The revolt spearheaded by Keller cleverly pitted the fate of the expedition against the freedom and safety of a hired mech designer.
Commander Tregis could do nothing but glower and watch on from his personal mech. Though the mechs that answered to his call could match the rebels in numbers, he hesitated to engage in a senseless battle that could only result in mutual annihilation.
As a trusted subordinate of Lord Kaine, he knew he had to prioritize the harvesting operation over anything else. Nevertheless, he felt he couldn’t let the mercs tear down the social contract they had with House Kaine.
Even if he didn’t like it, Ves understood what Commander Tregis had to go through. In order to prevent the situation from spinning out of control, he allowed the revolters to take him into custody without a fuss.
A handful of footsoldiers in the employ of the mercs came close and pushed Melkor and the rest aside. They prepared a bulky set of cuffs designed to restrain the hazard suit that Ves currently wore. Without even checking for any weapons, they slapped it on his wrists.
“That will keep you in place.” One of the mercs smiled cheekily.
The mercs hauled him out of the workshop and dumped him into a beaten-up shuttle. The craft clearly had seen better days. Ves could spot the tell-tale signs of hexabat claws and fangs scarring its hull.
“Get in there!”
They threw him into the empty passenger compartment of the tiny shuttle. Ves tried to get comfortable as the shuttle started to ascend. Unfortunately, the pilot blanked out the windows, preventing him from looking out.
After a couple of minutes of wondering what to do, a small projection came to life. Keller’s face leered at him from the cockpit of his mech. Unlike his usual controlled expression, this time he completely revealed his nefarious intentions.
“Ah, the smart little Brighter.” He spoke, drawing out his voice at the mention of his nationality. “You Brighters always think you’re smarter than anyone else.
Ves didn’t give the Vesian the satisfaction of seeing him beg and plead for his life. “You are making a very big mistake here. Doctor Jutland isn’t your friend, or anyone’s for that matter. He’ll never honor whatever deal you made with him.”
“Hah! As if it matters!” Keller laughed. “The good doctor can’t do anything once we return to space at the end of our forty-day stay. Last I knew, dinosaurs can’t fly. I’ll be eagerly leaving this ratty planet and the crazy doctor behind.Getting rid of a Brighter mech designer along the way will earn me enough merit to earn my knighthood!”
“You Vesians chase after nobility as if it’s something attainable. It’s just a carrot your slave drivers dangle in front of your heads. No matter how hard you work, the carrot will always be out of your reach.”
“You lie! You understand nothing!”
“I’m sure they won’t welcome you back in open arms. After all, you clearly mutinied against your client when you signed a mercenary contract with them. As far as I recall, most of those contracts are filled with clauses that will make your life very short once you cross a few lines.”
In today’s society, mercenaries were plentiful, but the means to control them had also evolved. Mercenaries generally didn’t possess the same loyalty and dying devotion of a warrior nurtured by the clients themselves. Too often news came back that revealed that the mercs abandoned their cushy assignments as soon as they encountered a spot of trouble.
In order to bring some order to the chaos, some enterprising organizations formed a trans-galactic Mercenary Association to regulate this blooming business. Though the Mercenary Association lacked the enforcement power of the Mech Trade Association and the Common Fleet Alliance, they were nevertheless the only game in town.
Earning a bad mark on your record in the Mercenary Association often spelled a dead end to your career as a reputable mercenaries. Those with negative records often retired in ignomy or resorted to taking shadier jobs that hadn’t been regulated by the Mercenary Association. People usually called them dark mercenaries, and were often regarded as one step away from pirates.
Keller snorted at Ves. “Once I earn my knighthood, I can leave my mercenary days behind me. My boys and I will be able to retire to a quiet mansion on a rural planet in the Kingdom until we’re called back to fight a war.”
The man had a decent plan. Depending on how much Vesia valued his head, eliminating him could indeed earn Keller enough kudos to propel him into the lowest level of nobility. By then, what did a negative mercenary record matter?
The mercenary commander gloated some more before he shut off the channel. Ves sighed in frustration as he looked down at his shackles. The mercenaries never regarded Ves as a threat, and didn’t even pat him properly for weapons.
Outwardly, he only wore a tool belt around his hazard suit. He didn’t carry any holstered weapons because they’d be worse than useless against the native life forms on this planet.
“Turns out I’ve been watching out for the wrong threat.” He sighed.
He learned a very painful lesson today. Ves had never considered the mercenaries to go out of control in such a dramatic fashion. He continually relied on the iron grip of his client to keep the rowdy men and women in line. Today’s event proved that the iron grip was as soft as a pillow.
Well, no use recriminating himself. Ves regained his composure and started to take stock of his gear. First, he still wore his hazard suit. The suit’s heads-up display showed that he still had over seven days of oxygen.
After that, he’d get into a lot of trouble, because the air on Groening IV contained plenty of junk but precious little oxygen. The exobiologists discovered that some of the plant life emitted oxygen, but most of the other plants seemed to thrive on a very different cycle. Ves would slowly suffocate at that time if he couldn’t get any replenishment from his captor.
Second, he had his shield generator with eighty percent charge remaining. This might save him from a couple of fatal blows, but Ves had no illusion that it would last very long against a raging Kaius.
Though a shield generator looked conspicuous, he hoped that Jutland wouldn’t notice. As long as the doctor didn’t frisk him or force him to take off his hazard suit, Ves was sure he’d be able to keep its presence a secret.
Lastly, Ves still wore his all-important comm. Besides the System, his comm also held his Privacy Shield and its Full Stealth augment. He put most of his hopes on the latter in order to provide him with an opportunity to escape.
That was also why he didn’t struggle too much when Keller came to whisk him away. He still held on to a lifeline.
A shudder interrupted his thoughts. The shuttle’s engines cut off, and the hatch of the vehicle opened. “We’re here! Throw him out!”
The same pair of soldiers grabbed ahold of Ves and dragged him out of the shuttle. After bringing him in the middle of a clearing, they unceremoniously dropped him against the harsh metallic soil.
“We’ve got your mech designer here! Come and pick him up!”
To his surprise, the Kaius itself appeared from the jungle. Its giant, half-rotting form crawled over to the middle of the clearing with deliberate steps. Everytime the Kaius stomped with one of its six limbs, the entire ground appeared to be shaken up.
The looming sight of the Kaius intimidated everyone present in the clearing. Remarkably, no one brandished their weapons. Despite the fact that a strike force composed of more than a hundred mechs had set off to pin down the Kaius and force it into a decisive engagement, the monstrous mech evaded House Kaine’s determined efforts.
“Ah, the esteemed Mister Larkinson. How delightful that you have come!” The infamous doctor spoke from his makeshift seat atop the head of the Kaius. “For an Apprentice Mech Designer, you are very far away from home. The likes such as you never venture this far out in the frontier.”
Ves chuckled deprecatingly at himself. “I let my greed get the better of my judgement.”
“Greed, the ever-present motivator of man. You can do a lot with greed.” Jutland replied as he rummaged through his dirty lab coat and retrieved a small sack. He threw it towards one Keller’s soldiers standing beneath the towering giant. The man easily caught the falling bag with dextrous skill.
“As promised, here’s your fifty grams of pure monoexurite. Take care not to eat it all at once. You’ll turn into a human furnace in seconds before blowing up! Your flesh will be scattered over hundreds of meters! I should know, because I once saw someone try! Hahahahaha!”
Ves leaned back when the doctor continued to babble on. The mercs meanwhile stayed silent and waited for something to happen. Once the soldier verified its contents with a handheld scanner, Commander Keller spoke out from the speakers of his mech.
“It’s all there. Thanks, doc. Pleasure doing business with you. If you need anything else from me, I’ll be sure to lend a hand.”
The doctor abruptly swung his mood and scowled at the loose collection of mechs in front of him. “I do not need more help from hired thugs like you! Do not presume that you are of equal standing to me!”
“M-My apologies, doctor!”
Commander Keller and his gang of mercs ended the conversation as fast as possible and practically fled away at the first available moment. They didn’t wish to hang around any longer in case Jutland decided to kill them on a whim.
Unfortunately, Ves couldn’t go anywhere. Even if his shackles didn’t prevent him from running, a man on foot could never overtake the massive Kaius.
“Up you go now, mech designer! A vast new world awaits your mighty presence!”
The Kaius lowered its tail and forced Ves to climb on top of it. A crude metal poke hammered between the unbreakable scales of the chimera mech provided him with the only means for him to hang on to the mech as it slowly slithered back into the forest.
Ves had an awful ride as he tried to maintain his seating on the moving mech. If his grip ever lost power, he’d fall several stories down and certainly break some bones. He could even bump against a sharp metallic tree on the way and cut a hole through his hazard suit.
Once he started to get a hang of staying seated, Ves looked up to the raised head of the Kaius. The chimera mech practically strutted through the jungle as if it truly believed it ruled the forest. Doctor Jutland appeared to be engrossed in something as he frequently talked to himself and laughed.
He considered sneaking off. The doctor didn’t pay any attention to him at the moment, granting him a prime opportunity to flee from Jutland’s presence. Perhaps his shield generator could absorb the impact of his fall. If Ves remained unharmed, he could immediately activate his stealth augment and run like hell.
Yet he paused after considering the stakes. Even if he ran away now, he couldn’t go very far. Without any map or way to orient himself in the jungle, he would never be able to find his way back to base camp.
Furthermore, Ves wanted some answers. House Kaine always acted like they held back a significant secret. Perhaps he could pry something important out of Doctor Jutland, though he also had to survive the doctor’s unstable temper.
Ves started with something simple. “How is it you’re able to breathe without a suit?”
“What’s that? Did you say something?!” Jutland turned his head and snapped at him. “Hah, your puny little mind won’t understand the wonders I’ve been able to craft with my mind. The flesh is trivial! With my unfathomable genius, modifying by respiratory organs is child’s play! I’ve done so much more to my body that it will break your simple little mind if I list them out!”
“You might not know this, but I’m still a regular human. I’ll die once my suit runs out of oxygen after a week.”
“What?! Your suit runs out of air after a week?! That’s too short! You still have so much to do! Damn these hired thugs!”
Jutland’s anger extended to the Kaius. The chimera mech began to shudder dangerously, making it even harder for Ves to hang on.
Then, the doctor suddenly stopped his tantrum and looked at Ves like he was an interesting lab rat. “Don’t you worry, mech designer! Once I bring you back to my lab, I’ll implant my latest set of enhancements in your body. You’ll be able to breathe the air without risk! Oh your body will be transformed into a true new species, just like me!”
Ves almost wanted to let go of his grip right then and there. He didn’t relish being cut open by the craziest exobiologist in the rim. The thought of losing his sanity and becoming best friends with the delusional Jutland frightened him to death. He had to escape before the doctor cut him open!