80 The Masters

A massive crowd stood in front of an elevated platform. Over fifty thousand mech designers eagerly crowded the field. The walkers remained standing on the field while the fliers stood on empty air as their antigrav clothes held them aloft without effort.

If so many people gathered in a single location, they'd normally acted boisterous. However, none dared to utter a sound because of the awe-inspiring figures sitting silently before them. On the podium, a handful of masters stood atop pedestals that listed their functions and achievements. A handful of uniformed students and retainers surrounded the tall pillars.

The other reason why no one spoke was that the giant Colossus loomed right over their heads. It blocked out the sun, casting them all in its gigantic shadow. The effect was pronounced, and all of their confidence sapped out as they resembled ants.

An old and distinguished looking gentleman approached the front of the stage. Age, dignity and an almost palpable aura transcendence emanated from the figure. This was definitely a man who benefited from extensive life-prolonging treatments. If Ves had to guess, this man was more than five hundred years old. That meant he was born before the Age of Mechs, and witnessed its rise!

The man gazed his piercing eyes over the crowd, causing every visitor to feel their breath stolen away. Most did not know who this person was, but the few that did bowed their heads and dared not to meet his eyes. Even Ves had no clue who he was, and that meant something as he had studied the Mech Development Faculty extensively during his travels.

"Are you proud?" The old man asked, causing the crowd to fall into confusion.

Of course they were proud! They represented the future of mech design in their home planets. They were the best of the best, and judged themselves worthy to compete on a higher stage.

"You are young. Pride makes you courageous. That is good. Without enough daring, one will never go far in the world of mechs. The galaxy does not stand still at your leisure. It spins inexorably. Never stand still. Never give up. And above all else, never betray the human race."

The people around Ves fell into confusion. Was this old doddering man about to ramble?

"Humanity is kept safe from alien aggression for centuries now, that we have forgotten their ferocity. The major alien threats are still lumbering, building up their strength for a major offensive. As humans, we are doing the same! We have quietly developed deadlier warships, and engaged in horrific research in more devastating weapons of mass destruction. Do not think that you are the guardians of humanity's sovereignty. In our eyes, you are merely children playing with toys."

That elicited a murmur of disbelief and discontent. This was the Age of Mechs! Potentates received countless privileges as soon as they turned ten and mech designers with achievements under their belt were treated like royalty. To hear from someone authoritative that they were worth nothing caused plenty of designers in the crowd to lash out.

"Our work has value! We are not a bunch of wastes!"

"Have you forgotten your meds? Go back to your retirement home!"

"Warships isn't as cool as mechs!"

"HAHAHAHAHA!" The old man laughed. His sudden shift caused everyone to fall silent. "That's the spirit! Do not be content with your illusionary pride! Fight for your craft and fight for your mechs! Keep advancing and bring the mech world further to the forefront!"

The man turned around after finishing his short and bewildering speech. Half of the crowd gave the departing old fellow an applause, while others still grumbled at being belittled so casually.

An old woman took the stage this time. Thankfully, everyone knew here identity. As the dean of the Mech Development Faculty, Edith Marshall was a renowned professor and a Senior Mech Designer herself. She helmed the faculty for over fifty years, keeping its reputation steady.

"Welcome young mech designers, to the Leemar Institute of Technology's 73rd Open Competition in Mech Design. As the administrator of one of the centers of mech design in the Komodo Star Sector, and I am gratified to see so many hopefuls have arrived to take part in our event. I will go over the rules in a moment, but first, let me introduce the masters overseeing the competition."

Somehow, the surrounding area grew darker, to the point where you couldn't see your own finger if you stretched out your arm. Only Professor Marshall remained visible. She gestured towards the leftmost pillar, which lit up slowly, casting the master and everyone around it in a contrasting shadow.

"First up, let me introduce you to our youngest seat, Master Guillaume Duchamp! At the spry age of 103, he has managed to break through and receive recognition of his peers for his groundbreaking innovations in the application of liquid armor systems. This underdeveloped field is rich in potential, and Master Duchamp has steadfastly pioneered a viable path to progress for the future generation such as you!"

Everyone enthusiastically clapped without reserve. Master Duchamp was a genuine pioneer who persisted in developing a field untouched by the elites in the center of the galaxy. With the partnership of many different research institutions, he managed to lead the successful development of prototype armor that possessed both solid and liquid attributes. It was still an early product that performed only half as good as regular armor, though it did have some redeeming features. One of its major advantages was that the armor could be easily supplemented by 'pouring' more of it in liquid form.

As a relatively newly ascended master, Ves was not very impressed with Duchamp. Besides his narrow specializations, his other skills still fell behind. The only times he designed a pinnacle-level mech was when he partnered with his fellow masters.

Still, as a newcomer, Master Duchamp should also be the one most eager to attract new apprentices. The amount of people standing around his pillar was the least. A true master never worked alone. By apprenticing promising designers, not only could he expand his influence, he could also nurture a group of assistants who were able to assist him with his work.

"At our next seat, we have the eminent Master Timothy Nguyen! He has been a sitting professor of our faculty for over two hundred years, joining just after we have founded it. His contributions has been invaluable in making Leemar II a heaven for all things mechs. As for his mech design chops, his previous studies in shuttle systems and his current expertise in flight systems has broken many grounds. He is currently assigned as the chief designer for the Carnegie Group's frontline flight mechs."

Master Nguyen was another old fellow who rose to prominence at the beginning of the Age of mechs. He used to study shuttle design, but switched over to mechs once they became all the rage.

This three-centuries-old patriarch ruled over a dynasty of descendants, all of whom he cherishes greatly. All of his core disciples consisted of his most promising offspring. The only problem was that none of his descendants excelled enough to take over his mantle.

Though he still put a lot of effort in grooming his grandsons and granddaughters, he started to apprentice outsiders to supplement his peripheral influence. It was a pretty decent deal for those nominal disciples who did not wish to get too involved, as Master Nguyen did not demand much from them except to occasionally give a helping hand to his incompetent descendants.

He also remained a genuine master in flight systems, one of the most complex mech components to work with. Flight-capable mechs possessed a lot of mobility and could be utilized in many ways. Flight systems were also essential in operating in outer space, where there was no surface to speak of for ground mechs to maneuver. Only their immense energy requirements stopped them from being implemented universally.

"For our third seat, we have our pride and joy, Master Meredith Katzenberg! A lady after my own heart, she is one of the most remarkable minds in the field of exotic materials science. Her Katzenberg Research Institute has been a forefront in partnering with many other research organizations into the field of finding more affordable substitutes to expensive exotics that are scarce in our corner of the galaxy. Without her ceaseless work, our mechs would never possess the might to propel the Friday Coalition to a proper second-rate state!"

Everyone rose up and gave a thundering cheer to Master Katzenberg. While most designers specializing in materials science tried to incorporate ever more expensive exotics, the gracefully aged woman instead turned that around.

It was a matter of resource distribution. The mech designers situated closer to the center of the galaxy were spoiled for exotics, and could afford to incorporate all kinds of rare materials without considering their cost. Master Katzenberg recognized that this constant race towards scarcer materials could not be sustained in the remote Komodo Star Sector, so she sought to find ways to replicate the specs of rare exotics with abundant common materials.

Her few successes had been vital in lowering the costs for high-performing mechs. Even if she hadn't been able to achieve a complete success, she still developed many alloys where she diluted the main material with a handful of cheap stuff, essentially lowering the amount of exotics required without impacting its effectiveness too much.

Due to her split focus in multiple specialties, her designs never really excelled in terms of performance. However, they were always significantly cheaper and easier than any other comparable mech. Each of her designs achieved massive sales, which made her extremely desirable for anyone to request to be their master. She had the most apprentices under her wing as a result, though only a few of them gained enough of a success to bear her mantle due to the immense learning required to become proficient in her specialties.

"As for our fourth master, please welcome Master Carmin Olson. She is our most distinguished guest professor, and has contributed much with her unique perspective on mechanical engineering. Her work on ultra-efficient engines has been incorporated into many of the Friday Coalition's endurance-focused frontline mechs."

Master Olson was from the same generation as Master Duchamp. She was actually a genius nurtured by another group from the Coalition, and received recognition as a Master a little later than her male colleague. Nevertheless, her specialization in engines and mechanics was almost universally in demand.

She partnered a lot with other masters when they requested the use of her efficient engines. This exposed her to the inner workings of other masters, allowing her to shore up her weak points. Her recent solo designs gained instant appreciation from her clients due to their excellent endurance and well-roundedness.

As a guest professor, she was destined to move on after a couple of years. Thus, she did not involve herself too deeply into Leemar's matters and kept a healthy distance from anything too sensitive. One quirk of hers was that she showed very elitist tendencies. Practically all of her disciples and retainers came from the upper portion of Coalition society.

"I'd rather eat dog food than become her apprentice." Ves silently muttered to himself. Some of the rumors floating around Master Olson suggested that she was an entitled bitch in private. Too bad she had the backing of an entire major partner of the Coalition.

"Our last master presiding over the competition is our famous Master Null. At least, that is the name you should all have learned. If you happen to know his real name, then please submit yourself to our security officers so we can excise it from your memories."

Everyone laughed at the little joke, though nobody was genuinely amused.

The man sitting atop the last pedestal elegantly waved his smooth and skinny hand that was only possible if he was young or received the best life-prolonging treatment. Of course, his most intriguing feature was that he hid his face underneath a black, expressionless mask.

"I'm sure you have heard the rumors and conspiracy theories, so it makes little sense for us to deny that he is a fugitive. No matter his origins, Master Null only seeks a quiet home, thus he is a living treasure to our faculty. Though we do not dare to reveal his specialties, he has never been found lacking in any field."

As a supposed fugitive from an advanced second-rate state or a first-rate superstate, Master Null acted as an all-rounder, decent in any field but excelling in none. Of course, everyone knew he hid something special, but to prevent his pursuers from sniffing him out, he never publicly revealed his specialties.

As someone with no outward weaknesses and strengths, he was every young mech designer's second choice. Perhaps Master Null gave up on making a name for himself, for he was also a prolific teacher. He had the most core disciples under his name, and even taught his nominal disciples diligently.

Unfortunately, his lack of courage in passing down his specialties meant that his disciples only developed a mish-mash of mediocre specialties. They were good enough to stand on their own, but not enough to propel them to the highest levels of mech design.

By now, all of the pedestals glowed in the dark. Professor Marshall smiled and spread her arms. "Five out of thirteen of our faculty's masters have expressed interest in taking on an apprentice, thus they are now before you. Be mindful of your behavior and show your best performance, because you might be one of the handful chosen to ascend the skies."

Master Duchamp.

Master Nguyen.

Master Katzenberg.

Master Olson.

Master Null.

If Ves wanted to progress his career, he had to catch the eye of one of these eminent persons. Barring the snobbish Master Olson, Ves already started to formulate strategies intended to accomplish such a difficult goal.

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