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!