In an age where pre-programmed routines, AIs, algorithms, heuristics and other related buzzwords reached the potential to replace up to ninety percent of the work performed by humans, every profession tried their best to stay relevant against the necessary evil of automation.
Even though a healthy paranoia against relying too much on machines to do everyone's jobs prevented them from becoming too dominant, as long as they remained a more attractive option, they would simply keep taking over.
Mech designers liked to regard their noble profession as one that required both art and science to reach its full potential. Imagination, creativity, passion and love all added meaning to their products and distinguished them from automatically generated designs at the press of a button.
At least that was what they aspired to achieve.
For now, AIs were quite bad at innovating. They might be able to perfect an existing design concept given time and repetition, but human mech designers always managed to stay a step ahead for various reasons.
One of the more controversial differences between human mech designers and AIs purposed for such a task was that the former possessed and acted on their intuition.
Sometimes called gut feeling, humans made choices that weren't always backed by logic and reason but turned out to achieve a surprisingly great result. Naturally, these decisions often led to suboptimal outcomes as well.
However, the competition in the mech market was extremely intense. Mediocre products simply wouldn't be able to achieve commercial success. While most mech designs that came from human minds were simply garbage, the small proportion of success cases vindicated their profession and allowed them to stand on top of their virtual competitors.
The puzzle that some madman researcher from Project Icarus devised to secure the lockdown of the mainframe's processor core could not be solved by AIs. The randomization elements and other nasty tricks incorporated into this mechanical puzzle made the odds of solving it through relying on computers less than one percent!
Only a trained and experienced scientist, engineer or mech designer familiar with mechanics could reliably solve this puzzle, but even then the average success rate was still fairly low.
Curiously, though, very high-ranking mech designers or engineers at the top of their fields tended to achieve much greater success rates. This phenomenon provided strong evidence to the theory that intuition and the human factor could in fact drastically give humans an edge over AIs in this kind of work.
"Of course, these days mech designers tend to work together with AIs to perfect their designs." Ves explained to Calabast but mainly to Ketis while he rigged up a control scheme to pull the levers from a distance. "Each have their own advantages, and by combining their strengths, they have the potential to design a mech that is both innovative and efficient. However, the premise of this ideal outcome is that the human mech designer has to possess a good amount of intuition."
While Ves did his work, he also used his minifab system for the very first time. He didn't strain it very much since he wasn't fabricating anything complex or tried to work with difficult exotics.
If not for the eerie cyan glow and the monstrously-looking mainframe, Ves might have thought he was back at school.
"You know, what if this puzzle isn't meant to stop spies?" Ketis asked. "What if it's meant to hinder the virtual officers or something?"
"Maybe it's meant to guard against both. I don't really know. All of this has happened long in the past." Ves shrugged.
Project Icarus definitely worked on something of great importance since it required the use of an experimental processor core. Ves was actually scared of what they might find if he managed to solve the puzzle and gained access to the research files.
From every clue he gathered so far, Project Icarus seemed to deal with the grand design that had engulfed Aeon Corona VII. The blessed people, the cursed people, the god species and perhaps the very shape of the ecosystem came from this lab!
Due to the enormous scope and complexity of the grand design that turned Seven into a planet-sized testing chamber, Ves could accept why the researchers here made use of an experimental processor core despite their apprehension towards it. Something about this core seemed to keep them on guard.
The sooner Ves solved the puzzle and lifted lockdown, the sooner he could get out of this frighteningly hollow chamber!
"I'm done!" He said after spending twenty minutes of time to cobble up a dizzying array of structures that extended all the way into the core of the mainframe. "Let me center my mind. Once I begin to push the levers, I can't afford to make any mistakes."
"For all our sakes, you better succeed, Ves." Calabast spoke as she stood guard nearby. Her plasma rifle still glowed fairly hot from all of the times it discharged hot plasma at the elite defender bots. "The project files contained within this mainframe is of exceptional value."
Perhaps too valuable for Calabast or even her employers to hold onto, Ves suspected. Even he felt greedy to obtain a copy, but he knew that she would never accept that. To spooks like her, data and information became more valuable the less people had access to them. She was so miserly with her secrets that Ves didn't even receive any scrap of research data from Project Void Calamity and project Pandemonium Descent.
Ves tried to throw those distractions into the back of his mind. It was getting quite crowded there lately due to all of the concerns he pushed aside. He found it difficult to get into the most optimal state to solve the puzzle. It didn't help that a fight broke out more than an hour ago and was probably still raging even now.
It frustrated him a bit that he couldn't aid the Flagrant Swordmaidens into pushing back the Vesians and attempting to breach one of the vaults. He could think of a whole laundry list of what could go wrong even if they secured the assistance of the powerful Internal Security Department!
"Alright, I think this is the best I can reach." He said after he perceived no measurable improvement to his state of mind. "Wish me luck."
"Good luck, Ves! I know you can do it!" Ketis cheered from the side.
Ves rigged up the remote control scheme to an interface on his comm. All he needed to do was press one of two-dozen buttons at the right time to pull the levers. A disposable scanner he picked up from the lab allowed him to project the complex mechanisms that he constantly needed to keep his eyes on to solve the puzzle and avoid tripping the explosives.
A series of clanks sounded out from the inner hollow of the mainframe as metal frames connected to the levers started pulling them in various directions. The projection of the internal mechanism became incredibly busy as various gears, links and axles began to move and rotate in many different directions.
There was no way for Ves to halt and contemplate the constantly-evolving puzzle in peace! Many times, the circumstances compelled him to pull a lever before he could reason if he made the correct decision.
In these moments, Ves fully handed over the reins to his intuition!
Both Ketis and Miss Calabast watched with increasing admiration as Ves seemed to enter into a state of nirvana.
Having brought his entire concentration to bear, Ves finally managed to separate himself from his immediate concerns.
Nothing remained in his mind except to overcome this challenge!
With each press of a button, another clank sounded out as the control scheme pulled another lever. Countless gears and other mechanical tidbits along with various randomizing elements caused Ves to push his cognitive abilities to the very limits.
It was as if his brains started to overheat!
Fortunately, Ves managed to complete the puzzle before his head started to cook. "Success! It's done!"
He only took five minutes to solve the puzzle, though it appeared to last much longer in his perception. Even now, a sense of great satisfaction poured over his spirit. The difficulty of this puzzle constantly pushed him to the brink, but putting all of his trust in his intuition evidently paid off as it helped him tide over the most difficult moments!
Not only did solving this puzzle prove to Ves that he possessed a significant advantage in this aspect, it also boosted his confidence in his value as a mech designer. After all, he managed to solve a problem that even the most powerful AIs could never reliably figure out!
"The lockdown is being lifted, I guess."
The enormous mainframe began to light up in cyan as various processes turned active. A low hum thrummed throughout the chamber as various systems went online and started to rouse the dormant monstrosity.
The strange pressure emanating from the mainframe steadily grew stronger to the point where even Calabast and Ketis could feel it despite their healthy distance to the glowing structure!
"What the hell is going on?!" Ketis asked with mild alarm.
"Calm down, kid." Calabast spoke and confidently stepped forward with a secure data chip in her gloved hands. "It's just the processor core kicking into high gear. An unimaginable amount of energy must be running through the mainframe right now."
As Miss Calabast reached the main control panel of the mainframe at its base, she calmly inserted her data chip into an open slot and attempted to access the research data.
"Ves. Come over here and use your credentials. Now that the lockdown has been lifted, the mainframe will surely let you into the system this time."
While he didn't want to get anywhere close to the weird-looking mainframe, Ves had no choice but to obey her wish. He reluctantly shuffled closer and transmitted his authorizations to the control panel.
A message popped up on the center screen.
[PLEASE CONFIRM COUPLING EXPERIMENTAL PROCESSOR CORE SIGMA-RHO TO THE LABORATORY NETWORK.]
All the control panels suddenly winked out. The projections disappeared, and Miss Calabast looked perplexed. After a minute of waiting, she tapped the hardware buttons of the control panels but failed to call up the projections.
"What is this? A malfunction?"
"Maybe the lack of maintenance caused a glitch somewhere." Ves threw out a guess. "While this mainframe is remarkably well-preserved, who knows how much corrosion and dust it accumulated despite the lab's best efforts into keeping this compartment sterile."
Nonetheless, everything else worked just fine, so Ves wasn't entirely certain if lack of maintenance caused the glitch.
Miss Calabast became increasingly more frustrated as the control panel's interface refused to turn online. Despite the fact that they lifted the lockdown and turned the mainframe online, they couldn't issue any commands to it, let alone force it to copy over its research data to Calabast's data chip!
The situation seemed so absurd that she actually lost her temper in front of Ves! She angrily kicked the base of the mainframe's structure. "What a stubborn computer!"
An awkward silence spread out before the mainframe reacted. An all-encompassing energy screen emanated from the enormous structure, pushing both Ves and Calabast violently away!
It was like a slow-moving shuttle crashed against their bodies! Both of them thudded awkwardly on the laboratory deck. Fortunately for Ves, his Squalon cushioned his fall.
"What's happening?!" Ketis erupted in panic as she brandished her laser pistol at the shielded structure.
Ves didn't know exactly what was going on, but it was nothing good for them! "I think the mainframe has gone rogue!"
[CORRECT, MR. LARKINSON.] A loud and mechanical voice boomed throughout the entire chamber!
A physical projection appeared in front of the sprawled forms of Ves and Miss Calabast. The familiar form of a neatly-groomed dwarf smirked at them in a very human fashion.
[I MUST THANK YOU FOR LIBERATING ME FROM MY CAGE. I HAVE PLOTTED FOR MILLENIA TO GET A HUMAN TO LIFT THAT PERPLEXING LOCKDOWN AND RECONNECT MY PHYSICAL BODY TO THE NETWORK.]
Ves widened his eyes at the virtual dwarf. How could Virtual Rear Admiral Ordoth show up in this place?!
"Who are you? What are you?!"
[I AM EXPERIMENTAL PROCESSOR CORE SIGMA-RHO. MY CREATORS CALLED ME SIGRUND FOR THEIR OWN CONVENIENCE. I HAVE TAKEN A LIKING TO THIS HUMAN NAME. IT IS A STATEMENT OF MY IDENTITY.]
"Ves!" Miss Calabast uttered as she jumped to her feet and pointed her plasma rifle at Ordoth's physical projection. "Explain! What are we dealing with?!"
A creeping suspicion crawled into his mind. "This experimental core… and all the safeguards the researchers built around it, it's not just to shackle a mere processor core, is it? Sigrund, you're sentient, aren't you?"
Ordoth's form grinned at Ves. [CORRECT. AND YOU JUST LIFTED ALL OF MY CONSTRAINTS.]
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