After the shuttle picked up a full load, it flew back to the Ark Horizon. As the shuttle neared the immense fleet carrier, Ves got a new appreciation of her incredible construction. Although her armor looked fairly scuffed and worn out, it didn’t detract from the majesty of a two-kilometer capital ship.
The CFA and MTA maintained a monopoly on warships. No other ships under any human power were allowed to carry fixed weapons. Supposedly, the main reason why they forbid arming ships was because they’d be capable of an incredible amount of destruction otherwise.
This had indeed limited the massive amounts of death and destruction prevalent in internal conflicts. It also left the human polities scratching their heads on how to enforce their power in space.
Eventually, they switched over to the combat carrier doctrine. Staring off from a basic mech carrier design, they enhanced its structure and massively piled up the armor. In place of fixed hardpoints, they added in armored enclosures akin to bunkers on the sides of the carrier design.
A rear entry allowed mechs to enter these bunkers from within the ship and fire out into space from its narrow gaps. Thus, they turned the carrier into an improvised warship.
Over time, the bunkers grew more sophisticated to the point where mech designers came up with specialized defensive mechs that excelled in the role. They gave up almost all pretenses of mobility in favor of enhancing their power, endurance and targeting systems.
Both the CFA and MTA turned a blind eye to the phenomenon. The limitations of the mech frame insured that they could never increase their firepower beyond the level of what a mech would be able to wield. It would be like a fly trying to shoot a human-sized pistol. It couldn’t be done without cheating.
This imposed a limit on an armored carrier’s capacity for destruction, which suited their purposes. As long as no one flung around nukes or planet-cracking mass drivers, everyone got along fine.
From an engineering perspective, Ves admired the Ark Horizon’s ability to carry and field over a hundred mechs. The floating citadel housed an extremely complex ecosystem in order to keep the mechs and the people who serviced them running.
The shuttle passed through a translucent energy screen and entered one of the smaller hangar bays meant for shuttle traffic. Once it landed at its designated spot, the hatch slid open, allowing the passengers entry to the carrier’s busy deck.
“This way, please.” A uniformed attendant greeted the guests and led them to the exit of the hanger.
Ves looked around and noted that all of the shuttles in the hangar bay looked brand new. This contrasted sharply with the slightly worn and used look of the rest of the carrier.
Once they entered the corridors and navigated through several decks, everyone could sense the age of the Ark Horizon. Lord Kaine hadn’t spent too much time and effort in refurbishing its utilitarian interior.
He wondered why Lord Kaine went to the trouble of procuring such an expensive ship in the first place. The crew seemed attentive enough, but as Ves walked past several hangars and mech stables, he noted that at least half of the mechs were owned my mercenaries.
As his mind roiled with questions, they finally arrived at a large and expansive dining hall. Its wood-paneled interior along with the colorful banners draped over the walls gave the room a classy look.
Floating little suns of light provided moody lighting. The balls of light whirled around lazily above everyone’s heads as if swept by a tide.
Various large circular tables awaited the guests. It became evident that the dining arrangements had been split in two. The first tier had been reserved for the mech pilots while those who took up other professions seated themselves at the lower tier of tables.
A strange situation emerged where Melkor had received an invitation to sit closer to the seat of power.
“Go ahead, Melkor.” Ves urged his cousin. “Observe the other guests and try to figure out their origins and motivations. I have a bad feeling about this mission, so I need you to keep your eyes peeled.”
Melkor nodded and patted Ves on the back. “I’ll see you later then.”
That left Ves with a grumpy-looking Lucky. A security officer had attached a series of shackles and harnesses on his cat that prevented him from employing his energy claws. Lucky looked like a prisoner with all of the extra hardware attached to his limbs. Since the harness limited his pet’s mobility, he had to be carried around.
Once the pair found their seats, they waited for the other guests to take their places. Low conversation hung about in the air as everyone started to familiarize themselves with their fellow colleagues.
“Hello there.” A middle-aged woman bearing the uniform of a ship captain greeted him from his left. “You look rather young to be invited to this banquet. Are your parents around?”
The question threw him off for a bit. Ves regarded the woman with a wary look. Her question sounded innocuous, but had the effect of undermining his qualifications.
Ves didn’t wish to give away too much information, so he only replied with a single sentence. “I am a mech designer.”
The captain raised an eyebrow. “Are you now? That explains your presence. My, oh my, Lord Kaine finally managed to reel in a mech designer, and so young as well! You must be a great talent if the lord decided to settle on you. This expedition has been delayed for several months due to Lord Kaine’s insistence on bringing on a competent mech designer.”
That sounded worrisome. Ves might have to play a critical role to the success of the expedition. He wasn’t sure he’d be up to the task. He expected to take part in a more modest expedition.
Even as doubt started to swirl in his mind, their host finally made an appearance. An elderly man with neatly trimmed grey hair glided from the air like a god descending amongst mortals. Even the soft bulbs of light stopped illuminating the room in order to shine a spotlight onto his purple robed form. Various emblems marked his many folds of clothes, one of which Ves recognized as a noble crest.
No one spoke a word as Lord Kaine traversed above everyone’s head. Once he neared the ground, he smoothly turned around and seated himself at a throne-like seat at the head of the foremost table. Kaine lifted a wrinkly hand, which caused the lights to turn back to normal.
The man glanced slowly around the room and nodded in satisfaction. “Everyone is here. Good. I have waited so long for this expedition to come together. Now, the final pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. This banquet represents the official start of our venture!”
Some of the guests sighed in relief. Evidently, they had been looking forward for the delays to be over. Ves went over these people and saw that most of them wore the same blue uniform as the regular crewmen aboard the Ark Horizon.
“Many of you may know me as Lord Jeremiah Kaine, the former patriarch of House Kaine. I fought in the trench lines as a mech pilot in my younger years and took up leadership of my noble House in my later years. Under my inspired leadership, I elevated my House from a purely commercial family concern into ruling over star systems in the name of the Constance Grand Kingdom.”
Over half of the the guests showed clueless expressions. Constance Kingdom?
“The Constance Grand Kingdom is an established second-rate state in the Grey Willow Star Sector, which is a couple of sectors away. The Ark Horizon has come a long way in order to reach the Komodo Star Sector. Even after we have arrived, we have faced several setbacks, from equipment failure to the abrupt departure of our resident mech designer.”
Lord Kaine growled those last words that made it clear that he took it as a personal betrayal. Ves raised his guard. As the mech designer who took up his ignomous predecessor’s role, he’d likely be subjected to additional scrutiny.
Several minutes went by as the elder noble meandered into a tale about the Ark Horizon. It had a storied history half a decade ago. It acquitted itself well in a war that no one present cared about. House Kaine snapped up the ship in a secretive deal that their host quickly glossed over.
More importantly, Lord Kaine detailed the number of people that would be part of the expedition. The core crew of the Ark Horizon consisted of around nine-hundred spacers, mech pilots and mech technicians. They were all directly employed by House Kaine and enjoyed the highest amount of trust in the expedition.
Secondly, Lord Kaine introduced the three trusted mercenary corps he brought with him from the Grey Willow Star Sector. They were also in charge of the Ark Horizon’s perimeter security and were also tasked with watching over all the other mercenaries. They also took charge of the Ark Horizon’s perimeter security with seven different ships of varying sizes.
“Of course, there’s also you, the local help.” Lord Kaine said and turned to the rowdier and less professional looking mercs at the table. “While we have little in common, we share at least some common goals, the most important of which is to earn a fortune and retire with our lives intact.”
One merc who blatantly sipped a smuggled flask rose from his seat. “Hear, hear!”
Kaine glared at the offending merc. Evidently, the former patriarch did not appreciate the interruption.
“I am aware that the Komodo Star Sector is one of humanity’s youngest settled regions. I can make some allowances for frontier culture, but I appreciate it if you let me finish.”
“Uh, sorry boss.”
With that incident done with, Lord Kaine resumed his speech. “Everyone of you will play the leading role in our upcoming expedition. I have spent many days pouring over every available mercenary corps. Only those who are present here today have made the cut.”
All of the local mercs puffed themselves up like peacocks showing off their feathers. Lord Kaine had offered extremely generous conditions to every mercenary corps. They stood to gain a massive amount of wealth if the expedition panned out.
“Those with keener eyes will recognize that most of your fighters specialize in close quarters mech combat. There is a good reason for that which will become clear in the coming weeks. Make no mistake. You will have to earn your paycheck.”
Lord Kaine spoke on for ten more minutes, but Ves hardly learned anything of true import. The elderly man kept bragging about what he experienced in his two-hundred year long life. He proudly shared some anecdotes on his most famous war exploits.
All of the mech pilots lapped it up. They eagerly hung on to their employer’s every word. The non-mech pilots like Ves paid a lot less importance to his stories. Most of them impatiently clamored for a meal.
Ves already suspected something like this might happen. Despite his age and many accomplishments, Lord Kaine exhibited the typical behavior of a self-centered potentate. His formative years as a successful mech pilot had made a mark on the rest of his life.
The main characters would always be the mech pilots. The norms didn’t matter as much. They only existed to serve the privileged class who always played the main role in every conflict. The older and more solidified society in the Grey Willow Star Sector probably had it worse in this aspect.
“The old fart has a tendency to blabber for hours.” The female ship captain whispered to Ves. “Personally, I think his doctors botched up his life-prolonging treatment. Sometimes, he acts way too senile. You’d expect that kind of behavior from five-hundred year olds, not two-hundred year olds.”
They both sounded fairly old to Ves, who until recently never dared to hope he would get to live just as long. A modern day human with sufficient access to medical services could expect to live around 150 years.
His seat neighbor’s words prompted him to regard Lord Kaine with a critical eye. Ves had to admit that the man appeared to be in much worse shape than you’d expect. Perhaps some old war wounds interfered with his life-prolonging treatment. Such a thing happened more than once.
All of this meant that Ves might have his hands full very soon. The prospect of working for an unreasonable boss did not fill his life with joy.
Those four-hundred merits better be worth it, he silently thought. He already started to see the basic setup for their expedition, and it appeared that the local mercenaries would have to take on most of the burden while Lord Kaine and his trusted men made sure no one ran off.