Once Ves gave up trying to discover any loopholes to this comm arrangement, he stepped inside a chamber immediately next to the one that held the giant Tzianti crystal. Ignoring its beautiful facets and cut, Ves instead directed his gaze towards the much less impressive looking hardware console.
"The interface is made as simple and basic as possible." The clerk explained with the tone of a practiced spiel. "Old technology is used whenever possible, making it extremely obvious if anything untoward is added to the machinery. You can consult the technical diagrams marked on the wall over there if you want to double-check the guts of the console."
"Do I have to pay more K-coins for that?"
"No. It is already covered by the previous fee you paid."
"Then don't mind if I do."
Though Ves felt tempted to skip the troublesome chore, he fought back his complacency and diligently scanned the entire interface. The low-tech communication device only had one goal, and that was to translate the input and output pouring through the enclosed cable connected to the heart of the Tzianti crystal.
This meant that the Tzianti crystal did all the heavy lifting of establishing real-time communication across many light-years. The hardware interface acted like a translator that processed the signals emanated by the crystal and converted them into a visual and auditory projection.
A mere projection hardly required the latest tech. By building the interface with the oldest and most reliable technical standards, Ves found it easy to understand the entire machine. It virtually possessed no depth at all!
Everything about the primitive arrangement was completely standard, but despite his expectations, Ves found nothing out of place.
Well, he wasn't exactly being forthright with that. While he may not have discovered anything amiss, his multiscanner did find traces of that a microscopic patch of something had been affixed next to the processors responsible for amplifying the Tzianti crystal's raw input.
According to his multiscanner, this incredibly tiny bug had been dissolved into trace elements mere minutes since he first arrived in this chamber. The only reason his scanner detected these traces was because it was a several months-old copy of the latest model of multiscanners from the Mech Corps.
His mouth curled into a minute grimace. If Ves hadn't been paranoid enough to make a detailed inspection, the comm center wouldn't have wiped out this irregularity. A third party would have been able to listen to his dirty dealings with the Skull Architect.
Ves really wanted to activate his jamming device right now, but he left it hanging on his toolbelt. Not only would the interference block the primitive and non sufficient shielded consoles, but the rules also prohibited the activation of a whole laundry list of devices.
He tried hard to withhold his anger. His logic and his desires dictated that he really did not want to cause any trouble. That might spark a conflict with the Bosey Clan, and pissing off the rulers of the space station meant the Vandals and the Swordmaidens might encounter resistance in their attempts at procuring some last-minute supplies.
"I'm satisfied with these arrangements." He finally declared, showing no hint that he observed any aborted mischief.
The clerk made a theatrical bow in front of Ves. "Then I leave you to your private session. Have a good day."
Both the clerk and his guards stepped outside the chamber. After Ves performed one last expedited sweep, he became confident that the chambers contained no more unexpected surprises, at least without bringing in a massive man-sized scanner normally used to identify traces of damage through a mech's exterior.
"There's no way I can delay this any further."
A creeping dread crawled up his back as he faced the console which had already loaded in the communication protocols by the clerk. Only a single press of a button awaited his impending conversation with one of the upper-level figures of the Faris Star Region.
Ves created a strong impression of the Skull Architect in his mind. A Senior Mech Designer, a driven researcher, an ambitious explorer, a strong-willed fugitive, a perfectionist in pursuit of efficiency, a cunning trapper, an impatient madman, what else could he add to the complex sides of the man that managed to survive and thrive in the lawless frontier?
The more he dove into the Skull Architect's story, the more Ves became sympathetic to his cause and drive. Though Ves tried hard to steel his mind and resist this mental contamination, he hadn't entirely succeeded, considering the direction of his recent thoughts.
His disgust at the criminal mech designer's misdeeds became less severe. His sympathy for the man's largely fruitless attempt to impose an impossible level of efficiency in his designs caused Ves to contemplate giving out a hint or two about the X-Factor.
"What am I thinking?!" He shook his head. "These thoughts are dangerous!"
He refocused his mentality and tried to regain clarity in his mind. This was really hard because Ves identified strongly with the Skull Architect. They shared so many traits in common that Ves saw his future self with the older man!
"The design philosophy I'm forming is too radical. Nothing can hide forever. Once I inevitably go public with it, the principles I'm espousing will undoubtedly clash against the sensibilities of the more conservative and heartless mech designers. Will I be driven out from civilized space as well? What if my discoveries and advancements are actively suppressed by my peers?"
This might be his eventual fate in the next couple of hundred years!
Ves snorted in admonishment to himself. "There are still differences! For one, if I am to attract opposition, it will be on the debate floor and on the mech market. The MTA won't send their Compliance Department against me anytime soon. The second difference is that Mr. Jimenez butchered thousands of mech pilots, while the most I"ll be guilty of is offending the sensibilities of close-minded mech designers."
Of course, if the naysaying mech designers started to become an actual threat to his life and career, then he wouldn't mind employing his shadow force against them…
"A shadow force won't come into being out of thin air." He chuckled to himself. "I'll have to secure access to stealth tech first. Obtaining the specifications for an ultracompact battery is also necessary if I want to kit myself and my men with high-powered gadgets."
The key to obtaining these scraps of knowledge was to set a bottom line. Ves reminded himself not to get caught up with the upcoming negotiation. It might take a very long while, but he was pretty certain he could exchange the desired knowledge via the System's Skills. The cost may be unbearably huge, but at least it offered him a viable alternative.
"Stealth tech can actually wait, but learning how to build ultracompact batteries is something which is immediately useful in my current situation."
His priorities should be to secure the latter first. After that, he could try to fish for the former, but if the price became too troublesome, Ves would rather try his luck with researching the stealth fragments or wait until the Mech Corps discharged him so he could return to using the System.
"I'm procrastinating." He uttered. "I can't keep pushing this call back. People are waiting outside the door and I've got other matters on my agenda."
He pressed the button.
A small hum rang through the larger chamber as the massive Tzianti crystal began to shake. It vibrated and also started to glow from within. The faint white glow looked as if the crystal had birthed a star.
The entire phenomenon slowly built up, and eventually reached its limit several minutes later. An invisible wave of something thrummed from the Tzianti crystal and washed over his body life the caress of a feather.
The console lit up. A projection came into view. Unlike the modern projectors that were ubiquitous in the entire galaxy, this one appeared much less life-like. The lag, noise and extremely limited bandwidth turned the projected image into something that resembled a vintage projection from the Age of Stars.
The man that appeared had dark hair just like Ves and looked to be in the prime of his forties. His sharp face and aristocratic demeanor looked down on Ves with a neutral and restrained set of eyes.
His years in exile in the Faris Star Region had marked him deeply. Gone were the clean clothes and the superbly tailored lab coat he routinely wore as a mech designer from the Vermeer Group. Instead, he wore a tight vacsuit surrounding with what appeared to be a pirate admiral's coat dyed in some dark purple shade. The bloody mathematical symbols adorning his coat added a maniacal quality, while the panels of armor interspersed over the garment added some hard armor to complement its unseen defensive measures.
Ves failed to spot a single symbol or mark alluding to skulls or bones among the Skull Architect's clothes. However, the projector happened to capture a pyramid made out of human skulls in the background! The entire pile of skulls seemed to have been stacked into this shape with care and precision.
A mech designer that stacked skulls in his free time was obviously not a normal human being!
Only now did Ves realize the magnitude of what had happened.
Reno Jimenez, the man that gained the mantle of the Skull Architect, the Senior Mech Designer that most people in the Komodo Star Sector thought had died or fled to the other half of the galaxy, accepted a live call from Ves.
For a moment, Ves didn't know what to say. He simulated this conversation many times in his mind, but seeing the notorious mech designer in a live transmission disrupted his rhythm from the start.
The Skull Architect suffered no such affliction. "You are the mech designer who Mayra referred to my doorstep. Mister.. Ves.. Larkinson?"
"Ah, that is correct, sir." Ves immediately adopted a humble tone, though he took care not to overdo his reverence. The last thing he wanted to do was to portray himself as a pushover. "I am honored that you've accepted my call."
The infamous mech designer sneered at Ves. "Honored, are you? Be careful of what you say, Mr. Larkinson. I do not tolerate lies, nor the lips from which they are uttered."
"I speak the truth! My admiration for your work is boundless! The ingenious Leiner Grey design you've sent me has given me endless inspiration." Ves swiftly replied. Political instincts that Ves had always been ignorant of came to life, urging him to stay on the Skull Architect's good side. His deferential stance clashed powerfully against his dashing appearance. "Regardless of the reasons why you've parted from civilized space, experiencing your design philosophy has enriched my perspective."
The Skull Architect's face loosened a bit. Maybe he bought it, maybe he didn't, but the praise spewing out of Ves at least decreased the tension in the air. "Interesting, boy. Master Olson has chosen an interesting apprentice. She's always the lucky one. I don't think she even realizes what a treasure she has picked up. Did you know we used to be colleagues? We even collaborated on a number of designs back in the day."
Ves widened his eyes. He should have made the connection sooner. Both of them hailed from the Vermeer Group of the Friday Coalition. A few decades ago, the Skull Architect was a respectable Senior Mech Designer, and Carmin Olson shared the same rank.
"I wasn't aware, sir. Your record doesn't mention any mech designs with her name on it as a collaborator."
"Records lie." The pirate mech designer stated firmly. "You young ones are too reliant on the galactic net. Unless you've witnessed an event with your own two eyes, always be skeptical. The MTA only tracks public mech designs, which is accurate at your level, but becomes increasingly less reflective of reality once you advance. The best mechs are always designed behind closed doors."
Ves already knew that, but not to this extent. Nonetheless, he adopted a suitably surprised expression, as if this revelation was worth gold to him. For whatever reason, the Skull Architect's mood had swung to a teaching mode. This personality was infinitely better than any of the other possible options, so Ves was content to play the eager student to the generous teacher.
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