The new assignment Ves received from the commanding officers burdened him immensely. Not only did he have to supervise the periodic breakdowns because the fickle astral winds decided to have a hissy fit, but he also had to touch upon a taboo.
Ketis didn't quite understand his dilemma. "What's the big deal? I know that messing with neural interfaces is dangerous and all, but it's for a good cause, right? Besides, we're so far away from the big bad MTA that they won't mind a little thing like this. Why do you still care for their rules?"
"This isn't as simple as it sounds." Ves grimaced at her as he sat behind a terminal in the mobile workshop. The projector currently displayed the design schematic of a standard neural interface. "Anything we do here will go on record. Once the Flagrant Vandals eventually return to civilized space, they'll file the records over to the Mech Corps, which means the Bright Republic knows. And if the Bright Republic knows, the Mech Trade Association will surely find out soon after."
Everyone believed the Big Two inserted their spies in every government and every major mercenary corps. The MTA in particular liked to take responsibility for maintaining internal order within human space. While the CFA generally took care of matters outside the borders, the MTA kept tabs on every organization that fielded mechs.
According to the rumors, only the first-rate superstates possessed enough might contend against these spies. Some even fantasized about a shadow war taking place between the Big Two and the first-rate superstates!
Of course, out here on the galactic rim, none of the states that settled in this expanse possessed the power to resist such sophisticated infiltration. Not only the Big Two, but other powerful trans-galactic organizations sometimes extended their tentacles towards the rim.
Sadly, Ketis never witnessed the power of these mighty organizations in person. To her, the MTA and CFA had always been silent and distant.
"I still don't see the big deal. They never had to deal with these mind-controlling dwarves that can hijack the man-machine connection. Right now, if you don't do something about it, every native will be able to disable our mechs once they find out what they can do!"
This was the scariest part about the natives. The genetic modifications applied to the cursed people had changed their brains beyond recognition, yet the blessed people weren't exempt from some of these changes either.
Both the blessed and the cursed people possessed the ability to interface their minds with the god species!
How else did the blessed people managed to come to an accord with the sacred gods? During the duels against Hokaz and Naevudis, a fair number of sensors captured the man-beast connection between the sacred gods and their chosen.
Those sensor readings didn't lie! The blessed people possessed the same modifications to their brain structure that allowed them to interface with a beast without a physical connection, just like their more primitive dwarf cousins!
Once they managed to get their hands on the body of a blessed people's corpse, the exobiologists would be able to confirm what the analysis of their DNA had already hinted towards.
According to Dr. Tillman, the blessed people's DNA may be purer than that of the cursed people, but they weren't exactly a control group. They were actually a second experimental group, one that tested their adaptability to the planet with less extreme modifications.
This was like putting two different species of beetles in a jar and forcing them to fight! Except this time, the beetles consisted of variations of the human race and the jar was instead a giant Super Earth!
This was an experiment spanning over several millennia on a planetary scale!
All of this begged the question: who among the survivors of the crashed battleship ultimately became in charge? The officers? The enlisted personnel? The exobiologists? Spies from the Five Scrolls Compact?
Nobody knew! Not even Ves! The things he learned about this cursed planet increasingly alienated him and the rest of the Flagrant Swordmaidens.
Nobody liked to be treated as an experiment!
In any case, it wasn't actually too hard for Ves to figure out a solution to the problem. The neural interface already incorporated multiple layers of checks and filters that prevented input from intruders.
In fact, they should have blocked the intrusion from the dwarf chieftain!
His first task was to find out why these filters slacked off.
Yet he immediately hit upon a wall when he tried to investigate the matter. The dwarf chieftain's mind somehow managed to bypass the filters and insert themselves directly into the middle of the data streams.
This was like jumping over a city wall instead of trying to break through its defenses. The latter would have forced the neural interface into rousing its defenses, but the former prevented it from raising an alarm.
The more Ves investigated the methods of the dwarf chieftain's intrusion, the more he became scared of what he saw.
"What's wrong, Ves?" Ketis asked.
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"Whoever engineered these wildlings is a genius." He whispered with a tone that carried both dread and awe. "Crazy, but genius. If every wildling potentate is capable of interfacing with a mech or beast in this manner, then that makes them natural-born mech pilots! Don't you see?"
"What? But they're stupid savages!"
"That's not the point. Whoever managed to engineer these dwarves can just as well apply the same modifications to other strains of humanity. In fact, I think the blessed people may be the second iteration of an experiment to design the perfect mech pilot! If I'm reading this right, then this dwarf chieftain's mental prowess is a match to a mech pilot with an A-grade genetic aptitude!"
"That's impossible!" Ketis burst out. "Those smelly stinking dwarves are supposed to be a slave species, right?! How can they be better mech pilots than us?!"
Although Ves only possessed a single example, when he extrapolated it to the rest of the population of dwarves, the numbers threatened to boggle his mind. How many supremely-talented potentates had been born among the dwarves?
What the Flagrant Swordmaidens had bumped into earlier only consisted of a small tribe of a couple of hundred dwarves!
What of more powerful tribes? What of the tribes that managed to domesticate a wild god?
Perhaps thousands of dwarf potentates with an A-grade genetic aptitude roamed the surface of Aeon Corona VII right now!
"This is only the dwarves. I bet the blessed people have the same talented potentates as well! This entire planet is an elite mech breeding ground!"
Ketis still had trouble following his train of thought. "That doesn't make any sense. These natives are descended from people who used to serve the CFA. What does a bunch of hardcore spaceborn ship lover have to do with mechs?"
"Anything mechanical doesn't work on this planet barring special circumstances. Didn't you propose that theory in the first place?" Ves pointed out. "It may be that they engineered their offspring and the wild gods as replacements for mech pilots and mechs. For what reason, I don't know, but the ones responsible are definitely pursuing an overarching vision!"
As a mech designer, Ves was keenly sensitive towards actions that pursuing a specific vision. Many professions used the methodology that Ves adopted in his design process, because it applied to any instance of creation!
To create something, you either let your whims take control, or you set a firm goal post in the distance and tried to reach it! Right now, Ves sensed that the exobiologists and geneticists who messed with the genes of every living organism on this planet pursued a specific goal.
They hadn't been messing about at random!
"I still think we should try and tame our own wild gods." Ketis humphed. "Since it's such a big deal, why not try it ourselves?"
In fact, a lot of mech pilots put out such a suggestion. Despite the risks involved with interfacing with a living alien creature, many mech pilots became enamored at the thought of riding a majestic beast.
Unfortunately, neither Commander Lydia nor Captain Byrd entertained these fanciful notions. Their strength lay firmly in mechs. They had confidence that they could finish the mission and extract from this planet before their mechs and transports all broke down. Chief Dakkon even simulated their rate of breakdowns and pronounced that it would take about two standard years for them to lose the bulk of their mechs.
In any case, Ves wrote a quick report of what he found out and passed them on to Mayra, Dr. Tillman and Captain Byrd. Right now, his job wasn't to dig out the truth behind the planet, but to harden the defenses of their mechs against mental intrusion from the indigeneous people.
Ves contemplated his direction. He could choose to modify the filters by adjusting their software, but that wouldn't be very useful. The dwarf chieftain already showed off the ability to jump over the city walls. No matter how fancy or strong he made those walls, as long as the natives jumped high enough, they could continue to disregard these filters.
"I'll have to come up with a hardware solution, then."
However, Ves encountered another set of difficulties here. He didn't know the mechanics behind the dwarf chieftain's ability to remotely interface with a mech or wild god.
After an hour of ineffectual puzzling with the design of a random neural interface, Ves recognized that he was completely out of his depth! He lacked the theoretical foundation to modify the hardware of a neural interface to better shield itself against a remote connection.
Ves came to the conclusion that he couldn't solve this problem through design work!
However, there was another way to solve this problem that didn't necessarily require a deep foundation in the complicated fields of neural interfaces and neurology.
"I can experiment through trial and error!"
Many researchers that explored the cutting edge of science didn't necessarily know what they were doing exactly. However, that didn't deter them from their research. Through trial and error, they formulated rules and confirmed or disproved their hypotheses.
In general, mech designers like Ves preferred to apply existing knowledge to design their mechs, but they weren't above performing their own research, especially when it concerned their core design philosophies.
Because they were attempting to tread a path into the unknown mists, they often didn't know which path led to a dead end.
This was why Journeyman and Senior Mech Designers tended to perform many experiments. Through trial and error, they learned which paths would be safe to tread and which paths led to a dead end or a bottomless pit.
Ves concluded he needed to take the same approach to this problem in order to cope with his lack of theoretical foundation.
He presented his research proposal to Captain Byrd, who read through it with a slightly bewildered expression.
"If I understand this proposal correctly, you want us to kidnap some dwarf chieftains or other natives with a high genetic aptitude, so you can perform live experiments on them? Do you know how unethical this sounds?"
Ves let out an awkward laugh. "It's not as awful as you think. I'm not about to cut these dwarf chieftains open or anything. Look, you told me to find a way to shield our mechs from their mind voodoo. While I'm somewhat familiar with neural interfaces, it's not my core specialty, and I'm pretty much the most knowledgeable mech designer in this field. So the only way for me to solve this problem is to create a lot of variations of the standard neural interface and let the dwarf potentates go to town with them. Eventually, one of the variants will stick."
This was a rather stupid way of coming up with a solution, but Ves was at his wit's end.
While Captain Byrd didn't seem enthused at the thought of kidnapping the dwarfs and treating them as their lab rats, Ves didn't leave her with an alternative.
Either they did it, or they would have to be resigned with leaving their mechs vulnerable to mental hijacking!
"Fine." She grumbled with tired eyes. Leading this expedition had taken a toll on her mind. "I'll get you your dwarf prisoners."
"You won't regret it, ma'am!" Ves smiled. "The lab rats will be in good hands, don't you worry. It's for a good cause."