"I'm not putting Lucky up for a bet!" Ves replied with alarm. "He's more than a pet to me. It's the last thing my father left me!"
That wasn't entirely true, but Ves really had a bad idea about this. A mere apprentice with the same status as a nominal disciple could never compete against a core disciple. Chances were high that Oleg would wipe the floor with him in every kind of mech design duel.
It appeared the core disciple didn't like his answer. He pouted cutely at Ves. "You haven't even listened me out! Horatio mentioned to me that you're planning on designing your first original mech. You're going to need some good component licenses to impress the mech industry. It just so happens that I've got a couple of really good engine designs under my belt. I can guarantee you that their performance will top anything in your price range!"
The mention of winning a component license of a high quality engine design aroused his interest. Despite his firm reluctance to engage in the bet, he couldn't help but hear Oleg out. "I'm planning on designing a knight for the premium segment of the market of a third-rate state. The engine shouldn't be made out of too many rare exotics."
"Oh, that's even better! I've got a slew of economic engine schematics I designed for practice."
When Oleg turned on a projector and showed him the designs in question, Ves became utterly entranced. Due to his master's specialization, Ves knew a thing or two about mech engines.
From a brief glance, Ves could tell that Oleg's designs performed remarkably well even though they didn't incorporate too many exotics.
He estimated the market price of the worst engine license at 500 million bright credits. The value of most of the other engine licenses hovered around one to three billion bright credits.
To Ves, that sounded like an incredible fortune. To Oleg, that probably sounded like lunch money to him, especially when Ves took in the different price levels in the Coalition.
Still, the sheer talent and capability he showed off with these engine designs scared Ves from entertaining any ideas about winning a bet against Oleg. If his mech design skills was up to par with his engine design skills, then Ves had no hope of eking out a victory.
"I'm sorry, Oleg, but I'm merely a nominal disciple." He said as gently as possible. "Any duel between us will only end up in my defeat. A bet isn't a bet if the outcome is certain before we've even started."
Oleg lost his perpetual grin when he heard his refusal. "Oh, that won't do. I really want to see what you can do. Tell you what. If you're so sure I'll beat you in a standard design duel, let's use a different format! You're good at something, right? Something that gives you the confidence that you're a better mech designer than anyone else at our level. Let's use that as our score!"
His persistence made Ves uncomfortable, but his suggestion sounded a little more reasonable. Despite the risks, his long-dormant competitive streak flared in excitement.
Still, in order to compete, Ves had to show his strength. What was Ves good at?
He could think of nothing but the X-Factor.
He gazed at Oleg's eager expression and considered how to phrase his challenge. Something as ephemeral as the X-Factor couldn't be measured with any tool, which made it difficult to determine a winner.
"How about this." Ves said as he figured something out. "Why don't we try to compete on comfort and personal preference? Let's leave aside competing on specs, because I'm certain whatever you are going to design on a whim will beat my work handedly. Instead, we'll design and fabricate a mech each and present it to a random mech pilot. We'll let him play around with them and tell him to decide which one he finds more comfortable. Sounds good?"
Of all the criteria Ves could possibly choose, he selected something Oleg had never seen coming. He blinked at Ves with his mouth agape. "Comfort? Do you mean ergonomics and stuff?"
"It's not only about a good seat. By comfort I mean that the overall piloting experience should be smooth and effortless. The mech pilot should enjoy the mech and mesh well with it regardless of its specs."
Oleg frowned a bit. "Huh. I never really thought about that. I've never heard of a mech design duel that competed specifically around comfort. It sounds kind of fun!"
Ves still showed a lot of reluctance to engage in the bet, so Oleg constantly raised the value of his offering until he offered one of his best designs.
"The Trailblazer will surely fit your needs for a cheap knight! This engine is more robust than anything a third-rate state will typically field, and I've really been sparing in the amount of exotics I incorporated in its core components. I've accomplished this by applying some of Carmin's special techniques. See here for example..."
As Oleg blabbed onwards while pointing at the schematic of his Trailblazer engine, Ves still hadn't made up his mind.
Losing Lucky would deal a heavy blow to Ves. He had been his constant companion since the start of his mech design career.
Yet Ves found it hard to ignore Oleg's offering. As a fairly recent design, the Trailblazer incorporated much of Oleg's recent insights and innovations. Master Olson's shadow loomed large in the schematic as well, so Ves already determined that the engine featured her characteristic endurance and longevity.
Engines with comparable performance featured a market price of around three billion bright credits for a standard ten-year license. As Ves continued to hold back his assent, Oleg even offered to waive the per-unit fabrication fee, which meant that Ves didn't have to cough up additional credits when he fabricated an engine.
"That's as far as I go. These licenses aren't much, but they're the crystallization of our master's teachings."
"Alright, Oleg. I'll take on your bet." Ves decided after letting out a deep breath. "But let's make sure it's fair by setting the ground rules. I don't want the outcome to be in question."
Leemar was Oleg's home ground, so Ves wanted to extract some assurances out of him. As Oleg worked with the machines in the Apprentice Workshop for years, he possessed an undeniable advantage in terms of fabrication. To make up for this disparity, Ves enjoyed two days of fabrication time compared to Oleg who only limited himself to a single day.
The boy appeared awfully confident despite his handicap, but Ves couldn't push his privileges too far.
"Where can we get some neutral mech pilots to judge our designs?" Ves asked.
"Oh, we can call Horatio and he'll take care of it. The LIT always borrows a couple of mech cadets from Abelard whenever we need a pilot to test out their toys."
Ves remembered that the mech pilots who participated in the Leemar Open Competition also came from Abelard Academy. He found that most of them were highly capable if a bit cocky and undisciplined. Some cadets even let their arrogance get ahead of them. Could they be honest and objective enough to prefer his design over Oleg's?
"Let's go with ten pilots. It won't take too long to let them take our mechs for a spin."
In the end, they came to an agreement on the format of the mech design duel. They would design a knight based off a random selection of old components equivalent to 3-star mechs in Iron Spirit.
Ves had 48 hours to design his knight and fabricate it with the machines in the workshop, while Oleg made do with 24 hours. In the meantime, Horatio already received their request to provide a number of cadets to Master Olson's estate so that they'd be able to test the finished products.
Horatio looked rather critically at Ves. "Are you certain you want to go through with this wager? Oleg is not a normal child. His talent in mech design is extremely frightening."
"With all the concessions he's already made, I don't have a reason to refuse anymore." Ves resolutely replied.
"Do take care, and don't come crying if you lose."
In truth, Ves still felt apprehensive about this duel. However, his pride as a mech designer urged him to confront the direct disciple's challenge head-on. He already stacked the deck in his favor.
When he considered the potential payoff, Ves became determined to succeed. He had to get his hands on Oleg's precious license. With the powerful trailblazer as a central component to his original design, his phoenix would truly be able to embody the persistence and longevity he laid out in his vision.
In addition, if he won the license, he'd be able to spend his credits on other goodies. The mech engine and power reactor component licenses always cost the most due to their fiendishly high complexity. A good engine could make or break a mech design.
If he could get that taken care of now, Ves could allocate more funds on procuring a decent power reactor license. The better his components, the likelier his original design attracted positive attention, though he also had to pull out their strengths in a splendid overarching design.
Throughout his musing, Lucky meowed indignantly at Ves.
"I'm sorry Lucky!" He apologized and picked up his cat and stroked his chin. "I know the bet is callous and all, but it's for a good cause. You don't expect me to lose, do you?"
Lucky hissed at Ves and forcibly jumped out of his embrace. Ves merely shrugged at the cat.
"Fine then! Just wait and see!"
Ves calmed his mind and tried to get into focus. They agreed to start the duel within minutes.
Oleg stood at the side and stretched his fingers, ready to employ his considerable talent and skill into designing a great knight mech.
In truth, Ves treated the mech design duel as a practice session for designing his original mech. Every duel forced the participants to form a complete design out of a handful of standalone components.
While the duel format made things easier by providing pre-designed limbs, torsos and heads, the concept essentially stayed the same. The mech designers had a lot of freedom to shape the form and content of their designs.
Want to design a three-legged mech? Sure! Want to design a ball-shaped mech that rolls around like a ball? Go ahead! A mech designer had the freedom to realize every possible idea no matter it was good or bad.
In this regard, Ves admitted his inferiority to Oleg. He expected any knight the boy wonder designed to be a high-quality machine despite spending half his time on its design and fabrication.
Even if they set their goal on designing and fabricating the most comfortable mech, strength provided its own way of comfort.
For example, any mech pilot would rather own a Caesar Augustus than a Marc Antony Mark II due to the former mech's superior armor system. The two designs differed so drastically in performance that his homemade Mark II simply couldn't close the gap with its trivial advantages.
That was the main reason why the Caesar Augustus still sold for around sixty million credits while the Mark II sold for half as much.
In order to sway the test pilots to his design, Ves not only had to excel in terms of shaping the X-Factor, he also couldn't fall too far behind in terms of fundamental design skills.
"A sparrow can still compete with an eagle, but an ant can forget about it." Ves muttered to himself. "I'm still an Apprentice Mech Designer."
No matter how much knowledge Master Olson stuffed into Oleg's head, he was still a teenager. The direct disciple only had so much time to devote on his studies. More importantly, he also cross-trained in engine design, which certainly stalled his progression in other areas.
Ves shook his head. Enough obsessing over the little freak. It was time he started coming up with a good design. He started focusing his mind on an appropriate set of myths. To maximize the power of the X-Factor, Ves decided to employ multiple powerful images.
The mere thought of how far he could push the X-Factor unleashed a sense of excitement within his bones.