Chevalier hated to admit it, but the scouts knew what they were doing. He’d lost track of time as he fled, caught up in the rhythm of banking and bobbing to avoid the constant barrage of lasers, flak and small-caliber missiles. His hands were starting to cramp from gripping the controls so tight, but he did his best to ignore that. There’d be plenty of time to rest if he escaped and his hand issues wouldn’t matter if he didn’t.
The scouts worked as a team, with one firing indiscriminately in a wide area on one side of Chevalier’s ship to force him to move to where the other was ready for more precise shots. They’d hit the Spitfire a few times already, but luckily hadn’t caused any real damage. It’s just cosmetic, its just cosmetic, its just cosmetic he told himself through gritted teeth as another laser bolt scorched his right wing thruster but didn’t knock it out.
If I get through this I’m going to have a long talk with Bartholomew about those shields he sold me. Deep space grade, my ass.
Chevalier slapped a button on the console to his right and there was a loud clunk as a half-dozen decoy flares went out behind him and roared to life. He hoped that the sudden flash would disorient the scouts and give him some breathing room to maneuver into the first set of satellites that had just appeared in the distance. He aimed for them and kept his foot firmly on the floor, willing his heavily loaded and improperly packed ship to move a little faster. He really didn’t need much extra speed. Another quarter wave or two would do it.
Selene had grown quiet as the chase went on. Her wings couldn’t sustain flight for long inside the gravity controlled ship and so she’d landed back on the console. Her manic energy had passed, but her thin tail raked back and forth across the gleaming silver and she watched the various monitors around Chevalier with keen interest.
“Look out, Chevalier!” she said, pointing up at the sensor that showed the Spitfire’s left side. “Another pair of minnows is coming towards us!”
Chevalier swore when he saw that she was right. Another two scout ships, no doubt there at the request of the others had appeared out of nowhere on the ship’s left and were speeding towards him. They hadn’t started firing yet, but that was only because they were still too far away to have a reasonable chance of hitting. Once they got in range, he’d be facing down four angry pilots.
Make that six, as Selene noticed and pointed out another two scouts appearing on the right side.
“I don’t think we’re fast enough to make it to the satellites, Selene. We may need to jettison some of the cargo.”
Selene sounded mortified. “Are you crazy? Absolutely not. We almost died to collect all that treasure, we cant let it go to waste by tossing it into space now!”
“Are you crazy? There are six ships out there on our tail, and I’m pretty sure that we’re not fast enough to lose them. If we could make it to the satellites I think I could fly well enough that they’d stop indiscriminately firing at us for fear of hitting those, but they’re probably another five minutes away and I don’t think we have that long.”
“Well, figure out some way to make it work!”
“I’m telling you,” Chevalier yelled as a piece of flak overshot the Spitfire and burst into dozens of pieces. “We have a simple choice. Keep the cargo and die, or dump it and have a chance at living. Where do you come down?”
The dragon’s answer was cut off by the fact that some of the flak debris hit the left-side cameras, causing the corresponding monitor to go dark. That settled the matter in Chevalier’s mind. While he’d be able to “see” the left side attackers on his scanner once they were in range, there was a universe of difference between two glowing dots on a scanner and an image of the vessels. The former was really only good for determining how much time he’d have for a given volley, whereas the latter would let him see both exactly when said volley was fired and the general angle it would follow. A cacophony of explosions and screaming lasers surrounded the Spitfire, causing the small ship to shake and vibrate like a bomb about to explode. The scouts were increasing the cadence of their attacks as the satellites drew near.
Leaning down, he stretched his arm and pulled up on the small black knob that opened the jump dock’s hatch. It was a heavy, sticky thing that was rarely used, and it took quite a bit of strength to get it to move. With a grunt and a glare at Selene – who was no doubt the cause of the lever’s stickiness, though he wasn’t entirely sure how – Chevalier managed to move it up about a third of the way and there was a hiss as the jump dock door opened.
With a series of bumps, cracks and one long screech that made Chevalier wince at the prospect of his upcoming ship repair and detail bill, some of the cargo fell out into space. The gauges at his chest all immediately showed a minor uptick in speed, but before he could get the full benefit of a lighter vessel by dumping the rest Selene had jumped down and bit his hand as hard as she could. He yelped with pain and released the knob. Wrapping her fore and hind legs around the lever, the little dragon closed the jump dock and glared up at Chevalier.
“We’re going plenty fast enough now,” she said. “If we get rid of all the treasure we might as well be dead, since we won’t have enough money to repair the ship and eat. Besides, the satellites are pretty close now.”
She had a point. Chevalier could see the first blinking blue and red rings of the satellites that marked the boundary of shallow space, where law and order were preserved by the spacefaring might of the Aguelot Empire’s vast armada. Chevalier grinned as he noticed that the barrage of projectiles aimed in his direction started to slow down. His hunch about Plagtos not wanting to piss the Empire off had been right. However, he remembered as another small missile exploded just behind him; slow wasn’t the same thing as stopped.
He dodged the last few projectiles and prevented any more from being fired by flying the Spitfire as close to the top of the first satellite’s rings as he dared. The scouts didn’t halt their pursuit, which meant that they were likely planning to catch up with him and capture his vessel in close quarters. Probably with some sort of tether. The tether wasn’t an immediate concern; he was keeping a healthy distance away from all of the scout minnows, but his thrusters had started to whine and their bleating was getting louder every second. If he kept them going at full power for much longer, there was a better than good chance that they’d blow out and he’d be screwed.
The second satellite came quickly after the first, and reaching the third took even less time than that. Soon enough Chevalier was navigating the veritable asteroid field of individual dwelling space stations, non-Empire satellites, and other vessels. This was fortuitous, for as he banked and weaved through the chaos, he saw that the minnows were slowed more than he was. Given their distinct markings and easily recognized ownership, the pilots were forced to slow down and avoid any sort of issue. Plagtos had a reputation to protect.
“I think we’re safe,” Selene said as she watched the scouts shrink on the monitors and since Chevalier agreed with her, he let off the thrusters and relaxed as their bleating slowly ceased. He wiped the sweat from his brow, pulled his space suit down to his waist and started laughing. “I can’t believe we survived that.”
Selene crawled up his arm and perched on his shoulder. “I am glad that we did. We even managed to save some of the treasure, thanks to my quick thinking, of course. I can’t believe that you wanted to dump all of it! For shame!”
With a chuckle, Chevalier plotted a course for the ship’s autopilot to take them to Junkheap and leaned back in his chair. The adrenaline was wearing off now, and it was being replaced by bone-deep fatigue. “Wake me up if anything goes amiss,” he told Selene as he put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
Selene didn’t answer. She was already asleep on his shoulder.
The Spitfire maneuvered through the sector on its pre-programmed route. It was a little worse for wear, but it wasn’t so damaged that the small blinking device attached to the bottom of the hull via flak explosion earlier was ever at any risk of falling off.