For a few hundred cols, Klaus allowed Ves to ask him questions about his life on Leemar. While Dietrich boarded the ship and stared at the horizon while sipping a beer, Ves found a random piece of scrap and sat down next to the owner of the boat.
"First off, what's up with the boat?"
Klaus shrugged. "As I said, the students have to build their own accommodation that either floats in the water or flies in the sky. The catch is that we have to salvage or fund the process from our earnings in Leemar. The LIT practically runs on an internal credit system that everyone calls leems. Without leems, I can't purchase components off the internal market or buy access to the scrap yards where I can salvage broken parts."
It turned out the transaction they just made already got logged by the sophisticated AIs that ran and enforced the internal credit system. The ten thousand cols Klaus received automatically got converted into ten thousand leems under his student account.
"I see." Ves nodded. "So the rich guys can't simply buy everything available by using their parents' pocket books?"
"Hah! You wish. Antigrav clothing is an exception. There's exclusive classes and facilities available only to fliers. A walker like me can dream about getting access. Even if I scrape enough leems to buy a suit, I can't afford the fees those places charge anyway. Trust me, the moneybag students have lots of ways of earning easy leems."
That sounded remarkably ineffective to Ves. Back on Rittersberg, as long as Ves paid his tuition, he had nothing to worry about, so he put his full efforts into his studies.
"I know what you're thinking about. You think I'm so busy crawling on the ground picking up scrabbling for tiny amounts of leems every day, when I could have gotten an easy time back in the Terach Republic."
Klaus smirked and gestured to his ramshackle ship. "I built this boat with my own two hands. While I might be grovelling and scraping for leems, I still have my own pride. Despite the intense competition, I'm still able to stay afloat. Do you know that seventy percent of first year students drop out within the semester? It's a brutal life out here in the archipelago, but those who can tough it out get more than just a diploma."
As Ves stared at Klaus, he recognized the peculiar fighting spirit in his eyes. The LIT evidently fostered a peculiar mentality. "I guess the diploma helps open a lot of doors as well. I envy you and your chance to study exotic subjects that I haven't been able to touch back at home."
"That's right. This is Leemar, one of the centers of mech development in the star sector. You can't find many other places in the local sector that can match the sheer amount of R&D this place pumps out every day."
Too bad Klaus declined to go into deeper detail on the things he learned. Evidently, the LIT strictly punished any students who blabbed about the things they learned to outsiders.
"So do you have any tips for the open competition tomorrow?"
"Heh, good luck with that." Klaus smirked. "You can't imagine how many people are competing. I don't even think the masters are serious in watching out for a promising disciple. How else can you explain that out of fifty thousand hopeful mech designers, the masters only apprentice an average of three or four out of them all?"
"You think they have ulterior motives?"
"Sure I do! I'm guessing that they want to gauge the overall state of young mech designers from the Komodo Star Sector over time. They record everything you do and put it all in a database for further study. I even accessed a part of that database for a research assignment. You can't imagine how much bullshit they put into paper. I bet they even know how many nose hairs you have."
Both of them shuddered a little. Though it sounded outlandish, they could not rule it out for an initiative that tried to record as much as possible.
"So what can I do to increase my chances to get into one of the five?" Ves asked, not even considering the overwhelming chance of missing out. He was not the Ves of the past who only possessed a few mediocre skills.
"I don't know, really. If you ask me, try to emphasize your design philosophy and catch the eye of a master who matches it. You're going to hear a ton of speeches about design philosophy tomorrow, so I won't be explaining it. Just keep your ears open and work hard."
"So if you don't have a strong design philosophy, you don't stand a chance?"
"Yup." Klaus shook his head. "A lot of students have figured out that the masters only want to adopt a nominal disciple if they pick someone from the crowd. They don't want to go through the effort of holding your hand and shaping your design philosophy when you're already rather old for an apprentice. They'd rather save their energies for their own descendants or promising geniuses at the start of their mech design studies."
That made sense. A master could shape a young mech design student's mentality in any direction by tailoring his teachings. As for those who already graduated, they were more set in their ways.
"That said, don't underestimate the worth of a nominal disciple. You get access to exclusive books and guidance that you can't get anywhere else. You may not get any personal guidance from the master, but you will at least get access to a small part of their internal knowledge base. That's cutting edge research into subjects that you can only dream about."
To a normal young mech designer, that may sound like a dream. To Ves, that held little attraction to him. How could the power of the System compare against a single master?
After finishing their discussion on life as a student at the LIT, Ves and Dietrich went to bed. The boat only had a few cramped cabins that looked more like closets than an actual bedroom. After an uncomfortable night of sleep, they freshened up with a cheap sonic shower and got ready to go to the parade grounds where the opening ceremony was held.
"Good luck at the competition, Ves." Klaus clapped his back as Ves exited the boat. "It's going to be hell out there, so keep persevering. Without willpower, you won't be able to make it to the finals."
"What about our skills and knowledge?"
"Quick learners are a dime in a dozen. If the Leemar Institute of Technology only wants to stuff as much learning into our heads as possible, they won't kick out so many students each year. The galaxy is tough, so you have to fight for what you want."
It was a profound view that Leemar could afford to hold due to its immense popularity. Ves nodded his head and left to find transportation.
Luckily, unlike the students, visitors such as Ves and Dietrich were allowed to board a large passenger shuttle that brought them straight to the parade grounds. Ves stared out the window and spotted plenty of boats below. Most flew elegantly in the air, but around a quarter of them floated listlessly in the water.
"I won't be able to stay by your side when the competition starts." Dietrich said as he munched on an apple. "Don't worry though, I'll be cheering for you at the stands."
"You've already helped a lot when the Saint Hearst got attacked. From what I've heard, your presence was essential in preventing the pirates from pressing the guard mechs too hard."
"Yeah, but I got beat up pretty bad. These pirates only conducted an opportunistic raid. If they fought to the death, I'm sure the only way I can get away is by ejecting my cockpit."
Ves felt depressed when he heard Dietrich's words. He lost a bit of confidence after the battle. Comparing yourself to the standards of a second-rate citizen was poisonous.
"Well, don't drink your sorrows away. I still need you on your feet for the return trip."
"I know, I know. I'm more worried about my mech, frankly. I hope the local technicians don't skimp on the repairs just because I get it for free."
As they neared the venue, Ves spotted a lot more shuttles arriving from different directions. Most of them looked as average and utilitarian as the one he rode. A few looked smaller and fancier, evident of that passenger's wealth. Some appeared completely unique and outlandish. One shuttle even mimicked a dragon with wings and all.
The thing that impressed him the most were the shuttles dropping straight down from orbit. Evidently, not all of the arrivals were forced to wait at the outskirts first. These privileged sons and daughters comfortably slept in their ships until the day the competition started, where they could leisurely board their private shuttles and descent straight toward the parade grounds without going through security.
As soon as they finally reached the massive landing areas, the pair disembarked along with the other passengers. They noticed a young woman wearing a peculiar uniform gesturing at them to leave the shuttle area. She wore a royal purple uniform adorned with a couple of strange symbols and a dark blue sash.
"Hey! Welcome to the Leemar Institute of Technology. I'm Amy Dubois, second-year student at the Mech Development Faculty. It's great to see you all here! Now if you can follow me, I'll get you to the parade grounds where the whole show will start!"
The student acted so young and chipper that the visitors hardly believed she was a mech design student. As Amy acted very differently from Klaus, Ves figured that she was one of those rich kids who received plenty of privileges. If she wasn't guiding a group of lower-class arrivals, she'd probably be flying above their heads like some of the other guides and visitors.
Once they left the outskirts where all the shuttles parked, they approached a final checkpoint where exoskeleton-suited guards checked each passenger thoroughly. Fortunately, Lucky was still allowed inside as long as he kept wearing his collar. Ves already passed the cat to Dietrich, who held it as if he had never carried a pet before.
"Lucky is pretty smart, so you don't have to worry about anything. He knows he can't stick by my side during the competition."
"Right, but if he pisses on me, I'll throw him off the stands."
The security around the parade grounds was omnipresent. Ves already spotted hundreds of exoskeleton suits patrolling the grounds. What impressed him the most was that they didn't use any bots at all. It made sense as any bot could be hacked or tampered with. It still ramped up the costs.
As a mecca of mechs, the security forces also employed mechs. With his knowledgeable eyes, Ves recognized most of them as advanced currentgen mechs. These were the top-of-the-line frontline models that did not lose out to the Carnegie Group's main Mech Corps. What impressed him the most was that the officer mechs actually looked like nextgen models. No two nextgen mech looked alike.
"Those must be the personal works of the masters!" A designer from their crowd uttered, causing everyone to admire their exquisite engineering.
After passing one final security checkpoint, they walked through a security screen of some sorts that also blocked their view. Once they reached the other side, everyone held their breaths and looked up.
A massive statue as tall as a capital ship stood defiantly as it raised its weapons to the sky.
"I-I-Is that a juggernaut?!"
"Isn't that illegal?"
"It looks melted. I don't think it's functional anymore."
Amy clapped her hands to attract the group's attention. "That's right! Our big old Colossus here is a juggernaut that survived a proximity nuclear explosion. I can already tell you that the side who launched the bomb got mercilessly wiped out by the MTA, but not before this big hunk got slagged. The Rubarthans decontaminated the wreck and pieced it back together as best they could. For some reason or another, they paraded it around for a few decades before selling it to us once they got bored of it. Interesting story, right?"
As the group resumed walking, each of them stopping talking and thought about the statue represented. For all of them, this was the first time they came across one of the pinnacle creations in the field of mech design. It made some visitors feel small, while challenging others to work hard to design something similar one day.
As for Ves, his thoughts remained on the nuke. "There's always something greater than mechs out there. Mechs are not the pinnacle of warfare. Not yet at least."
He wondered if he could one day design a mech that could withstand a nuke.
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