249 Power of Two
"Ves?" Jake knocked on the door of the office. He tried to contact his friend through the company channel but failed to get a response. "There's an issue regarding the board of directors I'd like to talk to you about. Are you in?"
Nothing happened. The door remained stubbornly shut like a high security vault.
He started getting worried. Ves had a habit of focusing on his work for days at a time, but he usually put down his work if someone needed his input. This was the first time Jake couldn't get a hold of his boss.
He considered calling security to force open the door, but called it off after Carlos noticed his concerns.
"Ves can get really intense sometimes. You haven't seen him when he designs a mech. He's obsessed to the point of being deaf to the rest of the universe."
"What if he's having a seizure or something?"
"Hey, what age are we living in right now? His comm will send out an alert if something's wrong. Nah, it's best to leave him alone while he's in the zone. You don't want to ruin his mood when he's in the process of designing one of the most important mechs in his career."
As the COO of the LMC, Jake knew more than anyone else how much the company relied on the upcoming original design. The LMC could pump out variant after variant, but wouldn't be able to ascend and make significant progress simply by making cheap copies of other people's work.
Despite the healthy market for variants, it carried the stigma of too many bad designs. The mech market simply trusted original designs more.
Jake shook his head. "Well, if you get ahold of Ves, tell him his grandfather will nominate a number of people on the board of directors. A company of our size can't make do with two. The law mandates at least a headcount of five board members for companies that earn more than a billion credits a year. We also have to form a number of committees including a labor committee and an ethics committee."
"Sounds complicated." Carlos frowned. He felt sorry for Ves. "It's a lot different than the old days when it was just me and the boss. I kind of miss the simplicity of it. Now I have to fill a half-dozen forms just to use the Dortmund to fabricate a spare bolt."
"We're not adding those procedures just to make life miserable. Part of it is to comply with safety and tracking laws, but it also helps cut down any possible abuse."
The rapid expansion of the LMC left a lot of hiccups as the company didn't have a formal structure in place that scaled with its growth. Jake and the other managers had to develop solutions on the fly in order to maintain control over their increasingly complex hierarchy.
While Carlos and Jake talked about the changes that came with the professionalization of the LMC, Ves was having a desperate time keeping up with the fighting.
"Barley! We've got incoming from your left!"
"I know, but I have to fend off this bastard before he gets to Eloise!"
The hunt-turned-ambush reached a desperate stage as the attackers from the Alliance plowed past the defenses of the Domain mechs. Half of their rifleman mechs had already fallen, though Captain Osprey and his men gave as good as it got and disabled an equivalent number of opponents.
What caused the combatant to fight as if possessed by devils was the fact that many of the downed mechs could still be recovered. Some of the mech pilots managed to eject, but many more remained stuck in their disabled machines as the ejection system failed to launch due to battle damage.
The side who won would be able to salvage their mechs and the lives of their compatriots. As for the losers, they'd be captured or receive a summary execution.
With the fate of so many brothers and sisters on the line, no one thought of making a retreat.
In these circumstances, Barley's performance clearly made a difference. He had already disabled three complacent mechs before an officer of the dirtbags stepped up to contain his seemingly berserk Jimenez.
"I don't know who you are, but don't think of getting away from me while I'm here." The officer taunted as he flourished his curved sword for another tricky slash.
"Get out of my way!" Barley shouted over the open channel as he turned his mech in a position to bash the officer's mech with his shield. Unfortunately, the officer easily anticipated the attack and danced around the Jimenez, taking the opportunity to leave another mark with his sword.
"What's this dirtbag mech's weak point?"
Ves had been trying to puzzle that out for a while. "I'm trying, I'm trying! His mech is clearly first in line when it comes to maintenance. Do you know how hard it is to spot its weak points when it's been lavished by a full shift of mech technicians?"
"I don't care! Get me a weak point now or we both die!"
There was nothing like the pressure of death to motivate his full potential. "I've got it! Target his wrists! They've received an aftermarket modification to make them nimbler. That's how the officer is making all of those tricky moves. You just need to compromise their structural integrity a little bit. Brute force will do the rest!"
Now that he finally received a target, Barley roared to life as he forcefully pushed his mech shield-first into his opponent's grip. The aggressive move caught the officer off-guard but failed to make impact due to the swordsman mech's quick reaction.
Barley kept going, targeting the wrists with both his sword and his shield. A satisfying crunching sound rang throughout the forest as one of the wrists couldn't handle the weight of Barley's shield.
The female marksman turned her attention away from fending off the enemy ranged mechs to snap a quick laser volley at the officer's mech. While the laser beams didn't do much except some of its armor, the sudden attacks succeeded in creating an opening which Barley ruthlessly exploited by thrusting forward with considerable momentum. The stab succeeded in punching through the waist, though the armor mitigated much of the damage.
That didn't matter for Barley, as the shock opened up his opponent to a quick triple combo that disabled the officer mech's engines and forced the officer to eject.
"I'm coming, Eloise!"
He was too late. The other mech that approached from his left had bypassed him entirely and went for the vulnerable rifleman mech. Eloise already lost her rifle as she held it sideways in order to fend of a heavy chop. Her mech drew out a pitiful backup knife that looked like a toy compared to the full-sized mech sword in the hands of the menacing Alliance mech.
"Leave her alone!" Barley roared as he urged his mech to close the distance. However, he realized he'd be far too late as the enemy pilot reared up his mech for a fatal slash that targeted squarely at the cockpit. "I got to go faster!"
"Give me control over one of your hands!" Ves suddenly urged. "I can make something happen!"
Barley didn't even doubt the other voice in his mind and relinquished a considerable amount of control to Ves. Some of the strong and intensive feedback of the mech ran through Ves, battering his consciousness for a split second. Despite the man upgrades to his mind, his neural aptitude still remained the same as a norm.
His mind simply couldn't handle the flood of foreign data. Barley quickly reined in his mind and spared Ves from any further ago.
The delay almost proved disastrous, but Ves managed to use Barley's co-opted arm to override the safety limits of the Jimenez.
With so much power running through its systems, Barley's mech gained a considerable amount of speed. He quickly lost his footing but not before he slashed the swordsman mech's back. The hasty attack bounced off the swordsman mech's armor, but the enemy pilot couldn't stop Barley from his follow-up attacks.
In the next couple of minutes, Barley completely turned the tide of the battle, having taken out a total of seven mechs! Each enemy that the knight pilot cut down was one less mech that could bother his comrades.
Soon enough, the numbers turned against the Alliance. Their flimsy mechs already held up poorly against their opposition, and the battle only turned worse when Barley the Destroyer chopped them down one by one by himself or with the help of his brothers.
Half of the Alliance pilots managed to eject, but some got stuck in the beginning stages before the process got stalled for various reasons.
"The sensor readings sent out an alert." Captain Osprey sounded grim over the comm. "Enemy reinforcements are coming. This time It's the big boys, likely the main force that's been trailing behind the scouts.
Their own reinforcements would still take three more minutes to arrive. Captain Osprey faced an increasingly difficult choice as the numbers of the enemy main force became clear.
They came with over thirty mechs. While much of them consisted of cheap frontline mechs, when they gathered in any significant numbers, his remaining mechs wouldn't last a minute under all of that firepower.
"Barley. Johnson. I hate to do this to you, but I'd like you to hold up the rear guard while we fall back."
"Sir! We can't." Eloise sternly objected. "That's leaving them to die!"
"We're all going to die if we stick to this location! We've got to rendez-vous with our own reinforcements, but the Jimenez models are too darn slow to bring along!"
"Don't argue any further." Johnson's cool voice emerged from the channel. "It's our job to hold the line."
"Why are you doing this?!"
"Because I'm a knight!"
"Because knights are meant to protect!" Barley echoed his fellow knight's conviction. "We're running out of time. Go now! Don't let our sacrifices be in vain!"
The surviving Domain pilots hesitated no longer and disengaged from the fight. They fell back straight towards the direction of the incoming reinforcements. While a number of enemy skirmishers sprang in pursuit, the two knights stubbornly stood their ground with their swords pointed to the ground littered with downed mechs.
The threat was implicit. If the Alliance soldiers chose to evade the slow and lumbering Jimenez mechs, they'd be consigning their fellow mech pilots to an early grave.
Four mechs stayed behind, all of them in the medium weight class.
"There's two to go around for both of us." Johnson mirthlessly joked. "I don't know how you turned into such a beast, Barley, but keep it up, because we'll need every bit of your magic!"
"It's coming right up!" Barley replied as his other hand took on a life of its own. It zoomed in on the readouts of the enemy mechs and rapidly pointed out a series of vulnerabilities which it sent to Johnson's mech. "Aim for these vulnerabilities! I guarantee you they're the real deal!"
"Really?" His colleague sounded sceptical, but had no time to ponder how Barley figured out so many weak points as the enemy medium mechs simultaneously sprang forward.
Barley had a difficult time fending off his two attackers. One of them wielded a sword while another utilized a spear. While the pair showed little cooperation in their movements, the fact that they attacked from opposite angles made it difficult for Barley to finish off one opponent faster than the other.
His mech also suffered from the after-effects of the momentary boost in speed. This became most pronounced in the limp manner in which his Jimenez attacked with its sword.
Both Ves and Barley ran through countless of ideas, but none of them had any chance of success. His Jimenez had reached the tail end of its operational life and Barley could barely squeeze any more potential out of its beaten frame.
"Too slow! It's simply too slow!"
A knight served as a protector exactly because it could rely on its faster and more vulnerable allies to cover up its deficiencies. Without any backup except for another equally-slow knight mech, they had no chance to salvage their lives.
"It's been a good ride, Barley." Johnson said as his mech failed to parry another sword strike. The attack ruptured half the energy channels that supplied power from the power reactor to the engine. "We should have never underestimated the dirtbags."
His fellow knight pilot died when the other swordsman mech deliberately ran its sword through the cockpit. Such a move was not considered a war crime, though it did foster further hatred.
"You… stinking… dirtbags!"
Pure rage subsumed Barley's mind. As a hitchhiker, Ves remained a little more detached, but even he became affected by its overpowering influence.
"C'mon, you ghost! Work with me now! Even if I'm going down, I'm going to take all four of these dirtbags with me!"
Ves wordlessly agreed with the original host of their shared body. He lost much of his rationality after being infected by Barley's rage. Now he too wished to harvest the lives of as many dirtbags as possible!
After a moment's thought, Ves came up with the most effective way of accomplishing Barley's dying wish. "Give me control of your hand again. In the meantime, try to last ten more seconds! It's best if you can pull them all forward!"
Barley did this in the most direct fashion possible. He taunted his opponents, who had all started to relax once they realized how easy it was for four of them to take care of a single Domain knight.
"Hey, dirtbags! Why aren't you finishing the job? If you don't come forward now, I'll do this!"
With a callous couple of steps, his Jimenez mech crunched its foot down one of the enemy skirmishers that got taken out in the early stages of the ambush. The cockpit of the light mech didn't stand a chance.
"You'll pay for that!" The lone spearman mech among the group broadcasted as it led the charge. Meanwhile, the other three mechs approached from the sides and he rear, completely boxing Barley in. "This is your end!"
"Wrong! It's yours!' Barley grinned and ejected his cockpit from his mech just before it blew up in a conflagration of heat, flames and electrical discharge.
Since the mech ran on pure energy cells, it was impossible to achieve a massive explosion. Nevertheless, the simultaneous release of all of that energy battered the four complacent attackers severely.
A normal mech pilot wouldn't be able to achieve such a feat, but Ves had spent several hours digging through the guts of the Jimenez, so he knew exactly how to force a worst-case scenario.
As the cockpit flew through the air in a parabolic arc, Barley started to feel drowsy. All of the excess energy in his body left him now that his ability to fight had ceased.
Ves felt a pull on his consciousness. "It looks like my visit has come to an end."
"Before you go… tell me who you are."
"Ves… Ves Larkinson. Sorry for the intrusion. I can't explain how I ended up in your mind. I merely wanted to know how a knight pilot functioned."
"No problem… you helped me out of a hopeless fight. Will I ever see you again?"
"Probably not. I get the feeling this is a one-time deal."
"That's a shame."
Ves stayed silent for a few seconds as he tried to resist the pull calling him back to his own body. "Keep an eye on the Komodo Star Sector if it exists in this universe. If everything goes right, you might see me popping up in the news fifty years from now.
"That's a long time ahead. I don't know if I'll survive the war."
"It's up to fate if we can meet again."
Ves uncharacteristically revealed his identity to Barley. It couldn't be helped, as their psyches intertwined so much that they developed an instinctive bond with each other.
Still, Ves got more out of the melding than Barley as the System automatically closed off any portions of his mind that related directly to its existence. Even if Barley questioned how Ves managed to achieve this bond, he would never in his wildest dreams come up with something as miraculous as the Mech Designer System.
"It's the end now. I'm coming home."