Their group was already off to a quick start. Cynthia Barakovski rolled over most of her fellow designers with her immense accomplishments. Even Ves became almost convinced. If not for his stellar confidence in himself, he might have let the elite Leemar graduate have her way.
The workshop's terminal rested on the ground, forcing her to descend. Just as she approached the console, Ves stepped forward and held a hand.
"Please wait a moment, Miss Barakovski."
Her eyes pierced his own with a disgruntled intensity. "You are in my way."
Okay, this conversation already went downhill. Ves quickly adjusted his suggestion. "If I may add, I'm sure that with your accomplishments, you are more than qualified to take the position of lead designer. However, I'm pretty sure everyone else can contribute their own insights to our design. Are you willing to let us provide you with some suggestions?"
Sadly, Barakovski treated his suggestions like air. She contemptuously flipped her hair and turned around.
One of the fliers sank down in order to block Ves from pursuing her. "Our princess doesn't have time to entertain third-rate peasants like you. Now run along and play in the dirt. Your participation is unnecessary."
The other fliers closed ranks and made their stances clear. Ves almost couldn't believe how fast they threw away their pride as designers. He turned around to ask for help from his fellow walkers, only to see Missy and Clark turning their heads as if they were blind and deaf.
"Ves, let's not rock the boat. We only have twelve hours to design a mech. A future star like Barakovski can easily come up with a complete design."
"Yes, if we distract her too much, we'll only be ruining our group. To be honest, I'm barely scraping by. I'm not good enough to compete at this level anymore. Why not sit back and let her carry us past the qualifiers? Do you know how much of an honor it is to be part of the five hundred who will show up on stage tomorrow?"
Both of them came up with reasonable excuses. Even some of the fliers agreed with them. After being ganged up by practically his entire group, Ves had no choice but to back down.
"Alright, we'll see, but if she makes a mistake, I won't hesitate to call it out."
Naturally, everyone ignored those words. How could a nobody like Ves even compare against a prominent designer like Miss Barakovski? She represented the entire Friday Coalition in an immense competition that spanned a quarter of the galaxy. Even if she barely reached the top 100, the level of competition in these events was staggering.
Nevertheless, Ves thought it was not wise to put all of their eggs in a single basket. Even the disciples of a master never claimed to proficient in every field. However, he had no means of forcing the issue. He reluctantly stood back and allow Miss Barakovksi to do her wish without further objections.
The young lady started her design process by picking the basic frame. She confidently skipped the medium mechs and went straight for a light mech. Such a choice took a lot of daring due to the lack of options. Barakovski's other choices made it clear that she wanted to design a skirmisher.
If Ves was in charge, he'd pick a safe and boring medium mech. Sadly, he could only watch as Barakovski went all-in on her build. She intended to design a mech reminiscent of his very old Nomad.
Certain types of skirmishers excelled in different situations. Barakovski's skirmisher was obviously built for endurance. Fuel cells took most of the limited available capacity. To complement her choice, she chose to utilize a low-intensity fuel-injected power reactor to provide her mech with a steady amount energy. Most of this energy would be spent on powering up the mech's only weapons, a pair of lightweight wrist-mounted laser cannons.
Ves frowned at her decisions. He had a decent amount of experience in working with these kinds of systems. The wrist-mounted laser cannons was especially tricky. A light mech's arms were not supposed to incorporate such an intensive weapon system. One stray shot could disable the entire mechanism.
To her credit, Barakovski knew what she was doing. She revealed her proficiency in metallurgy and physics when she stripped the light mech's armor and painstakingly designed an entirely new compressed armor scheme that even Ves wanted to praise. She personally fabricated all of the compressed armor plating with practiced skill.
"She's a true prodigy designer." Missy uttered next to him. She practically gazed at the elite Leemar graduate like she was a goddess. "That armor is truly divine. I could never in a million years fabricate such pieces without slipping up."
Barakovski evidently mastered assembly as well. The way she smoothly interacted with the terminal and the virtual workshop's tools gave Ves the impression that she spent many hours in an actual mech workshop. Even though he was not a slouch, his System-enhanced skills lacked the genuine fluency of actual experience.
As the alloy compression took a very long time, Ves started to take a look around. Curiously, his vision of the projections of the other groups was blocked. He had no way of determining their designs. Yet he could still watch and hear what they were doing, as if the organizers wanted to let others see how their rivals tackled the issue of teamwork.
"Well, this is a fine mess." A burly designer commented as he spat out some blood. His clothes were disarrayed. Six other designers were sprawled on the ground, each of them nursing a lot of bruises.
"You did good." A handsome prince-like figure said as he clapped his lackey's back. "Now that we've gotten rid of the riffraff, we can get rid of this trash design and start over with something competent."
At another side, a group that happened to consist of seven walkers bravely tried to fend off the three fliers who disagreed with their actions. Their antigrav clothes gave them an advantage in the air, but their numbers were too feeble to reserve the situation. Their constant harassment slowed down the design process and caused them to spend most of their time staring at each other.
On the flipside, at least half of the other groups got along cordially, if not entirely harmoniously. The best groups often counted an abundance of Leemar graduates on their midst. Their solidarity and familiarity with each other gave them a united front against their scattered groupmates. The weight of their school also counted for a lot.
He spotted no genuine cooperation between all ten members of a group. Even if some of them held a similar opinion to Ves, others dragged them down. His own situation was hardly unique. Practically every group had at least one elite designer that wanted to take charge. The meek and the hanger-ons pressured the others in order to ensure they could get their free rides.
While Ves did not claim to be the most observant participant in the competition, he still smelled a conspiracy of sorts. From the size of the groups, to the placement of the terminals, everything had been set in place to encourage conflict instead of cooperation. He wouldn't be surprised if the group composition had been fudged as well.
"Really, when every group is led by an elite, this round will simply devolve into a series of solo duels."
This meant that every group was back to square one. Of the five-hundred lead designers, only fifty of them would survive. Even if someone like Barakovski was a cut above the rest, he did not wish to gamble on a ten percent odds.
Having concluded that this was actually a subtle trap, Ves still had to come up with a solution. He turned back to Missy and Clark. They sat on the ground as if they were a pair of bored little children. He quietly approached them and caught their attention.
"Only seven hours to go before we get our free pass. What's up?"
Ves drew closer and explained his analysis. He expected the two to get their heads back in the game.
Instead, they looked at him as if he was a troll. "Really now. That's kind of clever. But what difference does it makes if every group is similar? It's not like we can contribute to the design."
"Do you really believe that? Where is your pride as a designer?"
The two had no fight in their eyes. Ves really thought the speech by the old guy at the start had been wasted on these freeloaders. How could they expect to get ahead in the mech industry if they didn't fight for their jobs?
"Okay, you two can stay and sit on your asses for all I care. I'll figure out a solution on my own."
Perhaps if Ves kept at it, he might have persuaded the pair to back him up. However, when he looked at their soulless gazes, he gave up. These two lazy bastards deserved to rot for the rest of their lives.
He didn't know what he wanted to do, but he stood to the side for now. Ves had no reason to interfere as long as Barakovski worked flawlessly.
Different from Ves, Barakovski started from the outside and slowly worked inwards. Besides selecting all of the basic components such as the engines and power reactor, she spent most of her time trying to harmonize the armor system and wrist lasers. For a light mech, these two components were of prime importance that had the most direct influence to the mech's performance.
Frontloading these components meant that Barakovski wanted to budget out her time. For example, if she was forced to spend too much time on the armor system, she could choose to spend a little less time on the internals.
And indeed, Barakovski spent a lot of hours just to optimize the wrist lasers. If Ves wanted to do a proper job, he'd need to spend at least two days to get it working right. The woman acted too much like a perfectionist and kept fiddling with the most minute components.
Ves sneaked a little closer and coughed a little. "We only have five or so hours left. In the interest of completing the design, I suggest you start working on the internals."
"What do you know?!" One of her self-promoted guards spoke as he floated downwards. "Those laser cannons are our only weapons. If our lady's time is cut short, who knows if they'll malfunction?"
"Yeah, and who cares about optimizing the internals anyway? It's just a bunch of cables and muscles. There's hardly any complexity involved in uncrossing a couple of wires."
The comment from the second goon made it clear to Ves that he had no idea what he was talking about. Having worked with the awful mess that was the Caesar Augustus, he knew more than anyone else in the group the fragility of a crowded and unoptimized internal structure.
With everyone set against him, Ves had no way of remedying the situation. Barakovski ignored his advice and kept tinkering with the wrist lasers. An entire hour went by until she finally put down her work.
"I'm finally done with these laser cannons. The hard part is over." Barakovski sighed as she paused in her work. One of her group mates brought her some refreshments, which she enjoyed with relish. "Alright, there's only four hours left to go. The rest is easy."
This time, Ves watched as Barakovski started with the internals. Unlike her earlier performance, Ves cringed when she made a number of shortcuts and other questionable decisions. It became clear to him that her mechanics had not reached the journeyman level.
When Ves suggested she was making a mistake, the entire group looked at him with contempt.
"Really now. Where did you study? Rittersberg? What no name planet is that?"
"The Bright Republic is the backwoods of our Komodo Star Sector. I don't believe a barren place like that knows more about mechanics than Leemar."
No one acknowledged his expertise in this area. He stood at a crossroads. If he did nothing, then he might miss one of the greatest chances of his life. There was too much at stake.
"Maybe I'm thinking too much." Ves whispered to himself.
He waited until the group let down their guard. Once everyone turned back to the terminal, Ves sprinted forwards and brushed aside the bodies in his way.
Once Ves came close, he tackled Barakovski to the ground. Both of them dove through the projection and landed harshly on the ground. He moved around her body and held her neck in a chokehold-like position. Sadly, he hadn't figured out what to do after that. He had never attended any close-quarters combat classes.
After several seconds went by, it became clear that none of the other designers had any clue either. They all look paralyzed as Ves seemed to transform into a crazy beast ready to devour an innocent maiden.
"Unhand me scoundrel!" Barakovski hissed as she moaned in pain. The tackle came unexpected and her landing was hard. Her soft, boneless body wiggled against Ves in a weak, helpless fashion. Whatever gene boosts she received had not been spent on improving her physique.
Both sides were stuck at an impasse. Ves originally wanted to knock Barakovski unconscious, but he was afraid of dealing more damage than necessary. He already offended her enough.
"Look, can we talk about this?"