With about ten minutes left to go before the FTL drive finished cycling, the pirates already came close to immobilizing their prey. Though unaware that the Barracuda was able to jump in just two hours after arriving at the star system, their ceaseless aggression made it clear these pirates were out for blood.
The passage of time allowed the light mechs to close the distance to their prey. Their mechs were at the brink of overheating, but their pilots exerted enough control to stay under the limit. Their awful accuracy improved quite a bit now that their target grew bigger on their targeting screens.
"You're not the only pilots who benefit from this ship." Dietrich muttered with a focused snarl. "I've taken a lot of crap from you guys. It's time for payback."
Dietrich specialized in both aerial maneuvering and marksmanship. Armed with a ballistic rifle, he excelled in picking off enemy mechs from medium range. Now that his main targets approached his optimal range, he could finally dish out the hurt.
Taking advantage of their lack of attention on him, Dietrich took his time and aimed at the nearest light mech. He calmly lined up his shots and released three kinetic slugs in succession.
His aim held true. The first kinetic slug glanced off the light mech's arm, stripping a decent chunk of armor plating. The following round flew past the mech's head, missing it entirely. The third one accidentally crashed against the rifle's stock, tearing the weapon from the still-reacting mech's hands.
The weapon helplessly flew off into deep space, leaving the lightly armored mech with no means to continue the fight. Like the Harrier, the pirate mech only carried one main weapon in order to save weight.
Realizing his predicament, the pilot of the disarmed mech pulled back and tried to join the second wave following from behind. He wanted to borrow a spare weapon from his comrades in order to resume the chase.
"Two down, three to go."
The sudden attack left the remaining light mechs stunned. They hesitated for a couple of seconds before focusing their attacks on the Harrier. In their eyes, the toothless Barracuda was a sitting duck they could slaughter at their leisure.
Ves encouragingly praised Dietrich's performance. "Whatever you're doing, keep it up! The integrity of the thrusters have reached a critical point. They're resistant to heat so the lasers don't bother them much, but they absolutely can't take any more shells."
"How much longer do I have to stall them?"
"Seven minutes! We're almost home!"
Those seven minutes were hard fought. Dietrich duelled with the three mechs. Due to his recent resupply, he liberally emptied his magazines like a drunkard binging at the bar. Previously, he had to take his time to line up his shots. Not anymore. He bracketed his target in an inescapable net of projectiles. No matter where the hapless pirate dodged, he couldn't escape.
To his credit, the pilot of the light mech spun around and let its relatively useless feet take the impact. Dietrich commended the pirate's split-second decision making even as he realized he was dealing with a tough cookie.
"Fine, I'll leave you for last."
For now, he had to remove as much sources of danger as possible. Even as his mech shook from the increasingly accurate incoming shots, he trusted his Harrier to hold together. Unlike the flimsy light mechs in front of him, his mech boasted actual armor.
In contrast, his immediate opponents emphasized speed at the cost of both armor and firepower. Their ballistic rifles only shot juvenile versions of what his own weapon unleashed. Despite being outnumbered, Dietrich leveraged his advantages in such a dominant way that the remaining light mechs stood no chance.
Like the flies they represented, Dietrich swatted them out of contention with only a bit of effort. It took a generous amount of kinetic slugs, but he inflicted serious damage to the flight systems of two of them. The remaining pirate decisively gave up once he stood alone and pulled back to join his mates.
"Yeah! Run away you coward!" Dietrich yelled as he realized he successfully beat back the pirates and saved his friend's ship from certain doom. They came with five but none made it to the end. "I am the best!"
The Astral Wolves obviously hadn't given up. They merely stopped throwing mechs at a closer range where the Harrier held all the advantages. The constant laser fire from the extremely distant medium mechs never ceased. While the Barracuda had been built to withstand a lot of heat, the cracks in her hull did not bode well for the ship.
"Get back to the ship." Ves commanded from the bridge, breaking Dietrich's high. "We're jumping out in two minutes."
Now that Dietrich turned around, he finally saw how close they made it past this hurdle. The light mechs had done a number on the aft section. Their light projectiles might not pack a punch, but against a target as large as a ship, they chewed up the armor like a swarm of a thousand bees. The plating was marred by so many pits and holes that it resembled the surface of a barren moon.
"Is the ship still functional?" He idly questioned as he quickly snuck his mech inside the opened hatch.
"Whoever designed the Arkon class deserves a lot of credit. They've incorporated an ingenious buffer layout that mitigates any damage that goes past the armor belt. All our critical systems besides the thrusters are intact."
The damage to the thrusters was severe, but it mattered little when Ves spooled up the FTL drive. Engaging the drive immediately after finishing the cycle degraded its hardware, but nobody cared about maintenance problems right now.
The pirate vessels detected the unique fluctuations coming out of their prey. With impotent rage, the Astral Wolves had no means of preventing the corvette's escape. With a swirling whoosh, the ship transitioned into an entirely different mode of existence.
The Barracuda finally let go of her highest alert state. Repair bots of all kinds scurried out of their holes and patched up whatever internal damage the ship received.
Air returned inside the cargo bay as Dietrich slowly shut down his battered mech. Due to maintaining a flat fighting posture in the previous battle, the Harrier's legs blocked most of the incoming fire. The damage was so severe that the mech could not stand on its own two feet anymore under standard gravity conditions.
With no other choice, Dietrich awkwardly collapsed the mech to a sitting position. He made sure to avoid bumping into the the boxes strapped down to the deck.
He met Ves when he exited the cockpit. Sweat suffused his entire body though his pilot suit absorbed most of the moisture. There was nothing like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
"You fought good." Ves congratulated him even as he stared at his Harrier's wretched state. "We'll have to pay for the bills, but we could have lost it all."
"You owe me a mech."
"Hey, I'm the one who invited you to this trip." Ves immediately responded with his palms held up. "I'll cover your repair costs but I'm not in the position to gift you a new mech. Besides, I'm not capable of designing a rifleman mech at this moment."
"Tch, I don't need your money to fix my mech. I can easily cover the cost once I send my dad to the abandoned base. No, I want you to personally build a mech for me. I can wait for it, but you better deliver. Don't forget who saved your billion col ship."
The blond mech pilot had a point. Ves eventually promised to tailor a mech for him once he had the means. If Dietrich's gang got a good haul from stripping the underground base, then he'd even cover the cost. It was an equitable arrangement for both men.
After Dietrich left for the showers, Ves looked at the Harrier once again and sighed. "We've really cut it close. I'm lucky to have brought you along. The galaxy is a lot more dangerous than I thought. I won't be making the same mistake twice."
The Barracuda sustained no damage to her FTL drive, so the remaining leg of the journey occurred without glitches or breakdowns. Ves made sure to inspect each of her systems in person, but there was only so much a mech designer like him could understand.
Ves stroked his chin with his palm as he gazed at the damage report. His ship got off lightly, all considered. She lost very little functionality and could still be used to traverse the stars.
The bad news came when Ves considered how much it cost to fix the damage. The Barracuda used a proprietary armor plating system that could only be produced at the most advanced production facilities back in the Friday Coalition.
If Ves wanted to fix the holes in his ship, he'd have to leave her at a repair yard and arrange imports of most of the exclusive materials. The total cost amounted to at least twenty million credits.
For now, he couldn't spare the money to repair a ship that wasn't essential to his daily operations. Better to leave the ship behind and focus on building his core business first. He planned to revisit the matter of repairs once he enhanced his earnings.
After making sure his ship wasn't about to fall apart, Ves went back to his studies. He only had a limited amount of time and he wanted to hit the ground running once he arrived at his workshop.
The recent attack once more reinforced how easy it was for him to die. Without strength, one had no right to speak. Even a mech designer was able to accrue power if everyone wanted you to design their mechs. His first priority was to advance his skills.
His latest brush of death pushed Ves to accelerate his learning. He wanted to advance his Electrical Engineering and Physics skills to Apprentice-level with just weeks to go. In order to keep up with his brutal schedule, he kept his daily interaction with Dietrich and Lucky to a minimum.
Fortunately, both cat and pilot had other concerns in mind. Lucky almost finished gnawing Master Olson's ore. When Ves stroked his gem cat's back, he always got the feeling he was touching an overstuffed energy cell.
Meanwhile, Dietrich helped plan his father's upcoming salvage expedition. Walter's Whalers were already in the process of commissioning a convoy of transports and corvettes.
By the time the Barracuda transitioned into the Bentheim system, Ves finished upgrading both of his targeted skills. The improvements bolstered his fundamental mech design skills by plugging his weaknesses.
They also eased his attempt to reconstruct the Dortmund. The new insights he received from his studies allowed him to understand the blueprint and repair manual a little better. He understood some of the subtler nuances of the 3D printer's design.
"Alright System. Show me my Status."
Name: Ves Larkinson
Profession: Apprentice Mech Designer
Design Points: 1307
Neural Aptitude: F
[Assembly]: Apprentice - [3D Printer Proficiency II] [Assembler Proficiency II]
[Computer Science]: Incompetent
[Electrical Engineering]: Apprentice
[Mechanics]: Journeyman - [Jury Rigging II] [Speed Tuning III]
[Metallurgy]: Journeyman - [Alloy Compression I]
[Physics]: Apprentice - [Lightweight Armor Optimization I] [Mediumweight Armor Optimization III]
[Superpublish]: Available. Can be activated once a year.
Evaluation: A well-rounded Apprentice at the start of his real career.
Even the System complimented him for working on his weakest skills. He shouldn't let his designs be dragged down by a critical shortcoming.
"My DP barely grew. It's still a long way until I reach 2000 DP."
His current plan called for earning enough DP to advance his Mathematics skill to Journeyman-level. Without this upgrade, Ves wasn't willing to release a second iteration of the Marc Antony. As his primary money maker, Ves wanted to make the updated variant last.
Ves had a lot on his plate when he finally returned. He was already looking forward to it all.