[Engaging dimensional and temporal neuro-translocation. Please rest in a comfortable position. Initiating in 10... 9... 8...]
"What the hell?"
[6... 5... 4...]
"What is neuro-trans-"
[1... 0... Initiating transfer!]
The world changed as if his mind had been sucked into a wormhole. He clearly felt his body being left behind as if a giant scoop pulled out his consciousness and dragged it along a distance that Ves could not even begin to describe.
Longer than expected but shorter than he thought, the wild ride suddenly ended when his mind abruptly crashed into a body.
A different body.
"Barley!" A strong smack thumped on his back. "Get your head back in gear! I know we're up in an avalanche of dirtbags, but we can make it through! Persevere!"
Ves instinctively turned around and straightened his back. "We'll get 'em, Captain!"
"Glad to hear it." Captain Osprey smiled at him, though he couldn't hide the glint of bone-dragging weariness from his eyes. " Make sure your Cepth-S is in shape to deploy in the next shift. Intelligence think the dirtbags are cooking up an assault, I want to make sure my best knight is raring to go."
"Will do, sir!"
Once the captain walked away, Ves took stock of his surroundings while he nursed his aching head. Ves somehow ended up in the body of an average advanced mech pilot named Ivan Barley in the Chittering Cicada Star Sector.
"It's over fifty years ago!"
From the memories Ves had access to, everyone fought with mechs that were two or three generations older than the modern norm. The System not only stuffed him inside a body halfway across the galaxy, it also sent him back in time, all without destroying Ves or Barley's minds!
To say that Ves had complete control over Barley's body would be wrong. Ves likened his current situation as a pair of images being superimposed upon each other. Barley was still Barley. Ves was still Ves. The joint entity they made up comprised of both.
"I am still Barley!" He uttered to himself. "No matter what kind of weirdness is going on, I still have a battle to fight!"
Both of them agreed to push aside their existential crisis in favor of addressing the bigger threat to their lives. The invasion of dirtbags onto their current planet.
From what Ves understood from Barley's memories, he fought for a fairly strong third-rate state called the Exilis Domain. While it couldn't match any of the second-rate states of the Chittering Cicada Star Sector, its relatively abundant territory transformed it into a regional bully among the other third-rate states.
Owing to its size and its wealth, the Exilis Domain frequently threw their weight around. It didn't help that its neighboring states all consisted of piddling petty republics. The citizens often considered their territory to be the palace among the wilderness, with the surrounding states making up the dirt that borders it. Hence why everyone from the Exilis Domain called them dirtbags.
Quite predictably, the neighboring states had enough of being bullied around by the Domain and decided to form an Alliance. Faster than the Domain thought possible, the Lokis Alliance united their armed forces and formed a vast Mech Legion to hit back against their regional aggressor.
The war had dragged on for two years now. Barley fought in the war from the start, but the constant battle slowly took a toll on his mind and his mech. Currently, he'd been tasked with defending the local underground headquarters on a low priority rural planet.
Neither side commited a lot of mechs to this war zone. This slowed down the pace of battles and broke them up into smaller skirmishes as both sides wanted to preserve their mechs and supplies.
"Right now, I should check my mech."
Ves navigated the sturdy alloy corridors of the underground base. Like every other pilot, he constantly wore his piloting suit in case he needed to be deployed immediately. His suit's climate controls already started to fail from constant use and lack of maintenance.
No one minded his odor because everyone else radiated their own stink. Besides, once he reached the mech stables, the harsh smell of metals and fuel overpowered any human scent.
"Chief!" He called out to the burly man overlooking his mech technicians from a ramp. "How's it going?"
"It's been better, Barley." Chief Jackson shook his head as he chewed on a stimulant. "We've already exhausted the supply shipment we received last week. I did the best I could to fix up your Jimmy, but I prioritized the shield arm over the sword arm."
That sounded kind of bad. His Jimenez had dueled against a swordsman mech in his last engagement. His knight received a lot of cuts trying to block the tricky sword strikes from the much more agile mech.
"I'll take a look myself." Ves replied with a tone of resignation. "Don't work yourself to death, chief!"
"Hah! I'd rather die from exhaustion than let the dirtbags shoot me in the head." Jackson laughed and strolled away.
From his experience on Groening IV, he knew that the maintenance department was straining its time and resources to the breaking point. They had to triage the mechs in order of importance and rank. The more expensive machines piloted by the officers got their turn first before the average mechs like his Jimenez received some attention.
When Ves reached his Jimenez, his enthusiasm deflated like a pricked balloon. Its design was bog-standard for its time, featuring the maximum amount of armor that a medium knight could carry. Along with its plain but serviceable sword and kite shield, the Jimenez had obviously been designed as a defensive knight.
"It's a slow, lumbering moving shield."
Strangely enough, the insights of Ves the mech designer and Barley the mech pilot combined in an unprecedented clear perspective on the merits of the Jimenez. Even if its designer lacked boldness and inspiration, he did a good job in designing a capable workhorse. Barley had piloted his Jimenez through dozens of battles and skirmishes over the last two years and the machine hadn't let him down.
Barley had developed a bond with his mech. Even if the machine had been mass-produced without any love, his irrational affection for his mech pulled him through the constant fighting. While Barley hardly ever thought about the significance of his feeling, Ves found it to be a curious phenomenon.
If someone like Barley piloted a gold label mech fabricated by Ves, he'd be able to achieve a much greater synergy with his machine.
The way Barley approached his routine check relied on feeling rather than a solid understanding of the physical makeup of his mech. He mainly tapped against the worn-out armor plating of his mech and stepped inside the cockpit without it on, preferring to breathe in the smells in the dark.
To be frank, he wasn't inspecting his mech for flaws so much as to distract him from his worries about the war. All of that stress and worry faded away once he stepped inside the sanctuary of his mech.
Still, the addition of Ves prompted a change in routine. He turned on the console and checked the diagnostics of his Jimenez. Most of the technical readouts should mean gibberish to Barley, but Ves gained a good understanding of the state of his mech.
"Goddamnit. How many corners have been cut?"
A knight should be durable, and a defensive knight should be even sturdier. What Ves gleaned from the diagnostics was that the design incorporated sub-standard materials and the manufacturer didn't pay much attention to quality control.
Ves pulled up a hidden setting buried beneath the operating system of the mech. It summarized the complicated data into a color-shaded schematic of the Jimenez.
"No need to thank me, Barley."
Half of the components went from green condition to yellow condition. While that sounded mild, a mech should only reach this stage after ten years of regular use or five years of intensive fighting. A few critical areas such as the sword arm blinked in an alarming shade of orange with a smattering of red.
The overall picture looked discouraging, but it could have been worse. He suppressed the urge to pick up a multitool and perform some easy fixes to his mech. It would have been out of character for a musclehead like Barley to gain any form of technical competence.
It still ached his teeth to let those faults remain in place. "It's like boarding a shuttle with sputtering thrusters. You just know it will kill you one day."
A few hours went by as Ves and Barley re-familiarized themselves with their mech. The marrying of Barley's intuitive understanding of his machine with Ves' extensive technical background resulted in a lot of new insights for both.
"Ah, so that's why the arms are so frail despite their thick construction. The alloys that make up the internal frame are great at absorbing sudden impacts, but is prone to erosion if subjected to a constant level of low-impact shocks."
"The power reactor is the best part of this mech. It's obviously licensed from a major trans-galactic corporation. I don't have to worry about power supply as long as the internals hold up."
"Enduring constant attacks has shifted the dimensions of the Jimenez. It's asymmetrical now, with the shield half being pushed back half a centimeter compared to the sword half. All of that caused the frame to deform and open up more fault lines.
"What kind of grease monkey had the bright idea to fix the transceiver coupling with a copper wire?!"
A lack of personnel along with the need to work as fast and frugal as possible led to a lot of inevitable screwups. The lackluster longevity of the Jimenez also didn't help, as its design had been pitched to the Exilis Domain as a knight that could deliver a burst of peak performance whenever they decided to bully one of their formerly weak neighbors.
Ves learned a lesson from this realization. "Assumptions don't always pan out. You can plan ahead for your design, but that doesn't mean they're subjected to their intended use."
The Domain had no other choice but to stretch out the service lives of their mechs. The conflict raging at its borders had dragged on for so long because the hatred had grown too deep to settle with a couple of set piece battles.
Ves didn't care too much about the war but Barley felt otherwise. His disdain for the so-called dirtbags had turned into blind hatred after losing so many friends and colleagues to their stubborn aggression.
An alarm suddenly rang from the speakers. "Alert! Long-range sensors have detected scouts approaching our position!"
Everyone dropped their routine and entered into a frenzy. The mech technicians hastily put the half-repaired mechs back together while the mech pilots gathered up in front of their officers.
Captain Osprey paced back and forth in front of his diminished platoon of eleven pilots. There used to be thirty among their number.
"It's not likely the dirtbags sniffed us out, but their scouts are ranging closer than we're comfortable with. Given time, their scouting systems will be able to read the traces that our mechs have inevitably left behind and follow them straight to our base. Our job is to stop them before they make it that far!"
"Won't they know we're close if we show up out of the blue?" Shaundra asked as she scratched her head. Her hair had already started greying.
"That's why we're taking our mechs through a backup tunnel and emerge from the other side. We'll pretend we've been conducting a long-ranged patrol and happened to have stumbled upon the scouts. If all goes well, we can fool them into thinking that our base is on the other side of this sector."
"How many mechs are we facing?"
"Seven or nine, the scanners aren't very clear about that. We're mainly dealing with light mechs, so we should be able to smash them apart with force. Any further questions?"
They boarded their mechs once everyone understood the stakes. Ves entered his own Jimenez and roused it from its slumber. For Barley, one battle was like any other, but for Ves it was an entirely novel experience.
"This is my first time stepping into battle as a mech pilot."
Barley's constant reassurance lessened the fear that threatened to overwhelm Ves. He wondered if he would die for real if Barley happened to meet an unfortunate end. Would the System pull back his consciousness in time, or leave him to die as a consequence of his failure?
He couldn't afford to take the risk. "I have to survive."
Barley's lust of battle pushed aside his fear. He became eager to experience how a real mech pilot fought.