The System declined to provide an explanation on the nature of Masteries. The lack of description surrounding the various Mastery Sub-Skills roused his interests, especially since they seem to be advanced skills. The amount of DP required to learn the subsequent levels of a particular Mastery rose to a ridiculous figure.
Ves found it prudent to take a step back and find out more about this mysterious set of Sub-Skills. He browsed the galactic net, finding plenty of references, but nothing solid. It appeared the mech industry treated it like a trade secret that should only be kept within their circle.
Fortunately, he found an introduction on the matter when he logged into the Clifford Society's online portal. He played a brief recording of a Star Designer lecturing in front of a conference of Masters over a hundred-and-fifty years ago.
"Mechs. We design them. We build them. We sell them. But do we understand them?" The elderly woman started. Despite her frail stature, her identity as one of the best mech designers in the galaxy shone through the brilliance of her eyes.
The audience remained silent. Despite their eminent status, the woman standing on the podium in front of them could easily beat them black and blue in any direct comparison.
"How many of you have ever piloted a mech? Simulations don't count."
A few hands rose up, but by and large, over ninety percent of the crowd had never truly piloted a real mech.
The old lady smirked. "Ah, you may think it doesn't matter. It certainly hasn't stopped me from reaching this height. It is a common understanding among our profession that you can only fully dedicate your life to pilot a mech or design them. No one among us has managed to advance to a Master Mech Designer while simultaneously becoming an ace pilot. It can't be done."
Everyone nodded in agreement at that statement. It took an extraordinary effort for professional mech pilots to progress from advanced pilot to expert pilot, from expert pilot to ace pilot, and from ace pilot to the exalted rank of god pilot. The latter of which enjoyed so much worship that they even exceeded the status of Star Designer.
"Yet how can we design mechs for the best pilots in the galaxy if we don't understand their perspective? Our individual design process is riddled with our own biases that we've formed through our own studies. Perhaps at the start of our careers, our shallow understanding of the piloting profession won't affect our designs that much, since our customer base is largely composed of regular pilots or advanced pilots at most. Yet will that superficial understanding of what mech pilots are going through be sufficient when you become a Journeyman or a Senior?"
Among the crowd, a hand rose up. "In my entire career of designing mechs, I've never stepped foot inside a cockpit. But I've always listened closely to my customers and my in-house test pilots. I've never received any complaints about incompatibilities of severe discomforts about my products."
"Ah, but these are ignorant pilots who don't know any better. Just because they are unable to perceive any flaws doesn't mean they don't exist. If you compare a mech designed by you to a similar mech designed by someone who understands, the difference will be very apparent."
Everyone looked confused. What did she mean by understanding?
"Understanding means knowing what a mech pilot is going through when he pilots your mechs!" She exclaimed as she clapped her hands. "It is not enough to read a memoir or two. You need to understand their thought processes, their reflexes, their skills, their reaction time and more! The best way to understand a mech pilot is to become one!"
"But we just found out that most of us lack the aptitude to become a mech pilot."
"I just told you it's the best way, not the only way!" The lady snapped back. "Think outside the box for a moment! To design better mechs, we must understand the people who will use them. So your neural aptitude makes you unsuitable to pilot a mech, big deal. If we can't interface with a machine, why not interface with the mech pilots themselves?"
The revelation came as a bombshell. The neural interface had been developed many years ago as a way for neurologists to investigate the minds of their patients. Mind-to-mind connections quickly proved exceedingly dangerous as many instances of improper use led to permanent brain damage among the observer and the recipient.
The technology had only been salvaged four-hundred years ago when a genius had the bright idea of connecting a person to a mech to solve its complicated control issues. The dangers proved much less substantial as the mind of a mech was nonexistent compared to the mind of a person.
"It is not the Age of Stars or the Age of Conquest! Technology has advanced! We understand much more about the neural interface now that it has proliferated with the help of our profession. There are many experts in the field of neurology who have taken the neural interface and made it into a safer device to connect with another human's mind."
"Have you… have you actually interfaced with a pilot?"
"I did." She smiled, to the stupefaction of the crowd. Even if she claimed that the technology had become safer, the Masters hadn't gotten rid of their doubts. "I am still alive, as you can see. I can count to ten without stuttering and I can still go to the toilet without assistance. As long as you take the necessary precautions, there are many benefits to be gained by interfacing with a skilled mech pilot!"
"What do you get out of interfacing with a mech pilot? Is this a way to become a mech pilot ourselves?"
"Don't talk nonsense." The Star Designer shook her head. "Interfacing is not a way to copy another person's efforts the way you can copy a file from one data pad to another. Each human is unique. It's impossible for us to copy a mech pilot's skills, as much of it is embedded in his reflexes, muscle memory and other properties that are exclusive to his body."
Then what benefits did she obtain to make the risky venture pay off?
"I can't explain to you how wondrous it feels to connect your mind with another. The connection goes both ways, and while it is possible to block sensitive memories from your partner, it will destabilize the connection if you go too far. So up to a certain extent, it is best to interface with someone you trust."
She went on the describe the advantage of interfacing with a pilot. The Star Designer did not set out to steal a mech pilot's memories, but merely wanted to experience the sensations of piloting a mech first-hand.
"There are many tiny aspects about piloting mechs that escape your grasp. I have learned so many new things and corrected so many misperceptions after I embarked on this exploration. As mech designers, we often receive second-hand or third-hand information on what a mech pilot is going through. Neural interfacing enables us to blur the boundaries between yourself and your partner, allowing you to perceive the piloting experience first-hand from the best."
Someone realized the significance of her wording. "That sounds like as if you interfaced with a mech pilot who interfaced with a mech!"
"Exactly! The best possible moment to understand a mech pilot is when he actively pilots a mech! The brain activities that goes on in his mind can never be fully expressed if he lays down in a clinical lab with a device stuck onto his head."
No one had ever thought such a mad idea could work. If interfacing a pair was already fraught with risk, then connecting three people at once always ended in disaster. Researchers who pushed the boundaries always ended off in jail after turning all of their test subjects into brain-dead idiots.
"I'm still alive and well, as you can see, so don't look too surprised! The risks are great, but the potential gains more than makes up it. My designs have improved remarkably to the point where ace pilots and god pilots have formed a decades-long waiting list for me to design a personal mech for them! It is because out of all my competitors, only I can fully tailor a mech that can bring out their full potential."
Once the crowd of Masters got over their shock, they started to see the advantages of understanding the minds of elite pilots.
The few potentates among them had never advanced beyond the rank of advanced pilot. To push themselves to expert pilots required a complete dedication to the warrior profession. No one had any delusions of advancing any further, so they never held any ambitions of understanding the perspective of ace pilots and god pilots.
Yet what they learned today opened the door to greater understanding. Comprehending the mindset of elite pilots finally became possible through the use of neural interfacing.
The Star Designer proceeded to explain her setup and the many technical challenges she faced. Much of it must be grossly outdated by now, but Ves still found it useful as the old lady explained the concepts that made the process work.
"Human-to-human neural interfacing can be used beyond getting into the minds of a mech pilot. Currently, I've partnered up with the MTA to research ways in which a mech designer can interface with a variety of soldiers and athletes to achieve a greater understanding on how to exploit the humanoid form, and thus achieve complete Mastery over a particular type of mech."
"Are there any dangers besides the obvious?"
"Good question!" The old woman praised. "Neural interfacing can go wrong even if you have the perfect setup with the right hardware. Think about what you are embarking on when you put on the neural interface. You are connecting your mind with another person. To illustrate how dangerous this can be, imagine if any of you, each with over a hundred years of life experience, would interface with a baby barely a day old."
Everyone who surpassed the age of hundred possessed a formidable mind, and that went double for Master Mech Designers.
"We've never tried it, of course, but the neurologists and researchers all project utter disaster for the baby. In order to insure the interfacing won't overwhelm one mind or the other, it is important to balance them out in terms of mental strength. A simple old farmer who barely reached his hundredth year possesses the same strength of will as a child barely into his teens."
That meant that age was not the only factor. This basically meant that mech designers had to interface with mech pilots who closely matched their age, intelligence, life experience and career development.
For example, a Master Mech Designer should only interface with an ace pilot, while a Star Designer should only interface with a god pilot. Any mismatch on either side could lead to the weaker side sustaining permanent brain damage.
"What about interfacing with an animal?"
Everyone laughed at that question. The notion sounded so dangerous it was comical for someone to even entertain the suggestion.
"Even I'm not that crazy." The woman replied with a rueful smile. "Despite the many strides we've made to minimize the risks, the neural interface technology is still immature. It will take many decades before we can even begin to interface with felines and canids."
Once the recording came at an end, Ves sat back and digested what he learned. "So that's a thing."
After a hundred-and-fifty years, the state of neural interfacing must have made a lot of strides. Ves checked the Clifford Society on any other mentions of Mastery, and found a few oblique references.
It turned out that only major institutions like the Leemar Institute of Technology offered the facilities to conduct human-to-human neural interfacing. One document stated that only direct disciples of Masters would be eligible to take part in this tightly controlled process.
This explicitly left out someone like Ves with only a loose connection to Master Olson. He felt a little indignant at missing out on goodies like developing your Masteries. If the System didn't offer it with a huge amount of DP, Ves would never know what he lacked compared to other mech designers.
"Seeing it's like this, it's no wonder that the System charges 40,000 DP for the first level of a Mastery."
Despite the painfully high price, Ves became enamored by the idea of skipping out the risky process of interfacing with a bunch of strangers. Besides the difficulty of getting access to this exclusive process, Ves did not wish to let anyone rummage through his mind as he rummaged through theirs.
"The price is high, but the benefits and the convenience must be huge as well. I'd be a fool to miss out on a Mastery."
Despite the uncertainty swirling around this new and explosive field of knowledge, Ves pulled the trigger and bought the Mastery from the System.
A flood of scorching heat suddenly emitted from his comm. After a long period of dormancy, the System roused its might for the first time in a very long time.