It took a week for the Barracuda and the Greenfeather to approach Halcyon Citadel.
During this time, the two ships were constantly bombarded with scans. Only a small proportion originated from the patrol mechs and vessels of the MTA.
The majority of scans came from observer ships placed throughout the star system. Captain Silvestra guessed that most of those vessels worked for different factions of the Friday Coalition and the Hexadric Hegemony.
"The two second-rate states are constantly locked in a struggle over the star sector. Centerpoint plays a special role in their rivalry because it is the most important nexus of trade in the region. Even if they have no hopes of taking it over, they can't ignore what's going on here."
"The MTA allows them to take snapshots of all of the traffic going through this system?" Ves frowned.
Nobody enjoyed being stared at so blatantly every second of the day! The Barracuda already logged millions of active scans, and that was only what her sensors managed to detect!
"Humans are curious creatures." She replied. "The MTA is often forced to pick and choose their battles. It's especially difficult to fight against human instinct. I think they don't mind these scans because the observers know better than to pry into their own ships and assets."
Any ship that attempted to actively scan an MTA ship or vessel would quickly be blown into bits regardless of the reason! No one was crazy enough to put the Association's patience to the test in their core territory!
Even though they might have been slacking off elsewhere, Centerpoint remained firmly under their control!
As the Barracuda and the Greenfeather neared Halcyon Citadel, the latter ship diverted to another route.
The MTA didn't allow any mechs other than their own to approach the headquarters. Ves wasn't even allowed to bring a bodyguard or pet!
"You'll have to remain behind as well, Lucky." Ves told his cat as the critter blissfully munched one of the last batches of exotics that he bought at Bentheim. "Make sure to keep your ECM up and shielded around your body. I don't know what kind of tech is stuffed inside your body, but it will definitely attract the attention of the MTA if they catch a glimpse!"
After issuing his warning to Lucky, Ves took a deep breath and prepared himself for his upcoming visit.
The Barracuda soon came within orbit of Halcyon Citadel.
To call it a space station would put every other space station to shame. It was actually as large as a moon!
As the MTA's premier center of power in the star sector, Halcyon Citadel brilliantly encapsulated their might. If their Dyson spheres hadn't impressed their guests, then this immense space fortification never failed to turn everyone speechless!
First-time visitors such as Ves and the crew of the Barracuda sat in stunned silence as they observed the immense mass of Halcyon Citadel. It was a moon-sized hive of industry, administration and defense!
Halcyon Citadel was the MTA's seat of power! The supreme sector associate directed the MTA's branch in this star sector from this very space fortification! The Sector Mech Council that consisted of a mix of high-ranking officials, mech pilots and mech designers occasionally convened to decide on matters that impacted the region!
A chill ran through Ves as the Barracuda came closer and closer until she parked at her designated orbit.
"Halcyon Citadel has already dispatched a shuttle to pick you up." The captain notified him. "We can go no further from here. Only ships, mechs and shuttles from the MTA are allowed to approach the surface."
Ves nodded. "Understood."
As the sector headquarters of the MTA, security was very stringent here. Not only did the citadel itself possess immense defenses, it also boasted a huge amount of mechs and orbital fortifications that could fend off the entire Mech Corps of the Bright Republic without breaking a sweat!
Viewing all of the wonders of Centerpoint System really hit home how little the Bright Republic and the other third-rate states of the star sector mattered.
As the MTA shuttle approached the Barracuda's starboard side, Ves waited in front of the hatch alongside Gavin.
"This is it, Ves." Gavin said. "This must be an exciting moment for you, right? The MTA is rolling out the red carpet for you! It must be a dream come true!"
Ves awkwardly smiled. It was more of a nightmare than a dream to him! "Let's not get too excited, Gavin. A lot of Journeymen across the star sector get invited to Halcyon Citadel every year. I'm nothing special."
Journeymen may enjoy an honored status in the Bright Republic, but the MTA hardly noticed their existence at all!
The two of them chatted a bit as they waited for the CFA shuttle to form an airtight seal with the Barracuda's starboard hatch. Once the two vessels formed a solid connection, Ves entered through the hatches and entered into the shuttle's stylish passenger compartment.
Aside from a few empty seats, a single android greeted him upon arrival.
[Mr. Ves Larkinson, the Mech Trade Association welcomes you to Centerpoint System.] An elegant-looking feminine android greeted him with a slightly-robotic voice. [I am Delta-Gina, your personally designated service android. My role is to guide you through the halls of Halcyon Citadel. I am also capable of answering your questions.]
It figured that the MTA would assign a bot instead of a human as his chaperone. Ves eyed the bot with mild interest as he seated himself. Delta-Gina's design immediately sparked his interest.
The android had been designed by a very capable mech designer! One who understood the human form extremely well!
There was so much he could observe from the android's design that Ves spent several minutes just staring at the remarkable creation!
As the shuttle began to detach from the Barracuda and descend to Halcyon Citadel, Ves finally collected himself a bit. "Who will I meet once I enter Halcyon Citadel?"
[I am not allowed to answer this question.]
"How many Journeymen are invited to Halcyon Citadel per day?"
[I am not allowed to answer this question.]
"Who designed your model?"
[I am not allowed to answer this question.]
"Can you even answer any question at all?!"
[I am Delta-Gina, your personally designated service android. My role is to guide you through the halls of Halcyon Citadel. I am also capable of answering your questions.]
Ves shook his head and gave up on the stupid android. While the CFA dedicated a lot of research into developing more advanced AIs and automated systems, the MTA was much more reluctant to follow suit.
Many mech pilots and mech designers feared that automation would replace their roles entirely one day. As the main patron of these professions, the MTA would never do anything to threaten their core interests!
Still, Ves couldn't help but feel disappointed that a stupid bot like Delta-Gina was the best that the MTA could spare for their guests.
While the shuttle swiftly descended to the artificial moon and entered one of its gaping crevasses, Ves paid no further mind to the android.
Instead, he prepared one of his precautions.
During the trip to Centerpoint, Ves came up with a plan to deflect the MTA's attention. The first step of doing so was to construct an altered image of himself as a foolproof mask.
He developed several masks, in fact.
These masks helped him adjust his personality, his thinking pattern, his body language and his other tells into a desired direction. His earlier experiences with masks had taught him what to expect.
Perhaps the most important lesson that he needed to keep in mind was that his masks weren't foolproof! Even if his facade was incredibly convincing, it didn't stop others from gathering other clues!
Calabast already taught him this lesson when she figured out that Ves was responsible for stealing the holy relic on Kesseling VIII!
Therefore, Ves put a lot of thought on how to portray himself to the MTA. Obviously, he couldn't adopt a completely different personality. There were lots of rumors that the MTA had eyes and ears everywhere, so they would have been able to determine his actual personality.
If he tried to act too differently from how he used to convey himself, then he would quickly attract their attention, which was exactly what he didn't want to see!
Therefore, most of the masks he constructed during the trip didn't diverge too much from his actual personality. Ves merely opted to exaggerate some of his traits and put a different spin on some of his attitudes.
His goal today was to fool the MTA without letting them realize that they were being fooled.
Well, Ves was about to find out, as the shuttle had just slipped into a massive hangar bay devoted solely to transit shuttles like the one he rode. Once the shuttle parked at its designated landing zone, Ves and the android stepped out, only to step upon a lifter platform that rapidly conveyed the two deeper inside the citadel!
Ves took a moment to marvel at the immense construction around him. He noted that Halcyon Citadel was built for war. Its metallic blue interior walls consisted of some kind of super-advanced alloy that could probably withstand a crashing starship without suffering a single dent.
As the floater platform accelerated to an unreal speed, neither Ves nor the android worried about being thrown off, as neither of them were subjected to drag.
His floater platform entered into a series of tunnels and joined the line of many transportation vehicles. Ves could see thousands of people and goods being ferried all over the massive citadel. While he didn't know what exactly went on inside the headquarters, it functioned more than just an administrative center.
Even as the floater platform accelerated to a ludicrous speed, it still took around half an hour for it to reach its destination. It passed through a number of security checkpoints before entering into a nicer section of the citadel.
Once the floater platform touched down at a very expansive landing zone, the android introduced him to the area.
[Welcome to the Design Center of Halcyon Citadel. Many mech designers in the direct employ of the Mech Trade Association work here. Please do not disturb our internal members you see along the way.]
Ves could see that he wasn't the only new Journeyman present. Several other floater platforms landed, depositing fresh Journeymen along with their accompanying androids.
Each of them headed into the Design Center but split off to different areas. Ves passed through several remarkable displays and projections showing off various impressive accomplishments.
They walked through the corridors for a while. Ves believed this was a deliberate part on the MTA because they could have brought him to his destination directly with a smaller floater platform.
Instead, they forced their guests to traverse the remaining distance on foot.
It was a humbling moment to Ves. Everything he saw so far reinforced the might of the MTA while making him feel smaller.
Fortunately, the trip only lasted for twenty minutes or so. Before his patience started to thin, the android guided him through a strict security checkpoint before guiding him to a grand hall.
A single middle-aged man stood in front of a first-class mech on display. Ves could hardly keep his eyes off the impressive-looking multipurpose mech.
Delta-Gina quietly stepped back while Ves arrived in front of the man.
"Mr. Larkinson. It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Professor Kastel Oodiv, a Senior Mech Designer in the service of the MTA. It is my role to verify your advancement and to induct you into the ranks of Journeyman."
The two shook hands, upon which Ves immediately felt something wrong from his design seed.
It encountered a probe!
"As expected." Professor Oodiv smiled. "I would hate to waste my time with a fraud. However, my judgement is not enough to confirm you as a Journeyman. Please come this way. We will need to perform a more thorough examination."
Ves confidently smiled as if he didn't have anything to fear. In fact, his insides were shaking! If not for the mask he wore, he would have looked like a nervous wreck by now!