As the leader of the biggest and only gang on Cloudy Curtain, Walter ruled over his men through strength and restraint.

Unlike most members, Walter grew up in Bentheim rather than Cloudy Curtain.
Nobody knew about his background and what he experienced growing up, but it must have been a difficult childhood, seeing as Walter never showed any inclination for higher education.

From what Ves could gather from his initial meeting of the man, Walter exhibited a slight Haston accent.
He imagined Walter as something of a bully who stole food and earned respect on account of his sturdy body and his ability to master the art of intimidation.

Whatever Walter had endured, he obviously did well enough to be noticed by the local gangs.
Nobody knew which gangs he previously ran with, but at some point Walter got in touch with the Blood Claws.

History got a little spotty here.
All the public knew was that at one point Walter split off to form his own gang called Walter ’s Whalers and tried to vie for territory.

They lost the battle.

Defeated and demoralized, the remnants of the newly established Whalers tucked their tails between their legs and departed from the port system in a hurry.
They sought refuge at any hole they could find, and eventually ended up in Cloudy Curtain.

The previous gang that claimed the planet as their own turned out to be more pathethic than the Whalers.
Their outdated, atrophied mechs didn ’t stand a chance against the Whalers and their dented arsenal of cheap but modern mass-produced frontline mechs.

Since then, he Whalers settled in and licked their wounds.
Eventually, recovered to their former numbers, but Walter himself never considered going back to Bentheim.
He would rather reign over cats than live like a dog among tigers.

”Good choice. ” Ves thought as he woke up the next morning on the Happy Jelly, the flagship of the Whalers.

As flagships went, the Happy Jelly didn ’t receive much care.
Like most carriers, the ship had started out as a heavy hauler, and once she became too slow and worn out to make a profit, her owners sold her to a shipyard.
There, the Happy Jelly received a second life as some of her most worn-out components had been replaced and her massive cargo space had been reconfigured to carry combat-ready mechs.

The only problem Ves had with the Jelly was that she was obviously pushing her age.
The carrier audibly groaned as the Whaler fleet engaged their FTL drives.

Ves already missed his gleaming Barracuda.
The sharp and nimble corvette always glided into FTL as if she dove into the water like a graceful athlete.
The ship already went ahead of the main fleet to scout the star systems ahead.

The Happy Jelly on the other hand resembled an elephant being launched into the water with a mighty splash.

Occasionally, her entire hull groaned as if she was being stretched out like a noodle.
One day, he thought, the Jelly would be the Jelly no more, leaving behind a debris field that stretches over light-years as they fell out of FTL in a haphazard order.

”You really need to tune your ship. ” Ves told Walter as he entered the main hangar.
Rows upon rows of mechs sat dormant in their stables.
Much of them looked like they had seen better days, but only a handful of technicians attempted to patch them up.

”My Jelly can take a few more trips.
Don ’t worry about the old lady. ” Walter remarked as he stood in front of the red-shouldered Blackbeak.
”Let ’s talk about business, shall we? ”

Ves approached the boss as an equal but made sure to maintain a tone of respect.
”As you know, I ’m taking a lot of risks.
I left behind a company valued at around ten billion credits in order to join your expedition.
I ’ve also gifted you with a priceless mech that ’s valuable not only for its history, but also its performance. ”

”What do you want in return? ”

”A cut of whatever the Whalers manage to obtain.
It doesn ’t have to be too much, and we can adjust the amount according to my contribution.
Let ’s set the base at ten percent of total earnings. ”

That was a massive sum, but it also reflected the value Ves could bring to the table.
A mech force without a mech designer watching over their machines would always be at a disadvantage compared to an opponent that did enjoy that advantage.

They bargained back and forth, but on account of his generous gift, Ves succeeded in setting the bar at ten percent.

”You look like you ’re eying something else.
Get on with it. ” Walter spat, brandishing his massive arms in front of Ves.

”There are two more things I ’m on a lookout for.
First, if by some means the Whalers ever get their hands on something that originates from the core of the planet, I ’d like to receive a hand-sized chunk. ”

”Fine. ” Not that Walter knew what something like that really meant.

”Second, I ’d like to get a copy of all of the logs of the mechs on the field. ”

”For what reason? ”

”A… client of mine wants to map out the environmental hazards your mechs might encounter in the field.
It ’s for the Coalition. ”

”I see. ”

Walter obviously didn ’t appreciate sending off those logs to some stranger in the Coalition.
Even if they ’d never be able to use it against them, it still felt awful to air all of your dirty laundry.

In truth, Ves accepted the mission to submit the logs on his own accord at the Clifford Society.
The mission dangled out a reward for 200 merits, which seemed too good to be true.

The mere mention of the Coalition had the desired effect, even if Ves played a trick on the boss.
Walter acceded to the demand with gritted teeth.

In an effort to find something pleasant to talk about, Ves quickly moved past their discussion and walked over to the Blackbeak.
”Have you decided whether you ’ll adopt this mech as your own? ”

Walter shook his head.
”My Urman has served me well so far.
Only youngsters and fools chase after the latest toys.
Your mech is a fine machine, but not a mech that ’s suited to lead the Whalers. ”

Ves glanced at the so-called Urman standing quietly to the stable up ahead.
The mech turned out to be a brawler, an exotic archetype that basically fought with its fists.

Like its pilot, the brawler looked like it could withstand a lot of punishment.
Ves estimated that all of its armor had actually pushed the mech over the medium weight class.

Normally, that was bad, as mechs like this didn ’t possess the level of protection enjoyed by genuine heavy mechs.
However, some pilots simply made it work, and from Walter looked like he was one of them.
Ves imagined their shared body types helped a lot with establishing a deeper connection between the two.

”I can see why you ’re attached to your mech.
The Blackbeak is a mech that ’s suited for long-ranged patrols and lengthy battles of attrition.
It can ’t deliver an immediate impact like your Urman. ”

Walter probably had ways to get around its sluggish speed and its subpar psuedo-heavy armor.
If the Urman ever got close to a mech, it could punch a mech apart through sheer brute force with the help of its large powered gauntlets.

Another man stepped forth.
He looked to be from the same generation as Walter, but thankfully his body wasn ’t so wide.
”Walter! You called? ”

”Come over here.
Fadah, this is Ves.
Ves, this is Fadah.
He ’s my fourth-in-command of sorts. ”

Fadah snorted.
”More like eight or ninth.
You always change your mind.
It ’s a wonder the Whalers are still in one shape. ”

”Hah! As long as everyone gets a taste of power, they ’ll know how much grief they have to deal with.
That helps cut down the potential mutinies. ”

”As if we don ’t fear you. ” The skinnier Whaler shook his head.
”Anyway, why did you call me over? I was in the middle of sorting out our roster.
It ’s a real mess, you know. ”

”I called you here because you ’ll be piloting that black thing over there.
You ’ve always been nagging your ears about your piece of junk of a mech.
Well, here ’s a brand new machine, and a unique one to boot.
It ’s all yours! ”

”But I ’m a scout pilot! I pilot light mechs! ”

”Light mechs, medium mechs, what ’s the difference! When you get down to it, they ’re both fast and hard to catch.
They just differ in the amount of armor they ’re willing to carry.
Besides, you ’re my most resourceful pilot.
Only someone as hard to kill as you will fit this beast. ”

Walter didn ’t take no for an answer, and quickly walked away, leaving Ves and Fadah to stew by themselves.

”Is he always like that? ”

He seems like he doesn ’t care, but he doesn ’t want to be bothered with managing anything. ”

”Then why do the Whalers stick with him? ”

The older man grinned at him.
”You wouldn ’t understand.
The best I can describe it is… it ’s like a brotherhood.
Walter ’s Whalers might not possess the ruthlessness to survive in a place like Bentheim, but that ’s because Walter never pushes us beyond our boundaries. ”

Ves didn ’t really understand what he meant.
He shook his head and turned back to the matter at hand.
”For better or worse, you ’re saddled with my pride and joy.
The Blackbeak is a fine machine.
It will run as smooth as butter, I can guarantee you. ”

”Whatever you say.
It ’s not a scout.
Far from it.
It ’s a knight. ” Fadah didn ’t appear to be taken in by all the hype, but he tried to make the best of it.
”Let ’s get to work, then. ”

Any mech pilot that adopted a new mech had to go through a period of training and adjustment.
Normally, a couple of mech pilots would be sufficient to tweak the mech to the pilot ’s preferences.
Allowing Ves to do the adjustments on a design he knew on an extremely deep level was an extravagant privilege.

Fadah came from a light mech background, so the man mainly demanded ways to enhance the Blackbeak ’s mobility.
In particular, Fadah harped on improving its response time and its range of motion.

”A light mech relies on agility to survive up close.
The more you shave off a mech ’s response time, the better it will be able to respond to an opponent ’s move. ”

Ves felt deeply reluctant to make any drastic changes to the Blackbeak, but Fadah insisted on a couple of modifications that severely impacted the effectiveness of its armor.

As Ves tried to follow Fadah ’s suggestions, he became a little conflicted about maintaining its ability to endure.
Many of the things Fadah insisted upon set back the Blackbeak ’s ability to survive the entire campaign.

”You shouldn ’t be beating your head over my style. ” Fadah said.
”The whole point of light mechs is that they survive by not taking a hit at all.
I know it seems kind of reckless for me to demand you strip a knight of some of its armor, but I can tell you that I ’ll be much better off that way. ”

”I still think you ’re going too far with this! The Blackbeak is losing its identity as a knight! ”

”I don ’t want to pilot a knight! ”

They remained at an impasse.
Ves felt more and more like he was butchering the Blackbeak until all he had left was bones.
The conflicting vision for the mech sometimes caused him headaches that forced him to halt his adjustment work.

That was bad, as the Whaler fleet would soon arrive at the outskirts of the space around the Glowing Planet.
The crew members of the Happy Jelly already called the five light-hours around the planet the Glowing Zone.

The Whaler fleet was scheduled to rendez-vous at a point around one light-hour into the Glowing Zone.
Monty the Beheader issued a call to arms, and every outfit that pledged allegiance to him had to heed his words.

If all went well in space, the Whalers would be touching down in a couple of days.
Ves had to finish the Blackbeak and inspect some of the other mechs before that happened.
He urgently had to find a way to solve his current logjam.

”What will it take to reconcile my mech with its pilot? ”

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