In the Age of Mechs, the greatest honor a young child could ever receive was to learn he had the potential to become a mech pilot. Society elevated such potentates and granted them many privileges in order to facilitate their ability to pilot a mech.
Yet not every parent wished their child to become a mech pilot. Considering the immense casualties the Republic suffered after each war against the Kingdom, a growing underground movement formed between mothers who wished their children would never have to face another mech on the battlefield.
Wouldn't it be better if their child remained home and took up a mundane job instead of throwing away his life for an empty cause? As new lives bloomed within their bellies, these mothers would do everything to see their offspring live a long and fulfilling life.
Thus, they formed an underground movement. With the complicity of illegal genetic clinics, they secretly broke the chain of genes through modified gene treatments that had ordinarily been used to immunize their unborn children against genetic defects.
This could only be done in the first months of their pregnancies. Gene modification became increasingly more difficult as their children grew. Only extremely extravagant means like gene boosts could change a person's entire genetic makeup.
"Mother... you're lying..." Ves softly retorted, even though her revelation sounded true in his heart. "Why did you break my genes? And what did father do?"
"Isn't it obvious?" His mother shook her head. "That gift of yours is Ryncol's solution to your problem. He knew what I had done, and even if he never confronted me about it, he found his own way to defy me!"
Her body became more substantial the longer she lingered close to Ves. He could even feel the energies quietly circulating inside his body being siphoned away by her somehow. Each mote of energy that entered her body seemed to strengthen her aura, suppressing Ves to the point where he could barely lean against the corner of the room.
"What are you, mother? How did you turn into this ghost?"
She smiled at him and patted his head like he was a child. His mother didn't answer his question, but stared at him with a mixture of loathing and love.
Ves felt deeply uncomfortable at seeing his mother's face so warped in this way. It was as if this ghost wanted violate his most cherished and innocent memories of his mother.
The standoff continued until the energy cycle inside his body started to stutter. More than half of his vigorous energy had been handed over to the ghost who wore the visage of his mother. Ves didn't believe his mother came back from the dead. No parent would ever treat his child this way. With a wordless grunt, Ves summoned up the vestiges of his strength and pushed himself from the wall.
His body flew right through his mother's translucent body. Her dress hardly shifted as Ves encountered nothing but air. He sprawled to the floor yet again. This time, it took many seconds for him to turn around.
His mother had disappeared. She was gone like the wind.
Ves dried the tears in his eyes and began to recover more of his strength. His lethargic energy cycle continued its figure-eight rotation, but for the first time in months, Ves didn't feel as if he was one step away from being blown up by Dr. Jutland's gift.
Should he be thankful for his mother for delaying the bomb that ticked inside his body?
"That's not my mother." He repeated as he deeply tried to convince himself that he faced some sort of shapeshifting ghost. "My mother would never try to hurt me."
Somehow, his excuses rang hollow. Deep within his heart, some primal vestige of his love for his mother had judged the ghost to be who she said she was. No matter how much logic Ves threw at his heart, it never swayed from its judgement.
Eventually, Ves did what he had always done when he faced an intractable problem. He shoved it to the back of his mind and tried to pretend the incident never happened.
Ves wearily left the empty room and walked back to the barracks where he holed up in his private bunk and slept.
He had no trouble falling asleep.
The next morning, Ves wearily woke up and returned to his work. Just over a hundred mechs awaited his ministrations. No one wanted to repeat Hoyler's experience. With their mechs stuffed with overcharged energy cells, each pilot risked instant death whenever they deployed.
"Please, Mr. Larkinson! Please help me!" A pilot begged to Ves. He even bent his knees in supplication to the almighty mech designer. "I don't care if you slow down my mech. Just make it safer for me to pilot!"
Sighing, Ves agreed to fulfill the pilot's request. He learned the hard way that they didn't take his realistic assessment very well. The Whalers expected Ves to reduce the risk by as much as fifty percent.
In actuality, the most he could do was to pull off some tricks to reduce the likelihood of setting off the energy cells by ten percent at most. He couldn't alter the fundamental makeup of a mech, especially not with the means the Whalers had at their disposal.
"There are limits to how much armor I can stuff to the rear of these mechs."
The Whalers used a substantial amount of light mechs and frontline mechs. Both of them had very little tolerance for added weight. Their designs already reached their limits in terms of weight allocation, so Ves always had to remove something else in order to improve the protection around the energy cells.
All of it was barely worth the effort, yet Ves had to play the charlatan in order to put a stop to the growing panic among the Whalers. Many mech pilots had grown increasingly paranoid about their own mechs. Only after Ves adjusted their machines did they calm down from their fright.
Fortunately, the pirates hadn't made a move against the Whalers during this grace period. The battle in space continued to be tepid while the pirates on the ground only formed sporadic raids.
The Mech Corps didn't like it when a group of pirates gathered together within their sphere of influence. They proactively sent out hunting parties to eliminate any small to medium-sized gathering of pirate mechs within the vicinity.
Ves got word that the Mech Corps detected a large-scale gathering of pirates, and tasked the Blood Claws to eliminate the group before they became fully entrenched.
In turn, the Blood Claws called upon their own subordinates to assist them in this endeavor. Walter's Whalers had to contribute twenty mechs to the engagement.
Walter decided to send out three different squads, one of which happened to be the fast-reaction squad led by Fadah. This would be the Blackbeak's second serious deployment.
This time, the entire mech force would be leaving the vicinity of the base. Due to the intense amount of interference on the planet, the mechs would be out of communication for days. Ves wouldn't be able to enjoy a live picture of the Blackbeak in action. He could only resort to activating a hidden recording function inside his mech.
"The Blood Claws are deploying over two-hundred mechs." Fadah spoke as he waited for Ves to finish his final touch-ups. "I even heard there's a new star among their midst. They say she's related to you."
That must have been Raella. "I know. She's my cousin. I don't think she needs any help, but please take care of her when you can. Like any Larkinson, she's a good mech pilot, but she's never been on an actual battlefield."
"Hah! Don't worry, Ves. Daddy Fadah will take care of your baby cousin!" The pilot smacked his chest for emphasis. "With this super-fast Blackbeak, there's no way I can lose to any pirate!"
Ves hadn't been allowed to accompany the task force. The Blood Claws wanted to flatten the pirates quickly, and that meant they had to minimize their burdens. A mech designer like Ves wouldn't be too useful at the very front, especially if he couldn't bring any supplies.
"I hope you can keep your word."
After Fadah and nineteen other Whalers entered the mechs and stepped out of base, some of the liveliness had disappeared. No one who remained could tell whether all twenty would return.
Ves thought this was good. Walter's Whalers finally dropped some of their complacency and seriously started to weigh the risks.
During his free time, Ves carefully investigated the ghost sightings among the Whalers. He discreetly tracked down the people who reported the hallucinations and found a couple of patterns.
First, everyone saw a loved one who had died. This could be their parents, their grandparents or some other acquantaintance who moved on from this galaxy.
Second, no one ever experienced multiple hallucinations. Half the people who reported the sightings couldn't even remember the incidents.
Third, none of the people who experienced these hallucinations had something sucked out of their bodies. Only Ves had the fortune to encounter a ghost who harvested from his bountiful life energies.
When he came to these conclusions, he depressingly rubbed his eyes. "Am I some sort of human battery for these ghosts? How many of them are there?"
He faintly suspected that only one ghost haunted this base. The ghost must be proficient in reading the memories of its victims and imitate what he stole from their minds.
It was the only explanation Ves could come up with that allowed him to deny the continued existence of his mother. He simply didn't want to accept that his mother had really talked to him in this manner.
Ves had half-convinced himself that the ghost would pay another visit to him sooner or later. His special physique must be a wonderful tonic for insubstantial life forms that existed more in the imaginary realm than the physical realm.
"How can I hurt a ghost?"
He left out any mundane means like hitting it with a rod or shooting it with a pistol. The ghost had already showed off its ability to ignore anything it didn't wish to touch.
"I can't use anything conventional."
The only solution he could turn to was to use the heaven-defying properties of exotic materials.
Unfortunately, the minerals the Whalers mined up to this point didn't fit the job. Most of the ores the Whalers dug up with their mining equipment consisted of low-tier exotics with simple effects such as lighter mass or a little bit of extra sturdiness. They didn't differ too much from the junk exotics that any idiot could pick off the ground.
"The really valuable stuff should be buried deep underground or somewhere closer to the center of the red zone."
The red zone exhibited a lot of strange effects. Without the dimensional smoothers, the sheer amount of deadly fluctuations would have wiped out the Mech Corps that settled on this resource-rich territory.
"I've got to find a way to get into the red zone."
Not only did Ves want to obtain some materials that could help him fend off his so-called mother, he also wanted to make headway into completing the System's mission. He quietly activated his Privacy Shield and re-read the mission again.
Mission: Obtaining the Core
Prerequisites: Find your way to the Glowing Planet
The rogue planet that has been discovered by the humans hides a special ore that originates from its core. Seek out a hand-sized sample of this ore and offer it to the Mech Designer System.
Failure condition: Fail to acquire a substance from the core of the Glowing Planet within ninety days from the issuance of this mission. Your ability to spend Design Points will be curtailed for two years.
Special Upgrade Voucher (Machine), 10 golden lottery tickets
The System didn't reveal anything useful about this ore. It didn't tell him how it looked like and what kind of benefits it offered. Ves could only tell that the System valued it extremely highly, given that it attached a steep penalty for failing this task.
"At least the rewards should be something good."
Ves didn't put much stock into low-tier lottery tickets, but the System never skimped when it came to something good. The golden lottery tickets should be offering something extremely good, though he could also end up with junk if his luck had taken the wrong turn.
What he really aimed for was the so-called Special Upgrade Voucher (Machine). It sounded like he could upgrade the parameters of any machine he owned, and by a significant margin to boot. Depending on the definition of 'machine', Ves could upgrade anything, from Lucky, to his Dortmund printer, to his highly modified comm module.
"If this ore is as valuable as I think, then this voucher should be worth effort to seek it out."