The Mech Touch

Chapter 115: Astral Wolves

One of the worst dangers an interstellar ship has to deal with is pirates. Space was big, so the chances of bumping into them should be negligible.

In reality, pirate fleets worked together with observers stationed in neighboring star systems. They observed all traffic going in and out, and whenever a ship intended to transition to the pirate fleet's system, they informed their masters through the galactic net. This allowed the pirate fleet at the other end to prepare a reception for their unsuspecting victims.

This didn't always work due to the inherent uncertainties involved with FTL travel. Sometimes, the arriving ships ended up millions of kilometers away from the pirates.

Considering the odds, Ves could have ended up worse. The Astral Wolves accurately plotted his destination and even took the telemetry from their observer to predict his entry point in this remote star system. The trick with the running start further emphasized the capabilities of his pursuers.

"We're not dealing with amateurs here. These Wolves are seasoned robbers. I don't believe we've seen the full extent of their moves."

The aft of the Barracuda was taking a beating. The enemy pilots appeared to adjust to the circumstances and increased their fire rate to the maximum sustainable limit. While this did no favors to their accuracy, the sheer volume of fire inevitably worked their charm.

The odds of throwing a dice and getting a six was small. The pirates knew that, so they threw the dice faster.

Nothing in the Barracuda's arsenal could slow them down or mitigate their shots. While ships operating inside human space were not allowed to carry weapons, Ves wished his ship came with several defense measures such as security screens or after boosters. Even if they used up a horrible amount of energy, it was better than letting pirates get their hands on his ship.

As the clock ran down, his ship accumulated more stress. The Barracuda held on so far due to boasting thick armor. No matter the ship, even a heavy mech paled in comparison to the amount of absolute protection they enjoyed. This was the intrinsic difference between a bipedal war machine and a self-contained ecosystem built to traverse the stars.

Still, there were limits to a spaceship's integrity. While the long-ranged laser fire wasn't capable of dealing critical damage due to their wide dispersal, they softened up the Barracuda's aft section. If the light mechs came into range and were allowed to focus their fire, the ship could easily suffer an engine breakdown.

Ves desperately tried to figure out what he could do to repel the pirates from his end, but came up short. His ship was essentially a glorified pleasure yacht, a souped up sports shuttle with interstellar range.

"Three minutes to go until the light mechs are in range. Are you ready to swat some flies?"

"I've been ready ever since we arrived at this stupid star system."

"Good. I'm opening up the cargo bay hatch in thirty seconds. Please sortie out as fast as possible. I don't want to expose the interior any longer than necessary."

Dietrich wasn't looking forward to the upcoming fight. His Harrier worked best as mobile fire support and normally relied on studier mechs to hold the line. He did not look forward to trying to defend his buddy's ship while outnumbered five-to-one.

The mech designer might think himself clever for navigating through remote and inhabited star system, but it came to bite them back with a vengeance.

Now the mech pilot had to clean up after the mess. Fortunately his Harrier received an extensive overhaul back in Leemar. His mech might not be able to exceed its specifications, but it wouldn't fall apart from under him after receiving a couple of shots.

"I'm depressurizing the cargo bay. Get ready!"

The air disappeared from the chamber before the imminent opening. Letting all of the air escape from the ship when the hatch slid down was not only wasteful, but also dangerous.

"Ten seconds left!"

With just seconds to go, Dietrich grumbled about his friend's propensity to stumble into pirate attacks. This was the second time they encountered one so far, and they only made a single round trip! It shouldn't be so easy to bump into pirates!

The hatch slid open once the ventilators completely sucked away the air. A black expanse of stars came into view. Dietrich suppressed his instinct to admire the view and flew out of the ship in an instant.

The hatch closed behind him as he positioned his mech below of the constantly accelerating Barracuda. The Harrier had to adopt an awkward horizontal posture with its rifle pressed against its torso in order to keep up with the ship. The mech's modest flight system kept up with the corvette for now.

"What the hell?! You could have mentioned the rain of laser beams!"

"Relax. It's not as bad as it looks like. If you manage to draw away their fire, then that would be best. You're a much smaller target so you'll make a great decoy!"

Some of the distant mechs indeed shifted their aim to the Harrier. Dietrich already introduced some randomness in his flight path in order to cope with the barrage. Ves might had a point about their accuracy, but the pilot took no chances.

He already kept his eye on the approaching light mechs. Their flight systems flared up as bright as a star as they expended substantial amounts of energy or fuel to catch up to their fleeing prey. Detachable radiator panels extended from their backs in order to cope with their enormous heat generation.

The pirate mechs unleashed their weapons once they passed a certain threshold. A light volley of solid kinetic projectiles and explosive shells impacted the Barracuda's vulnerable rear.

"Dietrich! We just suffered as much damage as five minutes of sporadic laser fire! We'll only last a couple of minutes if this keeps up! Get them off my back!"

The pilot didn't need his partner's nagging to know what to do. He already engaged his sharpshooting module and prepared to fire on all five mechs.

He shot a volley of three projectiles at the closest aerial mech. The pirate panicked at the incoming kinetic slugs even though they did not land anywhere close to the target.

Dietrich already shifted his aim. His rifle barked another two shots at a see-sawing mech. The pirate's lazy and predictable dodging pattern allowed the young pilot to land a glancing shot at its legs. While the damage was negligible, it frightened the pirate into pulling back.

He sent a couple of shots in the direction of the other three mechs in turn. All of them paused their aggression in order to regain their composure. He succeeded in halting their relentless assault and disrupted their efforts to cripple the Barracuda.

The Astral Wolves adjusted their strategy. The distant medium mechs maintained their fire on the Barracuda. They were confident it was only a matter of time before the lasers crippled the ship.

As for the light mechs, they split their attention. Two of them kept up their fire against the Barracuda while the other three shifted their targeting systems to the Harrier. Dietrich had to overload his flight system in order to keep his hide intact.

"You're doing a great job, but it's not enough. Get the other two mechs off my tail!"

"I'm kind of busy here Ves!" The pilot spat back as he worked his controls. He increased his rate of fire in order to keep the enemy mechs on their toes. "How's the ship?"

"Her engine nozzles are accumulating too much heat! The shells landing on her hull is isn't helping either."

In the meantime, the Harrier only suffered from scratches and glancing blows so far due to the deplorable skill level of the pirates.

The typical scum who resort to piracy didn't have much choice. Even if they were potentates, their neural aptitudes ranked near the bottom. No decent mercenary corps was desperate enough to offer them a place in their ranks.

A potentate often grew up with an inflated sense of importance. Those with disappointing aptitudes, lazy work ethics or severe attitude problems might not be resigned to living life as a norm. Why respect the laws that held them back when they could use force to indulge in their desires?

Hedonists and degenerates like these never spent much time in polishing their skills. Even as he came under constant fire, Dietrich adopted a dodging pattern that worked well against riflemen who relied too much on their targeting systems. It decreased the odds of getting hit, but the irregular movements also affected his marksmanship.

He ignored the mechs who shot at him and instead fired at the machines who persisted in harassing the Barracuda. One or two shots hardly worked, so Dietrich increased his fire rate in order to put more pressure on the persistent bastards. His ammunition depleted at an alarming rate, but the pilot had no choice.

He achieved his first breakthrough almost accidentally. He shot a casual volley at the furthest light mech, intending to scare it back before shifting his attention to another opponent. By some coincidence, two slugs managed to hit the unsuspecting mech square in the center.

The stricken mech's breakneck speed worked against its favor by amplifying the damage. One slug crunched right through the frontal armor, crushing the flimsy plates. The second slug that followed after landed close enough to slip through the cracks and apart its sides.

To Dietrich's regret, his shots failed to disable the mech, though it halted its chase. The damaged mech sputtered as its flight system lost power. Whether the mech actually lost power or the pilot simply lost his nerve, nobody knew. In any case, it made Dietrich's job easier.

The pirates responded by by firing missiles. Over fifty individual missiles launched from the medium mechs which held back so far. Due to the need to chase and catch up to the Barracuda, the missiles weren't actually travelling very fast. They still presented a very real threat.

"Those missiles need to be shot down!"

"There's too many missiles." Dietrich growled as he kept distracting the light mechs, who flew much more circumspect at the sudden loss of a fellow pirate.

"Then empty your magazines if you have to. Those missiles are not only high explosive, they're also capable of homing in on a specific section of my ship. If you ask me, I'd rather get shot at by pirates who failed their marksmanship class than let those homing missiles chew up my thrusters!"

Dietrich faced a difficult choice. If he relented on the light mechs, they might recover their poise and begin to fight back more aggressively. Still, Ves had a point about the missiles. The mech pilot lamented that his mech lacked the capacity to incorporate a machine gun that was perfect for anti-missile duty.

He shifted his targeting settings and started to fire mech-sized slugs at the missiles. Despite their nimbleness, the homing projectiles had to swim against the current so to speak, which allowed Dietrich to land most of his shots.

While the Harrier methodically destroyed the missile swarm, the other mechs grew bold and focused their fire on the ship again. The pilot couldn't do anything about their opportunistic attacks besides speeding up the destruction of the missiles.

Once he intercepted the last missiles, the Harrier flew back to the ship. "Open up Ves! I need a resupply!"

The battered hatch lowered quicker than normal. Ves had overridden the safety protocols. The Harrier flew back inside even as sporadic shots landed close to the vulnerable opening. One laser managed to scorch the interior bulkhead of the ship before the hatch closed up again.

Ves tiredly spoke again from the bridge. "I need you back out of there as fast as possible. The aft section is almost out of armor and the thrusters aren't looking too good either."

"I know! I'm doing the best I can already." Dietrich replied as he quickly shook off his spent magazines. The empty cases landed onto the deck with a soundless thud due to the absence of air.

Midway through the resupply, the Barracuda shuddered for a second.

"What's that?"

"That's the result of a malfunctioning thruster! I've forced the faulty component to keep working, but it won't do any favors for its longevity. Get back out there please!"

Dietrich didn't bother with picking up the last magazines. "Open the hatch. I'm going out!"

The Harrier exited the hatch and fired aggressively at the pursuing pirates. He changed his strategy. His previous act of suppressing all of the mechs at the same time did not do much in deterring them. Only when he disabled a mech did the enemy pilots pull back a bit.

"You guys want to see blood? Then let me show you what this Whaler can do."

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