's satisfaction?"

"We have not fixed any concrete rewards as of yet, but success will firmly validate your perceived value to the service. On top of that, a good performance will also settle the doubts of skeptics and stifle the criticism of naysayers. Winning over the support of the bulk of the service is vital if you wish to cooperate fruitfully with Flashlight as an external collaborator."

All of the claims made by Professor Enoch sounded a bit too vague to Ves' liking. Yet he knew the importance of getting on the good side of Flashlight. Major Verle did warn him several times that he needed to find a backer in the intelligence agency in order to maintain a firm footing in their company.

Equivocating or refusing this mission would not only displease Professor Enoch and those that favored him, but would also strengthen the voices of his critics within the service!

The picture Professor Enoch painted for Ves all encouraged him to accept this dangerous venture. Though he knew that he'd be able to earn a lot of kudos from Flashlight if he did so, he had no idea of how much danger he'd be subjected to if he said yes!

Ves grumbled inwardly that he really should have been more appreciative of his boring and tedious job as supervisor of the Second Analysis Team. Riding herd on a bunch of entitled mech designers in a quiet place like Frozen Point sounded a lot better than participating in some murky mission in a chaotic place like Bentheim!

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