Lord Kaine suddenly halted in his retelling of a story of how he bested three knights in a melee duel. "Ah, enough about my modest achievements. Let me introduce to you the true purpose of my expedition."
The flying bulbs of lights started to merge into a vivid projection of a large and stormy terrestrial planet.
"This is Groening IV, our ultimate destination. It is the fourth planet of a fairly significant star system out here in the frontier. Before you try, don't try to extrapolate its coordinates. My subordinates have carefully wiped all traces that can be used to determine its exact location."
While Ves knew little about planets, Groening IV looked incredibly active. Dark storms raged about the gleaming surface of the planet. It looked highly metallic in appearance and the temperature must be fluctuating wildly as well.
"A single survey ship stumbled upon the mineral-rich planet. She surveyed the planet for several days and found out that it held a vibrant underground world filled with life. Unfortunately, most of the time it is impossible for any ship pass through the relentless storms. The metallic shards in the hurricane can wear down most vessels before they get through."
Even a corvette or a frigate might get chewed up by this ever-present metal storm. Ves wouldn't wish to plunge his valuable Barracuda through this raging force of nature.
"Thus, the survey ship left the system. The captain of the ship kept the location and details of this peculiar system to himself. Months later, after he returned to civilization, he processing the data recorded by his ship and found that the storm is constantly strengthening and weakening in a cyclical fashion."
The projection of Groening IV calmed down. Many storms started to abate while some portions even saw clear sky for the first time in decades.
"Once every twenty-seven years, the storm enters its leeward period. For roughly forty standard days, any ship will be able to land onto its surface and seek an entrance to the planet's promised underground domain. The captain of the survey ship knew he might have some gold in his hands, so he sold it to an experienced group of treasure hunters."
Lord Kaine carefully left out the details of the people involved. He didn't want anyone to track down their identities and sniff out the coordinates of the Groening System behind his back.
"After obtaining this priceless knowledge, they waited for the right time and sent an expedition to explore the underground world. What they found changed their fortune."
A couple of recordings played out in the central projection. Everyone paid attention to the vast metallic flora. It looked like a jungle dyed in silver, green and blue. The indigenous life forms on this planet had developed in a way that made use of the abundant minerals in the extremely hardy soil.
No natural light from the local sun reached this underground bounty, but several strange luminescent minerals lit up various portions of the vast region. They shone with a vast amount of power.
"The light that illuminates the caverns are radioactive, but that is not enough to provide sufficient light. Once the expedition took some samples, they discovered that the glowing minerals are laced with low-value exotics."
Everyone shook at those words. A planet that contained traces of low-value exotics might possess deposit of higher value exotics as well.
"Further surveys has found that the various plants have extracted trace amounts of exotics from the soil. Unfortunately, the concentration is too low to really matter. While they surveyed the terrain in search of a substantial deposit of exotics, they encountered their first native beasts."
Recordings of six-limbed hexapods played out in the projections. At first, the animals seemed wary and alarmed at the new human arrivals. Most of the animals possessed a rigid metallic exoskeleton and their sizes ranged from dogs to elephants.
Once the expedition tried to kill a smaller hexapod, they encountered their first casualties. The dog-sized hexapod withstood a substantial amount of laser beams. Its metal shell absorbed and dispersed the heat with far more efficiency than what was possible. In the end, a mech had to intervene and stepped over the creature, finally squashing it flat.
"The sudden aggression changed the disposition of the native beasts in the area. They suddenly whipped up in a frenzy, causing scores of animals to storm the group. Many people on foot perished due to their inability to threaten the hexapods."
Over half of the guards died without damaging a single hexapod. Their laser rifles did no damage at all. In some cases, the animals even enjoyed the free bursts of thermal energy.
Even the mechs got beaten up by the larger animals. It took a lot of physical wrestling and stomping to put down these incredibly tough beasts.
"I will spare you the details of the aftermath. Suffice to say, once the expedition performed autopsies on the beasts, they found to their surprise that they all possess a strange and wondrous organ laced with an exceptionally valuable mix of exotics. This organ is the means in which these hexapods are able to thrive. It absorbs heat from the environment and provides them with energy to move their heavy limbs."
A chart appeared that outlined what kind of exotics these heat organs incorporated. The name at the top provoked a substantial response from the crowd. Even Ves sat up straight when he glimpsed the name.
"Many of the exotics found in the heat organs possess special properties, but are not too valuable in these low concentrations. The only exception here is monoexurite."
Most people who attended the banquet knew the value of monoexurite. A mere pinch of monoexurite would instantly devolve this entire gathering into a slaughterhouse. According to the current market price, one gram of monoexurite was worth around two billion bright credits.
"I am certain that everyone is familiar with monoexurite. Fifty milligrams of monoexurite is enough to enhance the range of an FTL drive by fifty percent. Smaller amounts of monoexurite is also used in the fabrication of top-quality mech components."
All of the mech pilots present already dreamed about hunting down these beasts. In their eyes, they were nothing but walking bags of credits.
Even Ves had to hold back his insatiable greed. One reason why the Barracuda cost so many coalition credits was because its powerful FTL drive incorporated a substantial amount of monoexurite. He experienced the power of monoexurite first-hand whenever he travelled with his corvette.
"The hexapods seem to accumulate monoexurite from their diets. They accumulate the exotics over time. The expedition conjectured that the amount of monoexurite determines their size. Only when they reach the size of an elephant will it be worthwhile to harvest their heat organs."
Once the expedition learned from their previous encounter, they switched their gears. They drew back everyone on foot and sent out squads of mechs armed with melee weapons and ballistic cannons. They tracked down every major hexapod in the region and harvested over twenty heat organs in three weeks.
According to the chart, every heat organ contained around two-hundred milligrams of monoexurite. The expedition already paid for itself many times over. While they hadn't found any major deposits of monoexurite, the several grams of monoexurite they harvested so far would set them up for life.
Lord Kaine shook his head. "Unfortunately, the expedition lost its discipline. Every squad of mechs focused on hunting the hexapods above all else. They lost themselves to their greed and forgot that they are operating on alien soil."
The projections changed into short incidental recordings of mechs getting ambushed by dinosaur-sized hexapods. These animals might not be much bigger than the elephant-sized ones, but their gleaming metallic scales withstood a large number of cannon shells without problem and could even deflect many sword strikes.
A massacre ensued as the kings of the metallic forest systematically hunted down the mechs. Many scientists and guards quickly packed up their gear and escaped to their shuttles. As they ascended into the air, a small tide of winged hexapods the size of bats emerged from the forest.
The entire swarm started to pelt the shuttles. They dented the shuttle's thin armor and started to wreak havoc on its systems. Many of the shuttles never made it out.
"In the end, the expedition lost over ninety percent of its ground personnel. Furthermore, they lost all of their valuable mechs as well as the monoexurite they harvested so far. The motherships orbiting Groening IV dispatched several shuttles in order to retrieve the harvested monoexurite, but found to their dismay that the hexapods have already taken it away."
Perhaps a single lucky hexapod gulped the entire fortune. Ves couldn't even imagine how big that hexapod might grow to once it digested all of that monoexurite.
Lord Kaine came to the conclusion of his retelling. "The loss of all of their ground assets bankrupted the expedition and forced them to sell all their remaining assets. An agent of my House happened to win the logs of their ill-fated journey to the Groening System at a private auction. Now we are here, twenty-seven years later."
Everyone knew what kind of opportunity this expedition represented. As for Ves, he finally knew why Lord Kaine asked for a mech designer. The exact details still eluded him, but he probably figured he'd be tasked with optimizing everyone's mechs to be able to withstand a battle against these peak-level hexapods.
Ves already started to gulp. The awesome power of these beast kings scared him witless. They were as strong as heavy knights but moved as fast as light mechs. Their incredible strength couldn't be overcome by any single mech.
"I will meet with everyone of you one by one after dinner. In order to safeguard the coordinates of the Groening System during this expedition, we must take several precautions. Every ship that intends to take part will have to accept restrictions to their quantum entanglement nodes and FTL drives. Furthermore, you will also have to accept a liaison who will be in charge of coordinating with my fleet."
A lot of the ship captains looked outraged, but they had no other choice but to accept. Such an arrangement happened all the time. While it left the mercenaries vulnerable should the liaison choose to sabotage their ships, in practice they only resorted to such drastic means when threatened.
Everyone present had already signed a couple of non-disclosure agreements and restrictive contracts enforced by the CFA. Anyone who willfully defied would be regarded as persona non grata in civilized space.
That might not stop some of the mercenaries present, hence Lord Kaine partnered up with three professional mercenary corps from his native Grey Willow Star Sector. Together, they possessed the largest ships and the strongest mechs.
Ves didn't know why the local mercenaries went along with these arrangements. The man blatantly intended to treat them like cannon fodder. Perhaps their greed took over their common sense.
Once their meals flew to the tables, everyone started to dig in. While Ves leisurely sipped his soup, the female captain by his side started to chatter with him for some reason.
"Hey, I never got your name. Can you tell me who you are? I'm Captain Rose Wilson, by the way. I run a cozy converted transport. My husband leads our mech contingent."
The woman didn't recognize his name nor any of his recent mech designs. "I'm also an apprentice to Master Olson."
That startled her a bit. "That posh little doll from the Friday Coalition? I've seen her once or twice. Her outfits are worth more than my ship!"
"A Master Mech Designer is a strategic resource to any state." Ves briefly explained. "If she wanted to, she can earn as much as a planet makes in a year by developing a single design."
"Why are you here then?" She frowned.
"Good question. To experience new horizons, I suppose." And hopefully remain alive, but Ves didn't mention that. "My master is able to reach the heights she enjoys today because she worked really hard throughout her entire career. I'm merely following in her footsteps."
"That applies to everything. I didn't get where I am today by taking it easy. She's a sensible girl, alright." Rose chuckled as if she didn't acknowledge that Master Olson was likely twice her age. "Lord Kaine must be expecting a lot from a genius like you. That, or he must be scraping the bottom of the barrel."
Regardless of what his client intended for Ves, he'd meet the man himself after dinner.
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