Friday, May 29, 2015
< Chapter 26 Chapter 28 >
David is surprised to spot Ensign Chris Marlow—someone he thought was dead—among the Mordanian airmen!
“Chris is alive!” I hadn’t even meant to say that aloud, but I couldn’t help myself.
Jade looked away from the scene of her boyfriend’s bullying. “Who’s Chris?”
“The only one of those three men your sort-of-boyfriend didn’t knock down.”
“My ex-sort-of-boyfriend, you mean.” Disgust mingled with pain in Jade’s voice. “Why did you think this Chris guy was dead?”
“He charged two dozen trogs to distract them long enough for Callan and me to get away.” The scene replayed in my mind, including the two blaster shots I’d thought killed the brave lad. Even with Chris standing not fifty yards from me, the memory still sent chills down my spine.
“Wow,” Jade said, wonder replacing the pain her voice held just seconds ago. “That was really brave.”
Below, Chris helped the two Mordanian airmen to their feet, studiously ignoring the insults Forbose hurled at his back. The two older men staggered to their feet, exhaustion and thirst weighing heavily on them. Chris’s face burned with anger, but he just pointed his two chain-gang companions toward the anti-grav airship.
All work on the airship came to a standstill as Forbose verbally lashed Chris. In the night air, without the sounds of work to mask it, Forbose’s next barb carried clearly to us.
“Yeah, slink away boy. That’s what I’d expect from the bastard get of some dockside doxy!”
All expression drained from Chris’s face, along with most of the blood. His back slowly straightened, his shoulders flexed, and his hands balled into tight fists.
I unslung one of the two blaster rifles from my back and shoved it into Jade’s hands. “Have you ever shot a crossbow?”
Taking the blaster, the startled girl nodded.
“Good. Aim the rifle like a crossbow except you can ignore wind and gravity. Then just pull the trigger.”
Below, Chris spun around, putting all of his strength and momentum behind his punch. Blood burst from Forbose’s nose as Chris’s fist smashed it flat. The bigger boy staggered back, shocked at this sudden attack. Forbose’s blaster rifle flew from his hands, landing well away from the four men.
“You’re rescuing Chris?” Jade asked. At my nod, she added, “Good. Who do I shoot?”
“Anyone who looks like they need shooting, especially if I point at them with my sword,” I said, swinging onto the ladder down to the desert floor.
Chris shuffled forward to hit his tormentor again. With anger clouding his judgement, the ensign forgot the chains tethering him to the other two airmen. The links stopped his feet and Chris fell to the ground. He caught himself with his hands, but he now lay at Forbose’s feet.
“Got it,” Jade said as if my instructions made all the sense in the world. “If I knew your plan, it would be easier to pick helpful targets.”
“And if I had a plan, I’d tell it to you.”
Shouts erupted from below as the fight attracted more attention. I longed to turn and see what was happening to Chris, but I had to concentrate on the ladder if I had any hope of reaching the ground in time to help. Even hopping down three rungs at a time, it felt as if minutes passed before I reached the ground even though my implant told me it was no more than half a minute.
I feared the eruption of blaster fire from the cave with every passing second. When my feet touched ground without hearing it, I wondered if Thor might still be cleaning and wrapping most of the blaster rifles. It wasn’t the only explanation—perhaps the man simply didn’t care if the guards and prisoners mixed it up a bit—but I fervently hoped my explanation was right.
By the time my feet hit the ground, the shouting drowned out most other sounds. Sprinting to the airship, I got my first look at the fight between Forbose and Chris since I got on the ladder. Blood covered Chris’s face, streaming from a gash above one eye and a cut lip. Pain forced the ensign into a crouch, probably from bruised or broken ribs. Blood still dripped from Forbose’s nose and he had the makings of an excellent black eye. Despite having his mobility seriously compromised by the chains, Chris was putting up quite a fight.
I charged up a ramp on the side of the airship and grabbed the first airman I came to. I yelled over the shouts, “Where’s an officer?”
The airman glanced at me and his eyes fairly popped out of his head. “Captain Rice, you’re safe! Is Her Highness—”
“Safe and unharmed. But where’s an officer?”
“Of course, sir!” The man turned and led me to the railing. “Captain Wright? Sir, it’s Captain Rice!” Raising his voice even more, the airman called, “And Her Highness is safe and well!”
A ragged cheer rose from the men. Captain Wright spun around so fast I half expected the man to get dizzy. He wasted no time with small talk. “What’s the plan, sir?”
I shoved the blaster rifle into his hands. “Shoot any chains attaching you to the ground. I’m going to fetch Ensign Marlow and his two companions then we’re getting out of here in this airship.”
Wright passed the rifle to his first officer, pointing at three chains running over the ship’s railing. “That’s not possible, sir. The galactic says the power is drained.”
“No doubt the power is low, but no one runs their power out so completely that they use up the last little bit of it landing. I’ll bet we have enough to get off this mountain before it runs out.”
“Excellent. If you’ll wait one moment, sir, I’ll have some men to accompany you.”
“The men stay on the airship, Captain.” Wright opened his mouth to protest, but I talked over him. “That is an order.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
I vaulted the railing, drew my sword and charged toward the crowd around Chris and Forbose!
Can David pull the three airmen out of the crowd and make good his escape? Find out more in Chapter 28, coming Monday!
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
< Chapter 25 Chapter 27 >
While David deals with the two guards, Jade disobeys orders and descends toward the desert floor, two hundred feet below!
Swearing silently, I scrambled onto the ladder and climbed after Jade as quickly as possible. The rough-hewn wood of the ladder ruled out the old navy trick of gripping the sides of the ladder and sliding down. Somehow, I doubted a dozen splinters in each hand would prove helpful if more fighting was called for. I settled for taking two rungs at a time, hoping to catch up with the girl before anyone spotted her.
Changing ladders at the ledge, I saw Jade remained well ahead of me. Growing up on airships, the height didn’t bother her and the climbing barely slowed her down. Frustrated, I picked up my own pace, taking three rungs with each step.
“Jade!” I hissed as loudly as I dared. “Stop and tell me what’s going on!”
The girl looked my way and I waved her back to me. She shook her head and pointed down. Another narrow ledge was below her, this one no more than fifty feet from the bottom of the cliff. Having set her terms, Jade turned away and resumed her descent. Cursing silently, I followed after her. Knowing Jade was stopping at the next ledge, I took more sedate two-rung steps the rest of the way down to her.
When I reached the ledge, Jade was stretched out on her stomach gazing intently at the scene below. In other words, I wasted a perfectly good glare on the back of her blonde head. I dropped onto my own stomach so we’d both be harder to spot, putting my face a foot from hers. Even then, the girl kept staring below. I gave the area a quick scan, saw nothing out of the ordinary, and brought my glare back to Jade.
Taking her chin in my hand, I turned her head so she faced me and hissed, “What do you think you’re doing? Is this your idea of doing exactly as I say?”
The girl’s eyes dropped from mine. “I know you told me to stay with you, but—”
“There are no ‘buts’ in this, Jade. This is a terribly dangerous situation made far more dangerous by you haring off like this!” Rather than continue berating her, I went right to my strongest argument. “Would you do something this reckless on the Wind Dancer?”
Jade’s eyes blazed for a moment. “Of course not—someone could get hurt or killed! It would be… irresponsible.” Jade hung her head. “I’m sorry.”
“What made you do something so…” I was going to say ‘stupid’ but thought better of it. Jade was most definitely not stupid. “So impulsive?”
Jade turned her eyes back to the scene below. “I thought I saw someone I recognized.”
I caught myself before telling her I saw dozens of people I knew and once again tempered my words. “Who did you see?”
“Forbose. He worked on another merchant airship and it went missing about a month ago. We took the course past this place so we could look for him and his ship.” Jade laid her head down on her arms. “He’s sort of my boyfriend.”
“Ah, so I have competition for your affections.”
Jade snorted a short laugh. “You’re just a handsome fantasy for me and my friends. Sort of like Callan and all the boys I know—except the boys have it a lot worse for Callan.”
“That makes sense. After all, she is the most beautiful woman on eight planets.”
“Yeah, don’t remind me. How can we girls hope to compete with Callan, even if she is nothing more than a fantasy for the boys?”
“Just be your smart, snarky, funny self. Any boy who doesn’t appreciate that isn’t worthy of you anyway.” I turned my gaze down to the anti-grav airship and all the activity around it. “And mentioning boys appreciating you, do you see Forbose down there now?”
Jade stared hard at the cave mouth and desert floor, her eyes sweeping methodically back and forth over the scene. After a minute, her head rose up and her stare intensified. She pointed toward the right side of the mouth of the cave. I sighted along her arm and spotted a young man about Jade’s age.
The boy lifted a small ladle out of a metal tub sitting at his feet, bringing the ladle to his mouth. After drinking his fill, he poured water over his head and let it run down his neck.
“That is Forbose!” Excitement drove Jade’s voice from a whisper to a low speaking tone. “Oh, David, we’ve got to find a way to rescue him!”
Dropping the ladle back into the tub, Forbose bent over and picked up something leaning against the tub. As he rose, the light from the cave illuminated the object in the boy’s hands. Forbose cradled one of Thor’s blaster rifles.
Jade gasped. This time when she spoke, her voice was barely audible. “No. No. That can’t be! Not Forbose!”
As the two of us watched, three men chained together staggered toward the tub. Forbose rose to his full height, brandished his blaster rifle, and stepped between the men and the tub. The three men argued or pleaded with Forbose, pointing several times at the tub of water. Jade’s boyfriend—almost certainly now her ex-boyfriend—stood fast, waving for the men to go back to work on the airship. When the three didn’t immediately leave, Forbose rammed the butt of his blaster rifle into the stomach of one of the men. The man doubled over and stumbled back into one of the other two men. They both tripped over the chains and fell down, leaving the third man in clear sight for the first time.
It was my turn to gasp as the light fell across the face of Ensign Chris Marlow!
The trogs didn’t kill the ensign after all, but what can David do to help him? Find out in Chapter 27, coming Friday!
Monday, May 25, 2015
< Chapter 24 Chapter 26 >
As David peers over the cliff edge at Mordanian airmen forced to work on the anti-grav airship, Jade hears someone coming up the trail toward our heroes!
Two voices conversing in low tones came from around the long curve in the trail. We had mere seconds to get out of sight before the owners of those voices came into view. Only, there was no place to hide at the end of the trail—no handy jumble of boulders, no crevices to slip into, nothing.
If the men had blaster rifles, they’d have us dead to rights. If they only had swords, I could almost certainly win past them though not before they raised the alarm. That meant I had to find a way to take them out quickly and quietly. That left us with only one place to go—down.
“Climb down the ladder, Jade. Do you think you can fit between the ladder and the cliff?”
The girl’s eyes widened in surprise, but she took a quick look over the edge of the precipice and nodded.
“Good. Go down about ten feet then do that. Loop your arms through the rungs and hold tight once you’re in place.”
Having grown up on and around airships, Jade ignored the two hundred foot drop to the desert floor and climbed nimbly down the ladder. Once there was room, I followed her. Jade easily maneuvered to the back side of the ladder and threaded her arms and legs around the rungs. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing she wouldn’t get knocked off the ladder if I were forced to throw anyone over the cliff.
The voices drew closer, talking in low tones and joking like men on a boring duty have done for thousands of years. “It’s a good thing the boss sent us up the side of the mountain. Those two idiots going the other way couldn’t find their own asses with both hands and a mirror.”
“Yeah, but as my old sergeant use to say, there’s a place for morons in every army.” The man paused briefly for dramatic effect. “And that place is between you and the enemy crossbows.”
The other man laughed. “I’ll have to remember that one.” The laughter stopped and the man raised his voice. “We saw the pile of dirt and stones you must have used to conceal yourself under that rock. Whoever you are, we know you came this way because we’d have seen you if you went down.”
The man paused for a few seconds, probably giving me a chance to surrender peacefully. I looked down at Jade and held my finger to my lips. She nodded.
“There’s no place for you to hide up here, so we know where you are. Why not save everyone lots of trouble and come on up? We’re under orders to take prisoners if possible. Otherwise, we shoot to kill.”
Another few seconds passed before I heard the pair resume walking toward the end of the trail. They stopped a few feet from the edge and I heard one of them get down on his hands and knees.
The man crept to the edge. I made my move when the top of his head came into view.
My implant poured adrenaline into my veins and time slowed. Above me, the man’s eyes widened at the sight of me. Before he could even open his mouth, I punched him fast and hard in the throat. My blow crushed his windpipe, leaving the man’s mouth opening and closing to no effect. He was already dead, his brain just hadn’t gotten the message yet.
By instinct, the man’s hands went to his throat. His chest dropped to the ground and the man’s body started sliding over the edge. His partner gave a cry, grabbed the dying man’s feet, and pulled him back from the cliff’s edge. With the other guard distracted, I made my next move.
Grabbing the top rung of the ladder, I shoved off hard with my feet and swung feet first onto the edge of the cliff. The healthy guard had just enough time to realize something was wrong before I kicked him hard under the chin. His head snapped back with an audible crack and the man collapsed, his body spasming in the throes of death.
I pulled the asphyxiating guard away from the edge and snapped his neck, giving him a few seconds respite from a particularly horrible way to die. Then I dropped Boost.
Both guards carried blaster rifles, which I took. From the look of the guns, my lesson on weapon cleanliness impressed Thor. The rifles’ delicate electronics were wrapped in airship envelope cloth—not as effective as the molded shells a Federation blaster had, but much better than leaving the rifles open to the elements.
“Jade?” I called in a low voice. “It’s safe to come back up.”
The girl didn’t answer. My heart leapt into my throat for fear she’d lost her grip on the ladder. I rushed to the edge, praying I wouldn’t spot her crumpled on the ledge at the end of the first ladder. I spotted her on the ledge, all right, but she wasn’t injured in the least.
I got there just in time to see her swing onto the second ladder and climb down!
What does Jade think she’s doing? Find out in Chapter 26, coming Wednesday!
Friday, May 22, 2015
< Chapter 23 Chapter 25 >
David and Jade huddle in a small crevice as the windstorm blows outside.
I awoke with a start as I felt a hand covering my mouth. My eyes refused to spring open as gummy eyelids resisted my first attempts to pry them apart. Just as I wondered if Boost was required to force the lids apart, both of them slowly pulled apart.
“Shhhh!” Jade hissed.
As my brain came up to speed, I realized the girl’s hand covered my mouth. I nodded slightly so she’d know I understood. I blinked to clear my eyes and my eyelids stuck briefly. The sticking eased with each blink, though my clearing vision revealed very little. Weak light from Aashla’s ring filtered into our crevice, barely illuminating Jade’s green eyes and blond hair a couple of inches in front of me.
The girl pulled her hand from my mouth and whispered in a tight voice, “I heard voices just now.”
Keeping my voice as low as hers, I asked, “You’re facing out—can you see anything?”
She lifted her head and worried eyes peered past me. “Not really. I think the windstorm piled a lot of dirt and small rocks against your back.”
Only when she mentioned the windstorm did I notice the wind no longer shrieked behind me. Then I heard the sound of feet walking through loose stone.
“What’s with this foot search, Van? Ain’t this what that fancy airship is fer?” The voice held the whiny tone of a born follower.
“The bat reez what run it be pleated so’s they sent us.” The second voice was both confident and exasperated. It reminded me of every know-it-all I’d ever met.
“Oh. Can it be repleated, Van?”
“Course it can, Cletus. Didn’t you listen up when we joined?”
The footsteps stopped not ten feet from us. I imagined Van looking at Cletus in irritation.
“I tried, Van, but it didn’t make no sense.”
“They’s got to…” Van paused as if trying to recall exact wording. “Uh, deploy the solar collectors. But they don’t work if’n the sun ain’t up.”
“A’right, Van, but that don’t splain what we’s doing lookin’ around up here. It ain’t like we can pull the sun up.”
“Damn, Cletus, we ain’t looking fer the sun. We’s lookin’ fer survivors from that little airship what the boss said was flyin’ round this here mountain. Someone musta made it since them trogs what was guardin’ up here done disappeared. Now come on.”
The footsteps started again, heading down the mountain and away from us.
“I don’t rightly mind much if’n them survivors kilt a few trogs, Van. Never liked workin’ with them no how.”
The voices faded as the men walked away so we barely heard Van’s response.
“Shut up, Cletus.”
As the footsteps drew farther away, I whispered, “Well, there go a couple of born minions.”
Jade snorted quietly and slapped a hand over her mouth. After composing herself, she whispered, “Don’t do that! What if I’d laughed out loud and brought those two back here?”
Doing my best to imitate Cletus’s accent, I said, “Welp, I figger I could make ‘em think they done found a talkin’ rock. Or if’n they’s got blaster rifles, I ‘spect they’d probably shoot each other.”
The girl clapped a hand over my mouth again. “Shut up before I really do start laughing!”
The exchange eased much of the girl’s tension, so I did as she asked and changed the subject. “I want to get out of this crevice, but we’ll only go if you’re up to it. Did you get any sleep?”
“Yeah, I got enough sleep. It’s not like I did anything really tiring today. Or yesterday.”
“Good. You’ve got better ears than me. Can you hear anything out there?”
Jade listened intently for half a minute. “I can’t hear anything. We’re as clear as we’re ever going to be, David.”
I slowly swept an arm behind me, pushing debris away from my back. Then I rolled out over the remaining hump of junk and rose stiffly to my feet. I cleared more space for Jade and she wiggled out of the crevice. We both took a minute to stretch the kinks out of our muscles.
“Are you feeling okay, Jade?” At her nod, I continued, “Okay. You need to work your way down the mountain and get back to your father. You’ve just got those two idiots to—”
Jade folded her arms and glared at me. “Oh no you don’t, David Rice! You need someone to watch your back up here. And if you run into any more trogs, who’s going to tell them you’re the Hand of Death?”
“I appreciate the offer, Jade, but there’s no way I can take a teenage girl with me any closer to this place!”
“You’ve taken teenage boys on adventures before! Or did the stories get that wrong?” The girl’s glare intensified when I shook my head. “Besides, I’m just going to double back and follow you as soon as you’re out of sight. So either we both go back to my father or we both go on.”
I blew out my breath in exasperation. “You sound just like Callan.”
Jade grinned. “Thank you!”
“Fine, you can come—but only if you do exactly as I say. This is just a scouting mission. We’re going close enough to get a look at what’s going on and then we’re leaving. Is that clear?”
I walked in the direction the trogs and the two minions came from. “Stay close and stay quiet.”
We slipped silently along the path, ears and eyes searching the area for any indication of guards. I was closer to my destination than I’d imagined. A couple of hundred yards later, we came to the edge of a precipice. Looking over the edge, I saw a ladder attached to the rock. It descended to a ledge about thirty feet below us. The top of a second ladder was visible descending from the ledge. Most of that ladder lay in darkness, but I assumed more ladders allowed men and trogs to ascend from the desert floor a good two hundred feet below us.
Bright light spilled from the mouth of a large cave far below, illuminating the desert floor where sat the docking space for the anti-grav airship. Men in chains moved around the airship, cleaning it and making repairs. Even in the dim light, I recognized Mordanian naval uniforms on the men.
Just then Jade caught my arm. “Someone’s coming up the path!”
Are the two moron minions returning or is this someone David must worry about? Find out in Chapter 25, coming Monday!
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
< Chapter 22 Chapter 24 >
The weather control machine whips up another windstorm, catching our hero out in the open at the top of a mountain.
The wind pushed against Jade and me like a giant hand, driving us backward. Sand and grit scoured every inch of exposed skin, opening dozens of scrapes. Small rocks hit all over our bodies, their jagged edges opening larger cuts which soon filled with dust and dirt.
Jade’s arms suddenly flailed as the wall of air pushed her off balance. I caught her around the waist and pulled her to my side. I spun the two of us around so the worst of the wind struck our backs then put my mouth to Jade’s ear.
“Stay low, keep your back to the wind, and don’t let go of me.” I couldn’t even hear my own shout over the wind, but Jade nodded her head. “Can you see any kind of shelter where we can hole up?”
In the dark and with all of the junk swirling in the air around us, I had little hope of finding any kind of cover—and I was partially right. I found myself putting what little energy I had left into keeping the wind from blowing Jade and me off the top of the mountain. But Jade, better rested and with younger eyes than mine, spotted something. Her arm shot out pointing to our right. I couldn’t see anything that way, but I lowered my shoulders and shoved my way through the strengthening wind in the direction Jade pointed.
After fighting my way across the longest ten feet of ground I’d ever crossed, we came upon a boulder leaning against a sheer part of the mountainside. Jade pointed down and I saw there was a space between the boulder and the little cliff face. Kneeling, I all but pushed Jade into the crevice then rolled in after her. The wind and the dust still assailed my back, but my body shielded Jade from the worst of the storm and we could breathe freely.
The girl’s face was right in front of mine, but I could barely see it. I felt her body trembling though I couldn’t tell whether that was from the exertion, fear, or cold.
“Are you all right, Jade?”
She started at the sound of my voice and must have turned to face me. I felt short, shallow breath on my cheek. I pulled the girl close to me, offering the comfort of human contact. Her body was stiff as a board.
“Slow your breathing down, Jade. You’ll feel better if you take long, deep breaths.”
Gradually, the girl’s breathing slowed and her body relaxed. Outside, the wind still howled, grit still got inside my shirt, and stones still smacked into my back. Inside, we had a small pocket of calm which slowly soothed Jade’s nerves. After a few minutes, she turned her head and pressed it against my chest.
“I thought this would be more,” Jade paused for a couple of seconds. “I guess romantic is the right word.”
“Real adventures aren’t romantic, Jade. Mostly, they’re uncomfortable and terrifying.”
“Um, yeah. That’s what I meant.”
Callan says I’m pretty dense when it comes to figuring out members of the opposite sex. I say that just means I’m no different than any other man. But for once, I actually put two and two together and figured out what Jade was talking about.
“You’re not talking about adventures, are you? At least, not just adventures.”
“I, uh, don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s probably because I’m entirely wrong about something,” I said.
Jade was quiet for about a minute before she said, “You’re not wrong. I was talking about being rescued by you.”
“We can pretend I was wrong anyway,” I replied, “if you’d prefer that.”
Jade gave a long sigh. “No. Besides, being rescued by someone like you is just a silly little girl’s dream. It’s time I grew up.”
“First, you rescued me by saving me from fighting those trogs. I just helped you get out of the wind. Second, your dreams may change form as you get older, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon them.”
“There’s a part of my story that isn’t in any of the books or vids or songs people keep creating about me.” I smiled though Jade couldn’t see it. “I guess you could call the story David Rice and the Search for the Spacebabe.”
Jade listened attentively and snickered in all the right places as I told her of my lifelong dream of finding adventure among the stars and how the dream evolved into finding my soulmate. When I wrapped up the story, she sighed and said, “That is so romantic and sweet and pretty much impossible for us normal people.”
“Nothing in life is impossible, Jade. Believe in your dreams and they’ll come true in ways you could never imagine or predict.” I broke off for a huge yawn. “And now I really need to get some sleep.”
With the wind still lashing my back, I dropped into a deep and desperately needed sleep.
What will our hero find when the storm abates and he wakes up? Find out in Chapter 24, coming Friday!
Monday, May 18, 2015
< Chapter 21 Chapter 23 >
Barely able to stay on his feet, an exhausted David hears a trog patrol coming his way!
With no place to hide and no energy to run, I did the only thing possible. I drew my sword, offered up a prayer for a miracle, and waited for the trogs to round the bend in the path.
Seconds later, four trogs walked into sight. Talking among themselves, they walked several feet before noticing me blocking their way. The four carried spears instead of the expected blaster rifles. Was this an answer to my prayer or had Thor made a point of examining all of the blaster rifles when he returned to base. Had he discovered just how filthy the guns were? Either way, the trogs regarded me quizzically for several long seconds before their leader handed his spear to one of the others. Holding his hands up to show he was unarmed, the trog took a couple of careful steps my way.
I readied my sword, which made the unarmed trog raise his hands higher and wave them back and forth in the human sign of negation. I relaxed my stance and lowered my sword, relieved the trog hadn’t seen my arm shaking slightly from the exertion. A strange buzzing assailed my ears, no doubt further proof of my exhaustion.
The trog pointed at me with his left hand and then pointed to his right hand. Finally, he made a fist with his right hand and hit himself on the chest. He did this another time before turning a questioning look my way.
What the hell was this trog trying to say? My exhaustion fogged brain couldn’t figure it out. I shook my head and shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The trog muttered something in his own language. I imagine it was along the lines of, “Why is this human so stupid?” Then he went through the entire pantomime a second time. When he hit himself on the chest, though, he added a theatrical head roll and his tongue lolled from his mouth.
As tired as I was, even I could figure out the trog was playing dead. With that minor realization, I caught onto another part of it. Careful not to appear threatening, I reversed my hold on my sword, ran it between my left arm and my body, and copied the tongue lolling.
The trog nodded and took a step my way. I jumped back and raised my sword again. “Whoa there! I didn’t say you could just walk up and kill me.”
The trog shook his head, gave me a dark look, and returned to his squad. Once again armed, he and his patrol readied their spears.
Damn my exhaustion! I’d obviously missed any chance to get out of this without fighting—which meant I’d probably missed any chance of getting out of this alive.
“He’s asking if you’re the Hand of Death.”
The voice, young and feminine, came from above me. As one, the trogs and I looked up. Fifty feet over us floated the Wind Dancer’s pinnace. Captain Cochran’s daughter Jade stared down at us from the railing.
The trog leader pointed at Jade, looked at me, then nodded.
“Can you understand what I’m saying?” I asked. Trog vocal cords are very different from human ones, making it all but impossible for either race to speak the other’s languages. But you don’t have to speak a language to understand it.
The trog nodded.
“And you were asking if I am the human the Great One calls the Hand of Death?” When the trog nodded, I said, “Yes, I am that human.”
The trog immediately launched into a far more elaborate pantomime. Within seconds, I was completely baffled.
“Hey, trog,” Jade called from the little airship, “do you know the trade signs?”
With a look of considerable relief, the trog nodded.
Jade vented gas from the pinnace’s envelope, bringing the little craft closer to the ground. “Let me land this thing and then I’ll translate for you.”
I scanned the pinnace’s railing for signs of Callan. Seeing none, I asked, “Where is my wife?”
“When we reached the wreck of the Dancer, Captain Dad insisted she stay with him and the crew.” The girl’s voice broke slightly when she mentioned the airship she’d named. “He didn’t really want to let me come after you, but we had to know if you were safe.”
“Remind me to thank your father for both keeping Callan safe and sending you to check on me. How did he convince my wife to stay behind?”
“He didn’t. As I lowered the pinnace, Her Highness was leaning over the rail arguing with my father over his plan. Mom and the others had already slid down lines to the ground, so I gave a signal to Dad and pushed the princess overboard. You can tell she grew up around airships because she can swear like an airman when she’s angry.”
Jade hopped lightly from the pinnace when it touched down. She and the trog exchanged gestures for a minute or so before Jade turned to me. “The short version is the trogs are honored to meet the Hand of Death and don’t want to test the truth of your name. In fact, they really just want to get away from the crazy humans—those are my words, the trog called them ‘sun touched’—and go home.”
I turned to the trog leader. “If I let you go in peace, will you tell the Great One about this place? We may need his help before this is over.”
All four of the trogs nodded emphatically and hurried past me. Jade and I watched them trot along the path and disappear from sight.
“It’s a good thing trogs can’t read human body language,” Jade said. “Could you have beaten them in your current condition?”
“Probably not. So allow me to thank you doubly for your timely intervention.” I kissed the girl’s hand and was rewarded with a blush and a giggle. “And now, m’lady, you should return to your father and report my condition to him.”
“You can’t send me away now! What if you need another translation? I—”
The buzzing I’d heard earlier returned, stronger and much louder than before. It drowned out Jade’s protests and we both looked around for the source. A hundred yards away, a glowing silver ball emerged from the top of a rock chimney. Tiny lightning bolts flashed from the ball and off into the sky. Within seconds, a stiff wind sprang up, rocking the grounded pinnace.
Jade broke for the airship as soon as it moved. I caught her arm and pulled her back.
“Let go! I’ve got to get my pinnace away from this storm!”
I pointed to the silver ball. “It’s not a natural storm, Jade. The wind is just getting started. When it reaches full power, it will smack that pinnace out of the sky as easily as you could swat a bug. We’ve got to find cover now or it might even blow us off of this mountain.”
Jade gave the pinnace a forlorn look then followed me along the path. We were still out in the open when the full brunt of the wind struck!
Can David and Jade find shelter from the storm? Find out in Chapter 23, coming Wednesday!
Friday, May 15, 2015
< Chapter 20 Chapter 22 >
David sails the sand schooner back to the mountain base of the fippers.
Just before night fell, the last rays of sunlight streaming over the mountains glinted off of something in the air far ahead of me. The object’s speed left no doubt it was the anti-grav airship now under the command of the self-proclaimed god of thunder. Considering the man had a weather control machine, I guess there was some merit to his claim. Still, his hubris rubbed me the wrong way. Since coming to Aashla, I’ve precipitated the downfall of princes, criminal underlords, and space pirates. It was time to add a pair of false gods to the list.
The desert floor was fully dark so spotting me and my sand schooner from such a distance was all but impossible. As I watched the airship speed through the darkening sky, the implications of its course hit me like one of Thor’s proverbial thunderbolts. The airship’s flight path traced back along the course the Wind Dancer’s pinnace took when Jade piloted it and its precious cargo away from the doomed merchant ship! Without Raoul—well known for his obsession with me—in command of the airship, Thor obviously set off after the pinnace. But could he catch it after all the time spent chasing the Dancer? Did Jade alter her course once her ship was out of sight of the chase?
I knew in my bones Callan would have advocated a course change to learn how the pursuit of the Wind Dancer ended. Did they end up flying right into the path of the other airship? Were Callan, Jade, and the rest of the passengers now prisoners on the very airship my eyes tracked across the sky?
The logical part of my brain interrupted this worrisome emotional train of thought. It combined what I knew of the fipper fringe mindset with what I knew about Raoul. From allowing Raoul to pursue me to abandoning and killing Raoul when he found himself unable to capture me, Thor’s actions struck me as surprisingly Raoul-like in nature. So, what would Raoul have done if he’d captured Callan and Captain Cochran’s family? Without a doubt, Raoul would have returned both to gloat and to force my surrender. Logically, that meant Thor did not hold Callan and the others captive.
Logic and emotion argued back and forth, with neither fully suppressing the other. In the end, I tried my best to push the question from my mind and concentrate on getting into Thor’s base. And that problem kept my mind busy for the rest of my ride. That ride took me past the ruins of our original airship. Though the crash happened the previous night, it felt as long ago as the morning we set out from Morda on our tour of the research stations.
I steered the sand schooner toward a patch of scraggly bushes at the base of the mountain, lowering the sail as I rolled up to it. I resisted the urge to charge headlong up the mountain and spent half an hour partially dismantling the schooner and hiding it as best I could in the bushes. By the time I finished, the schooner wasn’t likely to be spotted from the air though a foot patrol would find it easily enough. Without a backward glance, I started up the mountain.
I was most definitely not returning to the cave I visited hours ago during the morning. It was watched and was, according to Raoul, a trap just waiting for me to step into it. He told me of another entrance, one I could reach by circling around the mountain in the opposite direction from the cave. I knew nothing else beyond Raoul’s brief directions as he rushed to tell me as much as possible before dying from Boost Burnout.
Unsure what awaited me, I spiraled up the mountain, angling well away from the cave mouth. I’ll be honest, the climb nearly did me in. In normal circumstances, I’d have slept for hours after my Boosted run up this same mountain to catch up to the Wind Dancer as she passed over the mountaintop. Instead, I got almost fifteen entire minutes of rest before Callan was forced to wake me up. Since then, I’d remained on the go and even Boosted a second time for my duel with Raoul. My muscles ached and I desperately wanted to curl up under some bushes and sleep until sunrise. But I had to view this other entrance to their base before resting so I’d at least know what I was up against when I woke up.
So I stumbled and staggered up and around the mountain, past piles of boulders and more of the slippery screes which are all over this wasteland of a mountain. I found myself stopping for a rest every thirty minutes. Then it was every twenty minutes. Soon, I was resting five minutes out of every fifteen and struggling mightily to stay awake. But I finally found myself approaching the back side of the mountain and staggering toward its crest.
That’s when I heard trog voices coming from around a bend in the trail. Realizing they were coming my way, I looked about for a place to hide. In an unsurprising end to a day in which very little had gone right for me, I was caught in the middle of a large patch of barren mountainside. With trogs only a few dozen yards away, I had no place to hide!
Will the trogs capture or kill an exhausted David? Find out in Chapter 22, coming Monday!
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
< Chapter 19 Chapter 21 >
Raoul is dead, but he told David much of what the rogue galactics have planned before dying.
I went to Captain Cochran. Assured by the Dancer’s medic that he had tended all of the serious crew injuries, Cochran sat still while the man splinted the captain’s broken leg. I got to Cochran just in time to help set his leg, helping a second crewman hold the captain down during the procedure. Cochran sucked breath through gritted teeth when the medic aligned the bones then turned his pale face my way.
“The Spare Prince is dead?”
“Good.” Cochran laid his head back on the ground. “He went quickly. Did he suffer?”
“More than you can possibly imagine. I’ve come close to Boost Burnout once and Raoul’s last few minutes were…unpleasant.”
“God have mercy on my soul, but I am not sorry to hear that.”
“Many others will feel as you do when they hear of Raoul’s death. His brother Rupor, who still remembers Raoul before court intrigue changed him, may be the only man who will truly mourn Raoul’s death.”
“Family is like that—using the good memories to paper over the bad,” Cochran said. “But what did Raoul tell you during his last minutes? Did you learn anything useful we can use against these two galactics?”
“Quite a bit, actually, though there’s no ‘we’ in this.” Cochran tried to rise and I gently pushed him back down. “You have a broken leg and half of your crew is injured. You’ll need the uninjured half to take care of you until rescue arrives. Besides, I can move more quickly by myself.”
“We’re miles from the…base? Lair? Whatever you want to call where these galactics are hiding. It’ll take at least two days to get there on foot.”
“Oh, I’ve got an idea about that. One I’ve even used in the past.”
Cochran’s face screwed up in thought for a couple of seconds. “Ah ha! You’re talking about that sand schooner thing you built to chase after your kidnapped princess when you first crashed on Aashla.”
“I am indeed. Captain Cochran, may I borrow the healthy members of your crew to help build it?”
“Mister Yarrow!” Cochran’s first mate materialized beside his captain. “Gather a work crew and do as Mr. Rice instructs.”
The Wind Dancer’s crew worked quickly and efficiently, following my instructions without question. Building the sand schooner within sight of the bodies of three of their fellow crewmen and using supplies salvaged from the wreck of their airship was all the motivation the men needed. Every man working with me volunteered to come with me and watch my back and every man accepted my rejection with a nod of acknowledgement.
We finished the sand schooner late in the afternoon. Several of the less injured crewmen presented me with a sail made from envelope patching cloth and two more gave me a bundle of supplies, including some precious water.
With the whole crew watching, I seated myself on the schooner and ran up the sail. The wind, freshening as the light faded, filled the sail and the sand schooner rolled forward. Cochran offered a salute with the men following suit. I gave a two-fingered salute in return. Then the sail caught the wind and I accelerated away from the crew and wreckage of the Wind Dancer.
The sand schooner rolled along at a steady speed, slowly but surely eating up the miles between me and the rogue galactic base. Piloting the craft took minimal concentration, giving me plenty of time to consider what Raoul told me. The dying man didn’t understand a lot of what he told me, but I understood all of it.
Our two rogue galactics—Thor and Freya, self-selected names for sure—claimed membership in the Association For Indigenous Peoples. Members of AFIP—‘fippers’ in common slang—believe the Federation has a poor record for protecting primitive sentient races who have the misfortune of having their planet colonized by humanity. I’m honest enough to admit that the fippers make some good points and they have helped push through legislation protective of primitive sentients.
Many of the members can be sanctimonious, but that’s about it. The problems come from the fringe fanatics who believe humanity cannot be allowed to live on the same planet with primitive sentients without causing irreparable harm to the nascent culture. This fringe uses violence to sabotage human colonies and, they hope, drive the colonists off the planet. The simple fact that the fipper fringe have never succeeded at this doesn’t bother the fanatics in the least. But there’s a fringe of the fringe, fippers so far out there that the parent organization has officially disowned them.
This farthest out fringe breaks every stricture the fippers hold dear. They find ways to smuggle advanced weapons to the native race and foment armed attacks against human settlements. Thor and Freya, of course, come from this far-flung fringe.
Raoul didn’t know their full plan, but they promised him the throne of Tarteg. In return, Raoul would use the Tartegian Navy to transport armed trogs around the world. The exiled prince thought the pair were crazy and was certain their plan couldn’t succeed, but he managed to convince himself he could win the Tartegian throne before everything went to hell.
I agreed with Raoul that Thor’s and Freya’s plans were doomed to failure. I disagreed that he ever had a chance of winning the throne. But a lot of trogs and humans would die before Thor and Freya were stopped.
Someone had to stop the madness before it ever started. Someone had to fight for trog and human alike. Someone had to make Thor and Freya answer for the laws they’d broken and the people they’d killed.
That someone was me, David Rice, Prince Consort to Her Royal Highness Princess Callan of Mordan. And, by the way, Scout First Class of the Terran Exploration Corps.
Can David put a stop to these fippers? Find out more in Chapter 21, coming Friday!
Monday, May 11, 2015
< Chapter 18 Chapter 20 >
Even Boosted, Raoul cannot defeat David.
Raoul lay at my feet, disconsolately staring after the retreating airship. There was a time—long, long ago—when I had felt sympathy for Raoul and his cruel nickname of the Spare Prince. That was before I got to know him and learned what a back-stabbing, small-minded, revenge-driven jerk he was. When faced with a choice between right or wrong, truth or falsehood, courage or cowardice, I’ve never seen Raoul make the noble choice even one time. Inevitably, his poor choices prove disastrous for others. From Rob, Callan’s lifelong guard, to the three dead crewmen from the Wind Dancer, someone else always paid the ultimate price for Raoul’s stupidity.
I leaned all of my weight onto the foot on Raoul’s back and stuck my sword half an inch into his shoulder. “I said yield or die.”
My foot forced the breath out of Raoul. It mixed with a sharp cry of pain from my shoulder stab, resulting in a ridiculous squeak. Dropping his head onto the ground, Raoul tossed his sword away. “I yield.”
I removed my foot from Raoul’s back and waved my blade before his face. “Get up.”
Raoul struggled to his feet, wincing at the pain from muscles overtaxed by Boost. “What are you going to do with me, Rice? You defeated me even when I could Boost, completely humiliating me in the process. What’s left other than death?”
I pointed to the bodies of the Dancer’s three dead crewmen, around which the surviving crew gathered. “Go over there.”
Raoul stared at me for a few seconds, shrugged and trudged in the direction I pointed. Two crewmen supported Captain Cochran, whose broken leg dangled untreated beneath him. His face screwed up in anguish, Cochran stared down at the bodies. Tears flowed down the captain’s cheeks and he shook his head from side to side as if refusing to recognize the bodies at his feet could bring them back to life.
Cochran looked down on a man about my own age. “How am I going to face Risha and her little boy and tell them Vass is dead? Vass’s boy worshiped him.” Cochran’s gaze shifted to a young man of perhaps twenty years. “Poor Min is at home right now, happy as you please planning her wedding to Thom. And now there won’t be a wedding or a life together.” Finally, Cochran’s eyes slid to the smallest body—a boy no more than fourteen. “And Charlie. God in heaven, I told his mother I’d look after him! How can I even look her in the face after this?”
“Do you see what you have done, Raoul?” I asked. “Not only have you killed three good men, you’ve devastated the lives of countless others who knew and loved those men!”
Every member of the crew turned our way when I spoke. Their distraught faces turned angry at the sight of Raoul. Fists bunched at their sides and a low growl ran through them.
His eyes locked on me, Raoul made an elaborate shrug and said, “Men die, Rice.”
The crew’s low growl rose to a roar and they surged at the exiled prince. True to form, Raoul realized his danger too late. He turned to face the onslaught and immediately Boosted.
With proper training and experience, one Boosted man can defeat a mob in hand-to-hand fighting. Raoul had neither training nor experience. He flailed about, landing lots of punches, but he didn’t analyze the mob’s movements. His dodges kept a few blows from landing, but he didn’t lead his opponents into hitting each other rather than him. Without any tactics on Raoul’s part, the crew soon swarmed over him and pinned his arms and legs. A big, strong crewman knelt on top of Raoul and mercilessly beat the prince’s face to a pulp.
Angry as the crew was at Raoul, they weren’t murderers. A minute or so after they swarmed over Raoul, the beating stopped and the crew just walked away. To my surprise, Raoul’s eyes blinked open and he stared at me through bloody, swollen eyes. The idiot must have kept Boosting through the beating.
Shaking my head in disgust, I said, “Drop Boost and let yourself pass out, Raoul.”
Spitting blood from his mouth, Raoul said, “I can’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“It won’t turn off, Rice.”
“The beating must have damaged it. See if you can find a way to shut down the whole implant!”
Raoul shook his head. “I didn’t even turn Boost on. It just started when the crew attacked.”
“You’ll die from Boost Burnout if you can’t turn it off!”
“I think that’s what he wants.”
“The galactic in the airship?”
Raoul nodded. “He doesn’t want me telling you his secrets. So listen carefully, Rice. You won’t have a second chance.”
I ordered my implant to record Raoul’s words. “Go. Speak as fast as you can.”
For the next six minutes, Raoul told me everything he could about the two rogue galactics and their plans. With each passing minute, the prince’s body grew tauter and his face more drawn. By the final minute, his words came in gasps as he struggled against his body to tell me everything I needed to combat the menace and, I suppose, take revenge for Raoul.
In mid-word, Raoul’s body arched and blood gushed from his mouth as his heart finally burst under the stress of Boost. I closed Raoul’s eyes and searched for some sense of sorrow, some depth of feeling for the man’s death. I felt nothing beyond a sense of relief that Raoul would never endanger me or mine again.
What did David learn from Raoul? Find out in Chapter 20, coming Wednesday!
Friday, May 8, 2015
< Chapter 17 Chapter 19 >
Like David and Martin Bane, Raoul can Boost!
My eyes widened in surprise and I felt my concentration waver from the duel as the implications of Raoul’s pronouncement hit me. If the exiled prince had shown the barest hint of patience and waited two seconds, I’d have dropped my guard entirely and been an easy target for the point of his blade. Instead, Raoul launched a furious attack and my mind snapped back to the task at hand.
One after another, I parried Raoul’s attacks. I also fell back from his onslaught, unable to mount any kind of counterattack. Trained in the art of swordsmanship almost from birth, Raoul’s skill easily surpasses mine with a blade. It’s been almost a decade since the one time the two of us crossed blades on the deck of the Pauline. Raoul had driven me back that time, too. But that time I’d carefully drawn Raoul into a trap.
I deflected another attack, but Raoul’s blade still scored a cut to my upper arm. Raoul grinned and stamped and wove his blade all around before me, leaving me wondering how such a dangerous swordsman could be so utterly unimaginative in everything else he did. A glimmer of hope followed on the heels of that thought. Raoul was quick, strong, and relentless with the sword, but he was also fixated entirely on me. Perhaps I could use that to turn the tables.
I recalled a small pile of debris from the wreck and carefully allowed Raoul to drive me backward to it. A grin split Raoul’s face and grew wider with each retreating step I took toward the debris. No doubt visions of me tripping over the broken timbers played through Raoul’s mind, surely followed by his sword driving through my heart. I fed those fantasies with widened eyes and rapid breathing. Raoul feinted at my shoulder then swept his blade around for a cut to my throat, all designed to force me to step back and trip over the debris. Against any normal man, the plan would have worked even if the opponent knew what was coming.
Because of Boost, I am not a normal man. As Raoul feinted, I launched myself into a backward flip which carried me over the pile of debris and safely to the other side. Expecting some kind of resistance to his attack, Raoul found his lunge unblocked and his forward momentum unchecked. With the choice of taking another step forward or falling on his face, Raoul took a hasty, off-balance step forward—right onto the pile of debris. The broken planks shifted under his weight and Raoul crashed to the ground at my feet.
I planted a foot in the small of Raoul’s back and pressed my sword against his throat. “Yield or die, Raoul.”
A calm, controlled voice speaking in galactic basic, said, “Release him, Mr. Rice, or I shall be forced to order my men to open fire on the crew of your ship.”
Keeping my foot and sword in place, I turned toward the anti-grav airship. A man close to my own height, though probably twice my age, stood on the deck. He wore the everyday clothing of galactic society and an imperturbable expression on his face. It was the look of a man confident in himself and his place in the universe.
“Before making threats, whoever you are, I suggest you take a look at the inner workings of those rifles.” Raoul stirred under my foot so I put more weight on it. “Dissipating your blaster shots was a benefit of our dust cloud, but that wasn’t its primary objective.”
A frown creased the man’s face as he took a blaster rifle from a member of his crew. The frown deepened as he studied the weapon. “Very clever, Mr. Rice. It appears I’ve underestimated you. It won’t happen again.”
The man turned to the four crewmen on the ground and spoke in a language I didn’t know though it sounded like one of the southern city-state dialects. The four men abandoned their positions, grabbing ropes dropped to them from the deck of the airship. As the crew hauled them up to the deck, the thrum of the anti-grav increased. Swinging about, the airship rose into the sky and flew back the way we’d come.
“What the hell?”
The words came from my feet. I’d been so distracted by the galactic on the airship, I’d forgotten all about the former prince. I regarded the man at my feet and shook my head.
“You know Raoul, you can’t pick allies worth a damn.”
What will David do with Raoul and what can he do about the galactic flying away from him? Find out in Chapter 19, coming Monday!
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
< Chapter 16 Chapter 18 >
Raoul’s airship drives the Wind Dancer into the ground!
Captain Cochran grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the stern railing. “Jump!”
All around the deck, crewman dove off the ship. As Cochran and I vaulted into open air I swore the ground was a lot more than twenty feet below us. We hung there for a second which lasted an hour then we plunged toward the ground. Behind us, the Wind Dancer continued its grinding disintegration against the hard-packed ground of the desert.
When I reached the ground, I did just as my trainers at the academy taught me to do. I hit with my knees bent to absorb some of the impact then let my entire body collapse into a momentum-draining roll. Pain lanced through my ankles, knees, and hips before the roll spread the hurt around to all parts of my body. When I finally rolled to a stop, I took quick stock of myself, flexing my legs and arms and twisting my neck. Everything ached but nothing was broken, so I struggled to my feet.
Cochran lay a few feet away holding his leg and cursing. I knelt next to him and pulled his hands away from his leg. It was obviously broken.
“I’m not dying,” Cochran said through gritted teeth. “Go check on my crew.”
I rose to my feet, sketching a salute. “Aye aye, Captain!”
I’d love to recount how I sprinted to the wreck to look for survivors, but the truth is the best I could manage was a fast hobble. My ankles and knees screamed with every step I took so I ordered my implant to release painkillers into my system. Within seconds, my speed increased to a slow jog. I called out to crewmen as I passed them and found none in desperate need of assistance. Two of the men were dead, but even they had grief-stricken friends taking care of their bodies.
The wreck of the Dancer spread out from the impact point for seventy or eighty yards, with timber scattered and piled all along its path. A few fires burned but, through some miracle, neither boiler exploded. Both had great holes in them from burst seams and the metal ticked and popped as it cooled. Moans and cries for help rose from half a dozen places and a few of the healthier crewmen were already helping free trapped men and move those too injured to move themselves.
As I surveyed the scene, deciding where I could be the most helpful, I heard a low thrumming from overhead. The anti-grav airship hovered ten feet above me. Half a dozen men trained blasters on me as Raoul smiled in triumph.
“Going somewhere, Rice?”
“Yes, Raoul, I’m going to help the crew of the airship you just wrecked.”
“I wouldn’t have wrecked them if they hadn’t taunted me!”
“Yes, you would.” I turned and resumed walking toward the nearest crewmen working to free a man buried under broken timber.
“Stop where you are or I’ll order my men to shoot!”
If Raoul was going to shoot me, he’d have already done it. At least, I hoped that was the case. “Is this how you repay me for rescuing you in the tunnels under Beloren?”
“I could have escaped on my own!”
“Then why didn’t you?” I reached the mound of debris and pulled a long, broken board from the pile. “Face it, Raoul, without Martin and me you’d have been tammar food. Now please shut up so I can get on with my work.”
The men and I worked for about a minute before I felt the prick of a sword in my back. I marveled that Raoul was stupid enough to abandon his superior position and superior firepower.
“Draw your sword and face me, Rice.”
I stepped away from the crewmen and drew my sword. Turning around, I found Raoul in a classic dueling stance. Four of his men—all armed with blaster rifles—stood well back from him, keeping watch on the crew. The rifles looked dusty, but I was too far away to see if the inner workings were dust fouled.
Raoul slashed the air with his blade. “Let’s go, Rice!”
Far be it from me to deny Raoul his little duel.
Adrenaline poured into my veins, time slowed, and my aches vanished. I flicked my blade at Raoul’s wrist to disarm him, then I could put my sword to Raoul’s throat and force his crew to surrender.
I was already stepping forward to grab Raoul when he parried my blade and sliced at my own wrist. Shocked, I barely pulled my arm back in time to avoid the thrust.
Raoul danced back lightly and he did not move in slow motion.
“Surprise, Rice!” Raoul said. “You and Bane are no longer the only men on Aashla who can Boost!”
Where did Raoul get an implant? Can David defeat Raoul with the advantage Boost gives him? Find out in Chapter 18, coming Friday!
Monday, May 4, 2015
< Chapter 15 Chapter 17 >
David spots the captain of the pursuing airship and it’s none other than Raoul, exiled prince of Tarteg!
I just stared through the binoculars for a few seconds wondering exactly what sins I committed in a previous life. Why else would God see fit to counter the boundless joy my family gives me with a pathetic, revenge-minded festering wound of a human like Raoul? And what kind of idiot would turn such a man loose on Aashla with galactic tech?
I lowered the binoculars. “Well, hell.”
“You look like you swallowed a live hornet, Captain Rice,” Cochran said. “What did you see?”
“The captain of our pursuing airship. He’s none other than my arch pain in the ass, Raoul.” I sighed, handing the binoculars back to Cochran. “He and I have crossed paths several times though not in several years.”
“And Raoul always comes out the worse for being foolish enough to go up against you.” Cochran grinned at the surprised look I gave him. “Even if Jade hadn’t told us all about your adventures dozens of times, we’d know about you and Raoul. I expect most everyone on Aashla does by now. That’s likely to make Raoul hate you even more, of course.”
“Count on it.” I glanced over my shoulder at the pinnace which was now well ahead of us. “On the plus side, once Raoul spots me he will completely ignore the pinnace.”
“Let’s not waste any time telling him that.” Cochran called his signal man over. “Mister Gant, could you please send a message to the airship behind us? Tell them Captain David Rice is aboard and warn them to turn aside before he gets angry.”
As Gant climbed to his signal perch, I couldn’t help but grin. “That message will have Raoul seeing red!”
Gant was only halfway through the message when the first crewman fired at us. A few more shots flashed our way, none of them coming remotely close to hitting the Wind Dancer, before someone—probably Raoul, who no doubt wants to watch me die up close and personal—got the crew under control again.
“Veer away from the pinnace’s course, Captain Cochran,” I said. “We need to make sure Raoul follows us rather than our families.”
Cochran ordered a sweeping course change to due north. To our considerable relief, the anti-grav airship followed us. Indeed, Raoul performed a more abrupt course change, cutting inside the arc of our turn and slicing off a big chunk of our lead in the process.
Shortly after that, another blaster bolt flew our way, missing the Dancer by a good ten yards. My hopes for a fusillade of poorly aimed shots which did nothing but drain power packs failed to materialize. Instead, one crewman fired every thirty seconds.
“Ranging shot,” Cochran said. “Smart move on their part and a much more disciplined approach from Raoul than I expected based on the stories. Once they get in range, those rifles could wipe us all out before the airship comes within crossbow range.”
“I know. I had three of the rifles in my hands before I made my mad dash to catch a ride with you. I had to drop them to carry Callan.”
“I don’t think three rifles would make much difference, David.”
“Especially those three rifles. The trogs never cleaned them. They had so much dirt and grit in them—”
Cochran raised an eyebrow when I stopped speaking. “Problem?”
“No, solution. Maybe.” I leaned over the railing and looked at the ground five hundred feet below us. It was just what I hoped for. “Do you trust your pilot to fly this fast but at an altitude of twenty feet?”
“The inner workings of those blaster rifles are open to the air, so it’s easy for dirt to get into it. If enough gunk gets into those rifles, they should stop working.”
“So you want to use the Dancer’s engines to kick dirt in Raoul’s face and into his rifles as well.” Cochran nodded as if the idea appealed to him. “Let’s give it a try!”
Over the next minute and a half, the Wind Dancer descended steadily. Once Raoul figured out what we were doing, he dropped steadily, too. By the time we leveled off, our engines kicked up a brown cloud of dirt and dust and sand in our wake. The fine particles served a second purpose, absorbing and dispersing the blaster bolts’ energy, essentially forming an energy shield between us and Raoul’s airship.
Raoul stuck to our stern, though he never descended far enough to match our altitude. The fringes of the dust cloud still enveloped his ship, giving us hope the blaster rifles were fouling. Raoul also kept shooting at us every thirty seconds, gauging a blaster bolt’s range through the dust cloud. Captain Cochran returned the favor with crossbows when the other airship pulled within fifty yards of us. To my delight, crossbow bolts flew far better through the dust than blaster bolts did. When our crossbowman winged Raoul’s rifleman, Raoul ascended out of crossbow range and, unfortunately, out of the dust cloud.
“Is Raoul giving up?” Cochran asked me when the Dancer’s envelope blocked our view of the other airship.
“Not likely. I’ll climb up on top of the envelope and see what he’s up to.”
“The hell you will!” Cochran’s expression brooked no argument. “I will not be the man who loses Aashla’s greatest hero to a random gust of wind.”
With a few shouted commands, two of Cochran’s crew ran up into the airship’s rigging and up the side of the envelope. Seconds later, the two men descended even faster than they went up.
“The other ship’s coming down on top of us!” shouted one.
“Brace for impact!” cried the second.
Then the airship shuddered as a great weight dropped onto the envelope and drove the ship toward the ground. Timber snapped and splintered as the Wind Dancer crashed bow-first into the ground!
Will our hero survive the crash? Find out in Chapter 16, coming Wednesday!