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?"


"But the other one?"


"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 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!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 15

< Chapter 14                                                                                                   Chapter 16>

The crashed spaceship belongs to the vicious pirate Amaral Caudill!

It had been fifteen years since Martin had crashed.  Had Caudill been notorious back then?  Did Martin have any idea who Caudill was?

Pushing aside that speculation, I turned what I hoped was a pleasant smile on Caudill.  "Captain Bane, please tell Captain Caudill that I'm pleased to meet him."

As Martin relayed my greeting, I looked around the bridge.  The crew all looked the worse for wear after the crash.  Even Caudill was favoring his right arm and had his right leg propped on a stool.

At a break in the conversation, I said, "The crew and the captain look banged up, Captain Bane.  Should we summon our doctor?"

The ship would certainly have a nano-tech med bay, but if I were in Caudill's position I'd save it for true emergencies.  Who knew how long the supply of medical nanites would have to last?

"Is your doctor any good?" Caudill asked.

Martin held out one of his hands, pointing to the scars left after a tammar had slashed the hand.  "He saved my hand.  It's a bit stiff, now, but I've still got it!  Tristan is good by any standard and superb for such a primitive planet."

Caudill turned to one of the crew.  "Have you got a final casualty count?"

"Twenty-six dead, seventeen injured, Capt'n."

"Twenty-six?" Martin was shocked.  I was too, but didn't dare show it.

"One of the inertial dampers was knocked out," Caudill said.  "And, yeah, go get your doctor."

Martin winced in sympathy then turned to me and switched languages.  "Fetch the doctor, David."

Maybe Tristan could find a way to drug most of the pirate crew, otherwise everyone on the planet was in serious trouble!

Can Tristan help our heroes overcome the pirates?  Find out more in Chapter 16, coming Monday!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 14

< Chapter 13                                                                                                   Chapter 15 >
The same armored figure who took Martin into the ship is dragging David into it as well!

"Hey, let me go!" I cried.  "I can walk on my own."

The armored man kept his grip, pulling me into the spaceship.  I flailed about, trying to act frightened and out of my element.  Under the cover of my flailing, I examined the ship and the members of the crew we passed.

The interior was impeccable.  The captain and crew obviously took good care of the ship.  In the training vids we'd watched at the academy, pirates were slovenly and their ships in such a state of disrepair it was a wonder they worked at all.  If this was a pirate ship, as Martin suspected, it was an atypical one.

The crew, including the man in the armor, did nothing to dispel that notion.  An unskilled or careless crewman wearing powered armor would likely have crushed my arm in his grip.  My arm was held firmly but without hurting me.  I dared to hope that Martin's assessment had been wrong.

I was taken to the bridge where I found Martin deep in conversation with a man I assumed was the captain.  The man had the look of command -- confident and laser focused,  missing little going on around him.  When he turned my way, though, he missed Martin scratching his head right over his implant.

The captain must have had Martin download his translation of local languages into the ship's computer.  Someone in the crew would be listening to a translation of our conversation.  We would have no secrets.

"Welcome aboard, young man," the captain said in Terran Basic.

I shrugged and spoke Mordanian.  "Captain Bane, what did he say?"

"This is Captain Amaral Caudill and he welcomes you aboard," Martin replied.

My blood froze.  I stood mere feet from the most vicious pirate in the Terran Federation!

The worst pirate in the galaxy has crashed into David’s life!  How can our hero hope to overcome them?  Find out more in Chapter 15, coming Friday!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 13

< Chapter 12                                                                                                   Chapter 14 >
David is returning to the crashed spaceship to rescue Martin!

Callan looked into my eyes for a few seconds.  At last she said, "Don't get yourself killed, David."

"Have I ever?"

"Don't start now."  She kissed me long and hard.  "That signal you promised -- I suppose we'll know it when we see it?"

"You know me well, dear!"  I unbuckled my sword and handed it to Callan.  "Keep this safe for me.  Rob would come back to haunt me if I lost his sword!

As Callan took the sword, Megan began to hum a haunting melody.  She stopped when everyone turned toward her.

"Sorry."  Megan's face reddened.

"What was that?" Callan asked.

"A theme for the ballad I'm composing about all of this.  The lovers parting."  Megan crossed her arms.  "It's why you brought me!"

"It's beautiful," Callan said, disarming Megan's defensiveness with two words.  "I can't wait to hear the theme you compose when the lovers are reunited."  Callan turned her gaze on me.  "Now you have two women awaiting your return, David.  That is something men dream about, isn't it?"

"In their nightmares," Rupor muttered.

"I'll try not to disappoint my lover or the lyricist!" I proclaimed.

I gave one last look at Callan then turned to leave.

"How will you get into that metal monstrosity?" Rupor asked, interrupting the moment.

I shrugged.  "I'll knock."

Fifteen minutes later, I did just that.  I knew the knock couldn't be heard inside the ship, but a local wouldn't.  I knocked again and called, "Hello?  Is anyone there?"

I was in my third round of knocking and calling when the airlock slid open revealing the same armored figure.  I let my mouth go slack as a massive metal hand dragged me into the spaceship!

What will David find inside the spaceship?  Find out in Chapter 14, coming Wednesday!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Scout's Duty - Chapter 12

< Chapter 11                                                                                                   Chapter 13 >
An armored figure emerges from the spaceship to tower over Martin Bane!

Ignoring Martin at his feet, the armored figure scanned the area.  I pulled Rupor down behind a mound of dirt and broken trees.  If we were lucky the heat from the crash would mask us from infrared.  I put a finger to my lips and Rupor nodded.

"Hey!  Put me down!" Martin shouted in Terran Basic.  "I can walk on my own, if you give me a chance!"

Footsteps clanged from the air lock.  I risked a peek over our hiding place.  There was no sign of the armored figure -- or of Martin!

Ducking down again, I whispered, "Martin has been taken inside."

"What was that thing?"  It was only then that I realized Rupor's face had gone deathly pale.

"It was a man don't really have a word for it," I replied.  "The closest I can get is armor with an engine."

"But there was no smoke and no place for a boiler!"

"I'll try to explain," I said, "but not until we're away from the spaceship."

Keeping low, Rupor and I scrambled around and over debris from the crash.  Ten minutes later, we reached the waiting airships.

Milo was the first one to spot us returning.  He was also the first one to realize Martin wasn't with us.   By the time we reached the Pauline, everyone else had realized it, too.

Impatient Megan spoke first.  "What have you done with Martin?"

"We haven't done anything with him," I said.

"He was captured," Rupor added.

Megan's hand flew to her mouth and everyone else looked grim.

"What now?" Callan asked.

"You fly several miles away and wait for my signal," I said.

"And what are you planning on doing, David?" Callan asked.

I gave her my most confident smile.  "I'm going back for Martin!”

How can our hero hope to succeed against people with modern weapons and armor?  Find out in Chapter 13, coming Monday!