When Ves returned to his hotel room, he faced two things. First, a cranky gem cat angrily yowled at him for neglecting his pet all day. Second, he received a notification from his bank account that Marcella sent him the seven million advance for his material needs.
"Sleep can wait." Ves said to himself as he activated a terminal and visited the Mech Trade Association's online market. He already took note of all the materials he required, so after a meticulous check he put all the items in his shopping list and confirmed his purchase. The seven million bright credits vanished from his account like it never existed.
"At least I paid for express shipping. The goods should arrive by my doorstep by the time I exit from the shuttle."
As he laid down on his bed, he reflected on the tumultuous events he experienced in his trip to Bentheim. In just two days, he put his name on the map by winning second place in a side tournament of the Young Tigers Exhibition. While not as prestigious as the main event, it was nonetheless one of the best prizes a young mech designer could win in the Republic.
Not only that, he enlisted the services of a well-established mech broker. With Marcella Bollinger taking care of selling his products here in Bentheim, Ves could devote his full attention to fabricating his mechs and coming up with new designs. Still, the ripoff twenty percent commission she took out of his gross profit hurt his bottom line. Still, if she could ensure a steady volume of customers, the amount of profit he made over time could be a lot higher than if he wasted time selling the mechs in person.
"Maybe Marcella has a point. If I hire my own people, I can do my own thing and let my employees take care of all the annoying stuff."
Naturally, that was something to consider once his business got up and going. For now, his mech boutique was so small scale that any employee he hired now would just be sitting on his thumbs.
After taking a long and deep sleep, Ves woke up a little late. It barely left him time to shower and pack up his luggage. He was barely able to grab a quick sandwich before Captain Gillian hustled him together with the other contestants to the spaceport.
This time, the crowd of mech pilots regarded him with a different attitude. Some looked impressed by his accomplishments. Others were puzzled why a talent like him settled down in the hinterlands of the Republic.
In any case, Ves knew he'd be stared at like this for quite a while. Of all the graduates who participated in the YTE, only he achieved the best results. The next best pilot only barely managed to scrape into the top fifty.
Ves wanted to focus on his upcoming fabrication project, so he fobbed off most attempts by the mech pilots to spark up a friendship. It wasn't that he appreciated new friends, but he simply didn't have the time.
Just after the shuttle flew up and escaped Bentheim's gravity, he was already pulling up his comm and making a detailed flowchart of his fabrication process. His slapdash way of fabrication might work with Iron Spirit's modern 3D printer and assembler, but his equipment in the real universe faced a lot more constraints. It might take only one wrong setting to ruin a component worth a million credits. So it paid to be prudent.
He also applied for a production license of the festive cloud generator while he was at it. As one of the two only non-native components of the Marc Antony, Ves couldn't produce it with the MTA's approval if he hadn't applied. Fortunately, as the component was more of a joke than anything else, Ves only had to part with a hundred thousand credits to get a 10-year production license for the decorative part. His cash reserves instantly halved.
The space shuttle leisurely fell behind a spacious queue towards their designated Lagrange point. The heavy traffic to and from Bentheim caused these Lagrange points to be congested, though that was only a relative term considering the vastness of space. Still, only a limited amount of ships were able to depart at the same time without disturbing the local spacetime too much, so each ship had to queue up and wait in line.
When their turn finally came, everyone paused what they were doing and prepared for the FTL transition. The shuttle vibrated a little before the green light was given. No problems occurred when the passenger shuttle engaged its FTL drive.
The return trip took longer to arrive back at Cloudy Curtain. Bentheim's favorable gravity currents allowed all ships travelling towards the port system to cut back on their travelling time. It provided no advantages when ships departed the system and travelled to a non-port system. Thus, it took about one-and-a-half very precious days off his timetable when the shuttle finally arrived at the edge of Cloudy Curtain's star system.
The slow, in-system burn from the edge of the system to its interior took up some time as well. Everyone else just relaxed and ate their provided meals, visited the toilets or leaned back their seats in order to take a nap. Only Ves was fidgeting while working on his planning. He went over the same scheme over and over until he forced himself to take a nap.
When the shuttle finally reached the surface, Ves thanked the heavens and disentangled himself from the others as fast as he could. With only a hasty goodbye to Captain Gillian, Ves ordered a priority taxi and zipped back to the outskirts where his workshop beckoned him home.
"Home sweet home." Ves said with relief. Lucky echoed his thoughts as he scurried all the way back to his favorite perch on his couch.
"Let's see if they delivered the goods already."
Ves spent a substantial amount of credits fast-tracking his material goods shipments from Bentheim directly to Cloudy Curtain. When he exited into his backyard and entered the cordoned off area meant for aerial deliveries, he encountered five stacks of freshly containers. As he personally opened each container and confirmed its contents, he smiled for the first time in days.
"I've got everything I need now to begin fabrication."
Marcella even sent him a brief message when he was still on the shuttle. She believed she found a customer for his variant, but the negotiations dragged on. The customer wanted to squeeze as much benefits he could out of his order, so Marcella wanted to slow things down in order to make it appear they weren't willing to go too low.
Glad that the marketing was taken care of, Ves was just about to start fabricating when he forgot about one very important detail.
"I haven't started up the Mech Designer System in almost a week. I wonder what it thinks about what I've experienced. At least it should give me a reward for taking second place in the Fusion Cup, right?"
Though not entirely sure, Ves booted up the program resting peacefully in his comm. With trepidation, he waited as the loading screen filled up and a familiar menu popped up. The System was back in action.
"Hey System. Did you miss me?"
[Welcome User. You have two impending messages waiting for your perusal. Do you wish to display them?]
"Yes. Gimme my rewards." Ves already rubbed his hands thinking of all the goodies the System might reward him for his great performance.
[You have assembled an original mech design out of a selection of pre-prepared components.]
[Design Evaluation: Drake.]
Model name: Drake
Original Manufacturer: Ves Larkinson
Weight Classification: Medium
Recommended Role: Jump Trooper
Carrying Capacity: C
Energy Efficiency: E+
Cost efficiency: A
Project involvement: 75%
Original component composition: 0%
Overall evaluation: A shoddy mech compared to genuine models, it nevertheless fulfilled its purpose. Put together out of standard pre-assembled components, the Drake is a remarkably cost efficient if it is produced in a large scale. However, its lacking integrity and energy efficiency prevents this model from outperforming any other budget model.
[You have received 1000 Design Points for completing an original design that has no other equivalent.]
[You have received 100 Design Points for designing a mech with a trace of X-Factor.]
"A thousand points." Besides the welcome package, it was the most generous reward the System had ever given him for a single objective. It also indicated that the System appreciated original designs more than variants. "There isn't anything else?"
[Your design does not fulfill the requirements to earn additional rewards. Please work more diligently in improving the core foundations of your next original design.]
In other words, the System disdained his cheap and trashy design. "You know I only had less than one day to whip up this mech, right? I did a decent job considering I was working with severely outdated parts."
The System acted a if his words were passing clouds and continued on with the updates.
[You have received an event mission. Please check the Missions page for the details.]
Mission: Fusion Cup
Prerequisites: Qualify for the Fusion Cup
The Fusion Cup is your first public stage where you can exhibit your talents as a mech designer. Do not cower from the challenges you face, but instead embrace them! A mech designer must be bold under pressure and fearless when performing in public. Crush your rivals and achieve a supreme result by winning first place!
Reward: Variable depending on your final rank.
[Congratulations for partially completing the event mission. A competent mech designer must maintain absolute confidence whilst simultaneously possess the capacity to self-reflect. Never waver in the face of defeat. Face the universe with your back held straight!]
Ves chuckled as he realized the System gave this mission while he had just passed the qualifiers. Then he stopped his laugh when he realized the System kept tabs on him while he hadn't even executed the program in days. How was it able to observe his every movement in such an electronically well-guarded environment?
The System quickly gave him the rewards for the mission he never knew he received before he completed it. Ves treated it like dessert after a sumptuous dinner.
[For winning second place, you have received 500 Design Points.]
[Please endeavor to work harder and never let yourself be overshadowed.]
Ves almost broke out with curses. The System sure asked a lot out of him. He only used the system for two-and-a-half months! How much could he improve in so little time? Even with the help of the System, Ves estimated he needed at least two or three years of active use of the System in order to catch up to the likes of Edwin McKinney. If he took into account that Edwin constantly improved as well, it might take five or seven years.
To become a star mech designer, Ves had a long way to go. He not only had to shore up his fundamentals, he also had to build up his business and design market-viable mechs that not only took into account the performance of the mech, but also its cost efficiency. Designing and fabricating the Marc Antony was just the first step. The System already hinted at him that producing an original design was the road to real prosperity.
"Well, to design an original blueprint from the ground up requires a boatload of skills. And to improve my skills, I need DP, lots of DP."
Eager to see how much DP he currently possessed, Ves called up his Status.
Name: Ves Larkinson
Profession: Novice Mech Designer
Design Points: 1632
Neural Aptitude: F
[Assembly]: Apprentice - [3D Printer Proficiency I] [Assembler Proficiency I]
[Computer Science]: Incompetent
[Electrical Engineering]: Novice
[Mechanics]: Apprentice - [Jury Rigging II] [Speed Tuning I]
[Physics]: Novice - [Lightweight Armor Optimization I] [Mediumweight Armor Optimization I]
Evaluation: On the cusp of breaking out of pure stupidity.
The windfall of 1632 DP came as a timely surprise to Ves. With such a large amount of DP, he could complete his purchase of several sub-skill upgrades that he had his eyes on that would help with his first fabrication project in the real universe. What also surprised him was that his endurance increased by 0.1 points.
"Well, it makes sense. I've been working my ass off for several long hours. I've learned to push my limits during the competition."
With a sack of DP in his metaphorical hands, Ves eagerly switched to the System's Skill Tree. A familiar holographic display lit up all around him, showing him thousands of all the possible skills and sub-skill he could acquire.
He regarded the Skill Tree as his most important weapon towards overtaking the likes of Edwin McKinney and Patricia Schneider. No matter how fast they improved, they eventually had to put in the hard work to learn new theories and become proficient in new techniques. All Ves had to do was earn a bunch of DP from designing and selling new mechs and invest them into the Skill Tree.
Aside from the ever-elusive X-Factor, Ves had access to an unprecedented variety of new and exotic skills. Some of the more notable entries even threw his entire conception of mechs upside down.
"Biomechanical fusion, quad-pilot connected neural interfacing, permanent consciousness imprisonment. What are those crazy scientists up to?"
The more he glanced at the names, the more he felt as if the space outside the Bright Republic was a scary place. His sanity might have worsened if the System hadn't blurred the more specialized skills down the skill trees.
For now, Ves had no interest in taking up these exotic skills. Not only wouldn't he be able to explain how he became proficient in these exotic and restricted technologies, he also plainly lacked the luxury to waste his points in needless side projects. If he wanted to close the gap to his rivals, then he had to invest in his foundation skills, no matter how boring they sounded.
"Since I'm getting ready to fabricate the Marc Antony, I should shore up my assembler sub-skills."
He purchased both Assembler Proficiency II and 3D Printer Proficiency II for 400 DP each. After halving his DP reserve, Ves received an influx of new information and knowledge from the depths of his brain. He realized he already knew most of the information coming to the front, he just hadn't realized how important they were and how it connected directly to his performance when utilizing the machines. He learned so many new tricks to improve the quality of his fabrication and how to reduce the occurrence and severity of faults.
The flood of surfaced knowledge fully unfolded within his mind in a way that made it very difficult for him to forget it again. He advanced his proficiencies with the 3D printer and the assembler by at least a year of dedicated practice. This was valuable experience that already came into use as Ves called up his detailed planning of the fabrication process and made some adjustments to his steps. After spending half an hour correcting a lot of tiny details, his confidence of successfully fabricating the Marc Antony without any major defects increased from fifty percent to seventy percent.
"Too bad it's not the 100% certainty that I wish for. My gear is just too bad."
His increased proficiency couldn't overcome the limitations of his cheap, second-hand equipment. Though they cost several hundred million credits in total, Ves regretfully lamented his father hadn't worked a little bit harder in procuring better quality equipment before he disappeared.
"Upgrading my gear is a priority for later, much like everything else on my plate."