Carlos stepped backwards and looked at his latest finished work. The Marc Antony Mark II sparkled like a shiny new jewel. It looked to be his best work to date. Too bad he still lacked the skill and finesse to match the gold label mechs.
Raella whistled impressively as she hobbled over while chewing a nutrient bar. "It's really impressive to see you conjure up a mech out of nowhere. How much do these go for anyway?"
"Our company's mech broker is currently selling them for twenty-eight million credits. It used to be thirty million, but the models haven't proven to be very popular at that price."
Though twenty-eight million credits sounded respectable, Carlos knew that it wasn't enough. The Living Mech Corporation needed to accumulate billions of credits in order to establish a fully mature production line as well as acquire the necessary licences to design and fabricate a newer generation mech model.
Still, he believed that Ves had a handle on the problem. His previously average friend and classmate had turned into a terrifying mech designer as of late. While Carlos still scratched his head at the sudden transformation, his friendship with his increasingly inscrutable boss gave him a unique opportunity to ride on his coattails.
"Man, you must be rolling in credits right now! Won't you slip a few million credits on my way?"
"No can do." Carlos shook his head. "I don't have full authority to the company's accounts. Ves' grandpa is constantly keeping an eye on the company's expenditures."
As a director of the LMC, Benjamin Larkinson took an active interest in the development of the company. He especially guarded over the influx of money used to buy a twenty-five percent stake in the business.
"Cheapskate." Raella shrugged and finished off her nutrient bar. "It's so boring around here. I really would have liked to join Ves. Do you think he's having fun right now?"
"No idea. All I've heard is he's somewhere out in the frontier doing something dangerous."
"That sounds like an adventure! Ves and Melkor must be having the time of their lives right now! Damn, why am I stuck here recovering from a bout of Molgon? I could have been out there beating up pirates and aliens in order to rob them of their treasures!"
No matter how much Raella moaned about her fate, she couldn't do anything at the moment. Her body still had to undergo several treatments stretched over months before she became fit enough to pilot a mech. Any excessive physical exertion risked setting back her progress.
In reality, Ves experienced none of the wonders she imagined that went on in the frontier. Instead, he hobbled down from the tail of the Kaius and sat down on the ground of the hollowed out cave. A pitifully small stream of water flowed from the cave, making it one of the few readily available sources of water in this underground kingdom.
Ves looked around the cave and tried to peer through the relative darkness. From the ambient light streaming from the entrance of the cave, he spotted decades worth of improvisation and neglect.
A couple of makeshift structures ringed around the pool. They were cobbled together from a combination of fallen metallic trees and salvaged building materials from the prior expedition.
A large pile of rusting mech wrecks laid heaped upon a pile in a corner. Doctor Jutland must have been cannibalizing their parts over the years to supplement the Kaius.
What struck Ves the most was that he detected various forms of life scurrying about. Dog-sized hexapods vaguely shimmered around the wrecks while small flights of hexabats flew lazily over his head.
None of them showed any hostility to him. Ves figured that Jutland must have tamed them with his strange control method. The madman's ability to tame and direct the hexapods alone gave him the qualifications to call himself the king of the jungle.
The Kaius lumbered over a deep pool dug out from the side. It submerged itself into the water up until it reached its neck. Doctor Jutland removed the straps holding him to his makeshift seat and jumped to the edge of the pool with practiced ease.
The man grinned at him, as if he knew what Ves tried to hide. "There will be no rescue for you here. Mr. Keller has helpfully kept me apprised of what your expedition is up to. Don't think this is my only base! In fact, I've built up over fifteen outposts! They'll never be able to find all of them! Hahahaha!"
That traitor! Ves cursed under his breath. Keller's nearsighted decision to collaborate with Jutland just ruined one of his hopes. The expedition couldn't divert too many mechs to chase around a madman, especially after he got what he wanted. The chance of rescue just dwindled down to almost nothing.
Ves could only rely on himself for now.
"Why did you kidnap me?"
"What else?! I need a mech designer, and you're the only idiot who's stupid enough to land on this planet. You're it, hahahaha!"
Doctor Jutland's hysterical laughing grated on Ves. The man acted like he constantly injected himself with stimulants. Sometimes he paused and whispered softly to himself as if he had a second personality in his mind.
When Jutland regained some clarity, he turned to Ves with a laser focus. "A mech designer only needs to design mechs! Why else have I brought you here! Finally my Kaius will receive the attention it deserves!"
The doctor whistled loudly in a very peculiar pattern. A juvenile hexapod lounging nearby sprung to readiness and approached Ves in no time. The creature hissed at him and bumped its head forward.
Through the creature's direction, Ves stepped forward and approached the lake with the half-submerged Kaius. The mech looked like a wreck stranded in water, though the darkness prevented him from spotting more details.
"It's too dark here. Do you have a light or something?"
"You pitiful baseline human." Jutland shook his head, but he started moving and approached one of the structures formed out of salvaged armor plating. Both of his hands touched a pair of twin rods poking out from the sides. "Let there be light!"
Something incredible happened. A live current emerged from Jutland's hands and transferred over to the rods. The entire cave came to life as different lights salvaged from wrecks lighted up and illuminated the breath of the cave.
Ves had underestimated the amount of hexapods Jutland gathered in his base. He could spot an entire colony of hexabats quietly resting on the roof of the cave. As for the landform hexabats, a small group of formidable adults rested near the entrance, ready to swat Ves into mush the moment he tried to escape.
Jutland's control over the hexapods had reached a terrifying height that couldn't be explained through common sense. Even if he spent decades training up the same group of hexapods, he shouldn't have been able to make them smart enough to follow orders only a sentient being could follow.
"Are the hexapods sentient?"
"Hihihihi!" Jutland erupted into giggles. "You blind fool! They are mere beasts! Can you ask a dog to cook you dinner? You can't unless you've tinkered with their genes, but then they won't be dogs anymore!"
The man rambled onwards for another minute before he inadvertently revealed something important. "The Compact never believed in my research! The nearsighted idiots at the Life branch only concentrate their funds on replicating the MTA's secrets to longevity. They've gone completely astray! We cultivate the soul, not the body! The flesh is trash!"
Ves tried to rub his ears with his shackled hands, only to bump against his helmet. Did he hear correctly? "Were you part of the Five Scrolls Compact?"
The man snapped shut and his gaze bore down on Ves like how a cat gazed at a bird. "You are not supposed to know about the Compact. You're not a regular mech designer, are you?"
"I, ah, my master has some intelligence reports on the Compact. My clearance is too low to read them though. I only glanced at their titles."
The odd mix of truth and lies saved Ves from having his secrets exposed. He definitely did not wish to let Jutland know that the Five Scrolls Compact forced his father into the life of a fugitive.
Oddly enough, Jutland smiled at Ves as if he performed a funny trick. "To those who are only peripherally aware of the Compact, we are often made out as cultists and terrorists. Do you know why?"
"Because it's true! We venerate the Five Scrolls! We revere the Immortal Gods who gifted us with forbidden knowledge! For these reasons alone, the vile traitors of the MTA and CFA saw fit to bite the hand that fed them! We provided them with the means to prolong the life of a baseline human up to five hundred years! Without our exclusive life-prolonging treatments, they would have never been able to subdue the elites who rule over their petty states!"
Ves couldn't determine whether Jutland spoke any truth. The devastating secrets flowing out of his mouth changed his entire cognition of the current human order. He often wondered why the MTA and CFA maintained such an iron grip on human society. Perhaps the offer of living far beyond the natural lifespan of a human presented a fatal attraction to these pampered rulers.
"You know how to extend the life of a human?"
"Of course! I'm part of the Life Branch! I've even had the opportunity to glimpse some of the majesty of the Earth Scroll and the Water Scroll. Do you know how rare it is to view a fraction of a copy of the Scrolls? It was the most defining moment of my life! The Scrolls, oh the precious Scrolls, if only I was able to view the originals! The missing portions are constantly haunting me even now!"
Perhaps the doctor already went off the deep end before he fled to the frontier. Ves guessed that these supposed Scrolls turned anyone who saw them into lunatics. Doctor Jutland kept lamenting on how he only understood a tiny portion of the secrets contained within these elusive Scrolls.
No matter what, Ves wanted to dig out more secrets out of Jutland while he was still in the mood to talk. "What did you learn from the Scrolls? Did they teach you how to communicate and control the hexapods?"
"Shut up!" Doctor Jutland jerked his arm, causing the dog-sized hexapod next to Ves to slam him down with a forelimb. "The sanctity of the Scrolls cannot be tarnished! The Immortal Gods will strike me down myself if I disseminate what I've glimpsed!"
Despite his stern words, Jutland quickly laughed again and rambled about his conflicts with former affiliation. "The Life Branch thoroughly misunderstood the point about life! They pursue longevity to a ridiculous extreme, not even realizing that they're merely placing more shackles upon the soul! Only by cultivating the soul can we pursue immortality! Every other path is a distraction!"
While Ves believed in metaphysics, he only admitted that he didn't fully know how the multiverse worked. Everything could be explained through logic and science once you understood the rules of how things worked.
Unlike this reasoned approach to the unknown, the Five Scrolls Compact assumed that gods actually existed. A delusional fantasy like believing that a bunch of rolled up parchments of dubious origin could help your soul become immortal clearly went too far.
No wonder the MTA and CFA considered the Compact a collection of crazy cultists.
Throughout Doctor Jutland's barely understandable rambling, Ves got a small sense of what the Compact did.
The scientists of the Life Branch experimented without any regard for safety and sanity. Their wild experimentation often led to bizarre results like human-alien hybrids that deserved to be incinerated, all in an attempt to develop new ways to make a human body more formidable.
Though they failed more often than not, their rare successes sometimes led to a radical advancement in a difficult field of research. Jutland obviously enjoyed some of the fruits of this extensive research in order to be able to modify his body in a way that allowed him to adapt to this alien biome.
"Ah, what have I done? I spoke about the Compact! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"
Jutland loudly berated himself to the point of punching himself in the face. Ves got a terrible fright when each of the punches released a small burst of potent heat that washed over their surroundings. Any unprotected human would have been burned to ashes with the amount of energy Jutland's fists released, but the doctor still looked fine.
"Ah, that reminds me, I should gift your body with some new implants. We can't have you dying of hunger and thirst while you slowly suffer from the pain of your body breaking apart from acute radiation poisoning like Mike! He only lasted a couple of months and croaked as soon as we ran out of nutrient paste!"
Jutland leered ominously at Ves, as if the doctor intended to cut him open right now. While Ves secretly envied Jutland's strange abilities, he didn't wish to lose his sanity in the process. Besides, Ves suspected that Jutland wouldn't stop with only a couple of essential implants.
"Look, we can get some food, water and air from the base. No need to go through the trouble of operating me, right?"
"Too slow, too limited, too finite! With my exclusive Jutland organ wrapped around your heart, you'll be able to draw out most of the energy from around us like the hexapods! I'll make sure you'll last long enough to consolidate my rule over the forest!"
Before Ves could take a couple of steps back, Jutland stepped forward with inhuman speed and gripped the collar of his hazard suit. The doctor fumbled at the outer controls and forcibly removed the helmet!
"Air! I can't breathe!" Ves choked as he tried to hold his breath. The toxic air of Groening IV stun his eyes to the point of almost turning him blind. The insides of his mouth, nose and ears burned like they'd been doused in acid. The pain overwhelmed his body so much that he couldn't activate his life-saving gadgets.
Jutland put his bare palm atop Ves' thrashing head. "Sleep now."
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