Lading with treasures, the Barracuda exited the lifeless star system and followed the route back home. Both Ves and Dietrich were satisfied with their gains. Lucky was content with the promise of food and went back to chewing Master Olson's gift.
During the rest of the trip, Ves went back to improving his Physics and Electrical Engineering skills. The Society's Star Library offered many books that Ves could borrow for free. He liberally made use of this privilege to rapidly expand his knowledge base.
In order to puzzle a Dortmund back together, it was essential that he knew what he was dealing with. Improving his Electrical Engineering skill helped him in making sense of the Dortmund's blueprint. This allowed him to refine his tentative reconstruction plan and avoid some elementary mistakes.
Shortly after he upgraded both skills to Apprentice-level, the ship sounded an alarm. Ves immediately shut down the projection of the Dortmund's blueprint and raced down to the bridge. Lucky and Dietrich arrived seconds later.
"What's up Ves?" Dietrich asked as he scratched his loose blond hair. "I thought this was supposed to be a lightly inhabited system."
"Lightly inhabited or not, but the Barracuda detected a lot of dormant engine signatures coming to life."
The Barracuda arrived at the edge of this system only fifteen minutes earlier. The coordinated response that followed their entry originated from a nearby asteroid belt.
"The ships are refusing to respond to our hails." Ves stated grimly. "It's safe to say they aren't coming with good intention."
"Pirates." Dietrich spat. Normally, he enjoyed a scrap or two, but the ships and mechs they carried grossly outnumbered them. "Is there any way we can get away without a fight?"
Ves seated himself behind a console and ran the numbers. "Assuming that the pirate vessels are accelerating at their maximum rate, they won't be able to catch up to us if we start running. My ship is a lot faster than theirs."
Ves ordered the Barracuda to flip around and run past the edge of the star system. Her engines started boosting with substantial power. As a modern corvette, his ship was capable of outperforming any rustbucket in the hands of scum.
"These pirates are rather tricky. Even with our engine superiority, we don't have much of a lead. The pirate vessels already followed a ballistic trajectory before our arrival."
"What does that mean?"
"That means that the pirates have a running start. If my ship is just a standard third-rate corvette, then they might be able to overtake our ship before we can transition into FTL."
The Barracuda's FTL engine only took two hours to finish its cycling process. A regular corvette might take at least three hours to do the same.
"The pirates shouldn't be aware of this discrepancy. While they are still thinking of getting close, we'll already be waving them goodbye."
Even as he explained their situation, Ves was not quite reassured. As a mech designer, he knew very little about ships. For example, the pirate vessels might be keeping powerful short-range boosters in reserve.
He also had to consider their mech contingent. "With the relative speeds we are working with, there's no chance the pirate ships can catch up if they aren't hiding any surprises. What we'll likely see is mechs joining the pursuit."
"The ships won't be able to catch up to us, right? What about their mechs?"
Ves inputted some new numbers to the calculator. "We don't have to worry about medium mechs or heavier. The only light mechs stand a chance of overtaking the Barracuda, and that's only when they are geared for speed."
This was good news. They could disregard most of the hardware and focus on fending off the light mechs. While the amount of speed-focused light mechs in pursuit was still up in the air, Ves doubted he'd face more than half-a-dozen of them. A pirate gang of this size shouldn't be carrying too many light mechs.
"Haha, if those flies want to catch up, then they'll be easy targets!" Dietrich exclaimed once he realized he only had to deal with a handful of chasing light mechs. "I finally get to put my marksmanship to good use!"
The situation at the moment devolved in a slow and drawn-out chase. The sensor plot showed that the Barracuda was vastly outnumbered, but if the ship could keep her systems running, she could make it out of the system.
The key was to stall the impending light mechs without sustaining damage. The Barracuda was a corvette, which meant it mainly focused on speed. Her designers never prioritized her armor.
A concentrated barrage by a couple of pursuing mechs could easily damage her vulnerable rear. Ves and Dietrich wanted to prevent a situation where the corvette was forced to stop accelerating due to suffering too much damage. If the pirates manage to inflict critical damage on the thrusters, then the Barracuda would be hamstrung.
Both men descended onto the hangar bay. Dietrich entered the cockpit and optimized his Harrier's settings for deep space action. He already had some experience with fighting in zero gravity.
Meanwhile, Ves ran some checks over the Harrier's exterior and made sure the aerial mech performed up to spec in vacuum. There were many nuances involved in space combat. Ves only scratched the surface in this area. He applied only a limited amount of fixes.
Lucky remained at his owner's side. As a gem cat, his role in the upcoming battle was to keep Ves safe. As the ship's chief security officer, Lucky did not appreciate being taken away from his favorite food.
Due to its extensive rework back in Leemar, the Harrier was in its best shape in years. Ves had already inspected the mech a few weeks ago, so the mech was structurally sound.
"There's nothing else I can do for your mech." Ves finally said as he pulled back from the mech. "I'll return to the bridge and manage the ship from the captain's seat. Good luck."
The Harrier gently slapped the butt of its ballistic rifle. "Hah! I'll be back in no time! Just make sure I still have a ship to return to!"
Ves left the cargo bay with Lucky in tow and returned to the middle deck. After reaching the bridge, he forced the navigator bot off the captain's chair and claimed the seat for himself. He summoned a projection of the pirates and studied them in detail.
The corvettes and light transports in pursuit looked ramshackle. A lack of maintenance and patchwork repairs gave Ves the mistaken impression that these vessels were about to fall apart. In truth, the pirate ships exhibited lots of creative engineering. Most of the ships in pursuit sported additional thrusters that gave them an extra kick.
"These aren't professional mercenaries moonlighting as pirates." Ves informed Dietrich over the comm after scanning each ship's construction. Their quality fell short, which indicated that this gang lacked access to a legitimate market. "They aren't well-funded either if the ships are only capable of accelerating so much."
A speaker flared to life as Dietrich connected to the bridge. "How many mechs are they carrying?"
"They've only brought five light transports which they are likely using as mech carriers. They should each have space for about four to six mechs, so they've brought thirty mechs at maximum."
Only a couple of them were speed-focused light mechs, but the numbers still mattered if the ship suffered a slowdown.
Ves was able to guess the pirate gang's origin from this information. "These are regional pirates. I don't think anyone is supporting them from behind, much less someone I've offended at Leemar. Those snobs are well aware of the Arkon Mark I's amazing specs. Any force they send in my way should at least include faster ships."
"They could be sent by the shady corporation which used to sell those graser rifles we found."
"I don't think so. If they assumed we're aware of their illicit dealings, then they should have thrown more pirates at us. CEOs with a guilty conscience have a habit of overreacting when someone finds out they've broken one of the big taboos."
"I guess we'll know for sure once the mechs show up. If they're armed with grasers, we're screwed."
Ves believed that wasn't the case. They just happen to bump into a random pirate fleet by sheer dumb luck. They seemed to be everywhere you least expected them. That they happened to lay in wait right next to the Barracuda's emergence from FTL could be attributed to chance.
Due to the nature of space, it was impossible to eradicate the scourge of piracy. The rats fled to the vast space between star systems each time someone in power wanted to wipe them out.
His console beeped an alert. The pirates finally hailed his ship.
Ves had no idea what to expect when the pirate captain came into view. The interior of his grimy bridge had seen better days. The mech designer even detected patches of mold, something which should horrify any decent engineer.
"Eh? Who are you kid?" The bearded pirate asked as he scratched his scarred face. "I don't have time to play with juniors! Get your captain on the line right now!"
"My name is Ves Larkinson. You are speaking to the captain and the owner of the Barracuda."
"You?!" The pirate took a good look at the Barracuda's bridge. "Oh I see, you're one of those rich brats gallivanting in the big bad universe. Well, let your granddaddy teach you a lesson how you're supposed to react to the Astral Wolves. First, shut off your blasted engines right this instant!"
Ves hyped up his own status in order to stiffen his nerves and hopefully deter the pirates. "The likes of you don't have the right to order me around. Have you watched the news lately? Do you know who I am? I am the apprentice of Master Carmin Olson. A Master Mech Designer from the Friday Coalition. Touch me and you won't even know when you will die."
His relative youth and shaking voice betrayed his lack of experience.
"Hahahaha! Look at the little brat calling out for his parents! Well, grandaddy is here and I'll be sure to comfort you. So you're one of those nerdy mech designers, huh? I could use a new one after I splattered the brains of my last one!"
The pirate captain kept laughing like a pig and cut the connection. Lawless pirates truly feared no threats. Their confidence came from their ability scurry back to the depths of interstellar space where the nearest star was light-years away. No conventional force could track them down.
Only the Mech Trade Association and the Common Fleet Alliance possessed the technology to track down these rats. In practice, neither organizations bothered to chase after petty criminals. They only roused their mighty fleets and mechs once someone violated one of the big taboos.
The Astral Wolves launched their spaceborn mechs once the pirate transports came close enough to the Barracuda. Twenty-seven mechs appeared all at once and rocketed forward.
Mechs optimized for space usually incorporated powerful flight systems. While they could not compare to a spaceship in endurance, their relatively high thrust-to-mass ratio allowed them to sprint short distances as long as their fuel and heat capacity lasted.
The pursuing pirate mechs seperated in two different groups. The majority consisted of slower mechs in for the long haul. Despite the distance, those armed with lasers started to fire at the Barracuda.
Due to the distance, the mech's vibrations and the inherent flaws of of their weapons, the laser beams weren't able to hit the fleeing corvette. Yet as long as they kept firing their lasers, they might get a lucky hit.
"Our ride is under fire!"
"At this range they're barely able to hit us." Ves reassured Dietrich, though he squeezed his fist in frustration. "Our corvette can't withstand a sustained attack, but it hasn't gotten to that point yet. Ignore the lasers for now."
Since Dietrich's Harrier carried a ballistic rifle, he wasn't able to retaliate. As lightspeed weapons, lasers were able to attack at very extreme ranges out in the vacuum of space. Projectile weapons lost their effectiveness due to their relatively placid muzzle velocity.
"It's a shame we don't have a railgun or gauss rifle."
These kinds of advanced projectile weapons packed a formidable amount of punch and muzzle velocity. They were a lot more expensive than conventional weapons due to their high power consumption and their strict material needs. Even second-rate states employed these weapons occasionally.
Ves stuck to the plan for now. He saw five brilliant flares of light gaining in on his ship. He knew they represented the light mechs that formed the actual threat. There was no need to sortie Dietrich early and let his Harrier build up its heat in vain.
Now that the pirates revealed their full capabilities, Ves updated his model and gained some additional numbers.
"Dietrich, if the light mechs maintain their current speed, they'll reach extreme effective range in about half an hour. All we need is twenty-three minutes! Don't let them get land an attack on my ship!"
"That's too long! I can fend them off for about ten minutes, but I'll run out of magazines sooner or later. I need to go back and resupply at least once."
"That will endanger the ship. The cargo bay's hatch is placed at the bottom aft of the ship. Once I open it, a single laser can devastate the valuable Dortmund parts I've stashed in there!"
"Unless you can speed up your ship, there's no other choice. Either your printer goes down or we lose the entire ship!"
The pirate attack put all of their gains at risk. The Barracuda's spare rooms were already stuffed with plundered parts, though the cargo bay held the majority of the spoils. Ves stored them in simple boxes secured to the deck with reinforced cables. It was only one step up from leaving them in a messy pile.
Eventually, Ves was forced to relent and prepared additional reloads for the Harrier's ballistic rifle. Without the Harrier's deterrent, the light mechs would be free to take potshots at his ship.
Shortly after, the pirates managed to score their first hit. The laser beam only happened to scorch a rear panel of the Barracuda, but more was yet to come.
"Navigator bot, please start start dodging!"
The Barracuda adjusted her course. Instead of flying straight, she started weaving in four directions. This threw off the predictive targeting of the pirates, forcing them to work a little harder in achieving a hit.
Ves hoped he bought enough time for his ship.
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