Under the Mantidae class ship's ephemeral protection did nothing to ease Pearl's discomfiting queasiness. She had no need of anyone's protection.
A sudden memory, unbidden, sparked through her consciousness. Back home on Turri IV. The ranch. Her father teaching her to shoot a Gauzia Class 3 . Her mother chiding them. She doesn't need to learn how to be a boy. She is a girl. Treat her like a girl. But her father never could. And never did much to protect her, either.
They're not protecting me. They're protecting our cargo. Didn't matter either way.
When the cannon-fire began.
Pearl glowered at Quasit a moment, then checked status. Fires'd been sufficiently quarantined. BQSBots resources freed for ND repair and replication. The longer the Mantidae and Ecitoninae flirt with each other, the better.
She gave the order to secure the cargo, diverting everything else to repairs. The ship's hold was immense, but on this run, the actual cargo was relatively small. Shutting down unnecessary systems to increase repair rate included shields. Doesn't matter, one more hit will obliterate us anyway.
Quasit made a surprised grunt. "What in Titanscockandballs? The Mantidae detects shields dropped. They've bound their ship's defences over us."
Dead silence hung over the Ragusea, nearly palpable, as the Warship assessed the situation. Pearl forced herself to take deep breaths, sitting back, a gut-wrenching helpless feeling gnawing at her intestines.
Quasit scowled, futilely adjusting sensors, the Mantidae class ship remained impregnable.. "As far as I can tell, they're not in the mood to talk to the Warship either." Quasit spun in his chair to face Pearl. "They probably wouldn't answer us right now," now grimacing, "but I wanted to ask them if they knew the Yu Qi were going to send a harlotscut Warship to chase us down!"
Pearl calculatingly exhaled through her nose, teeth gnashed, trying to get sensors to lock on the new ship. But the scans refused to divulge anything useful. When a heavily encrypted message was delivered to the CC. Pearl weighed the options, then received the transmission, inhaling savagely through her mouth, eyes pinpricks of cold thunder.
"They're our current employer," she told Quasit, hints of irony in her voice. "Sensors are't picking up a whiff. Divert resources and put it on external view."
The viewscreen blinked on, revealing a Mantidae class ship, boomerang shaped matte black, devoid of insignia, id or markings.
Automated emergency amber lights flashed. Chaos shook the ship. Quasit adjusted systems to propulsion in preparation to attempt escape once Pearl ejected the cargo.
The Ecitoninae Class Warship came about, its cannons thankfully silent for a moment. Another blast could destroy the entire ship, including the cargo. Again they hailed, and again Pearl ignored it. Better to let them think we are prepared to die.
Then to Pearl's wonder, sensors detected another ship quickly approaching off starboard, directly opposite the Warship's position. It took up an offensive stance. The two ships dwarfed the Phengodidae class Ragusea caught in the middle.
More cannon fire jolted the Phengodidae class ship. Pearl clutched her command console, watching as sensors lit, indicating fires. The BQSBots automatically diverted attention to the damaged sections of the ships, taking precious resources away from fixing the shields and ND. Can't be helped. Pearl grimaced, watching the fires spread faster than the BQSBots were replicating. Not good.
"I can't shake this jezebel's merkin!" Quasit growled, as the ship shook, lurched again against cannon fire. Even his augmented fingers trembled now, as shields dropped to 7.99%.
Choose, you bastards! Pearl's fingers moved to give the command to jettison their payload.
Pearl gripped white, knuckles burning, sensors signalling Quasit's actions. She didn't like it, but they'd been together long enough for her to trust him. Anyway, maybe with the BQSBots disengaged from the navigation system, they'd have more time to repair the shields, ND and replication.
Quasit navigated at lightning speed, but couldn't shake the hulking Warship, did little to stop her cannons as shields fell to 11%. The tiny Phengodidae rocked with laser fire; Quasit felt his teeth rattle, his eyeballs shake in his skull like a black smoke sermon, though his hands didn't falter.
But the Ecitoninae persisted, undeterred.
The Phengodidae class Ragusea rose, darting under Quasit's deft hand. He knew manoeuvrability was the greatest advantage against the Ecitoninae. But that alone wasn't what was keeping them from being blown to smithereens.
"It's their precious cargo they want," Quasit grunted through gritted teeth.
Pearl didn't answer, but checked the progress of the BQSBots on her CP. "Just give me 4 utes more," she implored him, "Replication is almost there." An amber light on her CP meant the Warship wanted to talk. Last option.
Quasit checked the shields. 29%. Manually overriding the BQSBots, he diverted power to the main thrusters.
The ship buffeted against the solar wave again, slowing the ND, sending sparks across the hull. Quasit's hands rapidly brushed across the control panels, changing the ship's headings as fast as he could, as the Ecitoninae Class Warship's laser cannons behind kept up a steady barrage.
In her captain's chair, Pearl's voice remained calm. "All remaining power to the rear shields. Keep working to restore full ND capabilities."
Across the ship, the BQSBots reacted to her voice with instantaneous results. Even so, sometimes Pearl regretted not having more sentient crew members.
Their outclassed ship couldn't take this pounding for long.