Ves exited from Old Man Terrence ’s headquarters in a contemplative mood.
Gavin and Nitaa quietly followed him out as he slowly sauntered back to his guarded shuttle.

Meanwhile, the mercenaries readied their mechs for moving.
Though the formation of landbound and aerial mechs surrounding a single shuttle looked excessive, no one laughed at the abundance of caution.
Not even the Vindar System escaped unrest.

”Did you make any gains, boss? ” His assistant asked.

”A lot. ” Ves paused.
”More than I thought, actually.
Professional exchanges between mech designers can be very fruitful.
All the months of traveling to the Chuko Republic has already paid off.
The insights I ’ve gained from the exchange will definitely improve my future mech designs, in particular my next work. ”

His perspective on neural interfaces underwent a sea of change.
No longer did he consider them to be carefully shackled components that performed a vital function.

While neural interfaces were still essential to mechs, Ves finally regarded them with the caution and apprehension they truly deserved.

Almost every neural interface utilized in mechs in human space extended the influence of the MTA! By tweaking the safety and performance parameters of each neural interface model they regularly published, they could discreetly push through humongous regional changes that effectively strengthened or weakened the amount of expert pilots that emerged at a given star sector!

Worse, Ves had the feeling this was only the tip of the iceberg of the MTA ’s manipulative dealings!

During the exchange, Old Man Terrence effectively opened one of the closets of the MTA, revealing the skeletons they hid inside.

Yet a huge and immensely powerful organization like the MTA possessed hundreds, if not thousands of closets! How many skeletons had they buried over the years since they assumed power?

The impression that Ves previously held towards the MTA as a powerful, self-serving but largely neutral organization had been thoroughly erased today.

The MTA may profess innocence and benevolence, but like any organization, it wanted to exert the power it accumulated to further its own agenda.

In short, Ves recognized that the MTA was inevitably no different from any other organization run by humans.
It was greedy, hypocritical, duplicitous and above all else ruthless.

To be honest, he had already started leaning towards this direction.
Becoming aware of the existence of factions within the MTA such as the Rim Guardians and the Prime Humans already hinted that the organization was anything but free from the pursuit of greater power.

As Ves still processed the revelations he learned, the group took a break.
They ate lunch at one of the few upscale restaurants still in business in the vicinity.
As Ves ate a sandwich, he retrieved a pouch from his suit pocket and sprinkled some powder on the toppings.

The stench of the spice spread over the dining table before the ventilation system quickly freshened up the air.

”No offense, boss, but I like the older you when you weren ’t picky with your food. ”

”What can I say, Benny.
Geril spice is the best spice in the galaxy in my eyes! ” Ves chuckled as he took a big chomp from his sandwich.
”I ’m kind of hoping to obtain some more, though.
I ’d like to build up a stockpile since it will probably be very hard to obtain more geril spice the further away we go from the Nyxian Gap. ”

”Meow. ”

Lucky also scrunched his face as he paused from munching the exotics placed in a bowl on the table.

Geril spice emanated such a pungent smell that his ability to sniff out juicy minerals became impaired!

Meanwhile, both Commander Cinnabar of the Battle Criers and Commander Meivin of the Dustravens looked at each other for a moment.

”The sale and distribution of food on Vindar VII is strictly regulated by the planetary government. ” Commander Meivin revealed.
”Everyone here is subject to a quota of foodstuffs they can buy.
It ’s necessary since import of food from foreign states has declined.
I doubt spices, especially imported ones, are widely available here. ”

Ves halted in his chewing and directed a narrowed glance at his latest hire.
The mercenary commander of the Dustravens looked like he knew his way around.

”I suppose there are people who don ’t necessarily agree with the measures? ”

Meivin smirked.
Not only that, but they ’re willing to pay a pretty good amount to express their disagreement.
In a quiet place.
Among like-minded people. ”

Aside from Commander Cinnabar, everyone including Ves found it hard to believe that people were still willing to splurge on food during times of deprivation.
Where did these buyers get their money?

Still, Ves knew that this was simply the way the galaxy worked.
Nothing was ever perfect and people with power always demanded more than what they currently enjoyed.

”You can take us to one of these… gatherings? ” Ves obliquely inquired.

”I can, Mr.
While the gatherings aren ’t really that big in Wilxyr and elsewhere on the planet, there might be some interesting goods for sale.
Vander VII used to be a prosperous planet, and while most valuables have already been sold or traded away, the upper ranks are constantly sifting through their vaults and collections.
While they hate to let go of their treasures, they hate eviction even more. ”

This was something very understable to everyone.
Gavin scoffed as he sipped a cup of coffee.

”We might be able to pick up a bargain or two in the right circumstances, boss.
Trinkets and other goodies aren ’t as valuable anymore to the former magnates of this planet.
When their principal sources of income are cut off and their savings start to dry up, they won ’t care as much anymore about getting the best prices for their goods.
The situation has developed far beyond that stage.
The heavy trade restrictions also make it harder for these businessmen and leaders to sell them to well-heeled foreign buyers. ”

”That might be true, but some of the sellers are very stubborn about the value of their trinkets.
The prices are all over the place.
Don ’t expect them to conform to logic. ” Commander Meivin warned.

As they slowly began to wrap up their lunch, Ves asked another question to the local mercenary commander.

”How has Vindar VII still managed to stay upright throughout this persistent economic malaise? ”

The Dustraven commander shrugged.
”I ’m not really sure either.
We manage.
We persist.
We continue to hope for a better future. ”

”That sounds very optimistic of you, but… ”

”Heh. ” Meivin smirked.
”You don ’t think we can do it? Well, you ’re not the first foreigner who expressed skepticism.
I still have faith.
It ’s the only thing that still sustains people like me.
Redwell Province is stronger than the Chuko Republic.
Governor Alinc will see us through this crisis. ”

Like any patriotic Redweller, Commander Meivin put all of their hopes on Governor Riley Alinc.
The provincial governor ’s proactive leadership and bold power grabs during her time in power had transformed the Redwell Province from an administrative entity into a highly autonomous power within Chuko.

Governor Alinc garnered a lot of praise and admiration from the Bloodwellers in particular.

Nitaa asked a question as well.
”How big of a role does the conflict between factions play on Vindar VII? ”

”Not that much. ” Commander Meivin sighed.
”Even though the Vindar System used to be industrious, aside from the food production at Vindar V, there isn ’t anything worth fighting here.
All we have left are ruined businessmen and disgruntled citizens, some of whom are looking for some way to vent their frustrations.
At the top, a small collection of officials keep the situation as calm as they can so they can continue to rake in the bribes. ”

That was good news for all of them.
Though some friction between the two main factions definitely took place, at least it didn ’t sound as if the fighting would spill onto the streets.

”Has the Hinson Protectorate stirred any trouble on Vindar VII? ”

A scowl appeared on Meivin ’s face.
”We ’ve found plenty of signs.
Their agents are remarkably elusive.
It ’s sad to say this, but sympathisers for the foreign invaders are also rife on this planet. ”

Personally, Ves thought the Whitewallers had a good point.
What was the point of staying loyal to the Chuko Republic when it was falling apart at the seams?

But then again, Ves did not grow up in the Redwell Province.
He lacked the emotional investment of the locals, who seemed to be more than willing to endure some hardship in order to retain their collective identity.

Perhaps Ves might think differently as well if the Bright Republic ever came under threat.

Once the group wrapped up their lunch, Ves resumed visiting other mech designers to carry out professional exchanges.
His great success with Old Man Terrence increased his expectations for the subsequent exchanges.

Unfortunately, the other two Journeyman Mech Designers he met in Wilxyr were much more reticent with their insights.
Both of them were younger than Old Man Terrence and obviously still harbored hopes of making more accomplishments despite the bad business climate.

As the evening started to arrive, Ves exited the headquarters of the second mech company with a dejected posture.

”It didn ’t work out again? ” Gavin asked.

The catty woman inside wanted to ask way too much.
Getting her to tell me her insights was like pulling out teeth.
She wasn ’t interested in conducting an equal exchange from the start. ”

”Couldn ’t you have used your Devil Tongue to get her to change her mind? ”

”I could. ” Ves ruefully smiled as they boarded their shuttle.
”In fact, I planned to do so.
Yet ever since I conducted an exchange with Old Man Terrence, I changed my mind.
Applying pressure in these situations violates the spirit of professional exchanges.
If my counterparts aren ’t willing to open their mouths, then they ’re probably not that good in the first place. ”

The most successful mech designers in the Age of Mechs each shared a few traits in common.
The most relevant one to this situation was confidence.
They were confident in their beliefs.

The two Journeymen he met before both behaved insecurely.
That doused his enthusiasm to inquire after their insights.
How valuable would their findings really be if they jealously guarded what little they achieved?

The disappointing visits brought Ves back to reality.
His initial exchange with Old Man Terrence turned out to be an exception rather than the rule.

”I should try and exchange more with senile mech designers. ” He quietly muttered.
”People with one foot in the grave are a lot more willing to share their accumulated wisdom. ”

He gained a lot from aging mech designers such as Professor Velten and Old Man Terrence.
Their urge to express their regrets and teach the younger generation to avoid their mistakes made them a lot less reticent about sharing their insights.

Perhaps Ves should specifically tweak his schedule so that he could visit more dying mech designers.

”Let ’s call it a day.
We can visit the black markets tomorrow. ”

Once they reached their hotel, they settled in for the night.
Fe Nitaa insisted on remaining awake and on guard throughout the night.
She had already taken some pills beforehand to stave off sleep for a few days.

Ves did not discourage her excessive caution this time.
Despite the Battle Criers and the Dustravens maintaining a rotation of patrols outside the hotel, they could not protect him from threats inside.

Another reason why Ves found her caution to be prudent was because Lucky found a number of high-powered bugs and listening devices in his hotel room.

Though every hotel room he stayed in was monitored to an extent, they could usually be cut off with ease to accommodate paranoid guests.

These bugs were different.
Not only were they more sophisticated and hidden than usual, they also continued to function after Ves disconnected the regular monitoring system.

Ves frowned as he pointed his Vulcaneye multiscanner at a seemingly normal flower vase.

According to the scan results, implanted deep within the stem was a tiny, microscopic listening device.

”Meow! ”

”Good job, Lucky.
Is this the final one? ”

”Meow. ”

”Okay. ”

As Ves disposed of the flower by chucking it in the garbage chute, he began to frown.
The presence of sophisticated bugs suggested that he was being stared at by a powerful individual or organization.

”Trouble is in the air. ” He whispered.

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