The Mech Touch Chapter 435: The Cage
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Ever since Ves entered the clutches of the Mech Corps, he became isolated to the outside galaxy. In an age where spying and leaking sensitive data was trivially easy, the military organization undertook extreme measures in order to keep their rank and file from revealing anything they shouldn't have.
While the Flagrant Vandals might not see eye-to-eye with the upper hierarchy, they happened to be in total agreement with regards to operational security.
As a mech regiment that regularly invaded Vesian space, any incautious leaks might even devastate their numbers. Therefore, access points to the outside galaxy was extremely limited and heavily monitored. The moment Ves revealed a hint of propriety, his entire terminal would shut off.
Thus, over the past couple of months, Ves had no idea how the LMC fared in his absence. In truth, he didn't really worry about their fate. The company was in decent hands and it offered two solid original designs in its catalog.
The Blackbeak medium knight already proved to be an enduring seller. Even if the market for offensive knights started to become somewhat saturated, demand for the LMC's homebuilt silver label editions was projected to remained high for at least a couple more years.
Ves was much less certain about the newly-introduced Crystal Lord design. Though it carried over much of the qualities of the Blackbeak, the different type and the range of improvements he incorporated in the design made it an unquestionably more promising mech.
The Blackbeak was meant to compete in a niche, while the Crystal Lord had been designed to challenge the dominant mainstream mechs that was responsible for the bulk of of the sales for rifleman mechs.
It had a lot of things going for it. The premium licenses and materials allowed it to outperform cheaper models and Ves had Superpublished the design on top of that. Its current performance parameters fit well in a multi-year conflict with the Vesians.
More crucially, the Crystal Lord was the first design that broke into the coveted B-grade for the X-Factor. While Ves did not truly understand what this new height of X-Factor meant, he bet that the mech pilots who got to pilot a Crystal Lord must be feeling very privileged about piloting such a smooth machine.
Lastly, the Crystal Lord also incorporated some gimmicks based off alien crystal technology. Though it was hardly anything groundbreaking compared to the heights that humanity had reached, crystal technology like this was rare in a backwater state like the Bright Republic. It should perform particularly well against mechs that predominantly relied on lasers.
All in all, the Crystal Lord possessed all of the elements to be a breakout success.
Yet even as Ves had high hopes for his second original design, the mech market for rifleman mechs was extremely competitive. Realistically, all three labels of the Crystal Lord should have priced themselves out of consideration for most potential buyers.
Therefore, it came at a surprise to him that Professor Velten indicated otherwise.
"May I know how well my Crystal Lord design is doing?"
Though Ves faced heavy restrictions in terms of how much information he could get in touch with, the Senior Mech Designer faced no such constraints. She easy answered his question.
"The Crystal Lord has been something of an anomaly when you first released it onto the market. They didn't know what to make of it, and sales have stayed modest for the first month. Expert opinions about your design is decidedly mixed, with many of them recommending their audience to stay away."
To an outside pundit who had never seen a Crystal Lord in person, its value proposition seemed like a bad deal. Rather than break the bank by buying a single overpriced rifleman mech, it was much more efficient to buy two affordable rifleman mechs for the same amount of credits.
"What changed since then, professor?"
She eyed him with a curious look. "The early adopters of your models discovered two advantages that aren't present in many other mechs. First, your gimmick is a lot more useful than anyone has thought. Wielding a lighter laser rifle and possessing more advanced defenses against energy weapons on the chest helps keep the mechs alive during the most intensive engagements."
"The Crystal Lord has seen action?"
"Vesian raids have intensified. They have likely been emboldened by the daring raids of the 3rd Imodris Legion. The pressure we are facing back at the home front is immense. Mercenaries are forced to repel small raiding parties that have sneaked through the gaps in our defense lines."
Though Ves paid the most attention to the Crystal Mech, he couldn't help but feel a little reassured from the way Professor Velten spoke about Republic space. At least outwardly, she still displayed kinship with their state.
"The Mech Legion fields a substantial number of mechs armed with laser weapons. Against these mechs, your Crystal Lord has stood out as the mech with one of the highest rates of survival. Normal rifleman mechs regularly get trashed, that's why they are so cheap. Yours is a little more effective than usual into keeping it and its pilot alive, and that ends up amounting to a substantial amount of cost savings."
Ves nodded in a modest manner. "That is also my intention, ma'am. The Crystal Lord is supposed to be a long-term investment. Its true value will manifest over the years. You mentioned a second reason for the surging demand for my mech. Can you tell me what it is?"
Her eyes grew a little sharper at that, and she tried to peer into his soul through his eyes. Ves carefully maintained his posture and met her gaze with a neutral look.
"Every mech pilot that has ever piloted a copy of the Crystal Lord has turned into its raving fans. It has garnered a die-hard following that is continuing to grow the more people get in touch with it, no matter the shape it comes in. Bronze label, silver label, gold label, every edition of your mech exhibit the same concerning trend. Even the virtual copies of the Crystal Lord is distressingly effective in converting people into your fans."
It should have been good news for Ves, but instead he started to sweat inside. Had he overdone it? During the early testing, the X-Factor never exhibited such radical effects on a mech pilot's psyche. "Are people accusing me of brainwashing my pilots?"
Fortunately, Velten shook her head. "This is not a repeat of the Farund Affair, if that is what you are worried about. Even though the pundits can say whatever they want, the truth is that the Mech Trade Association validated your design. This carries a lot of weight among us. To be sure that your company and its partners haven't been producing mechs that deviated from the official design, the MTA has dispatched some investigators and inspected their premises. All of the companies involved have been cleared."
Ves knew that he was innocent, but the MTA didn't know that. They needed to verify his company's products and their operations on their own in order to determine the facts.
"I take it no one believes my company has tampered with the neural interfaces?"
"Yes. The controversy has died down after several critics have attempted to dismantle the neural interfaces. In hindsight, their exuberance can be attributed to how extensively you've met their demands. You possess an extremely keen understanding of what mech pilots seek from their machines."
Was Professor Velten probing him whether he benefited from a Mastery?
Ves instinctively moved to deny the implicit suspicion, but quickly hesitated.
The reason why he would want to keep it under wraps because he wouldn't be able to explain how he got to enjoy this exclusive privilege that Master Mech Designers only reserved for their prized direct disciples. As someone who fell outside that coveted category, Ves shouldn't have received so much nurturing.
Yet did that matter if Professor Velten very likely wouldn't find out the truth? Mastery was a sensitive topic at best, and those who experienced it already showed its benefits through their work. Velten had no reason to follow up because she could already access his top level design schematics from the MTA and see for herself.
His response to this situation was critically important and might govern the rest of his stay with the Vandals. There was a risk that the truth might leak out that he gained his Masteries through a more dubious source. Yet Ves deemed the risk to be acceptable in the face of what was at stake.
His investigation into the truth of the Vandals had come to a screeching halt due to the restrictions he faced. This was a chance for him to loosen some of those restrictions and grant him wider access to the secretive mech regiment.
"This is supposed to be a secret, but my designs are benefiting from the fact that I have gained two Masteries, one for knight mechs and one for rifleman mechs."
Velten did not respond with any surprise. Instead, she raised a single eyebrow. "How curious. If the Mech Corps knew what kind of mech designer you are, they would have never pushed you into our hands."
"It's not something I wish to advertise."
She grinned. "Indeed. Well, one mech regiment's misfortune is another blessing to the Flagrant Vandals. You've demonstrated through your work in the private sector that you deeply understand the demands of those we serve, the mech pilots who bravely pilot their mechs into the most dangerous situations imaginable. Out of all three of the design teams under my wing, no mech designer can say they have acquired a Mastery. Not even I have enjoyed such a privilege…"
Velten sounded somewhat regretful about that. Ves felt it was a shame as well. At her age, her design philosophy had already taken shape. She missed out on a lot during her formative years. As talented as she was back in her youth, if she acquired some Masteries at that early stage, her career would have skyrocketed, and there was a very real chance that she could have advanced to Master.
"What do you have in mind for me, professor?"
"Mr. Larkinson, I see now that your talents are grossly underutilized. The success of your Crystal Lord is the strongest proof of your abilities. Did you know that your company has shook hands with over five third-party manufacturers, and they still can't keep up with demand?"
Hearing that almost frightened Ves out of his chair. What was Calsie doing?! Didn't he tell her to pick her partners carefully? Going in bed with five different mech manufacturers so soon was too fast! How would the LMC be able to control the quality of their output?
"I did not know that. I feel rather troubled, actually."
"Plans change. I can't tell you much about this, but I believe your company is on the right track. That is all you should know. The Mech Corps maintains a policy of isolating its mech designers from the news of their own companies. You are working for us, not the market."
"I understand." Ves nodded. That made a lot of sense.
"In light of your newly unearthed strengths and your diligent work ethic you've shown up to this point, I plan to elevate your position under this department in order to best take advantage of your unique talents."
"What will my new position entail?"
"You are to be appointed as our permanent liaison to the mech pilots that utilize our homegrown designs. As someone who knows mech pilots the best, you are eminently suitable to understand their specific wishes and convey them to our design teams. Take the rest of the day off. You'll start on your new assignment tomorrow."
"Thank you, professor!"
This was exactly what he wanted to hear! Though the manner in which he gained this assignment was a little strange, he nonetheless escaped the cage the Vandals set among most of its mech designers.
Staying in this cage for months on end seemed like torture to Ves. Though he loved to design mechs as any other designer in the teams, he would have gone crazy if he worked with numbers and figures all day.
Ves was a very hands-on designer. Without seeing a mech in the flesh, he would never be able to understand it as deeply as he wanted to. Now, he finally got the chance to see what the Vandals were really like, starting with the mech pilots that formed the core of the regiment.
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