178 Base Camp
The construction site bloomed into existence as the first shipments arrived. The prefabs took little effort to put together, though they took up a large portion of the cargo. The extremely rigid ground and soil made it highly difficult to dig through, but the construction team achieved some progress with the help of high-powered diggers.
The first wave of mercenary mechs arrived shortly after the shuttles finished hauling the construction materials. Despite the insufficient facilities, the plan called for unpacking them immediately in order to help secure the base.
As expected, a lot of hijinks happened in the process of taking the mechs out of their containers. The partially detached limbs required a bit of finesse to put them back into their sockets. Having to work in the awful conditions outdoors made everything worse.
“No no no, don’t put that back together without cleaning the joints! All of the gunk in the air has fouled the connectors. We’re not working in a modern workshop environment right now!”
“Have you forgotten how much gravity we’re dealing with right now? Those loaders aren’t rated to lift at maximum capacity under our current gravity levels! It’s a wonder they’re even lifting off in the first place!”
“Start with the light mechs first! They’re easier to put together and we need them to scout the perimeter. Doesn’t matter what outfit they’re a part of, start with the lightest mechs and work your way up!”
The heavy workload kept Ves up all night. House Kaine wanted every mercenary mech up and running within three days, which he found utterly unrealistic. Around two hundred different mechs in total joined the operation. If it hadn’t been for the previous battle, that number could have reached as high as four-hundred mechs.
Compared to the mechs belonging to the forces from the Grey Willow Star Sector, the local variants didn’t seem impressive. None of the Komodo mercenaries belonged to the elite. Some mercenaries piloted their mechs so badly that Ves wondered how they graduated from the academy in the first place.
“This is a real mess.” Melkor commented in a disdainful voice. “I bet that half of the mercs have embellished their track record. There’s no way that the expedition accepted them otherwise.”
The lack of training and professionalism among much of the mercenaries also caused the slowly emerging base camp to be a rowdy site. The security officers keeping the peace had their hands full trying to prevent the various grudges between individual mercenaries to come to blows.
In order to keep the mercs busy, Commander Tregis sent out the mercs to begin their first hunting expedition. Tregis took charge of the entire base as it slowly took shape. Under his leadership, the mercs stopped brawling with each other and cleaned up their act.
Ves found him to be a highly competent leader. As the man in charge of the expedition’s only settlement, Tregis eased into the job like his entire life revolved around the role. The man must have prepared for the job many years ago. It showed when he argued with the civil engineers on how to tweak the existing wall designs to accommodate their current terrain advantages.
The base camp sat on a low hill that overlooked a vast swathe of terrain. The metallic foliage surrounding their site obscured much of the wildlife, but the view afforded them plenty of warning should a hexapod king decide to attack their base.
On the second day, the first team of mercs arrived from their successful hunt. Everyone put down their work and welcomed the squad of mechs that came back with a bunch of scratches on their coating. They dragged over two incredibly formidable corpses of hexapods that instantly attracted everyone’s attention.
Even Ves came over to touch the recently perished hexapod. While they weren’t as impressive as a king-sized beast, the regular adults posed a significant threat against isolated mechs. Only through teamwork could the mercs hunt these beasts without incurring significant losses.
“It’s pretty big.” Chief Ramirez remarked as he knocked his armored fist against the dead hexapod’s surface. The beast possessed some kind of palm-sized scales composed of an organic composite. Different hexapods derived the metals from their diet in different proportions, leading to many variations of colors.
Commander Tregis tried to get everyone back to work, but the crowd continued to converge around the carcasses. They waited until a team of exobiologists personally harvested the heat organs.
In order to cut open their extremely tough scales and hides, they employed a specialized surgical mech to make the necessary incisions. The mech’s awesome power easily parted the skins, allowing more delicate tools and bots to sever the heat organ from the bodies and store them into a transparent container.
“Is it me, or are the heat organs glowing?”
“All those exotics packed into a single mass of tissue is bound to act weird.”
Everyone returned to work after that. Ves found the hexapods to be remarkable creatures to be able to thrive in these difficult circumstances. The vast galaxy possessed an uncountable amount of stars, but only a handful possessed the right conditions to support a form of life.
Humanity had the misfortune to evolve from a star system devoid of any exotics. This shaped the race in a way that provided them with hardly any innate superiority compared to other forms of life.
As a rule, the most formidable forms of life evolved to make use of the exotics present in their native environment. This granted them many special and even metaphysical capabilities, such as a near-total immunity to heat, a passive form of telepathy that spans the entire race, or an intelligence that mimics quantum computers.
Strangely enough, all of these innate strengths came with a major downside. All of these extremely dangerous aliens were constrained by their dependence on specific types of exotics to procreate. They couldn’t propagate as fast as the human race because they constantly had to seek out star systems that contained deposits of the right types of exotics.
This constraint formed massive invisible shackles among the various alien races. Some of them transcended the stars hundreds of thousands of years ago or even more. Despite their higher levels of development, humanity had beaten them back through luck, trickery and sheer numbers.
These days, humanity also depended on exotics, but only to augment their existing technologies. Only a couple of critical technologies such as the FTL drive couldn’t do without exotics. As for everything else, humanity wouldn’t collapse if every exotic material suddenly disappeared one day.
Weapons and armor would lose most of their potency and it would become more difficult to traverse the stars. Only the most primitive FTL drive worked without employing trace amounts of exotics to massively increase its range and effectiveness.
“It’s pretty sad to see these awesome creatures devolve into six-legged bags of monoexurite.” Ves idly commented. “They’ve been ruling this underground kingdom for how many years now? To think that all of this might end now that humans like us have descended down into their world.”
“It’s their misfortune to grow up alongside monoexurite.” Ensign D’Amato smirked underneath his own hazard suit. “Life isn’t fair. Our FTL drives hunger for the stuff. Every gram we extract from their chests will help a couple of warships fight back against the aliens who wishes to see us dead.”
Since Ves didn’t feel too much compassion for the hexapods, he merely shrugged before returning to work.
The base finally took on a semblance of order on the fourth day. An expansive set of walls in the shape of a five-pointed star enclosed the perimeter of the base. Extensive rows of flimsy prefabs provided climate-controlled berths for the mechs who returned from their hunt.
They also provided the bare minimum amount of space to allow the mech technicians to maintain the battered mechs.
The mercenaries definitely had to get used to hunting the hexapods. As the native predators of Groening IV, none of the hexapods went down without a fight. Each of them possessed the strength of a light mech at minimum, with a couple of them reaching the level of a medium mech.
A hexapod who fought without regard for its life could easily dish out a lot of hurt. Ves even had to lend a hand to the repair teams once in a while. He didn’t mind the work, as he got to experience a variety of mechs suffering from different kinds of damage. The work opened his mind to how a real expedition worked.
The hunting platoon set off on the start of the fourth day.
Captain Kaine in her highly advanced white mech stood before the main entrance of the base. Ves found out that the model carried the name of Cathrec, which sounded a bit too masculine for such a slim and graceful medium mech. Despite its emphasis on mobility, the Cathrec was capable of piercing through almost any material with its powered spear.
Behind the Cathrec, the Ajax Olympians looked as sturdy as always. Few knew they packed a lot more punch than before. With its enhanced strength and various other kinds of boosts, Ves put a lot of faith in their ability to pin down a hexapod king. Still, he couldn’t help but worry a little bit for the machines.
The Volmars and Empyreans stood further back. Compared to the previous two models, they attracted less attention, but that didn’t make them less important.
The Volmars looked and fought like brawlers or skirmishers. They possessed the right mix of strength, speed and agility to make full use of their staffs and maces to deliver crushing blows onto their prey.
As for the Empyreans, no one expected them to vanquish the largest predators in the area with their railguns. Their weapons might be able to take down a king if they had the time to unleash a couple of volleys, but their prey wouldn’t let them do so with impunity. Still, the ability to deal damage from a distance gave the group a large amount of tactical flexibility.
“Alright fellows, I’ll be back with a trophy!”
Ves joined the others in waving at the elite group of mechs as they disappeared into the jungle. No one knew when they returned, not even Ves. The hexapod kings rarely made an appearance unless the expedition did something drastic. Even the current deployment of mechs hardly fazed the elder creatures.
Even as the initial rush of activity made way for a new routine, Ves and Melkor never forgot to keep an eye on what went on. Ves conscientiously built up a reputation among the work crew for his excellent work and sage advice.
With the absence of the hunting platoon, he mingled among the other crews performing maintenance on the mechs. He learned a variety of news concerning the other mercenaries involved in the expedition. Even though Ensign D’Amato kept a constant eye on him, even he grew bored of his job.
He found out something interesting one day.
“So you say these mechs have been digging into the ground?” Ves asked with minor astonishment. “How can they do so when the ground is as tough as ship armor?”
“They’ve been melting it, I guess.” The bearded mech technician casually remarked. “God knows what kind of temperatures they’re working with or where they are getting their gear in the first place. I haven’t seen anything in the stores that’s capable of pumping so much heat. They require energy cells the size of aircars as well.”
A female mech technician added her own thoughts. “They’re trying to locate the main deposit of monoexurite, I bet! The plants around this region has to get it from somewhere to be able to feed the hexapods with the stuff. With so many flora containing traces of monoexurite, there’s bound to be a major concentration nearby that’s been spreading it outwards.”
That made some sense. Ves wondered what else could be found deep underneath. Perhaps the expedition aimed to uncover other kinds of natural treasures.