Chris and Jade, accompanied by Pete and Joy, return to Aashla for their end-of-year break from the Scout Academy.
“Watch out for that flock of birds!” Pete cried.
Peals of laughter rose from the pilot and her instructor, before Joy said, “Don’t worry, they’ll get out of the way.”
Pete eyed the mass of feathers and beaks ahead of us. “Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure!” Joy turned to Jade, her instructor, and asked in a low voice, “I am sure, aren’t I?”
Jade nodded and responded in the same low tones, “Yes, but it couldn’t hurt to come three points to starboard, just in case those are really stupid birds.”
I leaned against the rail, enjoying the sight before me. Sergeant Timms lounged with me, calmly tamping tobacco into his pipe.
“That Scout lass be right similar to your young lady, Lieutenant,” Timms observed. “She and Miss Jade don’t look alike—‘cept bein’ pleasingly female, if’n you’ll pardon me for noticin’, Sir.”
I grinned, “Knowing the way you Marines think, I doubt a battle to the death would keep one of you from noticing a pretty girl nearby—and telling his mates about her.”
“Ain’t it the truth, Sir!”
“Jade and Joy are both young enough to be your daughters, Sergeant. What would Mrs. Timms think, if she knew you are ogling such young women?”
“Knowin’ the missus, she’d think ‘At least he ain’t dead, yet’,” Timms laughed.
“Mrs. Timms sounds like a very practical woman, Sergeant.”
“All women be practical, Sir—leastwise, they be that way once you slide a wedding band on their finger.” Timms gave Jade and Joy an appraising look. “Though, maybe not them two. I ‘spect their innards were poured straight from God’s own bottle of ‘the devil may care, but I sure don’t’ magical liquor. You and your friend, Pete, gonna have your hands full with them lasses.”
Watching Jade laughing as she instructed Joy, I said, “I hope so. I’m looking forward to every minute of it, Sergeant. Every. Single. Minute.”
“You be wise beyond your years, Sir.” Timms checked the chrono on his wrist—a gift I brought back from the Federation for him and all the Marines in his squad—and said, “It be ‘bout time we was headin’ back, Sir. I ‘spect Dr. Agrilla be finishin’ up soon.”
“Thank you for the reminder, Sergeant.” Raising my voice, I called, “Jade? It’s time to return to the desert tribe’s camp.”
Jade snapped off a textbook Scout Academy salute. “Right you are, Lieutenant Loverboy!”
Giggling, Joy reluctantly yielded the helm to Jade. Pilot Lovergirl brought the Pauline around smartly and headed back toward the camp.
As with the summer before we went to the Academy, Jade and I were part of Dr. Agrilla’s medical mission to the desert tribes. To my surprise, my rank in the Mordanian Navy was temporarily reinstated and I was given command of Sergeant Timms’ squad of Marines.
Technically, this was supposed to be part of Jade’s and my tour of Aashla. The idea was to give Aashlanders everywhere a chance to meet—though, fawn upon would be more accurate—the planet’s first Scouts cadets. Since Callan knew the desert tribes couldn’t care less about the Scout Academy, I think she sent us with the good doctor to give us a break from royal receptions, parades, parties, and a whole lot of other stuff neither Jade nor I wanted anything to do with.
We had been able to protect Pete and Joy from most of that stuff, giving them a chance to see more of Aashla than Jade and I had managed to see during the tour. Unfortunately, they’d seen it all without us. I know they missed having us with them as much as we missed being there. The ever-observant Princess Callan saw that, along with how much Jade and I missed having time to ourselves. We suddenly found our tour of Aashla’s kingdoms and city-states cut short and all four of us added to the medical mission’s roster. Two days later, we shipped out on the Pauline with Dr. Agrilla—and the trip was exactly what the four of us needed.
Jade maintained average cruising speed heading back to the camp. I was pretty sure she really wanted to run the Pauline as fast as she could go, but she also wanted to extend the fun of flying for as long as possible. That’s why we were still airborne when the lookout called a warning.
“Warship off the port stern!”
“Any identification?” I called.
“Bringing her into focus now, Sir!”
Trying to ease the tension that comes with a strange warship sharing the sky with you, Sergeant Timms opined, “Likely, she be part o’ the Desert Patrol, Sir.”
Since our run in with raiders the year before and the timely arrival of a Tartegian warship, the Draconian Princess, to save us, the major naval powers of Aashla had begun regular patrols in the vast desert. From what I’ve heard, raiders were scarce in the area, now. I was just bringing my binoculars to bear on the other ship when the lookout identified her.
“She’s Mordanian, Sir! The Vanguard!”
“The Navy rebuilt my old ship?” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice. Looking at Pete and Joy, I said, “I can’t wait to introduce you to Captain Wright and the rest of the officers and crew.”
Pete’s and Joy’s worried expressions eased, and Pete asked, “So, there’s nothing to worry about?”
“With the finest ship in the Mordanian Navy around to protect us? You can definitely relax.”
“Not that Chris is biased toward the Vanguard or anything,” Jade added, smiling.
Then, something streaked from the Vanguard’s deck, trailing red smoke—a signal rocket. Three seconds later, another signal rocket launched from the warship, this time trailing blue smoke.
“What’s that mean?” Pete asked.
“It means they want to talk to us—urgently,” I replied, my tone serious again.
Jade was already bringing the ship around to an intercept course with the Vanguard and pushing the throttle forward. “I’ll have us alongside in four minutes, Chris.”
It didn’t even cross my mind to the double check her projected time to arrival. I could do all the math in my head, but all it would do was verify something Jade knew instinctively. Instead, I did what every good commander does in this situation—I tried to figure out what could be wrong. The thing is, I couldn’t think of anything.
“Would you care to hazard a guess as to the problem, Sergeant?” I asked.
“Ain’t nothing comin’ to mind, Sir, unless maybe that Scout Academy wants ya back early?”
That made as much sense as anything, and more sense than a lot of things. I felt myself relax just a bit. “From your lips to God’s ears, Sergeant.”
“Amen to that, Sir!”
Four minutes later, Jade had the Pauline alongside the Vanguard. Before I could ask permission to board, Captain Wright bounded over the rails and onto the Pauline’s deck.
“Thank God, we found you!” he declared without preamble.
He shoved a comm into my hands. I had heard that Callan and Prince Rupor had convinced the Federation to give them a few comm units to facilitate search and rescue in the desert, but couldn’t imagine why someone needed to talk to me.
As I thumbed the power switch, Captain Wright added, “That channel is a direct line to Her Royal Highness.”
On cue, Callan’s voice issued from the comm. “Chris? Is that you?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Are Jade, Pete, and Joy there, as well?”
Callan gave a sigh of relief, “Please stay with Captain Wright and the Vanguard. The Federation Embassy will send a shuttle for you.”
I ignored protocol and referred to my Princess by her given name, “Callan, what’s wrong?”
“An hour ago, the Federation ambassador delivered dire news. An invasion fleet from the Star Empire of Cromia is approaching the wormhole to Aashla!”
What can this mean? Find out in Chapter 37, the final chapter of Scout’s Training, coming Friday.