An anxious Ves impatiently waited for the news to arrive. After more than a day of biting his fingernails, his comm lighted up with a series of incoming messages.
The first one came from his bank. Marcella passed on the rest of Vincent's payment for his new mech. His eyes almost popped when he saw how much the young Ricklin paid for his customized combat machine.
"Thirty-four million credits. That's at six million more than the regular price."
For just a couple of days work, an extra six million credits in his pocket was an extremely generous payment. Vincent got badly ripped off by Marcella. Out of the thirty-four million credits, Marcella sliced 3.4 million credits as her share, leaving him with a remaining profit of 12.8 million credits, which was still a pretty huge amount. As Ves still enjoyed about one-and-a-half million credits of pocket money, he stashed all of his new gains in his piggy bank.
His savings account now swelled to twenty-four million bright credits. His dream of replacing his second-hand equipment and acquiring some good licenses was one step closer.
"And that's not all. The real reward has yet to come."
He opened the subsequent messages sent by the silent but ever-present System.
[You have received 34 Design Points for selling a physical mech of your design.]
The small amount of credits he received for a single sale failed to sate his appetite. He skipped right to the other message.
[Congratulations for partially completing the mission. As a mech designer, you must learn to accommodate the needs of your clients and do your best to incorporate his wishes in your creation. A lack of ability is no excuse.]
Ves was afraid of this. He only earned a partial completion for the mission due to screwing up the simple lighting design. He should have contracted an artist himself instead of letting Vincent do all of the work.
[For satisfying two out of three of your client's requests, you have received a Deluxe Concentration Candy and 2000 Design Points.]
"Yes! Haha, I still got the candy!" Ves celebrated with glee. He expected his DP reward to be cut, but keeping the candy worth 0.5 attribute points intact was a pleasant surprise. "Only, why is it for Concentration?"
Certainly, Ves did not disregard the Concentration attribute. It allowed him to work long stretches of time while holding on to the same intent. If his attention span was too short, he'd easily be distracted and lose the perfect state to harmonize the X-Factor of a new design. Concentration also affected many other processes in a positive way.
Still, these improvements weren't able to provide concrete results. X-Factor was always nebulous at the best of times, and Ves did not expect his efforts in this area to improve very quickly. The lack of direction plagued him for a long time, though his latest work for Vincent taught him that perhaps it might be wise to reconsider gender for mechs.
"Man, if I had gotten intelligence instead, my learning capacity would have jumped through the roof."
A man could wish. If necessary, he could buy the candy from the Store, though the prices the heartless System charged were sky high. He'd rather invest in his skills than raising his attributes. This spending strategy provided the best results in the short and medium term.
He gulped down the candy in a single toss. The candy tasted sour, and it spread to his entire mouth. Then everything in his mouth started to burn a bit, causing Ves to fall and hold his head. Somehow the sour taste drilled through his flesh and converged on his brain. The pain became excruciating. Lucky even turned alarmed and meowed in panic at the sight.
Only after several minutes did the entire process end. Ves took deep breaths as he tried to recover from the strange ordeal the System put him in. He was going to have to be more careful eating these strengthened candies next time.
He flexed his mind a little, but did not see any obvious results from the 0.5 point bump in Concentration. He shrugged. It might take a more concerted action to feel the effects.
Since it was a long time since he last inspected his Status, he called it up to plan his next actions.
Name: Ves Larkinson
Profession: Novice Mech Designer
Design Points: 102 + 34 + 2136
Neural Aptitude: F
[Assembly]: Apprentice - [3D Printer Proficiency II] [Assembler Proficiency II]
[Computer Science]: Incompetent
[Electrical Engineering]: Novice
[Mechanics]: Apprentice - [Jury Rigging II] [Speed Tuning II]
[Physics]: Novice - [Lightweight Armor Optimization I] [Mediumweight Armor Optimization II]
Evaluation: A stalled mech designer languishing at the entry gates.
Even the System thought he was stagnant for too long. His skills and attributes had rarely moved forward even after several weeks. His virtual designs in Iron Spirit barely earned him any DP even with the lowest possible prices set on them. Only the occasional 5-star mech sale bumped up his DP significantly.
"Now that I have a windfall of more than 2000 DP, I should use it to progress my stalling status."
The System still considered Ves to be a novice mech designer. This term used to be appropriate when he was still a raw newcomer, but with two confirmed real mech sales under his belt, it now sounded demeaning.
The industry treated novice mech designers rather poorly. Novices always flooded the labor market after they graduated each year. Without any wealth or connections, these naive, hopeful designers usually got a huge shock when they saw that employers almost never hired them to design mechs straight away.
These novices had nowhere else to go. The big firms all heartlessly exploited them as excellent mech technicians, dangling the possibility of promotion down the line in front of their faces. It would take many decades before they ever got the chance to sit behind the design table.
Only after designing a commercial variant off an existing base model and selling it a couple of times did he graduate from that lowly status. The MTA likely updated their files on him to reflect his change of status. In official terms, he graduated from a novice into an Apprentice Mech Designer.
Still, the System didn't acknowledge his accomplishments. It paid more emphasis to his capabilities, which did not change significantly since the start. Oh, in absolute terms, he improved in several ways. But his skills still remained within the realm of beginner mech designers.
"If I want to become an Apprentice Mech Designer, then I have to push up one of my core skills to Journeyman level."
Right now, Ves reached Apprentice level in Assembly, Business, Mechanics and Metallurgy. If he wanted to shore up his foundations properly, then he should upgrade his Physics to Apprentice level as well. The 1000 DP price tag for that action swayed his hand.
"My ability to design mechs will only improve marginally if I bump up my Physics skill. With my DP cut in half, I can't upgrade any other skill to Journeyman. That will delay my progress too much."
While foundation was important, Ves lacked the time to develop all of his skills in an even manner.
"It's not too bad if I have holes in my knowledge base. I can easily fill them up later. It's more important I find something to excel at quickly."
Though Ves decided to focus on balancing speed and armor, his all-important Physics skills still had ways to go. He focused instead on Mechanics and Metallurgy. Advancing either of these skills provided him with benefits.
"Mechanics is the core skill of any mech. A mech is a collection of many moving parts. If I improve this skill, I can make a mech run smoother even if it carries many complex parts."
Metallurgy on the other hand acted more nebulous. It increased his knowledge of the property of all kinds of metals, but whether he could apply them was still a question. Though essential in developing or modifying new armor systems, Ves had no foundation in this area. He was not planning to develop his own armor systems anytime soon.
Thus, the choice was easy. He decisively entered the Skill Tree and upgraded his Mechanics skill.
The moment he did so, the System came alive.
[You have upgraded your Mechanics skill to Journeyman. Please stand by for high density knowledge transfer.]
"What is high density-"
It was as if a rocket blew apart his mind. The mental assault arrived so suddenly that Ves instantly blacked out.
An unknown amount of time passed by. Ves eventually managed to wake up to a worried Lucky bumping its foreleg against his nose.
"Haha, I'm not a goner yet, little buddy."
After reassuring Lucky that he was safe and sound, Ves groggily scratched his head and tried to inspect his newly Mechanics skill.
An ocean of newly acquired knowledge streamed into his consciousness. It was as if wonderful world of applied mechanics had opened its door to him. He learned many scattered tidbits of insights that combined represented a terrifying package that changed the way he saw mechs.
"I never fully appreciated the alternate forms of mechs."
The main benefit of Journeyman-level Mechanics was that he gained a deeper insight into the workings of non-humanoid mechs. He learned the essentials how animal and bird-shaped mechs took advantage of the properties of their design scheme
"It is truly a matter of imitating nature's perfect works."
That was not to say that designers specializing in mechanics copied animal shapes blindly. They only chose the most optimal species and further refined the design to accommodate non-native elements such as thrusters or weapon mounts.
The things Ves gained not only benefited his ability to design animal mechs. Humanoid mechs came in different weight classes and shapes. There was an intricate connection between the two.
A designer usually modeled the frames of their original designs after real human athletes. For example, a designer intending to make a new light mech design would hire a runner or a sprinter and model his motions precisely. For heavy mechs, they turned to weight lifters and other strength athletes.
Sure, a designer didn't have to reference a real human all the time. But that simply resulted in massive amounts of number crunching as they tried to simulate millions of possible shapes before they finally end up with something satisfactory.
Now that he broke the threshold holding him back to novice level, Ves was curious if he succeeded in raising his profession. Before he could call his Status again, the System interrupted his thoughts.
[You have met the requirements to promote your profession from Novice Mech Designer to Apprentice Mech Designer.]
Ves cursed out loud. The System refused to give him a promotion. He already imagined the System's next action.
[You have received a new Promotion Mission. Please enter the Missions page to browse the details.]
Mission: Acknowledge a Master
Prerequisites: Promote a main skill to Journeyman
No Apprentice Mech Designer has ever reached this level without guidance. A master teaches more than simple theory. He or she also prevents their apprentices from going astray. The guidance of an experienced hand is essential in forming a stellar design philosophy. You must seek out a Master Mech Designer and convince this person to take you in as an apprentice within a month.
Failure condition: Fail to apprentice yourself to any Master Mech Designer within 1 month of receiving this mission. You will not be able to promote again for 1 year.
Reward: Your profession is upgraded to Journeyman Mech Designer, which comes with increased benefits and privileges.
An A-rank mission. The System sure didn't make it easy for Ves. He hardly had any idea where to start.
"Does the Bright Republic even host a Master Mech Designer?"
The question was a valid one, as Master Mech Designers usually enjoyed an eminent status akin to royals. A mere third-rate state such as the Bright Republic or the Vesia Kingdom possessed no means to attract and retain a designer of such a caliber. These masters were all capable of designing mechs that could win entire wars. The amount of money they charged for every single design reached a dizzying level.
"Where can I find a master?"
The System remained silent even after Ves prodded it several times for any suggestions, so he gave up that avenue and turned to the galactic net. He inputted his search term and let the net deliver him a list of nearby masters, at least those that bothered to show themselves in public.
As expected, the Bright Republic did not host any masters. Sixty years ago was the last time a Master Mech Designer visited the Republic, and that was only to pick up an exceptional genius. None of the other backwater states in the barren Komodo Star Sector hosted any masters, at least in public.
"There might be one or two masters hiding in some corner of the sector, but I have no way of tracking them down."
The mission deserved it's A-rank rating. The scarcity of Master Mech Designers forced him to cast a wider net. He set his sights on the pair of second-rate states situated in the core of the star sector. They monopolized the region filled with the most vitality. They maintained their power by exploiting the abundant life-giving stars and resources in their borders.
Of the two local second-rate states, the Hexadric Hegemony favored the Vesia Kingdom. Ruled by a council of six, they rarely took action, but if they did it was bound to be big. The Autocracy was a sleeping giant that no one wanted to wake up prematurely.
The much plainer-sounding Friday Coalition was much friendlier in comparison. Their culture was rich and varied as they used to be a collection of rare ethnic groups chased out from more settled parts of the galaxy. Such ordeals had scarred their national psyche, but to their credit they opened their doors instead of slamming them shut.
Many promising geniuses from the surrounding third-rate states tended to flock to the Coalition to seek brighter futures. Many of his competitors in the Fusion Cup in fact attended one of the many elite institutions of the Coalition.
"There's bound to be masters in the Friday Coalition. The only problem is gaining an audience with them. I can't just come up to a master's doorstep."
The value of a Master Mech Designer did not lose out to national treasures. Each and every master's life was strictly regulated. Not even an errant fly could get near such vaunted people.
As Ves trawled through the galactic net for masters, he finally encountered an opportunity.
LEEMAR INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
ANNUAL OPEN DESIGN COMPETITION
The annual contest hosted by the Leemar Institute was open to every designer below the age of thirty. Though most contestants still attended the Institute, each year plenty of outsiders who studied at other colleges converged in Leemar in order to showcase their talents. Many people and businesses attended the grand event as well, as the competition often unveiled diamonds in the rough.
From the articles describing past competitions, it was not unheard of for a novice mech designer to be noticed by an attending master.
"The open competition is in twenty days. My schedule is going to be tight if I want to travel all the way to the Friday Coalition."
Ves couldn't just leave his workshop behind. He was running a business now. He had to make arrangements.
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