Afterwards, Lord Kaine discussed the finer details. He wanted to keep Ves close in order to avoid another desertion.
Ves didn't object to Kaine's strongly worded suggestion, but he wanted Melkor to stay with him. He already found his cousin's presence to be a boon. Even if the other mech pilots didn't respect him, they acknowledged Melkor's strength.
"The Ark has a berth available for your cousin's mech." The leader of the expedition answered after a few seconds of thoughts. "I'll allow him to accompany you, but you'll have to leave behind your weapons."
They hashed out an elaborate set of responsibilities and conditions. Ves would transfer to the Ark Horizon and work full-time on improving the hunting platoon's mechs. The fleet carrier came with a compact but modern mech fabrication workshop, outfitted by his predecessor.
Treachery aside, the man spent his ample budget well. The 3D printer in particular almost matched the Dortmund in speed and precision. For now, the mech technicians used the printer in order to fabricate new replacement parts, but hopefully Ves would make much better use of the machines.
Along with access to the workshop, Ves also had the right to draw on the carrier's well-stocked raw material reserves. In order to make sure he didn't squander his reserves, Lord Kaine assigned a minder who kept watch over his activities.
"I'm okay with that." Ves replied. He knew that Lord Kaine didn't trust him very much. He'd keep a close watch on Ves anyway, so they might as well get it out of the way.
They also discussed the deployment of the Barracuda. As a fast and fairly modern corvette, she would function as an ideal scout. Lord Kaine wanted to bolster her crew with his own men but Ves put his foot down on that point.
"I don't want too many foreigners on my ship. She's extremely valuable."
Ves suggested that Lord Kaine post a single liason on the Barracuda. He acceded to the demands to restrict the FTL drive and the quantum entanglement node with special hardware as long as they didn't permanently disable the modules.
"Very well. We shall have to leave it at that." Lord Kaine finally conceded. The Barracuda wouldn't be straying too far from the main fleet as a consequence.
After coming to an understanding on his role, Ves bid Lord Kaine farewell and left the stateroom. As they came out of the reinforced hatch, they returned their comms to their wrists and picked up Lucky.
A young uniformed attendant greeted the pair as they wondered where to go. "Mr. Larkinson? I'm Ensign Jules D'Amato, and I've been assigned to be your guide."
Ves expected some kind of grizzled old veteran who took no bullshit from anyone. Instead, he got a polite and friendly minder who behaved suspiciously friendly.
"Can you take us to our quarters? We brought some luggage but we left it behind in the hangar bay."
"Your luggage is already brought to your new quarters. This way, please."
They traversed the corridors and went down to the bottom decks. Overall, most of the ship's operations happened in the upper decks. The activities pertaining to mechs occurred at the lower decks.
The Larkinsons started to see more crew members donning various different uniforms. Ensign D'Amato explained who they were. "Half of the Ark Horizon's complement of mechs are owned by mercenaries."
"Why isn't Lord Kaine filling up the hangar bays with his own mechs?"
Ensign D'Amato adopted a pensive look. "House Kaine is currently burdened by many obligations. Lord Kaine is unwilling to draw away too many mechs on a lengthy voyage to the galactic rim."
His words sounded reasonable, but came off as an excuse. If Ves was in charge of the expedition, he wouldn't have been nearly so liberal in hiring so many mercenaries.
After ten more minutes of navigating deeper into the ship, they finally reached the lower officer quarters. The Ensign led them to a modestly furnished quarters with barely enough room for two.
"This will be your quarters. Your comm is already keyed into the lock, but I don't recommend you store any valuables or sensitive data inside. Please get rested. I will pick you up tomorrow morning for breakfast before introducing you to Lady Felicity."
Once D'Amato left the quarters, the hatch slid shut, giving the Larkinsons the illusion of privacy. Ves sighed and sat down on the lower bunk while Melkor checked his luggage to see if it was still intact.
"They went through our luggage." He stated.
"That's to be expected. House Kaine has grown quite paranoid."
Ves expected a difficult assignment due to his predecessor's untimely withdrawal. That might become a larger hindrance in his task to make sure the hunting platoon made it out alive and intact.
"What are your thoughts about the mission?"
"Lord Kaine is light on the details." Melkor leaned against the bulkhead once he went through his luggage. "One of the major uncertainties so far is his plan to deal with the sandmen. It's clear that the Groening System falls in their sphere of influence."
"Anything else? What are your impressions on the mercenaries?"
"The local mercenaries are fairly competent, but they're lacking in discipline. Half of them are quick to anger while the other half are quietly scheming their own plans. I'm not impressed. On the other hand, the three mercenary corps from the Grey Willow Star Sector behave a bit more competent than you might expect of soldiers for hire."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"George's Cavalry behave like they're still part of the military. Adila's Chosen is bound by a common religion. As for the Stray Phantoms, they try their best to appear normal, but my senses tell me that they're spooks."
This sounded a lot more complex than he initially thought. Ves scrunched his face in thought. "Could it be that different factions of the Constance Grand Kingdom have a stake in this expedition?"
"I'd put my money on that bet. House Kaine had probably made too many movements. Once the Constance Grand Kingdom found out about his intentions, they probably imposed their own conditions."
The truth might be different, but from what Ves had gathered it appeared to be true. The foreign mercenaries treated the ship as their own and took no notice of the officers from House Kaine.
The situation grew more complex by the minute. He already had to contend with traitors and leakers. "Their true identities doesn't matter. My only concern should be to work on the mechs of the hunting platoon."
They had nothing else to share. When Ves asked if Melkor had an impression of Keller, his cousin responded that he wasn't even aware that Keller came from the Vesia Kingdom.
"Well, we won't be interacting much with each other. Keller and his men will likely be sent down to the ground. Let's go to sleep."
They tucked in their beds early after taking a short shower. Lucky painstakingly climbed next to Ves as the light dimmed in the quarters.
"Careful, Lucky. I don't want your butt pressing on my face!" He hissed.
The next morning, they both woke up fairly early. Ves scratched his face and sent a resentful glare at his cat. Lucky must have poured out his frustration at his lack of mobility. Melkor had to carry him around like a baby.
"Good morning, Mr. Larkinson. The officer's mess has already opened its doors. This way, please."
Ensign D'Amato brought them to the officer's mess where they all enjoyed a light breakfast. Ves still felt a bit full from last night's banquet so he limited his breakfast to toast and coffee.
After filling up their stomachs, their guide brought them to a hangar bay filled with mechs bearing the livery of House Kaine. Now that Ves had a closer look, he noticed that the quality of the mechs fell short on what a second-rate state should normally field. While they all appeared to be currentgen mechs, they already bore the marks of age.
The quality of mechs only went up once they entered the section that housed the hunting platoon. While Ves had already seen the models in a projection, seeing them up come gave him a much stronger impression on their capabilities.
A large amount of men and women stood in neatly composed rows. A familiar-looking woman with autumn brown hair stood before her subordinates with her arms crossed before her chest.
When Ves came closer, he didn't know how to greet the platoon. He merely signed on as an outside consultant, so it wouldn't be appropriate to respond with a salute.
He must have failed some test, because Felicity Kaine's expression soured. "Are you our new mech designer?"
"That's correct. I hope to have your cooperation in this matter, miss Kaine."
"That remains to be seen, and don't call me that! I'm the commanding officer of the hunting platoon. My House affiliation has nothing to do with my current position, so I expect you to address me as Captain Kaine or ma'am."
Ves didn't know if she hated mech designers in general or if he simply pissed her off in some way. Captain Kaine didn't waste anymore time and promptly dismissed her crew before walking away.
An older, barrel-chested man stepped up from the dispersing crew. "Don't mind her attitude. The success of the expedition rests on her shoulders, so she's bearing a lot of responsibilities right now."
"I take it she took the betrayal of the previous mech designer hard."
"Don't you know it. Your first task is to check and audit the workshop and its stores. My men have already checked the records and found nothing out of place, but it will help if you lend a hand. You'll also be able to familiarize yourself with what you have to work with while you're double-checking our records."
The man led the way as he introduced himself as Lance Ramirez, but everyone simply called him Chief Ramirez. As the senior NCO in charge of maintaining the hunting platoon's mechs, Ramirez had taken up the duty of orienting Ves.
"My men and I are very familiar with the mechs of the hunting platoon. Hopefully you'll be working on four different models."
Chief Ramirez brought him up close to each of the mechs resting in their stables.
First up was the two heavy knights. "The Ajax Olympian are variants of a popular model back home. They're great at absorbing impacts with their shields, but they don't possess enough arm power to threaten a well-armored hexapod without building up momentum."
"Why choose a variant over the base model?"
"The regular Ajax is a standard heavy knight meant to soak up damage from a distance. The Ajax Olympian on the other hand is great against threats up close. It specializes in grappling and locking down any threats up close."
Ves looked dubious at the mech as he heard the claim. He could see that the knight worked well enough if he had to grapple a regular mech. He couldn't say the same if it tried to wrestle even the weakest hexapod kings.
"Next up is the Volmar. It's a weapon specialist platform that possesses a good balance of speed, armor and power. While the two heavy knights hold down the big ones, the five Volmars will attempt to crush their eyes and other vulnerable parts of their bodies. They should possess sufficient force to grind down the massive sixlegs."
"Are you certain about that? From the recordings I've seen so far, none of the mechs in the previous expedition have ever made them flinch."
"Those mech pilots were idiots. Half of the time, they panicked and lashed out blindly. They also piloted lastgen mechs that lack many innovations. This time, we know what's coming, so Lord Kaine picked the very best mechs for the job. The Volmars will crush the beasts, you can count on that."
He didn't expect Chief Ramirez to have so much faith in his own models. The hexapod kings were clearly not to be trifled with. Ves faintly thought that Chief Ramirez had grown too attached to the mechs under his charge.
As an outsider, Ves possessed a more sober perspective. He considered the Volmas to be a well-made armsmaster design. However, this wide compatibility came at a cost. He thought they needed a lot more power to finish off a hexapod king without dragging out the fight.
Lastly Ramirez showed off railgun mechs. "The Empyrean is a mainstream model dedicated solely to wielding railguns. Every aspect of the Empyrean is slanted towards powering and providing the best targeting to its railgun cannon. It's able to fire a slug every five seconds at full charge."
"How many shots can it fire?"
"With an extended backpack module, it's capable of providing ammunition and power for sixty shots. That's more than enough to soften up four of the big lugs before they close in or run away."
Of all the mechs shown so far, Ves put most of his hope on the Empyreans. Their sophisticated railguns packed a lot of punch, though their firing rate didn't particularly impress him. A hexapod king might close the distance in the time the Empyreans fired off a single volley.
"I notice that you've only shown me three models so far when I distinctly remember there's supposed to be four."
"Ah." Chief Ramirez scratched his head. "Captain Kaine pilots a customized mech. She gave out strict orders to not let you get anywhere near her baby."
Great. Ves knew he had to make an effort to break the ice with Captain Kaine. He hadn't ignored some of dirty looks. His predecessor certainly poisoned the well around here. No one trusted mech designers anymore. How could he prove to the hunting platoon that he didn't intend to scam them all?