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The quiet journey to Leemar not only allowed Ves to do his homework, but also take care of other matters.

For example, Ves finally judged the Barracuda traveled far enough from Centerpoint to check up on the System. Under Lucky's vigilant ECM shielding, he summoned his System comm from his Inventory and activated his Privacy Shield.

While he did not have total confidence that these countermeasures would be able to jam state-of-the-art MTA surveillance technology, the Friday Coalition was an entirely different matter. He also activated it during FTL travel, so it was extremely unlikely for their spies to be snooping in on him right now.

"It's been a while."

Though the System gave him numerous advantages, he did not wish to become too dependent on it. So far, he figured he did a good job of that, though it left him to abandon many opportunities that he could have pursued earlier.

Ever since he met Gloriana, he somehow felt lacking. Ves found himself unable to resist her forwardness and constantly ceded the initiative to her whenever she took charge.

"It's probably her Hexer background in combination with her current success. Even with her privileged upbringing, she has achieved a lot for a mech designer."

And she did all of that without something similar to the System. Ves couldn't help but admire her deep down in his mind.

Thinking about her and how weak-kneed he acted in her presence still sent him into an ambivalent mood.

A part of him wanted to be more impressive. He previously thought he was doing quite well enough as a mech designer, so he did not feel much pressure to forcibly upgrade his design abilities.

Yet after meeting Gloriana, the urge to improve himself reasserted with a vengeance. How could he ever take the initiative when he always felt inadequate in front of a fellow peer?

"If I don't feel confident enough, I'll just have to improve myself to the point where I can hold my ground when I meet her again!"

Still, another part of Ves wanted nothing to do with Gloriana. He had seen how extreme fanatics could become in order to obtain what they wanted. Falling deeper into her clutches both pleased him and repelled him at the same time!

"What is wrong with me?!" Ves violently shook his head.

If not for her fanaticism, Ves would have wholeheartedly pursued her. She ticked all the right boxes. In her own words, they made for a perfect couple. Yet the way she let herself be controlled by her obsessiveness and compulsions sometimes freaked him out.

"Well, it's not like I'm much better."

The big question that haunted him recently was whether Ves should accept Gloriana's affections or close himself off to her entirely.

"I don't think she'll like it if I ignore her." Ves grimaced. "All manner of bad things might happen if I scorn such a driven woman."

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, particularly one so capable as Gloriana!


On the other hand, accepting her would not only allow Ves to avoid that unpleasantness, but also enjoy the company of someone he genuinely found attractive and complimented him very well on a professional level.

An important question popped up whenever Ves seriously contemplated growing closer to the Hexer.

"Can I trust her?"

Strangely enough, his intuition was strongly in favor of trusting Gloriana. The woman might have a few screws loose in her head, but her abnormal dedication towards him was definitely genuine!

"The main reason why all those faiths and rebel movements cultivate fanaticism and blind devotion is because it's the strongest way to ensure loyalty!"

A fanatic was another word for an unflinching loyalist to a certain cause. It simply wasn't possible to bribe or coerce fanatics to betray their cause.

They were so loyal that most manipulation and interrogation techniques would fail when applied to them. The only way to get them to talk was to employ very harsh or advanced methods, but this usually killed or permanently disabled the fanatic in question.

Although Ves felt a little uncomfortable about it, he did not feel so uncomfortable if he shared some of his secrets with her if their relationship grew deeper.

"It will take a long time before I get to this point. There's little use contemplating it now."

He turned his attention back to the System.

[Design Evaluation: Transcendent Messenger]

"Oh yeah, I forgot about that."

Ves merely skimmed it over before dismissing it. The evaluation didn't tell him anything new. Perhaps the only criteria worth paying attention to was its X-Factor.

X-Factor: A-

"A- huh? That's a little worse than the Aurora Titan, but not out of my expectations."

Any mech design with an A-grade X-Factor was already remarkable. Their only fault was that they were very troublesome to achieve.

He shrugged off the evaluation report and moved on to his Status.

[Status]

Name: Ves Larkinson

Profession: Journeyman Mech Designer

Specializations: Spiritual Man-Machine Symbiosis

Design Points: 276,167

Attributes

Strength: 1.4

Dexterity: 1.0

Endurance: 2.0

Intelligence: 2.2

Creativity: 2.1

Concentration: 2.1

Spirituality: 1.4

Neural Aptitude: F

Skills

[Assembly]: Journeyman - [3D Printer Proficiency IV] - [Assembler Proficiency IV]

[Battle Mechatronics]: Apprentice - [Knight Mech Mastery I] - [Rifleman Mech Mastery I] - [Space Knight Mastery I] - [Hero Mech Mastery I]

[Business]: Apprentice

[Computer Science]: Apprentice - [Mech Hacking II]

[Electrical Engineering]: Journeyman - [Structural Pathway Configuration IV] - [Energy Storage IV] - [Conductors III] - [Ultracompact Energy Storage I]

[Materials Science]: Journeyman - [Crystallography III] - [Crystal Laser Propagation II] - [Lithic Materials I]

[Mathematics]: Journeyman

[Mechanics]: Journeyman - [Jury Rigging IV] - [Speed Tuning IV]

[Metallurgy]: Journeyman - [Alloy Compression III]

[Metaphysics]: Apprentice - [X-Factor IV] - [Spiritual Senses II] - [Spiritual Exploration I] - [Spiritual Projection I] - [Spiritual Empowerment I] - [Spiritual Imprint Manipulation I] - [Spiritual Masking I]

[Interfacing]: Novice

[Physics]: Senior - [Directed Energy Weapon Optimization III] - [Gamma Laser Weapons I] - [Lightweight Armor Optimization II] - [Mediumweight Armor Optimization IV] - [Melee Weapon Optimization IV] - [Polarizing Shielding II] - [Rapid-Fire Laser Weapon Operation II] - [Optics III]

[Propulsion]: Journeyman - [Flight Systems IV]

[Salvaging]: Apprentice - [Field Repairs III]

[Signals and Communications]: Journeyman - [Anti-Stealth Detection II]

[Stealth and Cloaking]: Novice

Abilities

[Superpublish]: Available. Can be activated once a year.

[Inventorize]: Unavailable.

Evaluation: A young Journeyman Mech Designer at the start of developing his unique design philosophy.

"That's odd. My Spirituality increased by 0.1." Ves noted with curiosity.

Aside from this peculiar growth, nothing else of significance had changed. His DP growth was quite respectable. It signified that his company was making very brisk sales.

In particular, the Aurora Titan had attracted a cult following according to Gavin. NORA Consolidated expected sales to slump after it had fulfilled the initial orders, but customers from other states began to appreciate the super-medium space knight.

Outfits learned that the Aurora Titan had a very good effect on morale. While its application was very narrow and inflexible, its presence alone always succeeded in boosting the morale of every friendly.

Not only that, but the Aurora Titan's intimidating aura seriously oppressed any raiders attempting to assault a trade convoy.

Whether this was worth paying 100 million bright credits or more depended on the customer. Most outfits simply couldn't justify the expenditure, but there were always a few outfits in every state that saw the true value of fielding a unique and inspiring mech like the Aurora Titan!

For this reason, Ves expected his DP earnings to continue to grow steadily for the foreseeable future.

"In fact, the DP I've accumulated doesn't reflect the full earnings the LMC has made."

One notable source of income to a mech company was the licensing of its mech designs. The Aurora Titan design was a public mech design that came under an increasing amount of attention.

Many mech designers became very interested in figuring out the secrets behind the remarkable design. They licensed the design in order to obtain the full design schematics and additional documentation so that they might be able to explore it and design a superior mech.

Many of these mech designers usually consisted of greedy Apprentices who were jealous at the LMC's bountiful product margins. What was the difficulty of designing a variant of the Aurora Titan and undercutting the original model by pricing their works a little cheaper?

They mostly failed.

Any mech designer that muddled up the original design with their own additions only spoiled its X-Factor. Without exception, every single variant lost much of the intrinsic value that only someone like Ves would add to his mech design!

Journeymen and Seniors knew better. They probably figured out that the unique strength that Ves bestowed on his mech designs was actually a Class IX design philosophy.

While most mech designers could learn a thing or two from other people's design philosophy, Class IX design philosophies were different.

They were too weird! Therefore, while a couple of Journeymen and Seniors had indeed licenced the Aurora Titan, they did not have any illusions of copying the original designer's trade secrets.

"In fact, I don't even know why they licensed the Aurora Titan design if they don't intend to publish a variant. Are they doing it for research purposes?" Ves scratched his head.

Well, in any case, the LMC was raking in a lot of fees. Each time a mech designer applied for a standard 10-year license, they forked out 6 billion bright credits!

Even if NORA Consolidated pocketed seventy-five percent of that sum, leaving the LMC with only 1.5 billion credits, the dozens of licenses issued in the last couple of months really added a lot of money to the company's coffers.

"Well, the shareholders are probably the happiest. The LMC won't skimp out on dividends this year."

Ves turned his attention back to his Status and evaluated what he should improve. He mainly wanted to gain some confidence, and what better than to pad his Skills?

"Upgrading my Sub-Skills won't have that much effect." Ves shook his head.

He wanted a comprehensive upgrade. For this reason, he decided to upgrade his main Skills. Now that he became Journeyman, the sheer influx of knowledge shouldn't strain his mind as much.

He was also much more equipped to fulfill the Upgrade Missions the Systems decided to send on his way.

[Dexterity Attribute Candy]: 1,000 DP

[Dexterity Attribute Candy]: 1,100 DP

[Dexterity Attribute Candy]: 1,200 DP

[Dexterity Attribute Candy]: 1,300 DP

[Dexterity Attribute Candy]: 1,400 DP

[Dexterity Attribute Candy]: 1,500 DP

[Strength Attribute Candy]: 1,400 DP

[Strength Attribute Candy]: 1,500 DP

[Mechanical Fault Detection I]: 10,000 DP

[Fixed Armor Specialization I]: 10,000 DP

[Flexible Armor Specialization I]: 10,000 DP

[Mechanics - Senior]: 100,000 DP

[Metallurgy - Senior]: 100,000 DP

Before he upgraded his Mechanics and Metallurgy Skills, he decided to upgrade his physical attributes first. While it was tempting to upgrade his Strength and Dexterity straight to 2.0, Ves was wary of changing his body too drastically. Past experience suggested that huge leaps in improvement led to a lot of unforeseen side effects!

"Upgrading both of my lowest physical attributes to 1.6 should be sufficient."

Ves was right to be careful. As soon as he swallowed all the attribute candies, his body felt increasingly more uncomfortable to him. While he didn't feel any pain, his loss of coordination was quite serious!

It was as if he had just undergone a major gene optimization treatment. If not for his lingering familiarity with his body, Ves might not be able to control his body at all for a couple of weeks!

"As it is, I'm barely able to stand and walk!"

Nonetheless, the benefits should be more than worth it. As long as he got used to his new changes, Ves would see numerous benefits in his life. Beating up mech designers and mech pilots out of their mechs in order to assert his dominance would become trivially easy.

Just the thought of doing so in front of an impressed-looking Gloriana made him want to thump his chest!

"Urgh! I'm doing it for myself, not for Gloriana!"

Ves quickly shook his head and proceeded to upgrade his Skills.

Because both Mechanics and Metallurgy did not meet the System's prerequisites concerning Sub-Skills, Ves decided to add in three useful-sounding Sub-Skills. Each of them helped him detect and mitigate flaws in his designs that he would have otherwise overlooked.

"It will save me the trouble of discovering the flaws during tests."

After that, he finally pulled the trigger and upgraded his two Journeyman-level Skills.

As expected, the System presented him with two Upgrade Missions.

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