174 Dragons of the Void
Even if every channel of communication had been shuttered, it didn’t stop people from talking. While most of the crew possessed some propriety, a small number of loudmouths couldn’t help but pass on gossip. Of course, everything they said happened hours ago and didn’t relate to the current condition of the expeditionary fleet.
“The expeditionary fleet avoided a minefield. They put some really nasty ones out in space. I heard that they had some impressive homing capabilities and their movements are stealthy enough to sneak up on us to about a hundred kilometers. After that, it activates this enormous booster than propels it straight into the biggest ship it can find!”
“Some of the merc ships in our fleet are dragging their heels. I heard Lord Kaine has been shouting their butts off for refusing to meet the enemy. I told you guys the local mercs are scum! They’re good little soldiers as long as nothing happens, but they’re acting as scared as rabbits as soon as actual combat is involved!”
“The brass keeps arguing on how to handle the pirate fleet. Lord Kaine directly butted heads with the Big Three! Even the three big mercenary groups don’t agree on what to do. George’s Cavalry want to conduct a pitched battle, while the Stray Phantoms is hoping to drag out the engagements.”
“What about Adila’s Chosen?”
“The hell if I know what those religious nuts are thinking about. They’re praying to themselves half of the time.”
“The Stray Phantoms raked their vanguard! I heard they chewed up dozens of mechs at once in a single pass! The attack caused the entire pirate fleet to pause!”
The constant chatter apprised Ves and the others of the situation and gave them some perspective of what went on in space. Though he didn’t know how the lower ranks got their news, it sounded as if the entire engagement had just begun.
Ves slowly got used to working under an elevated alert level. He had to watch his actions and make sure he didn’t get up to anything suspicious. Ensign D’Amato kept a laser-like gaze on him while he directed the partial disassembly of the two Ajax Olympians.
As heavy knights were meant to absorb damage, they possessed an extremely complex armor system. Every layer and every plate connected to another one, and untangling them took a lot of care and effort.
Fortunately, the mech technicians in this department possessed plenty of experience in peeling back the armor. They expertly stripped away the dense and heavy plates and set them aside. Ves didn’t even have to get his hands dirty.
“Alright, we’ve opened up the Ajaxes.” Ves announced the the technicians that Chief Ramirez had placed under him. “Now, carefully dismantle the components marked in the chart according to the order I set out.”
The feeling of leading an entire work crew made Ves feel like a queen among a hive of bees. It helped that the bees all possessed their own competences. As an influence from a second-rate state, House Kaine would never hire idiots.
Ves also gained an unexpected benefit in this process. He personally witnessed the various methods the mech technicians used to coordinate with each other and keep track of their progress. All of their sophisticated means had been laid bare before his eyes. If he ever wanted to expand his production capacity, he wouldn’t be starting from scratch.
“Even if I don’t gain much on this trip, this experience is already worth it. I should start hiring some mech technicians once I return home.”
Over at the workshop, Chief Ramirez had already begun to fabricate the new components. Ves didn’t worry too much because the design mostly demanded auxiliary components that didn’t possess any complex functions. Neither did they incorporate a lot of finicky exotic materials.
The Ark Horizon’s workshops all came stocked with powerful but compact 3D printers. It possessed similar qualities to the gigantic Dortmund but took up half the space. With the help of these advanced machines, the production of the parts proceeded on schedule.
A change happened in the third day. The Ark Horizon vibrated briefly, interrupting everyone’s work. Ves looked up from the diagram he studied and frowned. “What’s going on?”
Ensign D’Amato looked concerned. “That’s the thrusters of the Ark Horizon. The ship is accelerating at its maximum speed!”
The alert light that everyone previously ignored turned from yellow to red. Everyone quickly received a new set of orders.
“Stop your work and secure everything in sight! Change into your hazard suits and ready your gear!”
The hunting platoon started to rouse. Every mech except for the Ajaxes came online. The Volmars gathered together and lumbered towards the center of the hangar bay while the Empyreans gathered their railguns and headed towards their assigned bunkers.
The mech technicians split in two. The first half remained in the hangar bay and waited to receive damaged mechs. The other half joined various damage control parties that stood by to mitigate the damage the Ark might incur.
Ves started to get very concerned. From what he gathered so far, the expeditionary fleet acted cautiously in front of the pirate fleet. An abrupt course change and full acceleration meant the Ark was either running away or turning headlong into the enemy.
Ensign D’Amato kept trying to find out the current situation, but his junior rank stopped him from obtaining anything solid. Ves shook his head and stormed directly to Captain Kaine. The woman had already changed into an armored piloting suit and started to head for her private mech stable.
“Please wait a moment!”
“What do you want?” Captain Kaine spat out as she look at him as if he was a worm.
“Tell me what is happening!”
Though she wanted to brush him off, she glanced at Melkor who always stood by his side and reconsidered. “Another round of treachery occurred. Some of the local mercenary outfits turned coat and ambushed the ships that belong to the mercenaries who are still on our side. The opening round alone devastated dozens of mechs and crippled three small transports!”
Ves felt as if he had been struck by lightning. “I thought House Kaine had a handle on the mercenaries!”
“They somehow conspired to betray House Kaine from the start. The traitor mercs hid a number of assets aboard their ships and attacked our security officers who had been placed aboard their ships to prevent any mutinies. Some of them are still holding out!”
The expeditionary fleet possessed a lot of assets, so the betrayal hadn’t managed to threaten the Ark Horizon. However, the pirate fleet led by a menacing pirate gang called the Dragons of the Void had begun to swoop in for the kill.
Instead of shying away from a fight, Lord Kaine decided to directly put his powerful fleet carrier into play. The entire expeditionary fleet redirected their course in a direct heading towards the pirate fleet.
Lord Kaine intended to bull right through the enemy’s formation!
Ves wanted to curse at his client’s recklessness. “Let me help! I’m a mech designer. I’m good with anything that involves mechs.”
“I’m sorry Larkinson, but the last thing we need is another outsider butting in where he doesn’t belong. Your place is here. If you want to help, then ask Chief Ramirez for something to do. Whatever you do, don’t leave this department.”
The woman turned around before Ves could say anything else. He missed his opportunity to make a difference.
He wanted to cross over to the other side of the hangar bay and help work on the spaceborn mechs that started to deploy into space. Ves had never come close to seeing an actual spaceborn mech, let alone perform any maintenance on these special mechs.
An hour went by as more than half of the mechs in the hangar bay had left. The mechs that remained all waited for their turns to deploy.
Over time, damaged mechs started to fly back into the hangar. Their damaged frames passed through the security screen that acted as a membrane to keep all of the air and pressure inside the hangar stable.
Even if the security screens malfunctioned, everyone had already changed into hazard suits, including Ves and Melkor. These hardened vacuum suits provided their wearers with a lot of protection against explosions, shrapnel and radiation. Their boots possessed a strong magnetic sole that helped everyone stay on their feet even at zero-G.
Ves spent most of his time helping Chief Ramirez securing the workshop and mech stables for any loose ends. The two Ajaxes especially remained vulnerable. Most of its heavy armor plating that protected its delicate internals had been placed to the side.
If a pirate happened to drop by and fired a volley of shots from a regular infantry rifle, he’d be able to do a massive amount of damage.
“Keep attaching as much armor as you can!” Chief Ramirez frantically yelled at his henpecked technicians. “I’ll dock your pay if I see a single exposed section in an hour!”
Everyone frantically raced to put some measure of cover on the exposed Ajax frames. Even though it might not help that much if a missile went off, it would at least limit some of the shock damage.
Throughout all of this chaos, Melkor stood largely forgotten. As a mech pilot and bodyguard to Ves, he lacked access to both a mech and a personal firearm. The expedition’s admittedly justified caution towards outsiders relegated him to the role of an observer. His only job these days appeared to be keeping hold of Lucky.
The cat happened to detect something strange. He loudly meowed and tried to catch his owner’s attention. Melkor tried to stifle the cat due to the commotion he caused, but Lucky remained undeterred.
Ves had learned to trust his mechanical companion. “What’s wrong, Lucky?”
The cat stretched his paw towards one of the entrances of the hangar bay. The harness prevented him from utilizing his full range of motion.
“Okay, enough of this crap!” Ves turned around and borrowed a cutting tool from a work table. He turned it on and carefully cut apart the restrictions that kept Lucky largely immobile. Once all of the shackles broke, the cat quickly lunged in the direction of the nearest entrance.
“Hey, what are you doing? That pet is not allowed to roam free!” Ensign D’Amato yelled and pulled out his laser pistol.
Even if D’Amato hadn’t aimed his pistol at anyone, Ves still raised his hands. “Hey, I don’t mean any harm! My cat has a really good nose. He might have detected something fishy!”
“That’s ridiculous!” The ensign exclaimed with an incredulous expression. “The Ark Horizon is the flagship of this fleet! Every compartment and every corridor is monitored day and night. Nothing that can threaten the ship and her crew can ever get close!”
It all came down to trust. Ves hoped that his stay aboard the Ark had proved he could be trusted to advance the interests of the expedition. Ensign D’Amato went beyond his job as an observer and frequently helped out Ves by providing his own insights.
Yet as soon as Ves crossed the line, D’Amato acted like someone pressed his reset button. It hurt a bit to be treated like a stranger and a potential threat after so many days of camaraderie.
Melkor already stood in front of Ves. “Calm down, the both of you! Ensign, Lucky is not a toy. I believe in Ves when he states that Lucky is capable of sniffing out any threats. I suggest you warn whoever is in command on this deck to prepare for the worst.”
Just as Ensign D’Amato was about to reply, a large explosion near the entrance interrupted his words. The blast knocked all of the spacers off their feet and blew away various pieces of junk in the vicinity. Some of the mech technicians who still remained standing even got hit by cabinets and unsecured tools!
Another explosion triggered close to the security screen, instantly disabling it. The entire hangar bay suffered from explosive decompression as all of the air inside the massive bay departed into space. A few more loose components flew off into vacuum.
“Lucky!” Ves called as his hazard suit sent out an alert. His suit came with two hours of oxygen, but his stress caused him to deplete his reserves faster. “Lucky, where are you?!”
Vacuum transmitted no sound. Ves couldn’t call out for his cat. He disregarded the wounded and hobbled over towards the first blast site.
A shiny bronze cat appeared from nowhere. The cat appeared frazzled.
“There you are!”
Ves grasped Lucky’s body and inspected him for damage. He sighed in relief once he saw his cat only suffered a glancing blow from a random piece of shrapnel.
Melkor and D’Amato raced to his position and beheld the carnage around them. The blast hurt a fair amount of unsuspecting mech technicians.
Just as it appeared that things couldn’t go worse, a strange, damaged mech coated in red descended onto the hangar bay.