A question bubbled up from his mind. "Why does the MTA tolerate mind manipulation to this extent?"
"Why does the CFA prohibit everyone from building armed warships while they field countless armadas of them? Why do the Big Two prohibit the use of weapons of mass destruction while employing them liberally in punitive actions? All of them stem from the same reason. Can you guess why?"
Ves frowned and puzzled over what they shared in common. "Is it because the CFA and MTA is powerful enough to ignore their own rules?"
"That's part of it. They aren't being hypocrites for the fun of it. The reason why they break their own rules is because doing so increases their power. It's simple as that. Do you think humanity will last against the the aliens occupying the other half of the galaxy if we outlaw all of our warships? That's too naive! It's the same story with weapons of mass destruction. Just because our society moved past their use doesn't mean we can afford to abandon them entirely!"
This was a familiar refrain to Ves. The Common Fleet Alliance often justified the necessity of wielding enough power to wipe out every inhabited planet in human space by claiming that they needed it to stop the aliens from doing it themselves.
It helped that the two trans-galactic organizations largely kept by their promises and didn't abuse their power. Humanity had begun to take their neutrality and self-appointed caretaker roles for granted.
Despite their obscure leadership and murky governance, trust in the two overarching organizations never wavered after the commencement of the Age of Mechs. They guarded the current order and most humans in the galaxy thought they did a pretty decent job.
Anything beat the waning days of the Age of Conquest.
"Okay, just because the CFA and MTA are allowed to get away with breaking their own rules doesn't mean that mech designers should be allowed to do the same. Is the power boost really worth the risk of irrevocably damaging the brains of elite pilots?"
"Your tone suggests that even the slightest risk will lead to disastrous consequences. That's not the right way to look at this issue. Everything of value carries some risk. Take fire, for instance. Long before our race has left for the stars, our primitive ancestors hunted animals and foraged berries to sate their hunger. The discovery of fire advanced their civilization to a remarkable degree. Fire can hurt, yes, but it can also cook our meals or help with forging the building blocks of a permanent civilization."
"Fire is different from mental manipulation through a neural interface. You could argue that the former is absolutely necessary for the advancement of humanity, but mechs work fine without the latter."
"I disagree." She said. "Beyond a certain point, there is a limit to how much we can maximize the performance of a design. Highly advanced technologies and miraculous exotics are extremely expensive to licence and reproduce. On the other hand, up to a certain point, neural interfaces are mostly identical. It's not the hardware, but the software that gives them an edge. An exquisitely-programmed neural interface can elevate the performance of a man-machine combination by as much as fifty percent, all without adding to the material cost of the mech!"
Ves shook his head. "Just because it's cheap isn't a good reason to resort to such a dangerous practice."
"Then let me give you a more practical reason. Even if you decline to make use of this tool, others won't. The entire reason why every elite mech makes use of mental manipulation is because their competitors are certainly trying to maximize their utility. Not only can they complement the mental blind spots of their mech pilots, they also make it a lot easier and more intuitive to call upon resonance. Remember Lord Javier's flashy last stand. You might think he's an idiot for naming and calling out his special moves, but it's a way to trigger a predetermined routine that facilitates the activation of a specific resonance effect. Granted, most mech pilots don't broadcast their moves in the open air."
"Hold on for a couple of minutes. I need to think this through."
This was new information to Ves. Perhaps that was why Lord Javier didn't go down easy. Constantine Reeve must have incorporated a custom neural interface that covered for the weaknesses in his piloting style. In addition, if the neural interface registered all of his special techniques beforehand, then it was extremely easy to trigger them by calling out specific phrases.
This put the issue in a complicated light. Though Ves had only heard about this from Iris, Ves didn't need to corroborate her claims from another source. She was an expert in this matter and had no reason to lie. His intuition also led him to believe that she spoke the truth.
Where did that leave him? Should he revise his entire stance towards manipulating the minds of mech pilots?
In truth, it wasn't as if Ves did something similar with the X-Factor. As he grew increasingly more proficient in Spirituality, his designs began to make a definite impact on the moods and thoughts of the mech pilots that used his products.
Was he a hypocrite to accept his own brand of affecting minds while rejecting something similar through the use of neural interfaces?
Ves closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
No, it was not the same. Neural interfaces were exceedingly delicate and it only took a single misstep to damage a mech pilot's mind. As for the X-Factor, though they might push a mech pilot to do things they didn't want to perform, as far as Ves was aware of, a mech's spirituality never hurt any mech pilots.
They worked on two completely different levels. Neural interfaces manipulated through physiological means, while the X-Factor worked in the imaginary realm. The former imposed specific behavior onto mech pilots, while the latter expressed the living thoughts and instincts of the imaginary entity that Ves attached to the designs.
One was dead, while the other was alive.
"That's the difference."
Other mech designers treated mechs as a lifeless tool. Tools weren't alive, and certainly wouldn't be able to express their own thoughts.
In contrast, his mechs possessed the spark of life. As living entities, they deserved a say in the manner of which they would be used. Through the X-Factor, mechs transferred some of their thoughts, instincts and skills to their pilots so that the latter wouldn't dominate the man-machine connection.
"It's a partnership."
Perhaps his rationalization sounded a little dubious, but it resolved his dilemma concerning the use of X-Factor. Ves no longer felt conflicted about influencing the minds of mech pilots through this transcendent method.
Ves could describe his forays into the X-Factor and Spirituality as an attempt to elevate mechs into becoming equal partners to mech pilots. It was a noble if fanciful goal that Ves aspired to achieve some day.
As for resorting to crass manipulation through the neural interface, Ves felt nothing but disgust at the method. It was like trying to get a mech pilot to adopt a certain pattern of behavior by injecting them with stimulants.
Strangely enough, Ves felt as if something changed within him as he resolved his internal struggle. He suspected that his nascent design philosophy became a bit more substantial after defining some of the thoughts he previously took for granted.
He turned back to Iris. "I don't agree with your notion. I believe that mechs can still be good without the use of such a dangerous method. Do elite mechs exist that don't resort to manipulative neural interfaces?"
"There are, but they're very rare. A mech simply isn't responsive enough if they come with the most restrictive neural interfaces. I don't think I've heard of any mech designer who advanced into a Master Mech Designer while ignoring the obvious advantages of a custom neural interface. What you're pursuing is a dead end."
Maybe she was right, but Ves didn't give up. His design philosophy pushed him to make a stand. He may be able to lie to everyone, but he couldn't lie to himself. Even if he opted for the hardest choice, he didn't regret his decision.
"I'm sorry, Iris, but I truly can't agree with your proposition. Call me a fool, but as an mech designer, I believe that every dead end can be engineered around. An alternative just hadn't been found yet."
"Many mech designers have tried and failed." She sighed. "Will you follow in their futile footsteps? Trying to avoid one dead end simply leads to other dead ends. The best and brightest of the galaxy have tried to tackle this problem and failed to come up with a solution without any exception. Do you believe yourself to be a messiah who can save us from the oppression of manipulative neural interface? Give me a break, boss."
Ves sensed that he might have lowered her regard for him with his mule-headed resolve. He couldn't help it. In order to maintain the integrity of his design philosophy, he couldn't allow himself to compromise on his ideals. Even a single exception could introduce a crack in his design philosophy, and might even bar him from advancing to Journeyman for the rest of his life.
"Even if we disagree on this matter, that doesn't mean I don't find your lessons useful." Ves spoke in an attempt to placate her. "I'd like to learn the ins and outs about neural interfaces, if only so I can understand their workings and recognize if they are being fudged. You can tailor your lessons in this direction."
Though Iris looked as if she wanted to leave the office, she relented and resumed her teaching, if only begrudgingly. Ves attentively listened and with his incredible Intelligence, he had no problem trying to follow the theories she espoused.
At the end of the shift, Ves received enough of a crash course to embark on his own studies, though it would be very troublesome to get his hands on the restricted books.
"Does your access to the central database allow you to access a textbook on neural interfaces?" Iris asked.
Ves tried it out but quickly faced a block. Even head designers couldn't unlock any materials regarding neural interfaces. He'd have to knock on Professor Velten's door to remove this block.
"It's a shame, but maybe it's for the better. I can't imagine that those who read these books from scratch have a high chance of screwing up."
That meant he would be reliant on continued lessons in order to develop a shallow but broad of neural interfacing technology.
"You better teach me well for my trouble, sir." Iris demanded. "I'm in a lot of trouble for telling you this much already."
"You definitely won't lose out, Iris."
They seperated at the end of the day. While Iris left the office first, Ves stayed back and did some last-minute work to prepare for what might happen next.
"We're scheduled to arrive at the next star system sometime tomorrow."
Throughout the past few days, Ves received word of intel that their destination star system might host unwanted guests. From Iris, he heard that the regional rebels hadn't managed to deliver on their promises. What that actually entailed, Ves didn't know. Iris directly brought the news to Major Verle, upon which he quickly issued some orders that increased the battle readiness of his task force.
All signs pointed out to immediate trouble at the other end.
"Is it Imodris? Have they finally caught up with us?"
As one of the most powerful duchies in the Vesia Kingdom, Ves had long believed they wouldn't let the Flagrant Vandals go without a fight.
The past week of inactivity only increased his unease. If Imodris wanted to take revenge for the raid of their star systems, then the next star system should be their last chance to do so themselves. Once the fleet crossed into the Venidse Duchy, Imodris wouldn't be able to follow them through as they would encroach on the territory of their rival.
"We'll see what happens tomorrow."