Monday, June 30, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 115

< Chapter 114                                                                                                   Chapter 116 >
Quint, the last pirate captain on the base, has been spaced.

Quint's still and lifeless body tumbled away from the pirate base, shrinking until it was too small to see.  I gave myself a mental shake and pulled my gaze away from the airless abyss beyond the atmosphere shield.

Chapman, a smug smile pasted on his face, stepped in front of me.

"Well, Rice, I guess you're pretty happy I was around to save everyone!"

My fist flattened Chapman's nose.


"Don't you dare proclaim yourself a hero!"

"But I stopped Quint!"  Chapman's voice rose with each word.

I punched him in the stomach and heard his breath whoosh out of him.  Good.  That would shut him up for a few minutes.

"This whole situation is your fault, Chapman."

I hit him with a left cross and he stumbled back a step.

"If you had simply kept your mouth shut and stayed on our ship, none of this would have happened.”

My right fist cracked into his eye and Chapman reeled back against the wall of the docking bay.

"If you had kept your mouth shut, you wouldn't have been challenged to a duel."

I grabbed Chapman's shirt in both fists and pounded him against the wall.

"I wouldn't have had to join the fight just to keep you quiet."

I smashed Chapman against the wall, again.

"My wife and friends wouldn't have had to put themselves in danger just to keep our story intact.  The story you were determined to reveal!"

Chapman sagged as I thumped him into the wall a third time.

"Dozens, maybe hundreds, of men -- marines and pirates, alike -- would still be alive."


"Milo would still be alive!"










I heard a voice from far away.  "You're on a private channel, Your Highness."

"David?  Talk to me!"

I released Chapman and he slid down the wall to the floor.

"Callan?  Are you safe?"

"Yes, darling, we're all on board the ship.  We're all safe."

"Milo's not safe.  He'll never be safe again."

"No, David, he'll never be in danger again.  He'll be at peace."

"Do you truly believe that, Callan?"

"After all that's happened to us, how could I not?"

I paused to consider her words.  Callan couldn’t see it, but I nodded slowly and pushed my emotions down. Having mastered myself, I turned to survey the scene in the docking bay.

"All right, time to get back to work."

Rupor stepped forward and placed a hand on my shoulder.  "We can handle this, David.  Take the time to properly mourn the dead."

The marines did appear to have everything under control.  Squads of marines herded the pirates into small, manageable groups and disarmed them.  Others directed the collection of the dead and wounded.  Medics moved among the wounded performing triage.  Beyond the atmosphere shield, our ship's remaining pinnace detached and maneuvered into the docking bay.  Tristan bounded out as soon as the hatch was open and rushed to tend the wounded.

And then Callan emerged and ran across the docking bay to me.  She flew into my arms and kissed me.  It was long and tender and I felt my emotions rising again.  This time I did not try to hold them back and the tears flowed.

Tears of rage and relief.

Tears of  loss and love.

Tears for Milo.

Tears for the marines.

Tears for Martin and Megan.

Tears for the woman who held me.

Some time later, I became aware a marine stood silently ten feet away.  Callan and I rose from the deck and looked around the docking bay.  The Aashla's Hope was inside again, floating on repulsers but tethered in position.  Tristan still moved among the wounded, barking orders and tending patients.  The pirates were sitting, hands upon heads, in small groups scattered around the bay.

"Yes, private?" I said to the marine.

He snapped off a salute.  "I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but you're wanted aboard the ship."

"Do you have any idea why?"

"Yes, sir.  They said to tell you the wormhole has opened.”

Who has come through the wormhole?  Find out in Chapter 116, coming Wednesday!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 114

< Chapter 113                                                                                                   Chapter 115 >
Quint is about to open the docking bay to space!

Time slowed to a crawl as I watched Quint's finger stab toward the button.  Once pressed, the button would drop the atmosphere shield protecting the docking bay from the vacuum of space.  The old pirate was too far away for me to reach him in the second it would take to press the button.  Unbidden, my mind conjured images of hundreds of men swept into the void, still living but beyond any power in the universe to save.  And I would be swept into space with them, safe in my vacuum harness, mute witness to the last seconds of their lives.


Chapman barreled into the pirate captain.  Quint's finger missed the button and the two tumbled to the ground!

There come times in every man's life when inaction is more dangerous than action.  In that moment, even the coward will act.  Quint had pushed his useful idiot too far and Chapman had snapped!

Every man in the docking bay stood frozen, transfixed by the drama playing out beneath the keypad.  The keypad with the still-active button which would drop the atmosphere shield!

"Now's your chance, lads!"

My cry still echoing around the docking bay, I charged to Chapman's aid.  With a roar, pirates and marines alike charged with me.

Quint's pirate guards saw the tidal wave of humanity sweeping their way.  Abandoning their leader, they scrambled to escape into the airlock.  A band of pirates piled in behind them.  From the cries of rage and the screams of pain and fear, I was happy I was on the outside.

Quint and Chapman flailed at each other, rolling about on the floor of the docking bay.  Quint was a wily fighter and the stronger of the two men, but Chapman was berserk.  The fight could go either way.

"Martin, can you disable the button on the keypad?"

"Already on it, O fearless leader."

Pirates and marines joined me around the struggling pair, cutting them off from everything else.  None of us interrupted the fight.  None of us liked Chapman and we all agreed he was a useful idiot.  But in this moment, he was our idiot.  Even if he had acted in his own self interest, Chapman had saved hundreds of lives.  He had earned this chance to pound on Quint.

A moment later, it was over.  Bloodied and battered, Chapman rose from the moaning pirate captain, Quint's vacuum harness gripped in one hand.  With an animal roar of triumph, Chapman thrust the vacuum harness into the air.  Hundreds of voices roared with him.

Chapman looked around him, his eyes bright with fervor.

"Let's give Quint a taste of his own medicine!  Space him!"

I was elbowed aside as men pushed to reach Quint.  A dozen hands hoisted the pirate captain over our heads.  Marines and pirates alike passed Quint from hand to hand toward the entrance to the docking bay.

"Space him!  Space him!"

The chant rose in volume and drowned out my calls to stop.  Hemmed in by the crowd, I could do nothing but watch the mob -- for they were no longer pirates and marines -- pass Quint, struggling and flailing, toward his doom.

Martin's hand fell on my shoulder.  "There's nothing you can do, David."

"I wanted Quint to face justice for all he's done, Martin."

"He is facing justice, lad.  It's rough justice, but so was beheading the pirate who attempted to space Callan and Megan.  Quint has earned this a thousand times over."

Martin was right.  I wouldn't have chosen this, but I couldn't claim the earlier execution was right yet claim this was wrong.  

I made myself watch as Quint, finally facing the terror he had inflicted on countless others in his long career, was heaved through the atmosphere barrier.

I made myself watch Quint's futile struggle against the void.

I made myself watch Quint die.

Quint is dead.  The pirates are defeated.  What comes next?  Find out in Chapter 115, coming Monday!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 113

< Chapter 112                                                                                                   Chapter 114 >
The Aashla’s Hope has been freed from the docking bay clamps but the fight against the pirates rages on!

A cheer rose from the marines as our spaceship majestically glided out of the docking bay.  Over the comm, I could hear the ship's crew preparing to pick up Callan, Megan, and the wounded marine.  Around the docking bay, I watched the fight go out of the pirates and swords begin dropping to the floor in surrender.

"Cap'n David, sir!"  Heidi's voice held more life than I'd heard since her husband had dragged her off the Aashla's Hope many hours before.  "A rescue team is assembling in the airlock.  We'll have Her Highness and her companions back on the ship in two minutes."

Tightness I hadn't even realized gripped my chest loosened.  I let out a long sigh, dropped Boost, and turned back to the airlock into the base.

"It's over, Quint.  My ship is free and your pirates are defeated.  Do the smart thing and surrender."

Quint punched one more key on the airlock controls and the airlock door hissed open.  To my surprise, Quint didn't dash into the airlock.  Instead, one of his men walked through the door.

"I don't think so, scout."

"Do you remember the wormhole alarm a few hours ago?  That was a messenger drone we launched just before entering your docking bay.  The drone carries the location of this base, the approach path, and the identity of the senior captain.  Honestly, I'm surprised a Federation Navy task force hasn't already popped out of that wormhole."

"I figgered that out when you done told us who you was, boy."

"If you knew the navy had been alerted, why did you bother fighting us?  Why didn't you just let us go and get away while the getting was good?"

"Yer askin' me why, boy?  Take a gander 'round you.  You think a place like this jest pops up all set and ready ta use?  I remember when ol' Caudill and me stumbled 'cross this place.  It was jest a big rock chock full o' caves.  Me 'n Caudill got us some lads and worked our tails off ta build this place.  My blood 'n sweat be in every nook and cranny o' this place.  You think I's gonna let the man who be takin' it from me just fly away?"

The man in the airlock began handing something out to each of the pirates around Quint.  I couldn't see what they were passing around, but all of my mental alarms were ringing.

"So this resistance of yours was just a big pity party because you're going to miss your old pirate base?"  I sniffed and pretended to wipe away tears.  "I feel your pain, Quint.  Really, I do.  I feel it so much, I wish all the victims of your decades of piracy could be here to shed a tear over your loss."  I waved my sword toward Quint and his men.  "Escape is impossible.  Stop whatever it is you and your men think you're doing and surrender."

Quint's fingers danced across the keypad again.

"Yer right 'bout one thing, Rice.  Escape be impossible fer most o' me men.  It ain't fer me and these lads with me."

"Martin, I'm tired of talking to this old man.  Time to take him down."

We strode toward Quint.  Quint's fingers touched two last keys then hovered over a button.

"Take another step, boy, and I'll drop the atmo shield and flush ya all out inta space!"

We stopped.  Four of us still wore vacuum harnesses, but none of the marines had them.

"You know you'll kill more than my men.  You'll kill your men and yourself, too."

The pirate from the airlock came out wearing a vacuum harness and carrying another.  As that pirate slipped the vacuum harness around Quint, the rest of Quint's guards donned harnesses, too.

Chapman looked wildly around him.  "H-hey, where's my harness?"

Quint shook his head.  "Why would I be wantin' to save you, Chapman?"

"But I helped you!  I told you who these men were!  I was useful to you!”

"Yep, but there be plenty o' useful idiots in the galaxy.  I 'spect I's gonna find you right easy to replace."

Quint looked around the docking bay.  "Sorry, lads.  Wish I could save ya all, but that jest ain't in the cards today."

Quint looked me in the eyes.  "An' now I got ta git busy makin' that impossible escape."

Then Quint's finger stabbed toward the button!

Are our heroes, the marines, and the pirates about to be swept out into space?  Find out in Chapter 114, coming Friday!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 112

< Chapter 111                                                                                                   Chapter 113 >
David attacks the pirates!

Charging with me, my three companions joined in my battle cry.  "For Milo!"

One hundred and sixty marines raised their voices as one.  "For Mordan!  For Tarteg!  For Milo!"

The marines charged the encircling pirates.  Unnerved by the marines' precision, both in maneuvers and in voice, the pirates fell back before the onslaught.  I'd have to congratulate the marine commander's choice of battle cry later.

"Heidi?"  My voice boomed out across the docking bay.  "Route me back to the ship's channel and cancel the broadcast."

"Done, sir."

The four of us engaged half a dozen pirates, steel clashing against steel.  We pushed the pirates back a couple of steps before they found a rhythm of their own.  Precious seconds ticked away as we traded blows.  They were seconds Laura's teams would use to place the charges on the landing struts.  They were seconds Quint or Chapman might use to disappear into the base.  They were seconds I could not afford to waste on these men.

"I'm going to Boost in ten seconds.  Get out of my way."  The pirate in front of me looked at me in disbelief.  "Yes, I'm talking to you and your friends.  Surrender or I'll cut you down where you stand!"

"Believe him lads."  Martin's voice still sounded rough, but the pain from his burns was driven away by the excitement of combat.  "David takes duty very seriously and you're standing between him and Quint."

Comprehension dawned on the pirates' faces.  They dropped their swords and moved aside.


Adrenaline poured into my system.  Time slowed.  Fatigue faded.  Vision sharpened.  Muscles surged.  I flew across the docking bay, an arrow aimed at Quint and Chapman!  My focus was so tight on Quint that I was halfway across the bay before I realized I was not alone.  I looked to my left.  Martin was with me, stride for stride, lips stretched wide in a savage grin.  Footsteps pounded behind me.  I risked a look over my shoulder.  Rupor and Harris sprinted for all they were worth, almost keeping up with us.

A squad of Quint's pirate guards blocked our path, swords raised to defend their captain.  I lowered my shoulder.  Martin did the same.

I switched from gal base to Mordanian.  "I'm going to go low past the first row and come up in the middle of them."

"Make sure to swing to your right.  I'll be on your left."

As one, Martin and I dropped and rolled between startled defenders.  We rose to face pirates unprepared for immediate combat.  I swung my blade in a wide arch.  It cut three pirates and drove all of them back a step.  Behind me, Rupor and Harris engaged the pirates Martin and I had bypassed.

Confusion reigned among the pirates from our surprise arrival in their midst.  Martin and I took advantage and attacked.  I thrust my sword into the side of a pirate.  He screamed as I ripped it free and slashed the man next to him.  I blocked a swing from a third pirate and kicked him in the groin.  I grabbed his collar as he doubled over in pain and threw him into the back of a pirate battling with Rupor or Harris.

I looked for Quint.  He, Chapman, and his remaining guards were headed for the airlock!

"Quint's getting away!"  I hacked off a pirate's sword arm.

"Not if I can help it!"  Martin pulled his sword from the shoulder of another pirate.

One pirate stood between us and Quint's retreat.

I pointed my sword at him.  "I want Quint, not you."

The pirate's eyes widened in panic and indecision.  Martin's sword flashed and the pirate crumpled to the deck.

"He took too long to make up his mind."

Clear of the pirates, Martin and I raced on.  Quint and his men reached the airlock.  The captain looked back at us and punched buttons with frantic haste.  I had to reach him before he could flee into the base!

A thunder clap drowned out the sounds of battle.  Fighting paused and the docking bay reverberated with the sound of the explosions.  The airlock door reflected the scene behind me.

Aashla's Hope floated free and moved ponderously toward the docking bay exit!

The ship is free but will Quint get away?  Find out in Chapter 113, coming Wednesday!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 111

< Chapter 110                                                                                                   Chapter 112 >
David, Martin, Rupor, and Harris are about to lead an attack against the pirates in the docking bay!

I pulled Callan to me and kissed her.  "I'll be back for you soon."

Her cheek tight against mine, she whispered, "You'd better be!"

Martin and Megan broke apart at the same time Callan and I did.  Then the four of us swam off toward the lip of the docking bay.

"Laura," I called over the comm, "have you got your teams ready to go?"

"It took some persuasion on my part to keep them from taking up swords to join you in your glorious charge into the docking bay," Laura replied, "but they've got the charges and are getting into place now."

"Good.  Blow the charges as soon as all your teams have gotten to safety.  Pick up Callan, Megan, and the wounded marine before you do anything else.  After that, you're in command until Martin or I get back on board.  Follow your instincts."

"Aye aye, Captain Rice!" Laura said.

There was something in the way she snapped off her response that made me ask, "Are you saluting, Laura?"

Laughter erupted over the comm.  "Um, yes, sir."

"At ease, Chief Engineer!"

We reached our position just below the lip of the docking bay.  I pulled myself up enough to see what was going on.  I guessed there were at least four hundred pirates taking up positions throughout the bay.  Half of them were formed up around the Aashla's Hope, swords sheathed but close at hand.  Most of the rest took up various positions close to vital controls, leaving a couple of dozen formed up guarding Quint.  Chapman stood just behind Quint, subservient and available should Quint wish to speak to him.

I looked at my companions.  Rupor wore a grin of suppressed excitement.  Martin wore a grimace of suppressed pain.  Harris wore a set face of suppressed nervousness.  I could only imagine the faces of the marines on board the ship.  I felt as if I should say something before we charged out against such superior numbers -- something to settle their nerves and calm their excitement.  I was drawing a blank until I remembered something from ancient Terran history.  Without a hint of shame, I stole it.

"Gentlemen, Tarteg and Mordan expect all men to do their duty."

Next to me, Martin spoke but his voice was drowned out by a roar from the men.  Martin stopped trying to speak and just gave me a thumbs up.  Then we pulled ourselves up and into the docking bay.

The pirates glanced about, nerves set on edge by the roar they'd just heard.  Heads turned toward Quint, looking for guidance.  Irritation crossed Quint's face and he prepared to speak.  That was just what I'd been waiting for.

"Heidi, broadcast my comm outside the ship so everyone can hear me," I said.  "And crank the volume."

"You're on, David!"

"Git yerselves under-" Quint began before I drowned him out.

"To all pirates within this base, in the name of the Terran Federation, I order you to lay down your arms and surrender!"  I began walking forward, flipping my sword in the casual manner of one who has been forced to live by the blade.

A few pirates spotted us and pointed.  Within seconds, all eyes were upon us.

"Yer an idiot, Rice!"  Quint was shouting but his voice was still weak compared to my amplified one.  "We got you outnumbered four hunnert to four!"

"Marines, form up!"

With a whoosh, the airlocks opened and the marines charged out, taking up positions around the ship.  The pirates surrounding the ship stirred nervously.

"You miscalculated the odds, Quint," I said.

"Maybe so, but we still got more than twice yer numbers!" he shouted back.

"And if you were facing a bunch of merchant spacers or the crew of a space liner, that might make a difference."  I waved my arm toward the marines.  "Do these men look like they're afraid of you?  You pirates are used to being the foxes rampaging through the hen house.  Now your fox's den has been invaded by wolves."

I pointed my sword at Quint.  "You can stop the slaughter, Quint.  Surrender!"

Quint glared across the docking bay at me.  "I'd rather die first!"

"So be it."  I raised my sword above my head and cried, "For Milo!"

With a roar, we charged into battle!

The battle lines have been drawn and blood is about to be spilled!  Find out what happens next in Chapter 112, coming Monday!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 110

< Chapter 109                                                                                                   Chapter 111 >
David plans to take on hundreds of pirates by himself!

"That's not dangerous, David," Martin said, "that's suicidal!"

"Listen to Martin and don't do this!" Callan pleaded.  "It's bad enough that Milo is gone.  Don't make it worse by sacrificing yourself, too!"

"My soon-to-be ex-husband isn't worth it," Heidi added, her voice quiet but forceful.  "Cowards like him and snakes like Quint aren't worth your life."

"I'm not planning on dying, people," I said.  "But I'm also not planning on letting those responsible for so much death -- Milo's and countless others across the galaxy -- escape justice.  I owe this to all the dead whose souls cry out for a reckoning.  I am David Rice, Scout First Class of the Terran Exploration Corps.  It is my duty to follow this through."

"Aw hell, you had to go and drag duty into it, didn't you?" Martin muttered.  "Could someone loan me a sword?"

"What?" Megan cried.  "My God, Martin, you're half covered in burns!  You can't be thinking of joining in this madness!"

"He can and he is," Callan said.  "There's no talking to David once he starts going on about a Scout's duty.  I can only assume the Scout Academy inflicted the same madness on Martin."

"You are quite correct, Your Highness," Martin said.  "I managed to forget that madness for a long time -- until your husband reminded me of who I had been and who I could be again.  Where David leads, I will follow."

"As will I," Rupor said.

"You're all mad!" Heidi cried.

"Mad we may be," Rupor replied, "but it is the glorious madness of honor, oath, and duty.  It is the madness of men.  It is this madness which draws the love of the best and brightest women the galaxy has to offer.  And it is this madness which will bring down that most loathsome pirate, Captain Quint."

"If only..." Heidi whispered.  I doubt she meant it to be heard, but it fell into the silence which followed Rupor's speech.

In the most gentle voice I'd ever heard Rupor use, he said, "You do yourself a disservice, Heidi.  You are not responsible for your husband's actions."

"But I'm the one who fell in love with a coward instead of one of you mad, magnificent warriors!  How can that not be my fault?  How can I ever show my face around any of you ever again?"

“Perhaps you just needed to meet the right madman,” Rupor said.  In a lighter tone, he added, "Have you ever considered how beautiful you would look in Tartegian black and gold?"

There was a collective gasp over the comm then Laura's husband asked, "Am I imagining things or did Rupor just propose to Heidi?"

"Rupor of Tarteg," Heidi said, her voice more full of life than it had been since we reached the pirate base, "you had better survive this mad scheme of David's and make your intentions clear in person.  Do you understand me?"

"Of course, my dear," Rupor said.  His voice was even, but he wore the biggest grin I'd ever seen on his face.  "It should be easy enough.  After all, there are three of us!"

"Begging the prince's pardon," the marine commander said, "but there will be one hundred and sixty-three of us.  The men are already gathering at the airlocks, ready to sally forth on Captain Rice's command."

"One hundred and sixty-four," Harris said.

"I appreciate your fervor, Harris," I said, "but you will stay here and guard the women."

"That's what I'll be doing, sir," Harris replied.  "I believe I can best protect Her Highness and Megan by keeping you and Captain Bane alive.  I realize I risk court martial for disobeying an order, but I'm coming with you."

"I like this one, David," Callan said.  "He reminds me of you."

I sighed.  "Martin, have you got a sword?"

"Yes.  The wounded guard's sword was still buckled about his waist."

"Very well, gentlemen, it's time to let madness reign!”

David, Martin, and Rupor are about to unleash their madness upon the pirates!  Find out what happens next in Chapter 111, coming Friday!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 109

< Chapter 108                                                                                                   Chapter 110 >
Inspired by an adventure vid, Martin suggests blowing off the landing gear to free the Aashla’s Hope!

There was another silence as everyone considered Martin's idea.  The crew would be able to access the landing gear without getting out of the ship.  And flying without landing gear was a lot better than not flying with landing gear!  I couldn't find any obvious flaws.

"Laura, you're our engineer.  What do you think?" I asked.

"Well, we're going to be in for one heck of a jolt when the ship drops two meters to the floor after we blow the landing gear," she said, "but the ship can take it.  Give me a minute to check the specs for the landing struts."

"I might be able to keep the ship from dropping to the floor," Nist offered.  "We can bring the repulsers online just before the explosives go off.  If we time it right, the repulser's hum won't alert the pirates and the ship won't hit the floor."

"Good idea, Nist.  Figure out what you'll need to do to pull it off," I said.  "And Martin?  Not a bad suggestion for an old man!"

"I attribute my brilliance to a misspent youth and a weakness for Star Ranger adventures.  So, did I miss anything while I was out?"

"I'll tell him," Megan said.

I watched her turn off both of their comms and lean in close so their atmosphere shields overlapped.  Seconds later, Martin's face screwed up in pain which had nothing to do with the burns covering his body.  Despite those burns, he pulled Megan into a hug with one arm and reached the other out to clasp Callan's hand.  A moment later, he thumbed on his comm.

"I'm sorry, David."  Martin's voice was quiet, the emotion he felt over Milo's death evident.

"I know, Martin.  We all are."

Laura chose that moment to check back in.

"David, I've checked the specs for the landing gear and Martin's idea will work.  We'll need a shaped charge attached to the right spot on each of the six struts."

"I sense a 'but' in that explanation, Laura," I said.

"You're right.  The weak spot in the landing struts is about a foot below the well the gear retracts into after lift off."

"Will you have to leave the ship to place the charges?" I asked.

"No, we can get into the well and place the charges without leaving the ship," Laura replied, "but if any of the pirates notice what we're doing, it won't be hard for them to stop us."

"It sounds like we need to make sure the pirates aren't paying any attention to the ship while you're placing the charges," I said.

"Well, yes, I suppose I could open the ship's airlock, point to the other side of the docking bay, and shout 'Oh my God!  What is that?'  But I don't think that will work, David."

"It might work if she was naked, David," Martin said.

"It's going to take my crews at least a minute to place the charges," Laura said.  "Maybe Callan could hold their attention that long.  I know I couldn't."

"No one is getting naked in front of the pirates, least of all my wife!” I said.  "How long will it take to prepare the charges?"

"They're ready now.  Pirates keep plenty of explosives on hand to blow the airlocks of ships they’re attacking."

"Good enough.  Arm a squad of marines with laser rifles and get them to the ship's airlock," I said.  "I expect I'm going to need some covering fire."

"You're planning something dangerous, David," Callan said.  "What is it?"

"I'm going to go into the docking bay and arrest Quint and Chapman!”

Has David lost his mind or can this plan work?  Find out what happens next in Chapter 110, coming Wednesday!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 108

< Chapter 107                                                                                                   Chapter 109 >
Our hero looks into the docking bay and discovers docking clamps have been fastened to the Aashla’s Hope’s landing gear!

"Aashla's Hope, the pirates have locked you in place with docking clamps," I said.

"Oh."  Laura's single-word exhalation carried more feeling, more frustration, and more defeat than the loudest, most profane rant imaginable.

"David, most of us were raised with airships rather than starships," Callan said.  "Please explain what you're talking about."

"Docking clamps are normally a safety device designed to hold a ship in place.  Like the ones holding the pinnace-."  My voice broke, my vision blurred, and once again I saw the awful explosion which had taken the life of a young man I loved like the little brother I never had.  Knowing this was not the time to mourn Milo, I took control of my voice.  "In a large, immobile bay like this one, docking clamps allow engineers to perform engine test burns at high thrust without worrying about balancing thrust vectors."

There was silence for a few seconds before Megan said, "So, the clamps keep the ship from moving no matter how hard you run the engines?"

"Right.  That's what I said."

"No, darling, that's what you meant," Callan said.  "Megan, thank you for the translation."

"Now that we all understand the situation," Laura said, "what are we going to do about it?"

"Once the ship is  Is that the right word?" Rupor asked.

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Good.  Once the ship is online, why not use the ship's laser batteries to fry all the pirates in the docking bay?  Then we can release the clamps and be on our way."

It was a reasonable question from someone unfamiliar with ship-mounted laser batteries, but I could imagine Laura's mouth working as her brain tried to find just the right words to convey her horror at the thought.  I jumped in to answer before she found her voice.

"Rupor, firing the lasers in such a confined space would be deadly to all of us.  The reflected heat, alone, would melt the ship's skin.  And rock blasted from the docking bay walls would only have one place to go -- back on the ship."

"What he said," Laura confirmed.

"Ah," Rupor mused.  "Remind me to study up on these modern weapons after we've dealt with this pirate rabble."

"I wish I had his confidence," someone murmured over the comm.

"Come now, people," Rupor said.  "This is a puzzler, certainly, but we have as fine a collection of people as I have ever had the pleasure to serve with!  There is a solution.  We will find it."

"At the very worst, we can just sit tight until the navy sends a task force," someone said.  "They're bound to have gotten that messenger drone by now."

"No, we can't just wait," Laura's husband spoke up.  "These pirates hit settlements as well as shipping.  They've got mobile laser batteries which can be fired in the docking bay.  Quint has probably already sent for them."

The comm was silent again as everyone digested this latest news.

"Use shaped explosive charges to blow the ship free."  The voice was weak and rasping.

"Martin!" Megan cried.  "You're awake!"

"Indeed, dear heart," Martin gasped.  "I've been awake for a while, but couldn't quite find my voice until just now."

"I'm glad you're speaking again, my friend," I said, "but your suggestion won't work.  Anyone leaving the ship to place explosives on the docking clamps would be an easy target for the pirates."

"I'm disappointed in you, David.  Don't you claim to have watched every adventure vid in existence?" Martin replied.  "Haven't you seen Star Ranger and the Space Pirates?"

"I said I watched the good vids, Martin."

"You're insulting a classic, Wonder Boy!"

"Would you boys quit arguing about vids and enlighten the rest of us?" Callan demanded.

"Star Ranger faced just this situation in that vid.  His solution can be our solution."  Martin paused, perhaps to gather strength or perhaps for dramatic effect.  "We don't blow the docking clamps.  We blow the landing gear it's clamped to!”

Has Martin found the solution to the docking clamp problem?  Find out in Chapter 109, coming Monday!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 107

< Chapter 106                                                                                                   Chapter 108 >
To save our heroes, Milo sacrificed himself by flying his ship into the pirate pinnace!

In the vacuum of space, the fiery explosion lasted less than a second but it seemed as if it lasted years to me.  The image seared into my brain as I passed over the ridge I'd hoped to hide behind.  The image consumed my attention as I landed by instinct, cradling Martin to protect him from further injury.  The image remained clear and horrible even as my vision was blurred by tears.

"No, Milo!" Callan wailed, far too late for Milo to hear her or heed her.

Megan's quiet crying for Martin gave way to sobs as the loss of Milo and her dread for Martin overwhelmed her.

In a quiet, controlled voice, Rupor recited a prayer for the dead.

And the mild jolt of our landing caused Martin to moan in pain.  He was alive!

"What's going on?" Heidi called.  "What happened to Milo?"

"Martin is alive, Megan.  Concentrate on that.  He's alive!"  I forced as much hope and joy as I could muster into my voice.  I didn't feel any of it -- I didn't feel anything, at the moment -- but Megan and Callan needed something hopeful to cling to.

Megan's sobs eased a bit.  "A-alive?  Are you sure?"

"Yes, Megan, I'm sure.  I told you Martin was hard to kill."

Rupor flowed straight from the prayer for the dead to a prayer for Martin to remain among the living.

"Is someone going to tell us what's going on?"  It was Laura this time.  I'd forgotten Heidi was broadcasting to the whole ship.

"Milo is dead."  Callan was back in princess mode, using it as armor to protect herself from the pain.  "He rammed the pirate pinnace, sacrificing himself so the rest of us could live."

Gasps sounded over the comm as Callan's words hit home.

"There will be time for our grief later, after we're away from this God-forsaken rock."  Callan's voice grew stronger as she spoke.  "But I will not allow Milo to have died in vain!  We will leave this place.  We will bring these pirates to justice.  And we will make Quint and Chapman pay for what they have done!"

"This is all my fault!"  Heidi's cry was full of anger and sorrow.  "If I hadn't-"

"There's no time for that, Heidi," Callan cut in.  "I understand why you blame yourself.  I blame myself for Milo's death, as well.  But none of us can afford the luxury of guilt or self-pity.  Can you put those aside and handle communications for me?"

"Yes."  There was a sniffle after the word, but Heidi's voice was firm again.

"Good.  David, do you think it's safe to move Martin?"

I gave Martin a very fast check over.  His worst injuries appeared to be burns.  If we got him to a modern hospital, they wouldn't be life threatening.  "Yes, he can be moved."

"Good.  You're closer to the docking bay, so we'll come to you.  We won't be as fast as you, but we'll get there."

"As you wish, Callan.  Permission to search for the rest of Martin's team?"

"Of course, David.  We'll call when we reach Martin."

Ten minutes later, we were all together behind the ridge.  There had been no sign of the pirates who'd been on the surface chasing us.  Maybe they were scared off after the loss of their pinnace.  They left us alone, which was all I cared about.  I'd found the bodies of the sergeant and one of the other marines.  A third was still alive and more badly burned than Martin.  I remembered the fourth man flying off into space and resigned myself to never finding his body.

With Harris carrying the wounded marine, we swam to the docking bay entrance.  I slid carefully to the opening and peered inside.  Hundreds of pirates milled about under the watchful eye of Quint.  Chapman stood just behind Quint.  But I spotted something else that made my blood run cold.

Without the crew of the Aashla's Hope realizing it, the pirates had fastened docking clamps to the landing gear.  The ship and all aboard her were trapped!

How can our heroes hope to free the ship when it’s surrounded by hundreds of pirates?  Find out in Chapter 108, coming Friday!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 106

< Chapter 105                                                                                                   Chapter 107 >
David has found Martin, but our hero may not survive long enough to find out if Martin is alive or dead!

I couldn't tell if Martin was dead or alive and wouldn't be able to find out until I could put some cover between the pinnace and me.  As if to drive that home, the landscape was lit by the flash of another laser shot.  The ground was seared  not a couple of yards from where I would have been if grabbing Martin hadn't checked my speed.

"I found Martin."

The pirates already knew where I was, so there was no reason not to give Megan some hopeful news.  I slung Martin over my back in a miner's carry, something included in the low-gravity vacuum training at the academy.  I wouldn't be as fast or maneuverable as before -- something which might kill me -- but at least I knew what to do.

"Is he alive?" Megan asked.

I wish she hadn't made even a small broadcast over the comm, but I understood why she did it.  Meanwhile, I was moving again, trying my best to move fast and change directions even faster.

"You know Martin," I said.  "He's hard to kill!"

Another laser flash.  That one hit so close my hand was burned on the heat conducted by the rocky surface.  Bits of blasted rock pelted Martin and me, giving both of us new cuts and bruises.

"Heidi, please tell me you're about to pull out of the docking bay and blow this pinnace out of the sky!" I called.

"No, the startup sequence still has-"

"Hang on, David!  I'm coming to help!"

"Milo?  What do you mean?"

Instead of zigging or zagging, I came to a complete halt.  The next laser blast was even closer than the one before it.  This time, I lifted my hand off the ground before it could burn, but my toes got uncomfortably warm through my boots.

"He took the pinnace," Heidi replied.  "We assume he's coming to pick you up."

"You were all just sitting around in the ship hoping David and Callan weren't going to get killed," Milo said.  "Hoping never got me anything when I was living on the street and it's not going to save our friends now!"

The pirate gunner was getting closer and closer to burning Martin and me.  No matter how random I tried to make my movements, maybe there was some pattern emerging.  Maybe I was too slow.  Maybe it was time for a complete change in evasion tactics.  I pushed off with my hand and pulled my legs up tight against my chest.  When I was pointing a bit above the distant ridge I'd been trying to reach, I kicked hard off the surface of the asteroid.  Martin and I arrowed toward the ridge, moving faster than I could have on the ground but in a straight line -- one I could not change for several seconds.

The move took the gunner by surprise.  His next shot was to the left of where I had stopped, as if he had guessed I would head off in that direction.  I would have, too.

"Milo," Heidi was saying, "what are you planning to do?"

"Save the only people besides my sister who have ever cared about me."

"We're going to be fine, Milo," I said.

"No, you're not," Milo said.  "Not without help.  I can see you and the pirate pinnace.  The laser is already tracking your path."

It looked like my gamble had only bought me a few more seconds of life.

"Callan, Megan," I called.  "I did my best but it just wasn't good enough."

"No!  You're not dying if I can help it!" Milo shouted, drowning out the cries from Callan and Megan.

Milo's pinnace sped past me, mere yards above my head.  The pirate laser flashed but the pinnace blocked the shot.

"Take care of Kim for me," Milo said.

The pirate pilot didn't realize what Milo was doing until it was too late.  Milo smashed into the pirate ship and both pinnaces disintegrated in a ball of flame!

Will our heroes survive or will Milo’s sacrifice be for naught?  Find out in Chapter 107, coming Wednesday!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 105

< Chapter 104                                                                                                   Chapter 106 >
Martin and the marines appear to have been hit by a pirate laser shot!

Blasted rock spun off into space as I struggled to see through the afterimage of the bright laser blast.  I saw two bodies tumbling across the surface of the asteroid and out of sight.  A third body pinwheeled into space.  I had no idea what had happened to the remaining two men.

"Martin?" I called.  "Sergeant?"

Over the comm I heard a gasp and the sound of someone trying to stifle crying.  I received no reply to my call.

"David?"  Callan's voice was quiet, calm, controlled.  "What has happened?"

"The pirate gunner took a shot at Martin's group before the pinnace was carried over the horizon.  It appears to have been a hit or a very close miss."

"What of Martin and the marines?" she asked.

"I...don't know.  They aren't answering their comms, but they could be unconscious or the comm could be damaged."

"Or they could be dead," a small, shaking voice added.

"We don't know that yet, Megan," Callan said, her voice stronger and more commanding than before.  In that voice, I recognized her switch to princess mode.  The situation demanded decisiveness, not emotions.  If Martin was dead, she'd cry later.

"David, swim over there and find out what has happened to the men.  Go fast but be careful.  That pinnace will be back soon."

"What will the rest of you do?" I asked.

"Stay here where we have some cover.  Now go!"

I swam off as fast as I could go.  I was terrified of what I might find but was even more terrified of the uncertainty I was feeling.

"Heidi," Callan called, "how many casualties do we have under Tristan's care right now?"

"My latest report shows fourteen dead, six in critical condition, and dozens of wounds ranging from serious to minor," Heidi replied.  "None of the injuries in the last group are life-threatening according to Tristan."

I was zipping over the ground, swimming faster than I'd done since academy relay races.  The laser had scorched a three-foot line in the asteroid.  Even if the shot had been a direct hit, no more than two of the men would have been struck by the beam.

"The casualties are lighter than I'd feared," Callan was saying.

"According to reports, as long as our men were withdrawing, the pirates only fought hard enough to keep them moving backward," Heidi replied.

"Odd," Callan said.  "Why wouldn't the pirates fight harder?  If they wanted us to escape, they could have just let us go!"

"Callan, the pinnace is returning," Rupor interrupted.

"They could have transmission scanners," Heidi said.  "Maintain comm silence for your own safety."

At the scorch mark, I'd turned toward the docking bay.  Martin had been towing the marines in that direction.  If the blast had struck behind him, it was likely he’d have been thrown in the direction he'd already been traveling.

I risked a quick look over my shoulder, hoping to spot the pinnace.  It was easy to find.  The pilot was flying back to us slowly, the canopy of the little ship facing down toward the asteroid.

"Maintain comm silence," I said.  "The crew is trying to spot us visually."

I heard an exhalation of breath.  Callan did that when she was exasperated with me.

"Yes, dear, I know I'm not maintaining comm silence," I said.  "If the crew of the pinnace is going to find anyone, I'm going to make sure it's me!"

I got my wish.  The pinnace rolled over to bring its belly gun to bear on my position.  I zigged to the right then zagged to the left.  A hurried laser blast struck a good ten yards from my position.  All I needed was another couple of seconds and I could reach some form of cover.

I put my hand into a dark depression, planning to push off the side of it.  Instead of rock, my hand touched clothing.  Instinctively, I grabbed a fistful of fabric.  My momentum pulled the man out of the shadows.  He was covered in burns and blood but a scar stood out on his cheek.

I'd found Martin!

Is Martin still alive?  Can our hero find cover before the pirate pinnace blasts him?  Find out in Chapter 106, coming Monday!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 104

< Chapter 103                                                                                                   Chapter 105 >
Pirate Captain Quint has sent an armed pinnace to blast our heroes off the face of the asteroid!

We were surrounded by all sorts of good cover against an attack from the ground, none of which would do any good against an attack from above.  I scanned all around us hoping to spot something close by but came up empty.

"To your right and back a bit," Rupor called.

I immediately swung to my right, trusting Rupor to know what he was talking about.  A jumble of boulders was scattered across the surface thirty yards from us.  The rocks lay far enough apart for us to wriggle between them but close enough to give cover from every direction except directly overhead.  In truth, it was better cover than I'd hoped to find.

"Martin, do you see the cover Rupor found?"

"It looks great," Martin said.  "Get the ladies and His Highness wedged in there as fast as you can."

"What about you?  Aren't you coming?" Megan asked.

"No ma'am," the sergeant answered.  "We're going to keep heading straight."

"What?" Megan cried.  "You'll be an easy target out there!"

"Yes, they will, miss," Harris said.  "It's a marine's duty to protect civilians from the enemy, even at the cost of his life."

Megan stifled a cry but, to my relief, she didn't break our train.

"Don't worry, Megan," Martin added, "we won't be quite the sitting ducks you imagine.  The pinnace will come upon us suddenly and probably be past us before they even realize we're here.  I think we can reach that overhang ahead of us before they can get back to us."

"Aashla's Hope," I called, "how long before you can come after us?"

"We began the startup procedure as soon as the marines retreated back to the docking bay," Heidi said, "but the reactor won't be online for another seven minutes."

"Do not cut any corners to get to us sooner," Martin ordered.  "A reactor containment breach would be far worse than the eleven of us being forced to hide for a few minutes!"

"Heidi is piping your conversation through out the ship," Laura said.  "As chief engineer of this ship, I acknowledge and accept your order, sir!"

I reached the edge of the boulder field and pulled up.  Catching Callan's hand, I guided her in between two of the larger ones.

"Keep moving, Callan.  Megan is coming in right behind you."

As Callan slipped from my sight, I sent Megan in after her.

"You're next, Harris," I said.  "Whatever happens, stay with the women and guard them with your life!  The prince and I will be just inside the edge of the field, keeping an eye out for pirates."

It was a tighter fit for Harris, but he pulled himself in after Megan.  Before Rupor and I could get under cover, the pirate pinnace swept up from the direction of the docking bay.

As Martin had predicted, the little ship overflew our positions, but the pilot knew his business.  Braking thrusters fired and the pilot threw the ship into a flat spin.  The ship was still moving away from Martin and the marines but the gunner got off one shot before the pinnace went beyond the horizon.  The beam was so bright the bleak landscape was cast into sharp relief for a fraction of a second.

In terrible silence the laser struck the ground and bodies went flying!

Are Martin and the marines all dead?  Find out in Chapter 105, coming Friday!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Scout's Duty - Chapter 103

< Chapter 102                                                                                                   Chapter 104 >
David and Martin swim off to attack the rest of the pirates swarming on the surface of the asteroid!

"Far be it from me to interfere with such bold battlefield heroics," Rupor said, "but this might not be the best time to engage in a full assault on the rest of the pirates."

Martin and I exchanged a glance and slowed our advance on the pirate's position.  It was hardly the sort of comment either of us expected from Rupor, so it caught our attention.

"We're listening," I said.

"You've rather suddenly and spectacularly shot or scattered half a dozen of the pirates.  We may not have heard the cries of those six men, but the other pirates will be sharing the same comm channel.  They'll have heard everything."


"You attacked their superior numbers, overcame their superior weaponry, and took six of their number out of the fight.  Now is the time for us to make a tactical retreat, while the pirates are still back on their heels and reluctant to engage us."

The sergeant added, "His Highness has a point, sirs."

"In case there is any doubt, I fully support Rupor's suggestion, also," Callan said.

"Do I need to add my vote to the tally?" Megan asked.

"I believe we're outvoted, David," Martin said.  "The rest of you keep moving toward the docking bay.  We'll catch you up."

Without another word, we changed directions and swam back toward our family and friends.  A couple of minutes later, we were with them.  They were beyond the large rock I'd pointed out to Rupor before Martin and I went on the offensive, but not by much.

"Yes, David, you were right" Rupor said.  "Swimming on an asteroid is far more difficult than I imagined."

“I didn’t say anything about your progress!"

"No, but you were thinking it."

He was right.  Were my thoughts really that plainly written on my face?

"Yes, love, anyone who knows you well can see your thoughts clearly written on your face," Callan said.

"To your credit, your words and actions always match your thoughts," Megan added.

"Enough with the fawning over Honest David," Martin growled.  "I've been thinking how best to get us moving faster.  David's game of crack the whip, when he flung four of you behind the ridge, gave me an idea.  We'll split into two groups again, line up head-to-foot, and David and I will each tow a group behind us.  The rest of you just have to use your free hand and foot to keep yourself a few inches off the ground."

"Just like a train!" I exclaimed.  I got blank stares from everyone but Martin.  "But I guess most of you have never heard of trains..."

It was the work of but a moment to create the two line ups.  For simplicity, we went with the two groups we'd split into earlier.  That left me towing Callan, Megan, Rupor, and Harris.  Rupor suggested Martin and the marines be our rearguard, just in case the pirates went on the offensive sooner rather than later.  With that decided, I towed my four passengers in the direction of the docking bay.  It took a few minutes for everyone to get into a rhythm, but once they did we made good time across the asteroid.

"How long will it take to reach the docking bay?" Callan asked.

"At the rate we're going, we should reach the entrance in another five minutes," I replied.  "In fact, the ship should be within range of our comms about now.  Heidi is monitoring channel ten seventeen.  Switch to that channel after your next push off from the ground."

Since I didn't have to hold onto anyone's foot, I went ahead and changed channels with one hand while keeping us moving with the other.  The signal had some static, but I had no trouble hearing Heidi's voice.

"Aashla's Hope to the captain.  Do you copy?"

"Loud and clear, Heidi."

"Oh, thank God!  We've been worried sick, David.  Where are you and who's with you?"

"I've got their Highnesses, Martin, Megan, and a squad of marines.  We're swimming across the surface of the asteroid toward you.  We should be there in-"

"Get under cover, now!" Heidi cried.  “Quint just sent an armed pinnace out to find and destroy you!”

Will Captain Quint blast our heroes into little pieces?  Find out in Chapter 104, coming Wednesday!