No matter how much he tried, Ves couldn't recall what happened when his mind got sucked into the Kaius. It was as if conscious mind got pulled into the vast vortex of the chimera mech's subconscious.
Fortunately, most of the workers ignored his unmoving presence. They probably figured he was making calculations in his mind and didn't wish to interrupt his train of thought.
Ves departed the workshop with a flush on his cheeks and spent some time to freshen up. All the while, he mentally assessed his state of mind. Nothing appeared to have changed. He didn't get the sense that he lost anything, nor did he gain any boons from the encounter.
He simply lost half an hour of his time.
"I don't believe I wasted my time."
Something must have happened, his instincts told him. The uncertainty of what happened and whether it changed something in him gnawed at his nerves.
Lately, the more he dipped into metaphysics, the more he realized how unfathomable the unknown represented. Doctor Jutland's shenanigans alone amply demonstrated its potential as well as its dangers.
In order to be certain of his health, Ves returned to the treatment center and had himself checked. Predictably, they found nothing unusual, they did state that his regulator organ became increasingly enmeshed with his spine.
"It's a fascinating process." Doctor Mellow admiringly told him. "It's as if your body isn't content with these strange new additions and seeks to subsume them completely. Rarely have I witnessed such initiative without being prodded by an outside stimulus. From what I've learned of Jutland's research, the regulator organ is supposed to stay self-contained in the event he wishes to update an older organ for a better-performing one."
"What about my Jutland organ?"
"There are no signs your body is merging it with anything else. It wouldn't make sense to do so since it serves a unique role."
Ves nodded in relief. "That's good to hear."
Despite the seemingly benign changes, Mellow cautioned him about the consequences of deviating from the human norm. "A different physique requires a different set of treatments. Standard medicines designed for baseline humans may react unpredictably when applied to cases such as yours. For example, a simple sleeping pill might make your drowsy for a second or put you in a coma. It's best to have a personal doctor on retainer who truly understands your body."
He'd consider such luxuries later. After thanking Doctor Mellow, Ves left the treatment center and returned to the workshop. The entire site buzzed with energy this time.
"Ves!" Chief Ramirez called. "I don't know how the scientists figured it out, but the Kaius is actually responding to the cockpit now!"
Ves looked with interest as the Kaius gently lifted a limb before lowering it again. It did so for all six of limbs, demonstrating the exact control the pilot in the cockpit had over the appropriated mech.
Did he unlock the Kaius somehow with his weird thirty-minute seance?
"Is the pilot reporting any issues connecting with the Kaius?" He asked, concerned about the mental health of whoever served as a guinea pig. "I imagine it's quite dangerous to interface with a half-living mech."
"There are doctors monitoring his condition. As soon as they detect something amiss, they'll pull the plug."
The Kaius turned into a docile machine, seemingly willing to let the mech pilot take the lead. The neural interface connected the pilot to the mech without encountering any hindrance this time, but Ves still had his misgivings. It didn't make much sense for the subconsciousness buried deep to give in so suddenly.
"Still, if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Ramirez muttered. "We only need to get it to work for a day at most. By that time it'll be clear if we're getting rescued or getting captured."
They spent the next couple of hours undoing all of the damage the Kaius suffered. While the exobiologists did an amazing job regenerating damaged tissue, the mech would never regain its full mobility. They had better luck plugging the gaps with machinery, though most of the times they went half-cocked due to lack of time.
Ves shook his head as he supervised the installation of additional laser cannons on the flanks of the Kaius. "Imagine certifying this beast. The MTA would hate this mech."
Their hasty modifications had rush job written all over it. Ves decided to add the laser cannons on a whim because the Kaius possessed an abundance of power. They hadn't even been properly calibrated. Furthermore, they only put in a standard targeting system designed for humanoid mechs for lack of anything better.
Ensign D'Amato shook his head. "It'll be a miracle if it can hit something beyond spitting distance."
"It's not meant to be a sharpshooter. The great thing about installing laser weapons onto the Kaius is that its heat organ acts as both an inexhaustable power source while also functioning as the perfect heat sink. it will be able to devastate a whole company of mechs on its own with its laser cannons firing almost nonstop."
Frankly, the heat organ functioned as a massive cheat in this regard. Ordinarily, directed energy weapons had no place in the hunt for hexapods, so the groundside team only stocked a couple of lasers for contingency purposes. Their current crisis qualified as one.
After several hours of working, the pirate fleet in orbit finally made a move. An alarm alerted everyone to the threat.
Ensign D'Amato approached Ves. "Our monitoring system has detected many incoming transports. They're on track to enter the cavern entrance."
"How much time do we have left?"
"Two hours at most. It depends on how many mechs they've committed to the first wave. The incoming fleet is still fifteen hours away, so we only need to hold on for half a day before the pirates become preoccupied with bigger enemies."
Ves thought about the exhausted personnel and worn out equipment and figured they'd be hard-pressed to hold their ground. It wasn't impossible to hold for thirteen hours, but the pirates must be feeling the crunch as well and hoped to wrap it up quickly.
The mech technicians quickly finalized their current assignments and made sure that nothing stuck out from the Kaius. With the Olympians wrecked, the Kaius took over their role as the hunting platoon's bulwark.
When he looked over the mobilized mechs, he noticed the imbalance between melee mechs and ranged mechs. Against hexapods, such a deployment made sense.
"It's not as bad as it looks." D'Amato told him while they retreated to the inner base. As noncombatants, they played no role in the upcoming battle, especially when the ensign still waited for a new arm. "The Dragons of the Void are impatient for results. They can't run out the clock by sieging us from a distance. Once they commit their mechs to a full-on assault, our melee mechs will be able to hold the line."
They quietly waited until the first signs of danger emerged through the haze in the air.
"Are those aerial mechs?" Ves asked with an astounded voice.
Around two squads of flying mechs buzzed around the base. Their flight systems screamed as they strained to keep the fliers aloft. A couple of turrets fired projectiles at them but their speed and distance along with their ECM kept them out of harm's way.
To all accounts, the pirate mechs behaved as if they were playing with their food. The passes high in the air was meant to test their defenses while observing the base camp's exact layout. The low-level miasma forced them to fly a little closer, but in turn it also interfered with everyone's targeting systems.
In the meantime, half of the defenders looked on with anticipation.
"There they go!"
The native wildlife finally detected the delicious morsels darting in the air. Huge flocks of hexabats converged from far away as they honed in on the heat emitted by the mechs trying to fly under 1.4 times standard gravity.
The formation in the air fell apart as thousands of hexabats gnawed at their lightly armored frames. While their armor proved to be a little more resilient than those enjoyed by civilian transports, many of their surface components such as sensors and joints sustained a lot of damage.
Furthermore, the aerial mechs had mainly been configured as riflemen and harassers, so they lacked the melee options to throw off the hexabats. They shot their lasers and rifles as best they could, but even as they harvested hundreds of hexabats, thousands more flocked to their constant heat build-up.
The invading force suffered a heavy blow with the loss of all of their flight squadrons. Best of all, the defenders didn't even have to lift a finger.
Ves shook his head as he sympathised with the hapless pirate mechs. "I guess it's safe to say they haven't received any intelligence of what is going on here."
"The Dragons of the Void haven't received any transmissions from base camp." Ensign D'Amato nodded. "Our investigators suspect that one of our attached mercenary vessels left behind a dead drop whenever they transitioned into FTL. That left a trail of breadcrumbs right into the Groening System."
"Didn't you keep an eye on this kind of stuff?"
"We did, but evidently the traitors outsmarted us."
In any case, the fact that the pirates only gained some coordinates and nothing else meant that they came in blind. Their lack of knowledge concerning the habits of the hexapod life forms would come to bite them back several times.
Ves could already imagine the land-bound hexapods drawing to their heat emissions, though the expedition had already cleaned up most of the creatures in the vicinity.
The landbound pirate mechs took their time approaching the base, as constant hexapod harassment must have delayed their deployment. Still, they came with numbers on their side.
"How many mechs are out there?"
"Around a hundred so far, but they're definitely holding back."
The expedition could only scrape around seventy mechs that functioned well enough. They also fielded a handful of half-crippled mechs that couldn't do more than stand and shoot, even if they didn't possess the right configuration to handle ranged weaponry.
The numbers alone highlighted the precarious state of the groundside team. Without support from the main fleet and with depleted supplies, they lacked the depth to withstand an overwhelming assault.
To put it simply, their backs were on the wall.
"Can you lend me a gun?" Ves asked his escort.
"Just in case. If they come for me, I won't go down without a fight."
In fact, Ves had no intention of staying aboard a sinking ship. If the worst case scenario happened and the base had been breached, Ves intended to sneak away under stealth and survive in the wilderness with his adapted body.
However, he'd have to leave behind Melkor to do so. His cousin's Stanislaw had joined the defending mechs in huddling behind the walls, using them as cover to fire pot shots at the approaching pirate mechs.
Between the risk of getting captured and having his System robbed of his possession, Ves would rather give up his cousin. As a noncombatant, Ves lacked the means to change the course of the ensuing battle. No matter how much his body grew stronger, he could never match Doctor Jutland's display of strength.
The pirates swelled to around two-hundred mechs. At least they came without any additional assets such as infantry or artillery. Still, as kings of the battlefield, mechs alone operated well-enough on their own.
No one spoke a word. Everyone waited with baited breath for the pirates to make their move.
This time, the pirate mechs came in a dizzying array of colors and symbols. Like House Kaine, the Dragons of the Void enlisted other groups to fill up their ranks. The lack of unity among the pirates could serve as a weak point.
A brilliant-looking swordsman mech in black stepped forward. Its sleek black coating had been decorated with a pair of coiling red dragons. It wielded a slim but high-quality mech duelling sword that looked perfect for swift, aggressive strikes.
The loudspeakers of the elite mech bellowed out the terms of the pirate commander. "I am Jaded Serpent. In the name of the Dragons of the Void, I lay claim to your lives and your possessions! We have gained complete orbital supremacy. There will be no help coming for your rescue. I will only say this once. Shut off your mechs and lock down your turrets!"
Captain Kaine's Cathrec stepped up above the wall and faced Jaded Serpent's mech. She gave a simple reply to the pirate commander's demands. "Get lost!"
Her reply firmed up their resolve. Even Ves felt an irrational sense of pride at the thought of resisting the pirates with his comrades in the expedition. He held his borrowed laser pistol with a tightening grip, though he quickly regained his cool.
The dragon mech reacted swiftly to the course reply by stretching out its sword. "Commence the attack!"