Since the hunting platoon left to scour the jungle for the alpha beasts, Ves sought to find more clues. Through regular contact, he learned that several mercenary teams received missions other than hunting the hexapods to harvest their valuable heat organs.
"This bunch of fellows came back with an uprooted tree! It's a small one, though. Like, no taller than you and me. It looks really old and gnarly and it definitely had been gnawed at by the beasts. Besides that, I don't have a clue why the mercs brought it back."
"This team encountered a hexapod and instead of slaughtering it on the spot, they pinned it down and shot lasers at it! I swear, they received orders to pump it full of energy before killing it. The beast thrashed so much the team almost lost some of their mechs. It's going to take an extensive overhaul to bring those mechs back to normal."
Though he heard plenty of gossip, Ves didn't gain anything truly useful. The main factor that limited his exposure to information was that the core of the expedition gathered within the inner area of the base.
All of the mercenaries and most of the outsiders lacked the permission to enter this highly secure area. Instead, House Kaine had relegated them to the periphery of the base. Even Ves received the same treatment, though most of the maintenance department including Chief Ramirez also had to stay outside.
Ramirez shrugged at him when he remarked about it. "The only people who get to know the important stuff are those who need to know. Techies like us are only here to keep the mechs running. It doesn't matter what's going on. Even if the cavern is collapsing, we'll still continue to maintain everyone's mechs."
"You don't think they're hiding something from us?"
"Of course they're hiding the truth from us! Do you think they showed us the full recordings of what went on in the previous expedition? That's just the tip of the iceberg! I'm sure the hexapod heat organs are worth a lot of money, but even the dumbest mech technicians know Lord Kaine is after something else. There's no reason to take a high-profile approach otherwise."
Neither Ramirez or D'Amato answered any of his questions. They deliberately stifled him even if they knew something more.
Perhaps Ramirez had a point, but Ves couldn't leave things be. He constantly had a bad feeling about this entire venture. If he received some kind of advance warning, he'd be able to maximize his chances of getting through a crisis unscathed.
He also kept Master Olson's words in mind. So far, the expedition hadn't suffered any major setbacks. Besides the strange and unusual pirate attack, everything went according to plan.
Ves stared at the solidly guarded entrance to the inner sanctum of the base. Ves considered employing his stealth field to sneak into the inner sanctum, but he reconsidered after thinking about its limited duration. Neither he nor Lucky could accomplish anything in only five minutes.
With no other choice, he opted to wait. In any case, his workload kept growing as the mercenaries returned with dead hexapods and damaged mechs.
The highly competent mech technicians serving under House Kaine were able to fix most of the issues they encountered even without the help of a mech designer. He mainly found himself trying to fix extensively damaged components that took a lot of time and effort to replace. His much greater knowledge on the workings and composition of each part allowed him to bring almost anything back to life.
He managed to accomplish most of the challenges he faced due to his long-dormant Jury Rigging II sub-skill. The skill provided him with a mentality that prompted him to think outside the box. His solutions might not always be proper, but they always held up in the short term.
When Ves thought he'd continue to improvise solutions for the rest of the expedition, Ensign D'Amato suddenly received an emergency transmission.
"Ves, put down your work. You're needed elsewhere."
"Is there an emergency?"
"A critical one. The hunting platoon encountered a mishap. One of the Ajax Olympians suffered critical damage. Captain Kaine used up her only high-powered signal device to relay her help request to the nearest mercenaries, who eventually relayed her message back to base."
The news came as an unpleasant surprise. Ves worked so hard to upgrade the heavy knight's parameters. "What's the damage?"
The ensign consulted his comm. "Its entire left leg received extensive damage to the point of immobilizing the machine. The mech can't walk back to base and its too heavy to be hauled over. The rest of the hunting platoon is staying by its side, but the site highly unsafe."
As a heavy mech that weighed about five times as much as a medium mech, Ves knew that nothing they had on hand could bring it back to base. The 1.4 times gravity complicated the situation even more. The mech effectively weighed forty percent more on this planet, which made it impossible for any hauler platform to bring it back to base.
They made their way over to the eastern gate of the base camp. "What's the plan?"
"Commander Tregis has already formed a rescue party. You will lead a repair team over to the hunting platoon and bring the damaged Olympian back up its feet. It's vitally important that the heavy knight regains enough mobility to walk back to safety."
"I have to perform repairs on the spot?!" It sounded outrageous to Ves that he had to leave the safety of the base camp's walls and be forced to traverse an alien jungle.
"I'm aware that we're demanding a lot from you, Ves. You'll be safe inside an armored transport that will also bring the necessary supplies to facilitate the repairs. A couple of mechs will accompany the transport on the ground to make sure that no indigenous life forms will intercept the vehicle."
It still sounded crazy, but Ves had no choice but to follow orders. The success of the entire expedition hinged on the Olympians.
Commander Tregis worked fast. He commandeered an armored transport scheduled to ship their current harvests back to orbit and emptied it of its entire cargo. Chief Ramirez took over at this point and ordered his subordinates to load it up to the brim with tools, machines and materials.
Once Ves arrived at the transport, he wondered why they didn't intend to pick up the damaged mech from its current location. It sounded much more convenient to him if they could bring the mech back to base before attempting repairs.
"There's too many metal trees in the way. They're so tough and resilient that it's nearly impossible to form a clearing without creating a huge commotion." The chief replied as he supervised the loading process. "Instead, the transport will be hovering above the site, allowing us to drop in our gear one by one."
The transport also wouldn't be sticking around for long. Once it unloaded all of the gear, the pilot had orders to return back to base. Otherwise, the transport risked attracting the attention to a flock of hexabats.
The expedition learned pretty early that their flying craft attracted the hexabats like moths to a flame. The heat from the thrusters and other active systems formed an irresistible attraction to the small but dangerous beasts.
Everything had to be done quickly. Ves barely took stock of the damage readings when Ensign D'Amato forced him to board the transport. Fortunately, Melkor also came along with his Stanislaw while Lucky slept in his embrace.
The transport slowly lifted off and headed east at a slow pace. A squad of seven mechs accompanied the low-flying craft on the ground and tried to navigate through the trees as fast as possible.
Except for the Stanislaw, all the other mechs consisted of elites from George's Cavalry. The supposed mercenaries navigated the alien jungle with a high degree of proficiency. They hardly let the dense forest slow them down. It became apparent that they took to arboreal terrain like fish to water.
Impressively enough, the Stanislaw didn't lose out too much in speed. Melkor skillfully danced aside any obstacles in his way and always found the right footing to travel forward without tripping up. He only lacked the practical experience to match the older mercenaries who had already been through a lot.
The transport and its escort made good speed towards their destination. They encountered a couple of hazards along the way, but the squad of mechs took care of most of the issues.
The biggest danger occurred when a small flock of hexabats flew too close to the transport. They noticed its heat emissions and instantly went berserk. Melkor and the two other ranged mechs all aimed their ballistic rifles in the air and shot down the beasts with specialized airburst ammunition.
Despite the plentiful fire, the hexabats were so resilient that glancing hits only shrugged off their thick scales. A couple of bats reached the transport and tried to drill through its thin armor. It took quite a bit of effort to stamp them out for good.
"Continue on! We can't afford any delays!"
They reached the Olympian around a standard day later. The surrounding brush and ground exhibited a lot of traces of a furious battle. Despite the marks, the larger trees remained stubbornly intact. Nothing in their arsenal could take down these incredibly resilient plant life.
"We're here! Start lifting down our gear!" Ramirez then turned to Ves. "I want you down there first to take stock of the damage. We've already received the Olympian's internal telemetry, but who knows if it's complete. We've got to go down there and scan the damaged limb ourselves."
With that, Ves boarded a lifter platform that snuck him past the razor-sharp leaf cover until he finally touched the ground. As soon as he stepped off, he put down Lucky who eagerly started to explore.
Unlike Ves who had to wear his hazard suit, his feline companion roamed the toxic environment like a hexapod. As a mechanical beast, he didn't need to breathe in the first place. Lucky would still be fine if he ended up in vacuum. Even the constant levels of radiation hardly fazed the miraculous cat.
While he waited for the scanner module to be gently brought down, Ves studied the battered hunting platoon in order to figure out what happened.
Most of the mechs looked like they had better days. Only the Empyreans looked pristine.
The only intact Olympian obviously had a rough time. Its robust shield featured many deep scratches. Its armor was in better shape, which was a testament to both its quality and the skill of the pilot.
As for the Volmars, around half of them suffered damage. Claw and bite marks scuffed their weapons and armor, which wasn't supposed to happen in the first place.
Once the aircar-sized scanner module arrived, Ves steered the lifter platform in the direction of the crippled Olympian.
Its leg looked as if a giant beast chomped its thigh. Huge bite marks and traces of tearing suffused the entire limb. Its thick armor saved it from being gulped into the stomach of a giant hexapod, but it hadn't prevented the teeth from punching past the armor, dealing loads of internal damage.
"Don't move!" Ves instructed the pilot when the heavy mech tried to turn. "Just stay in place while I scan the affected portion."
The pilot frantically spoke back in the local voice channel. "Stay way and get to cover! He's back!"
"Who's back?" Ves turned around and noticed the high-strung hunting platoon getting ready to meet a formidable opponent. His stomach sank as he realized whatever chewed up the Olympian hadn't left the area.
Captain Kaine's Cathrec frantically gestured him back with its charged spear. "Larkinson! Move to the center of our formation! We can't let the doctor get his hands on you!"
"Hahahaha!" A loud screech echoed through the trees. Different from the earlier conversation, the awful voice hadn't been conveyed through any of the local communication channels. "A mech designer, you say? Delightful!"
While Ves still wondered who the voice belonged to, a gigantic moving object charged through the trees and impacted against the braced Olympian that met the charge. A loud impact sounded as the Olympian had been shoved back more than a dozen steps.
As for the beast itself, it looked nothing like a normal hexapod. In fact, it looked like a cross between a mech and a hexapod king. Various rusting mechanical parts had been married into a rotting but still largely intact hexapod king carcass.
"Is that an improvised mech?" Ves inadvertently blurted out.
The strange marriage between mech and beast sent chills through his spine. Even more remarkable was the ragged human man strapped to the top of the chimera's head. The man had obviously seen better days. His ragged lab coat had been scruffed to the point where its formerly pristine white composite fabric took on a disgusting black appearance.
Even now, the madman laughed. His amplified voice disturbed the entire rescue party. How could a human being even breathe the toxic gasses that make up Groening IV's incredibly hazardous air?
"Hahahaha! The interlopers think to stop my pet! The nerve! I am the king of the forest! No one disobeys me without paying the price!"
"Doctor Jutland!" Captain Kaine shouted out from her Cathrec as she quickly positioned her mech between the beast and Ves. "I know it's been long, but you're still human! Please allow us to treat you and we'll promise to return you to civilized space."
"Human? HUMAN? You DARE call me a human! I AM NO HUMAN! I AM A KING, THE ONLY KING OF THE FOREST! HAHAHAHA!"
The madman atop the chimera went absolutely bonkers. Despite his evident madness, no one made a move. Despite the deplorable state of his chimera mech, it still possessed enough power to rip the hunting platoon to shreds.