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Pirates Round Robin

Chapter 11 - Explanation

Wake Up Call, or How Thella Got Her Groove Back

By Francis Cooke

"Mark 3 Postideon Life Preserver - pah! Almost crushed me to death!" Glitz's eyes twinkled "Maybe I can get my money back on it's life-time guarantee!"

But his grotzit-laden thoughts were interrupted by the grumbling of the earth beneath his feet.

"Shit! I've only got one of them live-preservers!"

He winced as the grumbling grew louder...and then faded, moving away from him. He stared after the retreating rumble.

"Now where the bleedin' hell's it goin, then?"

<<LIFT-OFF SEQUENCE INITIATED >>

<<SOON WE WILL BE HOME >>

<<ESTIMATED TIME TO LIFT-OFF: ONE AND A HALF TERRAN HOURS >>

Mel was sitting on a rock, waiting as the light from the crystals grew brighter and brighter. There were several things annoying her, and she was beginning to think that she had better get some answers before it was too late.

She turned to Thella. "Do you think I could speak to them? The crystals, I mean."

Thella shrugged indifferently. "There is no harm in trying. If they wish to speak to you, they will." She turned back to her whispered conversation with Chris as they sat, gazing at the crystals around them with unconcealed adoration.

Mel raised her voice: "Can you hear me?"

Silence. Then:

<<YES. YOU MAY SPEAK>>

Mel took a deep breath. "Okay. Well, I've been thinking that we seem to be going along with your plan without knowing much about it. I mean, if you've been separated from the main Enlightenment mass for so long, why are you suddenly so eager to go back? I thought that the seperation occured for a reason. And I want to know more about Seldric 4. If it's meant to protect you, and if its as deadly as it looks, then we should all have been killed before we reached this cave. I think we should have a few explanations before we leave with you."

More silence. Chris and Thella were both looking at Mel incredulously, and the other members of her group looked worried as well.

"Mel, are you ssuure thiss iss a good idea?" ventured Ssele. And then the crystals spoke again.

<<THERE WILL BE NO QUESTIONS. YOU WILL COME WITH US, OR DIE ON THIS PLANET>>

"Yes," whispered Mel. "That's what I was afraid you might say."

Krimda and hir crewmates ambled across the surface of Seldric 4. After firstly being cautious, remembering what they had been told about the planet's murderous tendencies, they were now much more relaxed. They had so far survived the walk intact, and soon they would be reunited with the rest of their merry band. Mel said that they now had a way off the planet, and that was just fine with all of them.

"Is chop-chop hurry, no?" barked Krimda. "Is befuddling, silly pretend-move things want stray on nasty planet, when is way out very soon. Is soon good old pirating, no silly-type dangerous crystal nonsense. Is glad, no?" The Slothe bounded on ahead of everyone else, almost bursting with anticipation.

Then they heard a rumbling beneath them. They all stopped, even Krimda, and stared ahead of them. They could see tendrils growing out of the earth and advancing, closer, closer...

"Arg! Is chop-chop, no? Is ruuuuun!" Krimda bounced around and began to waddle at full speed away from the advancing tendrils, towards the Nosferatu II, followed close behind by hir crewmates.

Glitz had been wandering for a few minutes when he came across the cave. He hadn't been walking in any general direction: he wasn't too keen on finding his employer's ship again, but was hoping he might find somewhere where he could shelter if the planet decided to have another go at him. Then he'd sort out the problem of getting off the Seldric 4 - hell, he'd been in worse scrapes than this, and a couple of the spaceships he'd spotted lying around before looked salvageable...

That was when he saw the piercing blue light through the mist, and decided to investigate. And when he spotted the cave his eyes lit up. A sanctuary! And not only that, but a sanctuary that looked like it might be holding something pretty damn powerful! And Glitz knew what you could do with something powerful: you could take it apart and flog it off on the black market! Maybe coming to this planet had been a stroke of luck after all!

His visions of piles of easy grotzits were smashed when he walked into the cave and saw Mel and her cohorts, who turned around in suprise as he entered. Looked like they had been expecting someone else. Probably a few more of their crazy crew, trying to play at pirates.

He quickly assessed what danger the situation might hold for him: there were two humanoids apart from Mel, a blue-skinned girl and a guy, standing around in a corner, but they looked well out of it. There was also a Pakhar and two Sloathes, but Glitz didn't consider them much of a threat - he had never felt particularly intimidated by hamsters, and the little he had heard of Sloathes had suggested that they were just ineffectual loonies. The Martian, though, was looking at him like it would happily throttle him if it had the chance. And Mel, of course, looked as alert as ever. Wouldn't catch him going back to the Nosferatu II in a hurry, huh! She'd have him on an exercise bike all day when he should be out doing a bit of honest wor-

His thoughts were interrupted by a booming multitude of voices, coming seemingly from nowhere and everywhere.

<<WHAT IS THIS CREATURE?>>

"Is slime!" hooted Grinker.

"Slime and flambunctions!" agreed Cyndar. "Nasty piece of no good slime and flambunctions! And also rot."

<<IT DISPLEASES YOU?>>

"Yeah" said Ellington.

"You could ssay that," hissed Ssele.

"Slime!" affirmed Cyndar, glaring at Glitz.

<<THEN WE SHALL REMOVE IT>>

"Now hang on" shouted Glitz, as the voices paused. "What have I done to-"

<<PIECE BY PIECE>>

Glitz continued to shout as he began to levitate into the air. Mel's face tightened with shock, and the rest of her crew looked suprised as well. Even the two zonked-out humanoids in the corner were paying attention, and Glitz thought he saw a look of concern flash across the girl's face.

"Stop!" screamed Mel, but to no avail, as Glitz felt an invisible force pulling at him, and his legs and arms begin to tear and pop and-

And then he saw the blue skinned girl grab the blond guy and haul him, screaming, towards the cave entrance. Immediately the pressure on his arms and legs stopped, and he fell to the cave floor.

Blue rays of light streamed towards the retreating figures. Thella could feel them just behind her, trying to suck her into their grasp. Chris was trying to fight her grip but she hung on, dragging him towards the entrance. If only they could get out-

-and then she pulled him, gasping, through the exit. They collapsed onto the ground as the beams of blue light just behind them hit an invisible barrier. They were safe.

And inside the cave, Glitz began to sense that his problems might only be starting...

The crew had managed to escape the planet's clutches, boarding the Nosferatu II just in time. Now they watched incredulously as the tendrils which had been hovering outside the ship began to retreat, moving speedily away from them.

"Is not like. Is suspect trick-or-treat." muttered Krimda. "Is thinking nasty Seldric-4 planet type thing is thinking we will say ho ho, all safe now we, let us go outside and picnic. And then-" the Sloathe paused for effect, "-will come back and EAT US! Argghhh!" Krimda fell over, miming violent death.

"Is silly Sloathe!" scolded Eltave. "Is nasty thing all gone now! Is safe! Is ho ho! Is we go outside and have pic-"

"Actually, I think Eltave might be right," said Rakaar, who had been studying the ships information screens. "The danger seems to be gone, at least for the moment. And while it is gone, I think we should go outside and continue repairing the ship."

Krimda was shocked. "Will eat! Will smother we with ketchup and golden syrup and gulp down in fribulous quantities! Aaarrgghh!"

"And I want EVERYONE working on it" declared Rakaar. "We're a big crew - it should take next to no time. And if there's any sign of danger, we'll all come back in here."

The motley crew, with a protesting Krimda at the rear, shuffled out of the ship.

"What was that for?" shouted Chris, struggling to get up. "Let me back in! We've got to help her get home!"

Thella kept him pinned on the ground. "Will you just shut up and listen to me? We need to get away from them and sort things out!" Chris was still struggling though, and Thella knew he was stronger than her-in a second he would escape. What did it take to stop him?

"Can't you feel it? Can't you feel what they're doing to us?" She was screaming into his face now. He paused, seemingly taken aback by her display of emotion. She wasn't suprised-she usually tried to keep such things hidden behind her cool, detatched exterior.

He relaxed in her grip. "Alright then. What?"

"Haven't you noticed? You've been so removed from everything since we found the cave, just wandering around with me. We've been talking about how marvellous and beautiful they are, and how we must get them back home. But you're some sort of policeman, aren't you...you should know to look beyond appearances. Didn't you notice how whenever you thought about questioning their motives, your mind shied away from it? Or how nothing seemed more important all of a sudden then their mission, how you'd give your life up for them if it would get them home?"

A look of dawning realisation and horror was creeping over his face. "You mean-"

She nodded. "Yes. I'm not blaming you, I was out of it the whole time too-but the crystals aren't what they seem, and they were using us. Mel seemed to realise that, but no one else did. And we almost let them get away with their plan..."

Chris was looking more alert now, but also confused. "Hang on...how do you know all this? And what the hell is their plan?"

Thella got up. "I'll tell you soon. But first we need to get out of here." She began to walk away into the pink mist, Chris following her. "And I want you to tell me what you know first."

"Like what? It seems like you're the one with all the answers here."

Thella sighed. "Like what those creatures that were following us are. You knew, but you wouldn't tell Mel. Why?"

Chris shrugged. "I was pretty wrapped up with the crystal, I guess. But...I wanted to tell her. Only I couldn't."

"Yes..." hinted Thella, leading Chris to his conclusion.

He looked shocked. "It was the crystal, wasn't it? Enlightenment? It was stopping me from telling Mel about the Axons!"

"Axons?"

Chris sighed. "Yeah, Axons. They're like shapeshifting vampires, I guess. They feed off living energy, and they'll do anything to get it: they're ruthless, devious, and incredibly untrustworthy. They're all part of one huge collective parasite called Axos, and the rate at which they absorb energy is unbelievable. They're constantly searching for new sources."

"And that's what they want Enlightenment for!" exclaimed Thella.

"Eh?"

"As a power source. Enlightenment is a living creature Chris, and it creates and feeds off its own energy. If Axos really is dependent on energy like you say, it would be a dream come true for them-a potentially never-ending source."

"But how did they find out about Enlightenment?"

"They had a crystal fragment. They must have found it, like us."

"By chance?"

Thella shook her head. "Of course not. Those fragments were placed, waiting for us. The one we found must have put people under its control to kill the crew of the freighter, and then placed it in our way so we'd find it. Something similar must have happened to the Axons, and some of them were probably being controlled like you and me were."

"But why go to all the effort, just for us and some Axons? Why are we so important?"

Thella smiled. "Its not you they want Chris, or the Axons. You're all just a means to an end. What they want is me."

"But why?"

"Because I'm the only one who can guide them back to the main Enlightenment mass. They conditioned and trained me from birth - they'd managed to get a crystal fragment to my parents, as a family heirloom, and my father hung it above my bed. It subtly controlled me...shifting me in the right directions, designing me to be exactly what they needed: a perfectly designed molecular scientist and pilot, made for one purpose, to take them back home.

"I grew up, I got married, I had children. And then they began to control me more, pushing me towards Seldric 4, until me and my family accompanied a scientific expedition to the planet." Thella's upper lip quivered. "Then they killed the expedition, my husband...and my children. Then they explained my mission to me, and expected me to comply immediately-and that was where I suprised them. I guess they hadn't programmed me as well as they thought, because I fraked out when I realised what they'd done to me. I managed to escape, and get off the planet. I was lucky really, but they were so suprised that I didn't start guiding them home immediately that I had enough time to evade them and get back on the expedition's spaceship.

"All I wanted to do was hide. I knew they would try and seek me out, so I took the first job I could find - even if it meant working for a space rat like Sabalom Glitz. I started working as a scientist on the Nosferatu II and just hid in the laboratory, hoping I could stay there forever. I was wrong, of course. They found me.

"When you brought the crystal in for me to study, I felt like killing myself. I had begun to hope that they wouldn't catch up with me, but there it was - my worst nightmares realised. After you'd gone, I just sat and stared at it, daring it to try and use me. And it did: I could feel it inside my head, working away, trying to find a pressure point it could use against me.

"So I tried to destroy it. First I tried to see if I could cut it with the micro-lattice, and it sent a pretty good shock through me. While I was unconscious, it really began to work on me, pushing itself into my brain." Thella paused. "I guess you're more susceptible when you're out cold. When I woke up, it had already begun to block out my responses, bend me to its will.

"It completed the process from a distance when it hospitalised me, while you were looking after it. By the time we reached Seldric 4 I was completely under its control, and it wasn't long before you were too. It used the Axons to force us down on the planet, and you to bring me and the rest of the crew to the caves."

Chris had been listening to Thella's explanation silently, but now he broke in. "But how did it manage to control me? I mean, I've been trained against that sort of thing-"

"Not against them, you haven't. The crystals use a simple method - they find a pressure point in your mind, and they exploit it to their own advantage." Thella scowled. "With me it was my children - they made me think of myself as their 'mother', and from then on I trusted them implicitly. They tried to use Mel when they knocked her out, but obviously they couldn't...she's got enough mental strengh and determination to resist them, I guess. With you, it was another matter. You'll trust almost anything, especially if it's wearing a short skirt."

Chris turned red. "And that's why I thought of them as 'she'?"

Thella sighed. "Yeah. Don't worry, I feel just the same as you. They twisted our emotions so that we would help them...and they almost succeeded. It was only when they were torturing Glitz that some of my mental defences managed to break through. The idea of them hurting someone was so totally against my image of 'children' that I broke free for a few seconds, and I used that time to get you and me out of there, away from their influence. They couldn't reach us outside the cave without a crystal fragment."

"But why are they doing this?" asked Chris. "I thought Enlightenment was meant to be supremely peaceful?"

"As a rule, it is. But once, a long time ago, part of it became corrupted through the efforts of the Black Guardian. That part was excised, and the White Guardian attempted to destroy it, but it escaped here, to Seldric 4. What I said about the planet being a living creature was a lie-it's controlled by the crystals. Before they came here it was just an ordinary planetoid, but they changed it to a deadly trap which they controlled, as their defence against anyone who should come here to destroy them. That's why we were able to make it to the cave unscathed, while I would imagine Glitz met with quite a few obstacles."

"And now they want you to take them back to the Enlightenment mass? Why?"

"While they have lived on Seldric 4, they've multiplied. What I told you about the crystals needed to complete Enlightenment's critical mass was true-but the section that the White Guardian separated from the main mass is somewhere totally different. The crystal colony here is now big enough to make the critical mass, and control it. If it reaches Enlightenment's main mass and does that then it will be able to plunge the universe into the darkness and chaos the Black Guardian strives for."

Chris shivered. "But they need you to do that. If they control the planet, won't they be using it to get us back pretty soon?"

Thella grinned. "They're probably trying to already. But don't worry, they wouldn't dare harm me. I'm the only one who can guide them on their journey, after all."

"Well what about me? I'm expendable, aren't I?"

"Yes," said Thella. And that's why I've brought us here." She gestured as the silhouette of the Nosferatu II became apparent against the mist.

Rakaar was clambering along the side of the ship, making sure that each work party was completing its task competently, when he heard Krimda. "Is joy!" declared the Sloathe, bouncing up from hir slouched position near the entrance of the Nosferatu II. "Is joy and grand happiness! Is pretend move hominid Chris thing back! Is pretend move Thella also! Is supreme joy and quargles!"

Everyone looked up to see Chris and Thella walking out of the mist towards them. Work was immediately discontinued as the pirates ran over to see their crewmates, and find out what had happened to Mel and her party.

Rakaar waded through them until he reached Thella and Chris. "You are both well, I trust?"

Thella hugged him. "A lot better than we were. How are you doing here?"

Rakaar motioned to the ship. "The damage was extensive, but we have almost completed repairs. There hasn't been any hostile activity so f..." he trailed off as he saw Chris staring over his shoulder. "What?"

Chris motioned, and Rakaar turned.

The entire crew was now blocked from the entrance of the Nosferatu II by a line of Axons.

The Axons had left their ship, but only become more and more confused as they moved across the planets surface. The supply of energy crystals they had come looking for was nowhere to be found, and they had now been separated from the crystal fragment they had brought with them, their only source of power. Several had already gone insane, splitting away from the main group, becoming a distant voice in the collective consciousness that was Axos, and many others were not far away from doing the same.

But when they came across the pirates, they knew what to do.

Destroy, and absorb.

The crystal cave was an explosive rage of spinning light.

<<THE PILOT HAS ESCAPED>>

<<SHE MUST BE FOUND>>

Mel and her band had been listening to the crystals repeating similar sentiments for a long time now. This situation had evidently not been planned for, and the entities were trying to cope with the crisis. In the meantime, the pirates had been trying to sort themselves out, while Glitz sat sulking some distance away.

All of the crew had been jolted out of their belief that the crystals were peaceful entities by their torture of Glitz, and reaction when Thella and Chris had escaped. Now they were less than keen to be present, but the crystals had erected a forcefield of blue light at the cave entrance, trapping them for the meanwhile.

<<THE PILOT MUST BE RECOVERED>>

"Arrrggghhh! Is crystal type thing raising the loud boom-boom voice again!" whinged Cyndar. "Is no good for sensitive Sloathe-type eardrums, so!"

<<YOU MUST HELP US RECOVER HER>>

The group all stared. Even Cyndar was momentarily silenced.

"Never!" shouted Grinker, breaking the silence. "Never shall the merry crew of the good ship Nosferatu sink as low as to assist the likes of you! Is not good for honour and public relations type thing! Never!"

<<WE HAVE MADE A DECISION>>

<<YOU MUST ASSIST US>>

<<THE PILOT MUST BE RECOVERED>>

Mel stepped forward. "If you think you can make-"

She was interrupted by the crystals, and she fancied that she heard some desperation in their tone.

<<THE LIFT-OFF SEQUENCE HAS ALREADY BEEN INITIATED. IT IS IRREVERSABLE>>

<<LIFT-OFF IS NOW TIMED FOR HALF A TERRAN HOUR>>

<<IF THE PILOT IS NOT RECOVERED, LIFT-OFF WILL PROCEED-BUT WITHOUT HER CO-ORDINATION, THE RESULT WILL BE DISASTROUS FOR BOTH OF US>>

<<WE WILL PLUNGE, UNGUIDED, THROUGH THE UNIVERSE, RIPPING THE FABRIC OF THE SPACE/TIME CONTINUUM AS WE GO. THE SKILL NEEDED TO GUIDE OUR POWER THROUGH THE DELICATE THREADS THAT BIND THIS UNIVERE TOGETHER WILL NOT BE PRESENT>>

<<THE UNIVERSE WILL BE DESTROYED>>

<<FOR YOUR SAKE, AS WELL AS OURS, THE PILOT MUST BE RECOVERED>>

Mel gulped. And then turned to face her small band.

"Well...what do we do?"

Part 12(a)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12(a) 12(b)

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