The virtual structures built on top and around the mountains were remarkably diverse. Some were shaped like ancient temples, while others borrowed from the latest architecture.
"Are you wondering why nothing matches? The Society is not in a habit of imposing firm controls. We're not the Konsu Clan after all. Every member above the rank of squire has the right to place a permanent structure in this mountain range. The higher your rank, the larger your personal space."
It turned out that the Clifford Society ranked its members in a simple hierarchy.
The lowest rung consisted of Squires. They formed the largest member group as each year many of the top 500 in the Leemar Open Competition chose to join. They only had basic level access to the Society's resources, but for the designers with shallow backgrounds, it was an oasis in a desert. They had to earn merits through missions in order to pay for more exclusive services.
The next step up were the Knights. Only rarely do Squires get promoted to this rank. Most of the apprentices, disciples and regular middle-ranked mech designers were Knights. They formed quite a substantial influence, and enjoyed more extensive access to the Society's exclusive libraries, Mission Hall and restricted lectures.
As Ves entered the society with this rank, Horatio gave him a better idea on what to expect with this status.
"Don't bother mingling with the Squires unless you want something done. You can assign a mission at the Mission Hall and attach a small reward. I can guarantee you that hundreds of the little buggers will flock to your task."
It appeared Horatio took a very dim view of Squires. Considering the mixed composition of this year's top 500, Ves understood his disdain. Due to the competition's weird format, plenty of unqualified mech designers had slipped through. These lucky bastards probably stagnated later on due to their lack of talent and work ethic.
"It's best to interact with your peers. Every Knight is an exceptional individual who has earned their rank. While you are able to earn merits the boring way through fulfilling missions, it's more convenient to trade for knowledge or assistance with your fellow Knights."
When Horatio guided him to the Mission Hall, Ves knew why he dismissed the Mission Hall. Many of the missions appropriate for Knights lasted for months or years.
They included missions like tutoring a spoiled brat until he successfully graduated with a degree in mech design. Such a mission rewarded the taker with fifty merits if he succeeded after five years.
"Don't underestimate the value of fifty merits. While there's no direct equivalent in cols, Knights like you often treat one merit as one million cols."
This meant that a single merit was worth at least a hundred million bright credits! He could fabricate four Marc Antony mechs with that much money!
"As a Knight, you are entitled to ten merits per standard year. This is merely play money to tide you over. To illustrate the value of a merit, let's take a look at the libraries."
The Society's library complex took over an entire plateau. Several different greco-roman structures offered varying levels of knowledge. The Star Library was meant for Squires and contained books and articles that ranged for novice to apprentice level. A Knight had unrestricted access to every book.
The Moon Library offered deeper knowledge. The books and articles in its catalog were of a higher level than the textbooks that Ves had previously bought from the open market. The vast majority of its books was at the journeyman level, though the highest floor also offered Senior-level books.
Knights like Ves had to exchange merits to gain a virtual copy of a book. He could only receive them onto special secure tablets in order to safeguard the knowledge. These tablets featured an abundance of encryption and other forms of copy protection.
The way they worked was very strange. If Ves wanted to read a book, he had to swallow a special neural capsule tailored to his DNA that temporarily reconfigured his optic nerves to read the nonsensical patterns displayed on the tablet. His brain would automatically interpret the squiggly lines and symbols into legible words.
The Society provided Knights with only twenty neural capsules. This meant that Ves received only twenty attempts to read through an entire textbook. He had to pay more merits if he wanted another batch of neural capsules.
"As you can see Ves, the foundational journeyman-level books only costs one merit for Knights. The more advanced books range from five to fifty merits. As for the senior-level books, don't even think about it until you've accumulated at least a thousand merits."
Even Ves needed to complete a ten-year mission if he wanted to earn a thousand merits. Some missions paid more or lasted shorter, but they also entailed a lot more dangers. Some of those missions placed the takers in the middle of active conflicts!
After leaving the structure, Horatio led Ves to the front of the most magnificent library. "The Sun Library is the holy grail of Leemar's Mech Development Faculty. Every professor of the LIT has donated at least a single book. Over the years, the amount of knowledge it has accumulated is very terrifying, even if most of it is dated."
"Have you ever had the opportunity to read a book from this library?" Ves curiously asked. Horatio looked rather old. He must have worked under Master Olson for many years.
Horatio puffed up his chest. "I completed a critical assignment for Master Olson a couple of years ago. I gained the right to access a single book from the Sun Library. Oh, you can't imagine the brilliance seeped into every page! To experience the essence of their specialties is a marvellous chance!"
"Ahem!" He awkwardly coughed once he realized his emotions got the better of him. He quickly regained his composure as a friendly senior. "The knowledge within this library is extremely dangerous for young mech designers like you. Unless you have gained a lot of experience and tempered your design philosophy to a strong degree, you better not sneak a peek."
Ves nodded in agreement, though he reserved some skepticism. How could something as innocent as books break a mech designer's mind?
They descended down the mountain range and entered one of the cities. Unlike the eclectic mix on the mountain tops, the city looked like a proper medieval castle settlement. Simulated people added a lot of livelihood to the scene, though all of them ignored the Society members as if they didn't exist.
"This is where the Squires can rent a virtual home or storefront. It is not the most harmonic environment, but it is sufficient for most of them if they wish to advertise their services."
Many squires had set up stores or stalls offering wares for merits. They also showed off their capabilities in the hopes of getting hired by someone who has merits to spare.
Looking at these talented mech designers debasing themselves for a couple of merits showed Ves how brutal the world can be. Squires who joined the Clifford Society started at the bottom and had to claw their way upwards. It reminded him of the harsh circumstances that students of the LIT had to go through in order to survive.
"These squires make excellent lackeys if you're short on manpower. The Society binds us all together. The rules are very strict against those who violate any contracts made within its bounds."
They reached the final destination of their tour. Horatio had led Ves onto an upscale bazaar where Knights and those of even higher ranks had set up their own storefronts.
Almost anything could be exchanged with merits. From completed mech designs to wreckage of highly advanced mechs, as long as you had merits, it was yours. Ves widened his eyes when he stopped in front of a store selling fabrication equipment.
"That's a decent 3D printer." Horatio remarked as he eyed the machine. It was a bog-standard printer common in the Coalition. "It's nothing to me, but it should be adequate for your needs."
The hefty price tag of five hundred merits discouraged Ves. There were not many ways in which he could earn so many merits quickly. He reluctantly let go of the shiny toys and followed Horatio as he pointed out the most notable stores.
The tour came at an end when they reached a fountain. Horatio reached inside his pocket and retrieved a merit ticket. He threw it into the fountain without hesitation.
"People say that you can gain some luck if you throw some merits in to the fountain." Horatio smirked at Ves when he looked bewildered at the waste. "You might think that I'm throwing away a virtual object into a virtual fountain for nothing. If you believe the multiverse is fixed and follows a defined set of physical laws, then you might be right."
Ves could guess the point he was making. This might even be a hidden test of sorts.
"I believe we have only skimmed the workings of our reality. There is much we have to learn." He said as he remorselessly tossed a valuable merit ticket into the waters of the fountain. Inwardly, he groaned at the loss. He only had nine merits left.
His guide said nothing and merely watched on. Once the ticket fully submerged, he started to float. "That's it for this little tour. Take care of yourself and work hard to become a Journeyman Mech Designer. Once you have reached this level, you will gain access to the Titanium Garden, which is Carmin's exclusive portal. It's not as lively as the Clifford Society, but it offers exclusive resources that will help you advance."
The Titanium Garden existed both as a virtual portal and as a physical location on Master Olson's home planet. Master Olson owed her rapid rise to the Vermeer Group, but her true allegiance was more complex. She proactively partnered with masters from other groups within the Coalition and maintained a neutral stance in all intra-Coalition turf wars. In essence, she was welcome everywhere.
While Ves could climb the Clifford Society's hierarchy, it remained a way for the Carnegie Group to exert influence on him. It would become messy if he got involved in the complex politics between the two groups.
If he had to make a choice, then he was better off favoring the Vermeer Group. Still, as a foreigner, Ves hoped to stay out of this cesspool and develop his mechs quietly in the Bright Republic.
"For now, try to take advantage of what the Clifford Society has to offer." Horatio advised Ves in a sincere manner. "The resources they offer to lower-ranked mech designers is quite comprehensive. Make sure to develop a solid foundation and develop your specialties one step at a time. While you shouldn't be in a hurry, I expect you to reach journeyman in a decade at most."
Ves didn't have to ask what would happen if he failed to meet that request. As a disgrace to his master, he'd be stripped of his apprenticeship and kicked away like a piece of trash.
"Understood. I'll be sure to work as hard as possible."
"One more thing. If you are stuck in your studies, feel free to contact me if you need some guidance. Do note that my time is also scarce, so you better have some merits on hand."
That left him with a way out if he absolutely got stuck. Ves did not expect to consult Horatio often due to his reliance on the System to advance his skills. Cramming books like a human lost its charm when he could simply spend some DP and gain complete mastery over a new skill.
"Well, I'll probably give this book learning a thing since I'm short on DP."
Once Horatio left, Ves exited the simulated environment as well. He could borrow some books later. First he had to finish the ones he purchased previously.
After going through so many battles at Leemar, Ves felt the need to consolidate his new gains by revisiting some theories he didn't completely understand. It was a good way to pass the time while the Barracuda made her way to the Bright Republic.