The star system was as quiet as a haunted house. Nothing popped up from the gas giants, asteroid fields and the other junk that orbited quietly through space. Besides the fallen base, the Barracuda detected no other signs of human habitation. Even if no threats had popped up, the ship still travelled cautiously, keeping its defenses on standby.
"The name of the game is caution." Ves explained to Dietrich as he tweaked the Harrier mech with the tools the Barracuda had in stock. "I don't want to step into a trap. I'd rather retreat and miss out on an opportunity than go in recklessly and gamble our lives."
Dietrich checked his own gear. While the Barracuda lacked an armory, the pilot brought his own gear. His main job was to pilot the Harrier, so he prepared to loan his spare pistol to Ves.
The light ballistic pistol fired smart projectiles that automatically changed their profile depending on what they encountered.
In the case of encountering armor, the bullet entered penetration mode, allowing it to punch through obstacles.
When facing flesh, the bullet entered fragmentation mode, which ensured unarmored targets suffered massive damage.
While the pistol was adaptable, its magazines only carried fifteen rounds. Dietrich customized the pistol and its bullets for accuracy. Due to his excellent marksmanship, he disabled the automatic tracking system that helped shooters aim on target. Before handing over the pistol, he reactivated the system so an amateur like Ves could actually hit something.
The Barracuda finally entered the barren planet's orbit after a day of travel. After a round of focused scanning, the ship found no imminent threats.
Though risky, Ves decided to let the Barracuda descend a kilometer away from the base. The ship smoothly sank into the ultrathin atmosphere of the planet and used her powerful thrusters and antigrav modules to moderate her descent. A ship as light as a corvette had no trouble entering or exiting the gravity well of an average planet.
Once the Barracuda extended her landing struts and landed on a somewhat level surface, the ship extended her powerful short-ranged sensors. A small hatch opened up and released a couple of tiny observation bots that spread out in a widening circle.
Ves stood on the bridge and studied the data gathered by the ship's extensive scanning. The topography of the map filled out in even greater detail. The map even showed what was buried underneath.
"There's no traces of traps nearby. It's safe to step out."
The Harrier stepped out of the Barracuda's cargo bay and engaged its flight module. The mech carefully lifted up in the air and patrolled the surroundings in a vigilant stance. Its ballistic rifle pointed at various rocks and other suspicious terrain features.
After ten minutes of elaborate scanning, a handful of observation bots finally approached the base. From its makeup, the scarred and ruined structure built along a cliff only served as the entrance to an underground complex. The bots carefully scanned the exterior before plunging into the gaping maw of the base.
In the meantime, both Ves and the Harrier approached the entrance of the base. Ves rode a small floating platform to the site with a curious Lucky clinging atop his shoulder. Bringing in anything else risked getting traced or hacked.
He already broke convention by employing observation bots. Ves prepared a crude standalone receiver that could interpret the data transmitted by the bots without exposing any other system. While it was not a foolproof method, it should delay any lingering defense mechanisms left behind.
The observation bots took their sweet time in mapping out the underground corridors. A lot of miscellaneous debris was strewn about. Many armored doors had been forced open. None of the scans detected any bodies or equipment. Only traces remained that told a story of a desperate defense.
Dietrich grew grim as he read the data from his cockpit. "The defenders went down fighting. If they are mercenaries, then they shouldn't have fought to the last man. This is strange."
"Perhaps you guessed wrong. The defenders might have disguised themselves as mercenaries."
"It could be that the people who hired these mercs compelled them to fight. It's not unusual for a shady corporation to keep their families as hostages."
Whatever the truth, the only way to find out was to step inside. Ves recalled the observation bots and sent them back to the ship. The Barracuda automatically corralled them into patrols. With their escape route secured, a mech and a suited human stepped inside the darkness.
The Harrier activated its powerful searchlights, illuminating the immediate area. Ves held a pistol in one hand and a hand-sized multiscanner in the other. The little device worked hard to make sense out of the cleaned-up battle site.
"My scanner estimates that up to seventy-five to ninety mechs exchanged fire from the traces left by the battle."
"The attackers came with the strength of an entire mech regiment. That's about fifty to sixty mechs. The defenders should have an equivalent strength. If they were caught with their pants down, then only those on shift were ready to respond."
As the pair entered the tunnel, they reached a broken elevator shaft. With the Harrier's flight system and Ves' floating platform, they cautiously descended to the floor below. Outside the wide, mech-sized corridors, they encountered several gaping caverns.
Even without the scanner, Ves could tell the space functioned as a warehouse. "The spaces are divided into two sections. My guess is that incoming goods are stored in the left cavern while the finished products are stored in the right cavern."
"Too bad that everything's gone. The raiders haven't even let off the loading equipment."
All the signs pointed out that the base functioned as a production facility. This ignited their enthusiasm. Ves sniffed a chance to salvage valuable production equipment. Dietrich hoped the attackers missed out on a few stashes that he could sell for a fortune.
Lucky proved to be of use when Ves let the mechanical cat roam the emptied caverns. It managed to find scraps of ores and metals. None of the traces were exotic, so Ves quickly lost his interest.
They exited the warehouse section and floated down to the second underground floor. The grey reinforced metal walls made way for a warmer green tint.
"From the looks of it, the barracks and mech stables are on this floor."
They encountered empty beds, ruined leisure rooms and half-destroyed mech stables. The fighting here had been hard, but the defenders were already doomed. The Harrier carefully shoved some of the debris aside while Ves poked around the mech stables.
The scavengers left a lot of gear behind. Tools like wrenches, cutters and various batteries were strewn about. Ves picked up a cutter and inserted a spare battery. The tool lit up with a flare of focused heat and light.
"This thing's only worth a couple of thousand credits." Ves said and turned off the cutter before tossing it away. "Nothing here is worth our time."
The real valuables should be the mechs and any spare parts. Whoever emptied out the stables had done a thorough job.
Despite the desolation, Ves wasn't about to give up. He constantly stretched out his multiscanner and began to search the areas where the mech technicians stored their gear. Lucky sniffed around as well and quickly meowed in excitement.
"What's up, buddy? Did you find anything?"
The cat scratched at his paws against a typical metal floor panel. Ves deep-scanned the location with his multiscanner. The machine found signs of a hidden compartment.
"What have you found, Ves?"
"There should be something valuable underneath."
After a few minutes of fumbling, Ves failed to find any triggers.
"Do you want me to pry it open?"
"No. We don't want to ruin what's inside. If my guess is right, we could be looking at a small fortune. Let me handle it."
He picked up another random plasma cutter and proceeded to cut a hole in the floor. The last time he operated a full-powered plasma cutter was back when he studied at Rittersberg. He held the cutter with care and made sure he followed all of the safety guidelines he could still dredge up from his mind. The last thing he wanted to do was to splash his legs with heated plasma.
A couple of minutes later, he finished cutting a man-sized hole. He carefully shut off the plasma cutter and removed its battery. With the help of a magnetizing tool, he lifted the metal cutout and placed it to the side.
Just as Ves took a step inside, a laser beam seared against his torso. At the very last moment, his master's shield generator flickered to life, expending five percent of its charge in an instant.
"GET BACK!" Dietrich boomed from his mech as he pointed his ballistic rifle.
Ves jumped to the side, breaking the line of fire. He stretched out his palm. "Don't shoot! You'll blow up everything inside!"
The Harrier held back not just due to the warning, but also because Ves was too close. The kinetic energy of a single mech-sized rifle could easily kill a human by proximity.
"As far as I know, there's only a single anti-infantry defense measure inside."
"Do you think it's a survivor?" Dietrich asked. He succeeded in pushing down his instinctive aggression once he saw that Ves mysteriously came off the attack without a single scorch mark.
"It's possible, but I doubt it. Whoever dug this out did it behind the backs of their bosses. They won't be using it to stash something as worthless as food and air."
"Let's call up an observation bot."
"No need. Just stretch out your Harrier's finger in the opening. We'll use your arm-mounted sensors to take a peek."
The fingers of a humanoid mech boasted very little armor, but they could easily withstand a single infantry-scale laser beam. As Dietrich did as Ves suggested, they both got a good look inside.
A small mounted light from the finger illuminated the hidden compartment. For a moment, both Ves and Dietrich were taken aback at the sight. Someone managed to stuff a whole container's worth of spare parts inside. The crude sensor-blocking wall panels added proof that it was an off-the-book operation.
"Let's take care of that defense bot first."
A single stationary defense bot remained active among the neatly stacked parts. Without any central direction, the cheap bot defaulted to its standard programming. Dietrich delicately flicked the Harrier's finger at the stupid bot, causing it to crunch and splash against the wall in a broken heap.
Just as Ves wanted to enter the compartment in order to finish off the bot, Lucky entered first and sliced the bot into pieces.
"Haha!" Dietrich laughed. "Looks like your pet it kind of pissed it almost killed its main source of food!"
Lucky had also been caught flat-footed by the surprise attack. Despite his deadly armament, his body only packed a limited amount of functionality. The cat's sensors were not as good as those carried by dedicated reconnaissance bots.
While Lucky vented his anger, Ves followed after his cat and scanned the compartment for any threats. Besides the broken bot, the compartment did not have any other surprises in store.
"That's a lot of spare parts." Dietrich noted as his sensors noted that all of the parts were in pristine condition. "We're looking at a mountain of credits. How did you know you'd find something like that?"
"It's a common scam among mech technicians." Ves responded as he rapped his knuckle against the surface of a packaged engine. "They're probably contractors or attached to the mercenary corps. It's a simple enough trick that only works if there's insufficient supervision. Since this base is supposed to be hidden, the real owners of the base kept their exposure limited. This left a hole in which the mech technicians are able to report a higher incidence of wear-and-tear than is actually the case."
A light dawned on Dietrich's face. "I get it now. The owners sent them their replacement parts, unaware that the old ones are still in working condition. Since the replacements are all freshly fabricated parts, you can sell them for quite a sum in the black market. I bet the mercenary corps was in on this scam as well. Maybe they never even performed the live-fire exercises they reported to their bosses."
This slowed down the wear-and-tear of their mechs even further, but it also lowered the readiness of their pilots. The consequences of losing their edge was obvious. All signs pointed out that the base had fallen fairly quickly.
As Ves inventoried the parts, he let out a whistle. "The great thing about this cache is that the mech technicians knew what to pick. Most of what they stored consists of engines or power reactors. They're not as valuable as armor plating, but much of their composition is made out of exotics."
This meant that the goods were easier to smuggle out. Since the Barracuda only had limited storage space, this was ideal.
"Let's finish exploring the rest of the base before emptying out this cache."
Until they fully explored the base, Ves did not intend to take anything away. Danger might still be around the corner.
After failing to detect any other caches, the group entered the elevator shaft and entered the next floor downwards.
The observation bots encountered a lot of issues trying to parse the third floor. Far more wreckage than anywhere else still littered the entire floor. Most of it turned out to be ruined industrial fabrication equipment.
Ves held his breath once he entered a large production hall. He imagined how many industrial-grade 3D printers worked side-by-side churning out the same parts. There were three halls in total, and each of them hosted three identical production lines.
Lucky pounced on some wreckage, trying to claw his way inside. The entire place was a treasure house for a pet that fed on rare materials.
"Man, some crazy mech has gone to town in here. All the fancy stuff is wrecked." Dietrich noted as his mech idly kicked the outer cover of a valuable 3D printer. "I'd say the defenders destroyed these machines once they realized they were going down."
His guess came close to the truth. There was no reason why the aggressors would be so destructive when they robbed everything else down to their bones. A defending mech had methodically sabotaged each machine by slicing them with a sword.
Ves noted that two spaces had been cleared. They must have hosted the most intact 3D printers, ones that could be fixed up and sold for a very tidy sum. He approached one of the brutally slashed printers and tried to find some markings. He eventually noted the model.
DORTMUND V3-B INDUSTRIAL 3D PRINTER
"It's a Dortmund!" Ves exclaimed. His greedy eyes ran over the wrecked printer like it was a pile of credits. "This is one of the fastest 3D printer available in the local market! Its speed and precision is miles ahead of a regular commercial model and can even rival the machines from the Friday Coalition. Only the most established megacorporations are able to afford this machine!"
"That's interesting and all, but how much money are we talking about?"
"A brand new third generation Dortmund is worth at least 3 billion bright credits!"
Even Dietrich's heart skipped a beat when he heard that figure. He quickly lost his excitement once he took a closer look at the state of the printers. "They're all chopped up now. Even the raiders didn't bother to salvage these leftovers. They're worthless."
"That not entirely true." Ves retorted as his eyes practically turned into credit symbols as they carefully inspected the damage. "Originally there's nine identical Dortmunds. The raiders took two, leaving us with seven broken machines. What do you think about salvaging everything that's still intact and piece together a single working model?"
"Is that possible?"
"It's worth a try."
Both of them thought about the pros and cons about this action. If Ves was lucky, he might be able to replace his rickety old 3D printer with one that could keep up with his future needs. The only problem was salvaging and reconstructing a printer took a lot of time and expertise, both of which were in short supply.
"Can we afford to stick around? I know you're serious about this, Ves, but whoever took a bite here might be coming back for seconds."
"I can puzzle together the printer back at home, so we only need to gather all the scraps." Ves decided. He didn't want to stay in this system any longer than necessary.
This was the find of the decade for him. Now that he glimpsed a chance to acquire an expensive machine for free, he was not about to let it go.
"There's one final floor left for us to explore." Ves remarked as he firmly pulled Lucky to his side. "Let's quickly go and clear the rest of this place. We can start taking apart these beauties once we're done."