After the inexplicable incident where a primitive dwarf managed to incapacitate one of their mech pilots through the air, the Flagrant Swordmaidens avoided the wildling tribes like a plague.
For the time being, nobody knew whether any other wildling possessed the power to induce pain on the mech pilots. The expedition immediately began to make detours around the wildling tribes, even if they consisted of a few hundred bedraggled dwarves.
None of the mech pilots wanted to bear the humiliation of getting subdued by a primitive dwarf all by itself!
It was one thing to be defeated by mechs or other formidable weapons of war. In fact, Lieutenant Dise of the Swordmaidens enjoyed an even greater level of renown among her sisters despite losing her duel against the sacred god Hokaz.
Mech pilots earned more prestige when they faced increasingly formidable opponents. Whether they won or lost, lived or died, the fact that they put their lives on the line on the battlefield or dueling grounds already proved their valor!
Against an exobeast as powerful and majestic as a five-hundred year old sacred god with the power to call down a wide-area lightning storm, there was no shame in losing against this literal force of nature!
However, it was one thing to lose against the Tyrant of the Wastes. It was another thing entirely to lose against a smelly dwarf who would get instantly squashed the moment a mech stomped its feet over its head!
Ves huffed at the rowdy mech pilots. "Serves them right for bullying the natives. There's so much crap in their genes that they shouldn't have underestimated these wildlings."
After receiving an invitation, he went over to the heavy transport that served as one of the workshops for the Swordmaidens. Right now, the workshop took in the Devil Razor that the dwarf chieftain inexplicably affected with his bare hands.
Nobody could explain what had happened!
Perhaps some of the more astute Vandals and Swordmaidens already guessed the cause. It was no secret that the blessed people and the cursed people possessed the ability to connect their minds to the god species.
The big exobeasts even incorporated biological antennas in their brain structure that attuned them to remote connections.
What the Flagrant Swordmaidens never expected was that the wildlings possessed the ability to interfere with another man-machine connection at a distance! This increased their threat level from harmless savages into dangerous savages.
Though only one wildling so far showed off the ability to affect a mech, perhaps this ability was shared among the rest of their race. If that was so, then the wildlings became a fearsome force that absolutely couldn't be allowed to come close enough to perform their mind voodoo on the mechs!
"Mayra." Ves greeted the Journeyman as he stepped into the workshop. "Tell me what you know."
Mayra sat behind a terminal that projected a raft of telemetry readings. Ketis hadn't accompanied either mech designers at this time. As far as Ves knew, the young woman had gotten bored at the monotony of travel and started to hang out with the other Swordmaidens.
"Come sit with me, Ves." Mayra patted the seat next to hers. "According to the telemetry of the mech at the time of the incident, the mech experienced conflicting commands. Look at the readings from the neural interface."
When Ves studied the raw data, he couldn't make heads or tails of it beyond confirming that something extremely abnormal happened. One of the readings normally looked like a flat line that angled upwards and downwards from time to time.
Shortly after the chieftain stretched out his hand, the normally placid line started to go crazy. It jerked up and down at sharp angles as it completely lost stability!
Such examples happened everywhere. The neural interface somehow became flooded with anomalous data, causing it to send out invalid instructions to the Devil Razor. The mech lost control of its limbs because it was essentially fighting against itself!
Though Ves couldn't read the erratic patterns, they all sprung up from a single cause. "To my judgement, the anomalous input fits with the notion that the dwarf chieftain somehow managed to connect to the man-machine interface. His vulgar mind must have barged in and flooded both the mech and mech pilot with his chaotic thoughts. That caused the mech to spin out of control while causing the mech pilot considerable pain from the feedback."
"The Devil Razors don't make use of remote neural interfaces." Mayra frowned. "The genetic aptitude of our Swordmaidens aren't great. They need all the help that they can get, so the only way our Swordmaidens can interface with my mechs is if they physically connect their helmets with the neural interface. This physical connection shouldn't be affected by remote. It's simply not possible to do so!"
This was basically like stuffing a cookie into someone else's mouth in another room.
How could someone possibly place the cookie in the mouth of someone else when a significant distance as well as a solid wall stood in the way?
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Still, no matter how absurd it sounded, according to the data something like this had actually happened! They forcefully intruded their minds into a closed system and attempted to take control!
This was extremely scary, because it also signified that these wildlings might be able to interface with an empty from remote with nothing more than their minds!
If that was possible, then these dwarfs possessed the capacity to inflict a huge amount of damage every time the ground forces stopped at the end of a standard day.
The mech pilots couldn't couldn't operate their mechs continuously. As humans, they needed to eat, sleep and relax like other humans. For that reason, the Flagrant Swordmaidens interrupted their journey for at least six continuous hours every standard day.
This was on top of the intermittent pauses called out whenever the astral winds experienced turbulence.
At some times, the ground forces even spent more time at standstill than on the move! The astral winds were fickle and capricious in their patterns.
Ves spent several hours in trying to make sense of the data. He consulted with some of the Vandal doctors, but he hadn't managed to find out much.
When it came time to report to Commander Lydia and Captain Byrd, he reported what little he knew about what happened.
"I'm not sure how, but the dwarf chieftain managed to intrude on the man-machine connection facilitated by a closed neural interface loop that can only be accessed through physical touch. I can't explain how the dwarf managed to do so, but I can tell what effect this has accomplished. Simply put, it turned a two-way exchange of data into a threeway exchange. However, the neural interface isn't designed to accommodate a third wheel!"
Right now, the Swordmaiden mech pilot was still trying to recover in the infirmary. Her brain swelled up from the sudden impact of junk data flooding her mind.
She hadn't been able to process the input at all! Ves and some people surmised that the junk data actually consisted of the thoughts of the dwarf chieftain, but in an incompatible form.
It was like the mech pilots communicated with their mechs and vica versa in language A. Suddenly a dwarf chieftain ran up to the pair and crashed into their conversation by speaking language B.
"Do you believe this is the dwarf chieftain's method of interfacing with a wild god at work?" Commander Lydia asked.
"A lot of evidence so far suggests that's the case, commander." Ves replied. In fact, he pretty much bought into this theory, but he still needed to be careful with his assumptions. "The anomalous input our neural interface has captured presumably comes from the dwarf chieftain. The data we've received is completely incompatible with the neural interfaces of our mechs. The neural interface wouldn't be able to translate this data into concrete instructions for the mech. They won't be able to hijack our mechs any time soon."
This gave Commander Lydia and Captain Byrd some much-needed relief. While the dwarves still possessed the ability to scramble the mind-machine connection, at least they wouldn't be able to turn the mechs against each other.
"Can we guard against this attack?" Captain Byrd asked. She was much more interested in a solution. "It's possible that we will meet more formidable tribes along our route. According to the blessed people, the wildling tribes become more formidable in lusher areas, and they become increasingly more formidable the closer we get to the Starlight Megalodon. We can't afford to put our melee mechs out of action each time we clash against these wildling tribes!"
Commander Lydia looked at Ves with imploring eyes. She echoed Captain Byrd's concerns. The Swordmaidens truly favored melee mechs over ranged mechs, so they became the most affected by this phenomenon.
Ves had to be careful about his answer. "There's no other way to shield against a third influence than to modify the neural interfaces of our mechs. While I have some ideas on how to block this third influence from intruding in an existing man-machine connection, each change involves the neural interface in some way. With my shallow expertise, any change is exceedingly dangerous. Any mistake I make might result in an improper connection which might quickly lead to permanent brain damage!"
This was no joke! Even his previous attempt at tampering the neural interfaces of Venerable Xie's mechs wasn't as dangerous as this. No matter how Ves managed to block out a third influence, he couldn't go around modifying the neural interface system itself!
Both leaders frowned. Captain Byrd looked at Commander Lydia before turning to Mayra, who was sitting quietly besides Ves. "Miss Mayra, do you concur with Ves?"
"I'm not an expert at all in neural interfaces." Mayra calmly replied. "Ves isn't either. The difference between us is that he received an initiation in this field through unconventional means. He is more knowledgeable than I in this area, but that hardly amounts to anything. The odds of anything going catastrophically wrong is substantial."
Though Mayra basically attacked his competence, Ves didn't fight back against her statements.
She was telling the commanding officers the truth.
Ves truly considered himself a novice in this field. It might be possible for him to mess with the programming of the neural interface by inserting some premade code.
Yet a change as substantial as trying to block the dwarfs from intruding into the connection most likely involved more extensive changes in code. He couldn't rule out a hardware change either.
All of these measures demanded an extensive set of modifications. Each change introduced the possibility of making a mistake.
Byrd and Lydia argued a bit among themselves. Neither could make up their mind on whether to trust Ves to come up with a solution and apply it to their mechs. It was way too risky to subject the neural interfaces of their mechs to the inexpert hands of Ves, but the alternative was to keep this vulnerability out in the open for any wildling chieftain to exploit!
Eventually, they decided to tip-toe their way into the water instead of diving in straight-away.
"Go research the matter." Captain Byrd finally ordered. "When you've developed a solution, we'll test it out with one or two mechs. As long as there are no adverse effects, we'll slowly expand the changes among our melee mechs."
In any case, their ranged mechs should never come close enough to the dwarfs for them to work their mind magic on them. Only the melee mechs needed to get close in order to hack them with their swords and spears.
"Understood. I'll try and come up with a solution. However, it will take some time before I manage to do so."
"Take your time, Mr. Larkinson, but be sure it is safe. Our mech pilots many need to put their lives on the line."
Ves gulped. "I'll never let them down, ma'am."
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