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Pirates Round Robin

Chapter 1 - Discovery

By Alden Bates

The Dread Pirate Bush, scourge of the seven galaxies, rested her chin in the palm of her hand and gazed wistfully out at the stars.

Three months before, Melanie Bush, ex-time traveler, stood on one side of a wooden door and listened. Since leaving the Doctor in favour of a trip around the Twelve Galaxies with Glitz, she'd had to employ more and more cunning to keep up with the con-man's tricks. It wasn't easy.

The Nosferatu II had arrived on a world at the edge of the galactic cluster. Glitz had told her he was "off to pick up supplies" and would be back before she knew it. She'd followed him of course.

She'd tailed him to a seedy bar, the sort of place that respectable people didn't go if they wanted to keep their loose change and other desirable possessions. She guessed he was probably organizing yet another scam, but she was giving him the benefit of the doubt anyway.

"Twenty three grotzis? That's prime merchandise!" came Glitz's voice from the other side of the door.

There was another voice speaking in lowered tones. Mel had expressly forbidden the sale of anything on board the Nosferatu, unless he consulted her first. Obviously Glitz was trading behind her back. Wondering what he was selling _this_ time, she burst through the door.

The two occupants of the room looked up in surprise. Seated across the table from Glitz was a blue-skinned humanoid in plain robes. In the centre of the table was a hologram of a small, red-haired woman whom Mel instantly recognized.

"What's going on?" she demanded.

"Just doing a little business," Glitz held up his hands

defensively. "Nothing to get your neurals in a knot about."

"Business? It looks like you're trying to sell _me_."

Glitz affected a look of shocked innocence. "You've got me wrong there, Mel, I was just interesting this nice gentleman in a holographic trinket for his mantelpiece."

His innocent act was unfortunately doomed, since at this point the interested party stood up.

"This would be the merchandise in question?" he asked smoothly, gathering his gray robes.

"You're unbelievable," Mel shrieked at Glitz as he attempted to hide behind his chair. "How could you? You're..."

The would-be buyer grabbed Mel by the arm, presumably in order to check muscle tone. She promptly stamped on his foot and ran for it.

"Mel, wait!" Glitz pushed past the buyer and dashed after her.

If Glitz had actually participated in Mel's exercise programme, he might have caught up to her, but instead he staggered panting into the spaceport as the Nosferatu's shuttle departed.

Mel glanced at the rearview monitor as the shuttle negotiated its way through the landing bay doors. Glitz really had no one to blame but himself. He was a swindler and a con-man and she couldn't think why she had trusted him. When they had met on Svartos, he'd just sold off his crew, for Heaven's sake.

Still she had as much right to the Nosferatu II as he did. She supposed it ought to belong to the inhabitants of Proamon, but since that world had been destroyed in a nova, and the last known survivor had been mopped up off the floor of the Nosferatu's bridge a month ago, the ship was free property.

Glitz would probably have written it off for the insurance eventually, anyway.

On the next civilized world she'd come to, Mel had advertised for a crew. The only serious respondent had been one Christopher Cwej, a tall, blond man who'd greeted her by name and acted as if they should know each other. He'd clinched his place on board when he'd admitted he knew the Doctor. He had proven cheerful, enthusiastic (even going so far as to paint skull-and-crossbones designs on the ship's hull), a trained pilot and furthermore he had some ideas on the problem of finding a crew.

They'd traveled to a planet near the edge of the outermost galaxy where Chris had met some pirates while traveling with the Doctor. At first Mel had been rather surprised at the 'people' who had volunteered to crew the ship. Chris had explained that there were from a different universe and therefore were entitled to be a bit loopy.

For the last few months, they had roamed the galaxies, intercepting black-market shipments of food and supplies and redistributing them to the less well-off.

"Reaching target zone," reported Chris. Mel snapped out of her contemplation.

The Doppler effect on the stars faded and their next victim appeared on the screen.

It was a typical cargo ship, made up of a string of plain, white boxes with a towing spacecraft at the front. Anachronistically the designer had built the front craft to resemble a steam engine; A steam engine the size of a three story house, granted, but a steam engine none the less.

"Ar! Thar she blows," said the Sloathe sitting at the weapons console. The Nosferatu II didn't actually have any weapons as such, but Grinker Whup liked zooming the cross-hairs around the screen and making explosion noises. Grinker resembled a squat fantasy- pirate captain, having learnt all it knew from old books.

A hush fell over the bridge as Chris began maneuvering the ship into position. The random assortment of life-forms making up the bridge crew fixed their eyes, lenses or miscellaneous vision- collection devices on the forward view monitor.

"Um," said Chris eventually. "I'd have thought they'd've sent a distress signal by now."

"Petrified with fear!" Grinker waved a hook-analogue in the air merrily. "Yo ho ho and then some!"

"Put the interference field up anyway," Mel ordered. "We might actually get something this time."

There was a dull clang as the docking clamps made contact and the Nosferatu II linked itself with the other vessel.

A stunner in both hands, Chris crept along the corridors of the cargo ship. He'd had one of Glitz's outfits retailored to fit him (not an easy task...) and, while it wasn't as good as his adjudicator's armour, it conveyed the necessary impression of a highly trained and skilled warrior. The professional-looking headset added a nicely technological touch. He looked every inch like he was carrying out a stealth mission in a highly dangerous and deadly zone.

Unfortunately Mel was spoiling the effect by walking cheerfully down the centre of the corridor, stunner slung over one shoulder.

Chris abandoned the pretense and called after her. "Shouldn't you be more careful?"

Mel stopped and looked back. "Why? D'you really think they'll have armed the crew? That would mean spending money, and you know what scrooges the people are in this sector."

Chris thought that the threat of the loss of the cargo might counterbalance the cost of a few phasers. Then again, some of the traders were pretty dim.

"Honestly, you're almost as bad as..." Tailing off, Mel paused at the end of the darkened corridor and threw open the doors to the bridge. There was a brief stunned silence.

"Chris..."

The small cockpit was a mess of wiring and broken paneling. Two humanoid bodies lay across the seats, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.

"What could have happened here?" Mel asked, horrified.

"At a guess, their necks have been broken..." Chris slid past to take a closer look. He had to hunch over to avoid the low ceiling.

"I can see that. I meant who would have done such a thing?"

They looked at each other in sudden fear as the shadows huddled closer. Chris suddenly found himself holding his breath and noticed that, when he did so, he could hear his own heartbeat.

If this was a movie, he thought, at about this time a seven-foot slavering monster with acid for blood, more teeth than a packed football stadium and claws the size of javelins would jump out behind them.

So of course, at that point a seven-foot slavering monster with acid for blood, more teeth than a packed football stadium and claws the size of javelins suddenly and unexpectedly jumped out behind them. And it hissed.

Mel screamed. Chris brained himself on the ceiling.

A four-foot pelican wearing an inflatable rubber ring waddled up to the door of the first cargo truck.

The Sloathe squawked and looked back at the purple-furred Pakhar who was bringing up the rear, staggering down the darkened corridor under the weight of its burden.

"Is bringing teleporter? Not going to have all day."

"Yeah, yeah," said Herm. "You try carrying this thing. It's smegging heavy" The Pakhar dropped the dome-shaped object with an echoing clang. He nervously adjusted the stunner tied across his back.

The Sloathe, who was called Krimda Vib, waved its wing-analogues and cackled. "Always pretend-move gerbil-thing complain. Is open door now."

Herm sighed and, spitting carefully on his paws, spun the locking wheel. The door slowly swung outwards and the pair peeked through the gap.

"Bugger," said Krimda in a disappointed tone. "Is empty."

Recovering his composure, Chris threw himself in front of Mel, dropped to a crouch and lowered both stunners at the creature. Fortunately it wasn't there.

At the sound of Mel's scream, the creature had collapsed into a puddle on the ground, then collected itself into a stereotypical pirate captain complete with peg-leg.

"Sorry captain," said Grinker sheepishly, slipping out of character. "I was in defensive mode. This ship gives me the creeps." The parrot-analogue on its shoulder attempted to conceal itself behind the feathers sprouting out of the Sloathe's hat.

Mel was too busy laughing to reply. "You should have seen the look on your face," she giggled, poking Chris in the ribs.

Chris adopted a hurt look. "Me? I'm not the one who screamed."

Suddenly he bent over and plucked something from the floor of the cockpit. He held up a sliver of what looked like ice. The bridge lights flashed off the flat surfaces of the crystal.

"What is it?" Mel asked. "It doesn't look like any crystal I've seen."

Chris rotated it in his hand. "It's the wrong shape for a focusing crystal. You can tell because it'd need to be rounder and more finely cut. We could analyze it in the Nosferatu's lab." He was beginning to enjoy himself; It was almost like the old days back on Earth. There was a mystery and he was itching to solve it.

Mel was looking about the floor for any other clues when a puzzled voice came over their headsets. "Is gone. Is all gone."

"Krimda?" she asked into her microphone. "What's gone?"

"Cargo," said the voice in dismay. "Is gone. Is been vanished. Bring back please!"

"More pirates!"

"We could track them by their exhaust trail," suggested Chris. "I doubt they'd have baffles like the Nosferatu."

"Good thinking," said Mel. "Well, there's no point in hanging around here. Let's get back to the ship."

"I hate to have to tell you this," said another voice over the radio. "But the cargo ship's just started transmitting a distress signal. I only mention it, you see," the voice went on. "because of the dozen or so V-Ships homing in on this general position."

There was a general scramble back down the corridor.

Mel got back to the bridge of the Nosferatu II first.

Sloathes were exploding from the sleeping pallets lining the walls (converted from cryogenic capsules), and were dashing about shouting "AWOOGA!" in varying pitches and volumes. A number of them were sliding up and down the poles from the overhead catwalks. For some unknown reason, someone had piped "The William Tell Overture" though the ship's public address system.

The hairy Reklonian who had given them the warning was engrossed in the pre-jump checks. Mel jumped into the captain's chair and triggered the release mechanism on the docking clamps.

A few moments later, Chris panted in and dropped into the his seat. Grinker, hampered by hir peg-leg, limped in after him.

"Docking clamps released," Chris announced.

"Hurry! They're almost here!" Mel tapped furiously on the console, trying to get her Electronic Counter Measure programs on-line.

"Powering Starflight drive. I've got a trace on that exhaust trail. It's fading fast"

"Not now, Chris. Let's just get out of here."

The V-Ships began appearing on the monitor screen; huge, T-shaped vessels with more weapons and fighter ships than the average star destroyer. The Sloathes renewed their noises of alarm.

Mel watched, transfixed, as the lead ship opened fire. Blazing bolts of plasma streaked towards the Nosferatu II.

Part 2

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