Ves spent hours trawling through the underground black market.
He found a lot of past glories of once-successful mech designers, business magnates, famed artists, entertainment stars and more.

A plethora of historical mementos of Vindar VII ’s once glorious high society turned into cheap and disposable souvenirs.

None of these trophies, awards and other aesthetically beautiful but functionally useless objects aroused his interests.

He focused his attention solely on the useful and practical items among the trash.

Unfortunately, he was far from the only buyer who trawled the black markets for hidden gems.
Savvy buyers who perused the wares much earlier than Ves already picked up the most obvious treasures with considerable utility or resale value.

The goods that remained failed to impress Ves at all.

So far, he only obtained the nearly-spent shield generator as a bargain, and he couldn ’t put it to use immediately.
He still had to find a way to cobble up an expensive ultracompact battery to truly revitalize his second-hand gadget.

”It might be your stuff that would be put up for sale one day. ” Gavin muttered.

”Unlikely. ” Ves shook his head underneath his hood.
”All of the mech designers who got ruined are mostly the low-ranking ones.
Seniors are still well-off while Journeymen can also find employment from the government if they don ’t have anywhere else to go.
It ’s just that a couple of mech designers such as Old Man Terrence are too proud to abandon their past accomplishments. ”

It was not as if mech designers literally starved on the streets.
The demand for domestically-produced mechs had simply dried up.
Mech buyers were short on money and did not wish to squander their dwindling reserves on mechs made more expensive due to the scarcity of materials.

With so many enterprising mech designers running out of business, they had no choice but to find alternative employment.
Working for the government or larger mech companies who still managed to make ends meet had always been reliable refuges for mech designers with at least some level of skill.

These kinds of transitions already took place in better economies such as that of the Bright Republic.
The only difference between his home state and the Chuko Republic was that the latter ’s bar for success had been raised to a ridiculous height.

In this awful business climate, hardly any Novice or Apprentice could keep their independent businesses aloft!

”Maybe you have a point, boss.
Mechs designed by Novices and Apprentices always compete on price.
In an economy where the supply of raw materials are constrained, their only advantage of offering cost-effective mechs is gone.
Who wants to buy an inferior mech that practically costs the same of a superior mech designed by someone better? ”

”The availability and affordability of materials is critical. ” Ves emphatically noted.
”As long as the materials required to produce a mech are unavailable or priced out of proportion, it isn ’t viable for a mech manufacturer to produce their mechs. ”

”I bet when scarcity hit the Chuko Republic, the bigger mech manufacturers probably managed to make a deal with the surviving suppliers.
As for the smaller mech companies… ”

”They ’re too far down the line. ” Ves noted.
”Even the troubled raw material suppliers seek certainty and stability in troubling times.
They don ’t care about the small fry.
Maintaining favorable relations with a Senior or well-performing Journeyman is far more important than keeping thousands of inconsequential Apprentices afloat. ”

The harder it got, the more ability and competence mattered.
Only in a prosperous and bountiful mech market offered enough space for low-ranking mech designers to do business.

Ever since he founded his company, the LMC operated in a relatively good business climate.
Even during the height of the recent war, the Bright Republic ’s robust infrastructure ensured reasonably stable distribution of vital materials.

This was to the credit of the Bright Republic, whose long history of wars had forced the government to invest in various measures that ensured the continued flow of goods and materials to Bentheim even with the Vesians wreaking havoc on the Brighter supply lines.

Yet what if the supply of materials dried up to a much greater extent? What if prices of the materials that remained for sale multiplied by two? Could the LMC still stay in business in such an unfavorable climate?


Even if the LMC mostly sold premium mechs at generous profits, it was exactly the upper end the mech market that declined the most!

With every outfit and mech buyer facing diminishing reserves of money, they could hardly afford to splurge on expensive, high-performing mechs.

From what Ves had observed of the Chuko Republic ’s anemic mech market, the most predominant mechs sold these days fell into the budget category.

Consumers no longer indulged in luxury.
Subjective taste made way for pure practicality.
Mech models aimed at maximizing the price-to-performance ratio in an inexpensive package dominated Chuko ’s mech market.

The sad thing about it was that most mechs sold in the Chuko Republic consisted of imported mechs!

States that didn ’t suffer from Chuko ’s instability and deteriorating market circumstances still retained their strong economic advantages.
Foreign mech manufacturers eagerly swooped into Chuko like hungry vultures and outcompeted the faltering domestic mech companies!

Having observed all of these interactions and seen the consequences of failure through all of the goods put up for sale, Ves fell into an increasingly contemplative mood.

He intended to visit different locales in order to learn.
Already, the Chuko Republic taught him many valuable lessons.

The one he grappled with right now was the importance of preparing for adverse economic circumstances.

”My company isn ’t set up to survive a disaster that has struck the Chuko Republic. ” Ves morosely declared.

”To be honest, we ’ve only ever experienced growth, boss.
There has never been a period where our growth has declined.
The worst periods we ’ve lived through was when our sales started stalling. ”

”That ’s nothing compared to the calamities that have befallen the Chukan mech companies. ”

Both Ves and Gavin saw the need to shore up the LMC ’s reserves so that it could continue to operate during extremely difficult times.

”I ’ll raise some suggestions to the folks back home. ” Gavin muttered.
”While I don ’t think the Bright Republic will deteriorate to the level of the Chuko Republic, it ’s best to take some precautions while times are still good.
It will be far too late to implement new measures while we are in the middle of a crisis period. ”

Ves waved his hand, signalling his assent.
”It ’s a bit irresponsible for a company as large and significant as mine to overlook proper crisis management.
It ’s evident that a lot of mech companies on Vindar VII haven ’t done that enough. ”

To be honest, the implications did not concern him too much.
If the LMC ever shuttered due to catastrophic circumstances, Ves would still be okay.
His ability as a Journeyman guaranteed that he ’d be able to regain what he lost and surpass his old accomplishments.

The only requirement to do so was to remain free and unfettered from any existing shackles.
The Chuko Republic experienced such a severe brain drain that they strongly held onto their existing talent.

If Ves ever got caught up in such a net, he could forget about starting his business anew!

He wouldn ’t be immune to these circumstances even if he started to operate from an expeditionary fleet.
There may be times during his upcoming grand expedition where his fleet might stumble into a region with enormous troubles.

Keeping his expeditionary fleet under his control would be a major challenge.
He also had to take into account that the regional business climate may become so unfavorable that his operations would have to keep running at a deficit.

Planning for these circumstances could make the difference between a successful expedition and total failure.

As Ves continued to weigh the additional preparations he needed to do to shore up the grand expedition, Fe Nitaa suddenly bumped him with her armored hand.

”Sir, I ’ve detected something critical at the shop ahead of us.
It ’s an item that might prove very vital to you in the future. ”

He followed her subtle direction to what appeared to be a gaudy golden figurine of a human DNA strand.
”What ’s so special about this ornament? ”

”The smell of it is unusual, sir.
Upon further study, I believe it is a one-time receiver from..
the cult.
These receivers are often handed to moles in deep cover. ”

Ves widened his eyes.
The cult in this case could only mean the Five Scrolls Compact!

”Will you be able to use this receiver? ” He whispered back.

”I ’ll only be able to determine if it has received a message.
As for interpreting the contents, it ’s unlikely that I ’ll be able to overcome the encryption. ”

”Then what use is the receiver? ”

”For objects of this nature, security is paramount.
It works through very different principles from ordinary receivers.
I doubt you ’ll be able to detect anything amiss when you point your multiscanner at it.
The only cost to this disguise is that it will only be able to receive a single short message before it no longer works.
The cult therefore only passes these objects on to agents planted in very critical positions with orders to act normal for years or even decades.
Not even the cult itself retains any records on their moles in order to ensure maximum confidentiality! ”

That was quite a scary method! Who knew if someone important secretly worked for the Compact?

”I see.
If the cult takes so many precautions to keep their moles secure, then they won ’t send anything but the most critical messages to these one-time receivers.
For example, the arrival of reinforcements followed by the mobilization of many hidden assets spread throughout the star sector. ”

The message sent to the one-time receiver might carry a different message entirely.
Yet if the receiver remained dormant for an entire decade, only to become active shortly afterwards, then that might signal something ominous!

The envoys of the mythical Ruined Temples may have arrived at the Nyxian Gap!

”Alright, you ’ve convinced me. ” He said.
”Let ’s go buy it.
If it is truly issued by the cult, then it may hold more surprises. ”

Obtaining the ornament depicting a golden DNA strand posed no challenge to Ves.
Because of its lack of utility, Ves managed to snag it for the equivalent of fifty-thousand bright credits.

Even then, he probably paid at least three times its apparent worth.
The seller grinned gleefully at earning a hefty profit.

Ves passed the object on to Nitaa, who had to retract the armored gauntlets of her combat armor in order to study the ornament by touch.

”Anything? ”

”It ’s definitely related.
I ’m sure.
As for what else this receiver holds, I ’m afraid I can ’t say. ”

”That ’s fine.
I ’ll take it to my lab and see if I can find anything noteworthy. ”

He didn ’t have much hopes of finding anything in the scan results.
If the Five Scrolls Compact readily issued these items to their moles, then they were probably capable of defeating nearly every scanner in existence!

Only a nose as remarkable as Nitaa ’s had been able to sniff it out! Not even Ves with his spiritual senses had been able to sense anything amiss!

In fact, Ves had scoured more than half of the black market by now and hadn ’t found a single object that reacted to his Spirituality!

Ves encountered very few exotics for sale.
Most exotics in the collections of mech designers possessed very high resale value if they hadn ’t been processed.

His hopes of stumbling another sample of the P-stone began to fade.
Perhaps the only reason why he hadn ’t given up entirely was because the P-stone ’s true value was not apparent on the surface.
Most people mistook it as a marginal low-grade exotic with extremely dubious value.

Sadly, after another hour of trawling the offerings, Ves made no more gains.

The shield generator and the one-time Compact receiver had been his only gains from this visit.

”I ’ve seen enough.
Let ’s return. ” Ves instructed.

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