"Do you know what this lab is hiding?" Ves whispered to Calabast with a shaky voice.
"No, and don't act like there's are monsters hiding in the shadows. This is a research lab, not a haunted horror house!"
They all amplified the lights radiating from their suits to be sure. The increased luminosity calmed his nerves a little.
As they slowly cut through the enormous chamber with their weapons at the bear, no monsters, guards or bots jumped out to waylay their advance. To all intents and purposes, the lab appeared to be completely abandoned.
The only other eerie part about the lab was that an enormous pillar-like structure stood at the end of their path. The pillar was the size of a light mech, and seemed fairly narrow at the deck but tapered wider at the ceiling.
As the war party came close enough, they beheld the enormous funnel-like structure with confused and frightened expressions. Even Calabast seemed a little uncertain of what she encountered.
Still, she didn't remain bewildered for long. "This should be Project Icarus' mainframe. Its built some time after the crash once the old captain approved this venture. Don't ask me why it's so big or shaped in this way. I've obtained sporadic clues that imply that the processing core of this mainframe is unimaginably powerful but also very experimental. The project couldn't have made such good project without this unusual processing core."
"Where did they get this super-duper processing core?"
"It's likely the product of another research project. That, or the Starlight Megalodon was transporting it to another CFA battleship or space station perhaps. Whatever the reason, since Megalodon crashed on this planet, the processing core would never find its way to its intended destination, so the survivors might as well appropriate it for their own use."
This mainframe looked vastly more than a simple computer that could perform calculations and simulate various models to exacting detail. It looked like some kind of metallized remnant of a monstrous tree!
With pipes, cabling and other connections stretching out from the ceiling and into the macabre mainframe, it seemed as if this construction attempted to contain an incredibly dangerous beast.
Even Ketis appeared flighty as she held her laser pistol in a crushing grip.
Still, why should he let the mainframe's unorthodox appearance frighten him? As they slowly drew closer and closer to the control panels built at the bottom of the massive structure, the monstrosity didn't react.
Ves slowly calmed his nerves as they reached the main terminal and control panel of the mainframe.
Miss Calabast studied the unusual layout of the active control. "This mainframe is constantly active."
"How? There's no noise, heat or any signals emanating from this giant thing!" Ves observed. "For something so powerful and something that requires this enormous structure built around it, I would have expected more activity!"
"It's supposedly some kind of revolutionary processing core made out of something extremely rare. Don't ask me what it is, I don't have the details. All you should know is that your authorizations should allow you to pull out the research data that I need from Project Icarus."
Under Calabast's urging, Ves hesitantly stepped up to the control panel and began the process of logging into the mainframe. He underwent another elaborate identity check before the mainframe's interface changed.
"It says here that my authorization is rejected because some kind of lockdown mode has been initiated. The entire mainframe has slammed shut."
"What? That doesn't fall under my predictions. Let me see."
Calabast stepped forward until she stood next to him and read the various warning messages. Her brows furrowed as she realized that Ves wouldn't be able to do what he asked without lifting the lockdown.
"Someone, likely an old researcher or such, engaged a manual hardware lockdown. This restricted the mainframe and shut the main processor core down. If we want to lift the restrictions on the mainframe, we have to find the hardware lock and open it up."
Ves, Ketis and Calabast began to circle around the narrow base of the pillar to find the hardware lock while the remaining escorts stood guard. When they didn't spot any at ground level, they activated the antigrav modules integrated into their suits and hovered higher and higher until Ves encountered a semi-hidden entryway.
"Over here! I think this armored hatch here leads into the core of the mainframe!"
The three converged at the hatch. When Ves tried to unlock the hatch with his credentials, the hatch refused to open up. "Seems like you need a special code to get inside. Even the head of the Research Department can't get inside the mainframe's guts."
"We don't need to go through all that trouble. The Starlight Megalodon fabricated the mainframe and this armored hatch on-site after the crash. It's not as nearly as strong as the blast doors we've encountered earlier, as they can only be produced at very special facilities."
Miss Calabast approached the hatch and whipped up a gadget from one of her pouches. She affixed it to the middle of the hatch which stuck in place. After she quickly stepped back, the device emitted a bright flash and a wash of heat!
Ves all of the activity instantly went by, the hatch no longer formed a hindrance. The device somehow burned a huge hole through its alloy layers!
"Let's step inside." She said.
They entered a narrow hollow inside the structure. All kinds of pipes and internal structures that reminded Ves a bit of the internal architecture of a mech surrounded them. In the center of the hollow lay some kind of shielded ball structure. It was as if someone built an enormous protective cover on top of which must be this amazingly powerful processing core.
No control panels or terminals could be found anywhere, but they all spotted various levers and mechanical mechanisms.
That didn't worry Ves all that much. What actually drew his concerns was the huge pile of CFA-branded explosives planted around the entire chamber and on top of the protective cover!
"Whoever set this up rigged the entire place to blow!" Ves immediately observed with mild alarm. "The explosives doesn't appear to be part of the original design of the mainframe either. All of this looks like a hasty, last-minute addition!"
Miss Calabast agreed. "Someone went through a lot of effort to prevent the wrong person from lifting the mainframe's lockdown."
"How do we avoid tripping them? Can you defuse them and toss them out?"
Calabast studied the explosives carefully. "They're outdated, but they're set up in a way that makes it difficult for me to defuse them without triggering a catastrophic cascade."
"Do you feel that?" Ves asked as he felt something unusual as he walked closer to the shielded processor core. A hint of an enormous pressure pressed against his body and mind. It was as if he was standing next to a sun! Even his sixth sense flickered in discomfort. "I feel very weird here. There's something dangerous hidden underneath this cover."
"The few records I've obtained about the processor core state it is extremely dangerous, though they don't specify why. It's not a surprise to feel strange. Just bear with it, Ves."
As Calabast tried to study the thorny explosives in order to figure out a way to defuse them, Ves studied the series of levers. He managed to achieve a breakthrough when he activated his Squalon's integrated scanners and tried to gain a better picture of what was buried underneath.
The levers were connected to a dizzying array of interconnected mechanisms. Just looking at the scans made his head hurt.
Yet to a mech designer like Ves, the maze of mechanisms didn't completely seem unfamiliar. "This is a puzzle."
"It's a small form of entertainment among mech designer and engineer circles." Ves answered with a moderate amount of certainty. "If my guess is correct, the only way to lift the mainframe's lockdown is to pull the correct sequence of levers at specific intervals. There's a bit of leeway in terms of timing, but once you pull the wrong lever or move a bit too slowly, I bet the explosives will surely set off."
Calabast nodded in understanding. "Fine. Let's make a complete scan and run a model through it to simulate the solution."
"It won't work." Ves shook his head.
"Why not? The levers are only connected to some mechanical gizmo's right?"
"If these mechanisms can be modeled and run through simulations, they wouldn't have become so interesting. The puzzle is designed to challenge a person's ability to solve spontaneous technical puzzles on the fly. There are randomizing elements built into some of the mechanisms that can't be accurately simulated even with the processing power of an entire planet backing the simulations."
"Then how are you supposed to solve this puzzle?"
"Through using human imagination and intuition."
"That doesn't sound very engineer-like."
Ves smirked. "We need some way to exercise our minds without opening up the temptation of using external aids as cheats. To be honest, failure is expected, so it's not unusual to be proud of failing nine times out of ten. Such a success rate in solving these kinds of puzzles is a rather admirable feat!"
He quickly stopped boasting as the situation dawned upon them all. Failing a practice puzzle didn't incur any serious consequences. At most, the puzzle taker's ego would be bruised a bit. Yet here, this same puzzle would definitely blow the heart of the mainframe into melted pieces!
"Are you confident in solving this puzzle?" Calabast asked.
"Hmm.." Ves thought for a bit. "I'm confident in my capabilities. There are many random factors involved that require intuition and guesswork to come to the right answers. While I don't mean to brag, I think I'm quite good on those fronts."
Calabast obviously didn't look pleased with his answer. "That sounds like gambling. Who would ever implement such a convoluted security measure?"
"Very likely someone who didn't want spooks and spies like you stealing the secrets stored within this mainframe." Ves teasingly replied with a little cheek. "It is expressly designed to counter people like you who wants to use their own computers to solve this problem. Not even the most advanced AIs can solve this puzzle reliably. Only someone at the level of a Senior Mech Designer can probably solve this puzzle with assurance."
This left them at a bit of a crossroads. While war was raging throughout the rest of the Starlight Megalodon, Miss Calabast and Ves tried to figure out what to do next.
"Can you solve this puzzle by remote?" She finally asked.
"I can probably jury-rig a control system within fifteen minutes if I cannibalize some of the parts from the machines that are all around us, yes." Ves stated confidently. Such a task wouldn't be very challenging to him. "At the very least, if I botch the attempt, I wouldn't blow myself up."
"That still leaves us with nothing. That's completely unacceptable."
Ves sighed in exasperation. "I already handed you the data to the two other research projects. Aren't you satisfied with your current haul? This Project Icarus seems way more taboo than others. Let's just leave this place and let the CFA come and wrap it all up. It's originally theirs anyway."
"I think so as well." Ketis chirped up in his support. "This entire research lab isn't normal. What were the researchers doing with all the clones anyway? If you ignore the wrinkles and the other stuff that's degraded over the years, they kind of look like the blessed people, don't you think?"
That was a very unpleasant association, yet it was one which Ves actually agreed with now that he thought about it. Their slim builds, their fair skins, their genetically optimized body and facial features all pointed out that they'd been cultivated to meet very high standards.
It was also as creepy as hell.
Nonetheless, Miss Calabast looked undeterred. "We've come so far. I've lost the majority of my subordinates in our attempt to make it this far. I will not turn back without anything to show for my efforts!"
Ves disagreed, but he wasn't the one in charge. He faintly suspected that more traps might be hiding out of sight and scanner range. This absolutely did not seem like a simple security arrangement.