Ves had a very fruitful chat with Tristan. The man may be the direct discipline to an esteemed Master, but he treated Ves no different from a peer.
That was not a coincidence.
Tristan openly disdained the other Journeymen Mech Designers in the ready room. All of the others came from third-rate states just like Ves. So why did Tristan treat the latecomer differently than the other mech designers invited by the Rim Guardians?
The most principal reason was his youth and demeanor. Even if Ves instinctively tried to make himself appear modest and unassuming in the company of unknown mech designers, there was no way he could hide his inherent confidence.
In any case, Ves gave away enough clues for Tristan to figure out there was something different. Hearing that Ves was related to Master Olson was the clincher.
From what Ves figured out from Tristan, a nominal disciple did not advance to Journeyman as fast as direct disciples.
Unlike the latter, Apprentices who only received occasional guidance needed to figure out the bulk of their design philosophies themselves. Although direct disciples needed to work hard as well, they benefited from a perennial guide who would always nudge them in the right direction, thereby preventing them from stalling or running into dead ends.
The fridayman put it in a succinct fashion. "A direct disciple who advanced to Journeyman when they're twenty-five is notable, but not too attention-grabbing. For a nominal disciple to advance to Journeyman just before they turn thirty like you is a much bigger splash! Especially since you advanced when you just completed your fourth original design!"
Compared to Tristan who designed over a dozen original mechs, Ves could only briefly mention five of his own, which made him all the more remarkable.
Even the other mech designers listening silently to the two grew increasingly more alarmed. They began to recognize Ves as a genuine threat, which was exactly what he didn't want!
While Ves was grateful for the information he received, it wasn't for free. The questions that Tristan asked forced him to reveal more aspects about himself than he liked.
Still, it wasn't as if it was all that bad to show off his accomplishments. The other mech designers already looked less assured as they equated Ves as a mech designer who was as formidable as Tristan.
Whether their impressions were accurate or not, Ves didn't know. He knew too little about direct disciples and what advantages they held over other mech designers.
One thing was for sure. Tristan deliberately put on a friendly face and engaged Ves from the start for a reason. Why did the elite mech designer refuse to extend the same treatment to the other mech designers in the room?
It was because they weren't worth befriending. Although all of them were Journeymen, none of them held as much potential as Ves. While advancing early was not a guarantee that they would be able to advance to Senior or Master, it was still a very promising sign!
Enjoying this kind of treatment was exactly why Ves worked so hard to advance to Journeyman. Tristan was just one of the first who deliberately put down his airs in order to grow closer to Ves.
That was a very shrewd decision! Who knew if Tristan would be able to harvest a lot of gains from their friendship later down the line?
A small tone sounded in the ready room all of a sudden.
[The trials will begin in five minutes. Please prepare yourselves, mech designers.]
That caused everyone to sit up and become more alert. No matter if Ves and Tristan were prodigies among Journeymen, the others weren't vegetables! They possessed their own pride and confidence!
"Looks like the winnowing is about to begin." Tristan grinned as he rubbed his hands in anticipation. "I don't know what the Rim Guardians have in store, but I bet that their trials are a lot fancier than the tests I went through at Leemar. With all the amazing tech the fraternity has at their disposal, there's no way they'll put us through something boring!"
That caused some concern in Ves. He hadn't signed up for this in the first place! Even though it sounded nice to obtain access to the inter-sector distribution network of the Rim Guardians, he didn't forget that the fraternity was still a part of the MTA!
The very same organization that Ves wanted to distance from! While it sounded as if the Rim Guardians might be the friendliest of the bunch, growing closer to them also meant opposing the Prime Humans, the most powerful faction within the MTA!
Ves felt very mixed on what he should do in the upcoming trials. Part of him wanted to do his best, but his partially-depleted state would not allow that. Another part of him wanted to drag his feet, but the Rim Guardians might not appreciate such disrespect?
Eventually, he decided to just put whatever effort he could muster in the upcoming trials. With the handicap he suffered and all the arduous conditions required to design his best works, he was not about to produce an Aurora Titan or a Transcendent Messenger on the fly.
Another tone sounded before the door slid open. Lieutenant Ferct strode inside with a strong military stride. "Alright you softies, the trials are about to begin! We've already prepared the first trial ground. Remember, no matter what you're facing, all of us are watching. Let's start!"
Ves suddenly felt as if the bench underneath him disappeared. Before he knew it, he and every other mech designer suddenly fell into a portal that formed underneath their bodies!
Although Ves held on to Lucky, some kind of forcefield wrenched his pet out of his grasp. He only had the time to issue a brief warning before he was brought somewhere else!
"Don't eat my purchase, Lucky!"
The teleportation happened in an instant. Less than a second passed before he landed roughly on his butt. He quickly sat up and beheld his new surroundings.
"What is this place?"
To his surprise, he emerged in what appeared to be the surface of a terraformed terrestrial planet. A very average sun shone over his head, heating up his dark hair. Wind brushed along his skin and grains of sand and soil fell from his pants as he climbed up to his feet.
Trees surrounded him from every direction. Birds and other wildlife flitted here and there, giving him the illusion that he had actually been teleported to an actual Earth-like planet.
Once he touched the bark of a tree, he could immediately tell that everything he saw was a falsehood. Having touched physical projections before, Ves could immediately tell the difference between real bark and a sophisticated physical resistance emulator that closely imitated the sensation that he should have felt.
Ves guessed that the Rim Guardians teleported him to a huge trial chamber similar to the one he first entered. The only difference was that it had come online now, presenting Ves with a huge simulated environment, the purpose of which still eluded him for the moment.
"I guess there's no point dithering around."
Knowing that this trial had some purpose, Ves just took off in a random direction. With no trails or distinguishing landmarks in sight and with fairly uneven terrain in the way, he did not have a good time in the forest.
He attempted to activate his comm in order to take advantage of some of its functions, but the blasted thing didn't even come online.
In fact, none of his gadgets worked, including his smart clothes and his fancy shield generator! All of them turned inert!
Ves understood that he needed to rely on himself to get through this trial.
"Nothing will happen if I stay here. I better go and see what else this forest has to offer."
He leisurely walked forward and tried to navigate the forest. An hour passed without any significant change in scenery.
While he quickly got the sense that he was walking in a circle, any attempt at marking his passage by scuffing the ground, ripping off leaves or leaving marks on tree bark didn't help.
Upon a hunch, Ves even turned around and tried to retrace his steps, only to find out that his traces had been wiped out!
He was completely lost in the forest!
"This is getting kind of creepy!"
Even as an hour had passed, the environment hadn't changed at all. It seemed as if he would be stuck in the same situation no matter how many hours he spent wandering!
Was this some kind of survival test? But that made no sense! The Rim Guardians weren't looking for a mech pilot or a commando. Mech designers weren't known for their excellence in wilderness survival!
"Really, what is even the point of this stupid test?" Ves scratched his head.
He felt rather indignant about being jerked around without explicitly agreeing to do so. While he could continue to walk for a very long time, Ves no longer saw any point in it. The environment already made it clear that he only had another stretch of endless forest in store for him if he walked forward.
"Maybe I should stop thinking like someone dumped on a random planet and more like a mech designer."
What would a mech designer do when faced with an unknown environment?
"They wouldn't run around at random. Instead, they would focus on solving problems."
Ves had many problems, but the most pertinent one was that he didn't have a clue where he should go. The entire forest was so bland and uniform that he hardly knew which direction he should take.
"I should solve this problem first."
He looked around and began to inspect the trees. Now that he thought about it, some of them possessed a lot of branches. Some even looked sturdy enough to stand upon!
Should he climb one of them and reach the top in order to obtain a better view of the environment?
"It's better than wandering around."
He needed to find the right tree, though. Some weren't tall enough. Others didn't grow enough branches. Those that did often possessed gaps along their length that made it dangerous for him to climb.
However, after spending more than half an hour inspecting hundreds of trees, Ves did not find a single tree that appeared safe enough to climb all the way to the top! All of them featured huge gaps that Ves would not be able to overcome even if he jumped with all of his might!
It was then that he suddenly slapped his forehead. "Ugh! I'm a mech designer! If something isn't possible, I'll just have to build something to make it possible!"
An engineering solution was required. Ves studied one of the trees that looked the most promising and scanned its length.
The tall tree presented three noticeable gaps that Ves could not overcome unless he could climb his way up like a mutant with the power of a spider. While Ves possessed a strong, augmented body, why take the risk when he could engineer a safer solution?
Ves recalled he had seen a documentary once where someone stripped bark off some branches and turned it into rope.
While he hadn't paid that much attention to it back then, Ves figured it didn't hurt to try. The only worry he held was if anything he fashioned would hold up. Were physical projections truly sophisticated enough to hold his own weight?
"We'll, let's test it out."
Ves found some thin branches and broke them off with his bare hands. After that, he attempted to tear away the flexible if somewhat slippery bark before braiding them together into a thicker rope.
While his physical strength made the process easier, he still wished he had some tools. His hands and nails were undergoing a lot of strain as he clumsily fashioned himself some rope.
In order to test whether it was sound, he tied one end of it onto a sturdy tree branch and turned the other end in a loop.
After that, he placed his foot on the loop and tried to put more and more of his weight on this makeshift footrest.
It held. Even when he put his entire weight onto it, the rope which by all rights should have consisted of a physical projection comfortably held his entire weight!
The Starlight Megalodon's physical projection technology hadn't been nearly as strong. However, it was three centuries out of date. Who knew how many advances had been made in the technology since the time of the battleship's disappearance.
The current situation was also different because the trial ground had been specifically designed to simulate a trial environment. It would make sense that it incorporated specialized physical projectors specifically designed for the purpose.
While this made his current plan workable, it also signified that the Rim Guardians could do a lot more with the tech!