The salvage operation proceeded on schedule. Ves downloaded a popular scavenger's app and loaded in the blueprint and the scans of the Dortmunds. Every time the observation bots scanned a section of the Dortmund, a section of the blueprint turned from red to green. A brighter color meant that there were more of those parts available.
In this way, Ves slowly found out whether his reconstruction effort was feasible.
At the end of the day, the entire blueprint turned green.
"There's enough working parts available!"
Whoever sabotaged the Dortmunds did a sloppy job. The mech was evidently in a hurry as each machine only endured a couple of sword attacks. The observation bots already marked out all of the green parts. With some careful disassembly Ves could retrieve them intact.
The only problem was that the blueprint radiated a couple of glaring red spots. Some consisted of inconsequential parts like the exterior casing or some unimportant cables. Others presented a bigger problem.
"I'll have to scavenge all of the broken parts and figure something out."
Having marked the additional parts, Ves began his disassembly. Despite his lack of experience, he made up for it with patience and focus. His recent augmentation left him with a steadier grip, which aided him in utilizing his tools with precision.
A Dortmund was a beast of a printer. If Ves did lacked both a blueprint and a repair manual, he was liable to break something. The valuable information procured from the Society allowed him to avoid many pitfalls and handle the most important components with care.
The work proceeded slowly as Ves took care of the entire disassembly himself. None of the Barracuda's plentiful bots could help with this delicate operation. The best they could do was to bring them back to the ship and store them in secure containers freshly fabricated for this very purpose.
The entire operation lasted almost an entire week. Ves worked with excessive care, and this led to quite a few delays. His partner might have grumbled a couple of times, but he dutifully patrolled the area with hardly any pause. Both of their nerves were fraught with tension.
When Ves sent off the last shipment of parts, he finally relaxed a little. "The most crucial part of this salvage operation is done."
The Barracuda already swelled with printer parts. While her cargo bay possessed enough space to accommodate them all, in order to leave enough room for the Harrier, Ves was forced to store them elsewhere. He repurposed the dormant compartments in the middle and upper decks as emergency storage rooms.
It made his ship a bit less safe, but Ves could deal with it. The Barracuda could not fit much more without throwing away some supplies.
"Let's go back to the bottom floor of this base and open up the final stashes."
Dietrich, Lucky and Ves all floated down the elevator shaft and reached the fourth underground floor. While Dietrich kept watch from the corridor inside his mech, Ves entered the marked out maintenance closet and prepared to crack open a suspected safe.
First, he removed the armored wall panels. Then, he cut through the structural composites that make up most of the walls. In order to avoid any disruptions, he used a more sophisticated plasma cutter from the Barracuda's inventory. After reaching close to the safe, he turned it off and chiseled off the rest of the wall with a specialized tool that kept vibrations to a minimum.
He eventually hollowed out a corridor to the front of the hidden object. It turned out to be a simple armored box rather than a fully featured safe.
"This must be a later addition. Whoever installed the box likely fabricated it with the materials on hand."
"That's a good thing, right?" Dietrich asked.
"The safe is made by an amateur, but it's still generating heat. I can't be too sure about what's inside. Let me take some scans."
While the sensor-blocking exterior hindered most of his efforts, the proximity made it easier for the multiscanner to return some readings.
"There's a trigger attached to the hinges. Any use of force will trigger some sort of mechanism that will ignite a block of flammable high-density fuel."
"Is there any way you can stop that from happening?"
"Not yet, but I'm working on it." Ves replied as he churned his brain for solutions.
His Jury Rigging skill applied primarily to mechs, but it also came in handy in situations like this. He knew what type of fuel was inside. If he froze the section close to the fuel block, he could prevent its ignition even if he trigger went off. It might not be able to prevent anything else, but Ves was hopeful he could retrieve the contents.
He picked up a specialized freezing tool from the floor of the mech stables and got ready to freeze the flammable fuel block. He first dug out a wider channel to the top of the armored box. He pressed the semiflexible nozzle against the top and started the freezing process.
The box frosted over rapidly as the cold spread out quickly. After estimating that he'd done enough, he turned off the freezing tool and threw it aside. He quickly picked up a miniature plasma cutter and started cutting through the front of the safe.
He was racing against time. He had to finish cutting and retrieve the contents of the safe before the fuel block unfroze. Ves carefully operated the cutter in order to prevent its localized heat from spilling too far outward.
The box clanked as Ves successfully cut a hole in the front. He turned off the cutter and pulled away the circular piece. This time he covered his hands with a thick pair of gloves which he also borrowed from the deceased techs. With remarkable speed, he dug out a handful of objects that turned out to be a pile of data chips.
He finished the job by throwing in a prepared explosive before running outside. The blast ripped apart the entire wall setting. Ves deliberately strengthened the explosion in order to interrupt any other surprises. The scanners he placed around the closet failed to register any follow-ups. He was fairly certain it did not trigger any alarms.
"Are you certain no one has a clue we're here?" Dietrich asked again.
"The sensors and scanners that I have at my disposal are state-of-the-art. I haven't detected any outbound signals. I also haven't found any signs of an active quantum entanglement node."
The latter was difficult to stop, but those things were large, expensive and power hungry. They had to be in order to establish instant communication with the rest of the galaxy at a decent bandwidth. Ves suspected that the raiding force prioritized their destruction.
Before Ves tackled the larger stash, he wanted to take a look at the contents of the data chips he painstakingly retrieved. He grabbed a secure data pad and inserted one of the chips.
No viruses or hacks popped up when the data pad accessed the chip. To no one's surprise, he encountered nothing but encrypted files.
He had an answer for that. "Barracuda, please connect to this data pad and decrypt these files. Disable any precautions in the chip while you're at it."
His ship featured basic electronic warfare capabilities. By basic, it meant the systems paled in comparison to those installed by warships. Compared to the dismal technological standard of a third-rate state, the Barracuda only took 4.7 seconds to decrypt all of the files. That was considered to be fairly slow for a modern corvette.
The data pad revealed reams of unlocked files. Ves opened up a document and briefly tried to make sense of it. He nodded and switched to another file, only to encounter something similar. When he removed the data chip and put in another one, he encountered the same sort of data.
"So what did you get? Top secret research? Some juicy intel?"
"Nope. Looks like we've stumbled upon a financial ledger. It logs all external transactions, from import to export. The amount of revenue this base has earned is astounding."
"So are our suspicions correct?"
"I can think of no other reason why this base is so circumspect. The massive profits from these sales is enough to make any medium-sized corporation lose their morals."
From the clues they gathered beforehand, they concluded that this facility was an illegal operation. Ves had also recovered some of the logs from the Dortmunds to support this verdict.
Ves gathered up the data chips and put them into a secure container. "This facility was setup to mass-produce unlicensed mechs. It's not difficult to get a hold of a couple of excellent designs without paying for the license. The real challenge consists of producing mechs from these pirated designs without getting caught by the MTA."
As the self-proclaimed regulators of the mech industry, the Mech Trade Association took a dim view on anyone who broke the rules. The MTA's dreaded Enforcement Division came down hard on anyone who violated the rights of intellectual property holders. Forget about getting sued and sent to jail. The Division always went in guns blazing.
Any corporation who went ahead and still produced mechs had to be very circumspect. This was the reason why a base had been constructed in the middle of nowhere. The Barracuda only detected its presence due to the its fall. Otherwise, no scan should have been able to penetrate its camouflage.
"The files use specific codes to obscure the identity of this organization and its trading partners. It's very likely that the manufacturer shipped their mechs to pirates. Proof of that alone is enough to hang the entire corporation's board of directors."
Everyone hated pirates. Those who overtly supported their activities deserved no mercy. Due to the Komodo Star Sector's remoteness, the scourge of the galaxy was less of a threat in this region. Nevertheless, their mere presence endangered trade routes and depressed economic growth.
Dietrich expressed a lot of interest for the data chips. "This is great blackmail material. I know a data analyst who can make sense of these transactions. He'll be able to figure out which corporation is colluding with pirates."
"That's dangerous talk." Ves replied with caution. "Even if you figure out who has made a killing with this trade,
"Relax, I'm not stupid. Me and my boys might be small time, but I know just the place to sell the data chips. I can get you a lot of credits if you pass me the goods. We won't be able to earn as much if we don't do the blackmailing ourselves, but it's better to cut ties."
Due to the enormous risk involved with this transaction, Ves and Dietrich amended their agreement. They agreed to split their earnings fifty-fifty from the sale of the blackmail material.
Now that they handled the smaller stash, they got ready to crack open the larger one in the research department. Ves had high hopes for this stash due to its proximity to the labs.
His cargo bots already removed the debris blocking the wall. The unobstructed access allowed Ves to deploy his scanners closer to the suspected stash.
"There's a bathroom-sized space behind this wall. It's even better hidden than the previous stash due to the lack of any active systems. It's not leaking any signals or energy. That doesn't mean it's devoid of traps. I'll have to get closer in order to make sure."
Similar to last time, Ves methodically broke down the wall in front of him until he reached the sensor-blocking exterior of the hidden compartment. He removed a generous amount of material around the compartment and deployed his scanners almost right next to the surface.
His efforts picked up nothing that suggested any active systems. That still said nothing about any traps, but the likelihood of tripping anything decreased.
"It's a little suspicious, but the only way to find out is to crack this place open. Do you want to risk it?"
Despite their apprehension, both men were greedy for treasures. They already brought in a good haul. If they had to cut and run, they still earned a substantial profit.
Ves decided to crack it open directly without wasting too much time. He took a heavy duty plasma cutter and separated the vault door from the wall. A large hiss of air escaped from the enclosed chamber, causing his plasma cutter to sputter a bit. Once he created a large opening, he carefully sent an observation bot inside.
The two men kept their eyes peeled on their monitors. When the observation bot illuminated the interior, they both looked up in surprise.
"Those are dead bodies."
Besides a large stack of boxes, the compartment held three different corpses. They all wore the standard white lab coats that revealed their former status as researchers. The most notable observation about their state was that none of them wore any vacuum-sealed suits.
Dietrich figured out the story from the awful state of their bodies. "They suffocated when they expended all of their oxygen. This stash is just a place to hide some valuables. It isn't meant to be a panic room."
No air, no food, no water. The researchers never stood a chance of survival. Even if they wanted to surrender, they likely couldn't exit the compartment due to the debris blocking their exit. The blockage also prevented the scavengers from discovering their bodies.
"It's an awful way to die. The least we can do is bury their bodies with respect."
Ves tasked a couple of cargo bots to carefully bring the bodies up to the surface. He tasked some other bots with digging a couple of graves. Before he let the bots take away the bodies, he searched their clothes and removed all their comms and other possessions.
When he studied the comms, he knew he couldn't get anything out of them. These models were provided by the lab themselves, and came with a host of security features. In the event of their owner's death, they automatically wiped the memory chips and fried them into melted slag.
The large boxes turned out to store the components of a disassembled weapon. Surprisingly, Dietrich was the first to recognize the weapon.
"It's a mech-sized laser rifle, but it looks a little weird. Certain parts look larger than others. It's not a regular rifle for sure."
If the boxes contained parts, then they should also include a schematic. Ves did a little digging and finally found a couple of data chips inside a smaller box.
The decryption proceeded slowly. The lab put a lot more effort into protecting the contents of these chips. Despite this setback, the encryption method was dated, and stood no chance against the might of the Barracuda's electronic warfare module.
When Ves took a peek at the files, he found a couple of schematics along with lots of notes documenting the lab's developments. The logs included in the data chip spanned a period of three months.
Once Ves opened up a schematic, he finally got to know why this lab operated off-the-books.
"The researchers were developing a graser rifle. No, they already developed a working model. According to this schematic, they were working on their third iteration."
Dietrich banged his fist against his cockpit. If the MTA found out that they recovered the schematics of a viable graser rifle, they could get in a lot of trouble.
A graser stood short for gamma ray laser. Grasers could be considered as the hyperactive offshoot of a regular laser. A graser beam fared poorly in most atmospheric conditions due to their tendency to ignite air into plasma.
A graser had a number of special attributes that made the MTA take a dim view on this weapon type.
First, they packed a ridiculous amount of energy. A mech-grade graser consumed a substantial amount of power in order to make them practical on the battlefield. A graser beam passed right through obstacles or blew them up if it came across something dense.
The more insidious use of a graser was to take advantage of its penetrative properties. A strong enough graser always succeeded in passing some of its gamma rays through an obstacle. Grasers were capable of irradiating people who thought themselves safe inside the cockpit of a mech.
It only took a fraction of the energy emitted by a graser to consign a human being to death. Anyone who received a lethal dose of radiation in this manner had little chance of survival unless they had access to superior medical services. Only the best hospitals were equipped to respond to radiation poisoning.
Ves was certain this base developed and sold the graser rifles to pirates. In turn, the pirates used the graser rifles as a convenient means to irradiate the crew of a spaceship. This killed off the people but left the goods intact.
Certainly, the pirates had to clean up the residual radiation. This was not a big problem as gamma rays were not as bad as alpha or beta rays in that regard.
In short, Ves could not make use of this research, let alone attempt to sell it. Producing pirated mechs was one thing. Producing an outlawed weapon was an entirely different matter.
"Let's destroy the disassembled rifle." Ves suggested after a moment's consideration. "It's a bad idea to get involved. Let's not even mention taboo weapons when you sell the blackmail material."
Dietrich paused in his Harrier as he weighed the benefits in his head. "You haven't mentioned what you will do with the files you recovered. Are you thinking about keeping them?"
"Yes. I know it might doom me, but I can't let go of this valuable collection of research." Ves replied with hunger in his eyes. "Before you call the MTA, let me assure you that I have no intention of breaking any taboos. I can use the data to increase my understanding of conventional laser weapons."
Ves was playing with fire, they both knew it. Perhaps Dietrich didn't care, but he only objected briefly before he turned his thoughts to other matters.
The fact that Dietrich knew Ves kept the research gave the pilot some leverage. Any time he felt like it, he could report Ves to the MTA, or hold it over his head as blackmail.
What Dietrich didn't know was that Ves intended to transfer all of the files to the Mech Designer System. With the System's recent upgrade, it gained the capability to camouflage its programming so that it would look like a harmless designer app. Even the MTA couldn't do anything to Ves if they lacked compelling evidence.
For now, Ves didn't expect their relationship to deteriorate. The journey brought them closer and the earnings from this trip alone was enough to satisfy the pilot.
"Let's pack up and go home."
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