The contents of the vial turned out to be a freshly synthesized gene boost elixir, tailored to his physique. The conspiracy theories were definitely true. Those in power controlled a method of manipulating a person's genes and improve their attributes.
The secret did not affect him as much as others, as he already enjoyed something similar from the candies the System handed out. He patiently listened to Master Olson's recording as she extensively warned him of all the ways he could end up dead if he did anything improper.
"The M-21 is an entry-level gene boost designed to reconstruct your body and pave the way for future injections. The M-series elixirs are particularly suited for scientists and engineers. The first dose has a pronounced effect on your intelligence. Due to their extreme effects, it is recommended that you ingest a premium nutrient pack before you proceed with the injection."
Ves ordered a household bot to retrieve a nutrient pack from Arkon's mess hall. After chewing up the mushy bar of essential nutrients, his belly quickly became bloated. Only starving people ate an entire nutrient pack without processing.
Without further ado, he placed the business end of the injector against his arm and pressed the button.
The elixir burned through his veins and travelled up his arm before spreading out. The fluid somehow engulfed his entire body in seconds. His flesh and bones shook with excitement as the fluid washed over them simultaneously. His brain received special emphasis as up to thirty percent of the gene boost made their way up.
A few indeterminate minutes went by as Ves collapsed to the floor. While his body suffered through the pangs of rebirth, the empty injector silently disintegrated into dust, which slowly broke down into smaller particles that was swept away by the ship's ventilation.
After Ves finally recovered, half an hour had already gone by. His bloated stomach had turned into an empty pit. He could certainly grab another bite. Eager to see how he progressed, Ves called up his Status.
Name: Ves Larkinson
Profession: Apprentice Mech Designer
Design Points: 815
Neural Aptitude: F
[Assembly]: Apprentice - [3D Printer Proficiency II] [Assembler Proficiency II]
[Computer Science]: Incompetent
[Electrical Engineering]: Novice
[Mechanics]: Journeyman - [Jury Rigging II] [Speed Tuning III]
[Metallurgy]: Journeyman - [Alloy Compression I]
[Physics]: Novice - [Lightweight Armor Optimization I] [Mediumweight Armor Optimization III]
[Superpublish]: Available. Can be activated once a year.
Evaluation: An apprentice who has taken a step in the true world of mech design.
His status hadn't changed much. Most of his rewards for completing his mission went towards upgrading his privileges. It was as if the System stole all the benefits and left him with a pittance.
Regarding his attributes, the M-21 gene boost certainly made a difference, though it was not as big as he thought. Both his strength, endurance and intelligence received a small 0.1 bump. Ves could imagine that anyone might faint at the sight. As someone who already ate a couple of candies, he merely noted the bump and wondered what it would take to get the next injection.
"Something like this should still be out of reach. The Clifford Society should have more information."
After taking a brief sonic shower, he dressed himself exited his bathroom and walked over to the full-sized mirror next to his closet. The shower's drying program even styled his dark brown hair into a neatly combed look.
The cut of his suit fit him like a glove. These antigrav clothes came with the most perfect measuring systems. It even adjusted to his changed physique without having to lift a finger.
"Wow, that gene boost sure brushed up my appearance." Ves stated admiringly. Even the System didn't offer cosmetic boosts from its Store, at least to his knowledge.
The gene boost's physique enhancement not only strengthened his muscles, but also smoothed out his physical features. His skin lost all of its blemishes and his face appeared more symmetrical. Though he'd never be called handsome, at least he distanced himself from the skinny nerd look.
"Should I grow a beard?"
No matter the era, facial hair always gave men a dignified look if properly groomed. Even if Ves knew little about styling, he could borrow his ship's amazing styling program to groom a sophisticated beard.
"Hm, I'm too young. People will think I'm trying too hard."
He just became an apprentice to one of the Friday Coalition's vaunted masters. Even if Master Olson was one of the youngest among their ranks, she had a bright future ahead of her. His new status had turned into his defining characteristic. Even someone as distinguished as Barakovski fell short.
"I'll be sure to squeeze my status as often as I need."
As a mech designer with ambition, he didn't want to rely on his master's name forever. He had no qualms of borrowing his status to deter anyone who wished him ill.
"Well, let's get this ship underway."
The Arkon came fully stocked with enough fuel, food, water and air to travel across the star sector. Ves summoned a tipsy Dietrich to the bridge.
"Cool bridge man, if a little vulnerable. There's hardly any cover here, so you better pray pirates won't reach this place."
Dietrich had a point. The Arkon had been designed first and foremost for the rich. While the ship incorporated some defenses, the interior prioritized aesthetics. Retractable defenses were only effective up to a point.
"I asked you up here to consult you on a couple of matters. First, you're aware that I've offended a couple of people during the competition, right?"
"Haha, you sure kicked a lot of people's butts!"
"Even though Master Olson took me in, I can't be sure that someone is out to get me. I've instructed my navigator bot to plot a circuitous route back to the Bright Republic. Take a look at the map."
A projection of the entire star sector appeared in view. A bright red line originated from the Leemar System and reached out to a lightly populated system. The route kept hopping between less crowded systems until it reached the border of the Bright Republic.
"We have to make fifty-six stops, but we'll still be back in a month. Unlike passenger ships, our Arkon won't be wasting time travelling to the interior of a star system in order to exchange passengers. Our ship will rest at the edge of each star system and leave when her FTL engines have finished cycling."
A ship could not hop into FTL immediately upon disengaging it. The FTL engines required at least a couple of hours of cleaning, maintenance and inspection. Military-grade FTL could be cycled faster, but required a seasoned engineer to keep watch.
Dietrich stumblingly tried to make sense of the elongated route. "I don't have any complaints, but are we really skipping all of the port systems? We're taking a massive detour here."
"I don't mind if I have to delay my homecoming. What's more important is that my enemies won't be able to predict my schedule."
There were too many star systems in the sector. Ves deliberately included uninhabited systems in his planned route in order to mess up anyone's guesses. With the inclusion of these systems, anyone who wanted to track him down had to devote thousands of ships at each hop. He didn't think anyone would be crazy to divert so many ships for a trivial Apprentice Mech Designer.
"The second thing I'd like your input on is a name for this ship. We won't be visiting any other port system so this is our only chance to register a name."
Ves wanted to gift his Arkon with a dignified name. According to the laws of both the Friday Coalition and the Bright Republic, as long as he didn't come up with something offensive, he could pick any name.
"A ship is like your personal mech. It's part of your identity." Dietrich sagely explained, as if the liquor made him smarter. "The thing is the Arkon is already a beast. You don't have to crack your skull in order to come up with something cool."
After throwing a couple of names back and forth, Ves eventually decided upon the Barracuda. The ship already looked like the fish, so the name fit her like a glove. It also sounded cool enough without trying too hard.
After passing on the name to Leemar's traffic control, Ves quickly received a notification that they've approved the christening. The sides of his ship shimmered for a moment before they displayed the new name in a bold black font over the vessel's bright white surface.
"No wonder the rich like to throw good money after bad on these toys." Dietrich remarked with a hint of envy. "With a ship like this, you'll never worry about the hassle."
The Barracuda's extensive automation was her biggest selling point. Ves was determined to keep this ship in his possession. No matter how much money he had to throw in this money pit, the ship's ease of use allowed him to maintain her without involving too many outsiders.
"She's a good means of escape if anything happens."
In a galaxy full of tension, no planet was safe. Even a quiet and boring state such as the Bright Republic had to face a lot of threats.
The ship ascended into the skies. Ves bid farewell to Leemar-2 as the Barracuda effortlessly escaped the planet's gravity well. The archipelagos claimed by the Leemar Institute of Technology slowly faced underneath the clouds and haze of the planet's atmosphere.
For the next few hours, Ves observed the navigator bot as it efficiently slipped past the crowded traffic near Leemar-2's orbit. It frequently sent automated requests to the system's traffic control and received updates on its assigned routes that led it to the edge of the star system.
As a small and nimble corvette, the Barracuda only required half a day to travel from the inner system to the very edge. Surprisingly, the system's security force approved his departure after only a cursory scan. Their inspectors hadn't even boarded the ship.
"Looks like flaunting my status as an apprentice is quite useful."
The FTL engines transitioned into a different dimension without problem. The Barracuda was on its way. Feeling a bit uncertain, Ves summoned up the diagnostics of the ship. While he couldn't understand the details, the operating system detected no anomalies. His ship wasn't about to explode.
"Now that I've got some free time on my hand, I might as well take a look at the Clifford Society."
Technically, Master Olson was merely a guest professor at Leemar. Despite the short duration of her stay, she made several agreements with Leemar that smoothed over the rights and privileges of her apprentices and disciples.
Thus, when he returned to his stateroom and visited the Society's virtual portal, the room's projection came to life. A vivid world came into existence. Highly advanced projectors and other systems simulated a very realistic environment full of sights, sounds and smells.
Like a god observing his worshippers, Ves stood on a cloud that overlooked a vast and sparsely populated mountain range. A few moments later, another person warped into view.
"Ah, welcome. I was expecting you." The middle-aged man. "Are you enjoying your new ship? We've added a couple of extras once we've learned you've received this prize."
The man wore sophisticated antigrav clothes in a much more elaborate style. Custom jewels adorned his suit jacket in an intricate geometric pattern. An emblem of a fist enclosing a blue rose was pasted onto his chest. Ves recognized it as Master's Olson personal Master Mark, an exclusive symbol assigned by the MTA to mark her designs.
"Are you my senior?"
"That's right. I am Horatio Veclan. I am Carmin's oldest apprentice and one of her personal assistants. I am in charge with keeping track of her subordinates and managing their needs."
Horatio gestured with his hands, throwing his virtual contact details to Ves. "Contact me if you have any questions. You don't want to bother Carmin with a trivial issue. She takes quite a dim view to idiots who waste her time."
Only someone close to Master Olson could have the guts to call her by her first name. Ves decided it didn't hurt to get acquainted with Horatio.
"Can you introduce me to the Clifford Society?"
"Why certainly! That's why I'm here. If you will follow me, we will descend and tour the virtual facilities. There are a lot of hidden gems down there if you know where to look."
Through certain gestures, Ves learned how to descend his virtual body. He followed Horatio downwards. He was looking forward to what this exclusive society of mech designers offered.