The night before planetfall, Ves and Melkor gathered together in their bunk. Ensign D’Amato also turned in for the night, so they didn’t have to worry about any nearby physical presences. Ves turned on his trusty Privacy Shield which doubtlessly blocked all forms of hidden monitoring.
“It’s safe to talk now.” He said.
Melkor immediately brought up his suspicions. “Have you noticed how this expedition is vastly over-prepared for a mere hunting expedition on an untamed planet?”
“Huh, I never thought about it that way. You’re right in that House Kaine has brought way too many mechs, but aren’t they making sure they’ll be harvesting as much monoexurite as possible?”
“Even with all the losses, they are bringing in so many mechs that the local ecosystem will definitely notice. The scale of this expedition is vastly larger than the previous one.”
The surveyors who stumbled upon the Groening System came as explorers and mappers. They only possessed a handful of smaller ships and only several dozens of mechs at most. The expedition organized by House Kaine was at least a magnitude larger.
When Ves thought about scale of the entire venture, he started to suspect the motives of House Kaine. “You’re right. A hunting trip doesn’t require a capital ship like the Ark Horizon. Half of the fleet is geared to fight the sandmen, which is strange since no one has explicitly mentioned any plans to raid sandmen space.”
What did that mean? Either Lord Kaine intended to attack the sandmen, or he had good reason to believe the sandmen might take the initiative.
Unfortunately, neither of the Larkinsons could figure out the real aim of the expedition. They lacked a lot of information and had no way of gathering more. Ensign D’Amato made sure that Ves didn’t wander around or ask too many uncomfortable questions, not that anyone in the lower decks knew anything important.
The only person who might know the full picture was Captain Felicity Kaine. As an up-and-coming scion of the House, she had to be informed of the real score.
Ves found some reassurance to the fact that she and her entire hunting platoon would also be deployed to the underground world. The need to provide safe haven to the hunting platoon meant that the base camp should be safe as well, up to an extent.
In order to increase his chances of survival, Ves decided to spend a large portion of his DP. He accumulated a few thousand more Design Points in the last month. Besides the ongoing sales of his virtual mechs, he also earned a little extra through the sale of his physical mechs.
“I think it’s time to boost some of my physical attributes.”
Groening IV posed a lot of challenges to those deployed on the ground. Not only did everyone had to contend with 1.4 times the gravity of Ancient Earth, it also featured a dense atmosphere filled with toxic, heavy gasses. Everyone had to wear customized hazard suits in order to function normally.
Those with feeble constitutions like Ves might not even last an entire month in those conditions. Even if the base camp offered pressured accommodations where workers can get rid of their bulky suits, the brutal work schedule ensured that no one had enough time to laze about.
The metal storm that raged about the surface only slumbered for a limited amount of time. Everyone had to work overtime in order to make sure that the ground team harvested as much monoexurite as possible within their forty-day window. He’d be physically exhausted a long time before the end of the window if he kept his attributes at their shabby level.
[Endurance Attribute Candy]: 800 Design Points
[Endurance Attribute Candy]: 900 Design Points
[Endurance Attribute Candy]: 1,000 Design Points
[Strength Attribute Candy]: 800 Design Points
[Strength Attribute Candy]: 900 Design Points
[Strength Attribute Candy]: 1,000 Design Points
Ves quickly ingested all of the candies in succession. He groaned a bit but kept his pain to himself. While the candies came with a much milder effect, it still took a lot of effort to rein in his agony. The increase in strength and endurance to a level just above an average human should come very handy without attracting an excessive amount of attention.
Minutes later, he finished his transformation. A thin layer of sweat suffused his body as he beheld his firmed up muscles. He hadn’t bulked up a lot, but he definitely gained a bit of mass. As long as he wore a bulky hazard suit, no one would find out his body gained a sudden upgrade.
After that, he considered a way to improve his chances of making it out safety in the event of an unforeseen crisis. The truth was that he couldn’t do much if the hexapods decided to storm the base camp. Ves pretty much had to put his faith in others.
“Will a stealth augment even be of any use?”
He’d be able to hide from hexapods and people with ill intentions with a permanent augment. He could also wrap his comm around Lucky and let him sneak into restricted places. The utility of complete stealth at his fingertips should serve him well throughout his career.
[Comm Upgrade – Privacy Shield – Level 0 – Augment – Full Stealth]
Price: 30.000 DP
Duration: 5 Minutes
Upgrades a level 1 Privacy Shield to emit an overpowering field that disrupts any means of observation. It is capable of obfuscating every possible means of observation that is known to the Mech Designer System.
Even with his minor fortune, Ves couldn’t afford the level 1 version of the stealth augment. He had to take a step back and buy the gimped version. This energy-inefficient augment gobbled up so much power that it only lasted five minutes in total.
“It’s better than nothing. Five minutes should be more than enough to save my life.”
Normally, a comm possessed enough power to last for months. Hardly anyone bothered to recharge their wrist devices every night, something which Ves planned to do now that he had a stealth augment in his hands.
“This should be the last time I open up the Mech Designer System. It’s too dangerous to fiddle around with it once I’m on the ground.”
Ves already browsed some of the plans of the base camp. It featured extensive monitoring and shielding of every kind. In such a sensitive location, Ves didn’t dare call up the System. Using the Privacy Shield without Full Stealth also risked attracting a lot of attention.
Name: Ves Larkinson
Profession: Apprentice Mech Designer
Design Points: 1,648
Neural Aptitude: F
[Assembly]: Apprentice – [3D Printer Proficiency III] [Assembler Proficiency III]
[Electrical Engineering]: Apprentice – [Structural Pathway Configuration II]
[Mechanics]: Journeyman – [Jury Rigging II] [Speed Tuning III]
[Metallurgy]: Journeyman – [Alloy Compression II]
[Physics]: Apprentice – [Directed Energy Weapon Optimization II] [Lightweight Armor Optimization I] [Mediumweight Armor Optimization III] [Melee Weapon Optimization Ii]
[Superpublish]: Available. Can be activated once a year.
Evaluation: A mech designer who graves the abyss.
Ves completely splurged his reserves of DP this time, but he didn’t regret it. The utility of his stealth augment should see him through a lot of crises from now on. He deactivated his Privacy Shield and removed his comm in order to place it on a charging station on a counter next to his bed.
After a good night’s rest, Ves woke up to a busy day. A large amount of mechs had been partially disassembled and packed into standardized containers in order to ease their shipping down to the surface. Even Melkor’s Stanislaw joined the stacks of containers waiting to be loaded into heavy-duty transports.
“Good morning, Ves.”
Most of the mech technicians busied themselves with packing up their inventory. The maintenance department had to make sure they had every essential tool and material on hand.
“We’ll be joining the second wave.” Ramirez continued. “Last night, the survey bots sent out from the Ark have found a good location to establish a beachhead. The first wave is largely composed of mechs and scouts and will make sure that there isn’t anything nasty waiting for us down there. Once they clear the site, we’ll be joining them to construct the initial facilities to support a medium-term occupation.”
The ground team had to construct a rudimentary wall and a barracks before the end of the day. After that, they’d put up mech stables and workshops while continuing to expand the base’s security envelope. At the end of the week, the base camp should be fully operational.
“I’m not sure how much use I will be if I go in this early.” Ves dubiously replied. After all, he didn’t know anything about construction.
“There’s little reason to delay your deployment. Relax. There are plenty of things to do outside of erecting some walls. A lot of screwups happen in the process of unpacking the mechs from their containers. It’s always the patch jobs and sloppily applied mods that get in the way of such things.”
The chief had a point. The mech technicians likely needed someone with a brain in order to handle any complications that arose without damaging the entire mech.
After several hours of waiting, Ves, Melkor and Lucky followed the rest of the maintenance department into boarding a reinforced passenger shuttle. The pilot wasted no time in setting off once everyone strapped to their seats. The shuttle smoothly glided out of the Ark Horizon’s shuttle bay and started to plummet downwards.
No one came in a skinny vacuum suit this time. Even Ves had changed into the hazard suit issued by his client. The suit came with gravity compensators that eased the alien planet’s elevated gravity. It also came with special lining that worked great against blocking out the persistent level of radiation they’d face in the underground world.
The shuttle started its violent descent down to the planet. Groening IV possessed a thick atmosphere filled with toxic gasses and dense metal shards even when the periodic storms entered their resting phase.
Everyone aboard the ship felt the vibrations and the shuttle strained to fly through the metal mist. Even with a magnetic screen pushing aside most of the metals in its way, the shuttle still suffered plenty of impacts.
Fortunately, nothing happened when the convoy of shuttles and transports finally reached the surface of the planet. The flight flew over the smooth and shiny surface of the planet before coming across a gaping cavern in the ground. Every shuttle plunged into the abyss and followed a series of narrow tunnels before ending up in a vast underground jungle.
As the sensors readjusted to the lower intensity of light, everyone beheld the beauty of the underground kingdom. The primal alien flora and fauna gave the environment an enchanting promise of hidden wealth and buried treasures. Anyone who braved the dangers could certainly stumble across a fortune.
“Alright, we’re setting down in five minutes.” Chief Ramirez spoke through the local communication channel. “Stick to the plan and don’t wander off. I don’t need to tell you what will happen if you end up in the belly of a hexapod.”
The chief only spared a couple of words in order to keep the men and women from doing anything stupid. The novelty of landing on an untapped alien planet always sparked some delirium among the more excitable people.
Once the shuttle finally reached its destination, everyone stepped out into the open air.
The first thing Ves noted when he looked at his flourishing environment was that he couldn’t see very far. All of the particles in the air along with the constant electromagnetic disturbances caused everything beyond fifty meters to be obscured in a hazy grey mist.
This mist obscured more than sight. It also played a lot of havoc with communications, to the point where the ships in orbit wouldn’t be able to communicate with the base camp in real time. The base had to rely on its fragile quantum entanglement nodes in order to keep in touch.
The restrictions on communications also effectively cut off the mercenary teams when they went out to hunt. Anything might happen deeper in the jungle. House Kaine could hardly do anything if the mercenaries were up to mischief, not that they particularly cared all that much.
With the Ark Horizon and the rest of her fleet keeping a watchful eye in orbit, no one had the chance to make off with smuggled goods. Every haul the mercenaries brought back would be handed over at the end of the day. By controlling the metaphorical gates, House Kaine possessed an ironclad insurance that nothing went up without their say so.
“Buckle up, Ves.” Ramirez bumped his chest. “We’re going to have a lot of work on our hands. You can forget about relaxing for the next forty days.”
Ves nodded in agreement, but had other thoughts in mind.