The sky over Bentheim never slept. Even at night, millions of aircars, shuttles and other vehicles roamed the invisible lanes above the metropolis of Dorum. Ves looked up at the busy traffic at an office in the middle of a Planetary Guard base.
“This is not how I envisioned my first assignment.” Raella muttered as she scratched her back. Her back had been raked with debris when a railgun strike barely missed. Fortunately, the Guard medics easily treated her wounds, though they still stung like hell. “How many enemies have you made?”
Even Ves didn’t know. He still found it hard to believe that someone might actually wish to kill him due to some trivial offense. Of course, what he found trivial might not be so small to whoever arranged the attack. While the attempt obviously involved the much-maligned Bentheim Liberation Movement, he found it to be a little too sophisticated to pin the blame on the rebels alone.
“We’re going to have to adopt some tighter security protocols from now on.” Melkor said as he crossed his arms. “Guard duty has always been a hazardous assignment, but the risks we’re exposed to is beyond all reason.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to remunerate you properly. You won’t be making a loss under my employ.”
Ves didn’t wish to scare his cousins away. He could already see the doubt in their expression. As long as he offered enough compensation, then they wouldn’t cut and run.
He also didn’t hold back on his mistakes. “The biggest mistake we’ve made is that we haven’t brought our mechs along. Everyone took for granted that we’d only stay on Bentheim briefly, so we left them in their containers to be shipped to Cloudy Curtain. I made the decision because it was the most efficient choice, since I only expected to stay in Bentheim for a day.”
“You’re going to need a permit if you want to pilot a mech in a heavily populated area. It’s almost impossible to get one these days. They’re exceedingly rare in Rittersberg and I don’t expect any different here in Bentheim.” Melkor pointed out.
Anyone could flatten an entire neighborhood with a single mech. Ves looked down at the streets and spotted only a dozen mechs or so. The vast majority of them sported the black-and-blue Guard colors. The rest used corporate colors as they escorted the aircars of senior executives.
“I got an answer for that.” The front door slid open. Melinda entered the lounge with a smirk.
Besides Raella, everyone possessed the same raven hair that marked them as a Larkinson. She walked over to Ves and handed over a datapad.
“Your grandpa’s present. I contacted him as soon as I learned how much trouble you stirred.” She looked at Ves as if he was a delinquent. “It’s a good thing he’s willing to bail you out. Bentheim will cover some of the costs. Whatever insurance the affected businesses fall under will cover another part. Grandpa will shoulder the rest.”
The Larkinsons along with their pursuers did a number on the warehouse and storage yard. Though the Planetary Guard declared that they had been acting in extreme self-defense, that still left them open to getting sued by angry businessmen with damaged goods in their hands.
Ves read the official document on the datapad. He realized he received a permit to travel around in most of Bentheim with a restricted mech escort. He could only employ one mech, and it had to adhere to a strict guideline of loadouts. For example, carrying a flamethrower in an urban area was asking for trouble.
The permit came as a timely gift. “This is extremely helpful. Did you vouch for me, Melinda?”
“Yup.” She nodded and looked around for Lucky. She spotted the disheartened-looking cat and bent down to pet his undamaged surface. “Frankly, the Planetary Guard is too short-handed right now and we can hardly spare the manpower to keep an eye on you whenever you drop by for a visit. I didn’t need to do much convincing, though. The Larkinsons name is good enough.”
It paid to be known as a Larkinson. Though some of the rival families disparaged their reputation, the Larkinsons have never acted excessively for several hundred years.
“Alright. I’ll be sure to make use of this permit the next time I visit this planet. How’s the interrogation going?”
Melinda’s smirk turned into a frown. “Difficult as usual. The groundside component of the BLM largely consists of petty criminals and disillusioned workers. I doubt they can count past ten. The handful of cadre have already fled their underground bases by the time we obtained their locations.”
The BLM drew their ranks from the large mass of low income workers. They worked hard and earned only a pittance. When the rebel propagandists pointed out that the Bright Republic siphoned away a large portion of the planet’s revenue, the workers easily swayed over to their mindset.
“What about the mercenaries? Their gear is way too sophisticated.”
“It’s a dead end. They’ve been conditioned into killing machines. The details of their mission has been physically scrubbed from their brains. They’re probably dark mercenaries who’ve been kidnapped and brainwashed into becoming untraceable pawns.”
In the end, the Planetary Guard found nothing. The whole affair had been dismissed as a failed attempt at kidnapping and assassination by the Bentheim Liberation Movement.
“Are we free to go now, Melinda?”
“Sure. Don’t forget to retrieve your gear before you go.”
“Ah, one more thing cousin. Do you know a place where I can buy a good pistol?”
Everyone turned to Ves. Raella laughed at him. “Are you sure you want to play with a gun?”
While Melinda, Raella and Melkor hadn’t been trained as infantrymen, their mech pilot training didn’t skimp out in these areas. Mech pilots had to keep their body in shape and engrave their fighting skills into their muscle memory in order to make the most out of their mechs.
“I’m not looking for an expert’s gun.” Ves replied while raising his hands as if he was a naughty child who wanted to take a shuttle out for a joyride. “I just want something that can play a role in the hands of an amateur like me.”
While Ves received some firearms training when he studied mech design, he couldn’t call himself an expert. It took talent and perseverance in order to become a proficient marksman. He didn’t delude himself into thinking a few dozen hours of practice turned him into a commando.
“Do you have money?”
He thumped his chest with his palm. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I’m a mech designer!”
“Hmmm.” Melinda tapped her chin with her finger. “You should pay a visit to Old Jimmy’s. It’s a classy place that tailors their weapons to their customers. They also offer smart guns that offer a variety of conveniences such as aim assistance. As long as no one hacks your gun, you’re good to go. The only problem is that they take weeks to fulfill an order.”
The place sounded like a good fit for him, though he lacked the time to wait. “I’ll settle for a generic weapon for now.”
Everyone left and headed downstairs. They retrieved their comms and weapons and left for the spaceport under the watchful company of a pair of mechs. Ves had the feeling that the Planetary Guard was glad to see him go.
They paid extra for an immediate passage to Cloudy Curtain. The Larkinsons still had to spend the night at a hotel before they took a shuttle to the space station and boarded their transport.
Three days later, they finally Cloudy Curtain. As their shuttle touched down at the rural planet’s old and shabby spaceport, Ves took a deep breath of his home planet’s air.
“Home sweet home. I can finally get back to work.”
“Hopefully we left most of the craziness behind.” Raella remarked, though she quickly sneered at Orinoco’s pathetic skyline. “Hopefully there’s some entertainment to be found in this place.”
In contrast, Melkor maintained his vigilance. His blue visor neatly scanned every corner of the spaceport. “This place is more than fifty years old. Its security could use an update. Do we need to watch out for anyone on this planet?”
Ves grimaced at the question. “Some of the local politicians have a beef with me. They’re not as powerful and unscrupulous as the BLM, but they’re certainly bad news.”
They didn’t have permission to pilot a mech in Cloudy Curtain, though hardly anyone bothered to ask for it. Walter’s Whalers frequently showed off their mechs without a permit. While Ves was tempted to ignore the local laws and have his cousins unpack their mechs, he didn’t wish to give more ammunition to his enemies.
Instead, he compromised by renting a reinforced shuttle from Sanyal-Ablin. Ves spent the rest of the trip explaining what he learned about the White Doves and the Greens and what they should watch out for. Most of all, he emphasized his relationship with Walter’s Whalers.
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll bite the hand that feeds them one day?” Melkor asked with a warning in his voice. “Gangs like these normally don’t last very long. Once they fall, their patrons fall with them. You know our family doesn’t like to associate with these kinds of people.”
“This isn’t Rittersberg. The Larkinsons have no influence here. I might not have much in common with the Whalers, but we share some interests. That’s enough to trust their sincerity.”
Though Melkor found it to be a bad idea, he didn’t argue the point. Ves ran the show now. He could make all the bad decisions he wanted as long as he was willing to suffer the consequences.
Once they touched down at his workshop, everyone sighed in relief. His workshop’s sturdy walls, menacing turrets and state-of-the-art security bots certainly impressed his cousins.
“This setup must cost quite a lot.”
“Not as much as hiring a mech to stand guard. That’s what you two will be in charge of.” Ves noted with a firmer voice now that he returned to his home. “I don’t expect you two to stand guard at all times, but you should at least be ready to enter a mech to respond to emergencies. I’ll let the two of you arrange the details yourself.”
The previous attack should have made it clear that Ves faced very real threats. He could at least count on Melkor to be dutiful enough to take his job seriously. With both of them watching over Raella like hawks, she wouldn’t be able to drag her feet either.
Carlos quickly arrived. Since the time Ves departed for Rittersberg, his friend grew a beard. It made him look a little more mature, though Ves had to grow used to the new look.
“Let me introduce you to my cousins. They’re both qualified mech pilots and will hopefully be patrolling around with their mechs.”
“Oh, nice to meet you guys!” His fabricator smiled and shook their hands. They babbled a bit but found out they shared nothing in common besides their interest for mechs. Instead, he turned back to his employer. “Boss, I did it! I practiced hard while you left and managed to crank up my success rate to ninety-nine percent!”
“That’s great news!” The ratio relieved Ves. Carlos hadn’t been slacking off. “I already made the arrangements with my mech broker. You’ll be in charge of fulfilling orders for the silver label Mark II’s from now now. For now, I’ll supervise your work closely.”
Once Carlos proved his mettle, Ves intended to let him work without hovering over his shoulder like an overprotective mother. He had his own projects to take care of, the most immediate of which awaited his attention for quite some time.
As his cousins slowly settled in, Ves started to deal with his paperwork. He called Calsie for a meeting. Ves was bound to make a fool of himself if he approached the local government himself. Calsie should certainly be able to help with applying for a mech permit and registering a corporation.
“I’ll prepare the groundwork in the evening.” She chirped over her comm.
“Good. See you tomorrow then.”