As the Fusion Cup came at an end, Ves and Charlotte stood at the side of the arena. Despite their exalted status as second-place winners, hardly anyone paid attention to the two. The climax of the evening was about to start, as the two most talented new mech pilots ascended the main arena.
The greatest show in the Bright Republic practically hammered in that the Fusion Cup was a side event in the end. No matter how impressive their winnings, they could expect to receive only one percent of the attention placed on the finalists of the main tournament.
As Ves was never a mech pilot, he was indifferent to chasing personal fame. He'd rather build up the reputation of his business in a more sustainable way.
"I've got some business to do."
"Oh?" Charlotte raised her eyebrow. "Bailing out on me, are you? I was planning to bring you out to a sweet place that makes the best spare ribs in town."
"I'm kind of in a time crunch. I've started an independent mech design studio and I'm practically buried in debt as a result. I was kind of hoping to canvas the audience and find a market for my product."
"Oh. I see. I heard you nerdy types like to pursue a career at the big companies. It's pretty brave of you to start out on your own."
"We all have different dreams." Ves smiled ruefully. "I know it's a tough road, but I don't regret stepping on it. I'm confident I can make it to the top someday."
"Wow. That's really impressive. Anyway, I won't distract you any further. Let's exchange comm contacts before you go."
After they added each other to their contact lists, they separated. Charlotte headed over to her fellow pilots who congratulated her on her excellent showing. Ves on the other hand made his way past the families and other regular people and headed up to the spectating area reserved for the first-class ticket holders who wanted to enjoy the exhibition without screaming children nearby.
Security let him in without a fuss, a perk for being a participant. Ves walked past an invisible screen that dampened most of the noise from the crowd down below. The dim lightning, luxurious upholstery and the plentiful private viewing rooms gave the first-class area a sense of exclusivity. The people who possessed the qualifications to enter this area all emanated an air of class or martial might. Those present in the public areas all congregated into small groups of close-minded associates as they paid attention to the spectacle unfolding in the central arena.
Ves took a deep breath and made sure the silver medallion he just won was visible on his chest. Then, with a pleasant smile, he approached the nearest group of people who looked like they wouldn't totally shut out others.
A trio of what looked like industrialists and a couple of mid-ranking Mech Corps officers took their eyes away from the tense and slow-paced duel to focus their attention on Ves.
"Ah, you're the second-place winner of that side contest, aren't you? Are you related to the Larkinsons?"
Ves nodded politely at the officer. "My father's been on border patrol for many years, though recently he went missing."
Everyone politely adopted a mourning expression, including Ves. "That's a shame. Those who guard our borders against the aliens are performing the highest duty for our nation."
"I'm still hopeful he'll live." Ves shrugged, but resumed smiling, not wanting to tread down on this topic any further. "In any case, I was hoping to interest you in a new mech variant I've recently developed for my startup business."
One of the businessmen laughed politely. "As a matter of fact, I'm here to do the same thing. I'm a representative of Jackson and Partners. We were just discussing the Mech Corps potential renewal of their oldest 400-unit fleet of scout flyers."
Well, that was awkward. They exchanged a little bit more before Ves was politely sent off like he was a toddler intruding upon adults doing serious business.
He hadn't expected instant success, so his first rejection shouldn't affect him so much. Still, he felt he was being disregarded by the people around him. His youth and lack of track record weighed him down more significantly than he thought.
"We only source our mechs from established suppliers. We signed fixed service contracts with our long-term partners so they can offer the best support for our mech needs."
"I have to admit, for a lastgen mech your Marc Antony variant belongs to the middle-upper tier. Nevertheless, my corps only runs currentgen models. We like getting our hands on the newest toys available in the market, you see. Your Marc Antony is only good for a decade or two at most before it becomes obsolete."
"I collect only the classics and only in their most original form. I have nothing against variants, but the base models are the best."
This suspicion grew stronger as Ves kept approaching different groups of people. Sometimes he got a chance to introduce his product before he was rejected, but most of the time they didn't bother hearing him out. Perhaps most of these people were genuinely unable or unauthorized to purchase a new mech, but for the rest it was simply a lack of confidence in his ability to deliver.
Still, he got close a couple of times. Some retired mech pilots or veteran mercenaries expressed some interest in ordering his mech. Only a few things held them back.
"Our mercenary corps mostly goes out on extended patrols. While the short-term battle performance of your variant is impressive, we can't take it if it fails to keep up on our weeklong patrol routes."
"We're actually in need of plugging a gap in our mech lineup, and if you offered us the original Caesar Augustus I'd be tempted. As it is, while your variant is affordable, even two of your mechs can't fulfill the role of a single well-armored mech."
"Your mech's offensive lineup is a little scattered. It inherits most of the disadvantages of the Caesar Augustus but comes without the base model's excellent armor. I'd rather buy a specialized mech that does one single job perfectly than a machine that purports to cover every area only to fail at most of them."
He noticed that Carlos was off about his prediction that wealthy collectors were more likely to purchase his mechs. These collectors were highly discerning in their choice of mechs. They disdained cheap variants. Instead, they were more likely to chase after vintage base models or highly exclusive variants made with extraordinary materials.
Wealthy mercenaries expressed the most interest in his product so far. They were open to purchasing a functional mech, but poked holes at the Marc Antony's weak points. The detriments outweighed the benefits even with the favorable pricing. Compared to the 65 million credit price tag of an official Augustus, the 24 million credits Ves humbly asked for his product was a steal.
Still, not everyone was willing to accept that bargain bin price point. A flamboyant mercenary who behaved more like a pirate than a legitimate mercenary laughed in Ves' face when he quoted the price.
"Twenty-four million? Twenty-four fucking million?! I'd have to work my ass off for more than five years to earn back such an amount. How about giving me a break? Let's say, hm, twelve million?"
Ves was immune to awkward situations by now. He could maintain his smile even when the universe was ending. "For an advance payment of twelve million credits, I can produce and deliver the mech to you within half a month. You can pay the other half once the MTA certifies my mech."
Seeing that Ves wasn't willing to bargain, the rowdy mercenary turned away. "No thanks. I'm too short on cash."
Even as the final match ended in a rousing last act, Ves still hadn't achieved a single sale. He was beginning to grow a little nervous. This evening was the best and only opportunity he had to approach the rich and the strong. After this unofficial holiday ended, most of them would go back to their offices or mechs. By then, where could he find a buyer for his mech? Should he post an ad on the MTA's internal market and cross his fingers some chump picked up his offer out of the hundreds of thousands of alternative ones?
He began to despair a little. He was so desperate, he'd get on his knees and beg if it increased his chances. The more he interacted with the people around him, the more he realized the mech market was more insular than he thought. The vibrant market the MTA portrayed did not apply to the situation on the ground. The MTA's market communities mostly encompassed entire star sectors. A single third-rate state such as the Bright Republic couldn't support too many producers.
Ves realized that by setting up his mech boutique in Cloudy Curtain, he'd inadvertently isolated himself from his clientele. A quiet environment, lack of competitors and favorable taxes meant nothing if Ves was unable to earn any form of revenue in the coming weeks.
He lacked too many things. Though he had a tenuous connection to the Larkinson family, they wouldn't go out on a limb to subsidize his business nor purchase his first mech. While they saved up a sizeable amount of credits over the years, most of them were reserved for emergencies. Using them to save a failed business was not in the family's collective interests.
Without the support of any substantial influence, Ves was like a boat trapped in the middle of sea. Only a desolate expanse of water surrounded him in each direction. Where could he find an island to gain some respite?
"Hello there Ves."
"Whoa!" Ves almost jumped out of his skin from the abrupt greeting. He turned around to see the test pilot who piloted his mech during the qualifications. "Hans! I didn't expect to see you here."
"I'm an active serviceman as well. Once I finished my duties, I thought I'd drop by and catch up to the finals. Sad to say I came too late. Anyway, what got you so down?"
Ves explained his circumstances and then elaborated on his difficulties in pushing his new design.
"I'm not surprised no one's ever taken you on your offer. Besides the detriments you already mentioned, the most important reason why no one dares to accept an order is due to the untested nature of your design. Pilots like us, we don't trust the spec sheet produced by the MTA. It's been wrong plenty of times before and will continue to do so until they get their asses kicked out of their monopoly in mech management. As I was saying we pilots like to look at the actual performance in the field instead of a bunch of abstract numbers that may have been fudged."
"The numbers are absolutely reliable. I've achieved a small amount of success selling virtual versions of my Marc Antony in Iron Spirit. So far, not a single customer returned to complain about any deviations from their mech's official performance."
"I advise you not to bring up these virtual games." Hans firmly advised. "At our level, no one takes Iron Spirit seriously. The inaccuracy and deviance from actual piloting is is more pronounced at the higher ranks of the game. It takes a lot of effort to adjust to two different environments, so most older mech pilots don't bother maintaining an active presence in Iron Spirit."
"What about you, then? You did a great job piloting my Drake through the gauntlet. Are you interested in a purchase?"
The test pilot shook his head. "I don't earn enough to afford a personal mech, and since I test out new designs as a job, I don't pilot a fixed mech when I'm at work."
Ves received another disappointment. If even a mech pilot as friendly as Hans refused to buy his mech, then his chances of convincing other pilots was practically nil.
"I might know someone who could be persuaded to take a leap at your design." Hans added as he saw the crushed response in the young man. "I'll do you a favor and introduce him to you. Whether you manage to close a deal with him will depend on your own efforts."
"A chance is all I ask for. I'm grateful for any assistance you provide."
Hans leisurely led Ves through the crowd of spectators paying attention to the elaborate award ceremony. The Young Tigers Exhibition was specifically organized by the Republic to glorify young heroes, so a lot of fanfare accompanied the awarding of prizes. Once they arrived at the door of a private room, Hans knocked at it with a peculiar rhythm. A beep sounded out as the lock disengaged.
As they entered the box, Ves saw that almost nobody occupied the chairs and couches. Only the grandest seat supported a person. The man who sat on the chair looked like an old, grey-haired veteran that emanated the same vibe as his grandfather. Even from the entrance, Ves could feel the man was more than just an average veteran.
"Ah, Captain Rodello, nice to see you again. I see you've brought a guest."
"Colonel, this is Ves Larkinson, the runner up of the Fusion Cup. Ves, this is Colonel Ares Huntington."
The retired colonel snorted at that. "So the brat won a medal and a couple of perks. That's not a big deal compared to the young warriors on stage right now."
"He's not a pilot and I'm not here to bring him into your club. I just thought that since you have so much free time on your hands, you might be interested in what Ves is selling."
"Oh?" The colonel took a closer look at Ves, actually taking him seriously this time. "So what is it that demands my attention? It better be good."
Knowing that he arrived at the best opportunity he could ever get this night, Ves adopted a professional tone and explained the capabilities of his mech. Huntington's expression remained carefully neutral as Ves elaborated on all the good and some of the not-so-good points of his mech. Perhaps revealing his own shortcomings wasn't the best idea, but he didn't want to risk getting blamed by the old man if he somehow caught on. Nevertheless, the colonel let him speak until he came at the end where he quoted his price.
"...And so for the total package, with just twenty-four million bright credits, its yours. After paying an advance payment of half the price, I'll get to work on the mech as soon as I get back to my workshop. I'll have it ready for you within two weeks."
Ares grumbled a bit to himself as he stroked his chin. Ves could tell he was wavering, but he couldn't determine what held the old man back from making the jump. Was it the armor? The lack of specialties?
"No." The old man finally replied after several minutes of consideration. "You make for a compelling case, but it's not what I need right now."
Ves was devastated. He got so close to making a sale. Why did Ares turn away from his offer?
The colonel insensitively waved them away. "Captain Rodello, this was a nice distraction, but don't bring anyone irrelevant to me again. The two of you can go bother someone else now. I won't see you out. Goodbye."