The security guard yawned as he closed the hefty coffer. Its antrigrav modules sprung back to life and took up position behind its sharp-faced owner.
"Everything checks out. It's a false alarm." The guard declared and waved the new arrival away. "Off you go. Enjoy your stay at Cloudy Curtain."
The middle-aged man nodded and sauntered to the exit. Bypassing the security of this dreary spaceport had taken a lot more effort than he thought. For some reason, the spaceport recently received a massive upgrade in its security suite. It took some quick thinking for the man to respond to the alarms.
As he walked outside the building, he looked up at the dreary clouds that constantly shrouded this planets. The few sheens of color, akin to flattened rainbows, hardly cheered up his day. He hailed an aircar and set his destination to the opposite side of the planet.
After several hours of flight, the man departed from the aircar and looked at the quiet neighborhood he'd be living in for the time being. He glanced at the sturdy walls of the guarded compound a few blocks away and whistled appreciatively.
"This is going to require a lot of patience."
His client had already prepared a house for him. Outwardly, it looked identical to the many other homesteads on the street. In fact, the house incorporated many dampening materials that suppressed signals and blocked unwanted spying.
After entering the home, the man ignored the furnished house and the closet full of clothes. He directly climbed to the attic at the top and approached a camouflaged window that could not be spotted outside.
The coffer dropped to the spotless floor and opened by itself. Instead of the mundane clothes the man showed to the spaceport's security guard, the coffer held a dizzying array of alloy components.
The man took each of the components and methodically assembled them until the entire construction resembled a metal tree sitting on its sides. Its intimidating size and shape resembled a railgun, only scaled up to the point it could threaten mechs.
The main laid down behind the complicated weapon and swept over its systems. The railgun's muzzle aimed straight at the entrance of the guarded compound that could barely be seen through the attic's window.
"You got away once, but I've seen your tricks now." The man whispered as recalled his previous failure. He never expected to come up short due the presence of a mythical miniaturized shield generator.
He made some adjustments this time. As long as his target left the compound, his railgun would never miss.
He simply had to be patient.
Back at the workshop, Melkor expressed his views on rifleman mechs with a very simple premise. "Why do mechs wield rifles? Why don't all of them come in the style of frontline mechs?"
For humanoid mechs, the main difference between a standard mech and a frontline mech had to do with their arms. A frontline mech replaced its arms with gun barrels, while a standard mech retained its human-like arms capable of manipulating external gear like mech-sized rifles.
"A skilled pilot can manipulate the limbs of their mechs with great precision." Ves repeated the standard answer found in textbooks. "A frontline mech is largely reliant on its hardware and software to aim, which can shore up the aim of an average mech pilot. A standard mech on the other hand combines the use of its systems along with its pilot's intuition to deliver better results."
A lot of mech designers thought that adding arms and a rifle to a mech wasted a lot of resources. Yet on an actual battlefield, a standard mech often outperformed its frontline mech counterpart. Many factors played a role, from the increased range of motion afforded by its arms, to the ability to make better use of a pilot's real life marksmanship.
"You mentioned plenty of reasons, but you forgot the most fundamental one. We simply like the feel of a gun in our hands." Melkor tapped the side of his head. "You're not a potentate, so you don't know the feeling of piloting a frontline mech. The first time I immersed myself into such a model, I felt as if someone amputated my arms and crudely welded a pair of gun barrels in their place. No matter what, I never regarded them as my own limbs."
No one liked to pilot an amputated mech! Those who piloted frontline mechs often fell behind in skill, work ethic and genetic aptitude. More than half of the mech pilots of the Bright Republic fell under this category.
"What makes piloting riflemen so special then?"
"It's the most basic archetype besides knights. A mech pilot who masters the rifleman can pilot every ranged mech. Skill matters the most. A great pilot can easily ruin a rifleman while a great pilot can mow down an entire squad before he succumbs."
Ves started to understand Melkor's perspective. "In short, it comes down to skill. How do you describe your learning experience when you were in your early teens?"
"Everyone started polishing their marksmanship with their own bodies. A Larkinson like me enjoyed a great amount of tutoring, so I easily passed the early courses. I jumped straight into mech marksmanship and adjusted my habits to fit the mech scale. It was kind of boring, but necessary to go through this process. Not everyone succeeded in time to take the follow up classes. These guys always end up piloting the frontline mechs."
"If unlearning the habits learned through shooting a gun in your own hands is so difficult, why not jump to practicing mech marksmanship directly?"
"It has to do with foundation. Anyone who tries to learn a fundamental skill with mechs will only ever master the process with that model alone. Once the mech pilot switches to another model, he'll find out his marksmanship has to be broken down entirely before it can accomodate the new mech. Remember that humanoid mechs are meant to reflect the human form."
"I see. If you master the skill with your own body, you will always be able to adjust your marksmanship with every mech you come across."
Melkor smiled at Ves. "That's right. The skill transference always works best if your mind and body has already been imprinted with the habits that work best for you. The real challenge a young mech cadet faces is to transfer his physical marksmanship to mech marksmanship. The first time is always the hardest, but once someone is capable of doing it once, it takes a lot less time to do it again with another model."
Mech academies measured how much time it took for each mech pilot to transfer his shooting proficiency. They kept scores separately for both laser and ballistic weaponry, as both types had their own nuances.
"Since your very first breakthrough matters a lot, I can imagine the academies pays a lot of attention to its training mechs. What kind of models have you worked with?"
His cousin chuckled. "My experiences aren't typical. My aptitude is quite high and my talent in marksmanship is pretty impressive. Furthermore, the family offered a lot of after-school training so I gained my proficiencies five years ahead of everyone else. You should ask Raella what she thinks about those mechs."
"Pff." The woman blew as she finished her drink nearby. "Don't get me started on those machines. All of the models boast that they're easier to breakthrough than others. You can pick between light mechs, medium mechs, fast mechs, slow mechs, tall mechs, short mechs, whatever you want! Most people pick the models that closely resemble their own bodies, but I don't think it matters really."
Raella's opinion echoed the studies conducted by academics. Not a single consistent factor had been detected that could increase the odds of breakthroughs. It appeared to everyone that rather than mechs, the key point of focus should be the mech cadet in question.
"Rather than try anything fancy with the training mechs, the academies just offer us the least complicated mechs. There are many things a cadet has to take into account when piloting a multiton machine that could easily crush a house. Too many distractions can hinder the learning experience."
This was also why mech cadets started their training with older, outdated mechs. Modern designs incorporated many features that could easily overwhelm a young and immature mind. A good training mech focused on simplicity first and performance next.
Ves had already done the same with the Young Blood, but the stakes were higher this time. Proficiency in melee combat always transferred easier than proficiency in ranged combat. No holy grail existed that could shrink this disparity, and Ves didn't delude himself into thinking he could accomplish what millions of mech designers failed to achieve.
As Ves kept asking for stories, he caught an important difference between Raella and Melkor. His niece never enjoyed the training. She only grudgingly kept up with her academy's demanding curriculum, but spent most of her spare time mastering knife fighting.
This gave Ves an opening if he employed his unique insights into the X-Factor. He might not be able to stumble upon the holy grail, but perhaps he could make do with fruit juice. Compared to the bland water that no one really liked, perhaps he could entice the kids to drink a little more.
All in all, his talk with Melkor proved useful in shaping the concept of his next design. In his opinion, the way forward did not rest on coddling the kids.
"Simple mechs don't make very fun mechs."
A lot of training mechs went overboard in terms of simplicity. One of the reasons why his Young Blood drew so many teenagers was because it featured a couple of interesting gimmicks. It spiced up the boring knight concept and made it a lot more interesting without demanding an excessive amount of skill.
Those who ascended from piloting 1-star mechs sought to pilot more powerful mechs. They've already achieved the minimum amount of proficiency in marksmanship. In his mind, a training mech should have a soul.
When Ves left the gym and reached his terminal, he browsed the galactic net to see some examples of rifleman mech meant for training. As expected, most tended to be built for simplicity and ease of use. Other designs chose the other extreme and spiced up the design in order to generate more interest.
"They're too much like toys." Ves shook his head. He didn't agree with the notion of treating the mech cadets like kids suffering from a short attention span. "
Now that he established a direction, Ves considered what kind of rifleman mech he should design. He chose to go for a medium weight class due to the additional power and capacity it afforded over training mechs designed to be as cheap as possible. In any case, Ves didn't need to consider the costs when designing a virtual mech.
"Properly speaking, a rifleman mech is all about its rifle. I should begin with the weapon."
He recently acquired the Directed Energy Weapon Optimization II sub-skill, so he knew a thing or two about laser rifles. He chose to go for laser rifles which many mech pilots mastered first. Energy weapons demanded a little less consideration compared to ballistic weapons, though those who mastered the latter first all turned out to be prodigies.
Still, even with the optimization skill, Ves did not fully understand the full nuances of laser weapons. When he thought about his inadequacies, he suddenly reminded himself that he once made off with research notes on a certain kind of laser.
Ves looked around and saw that no one was present. His cousins likely entered the simulator pods while Carlos already worked on their company's next order.
He turned on his comm and turned on his Privacy Shield. Now, even the security cameras and other sensors wouldn't be able to spy on him. He navigated to his files and after inputting a couple of passwords, he reached the folder labeled 'Gamma Laser Rifle Research and Development'.
If anyone from the MTA could see him now, they'd shoot him on sight. Ves knew he had a poisoned chalice in his hands, yet he couldn't bear to delete the files. Radioactive or not, gamma lasers worked on much of the same principles as regular laser rifles.
He stood to gain a lot of understand in the workings of a laser rifle if he gleaned some insights from the research notes. While Ves didn't have enough time to decipher the complete collection, he only needed a few pointers to elevate his next design.
"It might not be a holy grail, but a poisoned chalice shouldn't bring any harm as long as I don't take a sip."
Whether he'd be able to resist the temptation, no one knew.