Now that many mech designers and their followers left the premises, the temporary living area received a much-welcomed renovation. The cheap and convenient apartments made way for compact villas that contained room for up to twenty residents. The LIT also stocked the villas with all kinds of amenities, from the rarest teas to the most sophisticated entertainment centers.
Ves only met up with Dietrich briefly before a student guide approached him from above.
"Yes, that's me."
"Good. Our institution invites you to attend a banquet together with your fellow designers."
That sounded interesting. Ves accepted the invitation and followed the guide towards a palatial hall floating in the distance. A floating conveyor brought up guests like Ves who lacked antigrav clothing to the entrance. As he looked around, he noted that a lot more walkers had made it through the qualifiers, though he reasoned that most of them got carried by their groups.
Still, even if they got knocked out tomorrow, they still benefited from the honor of presenting themselves to trillions of people. With their status as a past contestant who made it through the qualifiers, they could leverage that prestige into wealth and status. No one despise the Leemar Institute of Technology, especially its famous annual competition.
The dining hall was resplendently large. Calm and relaxing music extended from the instruments of a handful of musicians. The main tables offered ample space for all the guests. A larger and more extravagant set of tables sat at the front, reserved only for the masters and the most eminent visitors.
Though the hall appeared simple, Ves recognized the precious materials built into the furniture. Even a cannon shell couldn't blast them apart. The subtle extravagance impressed all of the designers who came from humble backgrounds.
A small projection lit up in front of him and guided him to his seat. As a noname designer from a remote third-rate state, his seat was near the end. He looked around and spotted Barakovski near the front.
If their seat positions were ranked, she easily entered the top 20. As for Ves, he was clumped together with the walkers and freeloaders. He sat onto his seat without fuss and waited for the rest to gather around.
"Mr. Larkinson?" A woman called from behind.
He turned around to see a familiar face. "Patricia Schneider?"
He had not expected to meet an acquaintance from the Bright Republic. Patricia had always been an enigmatic figure back when he studied at Rittersberg. She was a genius who excelled in every field. Every classmate sighed that it was a pity that she hadn't gone to study at Leemar or some other famous second-rate institution.
To see her here was a remarkable turnaround. Ves looked around and did not spot any other former participants of the Bright Republic's Fusion Cup.
"Don't bother looking around. We are the only ones from the Republic who qualified." She said and took the seat next to him. "I do have to say that I thought you had potential, you're still a few years too early to compete in Leemar. It's quite a pleasant surprise to see you grow so much."
Unlike any other designer in the room, Ves sensed Patricia had nothing but goodwill to him. He appreciated her willingness to approach him. He missed the casual candor he was used to in the Republic.
"I've grown a lot since the last time we met each other. I always thought my last victory was more due to luck and circumstance. Now that I've caught up in my studies, I'm confident I can beat you in a straight fight."
"Is that so?" Patricia smiled mysteriously at him. "Maybe we can find that out tomorrow. You never know. I still have to pay you back for knocking me out before I reached the finals."
"Haha, I had no choice really. My career was at stake."
Somehow, Ves acted a lot more confident around Patricia. Before, he always saw her as an inviolable goddess, whose talent in mech design outmatched anyone else at the Rittersberg University of Technology. With the help of the System, Ves improved so much that his confidence gained a massive boost. He no longer regarded himself on a lower level to the former class princess.
Patricia raised her eyebrow. "I've heard you've started up a new mech workshop on a rural planet. That takes remarkable courage. Without a large investment, it's very difficult to start an independent business."
"Thankfully the MTA provides independents like me some space to do business. Without the licenses, I have to do everything from scratch."
Licensing became a popular way to earn income from technology in the mech industry upon the establishment of the MTA. The behemoth organization practically coerced every tech company into releasing their non-cutting edge developments to the market. Also, industrial espionage was widespread at that time, so the inventors decided to legalize and monetize the acquisition of their technology.
The distribution of technology eventually benefitted the entire industry. Everyone had access to a uniform minimum standards. No one was forced to reinvent the wheel anymore. It also lowered the barrier of entry to startups like Ves' workshop and restrained larger companies from dominating the industry.
After a few minutes of chitchat, they quieted down when the masters entered the hall. Everyone stared with hopeful eyes at these eminent masters. Of the five masters who expressed interest in taking a new apprentice, only four were present. Master Null had declined to attend, probably in order to avoid letting spies record his gestures. Even the most hidden fugitives can be identified if they showed up in public too many times.
Professor Edith Marshall sat stood up from her seat and addressed the crowd. "Congratulations for making it through the qualifiers. In the last two days, the masters and I have witnessed some remarkable performances. You may be thinking that the qualifying rounds appear too arbitrary and whimsical."
A few designers groaned when they remembered the hellish ordeal of the past two days. The transparent duel and the group duel rounds were especially infuriating for some.
"The truth is, a real designer has to cope with many different circumstances. The strongest mech designer isn't necessarily the one who can output the best designs. As far as we at Leemar are concerned, the ideal mech designer is one who is adaptable. Only by thriving under the most difficult circumstances can you survive the coming storm."
Those ominous words sparked a murmur of concern among the crowd.
"Maybe some of you are already aware of the unrest that is growing in our star sector. We are not alone. The unrest has spread in our neighboring star sectors, and will soon engulf all of human occupied space. Armies will be mobilized and entire mech corps will be thrown into battle. The blood that is about to be spilled will dye many planets red."
A handsome designer sitting near the front of the table stood up, courageously interrupting the dean. "There's a famous saying among designers. The time of war is the time of our lives!"
A lot of people smiled at that, though Ves and Patricia kept a stern face.
"Well said! We develop instruments of war, and only during wartime will we see the most demand for our services. A design is not a static, timeless product. Many times, we receive requests to modify designs in order to cope with a specific planetary environment or to counter a popular model utilized by the enemy. The simulation mech duels you've experienced so far is but a simplification of the great game that is played among the greatest designers."
A few of the masters nodded, giving weight to Professor Marshall's words. With a sophisticated industrial base, any state gained the capability mass-produce or mass-modify a substantial amount of mechs.
If an enemy happened to favor lasers, you could respond by designing a mech that was resilient to directed energy. Such a change could be done in days if the scale was small. At a larger scale, even a massive entity like the Friday Coalition was able to replace and refurbish its entire mech complement in a couple of months.
The capabilities of an industry supported by the full might of an entire state was terrifying. Even the Bright Republic had built up a formidable reserve in order to cope with the coming aggression by the Vesia Kingdom. If war eventually broke out, Ves expected to be drafted in order to put his capabilities to use in supervising such superfactories.
"Before we begin to serve the masterpieces prepared by our cooks, I have one more thing to say. When I look at all of you, I am astounded by the variety of your origins. Some of you have proudly graduated from this school. Others have studied elsewhere in the coalition, while a smaller portion of you have even climbed your way up from more humbler origins."
As one of the few designers from a third-rate state, Ves and Patricia certainly knew the others outnumbered them. The resources and knowledge the designers from a second-rate state enjoyed massively overshadowed the best efforts of a third-rate institution. The two could not even come close.
Ves only gained the qualifications to attend the banquet due to his cheat of a System. He wondered how someone who attended the same university as him managed to keep up with him. Patricia surely had her own secrets in her pocket. That was one of the reasons why Ves tried to strike a friendship with her. As equals of the same strength, they might cooperate some day.
Professor Marshall pressed a button on her comm, causing a projection to light up above the tables. It projected the name of a famous society, underneath of which spelled out numerous benefits.
"The Clifford Society is the Carnegie Group's most exclusive club for mech designers. Our rules allow any designer who passed the qualifiers to join our most esteemed ranks."
Many of those present already knew about the Clifford Society. Anyone present here could apply, though practically only those who were not attached to any major influences actually joined. The real elites already signed exclusive contracts with their backing.
"No matter your origins, affiliations or home state, we are a neutral group that serves the Coalition on behalf of the Carnegie Group. Certainly the other partners of the Coalition have their societies, but we have the most welcoming attitude. As we have attracted numerous influential designers over the years, our reach extends to the entire Komodo Star Sector. No matter where you reside, our Society is able to provide support at any time."
The professor enumerated the many advantages a member enjoyed. They provided an open platform could discuss freely with other members. They offered a small sample of exclusive learning material, some of which could not be found on the galactic net no matter how many cols you were willing to spend. The Society even held many gatherings where different designers met frequently with new faces.
"Are you going to join?" Patricia whispered quietly at his side.
"Yes. This is one of the reasons why I spent all the trouble of travelling to the Coalition. The Clifford Society has an illustrious name in the sector. I don't have a lot of sources I can rely on to advance my design skills. The Society is a viable alternative to the MTA in terms of their library alone."
She shook her head at his words. "Joining the society isn't free. Officially, you'll be prohibited from helping any influence that is hostile to the Friday Coalition. Unofficially, you'll become a man of the Carnegie Group. The other partners of the Coalition will close their doors to you, not to mention you'll be stared at by the Hexadric Hegemony."
"As someone who has tried to go it alone, I quickly learned how vulnerable I am. Any casual conglomerate can wipe me out if they think I'm an irritant. The only way I can get some job security is to attach myself to a greater influence."
Once Professor Marshall finished her speech, everyone's comm units beeped. They all received an extensive package that contained a brochure and a contract for the Clifford Society. They could sign the contract at any time, though they only had a month before it expired.
Some of the people present signed the contract immediately. Others like Ves planned to go over the contract in detail later. Right now he reserved his energy for the competition that started tomorrow.
"Enough talking. Let's dig in!"