THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS

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Chapter Two: Honour Among Thieves

“Mama, is that another ship?”

“Well spotted, Hope. Can you find a visual?” asked Dita Aglukak, pilot on the transport spaceship Bluebell. She guided the child through the screens to find the other ship and then magnify the view.

The ship looked much like Bluebell, a tramp freighter, no money to pretty it up and a trail behind it of dirty exhaust.

“Now, can you see the registry number?” Dita asked.

“Ess ess zero six em four nine.”

“Is that the whole number , baby?”

“Yes, mama.”

“Captain, could you come up to the bridge? We got an unidentified boat bout a hunnert klicks away.”

Rand Hudson arrived quickly, carrying his fussy toddler son, whole scarlet cheeks showed that he was teething.

The ship’s comm pinged.

“Damn. They’ve seen us too.” Dita said quietly.

“So we say hello back mama?” Hope asked.

“No,”said the captain, moving the girl off the torn co-pilot’s chair and handing her the baby.. “Take Derry back to your bunk and lock yourselves in.”

Carrying the squirming toddler, Hope hurried off the bridge.

“Mamie,” Rand commed to the engine room, “Looks like we may have unidentified callers. Get ready to rabbit.′

“Cain’t sweetie. I got half the ’lectrics all over the floor here. “

Rand cursed. “Okay, sweetheart, get it all back together as fast as you can. This bunch may just be sloppy housekeepers.” he turned to Dita. “Can you find anything for the partial registration?”

“Three that match the numbers and the model. Prolly. That boat’s been customized. Lookit the forward thrusters.”

“And?”
“And they’re all privateers, like us... the company ships keep lookin sharp... but I don’t recognize any of em as Independent Traders..”

The Independent Traders were a very loose usually friendly network of freighters and transport who carried small cargoes from one world to another in this system of terraformed planets and moons circling UX593, called Starbright by the settlers of its system. Rand had bought the Bluebell about fifteen years earlier and with Dita as his pilot between them, they knew about half of the Independent Traders personally and many more thought tales of hard times and derring do.

Marco, get yourself strapped and bring weapons to the cargo bay for Dita and me. Does Mamie have anything defensive in the engine room?”

“Just a smile and a shotgun,” Marco″s voice come over the intercom. “And she’s more effective with the smile.”

The intership communicator pinged again.and a picture appeared on the screen.

“Hello, Bluebell. This is Hide and Seek calling. Got any interesting trade goods up for barter?”

“We’d usually be innerested, Hide and Seek.” Rand replied. “But all our cargoes, such as they are, is spoke for. Times is thin.”

“Really? And yet you have a container attached to your caFshadyrgo bay. Must have some good stuff there.”

“Nothin available, sorry. All bonded.”

“We haven’t seen another crew in weeks.” the woman on the screen said. As her ship drew closer and the picture sharpened , it became obvious that she was quite beautiful. “I’d really appreciate dropping in for a friendly drink and a chat.” She bit her lower lip.

“Did she just bat her eyelashes?” Dita murmured incredulously.”Nothing registered as Hide and Seek.”

Dita gestured at the radar screen Hide and Seek was now leas than a kilometre from Bluebell and closing. Cables shot out and clung to Bluebell pulling the visitor closer. Alarms went off as the cargo airlock was overridden and sealed to the stranger. It opened to show a flexible tunnel.

Marco faced the door alone, still carrying pistols and tasers for his crewmates, who rand down the companionway to his aid.

The visitors did not appear to be armed. The woman they had been talking with followed three muscular types into the bay.

She was more than beautiful in person. Tiny with a lusciously curved figure set off by tight pants an a low cut bustier, but wearing practical flat heeled boots laced to her knees, an a scarlet neoprene blouse that protected her arms. Her black hair was tightly plaited down her back, swinging with each step, and her round black eyes were thickly lashed.

She pouted. “We just wanted a change of scenery, guys. Why so unfriendly?”

She looked around the packed cargo bay. “Such as they are.” she quoted. “My goodness, if this is a nothing much cargo for you, you are doing well.”

The Bluebell’s crew were silent.

“Are you going to offer us tea and cake?” she continued, pouting fliratiously at the handsome captain.

Rand shrugged. “May as well come back to the galley.”

In the galley, Marco laid their weapons on the counter, while Dita put the kettle on . Rand pulled out a chair at the table for the woman, noting that her clothing was probably too tight to conceal any weapons. The other three took chairs at the table too.

“Cain’t promise cake. “ Rand said as graciously as he could.

Marco moved around the counter leaving more room for Dita and stood between their weapons and the table of unwelcome guests. The galley lights dimmed and brightened.

“So where are you bound?” the woman asked.”I’m Bennettina bin Hassan by the way. My crew here are Wong and JoJo. That little one,” indicating a man well over two metres tall. “Is Shorty. We couldn’t help ourselves. Sorry..” She beamed at Rand.

“Captain Mayfair, “ he lied. “Dita, Marco. You don’t have ident on your boat.′

“Bureaucracy bores me, captain.”she smiled “We know who we are, isn’t that the important thing?”

“Seems kinda shady, actually,”Rand said frowning.

Dita put the teapot in front of Bennettina and a tray of cups. “Please be mother, Captain bin Hassan,” she said.”While I get some eats.”

Rand silently approved of his crew’s defensive moves, seating the uninvited visitors and their leader further slowed by pouring the tea. Meanwhile Dita and Marco were standing in easy reach of their weapons.

Then, as Bennettina poured the first cup of steaming tea, Bluebell shuddered. Rand looked around in shock.

Bennettina beamed,”We’re just unhooking that container you’ve been draggin, captain.” Her smile became sharper,”You didn’t think this was my whole crew, did you?”

Marco and Dita grabbed their weapons as she spoke. Marco shot Shorty in the shoulder knocking him off his chair. The rapid response slowed the rest of the pirates but not their captain who threw the cup of scalding tea in Rand’s face, blinding him. Too late he raised his hand as protection, only scalding it while most of the tea landed on his face.

The pirates had kicked over their chairs and were now standing weapons in hand. Shorty, bleeding heavily, fumbled for a pistol on the wrong hip.

“Now you can stand down,” said the pirate queen, no longer smiling. “Or we can kill you all. I’m not fussed which.” She considered, “actully since we could take your boat and its cargo too if we kill you, I might change my mind.”

Rand ignored his painful scalds and glared at her. He signalled Dita and Marco to lay down their weapons, knowing that the high galley counter concealed Marco’s chef’s knives and that Dita preferred blades to bullets.

“I’m feeling magnanimous,”Bennettina siad. “Take the guns. Tie them to chairs, guys, and let’s get on our way.”

JoJo had a roll of duct tape in her jacket pocket . She and Wong swiftly fastened their prisoners together. Then she taped a couple of the wooden chairs to the three., making movement almost impossible.

Laughing, they left the kitchen for the cargo bay, dragging the now unconcious Shorty.

Rand’s loud cursing was silenced by the booming echo of a shotgun in the bay.

Mamie ran in from the catwalk that connected the engine room to the bridge and galley, above the bay. Silently she used one of Marco’s knives to cut their bonds. ’How can we get the container back, sweets?” she asked Rand.

Rand kissed her briefly, heading for the bay floor. Stepping around the bodies, he picked up a pistol and led the crew into the airlock attaching them to the pirate ship. There was no guard at the lock. “’You know the layout?” He asked his crew.

Dita shrugged, but Marco said, “I worked on a Crossbow- yonks ago. The bridge is up that companionway.”

“Airlocks?”
“One on the cargo bay, like ours. One over the bay, big enough for cargo. No man-door on it. There’s an emergency by the crew quarters. And this one. No codes on the rattrap I flew on.”

“Okay. We can’ reach the top. We need this one. Marco, lock the emergency and check for crew if you can be fast. Dita, take the bridge.”

“Disable?”

“Crew, not ship,” he grinned.”Might be good salvage in a week or so.”

The two ran off. Mamie poked her head through the connection to Bluebell.

“We okay, Rand?” she asked, her voice trembling.”

“So far so good, baby,” her husband replied. “Could you double lock all our airlocks but this one please?”
“I don’t....,” she looked frightened.

“We″re not sure how many crew this boat carries, sweets. Seal yourself in. And the kids,” he added.

Mamie disappeared back down the flexible connection. Marco joined Rand.

“That’s locks sealed. Looks like there are eight crew, mebbee only seven.”

“Six of ’em dead,” said Dita, from the entry to the bridge. She sheathed her machete.

“So two outside,” Rand said.

“Only really need one to move a container in space,” she replied.

“Okay, let’s ditch this boat and seal it.”

They returned to Bluebell at a trot, closing the inner door of the airlock behind them. Dita headed for the bridge, while Rand and Marco suited up. Marco pulled two laser saws from a tool box near the airlock.

As they entered the connection they closed both of Bluebell’s airlock doors behind them. With the saws they ripped open the tough fabric of the tunnel and pushed themselves Out There.

Marco spotted the single pirate working where the container fastened to Bluebell’s cargo bay. He signalled Rand to hold back and pushed himself silently behind the pirate. With a sharp viscious blow he severed the pirate’s air hose and slashed open his suit. Rand signalled thumbs up and jetted to the unseen far side of the container. No one. He made a full circuit, then turned on his comm.

“Looks like there were only seven. And now there are none. Clean up time. Marco, fix those fastenings back tight.

Marco made an offended grunt.”Of course! And he don’t seem to have got round here. Let’s get home and skedaddle.”

They were not that fast to leave. While Marco cleaned the cargo bay of blood from the pirates Mamie had gunned down, Rand and Dita collected the seven bodies and with the jets from the destroyed space suit firing, pushed them far enough away from their ship that they would not orbit it but get lost in the detritus of space.

When Dita gave permission for the children to leave their hiding place, Hope was very annoyed. “This kid whined and cried the whole time. And he pooped himself. And I had no diapers. I don’t appreciate being stuck like that.”

“You do what you’re told,” frowned Rand. “That’s what crew does.”

“If I’m crew, I should get paid,” the child retorted.

“You’re not even seven yet!” Rand laughed.

“What was happening anyway? Why was we hiding?”

“We had...visitors.”

“From the ship I saw, I know,” said Hope. “And I don’t never get to meet anyone new.”

“They weren’t nice people, honey,” her mother said.”You followed orders and that was good. When we make planetfall maybe the captain’ll give you some coin to go shopping.”

“Can I have books for my comm? Or a magnifier? Or a multi-knife?”

Rand gave Dita an impatient glance. “This day is being both interesting and expensive.”

That night having comforted the still jittery Mamie the best way he knew, Rand siad, “We should come back this way when we drop the container.”

“Do we have to?” she asked, her thumb circling his nipple.

“Don’t have to, but if no one else find it... We can call it in and claim as salvage. Not much cargo there, unless they got hidey holes, which I’m pert sure they did, but a ship’s worth something any day.”

“Don’t seem right.”

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, little girl, They woulda done to us. No honour among thieves, sweetheart. No honour.”

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