Lieutenant Ferct stared at each of them before announcing the winners of the final trials.
"Each of you showed your strength. However, only two of you are worthy enough to proceed. Tristan Wesseling, you've won all three of your duels. Your performance was very steady. I hope your design work will be just as steady."
"I will try my best to meet your expectations, lieutenant."
The woman then turned to Ves.
"Ves Larkinson, you've won two of your duels, which places you further ahead than the other two. You've passed as well."
"Thank you, lieutenant."
Tristan went undefeated, which meant he defeated Goz. Ves won against Goz as well, so the Hexer had already lost two out of three duels in this round-robin format.
Considering what Ves knew of the only woman among them, her rifleman mech shouldn't have been able to win against the others! Her lithic mech was too weak and unsuited to the circumstances to fare well against the other machines!
Lieutenant Ferct offered some cheap praise to the pair of losers. Goz Zoza did not look pleased at himself, but Ves and Tristan defeated him fair and square. He could only blame his own bad luck for claiming a light skirmisher at the end of the second trial.
As the lieutenant took the time to console the mech designers who failed to secure enough victories, Ves processed his lingering yearning to reenter the cockpit.
It was so exhilarating to pilot a mech! Even though Ves firmly reminded himself that he was first and foremost a mech designer, the allure of piloting a mech continually teased his desires.
It took a bit more effort than he liked to stamp out this temptation!
As much as Ves desired to continue to pilot a mech, he had already made his choice. He already enjoyed far more success in his design career than he could ever hope for. Why squander his gains and his promising future for becoming something he simply wasn't meant to be?
It was fine to envy a mech pilot. Yet his hidden desire must not develop anything more than a passing fancy!
The two losers disappeared after Lieutenant Ferct finished talking to them. The Rim Guardian turned her head to both Tristan and Ves.
"As for the two of you, both of you have shown enough capabilities to associate with us. We've just updated your records to reflect that. I must say, I'm not surprised that Mr. Wesseling has been able to pass, but you, Mr. Larkinson, are a lot more versatile than we thought. Other than your muddled performance during the first trial, you've continually exceeded our expectations."
"I've been through some challenging times." Ves smiled. "Also, I come from a military family. How can I not know what it is like to pilot a mech?"
The lieutenant shook her head. "Whatever. Come with me. I'll explain what it means to be our associate."
A portal formed underneath the three and brought them away to a comfortable lounge. Ves, Tristan and Ferct each sat down after accepting a glass of liquor from a waiting bot.
"Tristan, I think you have a good idea what it means to become our associate, correct?"
The Fridayman nodded. "It means I've become qualified to treat with the Rim Guardians. It doesn't mean I've become a part of your fraternity or enjoy your protection."
"Neither of you have become internal members of the MTA. You'll have to pass completely different trials in order to be eligible. In the beginning, what the two of you earned is merely an opportunity to be heard by us. This essentially means that as long as we require something from an external mech designer, we might ask you to perform a task. It also means that if you've found something interesting or came up with a very valuable transaction, we'll consider your offers seriously."
Ves frowned a bit. He still didn't quite understand what he was getting into. "There must be more than that, right?"
"Correct." Ferct nodded while she took a sip of his drink. "You are only our most peripheral associates for now. If you want to enjoy more benefits from our fraternity, then you will need to work for it. Both of you will have to be proactive and come up with something interesting, valuable or worthwhile enough for us to invest in our relationship with you. If you think you're already in the bank, then you are sadly mistaken."
The Rim Guardians may not be particularly dominant within the MTA, but they were still behemoths on a galactic scale!
The fraternity sought closer relationships with many mech designers throughout the galactic rim, but not too much. In their perspective, it was better to develop closer relations with one good mech designer than a thousand mediocre mech designers.
Considering the immense disparity between the Rim Guardians and the local mech designers from a star sector, the former didn't have to do any of the work in developing the right relations. They counted on the mech designers to be proactive and prove themselves worthy of friendship!
"Look, lieutenant, I've been dumped in the Pit without any explanation. Can you finally tell me what's so great about becoming your associate and why you want to treat with us locals?"
Lieutenant Ferct smiled in an intrigued manner. "I suppose you do deserve an explanation. Let's start from our perspective. There are two additional reasons why the Rim Guardians wish to develop a network of local mech designers. First, let's just say that we want to expand our options. We don't always wish to do business with the MTA's internal mech designers. They've formed their own cliques whose interests don't entirely match ours."
"Does that mean there aren't any mech designers among your fraternity?" Ves curiously asked.
"Some, but not all of them can be trusted with sensitive business. Sometimes, it is better for us if we rely on an associate that isn't closely connected to the MTA, like you two. Naturally, we don't expect too much from locals. We won't hold you to the same standards as those who come from our own ranks."
"What is the second reason?"
"Insurance." Ferct replied seriously. "The MTA is a rock-solid organization and is at the height of its power. Yet who knows whether the current galactic order will shake one day. While human space is very steady for now, we can't guarantee that everything will remain as secure a hundred or a thousand years from now. The seeds we sow today might bloom into a bountiful harvest for us when we most need it in the future."
"Ah. I understand."
The Rim Guardians were the underdogs of the MTA. They faced a herculean task of fighting against the bias against the galactic rim within the Association. Too many leaders and too many highborn members supported the Prime Humans, who wanted to do away with the galactic rim entirely!
If the Prime Humans ever had their way, the Rim Guardians would become completely unmoored from their mother organization. If such a catastrophe ever happened, the ex-MTA members would certainly have to seek refuge from the locals of the star sectors they inhabited.
Forming strong and steady relations with strong, influential and reliable local mech designers at such a time would give the Rim Guardians solid retreat options.
"As for what is in it for mech designers who earnestly seek our favor, I think you already know some of the answers. We can offer some exclusive goods and services to you that's normally only available to internal members of the MTA. It is one of the only ways for many mech designers to obtain extremely rare and restricted exotics. They come at a very high cost, mind you, so it's not often that someone will make this demand."
"Then what do they request instead?"
"To access our distribution network, mostly. We don't mind facilitating trade as long as your goods are valuable enough to be transported across star sectors. We also act as guarantors for any contracts you sign with companies that are distant from you. It's not easy to enforce a contract when the other party is fifteen star sectors away. Once you hear of their betrayal, the other party would have been long gone by the time your response has come through."
Ves looked a bit skeptical. "And the Rim Guardians are willing to intercede once someone breached a contract?"
"Oh yes, but only for the major ones that are worth our attention. It helps if the contract in question involves us as well. No one will dare pervert the contract as long as our name is included."
He knew how valuable this service could be. Every mech designer with ambitions to expand beyond their native star sector would have to set up a presence in other star sectors.
Whether they set up their own subsidiaries there from scratch or joined hands with local partners, the distance between the two was too far. While communication was instant, trying to convey a material response took months or years!
This was far too much of a delay for many mech companies to stomach! If they could not effectively assert control beyond their own star sector, then they were better off with tempering their ambitions!
Therefore, the willingness of the Rim Guardians to serve as guarantors and enforcers of contracts was all the more valuable. It allowed Ves to get away with expanding his business to neighboring star sectors without yet accumulating the necessary clout to do so while keeping distant operations compliant.
Ves still believed that what the mech lieutenant had mentioned so far wasn't entirely complete. He suspected that the Rim Guardians definitely sought out more from local mech designers.
Yet Ves did not have the opportunity to ask for clarification as Lieutenant Ferct moved on to some procedural matters.
She explained how their records had been updated and what they should and shouldn't do with their new status.
"Right now, the two of you have only managed to get a single foot in the door. If you truly want to take another step further, then we expect you to prove yourselves just as you've done in the trials."
The lieutenant assigned two different missions to Ves and Tristan.
"Mr. Larkinson, your family is notable for birthing expert pilots and expert candidates with each generation. One of your works has also acquired a reputation for facilitating the rise of an expert candidate."
Ves reluctantly nodded. "That is true."
"Well, I have a favor that needs fulfilling. An important associate of ours has entered into some difficulties and entrusted his heir to us. The young man in question is a mech pilot who has been trying very hard to advance to expert candidate. We've put him through numerous training programs, but we have seen no hint that he has improved."
"Is this mech pilot an internal member?"
"No. Just the son of a valued friend of ours." Ferct shook her head. "Regardless, with each failed attempt, he's becoming more and more desperate. For his own sake, I believe it's best for him to experience a change in scenery. I'd like him to accompany you for a few years and see if your Larkinson methods are better."
This request frankly stunned Ves a bit. The MTA was one of the most knowledgeable organizations when it came to mech pilots. How could Ferct think of passing over this scion to Ves of all people?
There must be a lot more behind this request that Ferct hadn't mentioned. Ves was very leery about entering into another pit. He already fell into one. He didn't want to make the same mistake!
"Lieutenant Ferct, I'm very honored that you think highly of the track record of the Larkinsons, but our methods aren't as extensive as you think. Our basic formula for pumping out expert pilots is to train our Larkinsons well and throw them into a war that breaks out every generation."
"Ah, yes. About that, Mr. Larkinson. The scion I wish to leave to your hands is not exactly the most courageous mech pilot. He deeply despises battle. Therefore, I hope your family has other means to draw out his potential. Just try it for a few years."
Ves widened his eyes in astonishment. Did the lieutenant know how impossible it was for a craven mech pilot to advance? How could such a coward ever hope to become an expert pilot?
"Nothing is impossible, Mr. Larkinson. We just have to find the right solution."
The lieutenant didn't accept no for an answer. No matter how much Ves wanted to avoid this responsibility, Ferct seemed uncommonly eager to offload this cowardly mech pilot into his hands!
There was definitely something fishy about this entire arrangement!