Their arrival in the star system came with little fanfare.
As the educational seat of the Carnegie Group, the Leemar System received billions of visitors each year.
A single Apprentice Mech Designer raised no eyebrows, and Ves liked to keep it that way.

After a perfunctory inspection, the Barracuda zipped over towards the inner system and descended into the atmosphere of Leemar II.
The slim corvette arrived at a private berth reserved for Leemar ’s affiliates like Ves, who became an apprentice of a visiting master.

First, he visited the Leemar School of Life Sciences situated on the other side of the planet.
Unlike the Leemar Institute of Technology, the Carnegie Group founded the LSLS in the middle of an artificial tropical forest.
A vast amount of alien flora and fauna made their home in this dangerous forest.

The frequent injuries and even near-deaths provided students with plenty of practice.

Fortunately, Ves possessed a thick skin so the voracious mosquito-like bugs buzzed around helplessly around his body.
Several other visitors deployed a small interference field that repelled the wildlife, but Ves didn ’t bother with the gadget and strode towards the institute scheduled to receive him.
Once he stepped inside the cool interior, a doctor whisked him away for checkups.

After several days of intensive and sometimes invasive tests, Ves finally received a verdict.

”How ’s it look like, doctor? ”

The doctor in charge of his case gave him a smile.
”Your genetics are in a very interesting place right now.
Though we would have loved to have samples of the hexapods and a copy of the research data, right now we can conclude that your body won ’t develop in a malignant for the next five years.
There is too much we don ’t know about your acquired alien traits to be sure of anything more. ”

”What about the CFA ’s treatment.
Did they do what they promised to do? ”

”It ’s absolutely brilliant what they did! ” The doctor beamed.
”We can surmise that Doctor Jutland induced your genetics into a highly active and malleable phase.
This allows him to apply extensive modifications to your physique to the extent that he broke past the natural limits of the human body. ”

”And this is a bad thing? ”

”You may not know this, but humans are not meant to possess so much strength.
Your body would have slowly disintegrated as it strained to keep up its hyperactive state. ”

While Ves got lost in the specifics, he understood the main point easily enough.
Just like his tweaks to the Ajax Olympian, his body couldn ’t handle the strain for an extended period of time.

The doctor also added in something interesting.
”It ’s not actually unheard of to induce a human body to perform past its limits, but it ’s only relatively safe to do so for a few seconds at most.
Any longer will result in severe repercussions. ”

The full results of the checkup showed that the CFA already remedied the repercussions that Ves had unwittingly accumulated.
They also stabilized his genetics so that he wouldn ’t be vulnerable to biological attacks that targeted his genetics.

”So they hadn ’t sneaked in a back door or something? ”

Absolutely not! ” The doctor shook his head.
”We can trace their steps in your body.
They ’ve been very open about their procedures.
It ’s safe to say that unless they employed their most advanced techniques, there ’s little chance your body is hiding something nefarious. ”

Ves knew his own worth.
A pitiful junior like him didn ’t warrant such a massive investment.
If the Carnegie Group ’s most premier medical institution hadn ’t found any hidden bombs, then he probably had a clean bill of health.

After receiving some warnings about his new condition, Ves left the institute with a spring in his step.
He boarded a long-distance aircar and flew towards the Leemar Institute of Technology on the other side of the planet.

This time, the LIT hosted no events, so its central campus appeared remarkable empty and tranquil.

He only brought Lucky along this time, having left out Melkor due the requirement that only Leemar ’s own security personnel could pilot mechs.
Instead, he allowed him to visit one of the mech academies elsewhere on the planet with some credits in his pocket.
Hopefully he ’d find something useful during his visit.

His aircar flew past the titanic juggernaut wreck, allowing him to get a good glimpse of the starship-sized mech.

Whoever came up with the concept of the juggernaut must have been off his rocker.
Though its monolithic size allowed it to mount warship-grade weapons, thereby circumventing the restrictions on weapons set by the MTA and the CFA, the drawbacks far outweighed the benefits.

”Only a first-rate superstate like the New Rubarth Empire can field this kind of boondoggle. ”

Even so, the Rubarthans largely phased out the juggernauts once everyone started developing counters for the giant brutes.

The story of the juggernauts proved that no single mech was perfect.
Human ingenuity and adaptation always insured there was something better.

The aircar landed on a landing pad next to an exclusive housing area where most of the eminent professors resided.
A young man greeted him once he left the aircar.

Larkinson! Over here! ” He called.
When Ves walked over, the young man patted his body like he beheld a strange cow.
”It ’s great to meet you! Wow, your skin is so firm! All the stories about you must be true! ”

”Have you been sent by Master Olson? ”

”Carmin is not even in the system right now! She ’s busy with another project.
Horatio told me to accompany you and guide you around to where you need to go.
Ah, where are my manners? I ’m Oleg Vorn, Carmin ’s youngest core disciple! ”

Ves almost tripped when he heard those words.
The boy looked far too young and casual to be a core disciple.
Oleg probably hadn ’t left his teens yet! Nothing about the core disciple hinted at any special traits that made a vaunted Master Mech Designer take him under her wing.

Oleg smiled teasingly at Ves.
”Are you wondering why I caught Carmin ’s eye? I don ’t mind telling you if you tell me what you ’ve experienced on the Groening mission. ”

As they walked towards Master Olson ’s estate, Ves regaled Oleg with a brief rundown on his experiences.
Throughout the retelling, he felt as if he was reading a bedtime story to a small boy.

”Wow! That Jutland sure was stupid! He actually left you alone in a cave full of tools and parts! It ’s no wonder he died in the end! ”

”So now that I ’ve told you my story, how about yours? ”

”Oh, it ’s nothing interesting. ” Oleg responded shyly.
”I grew up in a little planet in the territory of the Vermeer Group.
Ever since I saw my first mech cartoon, I instantly fell in love with them.
They ’re so fascinating, right? I wanted to pilot them so badly that I hadn ’t slept all night the day I turned ten! ”

What followed after sounded familiar to almost every norm.
Oleg ’s neural aptitude didn ’t qualify him to be one of the 3.5 percent.

”If I can ’t pilot a mech, then I sure as hell do something else with them! When I found out about mech designers, I studied hard in school so that I can design the best mechs! It just so happens that I ’m really good at it.
So good, in fact, that the principal referred me to one of Carmin ’s scouts, who eventually patted my head and told me that I ’m really smart! ”

The way Oleg said those words sounded as if he hardly knew what a cherished chance he received.
Billions of mech designers never had the chance to catch the eye of a master, while Oleg was born on the right planet and at the right time when Master Olson sought a few young seeds to nurture.

”So how far are you in your studies? ”

”Oh, I know a lot about mech design! ” Oleg boasted.
”I even know how to design a mech engine! ”

The young lucky bastard proceeded to explain his latest project.
The amount of detail and depth in his descriptions almost overwhelmed Ves to the point of growing numb.
What Oleg knew about engines and mechanics had definitely reached the level of Journeyman!

”The heavens aren ’t fair! ” Ves muttered.

”What was that? ”

”Oh nothing.
I was just wondering about something.
How old are you? ”

”I ’ll be nineteen in three months! ”

If Ves still had his baseline human body, he would have received a hard attack by now.
Good graces! Oleg was just eighteen years old, but he already surpassed what Ves had painstakingly built up with the help of the System!

Though Ves felt a momentary surge of jealousy, he quickly suppressed it.
The boy was scarily intelligent and his naive facade might be hiding a perceptive mind.
Ves did not wish to make an enemy out of someone Master Olson cherished.

Besides, despite Oleg ’s natural endowments, Ves had high hopes he would surpass the boy one day with the help of the System.
With such a heaven-defying tool in his possession, he had high hopes of reaching the pinnacle of mech design on his own terms.

”By the way, that ’s a nice cat you have. ” Oleg pointed at Lucky who silently padded alongside Ves.
”I don ’t recognize its alloys.
What ’s it made of? ”

”I ’m not sure myself.
My father got him for me from a first-rate state. ”

That peaked his interest for sure.
”An actual mechanical pet from a first-rate state? You ’re so lucky! I ’ve also considered whether to get one myself, but the latest products takes years to ship to our star sector! By then, everyone will laugh at me for owning such an outdated pet! ”

Ves refrained from shaking his head.
A pet was not a fashion accessory.
Such words betrayed Oleg ’s perspective on mechs.
He probably saw them as nothing more than tools instead of creations that deserved to be treated with respect.
On account of Oleg ’s status, Ves refrained from mentioning any of his thoughts.

They walked for several more minutes until they came upon a highly guarded mansion.
”Here we are! This is Carmin ’s home away from home! It ’s not the Titanium Garden, but it ’s home, in a way.
Let me show you all the cool stuff! ”

Oleg ran him through the gates and led him past the finely furnished halls and pleasant study rooms.
As they reached the interior of the mansion, they stopped in front of a heavily guarded gate.
A pair of menacing-looking guards in hulking exoskeletons suits regarded the pair with eyes.

”Lemme in guys! ”

”Not so fast, Oleg. ” One of them said with a curt tone.
He obviously didn ’t care to be respectful to the core disciple.
”While you have permission to enter the basement, your new friend is not on the list. ”

”Oh, come on, do you know who he is? He ’s Ves Larkinson, the guy Carmin apprenticed last year! Horatio even handed me a temporary pass for him! ”

When Oleg showed the guard a specially produced pass, the guards eventually relented.
Oleg handed Ves the pass once they entered an elevator.

As the cabin travelled downwards, Ves look at the pass with curiosity.
”What can I do with this? ”

”Oh lots! You basically have free access to all of the LIT ’s facilities, though most of that place is boring.
It ’s also your access pass to the Clifford Society ’s headquarters up in the mountains.
There ’s a lot of nifty security features integrated in the pass, so if you ever find yourself in trouble with the authorities, just flash the pass and they ’ll learn you ’re the real deal. ”

Ves did not expect to make use of that particular function.
The Bright Republic and the Friday Coalition should already have a file on him so any random police officer shouldn ’t be able to arrest him on a whim.

Once the elevator reached its destination, the doors slid open and revealed what could be considered a mech designer ’s heaven.

”Welcome to Master Olson ’s personal workshop. ” Oleg grinned as he swooped his arms at the impressive.
”Look at these beauties.
Can you imagine fabricating a mech with these toys? ”

Ves recognized none of the specific models of the machines in the workshop, but their construction alone revealed how special they were.
All of the machines were made with the highest quality alloys.
They incorporated an entire fortune ’s worth of exotics to push their speed and precision to their limits.

Besides the standard machines a mech designer utilized such as a 3D printer and an alloy compressor, Ves also spotted dozens of strange and even alien-looking machines that fulfilled unknown purposes.
He didn ’t dare touch any of them in case he ruined these unique equipment.

After letting Ves take in the sights, Oleg took his hand and dragged him towards a corner of the workshop where a set of smaller and less impressive machines rested.

”This is the Apprentice Workshop.
All the other machines are locked out to anyone but Carmin and Horatio.
I know, I ’ve tried to hack them all. ” Oleg said with a sulk.
”I still swear Horatio is laughing at me behind my back! Anyway, every apprentice is free to use these gear! ”

Though the Apprentice Workshop obviously housed more disposable machines, Ves still envied all of the shiny gear.
The high-speed 3D printers alone made his carefully reconstructed Dortmund look like a joke.

”Why did you take me here, Oleg? ”

Oleg smirked at Ves.
”Oh, I ’m just curious about your ability, that ’s all.
As one of Carmin ’s apprentice, you should be familiar with mech design duels.
Wanna make a bet? I ’ll give you something nice if you put up your mechanical cat as a stake. ”

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