The floor rose slowly from the depths of the tower.
It took so long in fact that everyone ’s apprehension had begun to fade.

”Considering the velocity of our rise and the estimated height of this dark tower, it will probably take half an hour for us to reach the top. ” Goz muttered.
”Let ’s tidy up the torches and make sure they don ’t go out.
They ’re our only source of light. ”

The torches had previously been attached to the circular wall, but the rising floor scraped them off their holders.

Ves and the others went and picked up the torches and placed them closer around themselves and their mechs.
The tense air between the four temporarily faded as they were no longer compelled to compete with each other for the moment.

Each of them quietly turned their attention to their own mechs.
Whatever was in store for them at the top, they all suspected that their mechs would play a pivotal role.
The more they improved their mechs, the higher their chances of passing the next and probably final trial!

”Well, let ’s see if I can get these cannons to work. ”

When Ves decided to make his move earlier, he deliberately chose the frontline mech.
While its quality was probably the worst out of the four, Ves quite liked it for its simplicity.

The mech may be cheap, but that also made it simpler and easier to restore.
The mech possessed fewer points of failure for him to worry about, and most malfunctions were easier to fix.

”In the salvage business, a high maintenance mech is ten times worse than a low maintenance mech. ”

A more complex mech took a lot more time, effort and money to restore when broken.
While the differences between the four lithic mechs weren ’t all that large, the frontline mech was by far the least complex mech.

With just an estimated half hour of time before the rising floor reached the top, Ves did not have much time to effect much repairs, though.

He spent most of his time trying to get the laser cannons to work.
The mech he claimed was nothing more than an ornament if he couldn ’t restore its primary weapons!

Fortunately, the Rim Guardians hadn ’t made things too difficult.
As Ves crawled over his mech, he found that everything went a little bit better than expected.
In reality,

They would have never been able to restore these lithic mechs so easily!

”This is all a test. ” Ves reminded himself.

The Rim Guardians mainly wanted to see how they dealt with the new and unfamiliar.
Dumping them onto a simulated forest environment and forcing them to work with mechs based off a very different tech base served to demonstrate their versatility in different situations.

The second trial was particularly deep due to the social aspect of it.
The Rim Guardians probably wanted to see who could assert themselves or managed to convince their rivals to back out of the trials.

Ves probably went completely off-script here by resorting to more forceful persuasion than one would expect from a mech designer.

”Well, they didn ’t say anything about it, so I guess it ’s okay. ” He shrugged.

You could take a mech designer from the frontier, but you couldn ’t take the frontier from the mech designer! Ves still retained some of the values and principles he acquired from his time outside civilized space.

He was pretty certain that none of the other mech designers who entered the trials had ever experienced anything close as he did!

Although he acted completely outside of the behavior expected from a respected Journeyman, Ves didn ’t linger over his actions.
While he was sure he could use his Devil Tongue to use to exorcist any mech designer in his sights, why bother with that when he could simply resort to something faster?

”I don ’t even like that name. ” He muttered.

He would rather be known as a brawling mech designer than a deceitful mech designer! How could he even deceive someone if they all put up their guard against his lies? It was a travesty!

Fortunately, none of the others weren ’t aware of his moniker as of yet.
He could still play this card if the situation ever called for it, though Ves didn ’t think it would come to that point.

”Now that we built some mechs, they ’re probably going to be put to use. ”

Ves was quite interested to see these lithic mechs in action.
Even though they looked like products of an ancient human civilization, they contained a lot of small inhuman touches.

Some of these alien elements were very thought provoking.
Ves appreciated the opportunity to get in touch with such a strange mech.
While he would never design such a strange mech on his own, he nonetheless felt as if he gained a stronger understanding of human-built mechs.

”The MTA has probably seen a lot.
This shouldn ’t be the only attempt of aliens to replicate our mechs. ”

Humanity was by far the strongest power in the galaxy.
Just its territorial expanse alone was mind boggling.

Although flawed and divided, the human race had become the standard to with all alien races needed to surpass in order to stay in contention.

The huge popularity of mechs in human space prompted many aliens to try their hand at developing and designing their own mechs.

Most mech designers who heard of such a thing expressed skepticism at the thought.
How could these aliens ever come close to matching the splendor of humanity ’s mech community? The enormous mech industry and the vigorous mech market were too big!

The only major advantage the aliens enjoyed was that they didn ’t need to figure out everything themselves.
Studying the lithic mechs abundantly made it clear to Ves that whatever race designed these mechs had learned from humanity ’s advancements!

”They haven ’t done any of the hard work. ”

Human mech designers and researchers put so much effort into their work.
It was far too cheap of the aliens to plagiarize human innovation.
While their lack of original research probably prevented them from surpassing human mechs, it wasn ’t too difficult to narrow the gap to a single mech generation or less.

Of course, Ves did not think their work mattered all that much.
Every conflict between humans and aliens was mostly decided by warships.
Even in the Age of Mechs, warships still formed humanity ’s sharpest weapons against external enemies.

”Right now, mechs aren ’t meaningful in any serious conflict between the races.
Mechs are simply too small and weak to be of any consequence. ”

Just as infantry could never seriously contend against mechs, mechs could never seriously contend against warships.
It was a waste of time for aliens to imitate human mechs.
They were better off copying human warships instead!

He chuckled.
”That ’s a lot harder to do, though.
It ’s much easier to plagiarize mechs since they ’re so accessible. ”

No other warship ought to exist since the CFA claimed them all.
As one of the most powerful human organizations in the galaxy, trying to copy their design schematics was incredibly hard!

Even if they did manage to obtain an old blueprint or something, trying to reproduce these powerful ships was easier said than done! Not only did they consist of incredibly advanced technologies that were difficult to reproduce, they also required an abundance of rare and expensive materials to make them work!

Considering how difficult it was to imitate a modern human warship, Ves could see now why certain aliens decided to imitate mechs instead.

”Even the aliens are rooting for mechs being able to beat warships one day. ” Ves idly muttered.

He continued to fix up the lithic frontline mech as the floor came nearer to the top.
Using his existing knowledge, he managed to get the laser cannons to work fairly quickly.
That left him with a little bit of time to tweak the rest of the mech, though the lack of tools and thorough understanding of the mech made it difficult for him to make any significant progress.

In the end, the rising floor rose and rose until it finally reached the top.
Ves and the other mech designers beheld the strange nighttime environment of this unknown planet.

At this moment, Lieutenant Ferct finally made a reappearance.
Her body faded into view in their midst.

”Nine of you entered the trials.
Four of you are left.
The previous two trials were merely an attempt at winnowing away the unworthy.
As far as I ’m concerned, all of you are decent enough to become our friends, but according to the rules, only two can pass the trials. ”

Every mech designer who made it this far stared at each other.
Tristan and Goz seemed to be the favorites to pass, though Ves emerged as an unexpected dark horse.
The only woman among them was the weakest of the three, but whether she could make it to the end or not depended on the nature of the following trial.

”You must be curious about what we have in store for you next. ” The mech lieutenant teased with a grin.
”We ’ve already shown you a glimpse of what we can do with the technology at our disposal.
My fellow Rim Guardians and I have entered into a long discussion on which trial should come next.
Originally, we intended to give you all more time to tweak your mechs and assign random mech pilots to them in order to duke it out with each other, but where is the fun in that? ”

Ves frowned for a brief moment.
That would have been the most logical test considering their current situation.
Why had they worked so hard on these lithic mechs if not to put them into use?

”These mechs that you ’ve restored might look exotic in your eyes, but to us they are no better than toys. ” The lieutenant contemptuously snarked.
”We Rim Guardians may have emerged from the galactic rim, but we are all trained to pilot high-performing first-class mechs.
None of us look forward to piloting these primitive machines.
To that end, we decided to mix up your last trial! ”

Uh oh.
Ves knew that tone of hers.
It was the kind of tone someone used when they wanted to spring someone with a nasty surprise!

”In our inestimate wisdom, we Rim Guardians have decided to give you the opportunity to win the trials through your own efforts! We ’ll let you pilot these mechs into battle yourselves! ”


”We ’re not mech pilots! How can we possibly pilot these mechs?! ”

”Doesn ’t matter! ” Ferct grinned.
”These mechs aren ’t real in the first place.
They ’re physical projections.
Reality here can be whatever we want in the Pit! You ’re saying you aren ’t mech pilots? Well, we can make that happen here! Our tech is more than capable of giving you a taste of what it is like to pilot a mech! It ’s a pretty realistic simulation! ”

There were virtual games out there that gave norms a taste of what it was like to pilot a mech.
The experience was heavily dumbed down, though, and the simulation was far from realistic.
A normal human mind simply couldn ’t endure the strain of a genuine man-machine connection.

However, Ves didn ’t think the Rim Guardians would employ such fake means! With all of the tech they demonstrated so far, Ves did not believe they lacked a means of giving mech designers like him a somewhat realistic approximation of what it was like to pilot an actual mech!

”Well, let ’s proceed with the show.
We ’ll be giving each of you an hour to enter the cockpit and familiarize yourself with the operation.
I hope you won ’t embarrass yourselves by the time we put you into the ring! Good luck! ”

The lieutenant disappeared, leaving every mech designer stumped.

”Maybe it ’s just a highly-advanced game interface. ” Tristan remarked.

Whatever the case, they would soon find out.
Ves approached his frontline mech and slowly climbed up into its cockpit.
After making himself comfortable on the hard stone seat, Ves lifted his finger, but hesitated.

Was it really possible for him to pilot a mech?

”Why do I feel so apprehensive? ”

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