The Mech Touch Chapter 698 The Soulless Pries
The sooner he got off the Temple of Haatumak, the sooner he'd be spared her horrors!
When Acolyte Villis finally led him to one of the mech workshops of the Temple, Ves sighed in relief at the lack of weirdness.
The tall and wide compartment that encompassed the mech workshop carried a different air from the rest of the ship. It lacked the idols and candles and dim lighting that profoundly disturbed Ves as he walked through the claustrophobic corridors.
Instead, the mech workshop resembled any other mech workshop he'd seen in the larger combat carriers and fleet carriers. With wide-open spaces, various assembly bays upon which to assemble and disassemble mechs with ease, tightly-organized tool storage spaces and a bevy of normal-looking mech technicians wearing shorter and thinner robes that didn't hinder their movements, the entire workshop seemed to run on logic rather than belief.
Besides the errant symbols painted against the bulkheads, the workshop lacked any other overt religious presence!
"Hmph." He unconsciously grunted in approval. Even if the Church of Haatumak believed their god looked upon them with favor, their beliefs wouldn't be able to save their bacon when they encountered a hostile force.
The cultists likely couldn't pray the attackers away with their rituals alone!
The only way to defend themselves against a hostile mech force was to deploy their own mechs. And while mechs came in all shapes and sizes, if the fanatics interfered too much with the maintenance and operation of their mechs, they would probably be dragging down their own defense.
That must have led to the current situation where the most zealous among the worshippers of Haatumak had refrained from extending too many tentacles to the mech workshop.
It demonstrated that the Church of Haatumak could be pragmatic when it came to matters related to their survival.
The acolyte calmly shuffled deeper into the workshop. The passing of the pair elicited no attention from the mech technicians that stoically performed their duties in silence.
The lack of chatter disturbed Ves a bit. He knew mech technicians. They always chatted about inane topics such as the booze they were brewing out of nutrient packs or how much they looked forward to fleecing their comrades in the next card game.
The pair entered a semi-open enclosure that hosted a number of terminals. Various pirates in different sets of outfits silently worked on various designs behind the terminals.
Ves took in their work in a single glance. Each of them were mech designers, and each of them struggled to work with the designs presented before them. This was no wonder, as the mech designers were largely at the Novice level while the designs seemed to have come from the hand of a Journeyman.
Acolyte Villis approached the only figure sitting behind a control panel on a raised dais. Annoyingly, the figure completely hid their form beneath a thick black robe.
"Acolyte Villis." An electronically distorted voice of an old man emerged from the shadows of the hood. "Have you come to bring the latest fool?"
"This is Head Designer Ves Larkinson of the Flagrant Vandals. Mr. Larkinson, this is the Soulless Priest. He is the ranking mech designer aboard our Temple."
Ves bowed his head in respect. "Soulless Priest."
"You may address me as Soulless."
The two stared at each other and took each other's measure.
Ves didn't know what Soulless made of his appearance. He himself tried to peer through the shadows hiding the face of this mech designer who aligned himself with a bunch of crazies that harbored cannibals.
He picked up a few observations. For one, the Soulless Priest's contours suggested that he'd been a bit more restrained when it came to genetically modifying his body. The Soulless distinctly lacked a hulking body shape or some protruding third limb that some of the more disturbing worshippers exhibited.
Aside from that, he cared more about judging the design ability of the Soulless. Ves minutely opened up his sixth sense and tried to sample the man's aura.
He did not pick up much. For whatever reason, the Soulless did a decent job at suppressing his design philosophy, allowing very little of it to leak out.
Still, what little Ves succeeded in capturing confirmed that the Soulless was very likely the aquatic-based mech designer who produced the designs for the Gun Whale, Snapper Dolphin and the Strangler Squids.
The Soulless also exhibited the strength and purity of a Senior Mech Designer, though to a weaker degree than Professor Velten and the Skull Architect. In terms of design chops, the Soulless had barely taken a few steps out of the beaten path while the other two had already progressed so far into the fog that they couldn't even retrace their steps back.
Still, compared to Ves, a Senior was still a Senior. The strength gradation between different Seniors shouldn't concern him at all at this point in his career.
The Soulless nodded again after he finished staring at Ves. The robed mech designer turned his chair and directed his attention back to his control panel, which projected multiple designs at once.
"I am at your disposal, Soulless One."
"How many days?"
"Mr. Larkinson is assigned to remain under your direction for a duration of three days."
The Soulless one stretched out a sleeve and flicked it towards the old crone. A projection from his console fell into her comm.
"Let Mr. Larkinson take charge of Acolyte Gien Nollet's mech for his upcoming Redemption Duel. I recall it is due to start in two days, so he should best be on his way."
After a small farewell ritual, the acolyte led Ves away from the enclosure and led him towards an assembly bay at the far corner of the workshop compartment.
"Mr. Larkinson. Your task is a pressing one."
He had already gathered that. "As long as it has to do with mechs, I won't shy away from the challenge."
Ves feared the worshippers of Haatumak would demand something crazy from Ves, such as taking a bite out of a recent sacrifice or something. Ves had already heard some examples of the antics the sadistic cultists like to foist upon their guests. It was as if they derived pleasure in the mental suffering of others.
He wasn't sure what his decision would be when faced with the option to partake in human flesh.
If he refused, he risked ruining the deal between the Church of Haatumak and the Flagrant Vandals. If he played along, he'd be breaking what was arguably the second-worst taboo of human society!
In comparison, mechs were safe. Mechs were machines. How could the worshippers of Haatumak possibly screw with mechs?
He was about to find out.
"We have arrived." The crone spoke.
They arrived in front of what appeared to be a salvaged humanoid mech. Ves analyzed the frame of the mech and recognized the characteristic shape of a spaceborn medium lancer mech.
The acolyte emitted a warbling call that caused the handful of mech technicians to put down their tools and form up in front of her. Only one figure took their time to come forth.
"Acolyte Gien!" The crone lost her patience. "Come forward right this instant! Your new mech designer has finally arrived!"
The figure that shambled in front of them wore a half-torn brown robe splotched with crusted blood. The piloting suit the acolyte wore underneath looked as if it had experienced better days, though at least it didn't exhibit any tears or rents that broke its ability to protect its wearer from vacuum.
The most striking feature of Acolyte Gien was that he was the first robed cultist that Ves had met who pulled back their hood! Ves half-expected to see a half-alien monstrosity, but Gien looked disappointingly human.
"Who might you be?" The male acolyte asked rudely.
"My name is Ves Larkinson. I am an Apprentice Mech Designer. From what I understood, I'm to be responsible for your mech for this so-called Redemption Duel."
The acolyte and mech pilot frowned at Ves. "You? A heathen unbeliever is to be assigned to prepare my battle steed? Haatumak preserve my soul!"
Acolyte Gien immediately stomped away without hearing another word from Ves. The mech pilot's abrupt department stunned Ves into paralysis.
"What was that about?" He eventually uttered to his guide.
"Acolyte Gien has violated his oaths and committed a terrible crime. He is sentenced to death. In two days, he will die."
Ves shouldn't be surprised he ended up in another screwed-up situation. "What did he do, if I may ask?"
The crone shook her gnarled head underneath the hood of her darker robe. "Acolyte Gien is a new convert. He has never shown much promise, but performed his duties diligently, until he didn't. He has been caught in the midst of passing off restricted information to a spy."
"If he's guilty of treason, why don't you execute him and be done with the matter?"
"It is a waste to execute an otherwise pious acolyte of ours. Rather than end his life quickly, we prefer for him to redeem himself in the eyes of our lord. The Redemption Duel is exactly that, a mech duel that serves as his one and only chance to earn a second chance to live."
All of this sounded rather convoluted and counterproductive to Ves, but he wasn't exactly in a position to criticize the customs of the Church.
"Is it a duel to the death? Where will the duel take place? Who will be his opponent?"
The crone calmly answered his questions one by one. "The duel will only end if at least one life perishes. The duel shall take place in open space a short distance away from the Temple of Haatumak. His opponent will be another acolyte who violated their oaths."
Ves understood what was going on now. The Church evidently harbored at least two misbehaving mech pilots. The priests could have chopped up their heads in a random sacrifice and have the Living Altars scoop up their brains like ice cream, but evidently they were short on entertainment or something.
Still, it sounded a bit too simple for the cultists to leave it at that. There must be a caveat to this duel.
"I have a feeling this duel isn't so simple as it sounds. What's the catch?" He asked.
The old crone cackled, causing her dark robe to ripple. "The Redemption Duel is no ordinary mech duel. It is a test where the mech pilots must overcome the torture from their own mechs in order to maintain control over them! If their will and tolerance falls short of Haatumak's expectation, then their only fate is death!"
"What does this 'torture' entail?"
"The technical details escape me, but I am told that the Soulless One has prepared special cockpits to the fallen acolytes. Piloting from one of the modified cockpits is said to be as painful as driving a dozen nails into your skull! Many times, the mental anguish has proven too much to the violators, and their consciousness has shattered entirely, leaving their bodies alive but their souls in pieces!"
Ves tried to remain calm. "I'm to design a mech that is expressly meant to hurt its own mech pilot?"
"Correct." The crone teased out. Ves could practically hear the smirk she must be harboring inside the shadowy void of her hood. "The mech you are responsible for readying for the duel is to be a torture machine first, and a fighting machine second. The mech pilot must suffer for the Redemption Duel to receive Haatumak's blessings!"
The horror of what the Church expected of Ves started to creep up on him. A mech designer always wished the best for their mech pilots. Even the more neglectful designers didn't wish their mech pilots ill!
To be working on a mech that was expressly meant to make their pilot suffer as much as possible went directly against the mech designer's creed!