Ves enjoyed the varied dishes with relish. The dishes had been enhanced by a lot of unique spices that only a well-developed state like the Constance Grand Kingdom could come up with. It caused a lot of the locals some consternation when their mouths exploded in an unexpected burst of freshness or heat.
The only thing he didn’t enjoy was Captain Wilson’s constant chatter. While she disparaged him a lot, she also mentioned useful information whenever she talked about the mercenaries. She certainly loved gossiping.
“You need to eat more meat! You’re too flimsy to impress the girls. A good boy like can use some time in the gym.”
“The three mercenary outfits who partnered up with our boss are all professionals. They fill up half the Ark Horizon’s hangar and they brought even more mechs aboard their own transports. They’ve got so much firepower that even Lord Kaine can’t order them around.”
“Frankly, the Grey Willow mechs outnumber the locals, but they aren’t geared towards fighting the hexapods. I’m seeing a lot of ballistic cannons and even a couple of railguns, so they’re likely there to fend off any sandmen incursion.”
That drew his attention. “Do you think we’ll get hit by the sandmen?”
“They’d be blind not to. The Ark Horizon is so big and fat that her FTL transition will radiate for many light-years away. The sandmen will definitely respond.”
Ves had only heard about the sandmen but already developed a lot of apprehension about them. They sounded and behaved in a simple fashion most of the time, but whenever their higher leaders got involved, they made perplexing decisions. Lord Kaine might be biting off more than he could chew.
“Will your ship be participating in the fight directly?”
“Heavens, no. Our mechs are solely kitted out for melee combat. My husband and his men will go groundside and hunt some game. My ship is a sitting duck without mechs so I’m probably expected to keep her close to the Ark.”
The courses kept on coming so they both went back to eating. Ves turned around for a moment and looked at Melkor.
His cousin drew some attention due to his youth and his insistence on wearing a visor, but he acquitted himself decently among the mercenaries. They lived in two different worlds, so Melkor had little in common with the men and women who clawed their way out of mediocrity through hard work and grit, but they respected his background as an elite brought up by a military family if nothing else.
Captain Wilson followed his gaze and whistled. “I saw you come in with that fellow. My oh my, he’s got a lovely physique for a man so young. So limber and compact. He must have some really dense muscles.”
“He’s my cousin.”
“Your family is truly blessed to have a clever designer and a dashing pilot in their midst. Where are you two from?”
“We’re both citizens of the Bright Republic.”
“That’s not too far away from here. I heard about your little Republic.”
“Hopefully you heard some good things.”
“Not really. Everyone who mentioned your state expects it to be thrashed by the Vesians, who have a lot of fighting spirit.”
Ves had no way to retort. In truth, while their nobility often descended into infighting, their working class citizens always fought with passion. They hoped to distinguish themselves on the battlefield in order to be granted knighthood, which was the first step on the road to nobility.
Compared to the highly motivated Vesians, the Brighters treated the generations-long conflict as a defensive war. Any planet that fell in their hands often didn’t resist too hard. As far as the average citizen was concerned, they merely switched landlords.
The only reason why the Bright Republic lasted so long was because it invested a lot in a professional military.
“I believe in my state. We’ve fended off the Vesians many times. This time will be no different.”
Wilson shrugged. “If that’s what makes you happy. By the way, speaking of Vesians, you should watch out for Keller’s Blades.”
She gestured to a mercenary commander sitting quietly at the end of the principal table. The man must be Keller himself. The Vesian had a dark complexion and possessed a tall, robust body. Only a couple of other mercenaries could match his sheer bulk and strength.
“What do you know about Keller’s Blades?”
“Oh, nothing much besides the usual. They’ve been operating out of Mancroft for a few years. I heard he pissed off some petty noble and got chased away from his home. He’s been eking out a decent living among the stars protecting prospectors and researchers looking to cross the borders.”
“That doesn’t sound so scary.”
Wilson shook her head. “Don’t underestimate the Blades. The scary thing about their group is that they are always sporting better gear despite fulfilling low-paying missions. Who knows where they get their money?”
That sounded a lot more suspicious. Either Commander Keller had a backer or he earned a lot of additional income through less respectable means.
Even a gossip like Captain Wilson didn’t know much more, so they both turned back to their meals. After a sumptuous dinner, their host returned to his stateroom and left his guests with wine and orders to wait until they received a summons.
Everyone waited patiently as Lord Kaine called up the guests by pair. Captain Wilson noted that he called up the most prestigious mercenaries first, and worked down the list according to their reputation.
Commander Keller and his ship captain received their summons midway, so he must be sporting a decent amount of mechs.
Captain Wilson received a summons near the end when the dining hall had mostly emptied out. Ves nodded to her politely. Even if she never shut her mouth, she mentioned a lot of useful things. Ves now had a better picture on the mercenaries who signed up for this expedition.
If she didn’t warn him, he might never know that Keller’s Blades came from Vesia.
After all of the local mercenaries left, the non-combatants started to get called up. Before Ves had his turn, a couple of scientists went ahead. Ves learned that they were exobiologists of some renown. They’d likely be put in charge of dissecting the hexapods and determining their weaknesses.
Fifteen minutes after the scientists left, an attendant entered the largely empty hall and finally called up Ves. “Mr. Larkinson, Lord Kaine would like to see you now.”
He nodded and rose from his seat. Melkor also pushed off the wall he was leaning against and picked up Lucky. Ves thought it might be rude if he held his pet while speaking to the former patriarch.
The attendant led them through a couple of corridors before they reached a secured hatch. A couple of security officers scanned their bodies and they both came up clean, though Lucky couldn’t say the same.
“Please hand over your comms and leave your pet outside. He’ll be safe while you meet with Lord Kaine.”
Ves knew he couldn’t refuse the request. They took their employer’s security very seriously. He very reluctantly detached his wrist comm and placed it on a tray. He trusted the upgraded comm’s security so the security officers shouldn’t be able to access the Mech Designer System. Still, he felt awfully naked without its presence.
Melkor put up less of a fuss. He acted like he didn’t have anything to hide on his comm and simply threw it on the tray in a small but impressive feat of accuracy. As for Lucky, he got to sit on the deck in a grumpy mood.
“You’re cleared to enter.”
Lord Kaine occupied a stateroom meant for admirals. The entire room took up as much space as a house, and represented an extravagant use of space on a spaceship that normally made full use of every cubic meter. Like the dining room, Kaine changed the interior into one befitting a classic mansion.
A lot of trophies and mementos took up the available space. Banners of fallen mercenary corps hung on the walls while broken pieces of mechs encased in glass hovered before them in a monument to worthy opponents.
Ves and Melkor slowly traversed the room and sat down on the high-backed chairs facing the elevated desk. The wooden furniture granted the one who sat behind the desk a lot of gravitas. Though Kaine hadn’t aged very gracefully, his impeccable purple dress and immaculate grooming enhanced his dignity.
“Mister Larkinson. You brought a companion.”
“He’s my cousin acting as my guard.”
Despite his senile appearance, Kaine possessed a strong gaze. He bore down on Melkor with the force of a former warrior and commander, but Melkor didn’t flinch.
“You have an impressive cousin. What’s your name?”
“I will take note of you.”
Once Kaine finished acknowledging Melkor, he turned back to Ves. “Let us get on to business, shall we? You see, you are not the first mech designer to sign on to my expedition. House Kaine obtained logs of the previous expedition to the Groening System and so we are well aware of what we will find on the ground.”
Ves could imagine how much time and money they spent on preparing for the expedition. The Ark Horizon alone must have drained a lot of their resources.
“We courted a number of promising mech designers, and finally managed to attract a singular talent with connections to one of the planets ruled by our House.”
The former patriarch declined to mention the mech designer’s name. “The mech designer happily made use of my House, borrowing a large amount of funds and skilled personnel to build up his own homegrown enterprise. Up until the expedition commenced, I assumed we had an understanding.”
“Then he disappeared! He abandoned us!” Lord Kaine suddenly shouted and slammed his fist against his desk. “He dissolved most of his assets and disappeared just as the expedition almost reached the Komodo Sector!”
Both of the Larkinsons had to endure their employer’s tirade for several minutes. Ves tried to stay impassive, but the betrayal affected Lord Kaine on a very deep level. What was worse, he trusted the mech designer a lot, to the point where he granted the fellow access to a lot of the logs of the previous expedition.
This meant that the previous mech designer might be able to figure out the Groening’s System’s coordinates. Even Ves didn’t have to think very far on what a disaster that might be.
Eventually, Lord Kaine ran out of steam. “Enough about the past. Let’s go over your responsibilities.”
He summoned up a small projection of a familiar recording. It showed several mechs getting torn apart by one of the hexapod kings.
“We are bound to encounter these highly developed beasts. They will need to be tackled. Due to the difficult atmospheric conditions even when the storm is at its most placid state, we are limited in the amount of hardware we are able to deploy.”
The projection changed into a complicated chart.
“Our analysts also strongly believe that overly strong power fluctuations will attract a tsunami of beasts, so we will not be able to deploy anything heavier than a handful of heavy mechs.”
Lord Kaine finally went on to how he planned to tackle the kings. “None of the mercenaries are willing to confront these apex predators. Not even my partners from the Grey Willow Star Sector have the courage to hunt these majestic beasts down. So be it. Our House has nurtured a number of elite mech pilots and matched them with mechs that can bring out their full potential.”
He waved his hand, causing the projection to change to a dozen men and women training together. Their ages varied, but most of them looked to be around thirty to forty years old.
Ves paid more attention to their mechs. The platoon consisted of two heavy knights, six medium melee-oriented mechs and four medium mechs armed with cannon-sized railguns.
All of the melee mechs eschewed swords in favor of blunt weapons such as staffs and maces. The weapons had a lot of heft to them, allowing them to strike with great momentum even if it took a while for them to land their blows.
“These are very impressive mechs.” Ves remarked, impressed by the performance exhibited by the mechs as they performed several live fire exercises. “I don’t recognize the models, but they all look like advanced currentgen mechs. They are already in a very high state of optimization. Still, I’m not sure if they can withstand the largest hexapods.”
Even mechs had limits, more so now Ves had some insight into battle mechatronics. The mechs shown in the projection exhibited larger than usual strength, but the hexapods showed off much greater strengths in the old recordings. Even a prepared group of mechs might not survive an encounter.
“It is your job to make sure they make it out alive.” Lord Kaine decisively declared. “If even one of the pilot dies, I will make sure you will regret you were born!”
The sudden aggression pushed Ves back against his seat. The command was too outrageous! Why did Lord Kaine prioritize the lives of his mech pilots all of a sudden? Ves turned back to the projection and tried to find some clues.
Ves found what he was looking for when the mech pilots dove into their simulator pods. Their bodies appeared in a virtual space with their names hovering above their heads.
One of them bore the name of Felicity Kaine.
“My great-granddaughter leads the hunting platoon. This is to be her first hunt.”