When Ves stepped into the floating room, he encountered a plain white room. Far from the luxuries he imagined in his mind, the room only contained two comfortable chairs facing its each other. The only other thing that broke up the room's monotony was a floating piece of ore.
The mineral must be something interesting to be worthy of display. Ves tried to dig through his head of any exotics that matched the ore's appearance. After a couple of seconds of fruitless searching, he gave up guessing and followed his new master to the chairs.
"Please take a seat." Master Olson gestured as she took the seat closest to the floating chunk of ore. Her admiring gaze suggested that she'd sell out her parents in an instant in order to secure it. Sadly for Ves, she felt no need to explain the origins of the ore.
After a minute of silence, Olson finally redirected her attention. With an emotionless expression, her eyes ruthlessly scanned his body and his average clothes. Compared to the finely detailed layered dress that Olson wore, he might as well look like a pauper.
"Tell me in your words why I have decided to take you on as my apprentice."
The master obviously gave him a test. Ves already expected something like this, so he simply answered as honestly as possible without pause.
"I have a solid foundation and while my skills aren't impressive, my highly developed mechanics is most compatible to your specialties. In contrast, most of the other designers chose to specialize in more exciting fields first, which won't make them good seeds for a specialization into engine design."
Olson idly tapped her chin with the tip of her finger. "You are partially correct. While your foundation is comparable to a top alumni from Leemar, your mathematics is woefully underdeveloped. No, underdeveloped is putting it lightly. It is abysmal."
The master slammed her palm onto her seatrest, expressing her dissatisfaction quite firmly to Ves. "Math is the true foundation of our profession! Do not think you can get away with outsourcing all of your computing to automated processors! While they may be able to simulate any model, it is you who will have to construct the models in the first place!"
While Ves could reply that he could hire a mathematician to do all the heavy lifting, he found it prudent to remain silent. In truth, he prioritized the development of skills that provided a more immediate return on investment.
"I will provide you a list of recommended textbooks that you can browse in the Clifford Society's virtual portal. As my apprentice, your starting rank in the Society will automatically be set to Knight. As a Knight, you are entitled to expanded access to our internal library."
Ves silently sighed in relief once Olson referred to him as her apprentice. He hadn't screwed up in any way or made some kind of faux pas that caused the master to reconsider her choice. Right now, he only wished to keep his mouth shut and survive this meeting with his new status intact.
"As you can see, your skills and knowledge are insufficient. There are several other young mech designers who can easily outrace you in that aspect. So tell me, what else distinguishes you from those more talented than you?"
"No matter how impressive they are, most of them have lost. I'm one of the only three who made it past the finish line. Perhaps I'm lucky, but my decision-making has brought me this far. I might not be the smartest designer, but I'm confident that I can match the best of them in terms of wits."
"That is a bold statement." Olson nonchalantly replied. "Whether it is true or not, it is something you should consider for yourself. Let me ask you another question. How many mech designers are stuck in the novice phase?"
The MTA kept track of every mech designer and formally provided them with certifications of their proven skill level. Not any designer could claim to be a master. The MTA strictly tested any mech designer who wished to publicly announce their advancement.
"According to the MTA, over 95 percent of all mech designers are still novices. Of the remainder, half of them are apprentices while only a tiny proportion are journeymen or higher."
"Do you think all of these novices lack the opportunity to advance? Even if they are not involved in any design work, they can still save up their cols and buy the necessary knowledge over time. Perhaps they will not be able to advance their skills in a couple of years, but they will certainly be able to do so in a couple of decades."
"There are many old designers, but if they take decades when a younger one only needs a couple of years, then it's obvious to masters and employers who they should invest in. Even wealth is not the determining factor, though it surely helps."
Even without the cols to buy a textbook, if you were talented enough, you could apply for grants or knock on the doors of a design company.
"The point I'm making is that a mech designer is more than a vessel of knowledge. We are humans, capable of both irrationality and creativity. Combined, we can create the most wondrous mechs. Too much of it, and we can easily lose sight of our basic needs. A qualified mech designer is one that can exercise sound judgement."
Ves already held some suspicions about the Leemar Open Competition. For an event that attracted tens of thousands of mech designers annually, its rounds were unusually unconventional.
They tested the designers in many different ways. Those who fared poorly in just a single aspect were mercilessly eliminated despite their abundant qualifications. Fairness was never an objective. The masters associated with the LIT simply wanted to see mech designers suffer.
Those who survived the torment have proven themselves to be the most resilient of this year's batch. It was no wonder why even Master Olson paid attention to Ves, if ever so slightly.
"In truth, among my closest subordinates, you are still unqualified to receive my personal guidance. Unlike my disciples, you are older and you have already found your own way. It is up to you to see it to the end. For now, access to the resources provided by the Clifford Society is sufficient. You can return to me once you have advanced to become Journeyman Mech Designer."
Ves expected to be brushed off in some way. A master did not lack for apprentices. Someone at his level was an infant in her eyes. He still needed lots of growing up before he could be of use.
Since Ves only sought to become an apprentice in order to finish his damned mission, the result satisfied him as well. He had no desire for someone watching over his shoulders and finding out about the System.
"I am fine with this arrangement." Ves replied in order to show he wasn't ungrateful or anything. "I've set up a small business in the Bright Republic and I don't plan on giving it up. The Republic is my home."
"That is a good sentiment. A mech designer must always have a home at heart." Master Olson softly praised. "It may be difficult to keep in touch across the star sector, but you may always contact me via your comm if its an emergency. My subordinates should be able to take care of any routine issues. You can get in touch with them through the Clifford Society."
In essence, the Clifford Society was a comprehensive club that did more than bring together Leemar's best alumni and contestants. It also provided a ready-made network for newly inducted disciples and apprentices.
Master Olson patiently spent the next half hour explaining her expectations on his apprenticeship. Despite the rumors surrounding Master Olson, she had been surprisingly accommodating so far. Though she still appeared cold and aloof, she patiently guided Ves through the formalities of becoming her apprentice.
After signing a bunch of digital paperwork, Ves officially gained a new identity as her apprentice. Along with this enviable status, he gained a permanent residency status in the Friday Coalition. No longer would he be considered a total foreigner, which was highly advantageous if he ever decided to do business here.
"Leemar prizes independence. Though you have not gone through our school's rigorous regime, your independent mech workshop constitutes a real-life test. I do not have the habit of holding the hands of my apprentices. Do not cry for me for help if you've only bumped your toe. Make something of yourself and grow from your experiences."
In other words, Master Olson wasn't about to hand Ves a boatload of cols. He had to earn his money with his own two hands. Master Olson wouldn't lift a finger if his business went bankrupt. He should only really ask for help if he encountered a life-threatening situation.
When the meeting came to an end, Master Olson passed him a couple of gifts. First, she retrieved a secure alloy briefcase from seemingly nowhere.
"Open it once you are somewhere private. I recommend you do so on your new ship you've won."
Next, Master Olson extended her hand towards the floating rock. Somehow, palm glowed to life, as if it turned into a hand-sized plasma cutter. With a careful motion, she cut a ball-sized piece from the surface of the rock. She passed the ball to Ves.
"This is a treasure. You will thank me if you ever find out its use."
With those words, she practically shooed him away, leaving her to gaze at the floating ore like it was her husband. A floating platform brought him to an isolated section of the arena, away from the press of the crowd.
A mech pilot garbed in a skin-tight suit leaned against a wall. Once Ves stepped from the platform, the pilot came up and energetically shook his hand.
"Are you Ves Larkinson?"
This was the first time they came face to face. Both of them performed above and beyond their limits in order to make it to the top.
They grew closer after a brief chat. Even if they didn't understand each other's fields, they both appreciated their partner's expertise.
"Now that you've won this year's competition, what will you do after you finish your studies?"
"I've already received an offer from the Carnegie Group. I'll be entering an exclusive training program for potential expert pilots."
"That's impressive. I'm sure a major power like the Carnegie Group can polish your talent."
Expert pilots enjoyed the same status as a Journeyman. They were the true elites who piloted the best mechs of any Mech Corps.
Along with this offer, Cadet Lovejoy also received numerous privileges. Potentates always enjoyed more rights, and as his worth increased, his benefits grew correspondingly.
For once in his life, Ves did not grow jealous. He used to slavishly devote his life to becoming a mech pilot and follow his father's footsteps. After undergoing the past couple of days, his eyes opened to the splendor of his profession.
In his heart, he had already moved on from those childish dreams.
"If you ever visit the Friday Coalition again, be sure to give me a call. If I'm not on duty, I'd be glad to show you around!"
"Thanks a lot. I'll be sure to look you up if I do."
Ves left the arena complex and found his way outside. He had to ask a bot for assistance in order to reunite with Dietrich and Lucky.
"My man Ves! Congratulations on your ass-kicking win!"
"Haha it wasn't easy, that's for sure!"
While Ves and Dietrich talked about the competition, Lucky stared hungrily at the chunk of ore that Master Olson gifted him. Ves noticed his gem cat's preoccupation.
"Woah there, not yet little buddy. I want to look up the minerals first. If I can't find out its composition, I'll let you have it for dinner. It's a promise."
The cat resentfully meowed at him as if it was a given that the ore should end up in his belly. While Ves was convinced the rock should be worth a fortune, he already won plenty of prizes today.
Lucky had accompanied him for several months without receiving much in return. Ves thought it was about time he indulged his pet for once.