While it felt good giving Floyd a mental smack, Ves knew he provoked an angry bear. If the stakes weren't so high, he'd rather take a step back. Now, his pressure increased. He was not content to take second place this time. He had to dazzle the audience and mesmerize at least one of the masters present.
"The road ahead has just begun. If I take Floyd as a standard, then I will only encounter tougher opponents."
Plenty of contestants wanted to dispute the results. Most of them mainly blamed the AI pilots for failing to unearth their mech's potential. Most of the complaints came from the fliers.
"You cheated! There's no way a nobody like you can beat my awesome mech!"
Sadly for Floyd, no one cared about his accusations. While a student supervisor arrived to address his results, he had no leeway in giving the alumni from Leemar a helping hand.
"According to the logs, both mechs are designed within acceptable boundaries. Mechanically, there's nothing fishy there, even if both of you made some unconventional choices."
"What about my crappy AI pilot? I obviously got a retard for a pilot!"
The supervisor shook his head. "Every mech in every simulation started with the same AI pilot. They all have the same capacity for learning and adaptation. According to the logs, the AI pilot for your centaur mech peaked midway. It couldn't figure out new strategies. As for your opponent's medium mech, its AI pilot constantly unearthed new things to try."
In other words, one mech provided slightly more options than the other mech. There was a limit how diverse a pilot could utilize the tools at hand. The main factor that limited the centaur was its crippling slow speed. The lack of speed narrowed its options to purely offensive and defensive stances.
As for the design submitted by Ves, the AI pilot was able to take the initiative in most battles due to its freedom of movement. It could charge straight ahead or it could take it slow by flanking its opponent. This was actually the main reason why heavy mechs never achieved dominance. Without sufficient mobility, a mech was nothing different than a sitting duck.
After verifying the validity of the results, the supervisor took the devastated Floyd away. Sadly, some of the losers kept making a fuss, though they were easily taken care off with a few stun bolts. Ves couldn't believe how many designers broke down and acted like babies.
"I always thought it took discipline and constant study to become a mech designer. I have no idea how these rich kids managed to graduate with a degree in mech design."
"Pff. It's genetics man." A fellow walker supplied. "Everyone knows their parents constantly injected their kids with genetic boosts. They take 1 hour to learn a theory that regular people like us take a day to understand. There's different injections available that can strengthen your muscles, make you smarter or even remove the need for sleep."
That was fairly new to Ves. "I thought those kinds of things are illegal or don't even exist."
"To commoners, they might as well be fairy tales. It's a conspiracy the upper echelon is happy to keep under wraps. They even banded together in order to suppress any credible mention about these boosts. If you don't believe me, then try and uploading a post. I can guarantee you'll be arrested quicker than you can take a leak."
Ves almost didn't believe it if not for one thing. Had he already taken some 'injections' himself? When he recalled the few times he ingested the System's attribute candies, he measurably grew stronger in a couple of areas. Was the System messing with his genes each time he ate a candy?
The news shook his view of how the galaxy worked. He always treated those rumors about genetic tampering as air, but perhaps he underestimated the progress humanity made over the years in terms of human genetics.
"Do you have any proof?"
"Pff! Of course not! I'd be dead if I had anything. I've only been able to learn a bit because I have a moneybags for a friend."
As today's program came to an end, everyone slowly left the parade ground. As Ves tried to keep an eye out on Dietrich and his cat, he reconsidered the matter of upgrading his attributes. Now that he developed some decent skills, perhaps it was time to upgrade his intelligence.
"If I had another windfall of DP, I can afford to splurge on a couple of intelligence candies."
The price of a candy corresponded with the height of his current attributes.
Any attribute between 1.0 and 2.0 could be upgraded by buying a candy worth 1,000 times the desired height. For example, with his current intelligence of 1.2, if he wanted to raise it to 1.3, he'd have to spend 1,200 DP.
If he wanted to raise his intelligence to 2.0, he'd have to spend a cumulative amount of 13200 DP in total.
After reaching the threshold of 2.0, the price of the attribute candies multiplied by 10,000, meaning that he'd have to spend 21,000 DP to upgrade his intelligence to 2.1.
The price of upgrading an attribute grew to stupendous heights the more it growed. At his current level, Ves had no way of earning enough DP to upgrade his intelligence to a meaningful level where it could make a difference.
That was why up to now, he always emphasized the acquisition of skills. They provided concrete benefits at reasonable costs. Ves always planned to upgrade his intelligence and perhaps some other attributes in the long term. Despite his envy, he maintained his current stance. At most, he'd upgrade his intelligence by a couple of points so that he wouldn't come across as stupid when faced with a master.
Ves sighed when he thought about his empty DP reserve. All of his plans meant nothing if he didn't gain another source of DP. With both his virtual and real universe sales stalling, he had no way of buying anything anything from the System to help him out in the competition. He had to rely on himself to reach the top.
He only became a little disappointed when the Mech Designer System became less unique. The rich and powerful had their own ways of getting ahead even without a supposed reality-altering software program.
Ves finally found Dietrich near the exit. The pilot yawned as he greeted his friend.
"Man, this is the most boring competition I've ever watched. There's nothing exciting about watching thousands of nerds geeking out over a couple of stupid exams. The only part that interested me was the duels, but it finished way too quickly for me to enjoy."
"Haha, it might not be very exciting for you, but for mech designers like me, it's been a thrill."
"Are you sure you mech designers are still human? I'm not surprised if you've all been replaced by aliens."
Without a technical background, pilots like Dietrich could never appreciate these kinds of events. Ves enjoyed the opportunity to cash against his peers. Watching his skills grow better from a boring Status was much less tangible than winning an actual match against a living person. It made all of his improvements look real.
Different from before, the LIT erected temporary housing for the remaining visitors. Each modular apartment came with all of the basic necessities, and were fairly secure as well. The temporary housing area became more crowded with the heavy security presence. In order to prevent improper actions such as bribery or sabotage, the entire place turned stiflingly safe.
Dietrich whistled in appreciation when he saw how many mechs patrolled the perimeter. "Leemar sure takes a lot of effort to secure a simple housing area."
"I'm glad they take our security seriously. I've already offended one bastard from the Coalition. There's no telling what he'll do behind my back."
As Dietrich lacked any understanding of mech design, he wasn't really able to follow the mech duel in the second round. When Ves explained how he triumphed over his opponent, he snorted.
"Bah, what a git. This guy refuses to admit his loss because he's not as good as you. That should be the end of the matter."
Ves truly hoped he had no more encounters with Floyd, but he vaguely suspected he might not be so forgiving.
After an uneventful night, the contestants returned to the fields. Out of the fifty thousand participants, only five thousand remained. The final round of the qualifiers aimed to cut down their numbers to a measly five hundred. The attrition was horrible but necessary in order to make the main event presentable.
Just like last time, Professor Marshall addressed the crowd. "Today is the day where we will decide the final 500. Who among you will be lucky enough to perform in front of a crowd of the most eminent figures in the mech industry? Who among you will be projected in the homes of every household in the Komodo Star Sector? The chance to gain fame and make your name known to trillions of people is in your grasp. Are you not excited?"
Every mech designer cheered. They all fought hard to make themselves more prominent. Even if they failed to catch the interest of a master, the trip was still worth it if they became a household name. Fame was a precious resource that accelerated any mech designer's career.
"Now, let me begin with the third round. This time, the format revolves around teamwork. As you all know, mech designers often work together with other designers when involved in a major project. The best and most widely used designs are always a collection of each designer's best results. No mech designer in existence claims to be the best at everything, though the Polymath comes awfully close."
Everyone laughed a little. Clair Gramza was an absolute genius with a terrifying level of intelligence. The amount of fields she specialized in could fill a whole data chip. Ves secretly wondered if the Star Designer bathed in intelligence gene boosts since birth.
"This time, we wish to see some cooperation among you. Everyone will be grouped into teams of ten. Your task is to collectively design a single mech, which will be matched against every mech your rival groups have come up with once. This time the AI pilots will not remember their previous results, so all the matches are absolutely consistent. The top fifty groups with the most wins will collectively qualify for the main competition tomorrow!"
Everyone gaped at the competition format. Working together wasn't unheard of. Usually, small groups of mech designers often came together to produce designs intended for mass production.
The problem was that when the number of people surpassed five, these groups often became unwieldy. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. Everyone had their own ideas. If some people shared the same specialties, they could easily clash. It was a nightmare trying to corral everybody even if their thoughts aligned.
"Now you may be wondering how you can control so many designers in a single group. Well, that's for you to solve. You can have one designer do the work while the other nine do nothing. You can have each designer spend one hour with the design interface before letting another take over when their time is up. You can partner with someone strong and beat up those you disagree with. As long as no one requires medical attention, we will not intervene."
"Hah! I'm the captain of the boxing club! If you don't want a bruise, you better acknowledge who's boss!"
Ves had never heard of such an absurd ruleset for a group contest. Even physical intimidation wasn't ruled out.
"Remember! The only design our simulations will accept is the one submitted by the group's designated terminal. We won't care if others block you from accessing the terminal, or if your entire group has argued so much that your design is incomplete. What's on the terminal will be the only thing that's approved. Now, find your group mates and make some new friends!"
A complex series of projections guided everyone together in groups of ten. Ves quickly met an eclectic group of designers. Seven of them were fliers, indicating their deep backgrounds. Four of them even wore the LIT's alumni uniform. Ves was only one of three who came from a less affluent background. He quickly stared at the young man and woman who remained on the ground.
"Hi. I'm Ves Larkinson, from the Bright Republic."
The woman glowered at him. "Missy Phillips. Vesia Kingdom."
His smile dropped a little when he heard that. Of all the possible teammates, the organizers grouped him with a girl from an enemy state.
Sensing the tension between the two, the remaining guy tried to break the tension. "Hello everyone. The name's Clark McCullum, and I'm born and raised in the Coalition."
Both of them shook their hands with Clark. Neither Ves nor Missy wanted to mess up their chances by having a fruitless argument over their national pride.
"If you plebs could kindly shut up, us real designers are about to work." A bossy woman called from above.
Neither of the three walkers appreciated her tone, though they dared not raise their voices. The woman was one of the graduates from Leemar. She also sported the most symbols on her uniform, which meant she earned plenty of achievements during her time as a student.
Still, Ves did not want to be crowded out by the elites. He summed up his courage and asked, "Who are you?"
"You have the pleasure of addressing Cynthia Barakovski. Perhaps you have heard of B&F Integrated?"
B&F Integrated was one of the Coalition's heavy industry manufacturers. They also dipped their toes into mech production. The sales from their mech division easily surpassed a trillion cols.
After a few seconds, Missy's eyes widened. She recognized her name. "You're that Cynthia Barakovski who reached the top hundred in the last iteration of the Junior Rimward Games!"
While Ves still didn't recognize her name, the mere mention of the Junior Rimward Games was sufficient to overawe everyone present. The Junior Rimward Games was the most prestigious sports competition in the galaxy for everyone under twenty-five. They expanded into non-physical sports such as mech design a long time ago.
Cynthia soaked up the attention with a smile. "You can rest that we will easily qualify with my presence. As long as you don't disturb me, I can easily design a killer mech."
Both Clark and Missy practically had stars in their eyes. Ves bewilderingly stared at their worshipping gazes. He never really paid much attention to the massive Rimward Games, let alone the smaller Junior edition. He could only stand in place and witness Cynthia bewitching everyone into giving her space to design their group's mech.
While Ves did not doubt Cynthia's accomplishments, it did not change that they were supposed to work as a group. Those that survived so far all had their strengths. As someone aiming to reach the finals, Ves believed even his own input should be valuable. He was not content to risk his chances by leaving it up to a stranger.