What did it mean to be human? Ves asked himself this question many times on the trip back to civilized space.
The researchers avidly studying each and every corner of his body hummed with excitement as they unfolded the secrets buried within.

Ves had unquestionably departed from the standard of pure human.
The trans-galactic organizations maintained a strict definition of what fell under the human race, and Ves happened to get kicked out of the playground.

In his daily life, Ves wouldn ’t be treated any differently.
The Common Fleet Alliance ’s researchers revealed that certain levels of hybridization was a bit more common than usual in the upper echelons of society.

”We are at war with aliens, but we envy them as well.
The most sophisticated races possess various wondrous powers that we secretly covet.
It ’s therefore not a crime against humanity to depart from the norm, because we know we can ’t stop people experimenting on themselves. ”

The trans-galactic organizations discourage the practice, but allows it to happen as long as the recipients remain discrete.
They did not wish to encourage a culture where the masses became accustomed to radical modifications.

”The reason why we are wary of fusing alien genes into the human genome is that it often goes very wrong.
From all reports, Doctor Jutland is a perfect example of why it isn ’t a good idea to go too far.
While we can ’t determine the exact causes of his mood swings, his tireless efforts to inject himself with the strength of these hexapods has turned him into beast as well. ”

”The twenty-seven year isolation also didn ’t help. ” Ves remarked.
Personally, he wished that spending all those years alone pushed the doctor over the edge.
In this case, Ves would likely keep his sanity then.

While the researchers never felt inclined to share their results to Ves, they at least informed him that his new organs came with only a couple of traps.

To eminent figures such as them who received some of the highest education in human society, Jutland ’s work appeared crude.
Only the decades spent on mastering everything about the hexapods allowed him to form a working set of hybrid organs.

Fortunately, the researchers possessed enough benevolence to fix the hidden dangers in his body.
Although Ves could only take their word for it, he did feel a tiny bit better after he went through a number of operations.
The tiny undercurrent of unease he always felt through his developing Sixth Sense had faded out when he next woke up.

”We adjusted your genes to a stabler level than before. ” A doctor said when he checked on his waking body.
”Your body is still fairly strong, but you ’ll get to live longer than fifty standard years now. ”

Like many humans, Ves would rather live longer than have an inhumanly strong body.
Jutland thought otherwise, and look where that got him.
A mech designer like Ves relied on his intellect to advance his career.
At no point should he rely on his physical strength to make a living.

In total, Ves spent roughly a month aboard the Ramulus.
The science vessel flew next to the damaged Ark Horizon.
Both ships enjoyed the protection of the destroyers and frigates that escorted them to Mancroft Independent Harbor.

Once they reached the quiet little star system, Ves had finished his obligations.
The expedition formally came at an end and House Kaine released the local mercenaries and consultants from their duties.

The CFA actually let him go, to his surprise.
Didn ’t they want to study him further?

One of the researchers knew what he was thinking and laughed.
”You are overstating your own importance to our research.
We ’ve taken many samples and we also scanned your body down to their elementary particles. ”

To his horror, they showed him a vat containing an exact clone of his body.
Seeing a duplicate of himself in the flesh provoked a minor existential crisis within his mind.
Who was the actual Ves? Perhaps the researchers lied and put the real Ves in the vat!

”As I said, you ’re thinking too much.
Fully adult clones are always lacking in their humanity.
Even if we copy a person to an even more precise level, their clones always lack that spark that proves they are alive.
It ’s the main reason why clones have not proliferated in our society.
The clones basically end up as human-form computers that are incapable of appreciating art, expressing their creativity or feeling love. ”

”I see. ” Ves replied, and quickly calmed down.
Once he tested his thoughts, he became more certain that ’he ’ was the true Ves.
”So as long as I can prove I can deal with concepts that AIs could never understand, I ’ll be certain that I ’m human. ”

In any case, the researchers only cloned him so that they could study Jutland ’s work.
Even if they desired to treat him like a lab rat, at least they ’d be studying a gimped copy of himself.
”Better the poor sap than me. ”

Ves tried hard not to think on what his clones had to endure throughout their short existence.
In a legal sense, the clones lacked some of the traits that defined humanity, so no one bothered to give them any rights.

Once a shuttle finally delivered him to the Barracuda, Ves finally felt relief at regaining some form of control over his life.
Lots of people kept an eye on him for one reason or another these past few months.
Ves did not enjoy the limits it imposed on his freedom.

”Welcome aboard, sir. ” Captain Silvestra greeted him with a neat salute.
”We ’ve already established a route back to Cloudy Curtain.
We can depart the Mancroft System whenever you ’re ready. ”

”Has Melkor and the Stanislaw arrived on this ship? ”

”They ’ve arrived a couple of hours ago.
We haven ’t packed up the Stanislaw in case we meet any threats.
You might not be aware, but the shipping lanes throughout the Komodo Star Sector have deteriorated these past few months.
Many interstellar vessels only travel in convoys at this point.
It ’s too dangerous to set off on your own. ”

That sounded fairly bad, and not because they risked encountering a pirate attack.
With the expert navigation of his new crew, he was reasonably confident the Barracuda could avoid and outrun any potential ambush.

No, the emergence of pirates meant that it became a lot harder to get access to critical materials Ves needed to build his mechs.
At the very least, Ves expected a sharp rise in costs.

”Understood. ” Ves nodded as he tried to estimate the ripples of the changing times.
”However, I intend to make a stop at Leemar before returning to the Bright Republic.
Please set course to the Leemar System first. ”

The Barracuda was his ship to begin with, so he could do whatever he wanted.
Right now, Ves wished to pay a visit to his master and ask for help in studying his condition.
The CFA never really bothered keeping Ves up to date with all of the details, so he hoped to borrow Master Olson ’s influence in making sure they hadn ’t messed up his body.

In addition, Ves also planned to pay a visit to the Clifford Society ’s club house on Leemar II.
He didn ’t forget why he signed on to the expedition in the first place.

”Four-hundred merits.
I can buy almost anything with this much wealth. ”

Even a single merit held significant value, because they allowed members access to some of the restricted books in the libraries.
Having several hundred merits all at once meant that if Ves so decided, he could hole up in the Moon Library pretty much forever.

”I can ’t really do that without leaving my Living Mech Corporation out to dry.
It badly needs to expand its catalog of designs. ”

Ves always planned to pave the way for him to design an original mech.
By shaking himself loose from the restrictions revolving around designing variants off other people ’s work, he ’d save billions up-front and a few hundred-thousand credits more with each mech sale!

”At the very least, I ’ll have to hire a hacker to unlock the restriction on my recovered Dortmund printer.
Then, I ’ll have to purchase a high-quality alloy compressor and chemical treatment machine. ”

The latter two machines allowed him to fabricate mechs for the premium segment.
While they demanded a higher standard of quality, they also boasted much higher profit margins, which would be of great help in a time when the cost of resources kept going up.

Besides acquiring new machines, Ves also wanted to browse their library of component licenses.
The Leemar Institute of Technology maintained a large network of mech designers and developers who both offered each other what they needed.
He looked forward to see if he could pick up a bargain.

As the Barracuda prepared to transition into FTL, Ves first caught up with his subordinates.
First, he inquired Captain Silvestra on what his corvette experienced during his stay on Groening IV.

”We stayed out of the fighting, if that ’s what you ’re concerned.
We mainly acted as forward scouts that explored the star systems surrounding the Groening System in order to send back word of any incoming threats.
When the expeditionary fleet suffered a defeat, the Barracuda received orders to stay behind and maintain her post. ”

Nothing exciting happened to his ship, to his relief.
”Did you get into trouble with the liaison sent by House Kaine? ”

”No, sir.
He kept to himself and behaved cordially among us women.
Security Officer Sipos made sure he didn ’t get the opportunity to access any restricted systems. ”

Continue onwards to Leemar.
I don ’t mind if you splurge on the fuel, just get me there quickly. ”

”It ’s not advisable to travel outside of a convoy, sir.
I highly suggest you wait and join a well-protected group of trade vessels. ”

While she had a good point, she also boasted many times that his corvette could avoid and outrun any possible pirate ambushes.
”I ’m short on time and I really need to get to my destination quickly.
Sticking to a convoy means that we ’ll be shackled to the slowest ship in the group. ”

The captain relented after Ves insisted.
With that out of the way, he returned to his stateroom.
Lucky lounged on his bed, but after he came in the cat jumped aside and greeted him with a rub.

”Hey there buddy.
I ’ve missed you too. ” Ves said and picked up his mechanical cat.
”Have you produced a lot of gems yet? ”

The cat meowed at him in an an affirmative tone and padded over to a box filled with a couple of gems.
Ves also found his comm among the jewels, which he quickly picked up and put over his wrist.

”I ’ve missed you too, System. ”

After playing around with Lucky for a few minutes, Ves approached his desk and sat down behind his terminal.
It had been a long time since he last checked in on his business.
The first person he called was Carlos, who appeared on the projector after a few seconds.

”Ves! You ’re back on the grid! ”

”It ’s been rough out here, but I ’ve survived. ” He replied with a smile.
”Is the workshop still intact? ”

”Nothing happened.
It ’s business at usual around here.
I ’ve been churning out the silver label Mark II ’s for over three months. ”

Carlos laid out the numbers to him.
He fabricated and delivered seventeen Mark II ’s, which largely adhered to the schedule Ves had laid out.
Each Mark II sold for 28 million credits, but the cost of raw materials had also risen in recent times, so the average costs amount to around 19 million credits per mech.

After deducting some of his costs such as his mech broker ’s cut, the Living Mech Corporation earned an overall profit of 120 million credits.
This was a generous sum of money, but Ves found it to be a little meager.

Added up with what he saved in his piggy bank as well as his family ’s investment, Ves had around 668 million credits at his disposal.
Such a vast sum of money dried up very fast if he started shopping around some decent component licenses.

Ves nodded at Carlos while he continued to run the numbers in his mind.
”Continue on with your work.
You did well with keeping up with a stable rate of production.
Once I return, I ’ll make some changes to our working environment. ”

After Ves signed off, he leaned back in his chair and considered his financial situation.
He possessed decent sum of money and merits, but not enough.
If he wanted to fulfill his dream of designing an original mech, he had to acquire a lot more money at the very least.

”I ’ve learned a lot from my recent trip, and my skills have matured a bit.
I should make use of my improved capabilities. ”

While Ves could scrounge up some money by fabricating a handful of gold label mechs, their shrinking profit margins made it a thankless job.
Ves had no enthusiasm of relegating himself to a full-time fabricator.

What he really needed was to fabricate a high-margin product like his planned-for but never-seen ruby label product line.
It was time for him to call Marcella and see whether she could find a client for him that was willing to spend a lot of credits.

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