176 Groening System
The majority of the Dragons of the Void fought to the death. They clung to the heels of the expeditionary fleet and tried to gnaw through as much flesh as possible before they perished. This diehard behavior was completely uncharacteristic of opportunistic pirates who only cared for money and their lives.
After the vanguard led by the Ark Horizon completed their firing pass, much of the pirate fleet lost their coordination. Every ship and every mech on their side ended up in random positions. They couldn’t gather into a cohesive formation anymore that could withstand the concerted efforts of House Kaine.
Most of the other pirate gangs fled. They made for easy pickings and more than half of the pirates never made it very far before they got shot to pieces.
In contrast, every mercenary corps suffered losses. Lord Kaine hired them to hunt hexapods, so they possessed the wrong loadout to fight a space battle. Combined with the defection of some other mercenaries, the expeditionary fleet lost about half of its original force of local hired help.
The mercenaries hadn’t signed up to be cannon fodder. They were just about to mutiny until Lord Kaine granted them full salvage rights. Every wrecked ship and mech that belonged to the pirates were free reign. The clever measure placated them and caused most mercs to descend on the derelicts like bees in a hive.
After all, any wreck contained a lot of untapped treasure. Any mech or ship contained many millions of credits worth of exotics. Even if they lacked the facilities to extract the most valuable resources out of the wrecks, they still cut away the juiciest bits and intended to sell them to a professional salvager once the expedition returned to civilized space.
Ves found out that Keller’s Blades distinguished themselves in battle. They possessed a small number of spaceborn mechs and helped put down the traitors when they caused a ruckus. The Vesian mercenaries even received a public commendation from Lord Kaine.
As for the Ark Horizon, the fleet carrier adopted a somewhat somber mood. A small number of spacers and mech pilots lost their lives in the ensuing chaos, not helped by Lord Kaine’s abrupt decision to plunge the flagship into the enemy formation. While his maneuver succeeded in breaking the pirates, it also left much of the crew unprepared for a pitched battle.
“You should go with us to the funeral service.” Chief Ramirez said as he wore a dress uniform. Around sixty people lost their lives in total, half of them killed by traitors who set off explosives. “You and your cousin fought alongside us. Even if you’re not a part of our crew, you’re comrades nonetheless.”
Ves and Melkor switched their antigrav clothes to something more appropriate before joining the rest of the maintenance department. They entered the largest hangar bay where a large space had been emptied near the ramp. Although a security screen kept the vacuum out, everyone wore skintight vacsuits underneath their dress uniforms just in case.
As soon as Ves saw the coffins, he started to turn a little numb. When Lord Kaine arrived and presided over a brief ceremony, he kept staring at the coffins with morbid fear.
“I could have ended up in one of those coffins.”
Only now did the danger of the expedition truly sink in. They hadn’t even met the sandmen in battle and already the expedition lost half of its peripheral mercenaries. Though House Kaine and their core mercenary partners hadn’t lost too many assets this time, they might not be so lucky next time.
After sending off the coffins into the endless road of stars, everyone resumed their duties. The mech technicians became twice as busy as several mechs came back from the battle in a damaged state.
Even Ves and Chief Ramirez had to make do with fewer mech technicians as every department became short-handed. Still, the overhaul of the Ajax Olympians still continued largely on schedule. Lord Kaine personally sent them a memo telling them not to reassign too many men away from this project.
“The big man himself wants to see these mechs up and running before we set foot on Groening IV.” Chief Ramirez told Ves. “There will be hell to pay if we end up holding up the timetable. We’ve already suffered too many delays.”
Everyone soon got over the deaths and went back to work with determination. This time, the hunting platoon didn’t regard Ves as a busybody who had no place in their midst. While Captain Kaine still avoided him like the plague, he got along a bit better with the rank and file.
Even Ensign D’Amato mellowed out. He gave permission to Melkor to carry his personal sidearm and allowed Lucky to stroll around with just a tracking collar. Ves appreciated the amount of trust House Kaine extended to him. He felt a little safer now that Melkor could respond immediately.
“Will the expedition still be viable?” Ves asked the ensign one day. “We lost an awful lot of mercenaries. Will Lord Kaine be able to hunt enough hexapods to make up for his massive investment?”
“I’m not privy to the costs, but from what I know, Lord Kaine has already taken the loss into account before we even set off for this expedition. We always knew that we’ll be losing a lot of mercenaries along the way. They’re not exactly the most trustworthy bunch.”
His remark made Ves look up at him. “You guys intended to cull the mercenaries from the start.”
It sounded really devious now that he thought about it. He always wondered why Lord Kaine hired so many mercenaries to begin with. The man appeared to invite disaster by keeping so many potential enemies close. Now it seemed that the wily old fox had other intentions in mind.
The ensign smirked. “There might still be some people with questionable loyalties among the mercenaries, but they won’t have the numbers to threaten our fleet. We’ve already cleaned up the worst of the bunch together with their pirate associates.”
A few questions remained, however. Post-battle analysis revealed that much of the Dragons of the Void fought to the death except for the flagship of the pirate group. The pirate commander ruthlessly threw away his entire force and fled without a single shred of decency.
Once investigators began to dig in to the wrecks, they found to their surprise that much of the crew had been hopped up with stimulants. The poisonous cocktail fanned their aggression and lowered their inhibitions. In particular, they stopped fearing death.
To everyone’s surprise, none of them had been forcibly injected with them. Instead, an unknown force subjected many of the pirates to a sophisticated form of brainwashing. The mech pilots had it particularly worse as their neural interfaces had been tampered with. When Ves had been asked to take a look, his face turned white as a sheet.
He beheld the half-broken neural interface helmet like it was a live grenade. “This thing is pure insanity. Messing around with the neural interface without express permission from the MTA is never a good idea. They’ve touched on a fundamental taboo.”
The human mind was sacred. No one condoned brainwashing, not even if it happened to pirates. In the long history of humanity’s rise to the stars, they dabbled plenty of times with various forms of brainwashing and mental conditioning. The horror of forming a society of human-form robots had once threatened humanity’s dominance over the galaxy.
Still, the professional investigators working for House Kaine kept the details close to their chest. They only briefly consulted Ves on his opinions of the mechs they salvaged from the battlefield.
“They look like what a well-off pirate group is able to offer. It doesn’t look like anything they fabricated themselves. Much of these mechs are pretty much off-the-shelf models that you can find in any corner of the Komodo Star Sector.”
“Besides the tampered neural interfaces, are there any other anomalies in these mechs?” The lead investigator asked. His own men must have already checked the salvaged wrecks, but it didn’t hurt to obtain a second opinion.
“I haven’t spent enough time to make a definite judgement. The Dragons of the Void don’t seem to be a fan of custom mechs or custom loadouts. This is all standard gear.”
Not every fleet enjoyed an abundant amount of trained and skilled personnel. Generally, only criminals and degenerates resorted to piracy. Skilled mech technicians and engineers enjoyed way too many job prospects. Anyone with a brain would never volunteer to become an outlaw that had to run from the authorities like a dog for the rest of his life.
Days went by as Ves and the maintenance department assigned to the hunting platoon finished the overhaul in time. Under his personal supervision, Ves made sure that nothing went wrong with regards to the final reassembly of the Ajax Olympians. When their surly pilots entered the cockpits and brought both mechs online, the diagnostics revealed that everything ran according to specs.
“We did it!” Ramirez bellowed and cheered along with the other technicians. They certainly outdid themselves in transforming the heavy knights into a much more formidable machine. The twenty percent boost in strength on top of their already prodigious power ensured that they stood a much better chance at subduing a hexapod king.
They only had a few days to smooth out the kinks. Ves worked hard to ensure the Olympians could take the abuse for an extended amount of time. They finished right on time as the expeditionary fleet finally arrived at their fabled destination.
The Groening System’s size and wealth exceeded everyone’s expectations. The system possessed nineteen planets and many more moons. Much of these planets didn’t amount to much. The expedition had no interest in exploring the lifeless rocks or boring gas giants. They made their way straight towards the inner system and to the only planet that possessed an atmosphere.
When D’Amato showed Ves a projection of the planet, the metal storms had already started to subside. “It truly looks like a treasure.”
The constant storms had smoothed out the surface of the metal ground, causing it to adopt a pattern of dream-like waves. The Groening System’s active yellow dwarf cast a glossy sheen atop the metal globe.
The ensign hadn’t come up to Ves with this projection without a reason. “It’s good that you appreciate the planet’s beauty, because you’ll be part of the ground team.”
Ves knew that despite its exotic look, the planet hid a lot of threats. Who knew if the logs of the previous expedition encompassed all of the wildlife. In addition, things might have changed after more than twenty years.
“Lord Kaine gave the word himself and wants you on the ground. Even though the metal storm has entered its low period, it’s still too dangerous to expose our shuttles to the planet’s hostile atmosphere. We also have to take the hexabats into account. Each trip will degrade the integrity of a shuttle or transport, and we only brought so many to this expedition.”
The hunting platoon and the mercenaries deployed to the underground paradise couldn’t operate around the clock. Their pilots needed rest and the mechs might need some quick repairs.
Just like the previous expedition, House Kaine intended to establish a temporary base camp at a defensible position. With some hasty entrenchment, the camp should be able to withstand a horde of hexapods for a limited amount of time.
That still didn’t mean that Ves could treat this trip like a vacation. The hexapods had already proven their lethality and Ves didn’t look forward to seeing one in the flesh no matter how many walls the base camp erected.
“You’re assigned to assist the hunting platoon. You can’t do that effectively up in orbit.” D’Amato explained. “Lord Kaine doesn’t want to see you slacking off. Your contribution to improving the performance of our Ajax Olympians isn’t enough to pay for your services.”
In other words, Lord Kaine wanted to squeeze every little bit of value from his presence. Ves understood that the hunting platoons and other mechs might face some difficult problems. A mech designer like him could prove very useful in various ways. He couldn’t come up with a viable excuse to shirk this duty.
“Very well. I’ll prepare to join the ground team.”
He should have expected to be employed in this fashion. From what he experienced so far, Lord Kaine and the rest of his men hardly valued the lives of their mercenaries. While they had to treat their formidable mercenary partners from the Grey Willow Star Sector with care, they obviously didn’t extend the same amount of concern to the help they picked up in the frontier.
Even if the hexapod kings all rose up and wiped the base camp off the map, then so what? If Ves ended up in a hexapod king’s belly, House Kaine already earned a massive fortune from their earlier harvests. Even the Clifford Society didn’t seem so scary once the Ark Horizon left the Komodo Star Sector.