Wednesday, November 18, 2015
As always, chapters will be posted at 6:00 AM Eastern time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Cliffhanger 250 site has been great, but it's time for something new. Select the link below. The latest chapters are listed under "Henry's Latest Writing".
Friday, July 24, 2015
Chris reacts to the medal Callan awarded to him.
While growing up, I dreamed of the day I’d stand before the royal family and receive an award for valor from the beautiful Princess Callan. Most boys have such dreams at one time or another. Actually having that dream come true was even more exciting than I ever imagined. I just didn’t expect the embarrassment I felt, too.
In your dreams, you swell with pride as your deeds are recounted before your shipmates and the nobles of the court. In your dreams, you know you deserve such praise and are worthy of the admiration directed at you. In your dreams, you’re like David Rice—resolute in the face of danger, an implacable foe of evil, and certain of your rightful place in the pantheon of heroes.
Throughout the ceremony, I kept waiting for someone to point at me and shout, “Hey, he’s not a hero—he’s just a kid!” But no one did that. They did something worse. They cheered. For me. And for Jade, but at least she deserved it.
The next thing I knew my shipmates were slapping my back and pumping my hand. Then the officers saluted me—even Captain Wright—and told me I was shaping up to be a fine young officer.
When the officers and crew parted, it was to let my family through. Mom hugged me and kissed me and cried and told me how much she loved me. Dad squeezed my shoulder and, in a voice husky with emotion, said he was so proud of me he was about to burst. The scariest part was my brothers and sisters. They were nice to me and said they always knew I’d make a name for myself.
Then we were whisked off to a fancy ball where lords and ladies shook my hand and told me they expected great things from me. Admirals saluted me and their wives introduced giggling daughters to me. I found every dance on my card taken up with the admirals’ daughters or admirals’ wives. All I really wanted to do was dance with Jade, to look into her green eyes and find a little sanity in this strange world I’d been thrust into. But Jade was busy dancing with the sons of merchant princes and lordlings.
Finally, Callan used her royal prerogative and placed herself at the top of my dance card. She whirled me out onto the dance floor, leading without appearing to lead. She studied me for a moment before asking, “What’s bothering you, Chris? And don’t tell me it’s dancing with every eligible young lady in the court. It’s something deeper than that.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but the words wouldn’t come. How could I tell my future ruler she’d given an award to someone who didn’t deserve it? Instead, I just shook my head.
Callan gazed at me thoughtfully for a few seconds then said, “Let me guess. You think you’re just a regular ensign who doesn’t deserve all of this attention, much less the Queen’s Cross, and you’re just waiting for someone to realize it’s all a mistake.”
My mouth dropped open and I blurted, “How did you know?”
Callan leaned closer to me and whispered, “Because I’ve heard the same thing from David half a dozen times.”
My mouth dropped open a second time. “David? But he’s a true hero! He deserves every honor given him and more!”
“If you ask David, he’ll tell you he’s just a man doing his duty as best he can,” Callan said.
I found myself nodding vigorously. “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel!”
“May I tell you a secret, Chris?” Callan asked. When I nodded, she continued, “A hero is someone who does their duty and keeps on doing their duty no matter how trying the circumstances.” Callan brought us to a halt in the middle of the dance floor, took my hands in hers, and stared deeply into my eyes. “And you, my young ensign, are a hero.”
David and Jade spun to a stop next to us and I heard David say, “Of course he’s a hero. And so is Jade!”
“But I don’t feel like a hero!” Jade and I both said at the same time. We looked at each other in amazement and both said, “Of course you’re a hero!”
Callan deftly maneuvered Jade into my arms. “I’m declaring both of your dance cards closed except for each other for the rest of the ball. Dance or don’t dance, but do both together.” Callan laid a hand lightly on Jade’s arm. “Oh, and Chris has been so sweet he really deserves a kiss. I thought about giving him one, but why would he want to kiss an old married woman when he can kiss the most beautiful young lady in the palace?”
“Who, me?” Jade asked in surprise.
I pulled her close and said, “Yes, you.”
And, right there in the middle of the crowded dance floor, in plain sight of both of our families, I kissed the most beautiful young lady in my universe.
This is not the last we’ll see of Chris and Jade, but it’s time to pursue another story which vexed your author many months ago. Rest assured he has a much better idea of where the story will go. Join us on Monday for Chapter 1 of The Adventures of M&M: Book 2 (aka The Fugitive Heir: Book 2).
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
< Chapter 49 Epilogue >
Thor is dead, his base is destroyed, and Freya is on the run.
The search crews pulled twenty-three survivors and eighteen bodies from the remains of Thor’s base. Among the survivors was Jade’s former sort-of-boyfriend Forbose. From interviews with the survivors, it’s estimated as many as sixty bodies still lay buried under the mountain.
I couldn’t be there when Forbose and Jade met afterward. According to Jade’s mother, the slap Jade gave the boy is probably still echoing through the mountains. I suspect Forbose preferred the slap to his confrontation with Jade’s father, which boiled down to an ‘if you come near my little girl again you’ll wish you were buried under that mountain’ warning. Chris and the two Vanguard crewmen Forbose was abusing when Chris punched the larger boy visited Forbose last. They never touched him, but Jade told me Forbose was white as a sheet when the trio left him.
It took the Federation less than a day to locate Freya traveling toward the southern city-states. A consulate aircar delivered her to Mordanian authorities a few hours later. Freya wore an expression of utter disbelief when she was dragged into the Mordanian Court. She now has a sparse room in the Mordanian women’s prison, where she awaits a date with the headsman’s axe. Federation officials issued a pro forma protest at this treatment of a Federation citizen. Callan offered to commute the sentence to life in prison if the Federation could provide proof of citizenship. Whoever sent the woman to Aashla scrubbed her background completely, including deletion of her DNA records. Freya refuses to cooperate with the Federation and she can defeat their best interrogation drugs. We still have no idea what her mission really was and Freya is intent on taking that with her to the grave.
A week after the trial, the crew of the Tercel lined up behind the surviving crew from the Vanguard in the palace’s largest audience chamber. King Edwar and Queen Elaina officially presided over the ceremony, but all eyes were on Callan. That’s not a fair assessment of the situation since all eyes were usually on Callan even when she wasn’t dressed and coifed to regal perfection as she was today. But no one doubted this was Callan’s ceremony from beginning to end.
She opened with an impassioned account of what bards were already calling the Weather War, lauding the bravery and dedication of the men standing before her and acknowledging the sacrifices of those who journey home in coffins. Her eyes shining with unshed tears, Callan personally presented the families of those lost with folded Mordanian flags and a Cross of Morda, awarded only to those who gave their lives in the service of their country. Without any memory aid, she referred to family members by name, hugged wives and parents, kissed children, and briefly shared grief with all of them.
She presented the same honors to the families of the Wind Dancer’s three lost crewmen. Flown to Morda by Federation representatives, these poor people were still struggling to come to grips with their losses. At least the families of the naval airmen recognized this day might come. Merchant airmen rarely face such dangers, leaving their families unprepared for tragic news.
With the hardest part of the ceremony out of the way, Callan recognized each of the crewmen standing before her—including the crew of the Wind Dancer—giving special recognition to the marines who tossed Thor overboard and the marine sergeant who tackled her to the ground and shielded her with his body.
When she finished with her presentations to the surviving crewmen, everyone expected Callan to return to the dais and officially end the ceremony. Instead, she called, “Jade Cochran, please step forward.”
The blonde’s eyes widened and her equally surprised mother had to give her a little shove to get her moving toward Callan. The girl stopped in front of the dais and curtsied. “Yes, Your Highness?”
“Jade, you risked and almost lost your life aiding in the rescue of the surviving crew of the Vanguard. In light of the destruction of the mountain base, there can be no doubt that your actions saved their lives and, quite likely, the Prince Consort’s life as well. We all owe you a debt beyond repayment.” A servant presented an open box to Callan. She withdrew an ornate, star-shaped medal dangling from a green and gold ribbon and fastened it around Jade’s neck. “From a grateful country and an equally grateful princess, please accept the Princess’s Star, our highest civilian award for courage and service to the throne.”
Callan kissed the girl on each cheek, lingering to whisper, “David also thanks you for pushing me from the pinnace before you went after him.”
Callan was absolutely right. I don’t know how my actions would have changed had Callan been present, but it’s likely Captain Jorson and the Tercel would have been wrecked in the second windstorm had Callan not been there to describe the weather control device and tell him where to look for it. That, alone, probably saved dozens of lives.
Jade giggled and waited for Callan to dismiss her back to her family. Instead, Callan motioned for the girl to stay where she was.
Callan once again addressed the gathered crowd. “Ensign Christopher Marlow, please step forward.”
Equally as surprised as his new girlfriend, Chris managed a parade ground march to the foot of the dais. He bowed deeply and said, “I am yours to command, Your Highness.”
“Rise, Ensign,” Callan responded formally. “After surviving the crash of the Vanguard and avoiding death or capture by trogs serving our enemy, Ensign Marlow thought only of finding and aiding the Prince Consort and me. He did exactly that, providing invaluable assistance tracking the trogs to the mountain base. It was near that cave entrance that we found ourselves trapped by a large number of trogs, each armed with blaster rifles. Thinking only to protect David and me, Ensign Marlow offered up his own life to keep our presence secret. By the grace of God, the shots fired at him missed. While I mourned him for dead, one of the trogs simply knocked out Ensign Marlow. While his actions to follow were valorous and a credit to him, Ensign Marlow’s ready willingness to sacrifice his own life to protect ours is deserving of special recognition.”
The same servant presented another box to Callan, from which she drew another green and gold ribbon to which an emerald-encrusted gold cross was attached. Chris’s eyes widened at the sight of the medal.
“Could you bend over slightly so I can reach around your neck, Chris?” Callan asked in a low voice.
Chris did as Callan asked and she fastened the ribbon behind his neck. “From a grateful country and an equally grateful royal family, for actions above and beyond the call of duty I award you the Queen’s Cross, the second highest military award for valor our country presents.”
After Callan kissed Chris on both cheeks, Queen Elaina rose and kissed him on the forehead, adding her private thanks for protecting her daughter. Chris bowed low to his queen and princess. Then Callan turned Chris and Jade to face the crowd and linked arms with them.
“Ladies and gentlemen, officers and airmen, in the history of Mordan only our beloved, late Milo earned the Princess’s Star at a younger age than Jade. And no member of the Mordanian Navy has earned the Queen’s Cross at such a young age as Ensign Marlow.” Callan paused to bestow a smile on each of them. “These two are shining examples of the kind of young people our country and our world produce. Look upon them and feel hope, for Aashla’s future rests on shoulders of such bright and brave young men and women.”
Callan stepped back and gently pushed Chris and Jade together. Immediately, the crews of the Vanguard and the Tercel raised their voices, cheering lustily for the blushing teenagers. A second later, the rest of the crowd joined in and the audience chamber rang with applause.
The adventure is over, but there’s still a little of the story yet to tell. Find out the rest in the Epilogue, coming Friday.
Monday, July 20, 2015
< Chapter 48 Chapter 50 >
The fight is over and all appears well for our heroes when Thor’s mountain base suddenly explodes!
David and I whirled to face the mountain a few miles off. Dust billowed all about Thor’s base, blocking our view. The wind slowly carried the dust away, revealing the mountaintop in time for us to see some of the surface crumble and collapse in on itself.
“It looks like someone collapsed the cave entrance we discovered…” David’s voice trailed off for a moment. “God, can it only have been yesterday morning?”
I took out the comm the marine had taken from Thor and stared at it. “Was any of this really worth dying for, Freya?”
David cocked his head, eying the comm. “Where did—”
I realized I hadn’t turned off the comm when Freya’s voice issued from it. “You’re right, little princess, none of this was worth my life. It was worth a lot of other people’s lives, though. In that light, I’m sure you can understand why I wasn’t in that ridiculous mountain base.”
I stared at the comm unit with incredulity. “No, Freya, I can’t understand any of this.”
David gently took the comm from me and spoke into it. “This whole situation is extremely convoluted and expensive—especially for an AFIP operation. You guys are usually quite straightforward—find a way to arm the primitives and then attack the nearest human city. I didn’t even know AFIP had the skill and resources to do something as delicate as implant surgery.”
Freya laughed merrily, “Yes, the fippers are a depressingly direct bunch of idiots. And no, left to themselves they couldn’t have stolen working diplomatic and military implants, much less surgically installed them. They were quite happy to have a ‘recruit’ who could do both. Thor and that exiled princeling were quite excited to get their implants. Men are so easy to manipulate—dangle power, sex, or revenge before them and they’ll fall all over themselves to do your bidding. I’m sure the little princess knows exactly what I mean. I’ve seen how you fawn over her, Rice.”
Confusion spread over David’s face. “You’re not a fipper?”
“My, you are slow on the uptake. And here I thought you Scouts were supposed to be smart. Maybe all that honor, oaths, duty, and trustworthiness dulls the mind,” Freya said, her voice thick with condescension. “Why don’t you be a good little man and hand the comm back to the princess.”
I took the comm back from David. “I don’t know who you think you are, you pathetic woman, but you do not threaten my planet, kill my people, and insult my husband! You sound just like one of those supercilious galactic diplomats I’ve dealt with ever since Aashla established contact with the Terran Federation. You expect us to fall all over ourselves to get our hands on your cast off technological baubles and then act surprised and offended when we don’t sign over all of our mineral rights for a pile of cheap crap. You and your kind make me sick.”
“A very impassioned speech, little princess. No wonder everyone either loves or loathes you,” Freya replied. “Anyway, it’s been fun chatting but now it’s time for me to get on with my real mission.”
“You do realize you’re going to stand out here on Aashla,” I said. “You don’t know our customs and you sure the hell don’t understand a woman’s position in this world.”
“You’d be amazed how much information the Federation has gathered on your world, little princess,” Freya sneered, “and it’s all stored in my implant. So don’t you worry about me—I’ll fit right in.”
I laughed at Freya and it was not a pleasant sound. “Thank you, Freya. We’d have caught you eventually, but now I know we’ll have you within a few days.”
“Nice try, princess, but I know better,” Freya said. “I might die from bad luck—barbaric worlds like yours have all sorts of ways to kill—but no one will capture me. I’m just that good at what I do.”
“I’m sure you’ll believe that right up until you find yourself standing before me in the Mordanian Court,” I said. “Then I’ll teach you the true meaning of barbaric. You will beg me for the blessed release of death before I’m finished with you.”
I thumbed the comm unit off and dropped it in a pocket. Looking up, I found David, Jade, and Chris staring at me.
“What?” I asked.
A leer spread across David’s face. “God, you’re sexy when you play the barbaric princess!”
Chris and Jade blushed bright crimson and quickly turned away.
“I wasn’t playing, David—at least not entirely. That woman has a lot to pay for and I am going to collect her debt.” I said. Running a finger lazily down David’s arm, I flashed my best sultry smile and added, “But I’ll be happy to treat you to a night of enthusiastic barbarism when we get home.”
“But how are you going to capture one woman out of millions?” David asked. “That’s hard enough on a Federation world where everyone carries identification and every transaction leaves a digital footprint. But here—”
“Even though you’ve lived here for nine years, David, sometimes you still think like a Federation citizen,” I said. “Freya admitted she has an implant and the Federation has sensors capable of finding anyone with one.”
“Sure they can, but the implants don’t broadcast the owner’s identity,” David said. “Do you have any idea how many people have implants?”
“On your home world, millions,” I said. “On Aashla, eighty-six. Eighty-seven if you count Freya.”
David’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re right, I was still thinking like a Federation citizen.”
“And so is Freya,” I said. “I’d love to see the look on her face when she’s captured.”
From the deck of the Tercel, we heard Captain Jorson issuing orders and organizing teams to return to the mountain base and search for survivors. David looked up at the airship and said, “I should join one of those teams.”
“You most certainly should not, darling! How many times have you Boosted since you last slept?” I asked. When David looked down sheepishly without answering, I continued, “That’s what I thought. You’re going to rest and get something to eat. The Mordanian Navy will find a way to manage without your help.”
A few feet away, Jade said, “David hasn’t removed you from my care, Chris, and it’s my opinion you are too injured to join a search team.”
“But Jade—” Chris tried to protest.
“Don’t make me appeal to a higher power, Ensign!” Jade said. “I am certain Callan—um, Her Highness—will agree with me.”
“She’s right, Chris,” I called to the teenagers. “But since you desperately want to do something useful, you can take one of the Tercel’s pinnaces and escort Jade back to her family.”
Jade looked distinctly uncomfortable at my suggestion. “Dad’s going to be awfully mad at me for flying off.”
“But he’ll be even more relieved to know you’re safe,” I said. “Chris, are you up to this onerous duty?”
“Flying a pinnace?” Chris asked. “Sure.”
I shook my head. “I meant are you up to meeting Jade’s parents? For some reason young men always get nervous about that.”
“Um, I think so?” Chris replied.
“Just let Jade introduce you, Chris,” David said. “You risked your own life to save hers. Fathers tend to appreciate that sort of thing.”
“It sounds like I’ve missed all sorts of excitement,” I said, linking my arm in David’s. “Let’s board the Tercel and you can tell me all about it while the crew prepares a pinnace.”
David let Jade and Chris tell most of the story, only speaking up to downplay his own role or to highlight the courage of others. By the time Jade and Chris left in the pinnace—Jade pulled rank on Chris and took the controls—I had most of the story. David was asleep before the pinnace was out of sight.
Will Terran Federation representatives find Freya? And what will Jade’s parents think of Chris? Find out in Chapter 50, coming Wednesday.
Friday, July 17, 2015
< Chapter 47 Chapter 49 >
As the Tercel rushes to David’s aid, the mob before him charges!
Incited by someone who wasn’t on the front line, the men before me raised their swords and charged. With Boost-supplied adrenaline still burning through my veins, I leapt forward with quickness impossible for normal men. My sword flashed in the morning light as I swung it at the nearest attacker. The man’s battle cry turned to a gurgle as my razor sharp blade sliced through his throat. Hot blood sprayed into the air, adding more red stains to my already-ruined clothes. I carried the stroke past the dying man and cut the arm of the man next to him down to the bone. He stumbled aside, screaming, as I danced back out of range of the slow counter-attacks aimed at me.
My feet shuffled through the sand and rocks, giving me another idea. Digging a foot into the loose ground, I kicked up at the mob in front of me. Sand, dust, and rocks pelted the men before me and several of them clapped hands to their eyes. I lunged at one, driving a foot of bloody blade into his gut. Twisting the blade, I pulled it free. I saw the man’s eyes go wide in shock before the fight drew my attention elsewhere.
Skipping backward again, I parried two attacks but was unable to find the time to return the attack. From the corner of my eye, I saw the bright glint of steel on my right side and one of my attackers fell as a sword stabbed completely through his thigh. Another flash came from my left and the other attacker barely managed to parry a thrust aimed at his heart. Then the crack of blaster rifles opened up behind us and men on both of our far flanks fell before the shooting of Jade and the two ship’s boys who were armed with modern weapons.
“Sorry we’re late, sir,” Chris said from my right. “We had a tad more ground to cover than you did.”
A quick glance to either side showed Chris and the other three ensigns from the Vanguard standing beside me. All four wore the set expressions of frightened young men determined to master their fear and do their duty.
“It’s good to have you men by my side,” I said, hoping my calm appreciation of their aid might settle their nerves a bit. “All we have to do is hold our line until the Tercel arrives.”
I shuffled forward on the loose terrain and feinted a low thrust against the man before me. As soon as his sword dipped, I reversed direction and sliced upward. Instinctively, the man pulled his hips back to protect his groin and presented his chest to my blade. It sliced through clothing and skin, opening a deep gash from his stomach to his breastbone.
As I stepped back into line with the ensigns, another round of blaster bolts burned the men trying to work their way around our line. I said, “Don’t worry overmuch about the flanks, men. It seems our companions have that well in hand.”
The mob spread out before us and the men on the far ends edged their way forward in an attempt to fully encircle us all.
To either side of me, the young men held their line, showing just how effective a little discipline and teamwork can be against a mob. But that advantage would vanish as soon as our enemies flanked us.
“Fall back toward Jade and the ship’s boys, lads,” I ordered. “Take it steady and maintain discipline.”
Blades clashed and flashed and it seemed I was the only one able to score an effective hit. Then the ensign on the far left gave a cry and stumbled backward. His sword fell from fingers which refused to obey his commands and his free hand clapped over a deep cut in his shoulder. The man who cut him raised a fist and yelled in triumph—then a blaster bolt struck him in the forehead and he slowly toppled backward.
Behind me, Jade muttered, “Take that, you son of a—”
Jade’s next word was drowned out by screams from both sides of us. Looking to my left, I saw a massive ballista bolt impaling four men. More men lay bleeding and screaming along the bolt’s path. A quick glance to the right showed a similar scene. Then men before me cried out and pitched to the ground, crossbow quarrels sticking out of them.
Over the screams, I clearly heard Captain Jorson bellow, “Marines, away! Crossbowmen, reload and fire at will!”
The Tercel was here!
With a full-throated roar, the airship’s marine contingent swung down to attack. Each of them released their rope on the upswing. They flew at our enemies’ rear line, swords raised and teeth bared. Landing just outside of sword thrust range, the marines waded into the poorly trained men with obvious relish. Then another hail of crossbow quarrels rained down on the remnants of Thor’s army and more men cried and fell.
Jorson’s voice cut through the din of battle easily. “Any man who drops his sword and goes to his knees will not be harmed!”
Almost as one, the men before us released their weapons and dropped to the ground. Two men didn’t get the message and the marines cut them down. And then the fight was over.
Dropping Boost, I rushed to the wounded ensign and eased him down to the ground. He struggled gamely not to cry, but tears shone in his eyes.
“Captain, we need a doctor!” I called.
“He’s on his way, sir,” Jorson responded.
“Are you hurt, David?” Callan’s lilting voice carried over the after-battle noise as Jorson’s did.
“I’m fine, dear, thanks to Chris and the other ensigns.”
“Chris?” Callan cried in wonder. “He’s alive?”
“I am Your Highness,” Chris responded. “Please forgive me if my actions caused you any distress!”
Then Dr. Mach bustled up and bent over the wounded ensign. Cutting away the young man’s shirt, Mach said jovially, “Ah, that’s going to leave quite the lovely scar, Ensign Parnel. The young ladies are going to be very impressed!”
Looking up, Mach quietly added, “I need to close that wound now. I’m afraid I’m going to need a couple of men to hold the lad still.”
Chris dropped to his knees next to his fellow ensign. “Just tell me what to do, sir.”
Perhaps remembering the somewhat queasy young ensign he’d seen at the start of it all, Mach eyed Chris critically. “Are you sure you’re up to it, Ensign?”
Chris returned the doctor’s gaze calmly. “Of course, sir.”
Mach gave a quick nod. “Yes, I believe you are.”
Minutes later, with the ensign’s wound tightly stitched, the doctor oversaw lifting the wounded young man up to the Tercel. Chris and I rose to feet and found ourselves confronted by the only two women present. Callan ran her eyes over me, no doubt assuring herself I really was unhurt. Jade skipped that step and grabbed Chris in a fierce hug.
As my wife wrapped her arms around me, she watched the teenagers with a smile. “I think they make a lovely couple, don’t you, darling?”
I nodded. “And they managed to find each other without any help from you or your mother.”
Just as I bent close to kiss Callan, a massive explosion shook the mountain behind us!
What happened to Thor’s base? Was Freya caught in the blast? Find out in Chapter 49, coming Monday!
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
< Chapter 46 Chapter 48 >
On board the Tercel, Callan faces off against Thor, commander of the men attacking David and the crew of the Vanguard.
Much as I wanted to watch the battle and reassure myself David was safe, I knew Thor could be the key to ending the conflict as soon as possible. Turning back to him, I studied the devices the marine took from Thor. I couldn’t figure out what most of the things did, but two were obvious. Keeping the blaster pistol and the comm, I handed all but those two items back to the marine who captured him, then ordered the marines holding Thor to bring him to the bow rail.
“Your men are going to lose, Thor,” I said, pointing at the distant battle. “This is your chance to save a few lives. When I hold the comm to your mouth, order the men to surrender.”
Thor laughed, drawing a rough shake and glares from the marines. “Show some respect!”
“Or what? You’ll kill me?” Thor looked me in the eyes, calm despite the situation. “I could not care less about the lives of any of those men fighting over there. If their deaths can also buy the death of your planet despoiling husband, I’ll die knowing my sacrifice was worthwhile.”
I cursed myself silently for not turning the comm on before speaking to this strange man. That one admission could have spurred exactly the surrender I wanted. I thumbed the unit on, hoping Thor might see fit to say something equally damning.
“I don’t understand you one bit,” I said. “How can you hate humanity so much that you’re willing to throw away the lives of those who serve you?”
Shifting his eyes to the comm, Thor smiled and said, “The Mordanians have taken me. Press the attack and avenge me!”
I nodded at one of the marines and a fist slammed into Thor’s stomach. His breath whooshed out of him, leaving him incapable of speaking. Raising the comm, I said, “This is Her Royal Highness Princess Callan of Mordan. Throw down your arms and surrender. You have my word you’ll receive fair treatment and fair trials.”
“Well, well, if it isn’t the media darling herself,” said an unknown, feminine voice. “I’ve turned off the links to the comms worn by our men. They haven’t heard a word since you first turned the comm on.”
“And you must be the lady of the base. Freya, isn’t it?” I replied.
“That’s the name I’ve used on this operation.”
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me your real name?” I asked. “I so dislike using false names.”
“Says the woman who uses one name and three titles when introducing herself,” Freya sneered. “Besides, I haven’t used my birth name in decades. You’ll just have to make do with what you know.”
“Have it your way. I’m sure the Terran Federation will discover your real name when we turn you over to them.”
Soft and sultry laughter came from the comm. “You’re not going to capture me, little princess, and you’re not going to hold Thor for much longer.”
Despite his wheezing, Thor managed to gasp out, “Farewell, my love. Savor this revenge!”
I looked at the man in alarm, recognizing someone accepting the idea of his own death. “Throw him overboard!”
The marines didn’t hesitate, tossing Thor over the railing immediately. The marine who had captured him tackled me to the deck a second before the explosion. With sickening splats, pieces of Thor landed on the deck. A thin red mist rose next to the Tercel before drifting away on the wind.
“Are you hurt, Your Highness?” demanded the marine who tackled me.
All around us, officers and airmen rushed to our aid. Men shouted as I tried to reassure everyone. Then Dr. Mach pushed through the crowd and knelt next to me.
The doctor’s eyes roamed over my body with a detached professionalism I rarely received from men. “I don’t see any injuries, Your Highness. How do you feel?”
“I feel quite grateful to the sergeant and his men for their quick reactions, Doctor. Now, if you would all stop hovering, I’d like to get up.” I smiled to take any possible sting from my words. Once back on my feet, I turned to Captain Jorson and asked, “How goes the battle?”
Now reassured I was unhurt, the crew quickly turned their attention back to the battle. Seconds later, Jorson said, “The Tercel has been seen, Your Highness, and it looks like our arrival has taken the fight out of our enemies. They’re surrendering!”
A cheer rose from the crew and I felt my knot of tension loosen. Lieutenant Tucker, his spyglass still raised to his eye, spoke over the cheers, “A good hundred of the cowards have taken to their heels, Captain, and are running off into the desert.”
Grinning broadly, Captain Jorson said, “A fat lot of good that will do for them, eh? They’ll come crawling back to surrender when they get thirsty!”
“I am less certain of that, sir,” Tucker replied as he unconsciously leaned forward. “It looks like Captain Rice has Boosted and is pursuing them!”
My knot of tension tightened once again. “Can you see why he’s chasing them, Lieutenant?”
“I’m looking, Your Highness, but—” Tucker froze for an interminable second, his glass locked on something far beyond my unaided sight. “Good God, it’s the Vanguard’s ensigns, the ship’s boys, and a young woman! An officer must have ordered them away before the battle began, but they’re too tired to run fast. If Thor’s men catch them, they’ll negotiate the lives of the youngsters against their own freedom!”
“Does the crew of the Vanguard have their situation well in hand?” I asked.
Jorson swung his spyglass back to the wrecked airship. “They do, Your Highness. Shall we go to Captain Rice’s aid?”
“Yes, Captain, and at all possible speed,” I replied, silently praying we could reach David in time.
“Mister Montgomery!” Jorson called across the deck. “We need all the speed you can coax from the engines!”
“Aye aye, sir!” Montgomery said, unabashed glee evident in his voice. “And thank you, sir!”
The roar of the engines increased immediately. The airship’s big propellers thrummed louder as they spun faster and faster. To my surprise, I had to catch hold of the railing to keep from losing my balance as the big airship surged forward. The Vanguard's crew waved as we passed overhead, cheering us onward.
I raised a hand to shield my eyes as I squinted into the bright morning sunlight. I made out a single figure—David, of course—standing between the mob of men and the children. Then, to my horror, the men sprang toward my husband!
Can David hold Thor’s men off until the Tercel arrives? Find out in Chapter 48, coming Friday!
Monday, July 13, 2015
< Chapter 45 Chapter 47 >
Outnumbered but fighting gamely, the crew of the Vanguard struggle on against Thor’s men as the Tercel comes to their aid.
My heart swelled with pride and renewed purpose at the sight of the mighty Tercel steaming our way. Even at this distance, we could make out marines and airmen gathering along the railings and preparing to join the battle. If I could just be heard over the din of battle, maybe I could convince Thor’s men to surrender and save lives on both sides. Captain Wright beat me to it.
“Vanguards!” Wright bellowed in a voice capable of carrying to all corners of an airship in combat. It easily rose over the clash of swords. “Our sister ship, the Tercel, comes from the west! Hold out for another minute and we’ll have these blackguards outmanned and trapped between two forces!”
Silence descended as everyone turned and looked west. At the sight of the low-flying Tercel, our men roared in triumph. All around us, the will to fight leaked from our enemies. Their shoulders sagged, the blades dipped, and their eyes darted about as if frantically searching for some place to hide from the approaching airship.
The officer who fought with Wright and me took this quiet moment to note, “The trogs are charging along behind the Tercel!”
Hope flared in the faces of our enemies for a second, then Wright dashed it.
“The trogs must have switched to our side, Lieutenant Arnot. Otherwise, Captain Jorson would have his crossbowmen firing at them.”
As Thor’s men once again lost hope, I called, “Lay down your arms and surrender! On my honor, you’ll be treated fairly.”
A few men dropped their swords and it looked like we had the situation well in hand. Then four of Thor’s men bolted, leaping from the Vanguard’s hull and running off to the east. Then it was as if a dam broke and a hundred or more men ran off after them. Our men were too tired and too outnumbered to give pursuit.
“Let them go, men,” Wright ordered. “We can round them up later.”
“But sir,” Arnot said, “Ensign Marlow led the girl, the other ensigns, and the ship’s boys in that direction!”
Wright and I shielded our eyes as we looked directly into the rising sun. Not more than two hundred yards ahead of the mass of retreating men ran a band of small figures. They stumbled and staggered, obviously exhausted from the overwork in Thor’s base and a sleepless night filled with running and fighting. Excited shouts rose from some of Thor’s men as they caught sight of the group ahead of them.
“They’ll take the lass and those lads hostage and bargain the children’s lives against their own freedom,” Wright said. He looked back over his shoulder at the Tercel. “Captain Jorson won’t know to pursue until he gets here and I doubt he could reach the youngsters in time, anyway.”
My mind went back six years to our return to Aashla after defeating the space pirates and establishing contact with the Terran Federation. I felt again the horrible anguish as Callan and I told Kim that Milo, her younger brother and the last of her family, died so I could live. I saw again the wracking grief which overcame Kim as we delivered the news.
I knew Chris and Jade well enough to feel certain they would put up a fight against Thor’s men. I knew Mordanian ensigns well enough to know they’d follow Chris’s lead. And I knew Thor’s followers well enough to know they would probably kill several of the children while trying to subdue them.
These thoughts must have shown on my face because Captain Wright said, “I don’t think there’s anything we can do to help them, sir.”
“Like hell,” I said and jumped to the ground.
As soon as my implant received the command, it flooded my body with adrenaline and my fatigue vanished. I was running as soon as I hit the ground, tearing across the desert in long, strong, inhumanly fast strides. I was dimly aware of the cheering voices of the Vanguard’s crew before I tuned out everything except the backs of the men running ahead of me. The ground blurred beneath my feet as I rapidly closed in on the trailing edge of the retreating men. I considered simply hacking my way through them in the hopes of drawing all attention to me and away from the fleeing children. Certain that would make the leaders all the more desperate to reach Chris and the others, I tried another tack.
“Clear the way or die!” I shouted when I was no more than ten yards from the closest men.
Several looked over their shoulders to see who shouted. Their eyes widened when they saw me bearing down on them. With my churning legs and raised sword, I hoped I was the embodiment of my trog nickname.
Never one to pass up a chance to spout lines like you’d hear in an adventure vid, I added, “Give way before the Hand of Death or feel his wrath!”
To my relief, the men dove aside and I charged into the middle of the mass of men. I gave voice to a wordless battle cry and more men turned to see what was approaching. Some cleared the way, some froze in shock, and others ran all the harder to get away from me. I dodged around one man before swinging my sword in a wide arc before me. The blade sliced across the backs of three men. They all screamed in pain and stumbled.
I leapt at the man directly ahead of me, pushing him farther down before planting a foot on his shoulder and springing forward. I passed over a couple of men who watched me with goggle-eyed astonishment. I saw no open ground to land on so, using the quickness Boost gave me, landed on another shoulder. I felt bone crack beneath my boot as I ran on. I used another man’s head for my next step, driving the man to his knees as I sprang away.
This time, I came down on open ground with only two men between me and the kids. Those men spun to face me, swords swinging in unison. I beat aside the attack from my right and simply caught the other man’s sword arm with my free hand. In riposte, I drove my sword through the man on the right. At the same time, I twisted the other man’s arm and yanked down. His wrist broke and his shoulder popped out of its socket. Yanking my sword free, I ran past the dying man and into the open.
Fifteen yards ahead of me, Chris, Jade, and the rest of the youngsters stood with weapons ready. Jade and two of the ship’s boys held blaster rifles and the others held blades. Their chests heaved from the run and their arms shook with fatigue, but they all wore looks of grim determination which gave way to wonder as I burst from the mob of men.
The charging men ground to a halt, still trying to figure out what had happened. I stopped in the open ground between the two groups and spun to face the men.
“You’ll have to go through me to get to these children,” I said, struggling against Boost to speak slowly and clearly. “The first man who makes a move toward them will die on the end of my blade. As will the second. And the third. And however many others I have to kill before you give up.”
A voice called from inside the mob, “He can’t kill us all! Get him!”
The men before me surged forward!
Can David turn back Thor’s men before they overwhelm him? Find out in Chapter 47, coming Wednesday!
Friday, July 10, 2015
< Chapter 44 Chapter 46 >
As greater numbers threaten to overrun David and the crew of the Vanguard, Callan and the Tercel draw closer.
A young ensign brought a speaking trumpet to me as the Tercel closed on both Thor and the trogs. The young, eager face reminded me of Chris and I’m afraid my smile of thanks also bore a tinge of sadness. With a nod, the boy ran back to help with the preparations to capture Thor.
Under the supervision of the marine commander, lines were tied off along both sides of the airship. The plan involved marines swinging down to the ground and subduing Thor while the Tercel drove on toward the wreck of the Vanguard. Any plan devised to speed help to David and his men while also capturing the rogue galactic had my full support!
When apprised of the plan, I’d given my approval and offered one suggestion. “If it’s possible to pull Thor onboard without slowing down, please do so. He could be a handy tool for convincing his men to surrender. ‘Without slowing down’ is the vital phrase, Captain.”
Jorson relayed that to the six men picked for the job. Within seconds, betting pools formed around the marines’ chances of dragging Thor back to the Tercel and which marine might pull it off.
Meanwhile, fierce fighting ranged across the broken hull of the Vanguard. Thor still had his back to us, yelling commands into a device I assumed was a radio. Were some of his men equipped with radios, as well, so Thor could direct the battle? I found myself hoping that was the case since Thor hadn’t shown any indications of military training. His advantages lay in superior numbers and weaponry though something must have happened to the blaster rifles. I’d watched a barrage of inaccurate shots at the beginning of the charge but nothing after that.
Tearing my eyes away from the battle, I moved to the railing as the airship approached the trogs. They’d stopped their jogging retreat at our approach, watching us with what must be wary eyes. Captain Jorson and I went to the airship’s railing and gave a friendly wave to the trogs. The idea was to let them catch sight of Lady Death and to reassure them we offered no threat to them.
“Your Highness, could you hold off calling to the trogs until my marines have swung down upon Thor?” Jorson asked. “The man’s concentration is locked on the battle and I’d hate to draw his attention away from it.”
“That’s an excellent suggestion, Captain,” I said.
As the ship passed by the trogs, their posture relaxed and they lowered their weapons. Curiosity kept them watching us, though, and several pointed when the marines climbed atop the railing. I looked for Thor, but he was hidden by the Tercel’s hull.
One after another, the marines jumped from the railing and swung out of sight. I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the sound of blaster fire or the ring of steel. Before I heard either, a sudden cheer rose from the port railing and an officer yelled, “We’ve landed our catch, lads! Reel it in before it squirms off the hook.”
“We’ve got him, Your Highness!” Jorson crowed.
Grinning, I turned back to the trogs. More of them pointed and though I couldn’t hear their chuffing laughter, I saw many of them watching the scene with amusement. I raised the trumpet to my mouth and waved my other arm over my head.
“Trogs! I am Lady Death, the mate of the man you call the Hand of Death. He fights against the coward you so recently served, the man who refused the Hand of Death’s challenge for leadership, and the man we’ve just captured!” The trogs were falling behind quickly, so I skipped any other formalities and came to the point. “Come with us and join the Hand of Death in his fight. I give you my word you will be well rewarded if you do so!”
I lowered the speaking trumpet and watched for any sign the trogs accepted my offer. Most of the trogs didn’t understand Mordanian and required a translation from the few who did. Nothing happened for a few terribly long seconds, then a small group of trogs turned and ran after the Tercel. Another band followed, then two more, and then the whole mass of trogs was running in our wake!
I turned back to the deck in time to watch the crew hoist a marine over the railing. He had one strong arm wrapped around Thor, managing to keep hold of him and pin his arms at the same time. Two more marines took the galactic in hand while the one who captured him quickly and expertly removed every weapon and device Thor carried. The man presented them to me as the other two bound their sputtering, red-faced prisoner
“Well done, gentlemen!” I cried. “Now let’s go help the crew of the Vanguard!”
Will the Tercel reach the Vanguard in time? Find out in Chapter 46, coming Monday!
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
< Chapter 43 Chapter 45 >
As the Tercel draws near, Thor’s men attack David and the crew of the Vanguard.
A barrage of blaster bolts blazed glowing trails in the dawn air, whizzing harmlessly past Captain Wright and me. Running and firing at such long range made accurate shots virtually impossible, especially for men with little training in their use. Within a few seconds, the rate of fire dropped off significantly before stopping all together.
“Remember when I estimated those blaster rifles could fire twenty-five or more shots on a single charge?” I asked Wright. When he nodded, I said, “It appears I overestimated that number by a fair margin.”
“I am, of course, devastated to discover a member of the royal family is capable of a mistake of such magnitude, sir,” Wright said.
“I’d be just a tad more likely to believe that if you weren’t grinning quite so broadly, Captain.”
With a horde of men three times our number charging down upon us, Wright threw back his head and laughed. As the men closest to us passed the explanation down the line, the laughter proved contagious. Nothing Wright or I said was all that funny, but pre-battle tension can amplify anything—worries become terrors and mildly amusing becomes hilarious. The thing about battle tension is that it affects both sides.
Fifty yards away, the men leading the charge saw Wright laugh as if he hadn’t a care in the world. The tension worked on their minds, too. Seeing such relaxed behavior from an opponent surely gave them pause. Their steps faltered and their headlong charge slowed. The men behind the leading edge crashed into the slowing ones before them. Men tangled and fell, tripping up more men as they were trampled by their fellows.
The charge didn’t break, but it sewed confusion among our enemies and, for a minute or so, reduced their number by almost a quarter. The men who reached the wreck of the Vanguard still yelled their battle cry, but some of the lust was gone from it.
Wright signaled his men and the rest of the Vanguard’s crew gave voice to their own battle cry as they surged up from behind the airship’s keel. Again, the leading edge of the charge faltered and our line crashed into them. Swords swung, blood flew, and the hollow hull thumped like a drum from the pounding of all the feet upon it.
Our line held for a few seconds before the fight broke into small pockets of swirling action. Wright and I formed a triangle with one of the airship’s other officers, protecting each other’s backs as we fought off the mass of attackers. Holding the high ground worked to our advantage, as any man we knocked backward was likely to tumble off the hull, taking one or two of his fellows down to the ground with him.
My sword rose and fell, swung and sliced, tore and thrust. Soon the bright silver blade Rob gave me was red with the blood of my enemies. My grip grew slick from sweat and a dull ache developed in my arm as it could never stop moving. With a clash of steel on steel, I deflected a thrust aimed at Wright’s back. I reversed my swing, bringing the edge of the blade across the chest of the attacker. The man screamed and stumbled backward. I caught sight of two ribs exposed by my cut before the man tumbled out of my line of sight.
For a few precious seconds, the fight moved away from our trio. All three of us used those seconds to scan the battlefield. Knots of crewmen battled all around us and, to my biased eye, gave better than they got. But no matter how valiantly our men fought, the math still didn’t work out for us. The crew had to take down three of Thor’s men for every man we lost just to break even. Without easily defensible choke points, like we had inside the wreck, it was only a matter of time before we were overrun. Boosting might buy us a few extra minutes, but the end result would be the same.
As despair rose up from within, Wright caught my shoulder and pointed his sword to the west. “Sir, look over there!”
Plainly visible in the dawn light and steaming our way at top speed came the Tercel!
Can David and the Vanguard’s crew hold on until help arrives? Find out in Chapter 45, coming Friday!
Monday, July 6, 2015
< Chapter 42 Chapter 44 >
Still outnumbered three to one, David and the crew of the Vanguard await Thor’s charging men.
At the lookout’s call, I rushed to the bow of the Tercel, joining Captain Jorson and his first officer. “Can you see anything of this battle, Captain?”
“Yes, Your Highness, and what I can see is strange to say the least!” Jorson replied. “There are three groups out there, not the two I expected.”
“May I borrow a spyglass and see for myself?” I asked.
The first officer offered his glass to me. “I’d be honored, Princess Callan.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant…” I ducked my head in embarrassment. “I beg your pardon, but I don’t know your name.”
The man saluted. “James Tucker at your service, Your Highness.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Tucker,” I said, raising the spyglass to my eye.
It took me a moment to find the wreck of the Vanguard and bring it into focus, but my heart leapt at the sight before me. David stood atop the broken hull with Captain Wright next to him. Seventy or eighty of the airship’s crew crouched just behind the keel. A hundred yards away, at least two hundred and fifty men charged across the desert toward them. Just as many trogs jogged slowly away from the impending battle. And in between the two groups stood a lone man, his head swiveling back and forth between the charging men and the retreating trogs.
“Well, I see my husband managed to put himself right in the middle of another battle,” I said, lowering the glass. “He’d better enjoy it because we have one thing to do before we can help him.”
“We do, Your Highness?” Jorson asked.
“Most definitely, Captain. Do you see the man standing between the charging men and the retreating trogs? I want him. Take him alive if you can. Kill him if you can’t.”
“You think he’s the ringleader?” the captain asked.
“Most definitely. He’s attempting to lead this battle from the rear, which isn’t the way we do things here on Aashla. And just look at the way he’s dressed—not even the most ridiculous court jester would wear such clothing in public.” Jorson and Tucker exchanged mystified glances at my comment. I patted both men on the arm. “Surely you’re willing to accept a woman’s word when it comes to fashion, gentlemen?”
“Ah, yes, most definitely, Your Highness. I freely admit my wife must exercise the fashionable eye for both of us. I am hopelessly blind in such matters.” Jorson then pointed toward the retreating trogs. “But I doubt Thor’s ignorance of Aashlan fashion repulsed the trogs. Begging Her Highness’s pardon for my language, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why they’re leaving.”
“I heard worse language from my guards when I still slept in the palace nursery, Captain. No pardon is required. As for the trogs, I expect David challenged Thor to a duel and Thor refused,” I said. “I just wonder if David thought of it himself. Once he’s decided fighting is the only way out of a situation, he tends toward tunnel vision.”
Jorson nodded, “That would explain things. With your permission, Your Highness, Lieutenant Tucker and I will give the orders to snatch Thor and then go to your husband’s aid.”
“Of course, Captain. Though if you could spare a few seconds to have a speaking trumpet brought to me, I’d appreciate it.”
“Certainly. I’m sure the men would appreciate a word from you before heading into battle.”
“Which I’ll be delighted to give, Captain, though I think they’ll appreciate allies even more.” The two officers looked at me blankly, so I pointed at the trogs. “They aren’t willing to follow Thor any longer, but perhaps they’ll follow Lady Death in defense of the Hand of Death.”
Comprehension dawned on the two men when they heard the trogs’ nickname for David and me. Tucker grinned broadly, “Just retribution, if ever I heard it, Your Highness!”
I turned back toward the fight, raising Tucker’s glass to my eye. As orders rang out behind me, the mass of charging men swarmed up the side of the Vanguard’s broken hull. I watched David for the subtle change in speed and grace which would indicate he was Boosting. When I didn’t see the changes, relief that he wasn’t risking the damage Boost does to a body warred with consternation that he faced the mass of enemies without Boost’s benefits.
“Hang on darling,” I whispered. “Help is near!”
Then Thor’s men reached David’s position and he vanished into the swirling mass of hand-to-hand fighting!
Will help reach David in time? Find out in Chapter 44, coming Wednesday!
Friday, July 3, 2015
< Chapter 41 Chapter 43 >
David has challenged Thor to a duel for leadership of Thor’s army.
Amplified laughter rang out in response to my challenge. When Thor managed to control his mirth enough to talk, he did so in galactic basic. Derision dripping from every syllable, he said, “Can you truly be that stupid, Rice? Have you spent so much time reading the public accounts of your so-called adventures that you’ve begun to believe them?”
“I have little interest in reading some writer’s interpretation of my life.” After my initial gal base response, I switched to Mordanian. “Should I assume you are refusing my challenge?”
Thor stuck to gal base, giving me the impression none of his followers spoke the language. “I am under no illusions concerning my prowess as a fighter, Rice. I’m far too intelligent to think I would stand a chance against you in a fight. You, on the other hand, have bought into this planet’s ridiculous concepts of manhood. You were raised in the Terran Federation—surely you understand all of this talk of honor and duty is nothing more than the prattle of an ignorant populace.”
“Perhaps it is you who led a sheltered life in the Federation, Thor.” I stuck to Mordanian, trying to make sure the gist of Thor’s words got through to the trogs around him. After my brief run-in with the trogs at the top of the mountain, I felt safe assuming some of them understood me. “I learned of honor and duty from a young age and felt right at home in the Scout Academy.”
Thor snorted at that. “I rest my case. I must admit this has been amusing, Rice, but now it’s time for you to surrender or die in a pointless display of that honor you hold so dear.”
“I had to try, Thor,” I called back. “For the record, would you please respond to my challenge in Mordanian?”
Thor heaved an amplified sigh and switched languages. “Very well, Rice. Let it be known that I decline your challenge to a duel.”
I watched the trogs on the edges of Thor’s mass of followers, waiting for them to respond to Thor’s refusal. I was still looking for movement from the trogs when Wright caught my arm.
Pointing to the left side of the mass before us, the captain said, “There, sir!”
I looked where he pointed and relief flooded through me. A small band of trogs broke away from the men around them and jogged back toward the mountain. Then another group of trogs broke from the crowd’s fringe. Then it became evident the trogs deeper inside the crowd were pushing their way through the men.
Someone near Thor spoke, his words amplified just as Thor’s had been. “Sir, the trogs are leaving!”
“I can see that!” Thor snapped. “Find out why.”
“They won’t follow you anymore, Thor,” I called.
“How do you know that, Rice?”
I admit taking extreme pleasure from my answer. “Surely a man of your vast intellect can figure it out.”
“Damn you, Rice, did you work some stupid code phrases into your words?” Anger warred with confusion in Thor’s voice.
“Not at all, Thor. In fact, the trogs aren’t leaving because of anything I said.” A triumphant note crept into my voice. “They’re leaving because you refused my challenge.”
“That’s absurd,” Thor scoffed. “Only an idiot would have accepted your challenge! I cannot believe any being wishes to follow an idiot.”
“Didn’t you bother to study up on the trogs before you decided to come here and lead them in a great revolt against humanity?”
“I skimmed it, along with the obviously fictional story of David Rice, the great hero of Aashla,” Thor said. “My intellectual peers and I dismissed the propaganda spewed by the hand-picked so-called scientists you and the other oppressors allowed on this planet. Any child could recognize your attempts at myth-making.”
“At the risk of sounding trite, Thor, I think you’re just too damned smart for your own good!” The men gathered around me laughed as I continued, “I suspect you’re right, trogs probably don’t want to follow idiots. But I know they refuse to follow cowards. When you refused my challenge, you showed your cowardice. That was pretty stupid, don’t you think?”
“We still outnumber you by more than two-to-one, Rice, and you’re only protection is a hulk of wood!” Thor raged. “Men, forget my orders to take prisoners. Burn the wreck and slaughter them all!”
With a bloodthirsty yell, the men still under Thor’s command charged!
Will the Tercel reach our heroes before Thor’s men slaughter them all? Find out in Chapter 43, coming Monday!
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
< Chapter 40 Chapter 42 >
As the Tercel steams toward our heroes at top speed, Thor demands David surrender or be burned out of the Vanguard.
My gaze swept over the men gathered in Vanguard’s largest hold. Hard eyes looked back from faces covered with blood and sweat and grime. Each face wore a grim, resolute smile. Men too wounded to stand on their own were supported by comrades. Front and center, unconsciously holding hands, Jade and Chris watched me with the same resolution as the rest.
I turned to the man standing next to me. “Captain Wright, you heard our opponent’s demand. Should we accede to it?”
“Sir, the finest crew of the finest ship to ever sail the skies of Aashla stands before you,” Wright said. “Men like these are destined for greatness—and you don’t achieve greatness by giving up!”
A ragged cheer rose from the men. I held my hands up and silence fell immediately.
“Ensign Marlow?” I asked.
Surprised to hear his name called, Chris released Jade’s hand and snapped to attention. I returned his salute before saying, “At ease, Ensign.”
I looked back and forth between the two teenagers. “I have a particularly tough set of orders for you, Ensign. I want you to lead Jade, the other three ensigns, and the four ship’s boys to safety.”
“You want me to abandon my ship and my crew in their most desperate hour, sir?” Surprise and consternation filled Chris’s voice.
“I want you to save the youngest and most vulnerable members of this crew. I want you to carry on in memory of the Vanguard. I want her story told far and wide. And, should this be the end for those of us who stay, I want you to offer comfort to the families of the crew—from the parents of the lowest ranked airman to Her Royal Highness, Princess Callan.” I placed a hand on the young ensign’s shoulder. “I told you my orders were particularly tough. Are you up to it?”
“Aye, aye, sir!” Chris snapped.
All in all, it was a truly moving moment. One filled with manly stoicism. Every man present swelled with pride and honor. The teenage girl present was less impressed.
Her green eyes wide in what I soon recognized as incredulity, Jade said, “Wow, you guys really are ready to die and you’re feeling pretty damned pleased with yourselves about the whole thing. Far be it from me to get in the way of your mad charge toward the grave, but could I offer a suggestion first?”
All around the hold, men turned affronted glares on the girl. Next to me, I sensed Captain Wright drawing himself up to issue a stern rebuke. I hurried to speak first.
“If you have a better idea, Jade, I will be most happy to hear it.”
“Why don’t you just challenge this Thor guy to a duel for leadership of the army?” she asked.
I furrowed my brow, puzzled. “You know as well as I do that he won’t accept the challenge. It won’t even buy us an extra minute, so what would be the point?”
Jade actually rolled her eyes at my question. “Did you pay any attention to the army you’re fighting? At least half of them are trogs.”
Comprehension dawned on me though Chris responded first. “Of course! If he refuses, the trogs will see him as a coward and abandon him! And if he fights, Captain Rice will kill him! That’s brilliant!”
His face shining with excitement, Chris wrapped his arms around Jade and kissed her. Surprised, Jade stiffened for a second before settling into the kiss. Hoots and hollers from the crew suddenly got through to the young couple. Blushing furiously, they broke apart, eyes downcast.
“My deepest apologies, sir,” Chris said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
At a glance from Wright, I let him respond to his ensign. “You should apologize, Ensign Marlow. If I were in your place, I’d kiss the young lady a second time!”
The crew laughed as Chris and Jade stared at Wright in surprise. From somewhere in the crowd, a voice called, “Don’t just stand there gawking, lad! Vanguards never shirk their duty!”
I waited a few seconds for the embarrassed pair to finish a much more awkward kiss.
“Ensign Marlow, while our plans have changed, your orders have not. I still believe this will come to a fight and, now that we’ve got the enemy fixated on those of us inside the Vanguard, I want our youngest crew members away from here.”
“Aye, sir,” Chris responded. “With your permission, I’ll gather my charges.”
When I nodded, Chris and Jade went through the various holds. They returned a minute later, trailed by the ensigns and ship’s boys.
“Stay low, keep the Vanguard between you and Thor’s little army, and don’t stop for anything except a direct order from a superior officer,” I said. “Do you have any questions?”
“Good. Take off as soon as I call out to Thor and draw all of their attention to me.”
With that, I left the broken hull and climbed atop it. Wright came with me as Chris and the other youngsters waited for my challenge.
“Do you have any idea why this Thor fellow pulled all his men back to him?” Wright asked. “A smart commander would have kept us encircled.”
“We already know Thor isn’t a smart commander. He’s a brilliant technician, I’ll grant you, and probably assumes brilliance in one area means he’s brilliant at everything else.” I stared across the quarter mile of open ground to Thor’s army, trying to pick him out of the crowd. He wasn’t anywhere near the front. “I also suspect he’s afraid I’ll Boost, somehow cross a quarter of a mile before anyone reacts, and kill him. So he surrounds himself with sword fodder.”
“Coward,” Wright muttered.
Instead of responding, I raised my voice and yelled, “Thor, can you hear me?”
From somewhere within the mass of men and trogs, a voice responded, “Yes. Are you ready to surrender?”
“Not in the least,” I called. “I challenge you to trial by combat for leadership of your army!”
Will Jade’s idea work? And what of the Tercel? Find out what happens next in Chapter 42, coming Friday!