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 What struck Ves the most when Jutland made his last stand was that he completely became unhinged. His overwhelming rage at losing his flower pushed aside his devious intelligence and his admirable capacity for patience.

If Jutland hadn't lost his rationality, he still had a chance to turn the tides. In the end, he lost to himself. All of his plans came to nothing due to a lack of self-control.

Ves feared the same could happen to him. "So how's my brain, doc?"

"It appears to be fine, but that is only a preliminary assessment." Doctor Mellow replied as she put him through the latest barrage of scans. She already took extensive samples of his blood and tissue. She even cut a tiny portion off his Jutland and regulator organs. "It's too early to make a conclusion. Doctor Jutland's fascinating work have a myriad of wonderful effects. I can't even make sense of this new kind of energy!"

The exobiologist had never encountered this form of energy that could only be induced through special circumstances. It didn't show up on any existing scans and could only be perceived through the minute amount of heat it released as waste. This proved that it at least adhered to some of the rules that governed energy.

"So you can't figure out a way to make it less destructive?"

"No!" She resolutely shook her head. "We can't make any headway on this matter with the equipment we have on hand. It's better to focus on what we can do for now."

Over the next couple of days, Doctor Mellow along with some other specialists treated him like a patient and test subject depending on what struck their fancy.

At least with Lucky hanging around, they shouldn't be reckless enough to do anything radical like cutting him open and removing all of his organs.

The modifications made to his body represented something new to the scientists. They constantly learned something new every day, but even more remained out of reach.

"Doctor Jutland is a brilliant man, but he's also a paranoid man." Mellow explained when Ves asked if he figured out his changes. "Cyber specialists are still trying to crack his datachips but it will take years to open them up. Meanwhile, we aren't making much progress deciphering the functions of your new organs either because Jutland has employed a form of biological encryption."

The doctors did the best they could to map out his various 'improvements'. They confirmed his suspicions that his flesh and bones had toughened up to an absurd level compared to an average human. The most remarkable aspect of Jutland's work was that he successfully transplanted the capacity to resist radiation damage from hexapods to humans.

"Not even the best gene therapy applied to the special forces of the Constance Grand Kingdom can match up to this level of enhancement!"

His respiration and digestion systems also gained a massive enhancement, though that didn't mean that Ves could eat icky stuff. He concerned himself the most about adapting back to normal human standards. Could he still breathe the same air and eat the same foods as he had always done?

"There is some loss of efficiency there, make no mistake about it. However, your Jutland organ sufficiently makes up the gaps in these areas."

In conclusion, Ves gained a remarkable boost in strength, endurance and adaptability in a wide variety of environment. He'd make for an ideal treasure hunter and pioneer with his new physique.

Still, that didn't mean Mellow grew confident enough to declare his body healthy. Jutland could have sneaked all kinds of hidden bombs and booby traps in his body, but the man's extreme level of paranoia made it difficult to figure out where they've been buried.

"There is one anomaly that you should be aware of." Mellow said as she handed over a scan of his brain to him. "Your central nervous system is influencing your regulator organ in a markedly concerning fashion. Usually, it's the other way around, as the regulator organ is designed to provide additional instructions that your regular brain is incapable of controlling."

The projection began to animate a model of what might happen. "As you can see, our models predict that your central nervous system will gradually merge with your regulator organ. What kind of effects this will result in is still to be determined, but whether they are positive or negative, we can still interrupt the process if you wish to do so."

Ves could hardly make a decision on his own. He truly lamented the limited facilities of the half-ruined base camp. A proper hospital or research institute would make a lot more progress on the mysteries of his body.

"From your words, I gather this shouldn't be happening. Could this merger be initiated by that strange 'heavenly flower'?"

While no other heavenly flowers existed, the expedition knew about its existence due to the various references Jutland had left behind. Ves eventually had to admit he ate a dubious alien growth.

Fortunately, Jutland intended to consume it himself, so it likely didn't come with any negative side effects. However, that only truly applied to Jutland's unique physique.

"The amount of resources Doctor Jutland spent on nurturing the heavenly flower is astounding. It also explains why the expedition has never met another apex hexapod. He preyed on them all and harvested their biomass to feed this flower."

While it sounded fairly concerning to them both that Ves ate a growth that contained a ridiculously high concentration of energy, they couldn't do anything about it. Unlike the rougher form of energy being cycled by his Jutland organ, the heavenly flower extraordinary energy stream truly escaped any form of control.

In the end, the doctors and specialists threw up their hands and declared him safe, for now. They hadn't found any acute threats that could kill him before he returned to civilized space, that is if they would ever get picked up. The defeat of the expeditionary fleet still hung over the entire base like an omnipresent cloud of rain.

Once Ves got discharged from Doctor Mellow's care, he carried Lucky out of the treatment center and met with Ensign D'Amato.

The young and promising ensign looked a lot worse off this time as he lost his entire left arm. "D'Amato! What happened to you?"

"I suffered a laser burn that forced the doctors to discard the entire limb." He shrugged nonchalantly. "They're growing a replacement arm for me, but there are others in the waiting list who get to have their turn first."

Since D'Amato didn't show any concern, Ves put down his own. "So what is happening these days? Are we making any progress getting out of here?"

Right now, the groundside team suffered many losses but also made enormous gains. Both the motherlode and whatever Doctor Jutland left behind could be sold for a huge pile of credits back home. No one wanted to leave this wealth behind.

"You should know about the truth." D'Amato said and gestured Ves into an isolated office. "We've been sparing with the details before, but that was obviously a mistake. Some of our less stable employees who haven't been able to cope with their deployment to the surface have leaked what has happened to the mercs, who promptly lashed out and tried to take over the communications center. Do you know why they aimed for our quantum entanglement nodes?"

"I'm guessing they wanted to ask for rescue from anyone they can reach. They don't care about keeping the Groening System a secret anymore."

"That's true, but it's not their main goal. In truth, the expeditionary fleet came prepared to repulse the sandmen, which they did after expending a lot of effort. What happened immediately afterwards brought the fleet into disarray. They were set upon by the Dragons of the Void who pounced on the exhausted fleet."

A chill went through his spine as Ves imagined the consequences. He was no expert in fleet engagements, but even he knew how difficult it would be for Lord Kaine to fend off a follow-up attack when he least suspected it. "How could the pirates have found our fleet?"

"We may never know." D'Amato replied with a grim face, which hinted at the possibility of traitors within the expedition. "What we can determine is that the Ark Horizon sustained heavy damage along with the vessels of our core partners. The Dragons of the Void aimed to behead the expedition in a single stroke, but the Ark Horizon proved to be more resilient than they thought."

The expeditionary fleet lost a lot of smaller ships as well as many mercenary transports. When it became obvious that they couldn't win the engagement, the expeditionary fleet dispersed in all directions, forcing the mysterious pirates to spread out and lose their advantage. The heavily-damaged Ark Horizon successfully slipped away in the end.

"Have the Dragons of the Void left to pursue the remnants of the expeditionary fleet?" Ves curiously asked.

"No. They spent some time salvaging the wrecks before making their way to the Groening System. In fact, the pirate fleet is currently orbiting over this planet. The only reason why they haven't made way to this underground region is that they can't find the entrance. The pirates don't appear to have any surveyors in their midst."

That sounded both good and bad. If they wanted to get off this planet before the storms began to rage anew, they could surrender to the Dragons of the Void. However, pirates weren't known to be merciful to their captives.

"I'm guessing the rebelling mercs tried to signal the coordinates to the entrance of this underground cavern."

"That's correct." The ensign grimaced while holding the stump of his arm. "Make no mistake. House Kaine will never give in to pirates. Commander Tregis has promised to execute anyone who intends to do so."

"Even to the point of resigning ourselves to being stuck on this planet for twenty-seven years straight?"

D'Amato didn't reply to his question, but his face exhibited unflinching resolve. That proved that the core of the groundside team held out hope for an eventual rescue, if not now then perhaps a couple of decades later. They held firm to their loyalty to House Kaine and refused to hand over their bountiful harvest to the pirates.

"Who are the Dragons of the Void anyway? They've attacked the expeditionary fleet twice."

"We may never know their true origin. Even before we destroyed our quantum entanglement nodes, our investigation has turned up very little information."

Even the vast resources and manpower House Kaine had at its disposal couldn't penetrate the fog that surrounded these determined pirates. D'Amato believed that they definitely enjoyed support from a powerful backer.

"So what's the plan?" Ves tentatively asked. "Are we doing anything that can get us out of here?"

"Nothing that matters. We're busy wrapping up our operations on the surface and we'll be packing all of our valuables. We can't lose hope at this moment."

In other words, they had to pray to the heavens for deliverance. Besides surrendering to the pirates, nothing else on hand could surmount the impossible problem of fleeing their grasp and transition out of the Groening System. The absence of FTL-capable ships alone halted any fanciful ideas.

"There's nothing else we can do but do our jobs and wait."

As the final ten days of their forty-day window loomed, Ves spent most of his time helping the maintenance department pack up their gear. They prioritized the recovery of their most valuable assets such as the Kaius, and planned to leave behind everything that wasn't valuable but took up a huge amount of space, such as the prefab structures and walls.

Ves half-suspected that they were only doing make work in order to distract the men and women from giving in to their despair. Did Commander Tregis truly hope for rescue or had he already resigned himself to an extensive stay on a hostile planet with limited resources?

The entire predicament showcased their helplessness in the face of losing the backing of their fleet. As much as the Age of Mechs revolved around groundside operations, the battle in space negated all of their efforts.

The situation changed at the thirty-seventh day. A new fleet entered the Groening System.