Two days later, the Mancroft System welcomed an intimidating fleet of vessels. Over ten different spacecraft of various sized revolved around a sizable ship the size of a jumbo transport.
The flagship was a bona-fide mech carrier. Her mech carrying capacity surpassed all the other ships in the system. Like a queen returning to court, the carrier trudged slowly towards the inner system with her escorts leading the way.
Ves received an alert from Captain Silvestra and entered the bridge. “That’s a really big ship.”
“She’s a military surplus fleet carrier. She’s meant to carry over two companies of mechs.”
Her length from bow to stern reached two kilometers. She took on a long but fairly stubby profile, which reduced her efficiency when transitioning to FTL but allowed her to carry large amounts of mechs and goods in her abundant holds.
“Frankly, she’s not a ship that should thrive out here in the rim.” Silvestra added, disapproval apparent on her face. “Three or four civilian large transports can carry the same load as that carrier with a fraction of the cost. The amount of money that you have to spend on fuel and crew to keep this boondoggle running day by day must run in the millions of credits.”
That made Ves regard the former fleet carrier in a different light. Her flamboyant orange and pink coating made it clear that no government authority currently commissioned the ship. A private outfit must have snapped up the vessel and turned her into a mobile base.
There must be thousands of people crewing the ship and her many mechs. Even in a heavy populated system such as Bentheim, the large amount of mechs could certainly pose a threat.
About half an hour after the emergence of the carrier fleet, the Barracuda received a new hail. The flagship directly sent some codes along with the message that made it clear that the newcomers had some connection to the mission.
“Accept the hail. Let’s see if they’re the ones I’m supposed to meet.”
The central projector lit up and displayed the upper body of a uniformed bridge officer. “Greetings. Am I speaking to Mr. Larkinson of the Barracuda?”
“Lord Jeremiah Kaine has been expecting your arrival. We’d like to cordially invite you to attend a banquet aboard the Ark Horizon. Our ship will dispatch a shuttle at the appointed time, so please maintain your current orbit.”
“Understood. I’ll be ready to attend the banquet.”
The communications officer cut off the hail after a perfunctory goodbye. Ves stared at the display and counted the number of escorts that flew around the Ark Horizon. How many more ships would join the fleet in the coming days?
“Your thoughts, Silvestra?”
His captain shook her head in disapproval. “A conventional fortune seeker rarely needs an entire fleet carrier to explore the frontier. You can’t make a profit if you are saddled with too many assets. This doesn’t look like a normal expedition at all. It seems to me that they’re prepared to conduct a full-blown raid into hostile territory.”
That made some sense, but Ves believed there had to be another reason. “Lord Kaine requires the services of a mech designer, and I doubt it’s because he wants me to optimize his mechs against the sandmen. There are plenty of specialized mechs on the market that do a better job.”
Not anyone would hire a mech designer on a whim. For a mech designer to do a good job, the client has to provide him with an intimate understanding of their current disposition of mechs. If their blueprints and other essential data fell into the wrong hands, they’d be vulnerable to targeted attacks.
In any case, his boss summoned him to his ship, so Ves had no choice to attend. He left the bridge and informed Melkor that he should dress appropriately.
Ves planned to bring his cousin along as a guard. To be honest, it was pointless for Melkor to act as a guard because as soon as they entered the belly of the beast, they’d be completely at the mercy of Lord Kaine’s security contingent.
“I just want to make a statement to my client. Wherever I go, you’ll be following closely behind. If I’m supposed to work on Lord Kaine’s mechs, then I will likely stay aboard the Ark. I’ll request your Stanislaw be moved to the Ark Horizon if they still have space.”
“What about the Barracuda?” Melkor asked with a touch of concern. “She’s an extremely expensive ship. I don’t think it’s a good idea to lose her only deterrent against bad intentions.”
While his cousin might have a point, Ves had other considerations. “Your rifleman mech lacks a flight system, so it won’t be of much use in defending my corvette. The Barracuda is fast, nimble and observant. She won’t be letting anyone get close in the first place.”
Besides having a trustworthy family member at his side, Ves also wanted to borrow his keen perception. Perhaps his cousin might pick up on something.
“They’ll confiscate my visor if I bring it aboard their ship. It’s customary for guests to bring in only a minimal amount of electronics when they visit someone else’s spacecraft. I will replace my current visor with a low-tech version that will pass their inspection.”
Ves didn’t even know that Melkor owned another visor. “If that’s what you think, then go ahead.”
They returned to their own rooms to prepare for the upcoming banquet. Ves already wore his antigrav clothes, so he simply changed its setting to a fancier looking outfit. After that, he sat on his bed and petted Lucky who wandered over his lap.
“I’ll have to bring you along as well.” He told his cat. “Stick close to me and don’t nose around too much. I doubt our hosts will appreciate your presence if you make a stink.”
Lucky meowed at him indignantly, but quickly resumed his purring when Ves stroked his back.
Although he appeared calm, Ves actually had a lot of concerns. A major expedition made a lot of noise wherever it traveled. “One thing is for sure. Lord Kaine has a lot of money to throw around.”
His client must have promised the Clifford Society a lot of things in order to offer the mission to its Knights. This gave Ves an idea of what kind of returns Lord Kaine was aiming at. You don’t fund a massive fleet carrier in order to pick up a few rocks.
Ves could speculate all day, so he busied himself with rereading Master Olson’s latest textbook. Even if he mastered most of the theory, he still wished to brush up on its more abstruse concepts. The book hinted at many possible directions a mech designer might choose to pursue.
For example, Master Olson pursued the limits of endurance. Ves didn’t have a good grip on her exact design philosophy, but from the examples he browsed from the galactic net, she obviously preferred to design mechs that lasted long and could take a beating.
As a fairly recently ascended master, she only just started to spread her wings in the upper echelon of the mech industry. Ves knew that once a master reached the pinnacle of their field, they shored up their other skills in order to broaden their knowledge.
Master Olson hadn’t yet finished that stage, so most of her models remained fairly one-dimensional in their properties.
Nevertheless, her extreme focus on this aspect bled through to Ves. Having experienced a lecture and reading through a textbook that she personally penned, he gained a lot insight on how to prolong the operating time of a mech.
Considering the vast undertaking this expedition represented, Ves had a feeling he might be hard pressed to apply his new methods.
Time slowly passed as the procession of ships reached Mancroft I and took up a high orbit around the lifeless planet. A dozen different shuttles disgorged from one of the carrier’s hangar bays and approached the ships that continued to guard over the capital ship.
One of the shuttles approached the Barracuda. The slim short-ranged spacecraft smoothly came to a stop next to the docking hatch of the corvette. A thin collapsible jet bridge extended from the sides of the hatch and carefully mated with the hatch on the shuttle’s sides.
Ves and Melkor made their way to the docking hatch. Melkor figured out the functions of his recently gifted antigrav clothes and adopted a similar look as Ves. As promised, he also exchanged his tricked out visor for a more basic model which nonetheless did a decent job at obscuring his face.
Lucky came along for the ride as well. Currently, he lounged over Ves’ shoulders.
Angie Sipos, his ship security officer, stood by on the other side of the reinforced hatch. She donned an armored vacsuit and held a menacing shotgun.
“Whoa there. We’re not going to war today.”
“Sir, I’m just making sure. This is how I earn my paycheck.”
Ves understood the precaution but he didn’t expect any trouble this time. Once the jet bridge finished connecting the two spacecraft together, the inner hatch slid open, allowing the two Larkinsons to enter.
Once they left the ship proper, the inner hatch closed and the outer hatch opened. This allowed the pair to slide along the bridge. Ves momentarily felt surreal, especially when his body ceased to be subjected to artificial gravity.
The jet bridge offered transparent windows out into open space. As Ves floated in zero G, he felt as if he never truly understood deep space until now.
“It’s not natural for humans to live in space.”
“The spaceborn argue otherwise.” Melkor responded as he allowed his antigrav clothing to whisk him forwards towards the other end of the bridge. “Humanity rules over half the galaxy. Our race has ceased to become dependent on land and soil in order to survive.”
Humans born in space possessed a different perspective than others. The most extreme among the spaceborn had never set foot on a planet or even a moon. Most of them formed a phobia of large planetary masses. They constantly worry about getting crushed by a planet’s immense mass, even the laws of physics wouldn’t allow such an absurdity to take place.
Ves shook his head and patted Lucky’s head. The cat curiously stared out into the window as well. “There’s nothing wrong with being a primitive landborn. No matter how far we’ve come, we can’t forget our roots.”
His short passage ended when he reached the other side of the shuttle. Its outer hatch opened, letting the two Larkinsons inside. Once the outer hatch slid shut, the air started to cycle while a large host of scanners went to work. Both of them expected the scans and allowed them to perform their tasks without a fuss.
Some of the scanning modules beeped and focused on Lucky before moving on. Once the scans had ended, they finally entered the shuttle. The air and temperature abruptly changed as they stepped inside.
A security officer garbed in a familiar blue uniform greeted Ves with a salute. “Mr. Larkinson and Mr. Larkinson, I’m pleased to meet you two. Please enter and take a seat. It will be a short journey to the Ark Horizon.”
“Thank you. I look forward to meeting Lord Kaine in person.”
As the Larkinsons strapped into their seats, the security officer received another message. “Ah, my apologies, sir, but I have just been informed that your mechanical pet is capable of posing a threat to others aboard the Ark Horizon.”
“My cat is here for my safety.” Ves replied in a firm tone. “He has saved my life several times. I don’t wish to be separated from him.”
“I assure you that we have the safety and security of our ship well in hand. My colleagues aboard the Ark wishes to inform you that your cat will have to wear a specialized harness that our technicians are fabricating at this very moment. It won’t affect your pet’s movements, but it will restrict its claws and allow us to track the creature.”
Ves accepted the compromise. He had faith he could dismantle the harness if he ever needed Lucky to show off his deadly prowess, but it would take some time. For now, Ves had no choice but to accept the reasonable restrictions.
As the shuttle departed from the Barracuda, Ves looked around and noted that the shuttle approached another ship. The shuttle could comfortably carry around sixteen passengers in its current configuration.
Over the next hour, a small number of oddly dressed men and women entered the shuttle. They wore a mix of flamboyant garments over skintight vacsuits. In space, no one dared to live without wearing a vacsuit or something similar. In the event of explosive decompression, you’d still be able to survive in harsh vacuum space once the vacsuit enclosed your head.
Most of the newcomers appeared to be the ship captains and corps commanders of the various escort forces. Their hardened gazes bore down on Ves and dismissed him as a threat once they took in his physique. He didn’t carry himself as a soldier or a mech pilot.
Ves had mixed feelings at being dismissed so easily. Instead, they turned a wary eye towards Melkor. His cousin met their gazes with a cool expression, or at least that was what Ves imagined it looked like behind his visor.
Both sides continued their wordless standoff to the point that everyone stopped their idle conversation.
A grizzled female corps commander nodded first, prompting Melkor to nod in return. Everyone turned their heads and resumed their friendly chats.
“What was that all about?” Ves whispered furiously.
“We mech pilots have ways to measure each other’s strengths. I acquitted myself well.” Melkor responded with pride. “I’m not a Larkinson for nothing.”
As an elite who grew up in a military dynasty, Melkor stood head and shoulders above the rabble who only received standard training. Despite his relative youth, his deep foundation allowed him to match many older mercenaries in a duel.
Ves suspected he’d be seeing lots of situations like this aboard the Ark Horizon. Even aboard a capital ship, the mech pilots still reigned supreme.