Monday, December 30, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 37

< Chapter 36                                                                                                   Chapter 38 >
Nist kicks Orrons’ head at the pirate Caudill!

The hardened pirate recoiled from the severed head of one of his crewmen.  Caudill uttered a cry of mingled horror and disgust as he stumbled back a step.  The head splattered blood where it hit Caudill's chest and Caudill wiped at it out of reflex.  In that split second, the laser pistol swung down to point at the ground and his attention wasn't on any of us!

Boost!

And nothing happened.  Time didn't slow and my body wasn't flooded with adrenaline.  I had no time to wonder why, still having to act while Caudill was distracted!

I launched myself into a somersault toward Caudill, grabbing my sword as I came out of the roll.  Caudill still backed away but the laser was tracking back toward me.  I swung my sword and felt it hit the pistol.  The force of the blow sent the gun flying from Caudill's hand!

Grinning in triumph, I pulled my sword back to thrust and stepped toward Caudill.  "Surrender or die!"

Caudill's shoulders slumped and he started to raise his hands.  Then he leapt forward, a vibroblade humming to life in his left hand!  I leapt back, hearing the buzz of the blade as it passed.

I thrust wildly with my sword but Caudill dove toward the fallen laser pistol.  He rolled up onto his knees, the gun once again trained on me!

And then a crossbow bolt ripped through Caudill's throat and another buried itself in his back!  Caudill dropped the laser pistol as both of his hands flew to his throat in a useless attempt to staunch the spurting blood.  As he thrashed and gurgled, I picked up the laser pistol and turned toward my wife and men.

With no one watching, the most feared pirate in the galaxy breathed his last.


Caudill is dead, but now what will be the fate of the three hostages on board the crashed spaceship?  And what happened to our hero’s Boost?  Find out more in Chapter 38, coming Wednesday!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 36

< Chapter 35                                                                                                   Chapter 37 >
Our hero emerges from under the collapsed gas envelope to find a laser pistol trained on him!

Caudill stood five feet away, the laser pistol aimed from the hip.  Knowing the pirate could burn a hole through my head before I could do anything to stop him, I went very still.  Then Callan wriggled out next to me.

"I found your sword, darling.  You-"  She broke off as she noticed Caudill.

"Have her slide the sword to me," Caudill said.

"You're trusting me to translate accurately?" I said.  "Why don't you turn on your radio and let the translator handle that for you?"

"You've already Boosted twice today, something I've never heard of before.  If I split my attention between you and the radio for a second, you could Boost a third time and take my laser."

Yeah, that had been my plan.

Caudill continued, "I'll just give you my undivided attention and let you translate.  And tell your guards to stay where they are or I'll burn you down!"

"What about the pilot?" I asked.

"Clever job he did landing that tub.  Too clever to leave him where I can't see him.  He can come out.  Hands empty, of course."

"Callan, slide my sword to Caudill."  I raised my voice.  "Everyone besides Nist, stay under the envelope."

Caudill's eyes flicked to Callan as she slid the sword to him but were back on me in an instant.  Leering, he said, "She's quite the pretty paramour, Rice.  Once my ship is repaired, I think I'll take her with me.  Her sale price will almost cover the loss of Orrons!"

Nist's empty hands poked out a few feet away.  He pulled himself halfway out and sat up.  Pulling his knees up, Nist pivoted on his backside.  As his feet swung free, I realized something was clamped between his feet.  Nist's legs kicked out and Orrons' head crashed into Caudill's chest!


Will this be the distraction our hero needs to turn the tables on the pirate?  Find out in Chapter 37, coming Monday!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 35

< Chapter 34                                                                                                   Chapter 36 >
Her gas envelope ruptured, the Pauline falls from the sky!

I wrapped a protective arm around Callan and grabbed a line with my free hand.  Next to me, Nist worked the ailerons furiously.  Didn't he realize the airship was falling from the sky?  We couldn't have been more than forty feet above the ground, but that was plenty high enough to seriously injure us!

"Slide when we hit!" Nist shouted.

I had just enough time to wonder what he meant by that when the Pauline tilted sharply to starboard.  I suddenly understood Nist's plan and my considerable respect for the man's skill as a pilot rose several more notches.  The tilt would allow the airship to land on its hull rather than the much stronger keel.  The collapsing hull would absorb a lot of the force of the impact.  The angled deck would allow us to slide to the ground, dissipating even more of the force in the slide!

The Pauline struck the ground and my ears were filled with the sounds of cracking timber and shouting men.  I released the line and wrapped another arm around Callan.  I lifted her off the deck, protecting her from splinters, scrapes, and cuts as best I could.  My feet slammed into the starboard railing and my knees flexed to absorb the impact.  Then all was quiet except for the groans of the Pauline and her crew and the soft rustle of fabric as the gas envelope settled over us, blocking everything from view.

"Callan?"

"A little shaken up, but fine," she said.

I eased my grip on Callan.  "Nist?"

"Over here."

"You saved us all!"

"But I broke Pauline!"

"Callan and I will see that she is rebuilt," I assured him.

Fighting our way clear of the envelope, Callan and I emerged to find Caudill training his laser pistol on us!


It’s out of the frying pan and into the laser fire for our hero!  How can he hope to escape from this predicament?  Find out in Chapter 36, coming Friday!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 34

< Chapter 33                                                                                                   Chapter 35 >
David has just killed Orrons, the boy in the powered armor!

The powered armor stumbled forward a few steps, following the residual impulses left after Orrons' death.  The headless figure hit the far railing and tottered off balance.  Before the internal stabilizers could restore the balance, two of Callan's guards slammed into it from behind.  The armor tumbled over the side of the airship and fell from sight.

I dropped Boost as I collapsed to my knees and buried my head in my hands.  Tears stung my eyes as the full impact of my actions hit me.  Orrons had been barely older than Milo -- a child with his whole life ahead of him!  My mind replayed the scene, searching for something I could have done to save Orrons.  In a grotesque mockery of reality, it was Milo's head which went spinning away.

Then a pair of arms wrapped around me and rocked me in a tight embrace.  I felt warm breath on my cheek and soft lips kissed away my tears.  Callan.

In ragged gasps, I said, "He was just a boy, Callan!  But I didn't hesitate to kill him!"

"You had no other choice, David!" Callan whispered fiercely.

"How can you be so sure?" I asked.

"I looked into his eyes and recognized what I saw, David," Callan said.  "I'd seen the same thing before.  In the eyes of King Rat when he tried to kill you.  In Raoul's eyes when he thought Sarn had killed you.  And I'm sure I'd have seen it had I looked in Windslow's eyes.  You cannot reason with madness, David!"

I didn't get a chance to reply to her.  A red beam of light blazed overhead, puncturing the Pauline's gas envelope.  Then the beam tracked along the envelope, slicing it open with ease.  The envelope collapsed and we fell from the air!


Will our heroes survive the fall?  Find out in Chapter 35, coming Wednesday!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 33

< Chapter 32                                                                                                   Chapter 34 >
After Orrons has been knocked aside by the Pauline, Callan drops David’s sword to him!

I drew my sword and sprang to my feet as Nist threw the Pauline's throttle wide open and twisted the ailerons up.  The airship nosed up but it would be long seconds before it was too high for Orrons to jump to it.

Orrons struggled to his feet, for once the weight of the powered armor acting against him.  The boy's eyes smoldered and his face had gone white with rage.

"I'm going to pull your arms off and laugh while you die, Rice!"  Orrons' voice cracked as he screamed my name, adding to his anger.

"Rice has already Boosted, Orrons!  I can handle him," Caudill yelled over the roar of the Pauline's steam engine.  "Teach the crew of that airship a lesson!  I want the princess alive.  Do what you want with the rest!"

Orrons flexed his knees and jumped, catching hold of a piece of the airship's ornate trimming.  I didn't even pause to consider my next action.

Boost!  

Orrons was in for a surprise!  I leapt after Orrons.  Catching a foot, I used Orrons like a ladder and climbed for the deck.  Orrons was just pulling himself over the railing as I bounded to his shoulders and jumped to the deck.

One of Callan's guards rushed at the armored figure.  With a bellow, Orrons backhanded the guard, sending him crashing against the cabin.  Knowing there would be no reasoning with the boy, I charged.  Orrons swung his fist at me.  Ducking under it, I grabbed his elbow and swung up onto Orrons' back.

My sword flashed in the sunlight as I swung at the only unprotected part of Orrons' body -- his neck!  The blade sliced through flesh and bone with ease.  In terrible slow motion, Orrons' head spun through the air and dropped over the railing.


How will Caudill react to Orrons’ death?  Find out in Chapter 34, coming Monday!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 32

< Chapter 31                                                                                                   Chapter 33 >
Prince Rupor claims the right to kill our hero!

Orrons moved his foot from my chest but, at Caudill's order, straddled me to keep me from trying to run off.

"Prince Rupor," Caudill said, "Her Highness should attend the duel with you."

"I see no reason for that," Rupor replied.

"Really?  Then perhaps you earned her disrespect!"  Caudill's voice took on an edge.  "Coddle Princess Callan and you'll simply encourage her!"

"Yes, I insist on coming with you, Rupor!" Callan replied.  "I will enjoy watching David slice you to pieces!"

"Foolish woman, where did you get the idea that Rice would be armed?" Caudill snarled.  "I promised your husband he could kill Rice, not duel with him!"

"No, Captain Caudill," Rupor said, "Rice must be armed.  To do otherwise would be to destroy what is left of my honor!"

"Oh, very well.  Her Highness may bring a sword for Rice."  With an annoyed shake of the head, Caudill turned off his radio.  "Rice, be advised that Orrons will kill Princess Callan and you if Rupor loses this duel.  So, for the princess's sake, I strongly suggest you let Rupor kill you.  Orrons will do the same if you try to warn her.  Are we clear on this matter?"

I nodded.

Then there was nothing to do but wait for Their Highnesses.  The Pauline, bearing Callan, had already been descending and would arrive first.  Nist leveled off just a few feet above the ground and flew toward us.  The airship moved so slowly compared to an aircar, Caudill probably never realized it was going too fast to land!  At the last second, Nist twisted the controls and the Pauline spun sideways.  The stern came around and smacked into Orrons back!

Greatly out massed by the airship, Orrons was knocked ten feet away!  Then Callan dropped my sword into my hand!


Things are looking up for our hero, but how can he hope to defeat Orrons and the powered armor with nothing but a sword?  Find out in Chapter 33, coming Friday!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 31

< Chapter 30                                                                                                   Chapter 32 >
Orrons towers over our hero, ready to crush the life from him!

Orrons placed his foot on my chest and that weight alone was enough to cause shooting pain from my bruised and broken ribs.

"I'm going to take my time killing you," he said.  "It'll be like squeezing that woman's head.  The pressure and pain will build until your bones crack and your organs pop!"

"You are one sick and twisted boy, Orrons."  I looked at Caudill.  "You must be so proud, Caudill!"

"Indeed I am," Caudill smirked.  "Orrons is loyal and never questions orders.  In some ways, he's the son I never had."

"Like any woman would ever have you!" I said through gritted teeth.

Caudill's smirk dropped away and his eyes flashed.  In a flat tone, he said, "You'd be surprised just how many women want someone exactly like me, Rice.  But my time is valuable and this game grows tiresome.  I think it's time to finish it -- and you!  Orrons-"

The radio cracked to life and Callan's voice burst forth.  "Spare David's life and I'll give you what you're asking for!"

Caudill gave me an appraising look.  "David?  Not Captain Rice?  That is interesting!  Princess Callan, would you care to elaborate on your true relationship with the nearly deceased?"

Silence stretched for several seconds.

 "No?  Let me guess.  Trapped in a political marriage, the young princess has found true love in the arms of the dashing Captain Rice."  Caudill's smirk returned in full force. 

Once again, Callan held her silence.

"How very romantic.  I wonder if your husband would reward me for killing Rice?"

"He most certainly would not!" Rupor's voice burst from radio.  "Grant me the satisfaction and I'll give you what you're asking for and more!"

Caudill's smirk broadened into a smile of true pleasure.  "By all means, Prince Rupor.  Captain Rice is yours to kill!”


Is this a ruse on Rupor’s part or is this the result of simmering anger and resentment?  Find out in Chapter 32, coming Wednesday!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 30

< Chapter 29                                                                                                   Chapter 31 >
Our hero attempts to knock Orrons out with a rock!

Driven by my Boosted strength, the rock smashed into the side of Orrons' head!  I expected to hear the thunk of stone on bone, followed by Orrons toppling over.  Instead, I heard the clunk of rock on metal.

Orrons yelled in pain and flailed to knock me away from him.  An arm caught a glancing blow against my chest.  The wind was knocked out of me and I was sent flying.  I smashed to the ground thirty feet from the armored figure then tumbled heels over head for another ten feet.

When I stopped rolling, everything hurt and I was gasping to regain my breath.  I was dazed and unable to override my implant's safety protocols when they shut off Boost.  I couldn't move, capable of only staring into the bright sky.  Absently, I noticed that several of the airships were descending under full power.  To my dismay, I saw the Pauline was leading the way, no doubt under orders from Callan.  Didn't she understand how much I wanted to keep her safe?

"That sure was something, Rice!  The look on your face was priceless!"  Caudill laughed as the heavy tread of armored feet started toward me.  "Do you know why Orrons is so skilled with the armor?  I had his brain wired with a direct neural interface when he was five.  It gave him astounding control -- and a metal skull.  Add in a dozen years of practice and you get an artist with powered armor."

A neural interface installed in a still-developing brain?  That would kill most children!

"How many died before Orrons?" I wheezed, my breath returning.

"Only six."

Only?  Caudill was a worse monster than I had ever imagined!

Then Orrons loomed over me, blocking the sun, his foot raised to stomp the life out of me!


Without Boost and winded, has our hero’s time run out at last?  Find out in Chapter 31, coming Monday!

Here's an extra treat for those of you who haven't already seen my Facebook post.  Below is the artwork which will grace the cover of Scout's Honor when it's published in 2014.  Mark Propst, who I worked with on dozens of comic books, is the artist.  I hope you like it as much as I do!


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 29

< Chapter 28                                                                                                   Chapter 30 >
Our hero goes hand-to-hand against Orrons, the power-suited pirate!

Enraged, Orrons rushed toward me.  I waited until he was almost upon me then dove to the right.  Orrons thundered past but dug in his feet and stopped far more quickly than I liked.

I had hoped to dive toward Caudill and get my hands on him but Caudill proved too canny for that.  He moved constantly, keeping Orrons between us.

Orrons charged again, I dodged again, and Caudill moved again.  It reminded me of my fight with the trog leader in Faroon, back before Callan and I were married.  The difference was Orrons' head was his only vulnerable spot and I'd have to get within his reach to hit him there.  Because the pirates frowned on armed guests, I didn't even have a sword.

"Calm down, Orrons, and take your time," Caudill called.  "The scout can't use his Boost for more than a minute.  Be patient and wait him out!"

It was a good thing Caudill didn't know my extensive history with Boost.  Maybe I could draw Orrons in close by pretending to lose Boost and then sucker punch him.  I needed something harder than my fist if I wanted to have any chance of knocking Orrons out when I hit him.  I found that something the next time I did a dive and roll away from Orrons, landing on a rock twice the size of my fist.  I grabbed it and another rock next to it.

Coming out of the roll, I flung the smaller rock at Orrons' head.  He brought his arm up and the rock clanged off the armor.  Then I staggered and held a hand to my head.  Orrons grinned, tromped up to me, and couldn't resist leaning over to gloat.

I stepped up and smashed the rock into Orrons' head!


Will our hero emerge triumphant over Orrons?  Find out in Chapter 30, coming Friday!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 28

< Chapter 27                                                                                                   Chapter 29 >
David’s identity as a Terran Scout has been discovered!

Caudill spun to stare at me, his eyes as warm and human as a snake's eyes.  His gaze flicked to Orrons and Caudill said, "Kill him."

Upon hearing the order, Orrons' face transformed.  The sullen, teenage annoyance displayed when Rupor called Orrons a boy vanished as Orron's lips spread in a feral smile.  His eyes went cold as the flash of irritation faded.  Looking into that face, it was no longer possible to think of Orrons as a normal teenager who had fallen in with the wrong crowd.

"And Orrons," Caudill added in a conversational tone, "we have an audience so make it messy."

Emotion flowed back to Orrons' eyes, but there was no solace to be had there.  Orrons' eyes shone with anticipation!

I only had one possible response to this threat.

Boost!

Time slowed as my implant poured adrenaline into my body.  Orrons, already slowed by the cumbersome powered armor, moved in extreme slow motion as he lifted his arms to replace the helmet.  If I was going to have any chance in this fight, I had to keep that helmet off of Orrons' head!

I charged Orrons, grabbing the helmet and swinging my feet up to plant them on the chest plate.  Orrons' grip was shifting in anticipation that I would try to pull the helmet from his grip.  I knew the suit's mechanical muscles would make that impossible.  Instead, I shoved the helmet at Orron's face.  The helmet slipped out of Orrons' grip and smashed into his nose.

Helmet in hand, I shoved off the chest plate, flipping to land ten feet from the boy.  Spinning, I flung the helmet as far from the three of us as possible.

Flowing blood and burning rage turned Orrons' face crimson.  With a bellow, he charged!


How can David even hope to stand against the homicidal teenaged titan, much less defeat him?  Find out in Chapter 29, coming Wednesday!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 27

< Chapter 26                                                                                                   Chapter 28 >
Callan has convinced Caudill to order the power armored crewman to remove his helmet.

Orrons lifted his hands toward the neck of the powered armor and the metal fingers danced and tapped around the seam.  Slide locks were opened and button locks depressed.  After a few seconds, the helmet popped up a fraction of an inch.  Orrons grasped the helmet and lifted it off of his head.

I don't know what I expected to see -- the scarred and hardened face of a pirate, I suppose.  I did not expect to find a boy, no more than sixteen or seventeen, smiling down at me.  I wasn't the only one surprised at the sight.

"He's no more than a child!" Rupor's voice exclaimed over the radio.

Orrons looked annoyed after hearing the translation.

"Boy he may be," Caudill said, "but he's got the skill and the will to do what he's ordered to do.  Be it crushing your foes or crushing that musician's head, Orrons is man enough to handle the job!"

Orrons' smile returned and he nodded to his captain.

"That's enough talk," Caudill said.  "Time to-"

The radio crackled to life.  "Captain?  You wanted to be alerted if a certain task was completed.  It's done."

"Ah, that's good news," Caudill said.  "Did you find anything interesting?"

I wondered what the pirates could be talking about.

"Very much so," came the reply.  "You should return to the ship and hear my report in private."

"There's no need for that," Caudill said, impatience in his tone.  "Just turn off the translator and it'll be private enough."

"That's just it, Captain," the voice responded.  "It won't."

With a sinking feeling, I suddenly realized that the task was breaking the encryption on the emergency drone launched by my ship before I crash landed!

The voice continued, "That man with you isn't a native.  He's Terran Scout First Class David Rice!”


David’s one advantage — his anonymity — is gone!  No longer able to count on the element of surprise, how can our hero hope to defeat Caudill?  Find out in Chapter 28, coming Monday!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 26

< Chapter 25                                                                                                   Chapter 27 >
Caudill has agreed to a power-wasting demonstration of the power suit’s capabilities!

The logistics of the power suit demonstration took a while to setup.  I took the radios to Callan and Rupor and explained how they worked.  Then I offered a suggestion.

"I want the two of you to watch from different airships," I said, "preferably ones flying a mile or more apart.  You should also stay as far from the demonstration as possible.  You'll still be in range of Caudill's weapons but he'll have trouble targeting you."

There was no quick and easy way to explain modern targeting systems.  The important thing was those systems tracked and targeted electronic systems not found anywhere on the planet.  Caudill's lasers would have to be aimed manually, making them much less accurate.

They both agreed to my suggestion and I was returned to the ground.  I contacted Caudill by radio.

"Everything is set, Captain Caudill," I radioed.

"Very well, Orrons and I are coming out."

That was unexpected.  I hadn't expected Caudill to step foot outside the spaceship any time soon.  Perhaps-

"Remember my crew holds your three friends," Caudill growled.  "And, of course, Orrons can break you into little pieces.  So don't try anything."

Moments later, Orrons tromped out to join me, Caudill riding on his shoulder.

Caudill proved to be quite the showman, putting Orrons through a range of impressive maneuvers.  And Orrons proved to be the powered-armor artist Caudill said he was.

After ten minutes, Caudill said, "That should suffice.  Do either of you have any questions before the bidding begins?"

"Yes," Callan said, "I'd like to see Orrons' face."

"Why?"

"Martin has told us of mechanical men.  How do we know this isn't some machine that will always do your bidding?"

Caudill pondered then said, "Take off the helmet, Orrons.”

Callan had created a crack in the powered armor!

Can our hero take advantage of the opening provided by his wife?  Find out in Chapter 27, coming Friday!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 25

< Chapter 24                                                                                                   Chapter 26 >
Our heroes conspire to get Caudill to waste his stored power.

"How do you plan on doing that?" I asked.

"No prince -- or princess -- worthy of the title would ever purchase someone's services without observing said capabilities," Rupor answered.  "Waving a tree trunk around, while quite impressive, is hardly a sufficient demonstration."

"Excellent point," Callan responded.  "Tell Caudill we will only consider bidding after we've seen what he can do."

"Well, I know what he can do," I said.  "For safety, the two of you must watch Caudill's show from afar."

"But how will we relay our requests to Caudill?" Rupor asked.

"Leave that to me," I said, hopping across to Captain Subing's ship.  "Take me down, Captain."

When I was back inside Caudill's crashed spaceship, I presented Their Highnesses' demand to Caudill.  For some reason, the idea didn't appeal to him.

"They've seen the powered armor at work!"  Caudill stood inches from me, shouting.  "How dare these ignorant, inbred savages demand more!  I could squash them and their pathetic kingdoms, if I so desired!"

I kept my face impassive and waited for the translation to complete.  "If you are so powerful, Captain Caudill, why even bother offering your services to the highest bidder?"

Martin chuckled, "The lad has you there, Caudill.  These people may be technologically primitive, but they're not stupid.  They may want your services, but they do not need them.  Alas, you are in the exact opposite situation."

"I hold four of you hostage!" Caudill shot back.  "That should give them pause."

"Sorry, old chap, but we're all Mordanian," Martin said.  "The Tartegians don't even like us."

Caudill ranted and raged for another ten minutes, but he saw reason in the end.  He even granted my request for radios -- though I didn't use that word.

We had achieved step one in the beginning of Caudill's end!


Will our heroes’ plan succeed in blunting Caudill’s threat?  Find out more in Chapter 26, coming Wednesday!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 24

< Chapter 23                                                                                                   Chapter 25 >
Our hero believes Caudill cannot recharge his powered armor!

Once I was clear of the debris the crashing spaceship had thrown about the countryside, I waved to the airships floating in the distance.  Shortly, one of the of the Mordanian ships broke formation and descended.

When the airship was close enough, I called, "Captain Subing, drop a line so I can come aboard.  I must speak with Their Highnesses."

Ten minutes later, Captain Subing maneuvered his ship alongside the Pauline.  Callan and Rupor leaned against the airship's railing, chatting and trying to hide their apprehension over any news I was bringing.

"Callan," I said as the sailors tied the airships together, "greet me as you would any other naval officer.  Megan has already given Caudill leverage over Martin.  He's bound to be watching this meeting and I don't want him thinking he can do the same with us!"

I crossed to the Pauline and bowed respectfully to Callan and Rupor, just as any officer would do.  Callan wore what I'd taken to calling her court face, which she adopted whenever she sat in royal court.  It must be a royalty thing, as Rupor wore a nearly identical expression.  I outlined what I'd seen inside the spaceship as well as the situation with Megan, Martin, and Tristan.  I spent at least as much time explaining the destructive power of Caudill's weapons and what it would mean if he couldn't recharge the powered armor.

"If I follow you," Callan mused, "it's like tossing the last of your fuel into a boiler while your airship is flying in the middle of a desert."

"That's a fair description of the situation, Callan."  I watched Rupor's furrowed brow clear after hearing Callan's analogy.

"Then our course is obvious," Rupor said.  "Callan and I must convince this pirate to burn what fuel he has left!”


How will Their Highnesses do that and can they do it without risking the lives of the heirs to two thrones?  Find out in Chapter 25, coming Monday!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 23

< Chapter 22                                                                                                   Chapter 24 >
Caudill hopes to ignite a war between Tarteg and Mordan!

"It's been years since the last war," I said.  "I don't think the enmity runs very deeply these days."

Caudill laughed when the computer completed translating my words.  "How very optimistic of you!  You'll soon learn that old enmities can lay dormant for ages before springing back with full vigor."

I shrugged, hoping he was as wrong about Tarteg and Mordan.  "We'll see.  Who are you going to send with the message?"

Caudill turned an appraising eye on me.  "Who would you send?"

"Megan.  She has no skills useful to you or the prince and princess.  You're not weakened and they're not strengthened."

"An interesting analysis."  Caudill rubbed his chin.  "But Megan has use as a hostage to ensure Bane's good behavior and, if I read you and the old doctor right, your good behavior as well."

It had been worth a shot.  I sighed, "What's the exact message you want me to deliver?"

Caudill's eyebrows rose.  "What makes you think I'm sending you?"

"Tristan is tending to your injured men, so you won't send him.  Bane is your source of information and you won't risk losing him as long as you still hold Megan.  That just leaves me.  Give me the message then Orrons and I can leave."

"As long as I have your friends, I see no reason to waste Orrons' time.  I'm sure a fine young officer as yourself can deliver a message without supervision."

Five minutes later, I was picking my way through the debris outside the spaceship and trying to figure out why Caudill didn't send Orrons with me.  I could only think of one reason  -- Caudill was conserving power.  His armor recharging unit must have been destroyed in the crash.

Caudill's position wasn't nearly as strong as he wanted us to believe!


Has our hero discovered Caudill’s weakness?  If so, can he exploit it without massive casualties?  Find out more in Chapter 24, coming Friday!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 22

< Chapter 21                                                                                                   Chapter 23 >
Somehow, the space pirate Amaral Caudill has learned of Princess Callan and Prince Rupor!

It took all the control I could muster to keep from reacting until the computerized translation ended.  How had Caudill found out about Callan and Rupor?  Martin wouldn't have told him and, impetuous and thoughtless as she could be, I didn't think Megan would have, either.  At least, not voluntarily.

I played for time.  "What do you need?  I'm authorized to negotiate on the behalf of their Highnesses."

Caudill gave me an appraising look.  "I suspect you really could negotiate for...what's the one with the princess?"

"Mordan."

"But the other one?"

"Tarteg."

"Them, not so much."

"I'm sure the kingdoms will work together to take care of you and your men," I said.

"I doubt that.  You remember Orrons, of course.  The man in the big suit of armor?"

"What of him?"

"You saw how easily Orrons waved that tree trunk.  The armor makes that possible."

"I had assumed as much."

"Using the armor for brute strength is easy.  It's handling fragile things -- people, for instance -- without breaking them that takes real skill.  Orrons is beyond skilled.  He's a master.  No, he's a true artist."  Caudill held his palms a foot apart.  "Imagine a pretty musician's head between armored hands.  Slowly -- so slowly the human eye can't discern the movement -- the hands press together.  Inexorable pressure builds, causing exquisite pain.  How much pressure can a human skull take before it cracks?  For a former pirate, Captain Bane succumbs to persuasion rather easily.

"You, of course, know Tarteg and Mordan have warred for centuries.  Now I know as well.  I'm not really negotiating with anyone.  I'm selling to the highest bidder."

The smile Caudill flashed was as cold as his eyes.  "With me backing one kingdom, the next war between Tarteg and Mordan will also be the last war!”


Will Rupor wish a war of retribution against the country of his former betrothed?  If he does, can Mordan, still recovering from the trog attack and the kidnapping of Princess Callan, hope to match the Tartegian bid?  Find out more in Chapter 23, coming Wednesday!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 21

< Chapter 20                                                                                                   Chapter 22 >
The pirates found the emergency drone launched from David’s scout ship and are trying to crack the encryption!

Morrison, our guide to the makeshift sickbay, approached.  "There aren't any wounded crew over here.  What are you doing?"

I dutifully waited for the computer to finish translating Morrison's words before answering.  "I just saw these blinking lights and got curious.  I've never seen anything like it before.  What is it?"

"It's too advanced for a yokel like you," Morrison replied.  "Now get back to helping the old man."

I shrugged and went to help Tristan.

"What was that all about?" he asked.

“Of course, I have no idea," I said.  "I was just astounded by the flashing lights.  Morrison says it's beyond my understanding.  No doubt he's right."

Tristan raised his eyebrows.  "Is that so?  Well, if they're so smart why do they need a yokel doctor to tend to their wounded?"

That was a good question.  Any ship this size should have a docbot and a plentiful supply of medical nanites.  Maybe the inertial dampener they lost had covered their medical supply.  The transition out of the wormhole would have pulverized those supplies without the dampener.  That thought got me wondering what other equipment and supplies might have been lost, as well.  Maybe Caudill wasn't in as strong a position as we had feared.

Later, when Tristan and I were tending to the last few wounded crewmen, Caudill came to inspect our work.  Caudill worked his way through the room, speaking to every crewman who was conscious.  When Tristan reported the five men who probably wouldn't survive, Caudill bowed his head in true sorrow.  I hated to admit it, but Caudill knew how to inspire loyalty in his crew.

"My men will need food and better accommodations," Caudill said to me.  "Please arrange for me to negotiate for our needs with Prince Rupor and Princess Callan.”


How did Caudill learn about Rupor and Callan and how will he deal with them?  Find out in Chapter 22, coming Monday!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 20

< Chapter 19                                                                                                   Chapter 21 >
Asked to sing a song, Megan launches into Rupor’s Lament!

Megan's voice quavered then gained strength as she sang.

There once was a prince
Handsome and gay,
Who loved a princess,
Lovely but fey.

I had to find a way to stop the song before Megan got to the part about me, but had no idea how to do that.

"By all that's holy," Martin cried, "kill me now so I don't have to listen to that insipid song one more time!"

Startled, red-faced, Megan stopped singing.

Caudill cocked an eyebrow.  "You have a problem with the song, Bane?"

"Oh no, it's lovely," Martin sneered. "It's all about a handsome prince who falls for a beautiful princess.  Then the princess jilts the prince and falls for a member of her royal guard.  If you've got any lovestruck teenage girls in your crew, summon them forthwith!  They'll probably love it."

"Fine," Megan snapped.  "I'll sing something else."

Megan began singing a traditional ballad and Morrison motioned for Tristan and me to follow him.  He led us through the ship to a cargo bay which had been adapted to hold the wounded.  Close to forty men lay within, some as still as death, others fidgeting and impatient to leave.

"Start triage, David," Tristan said, kneeling next to a badly injured crewman.  "Have the most urgent cases brought over here."

For the next hour, I worked my way through the room, rearranging the wounded as instructed, while Tristan did what he could for the worst cases.  I was nearly done when I spotted lights flickering against the back wall.  Curious, I took a closer look.

A Space Forces decryption machine -- stolen, no doubt --  churned a decryption routine.  Connected to it was a metal tube I recognized immediately.  It was the emergency messenger drone I'd launched when my scout ship exited the wormhole!


Is this how the pirates found the wormhole?  What happens if they decrypt the data in the drone?  Find out in Chapter 21, coming Friday!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 19

< Chapter 18                                                                                                   Chapter 20 >
Captain Caudill holds a fully charged blaster to Martin Bane’s head!

"I do not perform well under duress!" Tristan said.

Caudill listened as the computer translated.  "I do not threaten Captain Bane in the vain hope it will make you perform miracles.  I trust professional pride will make you do your best."

Tristan gave a start as the computer translated Caudill's words into Mordanian.  "Then why do you hold a...I assume that's a weapon?"

"Yes, doctor, it's a weapon.  It dawned on me that you and your deceitful friend here," Caudill pointed at me with his free hand, "might take this opportunity to drug my crew and me.  Unconscious men are so much easier to capture than conscious ones."  Caudill turned a smile on Megan.  "Wouldn't you agree, young lady?"

Megan paled and squeaked, "Me?"

"It's the oldest trick in the book.  The bumbling but beautiful young assistant -- that's you, my dear -- distracts the crew, who are starved for female companionship.  Meanwhile, the doctor administers incapacitating drugs to said crew.  Didn't they tell you the plan before asking you to accompany them?"

Megan looked back and forth between Tristan and me.

"Megan," I said, "not only did I not ask you to accompany us, I told you to stay on the airship!"

Caudill shook his head as if in admiration.  "Masterful manipulators always make you believe it was your idea, Megan."

"Enough with the semantics," Tristan said.  "Where are your wounded men?"

"Morrison," Caudill pointed to a crewman, "will take you and the good captain to them.  The lovely Megan will keep Captain Bane and myself company."

Megan fidgeted as we gathered the medical equipment, eyes darting around the bridge.

"I hear you're a musician, Megan" Caudill said.  "How about a song?"

In a quavering voice, Megan began to sing.  With horror, I realized the song was Rupor's Lament!


Is Megan about to give away our hero’s true identity?  Find out in Chapter 20, coming Wednesday!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 18

< Chapter 17                                                                                                   Chapter 19 >
The armored pirate commands our hero to bring Megan to the spaceship!

My mind raced, trying to figure out a way to keep Megan out of the spaceship.  Leave it to Tristan to find the right approach.

"How much medical experience do you have, young lady?" Tristan asked.

"I'm a musician, not a doctor," Megan retorted.  "How much experience have you got with the guitar?"

"I haven't played since my wife died," Tristan mused, "so no more than forty years."

Megan's eyes widened and her mouth hung slack.  I pushed down the temptation to reach over and close her mouth.

"The woman won't be any help with the wounded," I said to Orrons.  "Let me replace her with a properly trained airman."

Orrons was silent for a few seconds -- probably conferring with Caudill -- before booming, "No.  Captain Caudill wishes to meet her.  Uninjured members of our crew will assist the doctor."

Megan gave a triumphant smile.  Somehow, I refrained from calling her an idiot.  Then we trudged in silence until we worked clear of the debris and approached the spaceship.

I gave Tristan and Megan significant looks and said, "Remember, most of these people won't speak our language.  Ask Captain Bane to translate for you, since he comes from their civilization."

Megan gave me a puzzled glance.  "But don't you-"

Tristan stumbled and stepped on her foot.

"Ouch!" Megan yelped, glaring at Tristan.

"Oh, I am sorry, my dear!" he said.  "David, don't you think it will be awkward if I have to send for Captain Bane whenever I need a translator?"

"Good point.  I'll discuss it with both captains when we get inside."

When Orrons led us onto the bridge, Caudill's crew moved to block the hatch.  Orrons stepped aside and I realized something had gone seriously wrong.

Caudill stood behind Martin holding a fully charged blaster to Martin's head!

What caused this change in Martin’s circumstances?  Find out in Chapter 19, coming Monday! 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 17

< Chapter 16                                                                                                   Chapter 18 >
Our hero’s identity has been exposed!

Orrons' armored head tilted down to look at me.  He must be reporting this revelation to Caudill.  What would happen when we got back to the spaceship?

I hid my consternation from the squadron commander.  He didn't know what Martin and I had been doing.  That was my fault.  I should have explained the plan to Callan and had her tell the officers.  I just hoped my oversight wouldn't end up costing lives!

"There are injured men aboard the spaceship, Captain Subing," I said.  "Please ask Tristan -- Dr. Agrilla -- if he would come down and tend to them."

As the airship returned to the squadron, a mechanical voice issued from the suit.  "Explain your deception."

The language was Mordanian, meaning the suit's translation system had been updated with Martin's translation files.  I also assumed Martin was being asked the same thing by Caudill.

"It was a precaution," I responded.  "I wanted to see your ship first-hand but also had to rely on Bane to translate for me.  I treated him as a superior so your captain wouldn't see me as a threat.  Which I'm not, now that I've seen your ship and this armor you wear."

Orrons said nothing more.  Fifteen minutes later, the command ship returned.  The crew lowered Tristan's medical kit, extra supplies, and then Tristan, himself, to the ground.  As the airship began to rise, there was a flurry of activity from the deck.  A figure swung over the railing and slid to the ground.

It was Megan.

"I'm sorry, Captain Rice," called Subing, "we didn't realize she had slipped onboard!"

I caught Megan by the arm.  "No harm done.  Send some men down to fetch her."

"Don't you dare-" Megan began.

"No," said Orrons.  "The woman will come with us!”


Will Megan end up a hostage to force our hero’s cooperation?  Find out more in Chapter 18, coming Friday!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 16


< Chapter 15                                                                                                   Chapter 17 >

David hopes Tristan, when he arrives, can find a way to drug the pirates!

Caudill spoke to the armored figure.  "Orrons, go with the lad.  We wouldn't want anything...unfortunate...to happen to him."

He still spoke Terran Basic, so I just kept walking.  At the first clumping footfall from Orrons, I cast an inquiring glance back at Martin.

"That's very...generous...of you, Captain Caudill," he said.

"Professional courtesy," Caudill replied.

Martin switched to Mordanian.  "Carry on, David.  This man will accompany you."

"He looks to be very heavy, sir.  He might break through the deck."

"Your lad is either a tad slow or is planning something," Caudill said.

"Ah, so you do have the translation files I provided up and running," Martin said, his tone neutral.  In Mordanian, Martin added, "You're not to board the airship, David.  Just have Tristan and his supplies brought to you."

The return walk to the clearing went much faster.  Orrons simply picked me up and smashed through the debris.  I hoped both the Tartegian and Mordanian commanders had spyglasses trained on this display of power.

In the clearing and back on my own feet, I looked up at Orrons.  "Hey in there!  Can you understand me?"

Orrons nodded.

"I need to signal that airship."  I pointed to the command vessel for the Mordanian squadron.

Orrons picked up a flaming tree trunk and waved it like I would wave a stick.

A moment later, the command airship was descending.  More importantly, the Pauline stayed aloft.  The last thing I needed was Callan or Megan drawing Orron's attention.

The squadron commander was at the bow when the airship came within easy hailing distance.  He snapped off a parade ground salute.

"What are your orders, Captain Rice?"

The commander, unaware of the deception Martin and I were playing on Caudill, had just revealed my true identity to the pirates!

What will the pirates do now that they know who David is?  Find out in Chapter 17, coming Wednesday!