Once Ves enacted his plan and crudely fashioned a bit more rope, he began to summon up the courage to climb one of the trees. Although they looked like earth-species trees, they still looked taller than any tree on Cloudy Curtain!
Climbing them took a lot of nerve!
Still, if he wanted to find some hope of getting out of this seemingly endless forest, he needed a better view of his surroundings.
"Here goes nothing."
With his body weighed down by several coils of makeshift rope, he began the arduous task of climbing up the most hopeful-looking tree.
It took a long time as he was trying to be careful. He hadn't exactly done anything like this before, but for the most part Ves didn't feel a lot of peril, especially since he stopped looking down.
The riskiest portion came when he needed to overcome the three gaps. Each time, he uncoiled a rope and clumsily tried to throw them around a sturdy branch above.
His technique left much to be desired.
Still, as long as he kept hold of the rope, he could keep trying over and over again.
After twenty-three tries, Ves finally managed to loop the rope successfully around the branch.
With that done, he finagled his way upwards with the help of the rope. Although it was quite intense, he nonetheless felt a small amount of satisfaction for overcoming this challenge.
He chuckled a bit. "Here I am, a mech designer who designs mechs worth millions of credits enjoying the accomplishment of climbing a tree."
It was absurd how low he had fallen that he would feel actual pride for such a trivial solution. Ves shook his head and turned his attention back to his task. He still had to reach the top!
The rest of the climb proceeded without incident. He used the other two ropes he fashioned to bridge over the other gaps. He even held on to a spare coil of rope just in case.
Once he climbed past the tree cover and poked his head over most of the other trees, he beheld his simulated environment properly for the very first time!
A blue sky. An endless forest. An unmoving sun. A couple of birds. A tall and spiralling black tower.
That last one stuck out of the drab environment like a sore thumb!
"It looks a little ominous."
The tower resembled an evil wizard's hideouts like in the fantasy dramas. All sorts of unnecessary spikes and gruesome features had been worked across its surface.
Although it looked a bit intimidating, it was the only landmark in the forest worth investigating.
"Well, I know where I need to go now. The next problem is getting there."
Ves tried to estimate the distance and figured he needed to traverse at least ten kilometers without going astray. Considering that it was hard to maintain a straight path in the forest, he might need to climb a tree again after he walked for a while.
He figured he could use the makeshift ropes he made to help him maintain a straight path. If he weighed down one of the ends and threw them straight in front of him as he walked, he could at least rely on something a bit more solid than his judgement to maintain a single direction.
Shortly after he started climbing down, Ves suddenly felt his entire perspective starting to shift. His vision blurred for a moment before he ended up in a completely new environment!
He had returned to ground level. He stood in a small clearing. To one side was the forest. To the other side was the base of what must be the same tower he initially observed!
"Took you long enough to get here."
Ves turned his gaze towards the voice. Leaning against the side of the obsidian tower was Tristan! The other mech designer looked bored as he idly threw a snapped tree branch in the air.
Aside from Tristan, Ves quickly discerned that a couple of other mech designers arrived as well. In total, Ves was the fifth one to arrive.
Four more had yet to come, which meant they were still stuck in the forest.
Ves sheepishly smiled at himself. He understood that he hadn't exactly performed stellar in the first trial. He wasted an entire hour walking aimlessly when he should have figured out rather quickly that it wouldn't get him anywhere.
Overall, the trial was meant to test a mech designer's judgement in the face of the unknown. It was a good way to approximate someone's decisiveness, ingenuity and willingness to bear some hardship.
Though it hadn't surprised Ves to see that Tristan easily made it out, the presence of the other mech designers showed that they weren't incompetent in the slightest.
A mech designer needed to be at least somewhat resourceful if they wanted to advance to Journeyman while they were still in their prime!
A plodding and indecisive mech designer did not have what it took to swim against the current!
As Ves approached Tristan, the other mech designer said something surprising.
"I'm not the first one to arrive. When I teleported to the tower, that guy over there was already here."
Tristan jerked his head towards a man who wore his dark hair long. His body was lean and thin, but his black ensemble contrasting against his pale skin made him look like a corpse.
"Do you know who he is, Tristan?"
"I didn't realize it earlier, but if my guess isn't wrong, he's a Hexer!"
That caused Ves and the others present in the clearing to widen their eyes at the mech designer in question!
For his part, the Hexer grinned at them before ignoring their astonished glances.
The Hexadric Hegemony had always been a massive presence in the Komodo Star Sector. It stood equal to the Friday Coalition but its policies were completely different.
While the Friday Coalition interacted with the rest of the star sector with varying degrees of openness, the Hegemony was a lot less approachable. It only treated with a limited number of states, causing it to become a mysterious state in the eyes of many people.
Even Ves didn't know much about the Hegemony other than what he learned at school.
Tristan stared seriously at the pale Hexer. "He's mine."
Ves shrugged. "Be my guest."
The rivalry between Hexers and Fridaymen was almost as acrimonious as the rivalry between Brighters and Vesians.
However, whereas the latter was basically the star sector's equivalent of a schoolyard spat, the former had wide implications that could easily change the face of the entire region!
Neither Ves nor Tristan knew the Hexer's name, identity or origin. The man didn't exactly volunteer the information.
The hexer was basically following the plan that Ves would have adopted at first. By putting on an act and denying competitors any useful information, the man silently exerted the pressure of uncertainty on the others.
Even Ves wasn't immune as several doubts sprung up in his mind. The Hexer did not look friendly at all!
"He doesn't appear to be apprenticed to a Master, though." Tristan quietly said. "He would have confronted me directly if that was the case. That doesn't mean he's a pushover. He's a Journeyman, after all, and his foundation is a lot better than the rest."
That was true. If Ves ever faced off against the Hexer in a design duel or something, he would have a real fight on his hands.
Still, it didn't appear as if the Rim Guardians were planning to do something as boring as that, at least not as first.
Ves and Tristan quietly waited for another two hours or so. One more mech designer teleported to the clearing midway, but no one else arrived.
Night suddenly fell.
The shift was so abrupt that everyone became alarmed! Aside from the soft glow emanating from the surface of the tower, the rest of the forest descended into near-complete darkness!
"I think the first trial has ended. The other three won't be taking part in what comes next." Tristan stated as he pushed himself off against the surface of the tower.
As everyone started to calm themselves down and figure out what they should do next, a mechanism at the base of the tower slowly rumbled. A section of the wall sunk below the ground, presenting everyone with an entrance into the ominous tower.
Although the dark and evil-looking tower didn't exactly look inviting, everyone wordlessly entered. Once they walked inside, they emerged in a hollow, dusty chamber that resembled an ancient abandoned dungeon.
The cylindrical chamber was completely empty aside from the torches lining the circular wall and the heap of giant mech parts dumped in the center.
"What is this?" One of the mech designers asked and approached the pile of broken parts.
Ves and the others stood back in case the junk pile was a trap. They were more than content with letting someone else make the first move.
The man who approached inspected the parts for a while before uttering a cry in alarm. "What the hell?! These mech parts aren't based off any paradigms I know of! They're not mechanical!"
That caused the other mech designers to approach the pile of parts themselves. As Ves touched their surface, he sensed that it wasn't metallic at all. Instead, it felt like stone!
As Ves studied one of the cross-sections of a broken mech limb, he found out that its insides consisted of a mix of rock and crystals, which was completely unlike anything that Ves had seen before!
"Is this even a mech?" One of the two female mech designers asked.
"That's an interesting question. The definition of mech doesn't specify the materials it should consist of. Even if a mech is made of flesh and bone, it still matches the definition as long as it can be piloted!"
This philosophical question helped everyone adjust to the fact that they were facing actual mech parts regardless of their weird technological base.
The question was what they should do now that they encountered one.
"I think we should work together to build a functioning mech." Tristan said. "Just look at this chamber. There's no way up, and the entrance has been closed. Considering how we passed the previous test, it's obvious we need to pass a condition in order to advance to the next trial."
Ves nodded in agreement. "We're all mech designers. When confronted with a pile of parts, I think it's a given we should put our skills to use."
"Uh, should we each build our own machines, or should we pool our efforts together to build a single mech?" Someone else asked.
That was a good question. Everyone fell silent as they beheld the pile of parts. Ves circled around it and slowly judged that it was enough to build four complete mechs at most.
"Can we even build a mech at all? Just look at the size of these parts! They're just as heavy as regular mech parts! I don't see any bots, tools or lifter devices around here. There's no way we can use our own strength to lift any of these parts!"
Ves grimaced as he thought about trying to piece together a mech using manual power.
It simply couldn't be done!
However, the Hexer suddenly spoke up. "Why should that be true? This is a simulated environment. Everything around us is a physical projection under the control of someone else. They can decide to make a part as heavy or light as they wish."
In order to prove his point, the Hexer approached a half-broken mech head and gripped its bottom lip. To the astonishment of the others, the Hexer managed to lift the object that was many times larger than his body as if he possessed super strength!
The mech designer quickly let go though as the weight was a bit too much to bear for a single human.
Tristan scratched his chin. "Even if these parts are lighter than they ought to be, they're still too heavy for us to lift by ourselves. We need to work together and even then we'll have to cobble something up to make use of mechanical advantage to move the heaviest parts."
Did that mean they needed to work together? Would one mech do, or did they need to piece together four mechs?