The Barracuda escorted by the ships of the Battle Criers exited the Paisley System without any further fanfare.

The Dustravens had been left behind as Ves no longer required their services.
While the local mercs assisted the visitors with getting access to planets, they did not possess any substantial spaceborn forces.

”I don ’t quite trust them either. ” Ves murmured.

He always had the feeling that the Dustravens kept the Bloodweller faction informed of everything he did.
It wouldn ’t have bothered Ves if not for the recent assassination attempt.

Though anyone could have been responsible for putting out a hit on him, the fact that it might be a local influence meant the Bloodwellers couldn ’t be ruled out.
No matter how much the Dustravens acted honestly, their back influence continually aroused suspicion.

Ves sat behind his desk in his stateroom as he studied the regional star chart.
The fleet had been meandering through the Redwell Province for a while now.
The distance to Chuko ’s border with the Hinson Protectorate was only a short distance away.

Once they crossed over into Hinson, Ves hoped he no longer had to watch his back against the murky factions that continued muck about in Chuko.
The state was so unstable that he couldn ’t even count all of the factions and organizations treating it as their communal playground.

Nitaa still felt sour at letting off the people who plotted for Ves ’ life.
His bodyguard understood the logic of making a swift exit, but her immensely high opinion of the Holy Son made her unable to stomach such a meek course of action.

As Ves thought of a way to soothe Nitaa further, someone requested entry into his stateroom.

”Come in. ”

The hatch automatically slid open, revealing Michael Crindon.
The Kinner bondsman had been spending his time continuously aboard the Barracuda in order to tear apart the most egregious backdoors.

Even though months had passed since he started his work, Crindon was nowhere done with the momentous task! Modern starships were simply too connected and almost every point was being monitored by several sensors!

”How ’s your progress lately? ”

Crindon shook his head.
”There are limits to what we can do by hand, sir.
I ’ve finished sweeping over this stateroom and the surrounding compartments, but there are many essential sensors that are part of the core functioning of the vessel that I haven ’t touched.
Without a thorough revamp of this ship, she will always be riddled with vulnerabilities. ”

”At least there are less of them than before, right? ”

All of the work I ’ve performed hasn ’t been in vain.
Your vessel is more secure and much less susceptible to hacking or undue tampering.
The ship was already hard to access, but the measures I ’ve taken means that even those with backdoors should encounter some hindrances. ”

”It ’s not enough, right? ”

”If you want to obtain a truly secure vessel, then you should commission one that lacks all of the interconnectedness and conveniences of modern starships. ”

”Do these ships actually exist? ”

”They do, but I don ’t recommend you procure them.
They ’re less responsive and much more dependent on their crews as almost every system is put under manual control.
Aside from their resistance against hacking and electronic tampering, they perform much worse in almost every other aspect. ”

Ves looked disappointed.
I can see how that can be a problem. ”

Such vessels merely shifted control away from automated systems to human control.
This meant that a single bad actor among the crew could do a significant amount of damage by abusing their control over critical systems!

”It ’ll be much better once we reach the drydock we ’ve reserved at the Sentinel Kingdom.
Due to their proximity and frequent interactions with the Nyxian Gap, they have become very good at developing resilient ships that can withstand anything the Nyxian pirates throw at them.
The CFA is also very present in Sentinel. ”

The level of naval engineering at the Sentinel Kingdom was some of the best among third-rate states in the star sector.
The Nyxian Gap consisted of so many hazardous and anomalous regions of space that regular starships generally fared very poorly in the region.

Ships had to be modified to endure the rigors of travel in a seemingly endless expanse of asteroids.
It helped if the helmsmen also possessed an abundant amount of experience.

If neither of these conditions held true, then even an agile ship like the Barracuda could easily smash herself against an asteroid!

”After we arrive at the Sentinel Kingdom, I ’ll start taking you with me during my excursions. ” Ves spoke, moving on to another topic.
”Although your work has been valuable up here, I need a virtual security expert by my side.
Nitaa and Commander Cinnabar can ’t hack. ”

Crindon did not show a lot of confidence.
”While I ’ve shored up my hacking skills lately, I am still better at protecting systems than intruding upon them.
My combat abilities aren ’t on par of that of Nitaa. ”

”I don ’t expect you to fight on a physical battlefield.
Your place lies on the virtual battlefield.
Do you understand? ”

”I understand. ” Crindon reluctantly replied.
”I can serve you better if you let me move independently. ”

”I ’ll think about it, but for now I want you to be a part of my entourage. ”

Ves was gathering quite the number of staff who followed him around.
For a long time, he made do with Lucky and Gavin.

Now, the addition of Nitaa had already paid off by helping him foil a possible assassination attempt.

If Crindon had been on the ground with them at the time, they might have been able to recover some data from the quickly-deteriorating databanks at the time.

After a brief chat, Ves dismissed his Kinner bondsman and enjoyed some time alone.
He made a grab for Lucky, only for the cat to jump and float in the air.

”Meow! ”

”Oh, come on! ”

Lucky denied the comfort Ves wanted as revenge for the times the cat got tossed in the air.

As his cat departed the compartment by phasing through the deck, Ves rapped his fingers against his desk.
Now that his visit to the Chuko Republic came to an end, he wanted to sum up his gains.

Out of the various professional exchanges he conducted, he yielded remarkably less than he expected.
A lot more mech designers turned out to be miserly, which meant that Ves wasted the majority of his visits.

Though he could have probably employed some coercion in order to get the stubborn mech designers to open up, that defeated the spirit of exchanges.

”It is not like I didn ’t make some gains. ”

Some conversations led to huge gains, which was enough to make him satisfied.
The time he spent in the Chuko Republic had not gone to waste.

Even the conversations which mainly yielded little of value to his design philosophy still broadened up his perspective.

He sampled the diversity of opinions of various different Journeymen, each with their different design philosophies, backgrounds, achievements and more.

He also heard a diversity of opinions that opened up his mind to how others perceived a problem in a different way.

”Still, the most valuable insights are still the ones I ’ve gained from my talk with Old Man Terrence. ”

Ves continually thought back on his exchange with the fading mech designer.
Whether he wanted to confess his sins or give a younger mech designer a gift, the old man had been the most generous and open exchange partner up to this point.

Perhaps the single most important lesson he gained from this exchange was that there were two sides to every coin.

Neural interfaces opened up mechs for widespread application, but the dangers relating to their use still existed.
The MTA and neural interface specialists merely conspired to understate the potential damage they still did to unwitting mech pilots.

Ves thought back on his own mechs and tried to think where their neural interfaces stood.
Like almost any other mech designer, he defaulted to using the standard neural interface models, thinking that they were the safest option.

”Usually, I like to get something more exciting, but neural interfaces are too dangerous to mess around with.
No mech designer wants to be culpable for the deaths of mech pilots due to dangerous interactions with tampered neural interfaces. ”

Yet something rotten hid beneath the innocent and harmless facades of standard neural interface models.
Old Man Terrence ’s claims that the MTA engaged in manipulation at a very large scale by tweaking the limits of neural interface sounded very preposterous at first.

The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced.

He did his own research, of course.
He tried to trawl the galactic net and the MTA ’s internal database, but he encountered no relevant data of this kind.

Ves sighed.
”The MTA isn ’t stupid enough to publicize their dark experiments. ”

He turned his attention to studying the neural interface models instead.
Utilizing his extremely basic understanding of neural interface technology, he tried to compare models of different generations and see whether the MTA shifted their limits.

So far, Ves found very little differences among the models used by the Komodo Star Sector.
The tweaks were so minor that they wouldn ’t yield any measurable differences.

”Then again, a backwater star sector like ours doesn ’t merit any attention from the MTA. ”

He studied the neural interface models of other star sectors, particularly the ones prone to conflict and war.

Here, he spotted larger swings.
The limits had been raised and lowered by as much as ten percent.
Such a difference might not be huge, but over time they affected a lot of mech pilots!

After making this observation, Ves no longer doubted Old Man Terrence as much.
At least on this point, he spoke the truth!

”He ’s probably right about all the other stuff he talked about as well. ”

A mixed expression overcame Ves as he thought about the danger his mechs posed to his customers.

”Risk is always accompanied by reward. ” He whispered.

The MTA thought long and hard about the relation between immersion and performance.
Their overarching policy of developing as many high-ranking mech pilots as possible meant they chose to set the overall limits in the middle.

A lot of regular mech pilots accumulated brain damage as they continually interfaced with their mechs.
Even expert pilots weren ’t exempt from these consequences!

”What is the value of a normal mech pilot compared to an expert pilot? ”

The MTA ’s policy on neural interfaces revealed that they didn ’t care about the wellbeing of mortal mech pilots.

”Millions of brain-damaged mech pilots can ’t compare to a single expert pilot. ”

The human race consisted of an uncountable amount of individuals.
Even if only 3.5 percent of them possessed the right genetic aptitude to pilot mechs, that was still an ungodly amount of potentates!

”The galaxy won ’t run out of normal mech pilots anytime soon! ”

As long as mechs remained popular, new mech pilots always emerged.
For this reason, the MTA readily treated them as expendable resources in order to generate as many expert pilots as possible from their ranks.

”Unlike mortal mech pilots, high-ranking mech pilots are far too rare. ”

Attrition was the number one reason why the MTA constantly sought to increase the amount of expert pilots.
Too many of them died in battle over the course of their careers.
The difficulty of extending their lifespan was another reason why it became so hard to maintain their numbers.

Even less got to live to ace pilot.
Those that did had a very long road ahead before they could even have a chance to advance to reach the apex of mech piloting.

”It says something that only a hundred or so known god pilots exist, almost the same as the amount of known Star Designers in the entire galaxy! ”

Even if numerous more god pilots existed in secret, their absolute numbers shouldn ’t be much more than the entirety of the Avatars of Myth!

Considering the immense size of the galaxy, that was still a depressingly small amount!

The MTA obviously pursued a risky policy with a very significant human cost in order to increase the amount of god pilots.

If there weren ’t enough expert pilots, there wouldn ’t be enough ace pilots! If there weren ’t enough ace pilots, then the number of god pilots that existed would never increase!

In fact, they would probably decrease, because even god pilots still died in battle every now and then! Just because their moniker contained the word ’god ’ did not mean they were unkillable!

”Even gods are not exempt from attrition! ”

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