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 Mech designers weren't supposed to be mech pilots.

For many mech designers, it simply wasn't possible to pilot a mech due to their genetic aptitude. In the rare case a potentate decided to become a mech designer, their piloting skills were often far too poor to be of use on the battlefield.

It took too much time and dedication to become good in one profession. Most people in the mech community only possessed a talent in one or the other. Those who excelled in mech piloting would not possess the traits that helped them become a mech designer.

All in all, it was a matter of efficiency. Rather than train a mech pilot to minor in mech design or vica versa, it was better to dedicate their time to their best profession and see it as far as possible.

Only those who put their entire time to a single profession were the most likeliest to surpass the extraordinary threshold and beyond!

Ves knew this. Yet despite knowing better, the rush of piloting a mech threatened to overtake his passion!

At first, he hardly maintained control over his lithic frontline mech. The body did not belong to his own, and its movement and balancing patterns were too divergent from the human norm, thereby forcing him to learn from scratch.

Yet after he applied all the knacks and tricks as well as his own understanding of mechs to the problems, he slowly managed to assert finer control of the machine.

It was still a work in progress. No matter what he witnessed before, one did not simply overcome ten to fifteen years of dedicated training. Mech cadets spent a long time in training because there were endless nuances to piloting mechs!

"I shouldn't feel proud to manage to walk like a decrepit grandpa." He muttered.

Piloting a mech was like controlling a second body that was way too big and clumsy. Its force exertion and its motions were too off-kilter.

What particularly plagued Ves was the amount of conscious control he needed to exert in order to make a deliberate movement. When he raised his own arm, he didn't need to think about activating the right muscles to do so. His subconscious mind was more than capable of doing that in his stead.

It was different with a mech. His conscious mind was completely unfamiliar with the artificial musculature and the million other details of a mech. It could not exert the amount of intuitive control of the mech through the man-machine connection that mech cadets spent years to refine.

This was the key to piloting a mech in a natural manner. By offloading as many operations to their subconscious mind, the mech pilot would have enough conscious attention left to focus on the aspects that truly mattered.

A good mech pilot would not only have plenty of attention to spare, but also made use of it in the most efficient and effective manner.

For example, a rifleman mech pilot would leave the act of moving to their subconscious mind. Well-trained mech pilots were adeptly able to hook up their subconsciousness with the operating system of a mech and achieve an optimal level of data transmission and decision making.

This allowed the mech pilot to focus their full attention to their marksmanship, improving their judgement and their aim.

Ves fell awfully short on the aspect of unconscious control. He needed to split his attention to numerous tasks that other mech pilots regarded as child's play!

If not for the throttling, compression, automation and all the other means to prevent a norm from getting overwhelmed, Ves would have fried his brains by now!

"The Rim Guardians must be laughing at our pathetic attempts to control our mechs."

His other peers fared worse. All of their mechs tripped on their feet a few times and planted their faces against the floor. The simple act of balancing a mech so that its center of gravity did not sway too much was apparently beyond them at first!

Time slowly lessened these pathetic displays, but the lack of control was very much evident in every mech's movements.

"I doubt everyone is as clumsy as they appear to be right now." He muttered suspiciously as he observed the others through the sensors of his mech.

As a direct disciple to an esteemed Master, Tristan Wesseling ought to have undergone some Mastery sessions. While they were doubtlessly not as elaborate as the System, the mech designer from the Carnegie Group should have learned the same knacks and tricks that Ves employed to gain more control over his machine.

"Any of us may be hiding our true level of skill."

Even Ves defaulted back to his habit of presenting a false facade to his potential adversaries. Knowledge was power. There was no need to give it out for free to his competitors.

He deliberately acted as if he had a lot of difficulty in piloting his frontline mech.

In truth, he was confident enough in his level of control to be able to fare decently in a fight against his peers.

"Even an awful mech pilot can defeat me in my current state, but I'm not facing off against mech pilots."

He was doubtlessly going to put into a duel against one of the three other mech designers. As knowledgeable as they were when it came to designing a mech, they were mere babes when it came to piloting them in a serious simulation.

Ves possessed another advantage. He chose to adopt a frontline mech, which ought to have been the weakest and least versatile among the four restored lithic mechs.

Ordinarily, its simplicity and lower parameters should have been a disadvantage. If the four lithic mechs had been piloted by trained mech pilots such as the Rim Guardians, then the limits to their performance would quickly tell.

Not so in this case. Everyone was so new and unfamiliar with piloting mechs that no one came close to brushing up against the performance limitations of their machines!

In fact, the lower limit, the easier it was to assert meaningful control!

"More powerful mechs aren't necessarily better if the mech pilot can't keep up. It's as if a normal mech pilot is attempting to pilot an expert mech. Even if it is theoretically possible, it's disastrous in every single case!"

Frontline mechs were foremost designed to be simple, expendable war machines. They were meant to be piloted by awful mech pilots who rushed their training or whose genetic aptitudes made them unfit for normal mechs.

For this reason, Ves felt decently confident about his level of control over his mech. A frontline mech was designed to be combat effective even if its mech pilot was a complete idiot!

The quick progress he made loosened his discomfort towards piloting a mech. So much so that its attraction continually grew!

"No wonder so many mech pilots loved their profession! Controlling a mech is exhilerating as long as it isn't too burdensome!"

The more Ves increased his coordination with his mech, the more he felt as if he embodied the mech. This gave him the illusion that his body was truly as tall and strong as that of a mech!

Human bodies seemed so weak in comparison!

The exhilaration of experiencing the same raw emotions as a mech pilot threatened to chip away at his determination. It was so seductive to repeat this experience!

"No! I'm not a mech pilot! I swore off from that ever since I decided to become a mech designer!"

He reasserted himself and ignored the addictive pleasure of piloting a powerful war machine, or at least the simulation of it. No matter how far the MTA had progressed in enabling norms to pilot mechs, it should not be more than a passing research opportunity. He should not give in to the temptation of pursuing anything more!

To Ves, withstanding this temptation was just like the Skull Architect's tests. As long as he held on to his conviction, he could come away with several gains.

"Now that I think about it, all of the trials so far each come with their own gains."

The first trial prompted mech designers to resort to their ingenuity when faced with the unknown.

The second trial exposed those who passed to an alien approach to mechs.

The third trial gave the four remaining competitors an unprecedentedly accurate experience of what it was like to pilot a mech!

Even if Ves or the others failed to win the final trail, they would still be content with the gains they made so far!

Each of them already learned lots of nuances even if they themselves weren't very proficient at executing them. It was similar but slightly different from a conventional Mastery experience, but was all the more valuable for this reason.

Some lessons only truly hit home if learned directly!

[Alright, you pathetic mech designers!] Lieutenant Ferct's voice came over the comm of his lithic mech. [As much as it amuses us to see you fumble around like two-year old children, it gets old rather quickly. You've got five minutes to prepare yourselves for battle! We'll hold a round-robin contest that allows each of you to face off against each other! The two with the most wins or the best performance will pass this trial!]

Ves immediately pulled back from his fascination and grew serious. After nearly an hour of practice, he couldn't claim to have gone anywhere close to mastering the basics, but at least he was good enough not to trip his mech when walking.

"Moving is not the problem, I think. It's my marksmanship that is the key."

A frontline mech was suitable when employed in great numbers in large battles, but fared less well in a dueling environment.

The lack of human limbs meant that Ves would lose as long as any melee mech came into knife fighting range!

With only a pair of laser cannons as his armament, he needed to hit and inflict enough damage to his opponents before they closed the distance!

Each lithic mech could survive a number of blows. If Ves wanted to take out the opposition, then he needed to strike the same section of a mech repeatedly in order to pierce through their exterior layers!

"This isn't too much of a challenge to trained mech pilots, but it's a different story when it comes to me! My accuracy is abysmal, especially against moving targets!"

There was no time for him to refine his control any further. With just an hour of practice, the upcoming mech duel would be unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Not even fresh cadets would pilot their mechs as bad as the four mech designers abruptly thrust into the cockpits of their lithic mechs!

When five minutes were up, the humongous tower surface split in half. A transparent wall separated the two sections. Two pairs of mechs were forcibly moved to each half.

Ves stared at the mech opposite to his own. It was the rifleman mech piloted by the only woman that remained. Although he never bothered to learn her name, that she made it this far was worthy of respect.

A fair distance separated the two mechs. It would take a minute or more for Ves to close the distance to his opponent!

[First duel, start!] Lieutenant Ferct announced.

Knowing her limits, the female mech designer didn't even bother to move from her place. Moving meant splitting her valuable attention and risking a fall. With the degree of control she had over her mech, she wouldn't be able to move faster than a slow walk anyway, so why bother!

"She made the right choice." Ves muttered as he witnessed the rifleman mech shakily raise its lithic laser rifle and began to take careful aim at his frontline mech.

A sizzle cracked through the air as a bright red beam went wide. The second shot came closer to hitting the frontline mech, but the third shot skewed even harder to the side.

It was not that easy to make a mech hit something when the mech pilot in question was completely unskilled!

Ves smirked. "It's my turn."

His frontline mech didn't bother moving either. He knew better than to bite off more than he could chew. He took his time to aim one of the laser cannon barrels before releasing a powerful beam!

The beam glanced against the rifleman mech's leg, inflicting moderate damage to the lithic armor plating!

"Yes!"

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