“Is it ours?” Ves asked as he walked towards the inner base.
“It’s doubtful.” D’Amato replied as he tried to hurry up. His missing arm disrupted his coordination. “From what little sensors we still have in place that are transmitting back their readings, the fleet is several times larger than the expeditionary fleet at its height. None of the incoming ships are broadcasting any identifiers that we can recognize either.”
Could there be a fourth party trying to ruin the third party’s game? Or were the sandmen up to no good?
“It’s not the sandmen, if that’s what you’re thinking. They’re fairly distinctive even at a distance.”
They entered a command center after the guards verified their identities. These days, his contributions extended Ves a lot of privileges including extended access of the base. He even got to meet Commander Tregis in person.
The man looked as if he’d aged a lot since the start of the expedition. Tregis wearily gestured Ves into his office. “Ah, I was just about to summon your presence. Please sit.”
After Ves and D’Amato took a seat, he began to ask the first thing that came to his mind.. “What’s the status of the pirates?”
Tregis gripped his fist. “They’re getting close to finding out the entrance to the underground cavern. Even without a professional surveyor in their payroll, they’re exploring and scanning the surface of Groening IV with numbers on their side. With the amount of processing power at their disposal, they’ll discover the entrance at any moment now!”
The ground team faced a difficult situation then. If the recent arrivals turned out to be friendly, then the base camp merely had to wait out their arrival. If they proved hostile, then they had even less hope than before, because any friendly reinforcements would have to go through two enemy fleets.
Ves couldn’t give up too soon. He held out hope that the incoming fleet would prove friendly. “How shall we fend off the pirates if they come? We don’t have a lot of assets left. In addition, all of our mechs and mech pilots are worn out.”
“According to the latest calculations, the unknown fleet is making good speed towards Groening IV. If the Dragons of the Void make a stand, then both fleets are projected to clash within twenty-two hours. A fleet engagement will drag on for several hours, though, so we’ll have to hold out for around thirty hours.”
Thirty hours sounded a lot. With the arrival of an unknown element, the pirates must be accelerating their efforts at finding the entrance to the lush metallic jungle underneath the surface of the planet.
“We’ll have to do our best to fortify our position then.”
Tregis nodded. “Our miners have already finished extracting the motherlode, so we can fully concentrate our defenses here. However, that still leaves us with an exhausted force. In truth, I’ve assigned some men to employ a radical solution to increase our defenses.”
“What is it?”
“Bringing back to Kaius online.”
What? Ves widened his eyes as he heard the preposterous words coming from his mouth. “That’s impossible! That mech is a badly-damaged enigma and we don’t even know how it works!”
Ves thought that Chief Ramirez and his men were in the process of dismantling the huge chimera mech in order to make it easier to move.
The base commander didn’t deny his assertions. “It’s a longshot, but we should be prepared to employ every resource we have on hand. Our exobiologists and mech technicians are already at work trying to get the biological machine to work. They’re still encountering problems with the control method. Your should see if you can lend a hand.”
After Ves received his assignment, he left the office, but not before he got his shield generator back. He’d been looking for the valuable life-saving device. Tregis told him that his men found it in a corner or something, but Ves knew they probably tried to appropriate it for themselves only to get defeated by its highly advanced locks.
Once he stepped outside, he took a deep breath and sampled the local air. Ever since he got transformed, he didn’t bother wearing a bulky hazard suit anymore. The things were nuisances as far as he was concerned, though he also drew a lot of weird looks. No other human could survive toxic atmosphere without a suit.
“It smells like death.”
With D’Amato and Lucky in tow, Ves walked over to a beefed up workshop and received a very firm security check before being allowed entry.
The Kaius obviously received a lot of care. A combination of workers from multiple disciplines crawled over the dormant monster. They worked on both its mechanical and biological components.
Impressively enough, the workers made good headway with both. Replacing the worn-out alloy components with freshly fabricated ones required little brain power, though Ves found it regretful that they hadn’t consulted him about it. After all, Jutland likely improvised the later additions, which caused the chimera mech to become increasingly burdened.
Still, that mattered little compared to the living components of the mech. A couple of exobiologists who Ves didn’t recognize led a team of assistants in reviving and healing most of the damaged tissue. Compared to Doctor Jutland, they made a lot of progress by virtue of their collective intelligence and much better lab equipment.
“Come over, Ves.” Ramirez called while he looked over the giant mech from a ramp. When Ves climbed the ramp, he once again got a good glimpse of the chimera mech’s primal majesty. This was truly a mech that ruled over all. “The commander wanted to keep you out of it, but we’re running out of time. This mech is nothing but a hunk of junk if we can’t figure out its control method.”
Ves understood House Kaine’s desire to monopolize the inner workings of the Kaius. The machine not only represented a unique fusion of the living and the mechanical, it also outperformed any other mech of its size.
“How did Doctor Jutland control the mech anyway? What kind of progress have you made?”
The maintenance chief shrugged his shoulders. “You’ll have to ask the exobiologists for the specifics, but in short they found some creepy stuff inside the head of this big thing. It looked like a brain of a mech pilot that’s been tortured into staying alive. Well, we ripped it off as fast as possible and started working together to rewire the Kaius into accepting the input of a standard cockpit.”
When Ves looked over the schematic of their progress, he found that they made some significant changes to the Kaius. They stuffed a sturdy cockpit in the chest cavity that used to hold the giant psychic brain that Captain Kaine punctured at the end of Jutland’s final stand. The mech technicians worked together with the exobiologists to allow the cockpit’s neural interface to connect with the nervous system of the Kaius.
“I’ll be honest with you.” Ves said after studying the schematics. “I don’t have a clue how the neural interface works. This is out of my area of expertise.”
The Mech Trade Association posed very strict limits on the modification of a neural interface. It would be very easy to make the wrong decision that could end up frying a mech pilot’s mind. Most mech designers opt to use a standard, off-the-shelf neural interface without any tweaks for that reason.
“No one else knows a thing either. Just take a look at it and see if you can knock it into place.”
With time running out, the base camp needed every asset ready to defend against invaders. Commander Tregis put a lot of hope into the Kaius. The chimera mech was a king among melee-oriented mechs, possessing a perfect mix of speed, power and armor.
Ves first approached the chest area that had been opened up to make way for a cockpit. An exobiologist stood next to it wracking his mind on the problem.
“Hey, can you tell me what kind of issues you’ve encountered trying to get the neural interface to work?”
“It’s complicated.” The man replied, but explained the issue in a simple way. “The Kaius is not just a machine. It’s also a living being. The remarkable thing about this chimera mech is that it possesses its own subconscious that is able to decide whether to allow you to control it. Obviously, we’re not Doctor Jutland, so it hasn’t submitted to our control.”
“The machine can think?” He already started to get a headache after hearing about the issue. This went way above anything he learned. Even though he founded the Living Mech Company, Ves never imagined working with actual living mechs.
“We’ve tried to coerce the subconscious mind with various methods, but the Kaius is an immense system derived from an apex hexapod. Nothing we have on hand can force it into surrender.”
The exobiologists also tried to use a softer approach, but the subconsciousness ignored any entreaties. The thing behaved like an ancient dragon sleeping atop a mound of gold. Without being able to wake it, they had no opportunity of negotiating with it for its coins.
When he read through the logs and tallied their methods, he had to admit the exobiologists tried everything he could think about. Ves couldn’t figure out another way except for… the X-Factor.
Ever since he joined the expedition, Ves resolutely sealed his abilities concerning this mysterious phenomenon. Working together with a crowd of mech technicians muddied up the mechs he designed and worked with, so the X-Factor never had a chance to break out of its shell.
Now though, he faced a mech that lived, in a way. If Ves was correct about the rules governing the X-Factor, then it had an intricate connection to life.
Could he communicate with a living mech through the X-Factor? Could he manipulate it in his favor? How would he go about it in the first place?
“Nothing ventured, nothing tried.”
Ves ignored the exobiologist as he prattled on and approached the chimera mech’s chest. He put his palm over its hardy scales and tried to connect with the beast. He expanded his mind and narrowed focus, tuning out every other distraction.
The sounds of mech technicians installing new parts and exobiologists treating damaged tissue faded out. Deep within his mind, a brilliant light ascended into the heavens and threatened to burn down in an unprecedented nova of destruction.
“Agh!” He painfully pulled out his mind from the dangerous illusion. Ves had a suspicion that if he let the image run its course, he’d blow out his brains. “What is happening to me?”
Ves wasn’t stupid. He associated the phenomenon with the disappeared energy from the heavenly flower. He faintly recognized its flavor.
The strange occurrence forced him to take a step back. He left the cockpit and sat down in a quiet corner while stroking Lucky’s back. The cat had missed his presence and demanded a lot of attention since Ves returned from captivity.
“What do you think is going on, Lucky?”
The cat meowed ignorantly at him, caring more about his scratches than his owner’s conundrums.
The dangerous vision in his mind scared him quite a bit. Would he be risking his mind every time he tried to focus his concentration? He carefully dipped his mind inwards.
He easily manipulated his thoughts into a mental blade that could cut through any errant thoughts floating in his head. Ves found that its potency had even increased. Was this another effect of the heavenly flower?
“I can’t be sure of that. It could have grown from surviving the last few weeks. I know far too little about the mind to make any solid conclusions.”
Ves avoided making assumptions and instead tried to determine the changes. It became even easier to form his focus into any shape he willed into existence.
He found it difficult to describe the process. It was as if he applied a giant net onto a cloud of myriad meanings. It ignored all the irrelevant meanings and only latched on to the concepts he wanted.
“It’s even easier to shape the right image.”
Ves imagined upgrading an ancient second-hand image projector with a premium-brand one. The resolution and vitality of his images received a substantial upgrade. Whether it could help him break through the impenetrable border between the System’s C-rating and B-rating was another matter.
From his understanding of the X-Factor, it demanded more than brute force to break through that barrier. It required an evolution in his methods.
“It’s still a benefit, though.”
A more focused and intense image likely allowed him to impart more life in the same amount of time. He wouldn’t have to spend months trying to saturate a design with his fingerprints.
He even guessed that once he became powerful enough, he could wipe off the fingerprints of others in a collaborative work.
“I don’t even know if I reached that point.”
He only brushed against the tip of the iceberg with both his physical and mental changes. Though they all appeared to be beneficial, the doctors warned him that they might take a turn for the worse. Only through extensive examination at a proper facility would Ves be able to uncover some of the hidden dangers buried within his body.
He laid his worries aside since he still had a job to do. Once he regained his composure, he approached the Kaius and touched it again. This time, Ves formed a mental probe of sorts and carefully tried to pry into the shell of the monstrous mech.
His mind encountered a thick, nebulous cloud. Ves thought he encountered some form of barrier that acted as a form of protection. He firmed up his mental probe a bit and dove deeper into the cloud.
The probe continued extending until the cloud suddenly reacted. Ves became alarmed when his instincts warned him of a major crisis. The roiling cloud turned hostile and bore down onto his probe.
The cloud established a connection to Ves.
It conveyed a sense of hostility.
Ves blanked out.
He woke up half an hour later, his entire body stained with sweat.
“What just happened?”