Leemar-2 hosted four different educational institutions, all of whom occupied one of the four major continents of the planet. The Leemar Institute of Technology, or LIT, took up the eastern archipelago dotted with thousands of islands of varying size. Its renowned faculties occupied the major islands, with the Mech Development Faculty taking up the crown jewel at the center.
After riding an ordinary shuttle to the eastern archipelago's spaceport, Ves and Dietrich looked around with wide eyes. The amount of wealth and technology on display staggered the two natives from the Bright Republic. They had never come face to face with this level of extravagance.
First of all, almost half of the people in the spaceport flew in the air. Their feet never touched the ground as tiny anti gravity modules embedded in their clothes lifted them up and brought them to their destinations with just a moment's thoughts. If Ves didn't know any better, he'd mistake them for celestial fairies.
The people weren't the only ones who hovered above the ground. The immense spaceport featured an open design many floating plans and buildings, many of which offered expensive services reminiscent of those offered by the Torch of the Vanguard. Only with an abundant pocketbook could someone enjoy the plentiful services of these exclusive stores and clubs.
However, not everyone was capable of flying. Those with less extravagant clothing merely walked around with their own two foot, limiting themselves to the cheaper stores at the ground floor. Only a few workers using anti-gravity platforms or small vehicles could hope to reach the floating structures.
"Man, it doesn't look very special in the drama's, but seeing it with your own eyes is something else." Dietrich whistled as he envied those wealthy second-rate citizens floating in the air. "What's the price of a set of antigrav clothes?"
Ves opened his comm and searched the galactic net. "The cheapest set is around ten thousand cols, or about one million bright credits."
And that only referred to a single outfit. A well-off citizen of the Friday Coalition owned dozens of outfits at the very least. Only the immense wealth of the state ensured that most of its citizens possessed the luxury to squander so much money on high-tech clothing. As expensive products, the clothes also offered other systems such as temperature regulation and vacuum sealing.
"I can't afford an outfit, but what about you Ves?"
He shook his head. "I'm not going to play this game. If I buy one outfit, I can't keep wearing it each day, or I'll become a laughing stock. It's better to stick to our third-rate identities and keep our expenses minimal."
Dietrich looked uncomfortable as a pair of elite Coalition citizens passed them by from above their heads. "They're already thumbing their noses at us like we're a pair of blood-sucking leeches. We're just another bunch of economic refugees them like the rest of the walkers here."
That was how the people of the Coalition called the people who left their homes from their third-rate states. The so-called 'walkers' could never in a thousand years afford a set of antigrav clothes. They were consigned to a life of walking with their feet and buying from the cheapest stores.
"If I have to make a choice between money or dignity, I'll choose the former every time." Ves declared. After all, he already sullied his career by selling a mech with a codpiece, so how much lower could he go? "I'm certain it won't matter much when it comes to catching the eye of a master. They shouldn't care too much about a mech designer's background, or else they won't call it an open competition."
Ves had studied the patterns from the previous times the LIT conducted the open competition. While the masters presiding over the events mostly took in mech designers who came from elsewhere in the Coalition, they sometimes shocked the crowd by taking in a pupil from a third-rate state.
"Still, it happens rare enough that having a good background can improve my chances." He murmured to himself. While the masters were beyond ordinary considerations of wealth and power, it did not mean they ignored it entirely. Often times, taking in a disciple offered them a good opportunity to negotiate a partnership or long-term business deal.
As a pair of walkers, Ves and Dietrich were forced to follow the crowd and go through many stringent checkpoints. The LIT not only hosted a number of eminent masters, they employed a great number of professors and researchers. They also taught the Coalition's present and future elites. With such a high concentration of human capital, the spaceport's security personnel investigated each arrival thoroughly.
A stern-faced security officer shook her head as she studied her datapad in front of Ves. "Since your mechanical pet is classified as a Class-2 autonomous combat bot, we can't allow it to enter the LIT without restrictions. If you are not willing to accept our restrictions, then you can let it stay behind in our pet storage."
"What will it take to bring my pet along?"
"We will have to muzzle your pet for the duration of your stay." The female officer opened a box and retrieved a sophisticated collar. "This restrictor can immobilize any Class-2 mechanical pet of a certain size. It won't do anything but track your pet, but it will activate a security screen the moment your pet activates any lethal weapons."
The restrictor might not be pleasant to Lucky, but Ves was hardly in a condition to argue otherwise. He calmly stood by as the officer secured the collar around Lucky's neck. The cat looked sullen and betrayed, as if he couldn't believe Ves would roll over so quickly.
"Alright Mr Larkinson, everything else is in order. Your partner is already waiting for you outside."
As a potentate and and active mech pilot, Dietrich enjoyed a greater level of service, even if he came from a third-rate state. He leisurely sat at an outdoor cafe, sipping on some beer. He gulped down the rest of his drink when he spotted Ves.
"What's the plan, boss?"
Ves mentally checked his internal schedule. "We're late by a day. I hoped we could have time to explore Leemar but we only have half a day left before the qualifiers start. That will take three days, while the main event takes two more days. As it is, we should find some lodging first."
As outsiders, the pair only had access to a small area on the outskirts of the territory claimed by the LIT. The outer area mostly serviced visitors such as himself, though even this region differentiated between walkers and proper citizens.
The differentiation between rich and poor was starker than Ves thought. He witnessed an obvious immigrant using a floating platform to enter one of the massive floating hotels. The flying machine malfunctioned as soon as it neared the hotel, causing the man who stood on it to scream and fall.
The device rebooted after a couple of seconds, but it wasn't capable of arresting the drop entirely. It crashed in a heap along with the man boarding it falling right after. He let out an excruciating wail as his legs snapped like twigs.
The reactions of the people around the poor sod interested Ves. The walkers shook their heads and continued their journey without pause. As for the citizens, some smirked and clapped as if enjoying a show, while others behaved as if they stepped on a turd.
Luckily for the man, the Coalition wasn't entirely heartless. A couple of medical bots floated towards him and lifted him into a stretcher that brought him to a local medical facility for further treatment. As for how he will pay for it, well that came later.
"This has nothing to do with us." Ves said to Dietrich, who looked pissed at some of the callous reactions around them. "While we are citizens of the Republic, we're on foreign soil now. We have to play by the rules set by the Friday Coalition."
They spent some time visiting the most decent-looking accommodations. Unfortunately, the open competition drew in thousands of mech designers, some of whom came with relatives or a retinue of followers. Most of the hotels in the area had no vacancies. As for the ones that did, they charged a ridiculous amount of cols for a single night.
"What?! Fifty-thousand cols? That goes beyond robbery! That's like digging my grandfather's grave to steal all his jewels!" Dietrich yelled as he slammed his fist on the counter.
"My apologies, sir, but our offer still stands." The bot standing on the other side of the counter responded.
"This bot isn't programmed to offer any deals." Ves said as he pulled his incensed guard away. The hotel looked fairly run-down and ill-maintained. Its garden was overgrown with weeds and unsavory insects. To charge more than a thousand cols for a night was already excessive, let alone fifty-thousand, but what else could they do? They arrived far too late and all the best hotels were booked.
"Let's ask the locals." Ves said as he looked back and made sure their floating luggage carriers were still there. "Maybe they have a suggestion that isn't mentioned in the galactic net."
Too bad the crowd barely spared a glance at them. Their clothing, accents and behavior all marked them as recent arrivals of no importance. No one wasted their time trying to help other immigrants. As for those who did spare the time, they provided no answers other than to pay the exorbitant fee.
"What did you expect? Fifty thousand clueless mech designers take part in the competition each year. Of course the prices are through the roof!"
Though Ves knew that a lot of mech designers came to Leemar to pursue their dreams, he did not expect the LIT to be so ill-prepared for the influx of visitors.
"They don't care. Those with means can pay any amount of cols. As for the rest, they have to fend for themselves." Ves figured out.
The Leemar Institute of Technology attracted countless hopefuls each year. They only wanted to take in the best. They could have built much more accomodation with the amount of land they possessed, but they left most of it in their virgin state, as if they disdained to coddle poor bums like Ves.
"We shouldn't be the only group who's late and doesn't want to pay the stupid hotel fees." Dietrich remarked as he looked around. "There's no homeless people hanging around. They should have found a place to stay."
He asked around and finally received a clue.
"Check the southern docks." A half-drunk walker said as he sipped a bottle of beer Dietrich bought at a small store. "There's boats there. Not those fancy shuttles, but real boats that float on water and stuff. You can find a place to sleep over there."
Intrigued, the both of them walked through the streets and passed more and more decrepit structures until they finally reached a massive docked filled with rusted boats.
Ves looked shocked when he saw these rickety floating castles. Most of them were built out of scrap mech components! The better-looking boats were made out of smooth plates of armor, while the less well-off boats used whatever they had on hand, such as limbs or even pieces of the internal frame. It made for an eclectic sight.
"Oy! Over here! We have vacancies on our boat! It's very cheap, only five thousand cols per person! Breakfast included!"
The crier who called out to the pair sat on a chair made out of a mech's finger bent into a peculiar shape. He sat in front of one of the more haphazard looking boats, but by now both Ves and Dietrich just wanted to get past this ordeal without losing too much money. They curiously approached the young man whose smile grew wider and wider at the prospect of guests.
"Greetings gentlemen to the Belladonna, my pride and joy in this beautiful archipelago! My name is Klaus Blayne. May I ask if the two you are together?" The skinny man asked.
"We are." Ves answered as he curiously looked at the misshapen boat. How could it even stay afloat?
"For a single room with a double bunk, that will be ten thousand cols, please."
While Dietrich transferred the credits through his comm, Ves scrunched his face and tried to fathom why a wealthy institution such as the LIT even tolerated these floating scrap wrecks.
As he noticed the bafflement of his guests, Klaus smiled ruefully. "Ah, you are new here, right?"
"That's right. I can't help but wondering, but why the boats?"
"That's how the Leemar Institute of Technology works. External students like us don't get to stay in a fancy floating hotel. Nope. The LIT wants us to work for it. Unless we can afford our own antigrav clothing, we aren't allowed to stay in any accommodation on land. We have to build our own floating homes."
This rule sounded cruel and contrived, as if its sole purpose was to demean immigrants from third-rate states.
However, what else could these students do? They put all their hopes on studying at Leemar, and if they managed to pass its stringent entry requirements, they already had a foot in the door. To turn back without attempting to fight was to disgrace their spirit and the people supporting them. That was why students such as Klaus persisted in building their own rusting floating dorms.
Ves had an unpleasant premonition that the open competition might not be so open after all. If the LIT treated some of its students this way, then how will it treat outside mech designers without backing like him?