For the next hour, Ves did nothing but hide. He went all the way up the decks and hid himself in the most useless compartment of the ship, the observatory. As distant flashes of light exploded in the darkness of space, Ves remained still as he laid under a couch, holding Lucky in his arms.
"I'm not an expert on pirate raids, but if the drama's I've seen are somewhat accurate, then they should not take the fight to the death."
The pirate business ran on the same principles as any other company. They invested in mechs and pirates to conduct raids on ships and planets. They stayed around long enough to pick off all of the low-hanging fruit before getting away once enemy reinforcements arrived.
As the MTA enforced a universal law among humanity to band together and render aid in emergencies, the pirates had a time limit. The clock ticked as the other civilian ships caught in the invasion banded together and grouped up their escorts in a formidable force. They'd slowly sweep forward and pick up any isolated ships, adding to their threat as they neared the distressed ships like the Saint Hearst.
"As long as the pirates can't take control of the Saint Hearst, the crisis will end."
After all, losing those expensive suits of exoskeleton armor along with the mechs hurt their bottom line. The Saint Hearst was just a run-of-the-mill passenger liner. The kind of passengers she carried were not the wealthiest sort of people. The pirates only quickly grabbed the most affluent among them, leaving the rest behind. It wasn't worth their time to shake down a passenger with only tens of thousands of cols in savings.
An hour quietly passed as the vibrations downstairs disappeared. The fighting had stopped. Ves did not dare poke his head out or let Lucky scout ahead.
"Meow" Lucky mewled, his eyes looking dimmer than before.
"Those energy claws took a lot out of you, right?"
"Don't worry buddy, you did good. I'll be sure to buy an energy cell to top you up again."
"Ah, so you also want to munch on some minerals? Alright, I'll be on the lookout for something rare once we reach the Leemar System."
A large series of faint vibrations followed. If Ves guessed correctly, the pirates gave up on taking control of the ship. The invaders instead retreated back to their boarding shuttles and lifted off from the ship.
The intercom sparked to life as the local jamming receded. The useless captain spoke again. "Attention passengers, the pirates have retreated from the Saint Hearst but we cannot guarantee your safety yet. Stay where you are and do not move while my men sweep the decks."
Another couple of minutes passed before the entrance of the observatory opened. A trio of lightly-armored crew members took a peek inside. Ves held up his hands. "I'm a passenger! I'm injured!"
As soon as the crew secured the observatory, a female spacer approached his side. "Where's your injury?"
"My vacuum suit sealed the wound. I got cut by some shrapnel from an explosive shell. I'm still running on painkillers."
The woman looked at the smouldering pistol by his side and narrowed his eyes. "Please confirm your identity."
"Hey, I'm not a pirate. I stole it off the pirate I killed."
The crew took precautions nonetheless. They secured his arms with bindings and put Lucky in a reinforced cage. Some spare crew members in charge of processing the wounded and captives transferred him to a secure part of the medical bay. There he received more extensive treatment for his wounds from a medibot while he waited to be checked out.
"Heya Ves! Looks like you've popped your first cherry!" Dietrich celebrated as he entered the medbay along with an officer. "I didn't think you had it in you to slaughter a couple of those pirates."
"Mr. Larkinson, we have investigated your circumstances. Though it is unfortunate that the pirates have scrambled all of our surveillance equipment, from what we have gathered so far, you have been indispensable in repelling the pirates."
"Thank the heavens. Can you get me out of these bindings? I'd like my cat returned as well."
The officer coughed awkwardly. "We can release you from custody, but we cannot let your mechanical pet run loose. Do not worry, he is safely stowed in our restricted storage compartment. You can visit him at your leisure."
It figured that the crew worked out that his pet did most of the killing. Ves did not even hide his tracks, which was a mistake. He turned to Dietrich as the bindings fell off. He rubbed his wrists and left the medical bay along with his guard.
"Can you tell me what happened outside? I sure missed your presence, you know."
Dietrich grimaced a bit as he recalled the fight out in space. "I got my ass kicked pretty much. Those pirate mechs are tough as nails and they came kitted out for space combat. While my mech can still maneuver in space with its flight system, I did not train a lot in zero-g combat."
"You're alive at least. That's what matters. What's the damage?"
"Well, I managed to stay functional long enough to annoy the pirates. They had to redirect at least one of their mechs on pinning me down. That crazy bastard kept shooting lasers at my sweet Harrier. Her chassis has a lot of melted holes and I lost an entire leg."
Ves imagined the cost of repairing all of that damage. Most of the armor must be damaged beyond redemption, which was not good news since it was often the most expensive component to replace.
"Ah, I know what you're thinking, but the spaceline is not completely heartless. They promised commendations for the both of us for stepping up against the pirates instead of cowering under a bed or something. I should be receiving a voucher that entitles me to a free repair job for my mech at any Coalition-affiliated base."
"That's good news." Ves said, surprised the Friday Coalition spared them the cols. Their status as foreigners did not entitle them to many rights.
All-in-all, the impromptu convoy of ships departed from the edge of the Twin Tigers System in a large group. Only by sticking together could they insure their safety against any opportunistic attacks.
The Saint Hearst together with a dozen other civilian ships transited into FTL towards the same destination. Despite the pirate raid, it was still important for them to arrive at their destination in time. Some sensitive cargo had to be delivered on time in order to avoid any penalties.
The Saint Hearst kept travelling towards Leemar in order to conduct a thorough inspection and repair. They carried away most of the wounded and the captives at an earlier stop and picked up other passengers who weren't willing to book another flight. Thus, two days later, the Saint Hearst finally arrived at the Leemar System, one day late.
The mighty Leemar System belonged to the wealthy Carnegie Group. Though they failed to excel in terms of martial might, they built strong relationships with elite mercenary corps who took on much of the burden of defending their territories. Over time, Carnegie Group diverted from the Coalition's trend of looking down from their ivory towers and started to open their borders further to attract talented outsiders.
The Group developed the highly defensible Leemar System as their intellectual heart. The Leemar Institute of Technology together with fourteen other educational institutions bought vast tracts of lands on one of the three habitable planets in the star system and made themselves home.
As a system that nurtured the future elites of the Coalition, the Carnegie Group treated its security strictly. Eight major starbases secured the edge of the star system. Any ship that flew into the interior without being cleared would encounter immediate retaliation from pursuing ships and hidden weapon emplacements.
When the stern-faced security officers boarded the Saint Hearst, they interviewed a couple of people involved in the pirate attack. Ves was naturally one of their persons of interest.
"So tell me, how did you come to possess a mechanical pet of such prowess?"
"It's a present from my dad, I think. He probably thought I could use some insurance in case trouble finds me." Ves told the truth, knowing that the security personnel possessed all kinds of means to sniff out lies. "If it's not from my dad, then it's definitely from the Future Sons Technology Institution that granted me a couple of old production licenses."
The security officer ran down the institution's name. He paused when he found out the institution had its roots in the dreaded New Rubarth Empire. His questioning eased off, and after a perfunctory interview they gave back Lucky without another word.
"So that's the convenience of a powerful background." Ves whispered to himself as he appeared a little dumbfounded how easily he got out of trouble. Not that he was worried about getting arrested, but the delays could have prevented him from participating in the qualifiers. Too bad the nebulous FSTI was just an empty shell conveniently brought into being by the System.
Fortunately, the caretakers in charge of sensitive cargo recharged Lucky's energy, so the cat returned to being his lively and curious self. The cat meowed in relief at being reunited with his owner.
"Alright, let's meet up with Dietrich and prepare to disembark."
Fortunately, the inspections finished quickly, and the ship received permission to enter the inner system. She slowly headed towards Leemar-3, the furthest most habitable planet. After delivering its passengers to the planet's space station, the Saint Hearst travelled onwards towards Leemar-2. When the banged-up vessel finally docked with the planet's orbital space station, Ves left the ship along with Dietrich and his damaged mech.
"Alright, we can contract one of the many mech workshops at the surface to repair your Harrier." Ves said as they both approached the shuttle terminal where different vehicles constantly flew to the surface of the planet and back.
"Hmm. I'm eager to see how these second-rate poncies will fix up my baby. I feel naked when she's sitting uselessly in a container."
Both of them bonded over the incident and grew a little more closer. At least Dietrich did not treat Ves like he was a wimp anyone.
The baptism of combat also subtly changed the mech designer's attitude. For the first time, he felt as if his Larkinson blood came alive. He came from a line of distinguished warriors and though he did not inherit his father's potential to pilot mechs, he still possessed some teeth on his own. Thinking about how proud his father must be for fighting back against a pirate raid helped process the potential trauma of his first stint of combat.
Thus, Ves boarded a shuttle along with Dietrich and travelled to Leemar-2 with renewed confidence. He had taken on pirates and survived. The elite, pampered mech designers who he was about to compete against did not look so formidable anymore.
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