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Eva remained undeterred despite the setback she now faced. She simply took a deep breath, collected herself, and refocused on the task at hand - survival. It didn't matter if she was getting chased by nine or nine hundred, she wasn't going to let anyone get the better of her.

Not in this life.

She yelled out, "Gimme everything you got!"

Inspired by Eva's tenacity, Miko also doubled down on her part. Her hands danced across her display as she tweaked the ship's systems and squeezed out every bit of power possible.

Now that the pirates were shooting to kill, she reduced the energy shielding to a minimum and reactivated the life support systems. She gave it just enough power to maintain cabin pressure and cycle oxygen. 

More critically, restoring life support also reactivated the nanorepair submodule, which worked to seal any small lacerations in the hull.

The lifeboat's maximum thruster velocity fell slightly due to the shift in energy consumption, which made it a little less agile. It meant they were likely to get hit more often, but they absolutely needed the ability to repair any breaches. 

Although the repairs didn't re-strengthen the boat's structure, it was a necessary measure to ensure a stable cabin pressure. If the pressure suddenly destabilized and they lost all their oxygen, they would all be as good as dead.

Keeping the boat sealed was a top priority.

Behind them, the pirates hung on to their every move with murder in their eyes. Fueled by their anger at having lost their comrades, they too grit their teeth and doubled down with ballistic fire.

They took turns throwing bullets at the lifeboat, all in an attempt to tire out its pilot. Just like any predator, they chased down their prey to the point that it was exhausted of all energy. At that point, all they needed to do was strike for the kill. 

What they didn't realize was that their target was no ordinary prey.

Eva tensed up as she constantly evaded their gunfire. Luckily she had become much tougher in this new life and was able to endure far more physical punishment than before. 

Her muscles burned as she performed her maneuvers one right after the other. And even though it was both mentally and physically demanding, she never once felt drained.

She knew that every hit they took wore them down bit by bit, and it was critical that she avoided as much as she could. Since this was a lifeboat, it had minimal armor plating, and was mainly held together with the struts that bound the hull. Every hit they suffered would result in those struts getting damaged. And the more they got damaged, the easier it was to get hit.

She was in a terrible catch-22.

But that didn't get her down. In fact, the challenge of it all invigorated her even further. These were the few moments in life when one had the ability to really push themselves forward. No amount of practice or preparation or pondering could ever compare.

And that was a feeling she thoroughly enjoyed.

~

One of the pirates held back and just observed the lifeboat. He tried to figure out if there was a pattern, or if there was an opening that he could exploit. But he found the opportunities were few and far between.

Whoever that pilot was knew exactly what they were doing. He had no doubt that if they had weapons, all of them would have been dead by now.

The thought frightened him.

Despite his quarry’s abilities, he managed to find a good position. One where he believed he had a great advantage with an unbeatable firing angle. He watched and waited for his opportunity, and allowed his fellow pirates to maneuver the lifeboat into the perfect spot…

His finger danced on the trigger, eager to spring the trap.

The lifeboat had to make a hard turn, and his position was lined up so he had a clear shot when it hit the apex of that turn. He squeezed the trigger and fired, and fully expected to perforate the lifeboat just as its velocity slowed at the apex.

But he went pale as the boat applied light lateral thrust and veered just slightly off-course. His burst of fire just grazed the gunwhale of the boat instead. The 'perfect shot' resulted in superficial damage, even after all that observation and positioning and waiting.

He was about to tear his hair out! Who the hell was this damned pilot?!

~

"Tch," Eva muttered. She was visibly irritated that she didn't get away cleanly. Ultimately, this was just a flying sausage, and it was ridiculously easy to hit under normal circumstances. If it wasn't for her and Miko, they would already have been captured.

"Structural integrity down to ninety-six percent," yelled Miko.

Beyond manipulating the thrusters, Miko tensely kept an eye on the ship's well-being, and did what she could to help keep it in one piece. She was as worried as Eva about any damage they took. But she didn't let it sink her either, and instead just focused on the task at hand.

The frightened passenger yelled, "Why'd you mention that? Why does it matter?!"

"It's important," Miko replied. "We need to know how close we are to fifty percent."

"Wh… what happens at fifty?," he asked reluctantly.

For the first time, Eva acknowledged the frightened passenger and turned towards him to reply, her countenance grim.

"Because fifty's when the boat's basically torn in half."

The pirates put in more effort to hit them, and as a result the hull was getting hit a little more often. Miko did her best to manage the repairs and direct the nanites towards the most critical breaches. Though she was quick to seal the tears, she knew it wasn't going to be the end of it, and kept all repair jobs as busy as possible.

The only thing was they were limited in how much they could repair in the first place.

"Eighty-nine percent integrity," Miko stated. "We are also down to ninety-two percent repair materials and four minutes of oxygen."

The lifeboat began to shudder and groan as it strained to maintain its integrity. Eva's high speed maneuvering threw around great amounts of g-forces in every direction. While this kept them from getting outright perforated, the maneuvers also further weakened any support struts that were already damaged.

Despite her efforts, the pirates got even more shots on the boat. 

"Eighty-five percent."

The tension in the lifeboat rose with every breath they took. No-one said it, but they all felt it - it was as though their deaths were imminent. Still, not one of them gave up hope, least of all Miko and Eva. In the light of their tenacity, the other passengers couldn't help but be emboldened.

The lifeboat's shuddering became more pronounced as things went on. 

"Eighty... Seventy-four."

But even that light of hope started to dim as the lifeboat took on more and more damage. Plus the more breaches they had, the more chances for their oxygen to escape. Every bullet that hit whittled away at them and carved away seconds off their lives.

"Sixty-nine… Three minutes oxygen."

A few passengers started to hold their breaths.

Suddenly, Eva's forward display flashed with a brilliant light!

It was so blinding that everyone else instinctively turned away or shielded their eyes. Eva had no choice but to keep her eyes open - this was a perfect opportunity to gain distance. 

And what she saw left her awestruck.

A Sol Federation Battleship had just ported in. It was massive - at least five times larger than the pirate cruisers nearby, and was an imposing sight that choked her up.

Its thick, angular armor greatly protected the ship and ensured nothing but the largest weapons would be able to penetrate it. Meanwhile, its multiple gun batteries, missile emplacements, and defensive turrets threatened to rain down unrelenting terror on any and all who opposed it. 

Unlike the cruisers, it was designed to both deliver and receive massive amounts of punishment.

Eva surmised that even by itself, the cruisers stood little chance of winning. However, it didn't come by itself. It was accompanied by four Destroyers and a full complement of fighters, and they all looked like they were itching for a fight.

A man in his 50s suddenly appeared on every ship's main display, friend and foe alike. His hard stare complemented his impeccably trimmed gray beard, which lent him an air of absolute authority. 

When he spoke, it was like thunder.

"This is Rear Admiral Tori of the Federal Warship Diomedes, here to answer the emergency beacon transmitted by Regeneration Center Theta. All hostile ships are hereby ordered to stand down immediately and surrender. Any further action on your part will be considered an act of war against the Sol Federation. Such acts will be met with deadly force. In addition, all lifeboats are ordered to immediately retreat to the Diomedes. Tori out."

The feed cut out as suddenly as it appeared, but the hope it gave to all survivors spread like wildfire. All the lifeboats immediately accepted those orders and made a bee-line towards the battleship.

In the same vein, the appearance of the Diomedes caused a wave of fear to ripple through the pirates, but it didn't dissuade them from their attack. In fact, they expected that the Federal Navy would send reinforcements. 

However, they didn't think that they would send a fully-armed battleship!

The cruisers that were previously attacking the station had just entered attack range and moved to flank the battleship. Meanwhile, the ambushers sped up their duties, and scooped up as many lifeboats as they could. Even the pirates who were chasing Eva didn't back down, and continued their bloodthirsty pursuit.

"Hang tight," Eva said.

She quickly turned towards the Diomedes, maxed out the throttle, and hoped to make it in time.

~

Admiral Tori paced back and forth on the bridge of the Diomedes, his face dark.

This wasn't the first attack he'd seen these past few cycles, and what he saw prior bothered him greatly. These pirates were attacking various regen stations and kidnapped whoever they could. 

Whatever their aims were, he knew they couldn't be good. He guessed that they were being sold to slavers.

And that was unacceptable.

"Report!" commanded Tori.

"Sir," one of the officers said. "Pirate cruisers split between two fleets. One inbound at speed, another mixed in with the lifeboats. Five portside, three forward. They're accompanied by two dozen fighter squadrons each, but have suffered minor casualties and aren't at full strength."

"Armament?"

"Only weapons of note are the TNM-187 Railcannons, ranked B. The cruisers are equipped with one each."

Tori nodded when he heard that. He was familiar with those railcannons, and knew their destructive potential. Without a doubt, they had the power to puncture through the thickest armor. The damage would be even greater if they concentrated on a single spot.

On top of that, their own armor wasn't all-encompassing. There were still many exposed areas of the ship, and the cruisers could still do excessive damage to those sections if they aimed for them.

"Take us right up to the middle. Our primary objective is to ensure the safety of the evacuees. I want the cruisers scooping up lifeboats targeted and disabled immediately. Lethal operations are authorized against all other pirate vessels. Let's acquaint each of those fleets with a welcoming Federation broadside."

"Aye, sir," confirmed the officer.

Another officer quickly stood to get the Admiral's attention.

"Sir! We have a situation! A wing of pirates are firing lethal rounds at a lifeboat. They're seventeen hundred meters from our position and closing at speed. Our readouts indicate that the boat has close to half structural integrity remaining."

These pirates never used lethal force during their previous raids. Why were they doing so now? And why just the one lifeboat?

"Send a wing to intercept! Secure that boat immediately!"

CeritusOrbis

If you're a fan of space battles, then you're in luck! This novel is going to have plenty of them. Eventually, there will be huge fleets attacking each other across solar systems. It'll be epic!

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