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 Ves materialized his System comm from his Inventory and activated his Privacy Shield before he picked up the cube.

He studied it for a moment before realizing that it was actually an engineering puzzle. Ves retrieved his Vulcaneye multiscanner from his toolbelt and thoroughly scanned the cube.

"I was right! It's a lock!"

The cube was made out of extremely sensor-resistant materials. The fact that it managed to thwart the scans of the multiscanner he bought from the System spoke volumes about its quality.

"This is very expensive packaging!"

If Ves could melt it down and shape it into something else, then he could repurpose the alloy cube into a more useful object.

"However, it's not that easy to do so."

If his guess was correct, the cube was rigged to melt or blow up if Ves handled it improperly. If he wanted to open the cube, then he needed to go along with the arrangements of its maker and solve the puzzle.

Although the puzzle would have stumped the vast majority of humans and AIs, it didn't hinder Ves for long.

"Any decent Journeyman Mech Designer can solve this puzzle."

The mechanisms of the cube essentially presented him with a design challenge. He needed to rearrange its mechanisms into a specific configuration that disarmed the trap and unlocked its contents.

"Easy." He said as he put the final piece into place with the help of a precision tool.

The box began to whirr and transform as the locks slowly disengaged. A few seconds later, the box unfolded into a flat surface.

The contents of the box turned out to be a single secure data chip.

When Ves picked it up and inserted it into a slot in his System comm, he found out that it contained three different sets of files along with a prerecorded message.

Ves played the prerecorded message first. As soon as he selected this option, a projection of one of the most notorious Senior Mech Designers in the frontier appeared into view.

"Mr. Larkinson, congratulations on your advancement to Journeyman." The pirate designer began. "I must admit I am pleasantly surprised by this achievement. As a Journeyman, I've already seen some promise in your design philosophy, but it is still a very big question whether you are able to advance to Journeyman with such an unusual ambition. Entering your new rank signifies that your design philosophy is not completely groundless!"

The Skull Architect looked ecstatic in the projection. His exaggerated smile and his savage pirate-style adornments constantly radiated danger to Ves!

"Your growth has surpassed my expectations! However, even if you are a Journeyman, our deal is still in place. I won't let you off until you design fifteen variants of my mechs! Included in this data chip are the design specifications of three of my recent mech designs. Please develop a variant for each design. Make sure you incorporate your design philosophy in your work. The research value of such works is exceedingly valuable to me, so don't even think about fudging your work!"

"Damn." Ves quietly cursed.

Due to his recent exploits, Ves already became known for designing mechs with a remarkable impact on people. To paraphrase Ketis, his mechs possessed an undeniably strong charm.

If Ves put his full effort into developing variants of the Skull Architect's existing mech designs, then they might one day proliferate throughout the frontier!

It would be really bad if the MTA or others found out that Ves collaborated with a pirate designer! Especially one who was crazy enough to kill an expert pilot and incorporate the dead man's skull into a mech!

The Skull Architect continued with his instruction. "Since you've already collaborated with another Senior Mech Designer recently, you should have a good idea on how you can contribute to my work. Our design philosophies do not overlap, so you should not encounter any problems adding your distinctive strengths to my existing designs."

That was true, at least. His joint design project with Professor Ventag taught him a lot of lessons. A collaboration between mech designers always centered around compensating one designer's weaknesses with another designer's strength.

Ves already knew that the Skull Architect was obsessed with efficiency and technical performance. His design philosophy was pretty much the polar opposite to that of Ves, who never obsessed that much about maximizing raw performance.

This was also the reason why Reno Jimenez stagnated in his progression. His mechs were too difficult to pilot! While the fugitive Senior was very good at designing high-performing mechs, hardly any mech pilot could make use of their full potential!

Even though the Skull Architect recognized his shortcomings, he was too obsessed with efficiency to change his ways. His design philosophy had already locked him into a certain direction, and there was no way he could bring himself to neuter his designs in order to accommodate the badly-trained mech pilots of the frontier!

This was where Ves came in. His design philosophy perfectly complimented that of the Skull Architect. If the latter wasn't a notoriously unhinged pirate designer, then Ves was even tempted to form a long-term design partnership!

"I expect you to return this data chip with your variants to me within nine months. Don't be late, or else!" The recording warned.

The message ended, leaving Ves with mixed feelings.

"Since the Skull Architect is crazy as hell, I should complete my end of agreement as fast as possible." He decided. "The longer this is hanging over my head, the greater the risk he'll pull me into his vortex!"

Collaboration offered a lot of benefits in the right circumstances. Ves realized that his design philosophy should be extremely valuable to the Skull Architect.

So valuable in fact that the Skull Architect might want to extend their transaction!

"I can't allow that to happen!" Ves determined.

Even though the Senior threatened him to do his best, Ves did not intend to utilize his full strength!

"It would be over for me if the variants I design for the Skull Architect are as strong and distinctive as my Aurora Titan and Transcendent Messenger designs!"

After a few minutes of consideration, Ves decided to aim for a modest C-grade X-Factor when he fulfilled the Skull Architect's demands. C-grade X-Factor should be strong enough to exert a modest amount of influence to mech pilots, but wouldn't flaunt its aura so blatantly like his most recent designs.

"It does the job. That's all that matters."

Of course, the Skull Architect expected Ves to contribute more than that to his high-performance designs. Ves also had to adjust the technical aspects of the design in a way that made them easier to pilot without sacrificing too much performance.

"This will be the most difficult and time-consuming part of my assignment." Ves muttered.

If he was still an Apprentice, then Ves would probably have to allocate much of his time to develop a variant that added value to one of the Skull Architect's designs.

Now, Ves possessed a lot more confidence in his abilities. With the help of his design seed, he didn't think he would have to close himself off all-day in order to finish his work within the nine-month time limit.

"It's a good thing I don't have any ongoing design projects on the agenda. Even if I do, I can just squeeze some time on this assignment in my free time."

Once Ves determined his basic approach, he began to inspect the three designs that the Skull Architect expected him to improve.

"Hm. One landbound mech design and two spaceborn mech designs."

In general, pirates heavily depended on spaceborn mechs. Many pirate gangs didn't even field any landbound mechs in the first place. They were not as applicable in the frontier as in civilized space.

This was also why Lydia's Swordmaidens were special, as they invested significantly in their landbound mech contingent.

After he skimmed through the three design schematics, Ves decided to start with what he considered to be the simplest choice.

"Although the Caskar Pike looks simple, it's really not." Ves shook his head. "None of the Skull Architect's designs are simple."

The Caskar Pike was a medium spaceborn missileer. Its primary armament consisted of its large, integrated missile launcher launcher system, which encompassed much of its torso and shoulders.

This turned the mech into a rather unwieldy machine. Combined with its abysmally weak armor system, the mech was extraordinarily vulnerable to close-ranged attacks.

A single light skirmisher could make mincemeat out of a Caskar Pike!

Evidently, the Skull Architect wasn't resigned to designing such a one-dimensional mech. He attempted to enhance the Caskar Pike design by pairing it with an extremely powerful flight system that boosted its acceleration and speed.

While this addition indeed increased the mobility of the Caskar Pike, the missileer became a lot more clunkier to pilot! All the compromises the Skull Architect was forced to make in order to accommodate the oversized flight system introduced a lot of problems.

"A skilled mech pilot should be able to manage the missile launcher system while dodging enemy fire and pursuit."

While missile weapon systems were constrained by their capacity, they offered the greatest amount of versatility compared to more straightforward weapons such as laser rifles and ballistic rifles.

Mech pilots adjusted the programming of the missiles loaded into the launcher system according to the situation at hand.

For example, the payload could be programmed to time their salvos to arrive at the target at the exact same time. The missiles could be programmed to fan out and arc around the target in order to attack it in multiple directions. Their evasion pattern and countermeasures could be adjusted as well in order to minimize their interception.

While some settings didn't take much time to adjust, such simple instructions didn't add much versatility to the missiles.

The more complicated instructions took a decent amount of time to implement. While a mech pilot would be able to accomplish this at rest, during a hectic a mech pilot was constantly expected to multitask.

Piloting a mech with enhanced mobility like the Caskar Pike meant that its mech pilots needed to devote way too much attention to keeping the flight of their mechs under control. This detracted from the amount of attention they could devote to configuring the missile launcher system.

As a result, the Caskar Pike underperformed in the frontier. From the additional documentation that the Skull Architect added to the data chip, Ves found out that the pirates who piloted the Caskar Pike displayed sufficient mobility but grossly inadequate hit rates.

Either their opponents intercepted too many missiles, or the missiles missed the mark!

"That's because the pirate pilots aren't capable of devoting their full attention to both!"

The mech pilots of the Caskar Pike had to make a choice. Either they devoted the bulk of their attention to keeping their mech mobile or ensuring that their missiles inflicted damage.

The pirates overwhelmingly focused on staying elusive and dodging enemy fire. This was because they valued their lives over the mission!

Ever since many mech pilots exhibited the same pattern of behavior, the Caskar Pike thoroughly lost popularity. Although it offered a powerful and affordable offensive package to frontier outfits, its design hadn't taken the mentality of its target audience in mind!

"This seems to be a recurring problem to the Skull Architect." Ves judged.

Although this problem sounded somewhat thorny, Ves was confident he could lighten the burden on the mech pilot. He considered this design to be the simplest out of the three designs he received.

"There's not much I can improve on the hardware of the Caskar Pike." He muttered as he analyzed its design schematics. "If I want to make the mech easier to pilot, I'll have to focus on its interaction to its mech pilots."

In other words, Ves could simplify the operation of the mech by automating some of its functions. This was fairly simple and only required him to do some programming work.

"Yet.. isn't that too easy?" He frowned.

There must be something special about the Caskar Pike. Maybe the Skull Architect wanted to offer Ves an easy start, but this was unlikely considering the Senior's extremely demanding personality.

Ves narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Everything he has given to me so far is either a test or a trap. There's definitely something fishy about this spaceborn missileer mech."

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