The Kaius and its entourage of defenders chased the pirate mechs for twenty minutes before giving up the chase. Continuing to chase the pirates all the way back to their transports risked falling into an ambush, so the defending mechs wisely broke off well before they overextended themselves.
Everyone back in base cheered as the scouts reported that the surviving boarded their transports and lifted off. They completely gave up on the assault and cut their losses.
“Too bad we haven’t caught that Jaded Serpent. We could have interrogated him about the goal of their senseless attacks.”
Certainly, the Dragons of the Void sacrificed a lot of ships and mechs, only to receive nothing in return besides damaging House Kaine. Ves reasoned that stopping House Kaine and ruining their much-vaunted expedition must be one of their primary goals. In that regard, the mysterious pirate group achieved some successes, but not enough to make up for their losses.
Ves eventually scratched his head. “No regular pirate group will throw away so many assets for nothing.”
“It’s not their assets to begin with.” D’Amato replied. “The Dragons of the Void obviously employed patsies to do the heavy lifting for them. Don’t forget that each time the battle went south, they always ran away the fastest.”
“Even so, borrowed or not, losing so many ships and mechs will hurt overall strength. They’ll be much less capable of threatening their opponents after losing so much cannon fodder.”
The most frightening aspect about the Dragons of the Void was that they managed to indoctrinate so many pirate outfits. Why haven’t they received any backlash over their unscrupulous use of mind-altering drugs?
Ensign D’Amato smiled at him. “Pirates aren’t the smartest people in the bunch. Smaller gangs of pirates have a lot of trouble finding safe harbor among the stars. My guess is that the Dragons are secretly controlling several pirate harbors. Whenever they’re short on manpower, they’ll kidnap some unsuspecting visitors.”
Such a scheme highlighted the cutthroat circumstances of those who resorted to piracy. Perhaps some of the pirates had an inkling of what went on, but where else could they service their ships and mechs? These outlaws deserved no mercy for turning their backs on human solidarity.
Hours went by as the survivors picked up the pieces. Ves volunteered to help with the repairs of the Kaius. While it pretended to be invincible in front of the pirate mechs, it actually sustained severe damage to its mechanical components.
Due to a lack of time, the repair team focused on stabilizing its condition so it wouldn’t fall apart in the short term. Many other mech technicians crawled over the disabled mechs that had been strewn across the battlefield and assessed whether they could still be fixed.
When Ves looked at the battlefield strewn with so many wrecks, he couldn’t help but count how much value lay on the ground. His salvager’s eye came up with a figure that topped several billion bright credits.
The pirate mechs generally consisted of cheap mechs made out of cheap materials. The real treasure lay in the machines used by the forces from the Grey Willow Star Sector. These high-quality mechs employed valuable exotics throughout their frame that many manufacturers loved to use.
“Will we be able to recover all of this salvage?”
“Maybe not. It depends on if the incoming fleet is friendly enough. Now that they’re getting nearer, we’ve received more detailed readings. The mass readings are highly alarming, though we’ve also detected the presence of the Ark Horizon.”
For a time, the groundside team feared that their mothership had been captured. It took several suspenseful hours for them to receive a signal from Lord Jeremiah Kane himself. Commander Tregis decided to broadcast the transmission throughout the base.
The old man appeared aged and tired on the projector. “Fellow expedition members, it has been a trying time for you all. We departed from the Grey Willow Star Sector and crossed many light-years with the hope of reversing the fortunes of House Kaine. Enemies stalked us every step of the way, but despite their determined attempts to drag us down, we have persevered against all odds. Be proud of your accomplishments.”
His words had a very emotional effect on the men and women employed directly by House Kaine. All of them possessed a strong sense of belonging to the venerable noble house. The message resonated less with external consultants like Ves.
Lord Kaine spent the next couple of minutes explaining what happened after that. After the expeditionary fleet finished off the sandmen incursion, they suffered a devastating loss when the Dragons of the Void sprung their ambush. The bedraggled survivors fled far away until they eventually converged at a predetermined fallback point.
“Defeat can humble the best of men.” Lord Kaine spoke evenly. “While I cannot change what has already happened, I can still change the outcome of this venture. Therefore, after much consideration, I’ve decided to approach the Common Fleet Alliance for assistance.”
That explained the heavy fleet presence. Several destroyers along with a handful of frigates surrounded the Ark Horizon like an honor guard. Though the massive fleet carrier outmassed the smaller vessels, as dedicated warships they possessed unparalleled might.
The pirate fleet had no choice but to gamble on a quick win. As soon as they figured that they couldn’t overrun the base camp with the mech forces at hand, they decided to cut their losses and run before the warships caught their scummy hides.
“It can’t be cheap to enlist the aid of the CFA.”
Ensign D’Amato nodded. “The CFA is humanity’s common defense against pirates and aliens. While they won’t shirk their duty, they never rescue fortune seekers knocking on their door without taking a cut.”
Word came down from above what the price entailed. For the lowly price of guaranteeing the recovery of the groundside team, the CFA demanded eighty percent of all the expedition’s mineral gains. House Kaine had to forfeit much of the motherlode they painstakingly recovered from the alien wilderness.
Furthermore, once the CFA received a summary of events on the ground, they also demanded the materials recovered from Doctor Jutland. This not only included the research materials and samples taken from his cave, but also the Kaius itself. In the face of their domineering demands, House Kaine could only act meekly and lower their heads.
Ves winced as he heard the sordid details. “Sounds like the CFA is the true winner of the expedition. They didn’t even have to lift a finger to get their hands on all of that monoexurite.”
“At least they left us with some crumbs. They could have demanded ninety-nine percent of all of our gains.”
The expedition hauled in so many kilograms of monoexurite that everyone’s eyes went green whenever they thought of it. Having to hand them over to their rescuers hurt a lot, but it was still better than being stranded forever on this strange and hostile planet.
As D’Amato remarked, the CFA left them with twenty percent of a massive fortune. This insured that House Kaine still earned a very generous profit even with all of their losses taken into account.
“The CFA left us with some crumbs because they want to keep the requests coming. If they gain a reputation for being too outrageous in their demands, people will turn elsewhere for rescue.”
As the warships and the Ark Horizon slipped into orbit, a large number of transports and shuttles descended into the underground cavern. The abundant amount of heat emitted by the vessels attracted thousands of hexabats, but the well-prepared shuttlecraft peppered them with a vicious rain of projectiles.
The half-ruined base camp received the new arrivals with trepidation and relief. While a few officers from House Kaine arrived to assess the situation, most of the other transports belonged to the CFA.
Armed spacers departed from the shuttles and transports and locked down the entire base. They herded every worker and mech pilot into a waiting transport vessel as if they couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.
“What about our mechs!?”
“We will recover your possessions later. Please enter the transports first.”
Against the strong-arming of the CFA, no one could say a thing. They separated Ves from the rest once they found him. “Mr. Larkinson, your presence is requested aboard the science vessel the Ramulus in order to treat your condition.”
Ves expected to be summoned by the CFA. Their clear interest in Doctor Jutland’s research extended to the invasive procedures the madman performed on his body. As a living example of his work, the researchers attached to the CFA would never let him off.
“Can I have a word with my companions before I go?”
“Make it fast.”
With that reprieve, Ves quickly turned around and slipped his comm around Lucky’s collar before handing him to Melkor. “Take care of Lucky. Don’t let him run around wherever he pleases.”
His cousin nodded at him. “I’m familiar with his habits. I’ll keep my eye on him.”
Assured that his cat and his comm would be kept out of the CFA’s clutches, Ves turned to D’Amato. “You’ve been a helpful watcher, ensign. I learned a lot from you over these months.”
“Likewise. I’ve always been a ship fanatic, but your work has opened my eyes to the intricate world of mechs.”
Both of them gained something from the other through their long interaction with each other. While Ves never appreciated his presence, the engineer-in-training never obstructed him when he worked. This alone deserved a commendation.
While Ves would have liked to say a few words to Chief Ramirez and Captain Kaine, the impatient CFA spacers firmly pushed him onto a fast shuttle.
Ves could instantly tell the shuttle was special. Ves had never seen one that had evidently been made out of compressed alloys. The sheer wealth put into this tiny craft showcased the organization’s power and wealth.
Once they loaded the shuttle with recovered research data, the vehicle took off with rapid speed. Ves looked out the viewscreen and estimated the shuttle flew at least four times as fast as the ones used by House Kaine.
They emerged from the underground cavern and reach orbit a very short time later. The shuttle zipped through space and entered the hangar bay of a large and peculiar looking vessel studded with sensors.
When Ves emerged from the shuttle, he looked around and found the hangar bay to be empty. To be frank, what he saw didn’t impress him as much as he thought.
The interior of the Ramulus had been built to withstand an extreme amount of punishment. Ves only recognized a couple of well-known compressed alloys. Despite the extravagant expenditure, the white interior looked fairly boring, as if the designer worked hard not to cheer up the crew.
Despite the plain appearance, Ves suspected that the ship hid a lot of highly advanced systems underneath the surface. He caught hints of it as a pair of armed security officers guided him towards the labs. Every strange device prompted Ves to puzzle out their function.
Even more remarkable was when he passed by several uniformed spacers. Every crew member looked beautiful or handsome, which was a sign that they received expensive gene therapy. While not as heaven-defying as gene boosts, first-rate superstates applied gene therapy to all of their citizens to enhance their health and make them much less susceptible to diseases.
Ves had to curb his curiosity once they entered a quiet but extremely well-equipped lab. A handful of researchers awaited his arrival. The lead scientist stepped forward and shook his hand. “Welcome aboard the Ramulus, Mr. Larkinson. Ah, your skin is fascinating!”
The researchers hadn’t even introduced themselves before they crowded over his body with medical scanners in their hand. They took preliminary readings of his conditions and discussed their findings among themselves.
“You’ll be with us for a month, Mr. Larkinson. I suggest you make yourself comfortable aboard the Ramulus. We’ve prepared a complete examination that will allow us to get to the bottom of your new condition.”
Hopefully the researchers didn’t forget to treat his ailments. Their ravenous desire to get to the bottom of his changed physique unnerved Ves in a way that reminded him of Jutland.
At least his hosts were mindful enough to inform him that they didn’t intend to keep him around forever. The CFA’s contract with House Kaine included a clause that insured his safe return. Such an illustrious organization would never violate a contract that was already heavily in their favor.
They were the good guys, after all.