Ves awkwardly laughed. "That will never happen to me."
Those who stepped on the road to lunacy often denied that they were doing something wrong. As long as Ves remained self-conscious of himself, he would always be able to halt before he went off into the deep end.
Insanity and irrationality among mech designers occasionally popped up. Some say only a thin line stood between genius and madness. Those who advanced into Senior and higher often exhibited signs along that nature.
A couple of theories Ves had heard back in school state that mech designers attempted to perform the impossible. They wanted to break past the laws of physics and reality and pioneer new paths where none existed before.
If a Journeyman could be said to have finished his orientation and make his first steps on a chosen path, a Senior attempted to tread outside the boundaries of an existing path. Each mech designer started off by studying existing knowledge. However, to continue their studies at this height only locked them into a well-trodden path.
There was no novelty in imitation. One would only remain an inferior copy of a predecessor.
Senior Mech Designers mostly preoccupied themselves with stepping out of the familiar and exploring the vast unknown that was shrouded in fog. Almost every direction led to peril or a dead end. Some Seniors labored for four-hundred years and never managed to find their path to salvation.
The fog buried their bones and half-completed goals.
Only a small handful managed to explore the fog and successfully found a way out. They carved a brand new path for themselves that never existed before and lit a beacon so that others could follow.
There was something metaphysical about this whole description that mystified almost every mech designer who stumbled upon it. Many of his peers regarded it as gobbledygook, but as Ves became more exposed to the higher applications of mech design, he couldn't help but think back on this story.
"It is said that each mech designer that has forged a new path is capable of doing more than any others that follow in their footsteps. What they can design is sometimes described as magic."
Naturally, magic was simply a shorthand for scientific phenomena that humanity hadn't figured out yet. Over the years, researchers figured out the rules behind such feats and disseminated the newly discovered technology in the form of standardized theories.
Nonetheless, a Master gained a head-start over everybody, and always continued to be the leading expert in their specialty. With all the myths and psuedo-science being bandied about by younger mech designers, it was hard for Ves to discern the facts from hyperbole.
"According to this metaphor, the conflict hidden within the Leiner Grey design goes to the heart of the Skull Architect's struggle to find a way out of the fog."
Just as the Skull Architect sought to take a measure of Ves by observing his test results, so was Ves able to interpret the dreaded Senior's design philosophy. Best of all, the man did not obscure his research direction. In fact, he cut off the more abstruse and metaphysical parts of his design philosophy to make it easier to understand.
This told him another facet about the Skull Architect. "Awful reputation aside, he still possesses the heart of a scientist."
Each Senior was a scientist in a way. A scientist explored reality and advanced a scientific field. They created hypotheses, crafted a theoretical model and tested them through research. Fail or succeed, their results added to the collective body of knowledge of the human race.
Of course, scientists were only human. The tendency to hoard their knowledge and keep their advantages to themselves was very strong. Ves was a typical example of this case. Even as he already trod new ground in a way by dipping his toes into the X-Factor and spirituality, he never thought about disseminating his discoveries to the wider universe, even if it would have earned him eternal recognition.
"For one thing, it'll paint a huge target on my back. For another, there's no reason why someone can't steal my work and take all the credit for themselves."
Too many things could go wrong, and Ves hid too many secrets. In some way, he was the polar opposite to the Skull Architect on this matter.
It relieved him a bit to recognize this difference.
In any case, finding out that the Skull Architect hadn't lost his roots as a scientist informed him of another way of catching his attention.
"A scientist is impartial. He is highly interested in his own areas of interest, not the least because results from another source can help him beat back the fog that obscures the possible exits."
Why did the Skull Architect become a criminal and a fugitive? It was because his inquisitive nature overruled his sense of propriety and his common sense.
He formulated a hypothesis, one which stated that incorporating human remains into the frame of a mech would improve its performance, and acted upon this inquiry by performing experiments. The Skull Architect completely disregarded the gruesome nature of the experiment in pursuit of the ultimate goal, which was to find a way to thread an impossible needle and create another miracle.
As for the human cost? That was the cost of progress!
"It's kind of scary to see how far one can go. I haven't even spoken to this infamous mech designer, and already I'm starting to have second thoughts about this venture."
Still, as long as Ves paid attention to his work, he shouldn't run afoul of anything nasty.
"A mech designer knows his own designs the best. Any anomaly, however minute, will instantly be picked up by him. I have to be really subtle about the secrets at my disposal."
His main concern on this matter was the X-Factor. Knowing that the Skull Architect willfully killed an expert pilot in order to test out an outlandish hypothesis related to this phenomenon, Ves shouldn't reveal too much.
"It's one thing if I enhance this quality in my own designs. It's unobservable to most people, so outsiders probably can't make out anything substantial. However, the moment I touch the Skull Architect's own design, not a single change will escape his notice."
Ves concluded that he needed to weaken his natural tendency to imbue his imprint onto the designs he worked with. Ordinarily, he did anything to strengthen it, coming up with the convoluted Triple Division Technique to focus his Spirituality to create a multifaceted spiritual entity.
Even if he didn't utilize this advanced technique, his singular concentration was sufficient to impart a simpler imprint upon his designs.
"Both methods are too strong. The complexity won't matter to the Skull Architect. It's the strength of the X-Factor that is the key. As long as it's strong enough for him to pick up its existence, it will instantly attract his full attention on me, which isn't good."
He needed to shape a certain magnitude of X-Factor just below the point where it would be noticed by his target audience. As long as the truth remained in the shadows, Ves would succeed in rousing the Skull Architect's unconscious desires just enough to elicit a follow up reaction.
To put it simply, Ves needed to hit the Skull Architect's face with a gust of wind instead of a sledgehammer.
Finding the right strength was a judgement call. Ves mentally went over to the spiritual strengths of his past designs.
He recalled that the System registered both of his Marc Antony variants with at least C+ grade X-Factor strength. That was too much in his eyes. Even the first Caesar Augustus variant he developed after the System introduced this secret carried a C- grade.
That had already been sufficient to kick virtual mech pilots in the butt.
"It has to be weaker."
Eventually, he decided to err on the side of caution and aim for a D or D- grade. Anything lower transformed the X-Factor into a ghost. At that point, Ves might as well give up entirely.
"Now that I've decided upon that, let's get my hands dirty."
He focused his attention on the incomplete Leiner Grey and tried to keep his mind at a state of levity. He needed to avoid narrowing down his focus to prevent a spike in spirituality, but he also couldn't be too disordered either, or the X-Factor would turn into a muddy soup.
The main defining features of the Leiner Grey was that it attempted to be fast, strong and well-armored for a light skirmisher. Even a beginner mech designer knew how impossible it was to achieve such a result. At best, most light skirmishers tend to prioritize speed above the other two major attributes. They could afford to sacrifice mechanical strength and armor in favor of being as fleet as wind.
"Light skirmishers are fast by necessity and because speed is all they need. Moving fast increases their evasion, allows them to outrun melee mechs and reduces the probability of getting hit by ranged mechs. As for strength, a skirmisher usually takes advantage of their superior mobility to hit mechs from their rear where the armor is weakest. If that doesn't work, they can always build up a lot of momentum and empower their charge with the weight of their entire mech behind their attack."
The logic behind light skirmishers basically stated that an absolute superiority in speed allowed the mechs to leverage this advantage in overcoming its traditional weaknesses.
"When you come down to it, this sounds like a moderately acceptable excuse to cover up the fact that light skirmishers have big holes in their designs."
A mech that was fast but was clad with paperthin armor only needed to suffer one critical hit to take it out of the fight. And having to go through all of that trouble to gain the opportunity to land a telling blow onto an opposing mech took too much time and effort.
"In comparison, a straightforward medium melee mech is better in any way except for mobility. Yet it is this deficiency that is the defining difference between the two mech types. They fulfill different roles and perform completely different on the battlefield."
The original vision behind the Leiner Grey unveiled in front of Ves. To put it simply, Reno Jimenez attempted to create a light version of a medium melee mech. The Leiner Grey was supposed to acquire all of the advantages of a medium mech while somehow retaining its overarching superiority in mobility.
Ves had one response to that. "Arrogant!"
He read the Leiner Grey's development path. The Skull Architect started off with a basic light skirmisher frame, and started adding in some extra bulk. The added mass slowed the mech down, so the designer compensated by increasing its energy consumption and magnifying the amount of power it could exert.
This couldn't go on endlessly. Soon enough, the Skull Architect hit a wall where climbing over it cost a lot more than he gained. To gain one percent in power, he needed to bulk up his mech by at least ten percent or more. That tradeoff simply sucked.
"If Mr. Jimenez can make it so that a single percent boost in power will only weigh down his mech by one percent, then he has definitely advanced to Master."
Such an amazing light skirmisher design was an impossibility. It's existence was as absurd as stating that 1 + 1 = 2.01 or something like that.
Yet Ves couldn't help but be impressed by the man's audacity. Almost everyone ruled out that a mech designer could reach this result, but the ambitious Skull Architect boldly forged ahead where none dared to tread.
"Seniors constantly attempt to turn lies into truth, fantasy into reality, the impossible into the possible. To many, it is a road that leads to madness, death or a dead end."
The danger stood in stark contrast with the prestige and renown these Senior Mech Designers usually enjoyed. Any of them held high positions, and even the least of them could easily find teaching jobs at a prestigious university. Society valued them for their esteemed abilities, but they could never fathom the risks they took to make further progress.
"What a scary mech design." He uttered as he mentally took a step back. "Just a single design is already able to tell me so much. This isn't such a simple test after all."