Musings

[Blog] Success!

HaHA! I did it! Fifty thousand words in July! And now I’ve got sixteen stories in various stages of presentability, and I’ve already started working on the edits for the first one. Actually, technically, I’ve just got fifteen to edit, since I had one of them pull double duty and act as my entry for the recent contest over at The Write Practice, so it’s actually in good shape and I’ll share it with you all here in about ninety days, once the rights revert back to me. In the meantime, you can go check it out here!

Other than that, since I don’t have much else to share, I can share the list of current titles for the various stories I was working on last month:

The Shadowed
The Day We Lost
The Hartwood Faeries
Wolf Road
Candle in the Window*
Caer Modnaan
The Secret Wood**
Aeternatus
Runner
To the Horizon***
We Went Home
A Page Worse Than Death
The Windbringer
The Lost Ones
The Willow Book
The Smallest Messenger

Most of these are (surprise, surprise) science fiction and fantasy. Which ones sound the most exciting to you? (Or in other words, which ones do you want to see me finish first?) And feel free to ask questions in the comments below!

* This is the one that’s already finished!

** I’m almost certainly going to change the title on this one. The story sorta got away from me…

*** This one… I never really figured out where this was going. But I like the title. We’ll see what happens!

Musings

[Blog] Sci-fi vs Fantasy

In case you haven’t noticed, I like science fiction and fantasy. (If you hadn’t, allow me to point you to the rest of my blog.) Now, for the longest time, I thought the two were roughly the same thing, just in different settings. And to some extent, that’s probably true. There’s certainly a reason they often get lumped together on bookstore shelves and are usually said together in the same breath. Yet as I’ve thought more about why I like both so much, and as I’ve had more time to focus on the worldbuilding side of my own various projects, I’ve come to the conclusion that the two really do have different strengths and are certainly different enough to warrant the distinction.

First, fantasy. My first love, mostly thanks to the fact that such stories can and often do involve things like dragons, unicorns, and grumpy wizards. Growing up, that usually meant that I was giddily excited by anything that fell under the swords and sorcery category. Lord of the Rings? Loved it. Anything to do with King Arthur? Sign me up. Wanna watch Dragonheart? I’ll be right there.

These days, while I still have a fond appreciation for all the stories mentioned above, I’ve also found myself branching out a bit. For instance, anything that involves magic in what might otherwise look like our world today tends to at least pique my interest. For instance, I really enjoyed watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And playing Shadowrun.

And for all the differences between these various stories, there are also a lot of similarities. For one thing, ancient evils crop up with a worrisome consistency. Magic is old. Our heroes find themselves caught up in traditions that have existed for ages. As a gross generalization, fantasy stories are full of wonder at the old, whether that looks like a medieval fantasy or a modern one that finds itself uncovering those things that happened long, long ago. There’s a reason fairy tales start with the words “once upon a time”.

For me, when I find that some story idea or another seems to want to turn itself into a fantasy story, that usually means that it has something to do with the past, at least in my head. Maybe it’s just a chance to re-imagine the parts of history that are so much fun to romanticize, or to interact with a so-called simpler world. Or maybe it’s a way to come to terms with the past.

Either way, it boils down to a focus on what once was, with perhaps a nod to how that affects things today.

Science fiction, on the other hand, looks to the future. Maybe these stories are just ways to imagine what we might be able to figure out someday. Or maybe they act as a warning for what might happen if we don’t mend our ways. Or maybe they give us something to strive for. But whatever way you look at it, the science fiction genre is as much about the future as fantasy is about the past.

Are there exception to this? Oh, absolutely. But Star Trek (all of them) is very purposely imagining what humanity might be able to do in a utopian setting (whether you agree with them or not on the methods chosen to get there). Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series takes place in a solar system that is nearly unrecognizable after the advancements humanity has made, and while not all of the advancements are good, it’s hard to deny that they’ve got some really, really cool things going on. Science fiction stories have a remarkable ability to provide a space to imagine what might be, and so to imagine some of the things we’ll have to think about if and when we get there.

Of course, it’s not all black and white. Of the top of my head I can name off several fictional worlds that have some distinct elements that I’ve argued belonged to either science fiction or fantasy. For example, Star Wars. The fact that it both involves spaceships and is set “a long time ago” with a bunch of knights running around is evidence enough of that. And then you’ve got Stargate, which has the humans of Earth finding ways to make these fantastic technological leaps… in order to fight old false gods. Or you’ve got J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean books that just say to heck with it and do both. Because they can.

In other words, like I said before, there’s definitely a reason they get pushed together so often. And there’s certainly nothing that says a story can’t look both to the future and the past at the same time. In fact, I think a lot of good ones do just that. But if you’re looking to imagine something about the future, that’s what science fiction is meant to do. And if you’re looking to engage with the past, fantasy stories have all sorts of things to say about that.

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

We Said Goodbye

The whisper of my breath filled my helmet. Its odor mixed with the smell of my sweat and complete exhaustion. The faint fog of it clung to the inside of the face shield, dimming my view, though not so much that I could pretend that the scorched control panel in front of me would ever function again. I stared at it anyway and delayed making the comm back to the ship. Maybe if I didn’t say anything it would stop being true.

My comm chirped in my ear anyway, and I sighed. So much for that idea. “Go ahead,” I answered.

My husband’s voice came crackling over the connection. “What’s the bad news, Alice?

“The gate’s shot,” I said. “Doesn’t look like we’re making it home for dinner.”

Or ever. But we both knew that.

Copy,” he said, and then went quiet.

And we mourned.

We’d known it would happen, that it was the only likely outcome. We’d run the scenarios. We’d looked at every other possibility when the wormhole opened, anything that could save our galaxy without stranding us in this one. We’d tried a dozen different things, only to have them fail one way or another— because the theory wasn’t sound, because the tech just couldn’t handle it, because time ran out. The fact that the radiation from the other side was harmless until it reacted with the radiation from our own galaxy didn’t mean a thing. It was a quirk of nature, but deadly all the same. And in the end, this was our only option: fly through ourselves and set things right.

Close the gate. Save the galaxy.

Get back through if you can. But that’s not the primary objective.

I closed my eyes and let myself hang there, floating in the vacuum at the end of my tether while the greater part of myself insisted that there must be a way out, if only we kept on looking. It offered up all the cliches: we’d come so far, we’d done so much, it couldn’t end this way.

But that’s only true in a certain kind of story.

My comm chirped again, and I opened my eyes. The control panel was still there, still destroyed. The gate pylon was still inert, still damaged far beyond our means to repair. The expanse of a foreign galaxy still stretched out infinitely in every direction, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.

Alice.

I shook my head, as if that was enough to clear it. It worked well enough. “I’m here.”

I’m ready to bring you back inside. Whenever you’re ready.

“Copy that. I’m ready now.” A pause, and then I added my quiet thanks.

It didn’t take long to haul me in at the end of the tether. The fastenings on the belt of my suit pulled taut and the pylon sank away and out of reach. I watched it and only it until my feet touched down on the airlock floor; the strange stars would cause me too much pain.

Gray, my husband, pulled open the door and met me as soon as the airlock finished cycling. I leaned into his chest, let his arms wrap around me, let him hold me. I breathed in his scent, the last remnants of his deodorant and his sweat and the unique smell that only belonged to him.

“I don’t want to be stuck here,” I whispered, though the words hardly made it past the knot that had grown in my throat. “I don’t want this to be the end.”

“It’s not,” he murmured, his lips pressed against my hair. “It’s not.”

It was a platitude. An empty, hopeless platitude. A flash of rage passed through my brain, all violence and panic and gut-deep wrath. I stiffened, chewing on the words of a dozen different diatribes that rose up from my chest. Only the simplest came out.

“It is. It is.” I pushed away. “The pylon’s dead. The control is dead. Our galaxy is ten million light years away, and even if our ship could cross that distance, we’d be eons dead before it brought us home. And so would everyone we’ve ever loved. We knew it when we volunteered. We knew it and we came anyway.”

“So we find another way,” said Gray.

“There is no other way!” I choked out the words and hissed them past my teeth. “That’s why we said goodbye.”

We both retreated to our own ends of our little ship, our fifty yard prison, me to the engine room, him to the bridge. I drowned myself in a dozen mindless repairs, all the little things that wear apart with everyday use, all the things our mission had stressed to a breaking point. The work was simple, and my hands knew their tasks. Each problem was the sort of thing I’d solved a thousand times before. Each thing fixed was a salve to my thrashing mind, though only when I kept my fears at bay. I didn’t worry how Gray spent his hours.

A day passed. Another followed. We came together at meals— sometimes— but didn’t speak. We slept in the same room, but not with each other. He wanted us to talk, but I had no words to say anything that mattered.

We stayed at the pylon longer than we needed to, until I’d fixed everything on the ship that I could possibly fix and a few more things besides. We might have never moved, but while the ship’s stores were well-stocked, they would not last forever. Better we move on now, while the choice was ours to make and not desperation’s.

Find a planet. Refill our stocks of food and water and medicine and fuel, whatever we could find. Keep floating on.

I saved the location of the pylon into the computer before we left. I wasn’t sure why. The thing hadn’t shown any indication that it would or could return to life. But it seemed the thing to do.

Or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to let it slip away forever.

In a week, the worst of my grief dulled to a different, deeper sort of pain. A resignation. Or a sort of healing, if a twisted, tender scar is healing. But I began to speak again, and chose to forgive or forget my husband’s well-meant hope and optimism. It hardly seemed important now, as the pylon fell farther and farther behind, and our daily life revolved more and more around survival and less and less around thoughts of getting home.

We found planets and moons and asteroids that held what we needed. Sometimes it was just scraps, the barest bits to keep us going. Sometimes it was more, or almost everything. Sometimes when we sat together on the bridge and the scan came back with its promises of life and riches we would exchange a look.

“We could stay,” I might say. “Scuttle the ship, make a home.”

And Gray might think, might ponder, might muse. “Maybe the next planet. The sunlight here is wrong.”

And so we wouldn’t. We would land and fill our stores, and then we’d leave and fly back to the endless stars. And we’d whispers to each other that we still might find some way back to our other home, safe in the knowledge that it could never happen.

Until it did, on a rocky moon that should have only offered us a little fuel, but showed us an ancient, alien colony instead. A colony like the one we’d found in our first galaxy. A colony that held the tech that we’d been studying when the wormhole opened and the whole of creation began to crumble.

We stared down at it through the viewport, as if our naked eyes could see the empty buildings. Three years had passed. A thousand days. Grief and terror had faded and given way to mere exhaustion and routine. And then somewhere, somehow, exhaustion had yielded to curiosity and the giddiness that came with the knowledge that an entire galaxy was at our fingertips, all full of things no one had ever seen. And there was nothing at all to stand between us and a million new discoveries but our own decisions.

“You were right,” I said. “There is a way.”

Gray remained quiet for a long, long while. “I guess there is,” he said. “But we said goodbye.”

And so we left the ruins to themselves, staying only long enough to refill our stores of fuel and choose our next coordinates. By habit, I almost saved the location of the tiny moon to the computer before we left, but a thought stopped my hand. Gray saw me and shook his head, and I let the void swallow the coordinates instead. The galaxy was bigger without them.


Originally published as part of the 2020 Fall Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.

Musings

[Blog] Update on the Tanner and Miranda Chronicles

It turns out that writing a stand-alone short story for a contest was the kick I needed to start making progress on the Tanner and Miranda stories again! (Also, keep an eye out for the contest story in a few weeks’ time, since I’ll post it up here as soon as judging is over!) Anyway! I spent most of yesterday putting together synopses for the various stories that will make up the collection of their adventures for their first real book, and figuring out the overall flow for the book in general: what order they should go in and what tweaks the stories I’ve already written will need to match up with the rest. Continuity is a beast, you guys.

This is the first time I’ve been working on this collection in a while, since all my Tanner and Miranda related energy (such as it is) has been going towards The Dalton Job instead, so this is actually a nice change of pace. Plus, if it goes well, it will give me a great, solid base for all the planning that still needs to go into Dalton.

Also! My plan is to give you at least a little Tanner and Miranda related content most weeks, since I hope you’ll find it enjoyable (I do!) and it’ll help keep me honest. And disciplined. Ish. Particularly since I know I’ve been sketchier than posting lately. (Something something work, something something pandemic, something something SKYRIM…) Either way, keep an eye out for more excerpts, bits of world building, or even just descriptions of settings or characters. Also! If there’s anything you’re curious or want to hear more about (oh, the hubris), let me know!

But for now, here’s those synopses I was working on! Let me know in the comments below which one you’d like to see the most!


THE FIRST JOB
or: We Encounter the Native Fauna

Tanner and I head out on our first job together: finding an expensive (and experimental) AI drone that went missing while mapping a section of the Badlands in preparation for a road between a couple of the colony cities (Coville and Oriole). It’s a simple job but it pays well, and it’s a good way to introduce me to Verdant. Or it would be if we didn’t end up having technical difficulties and getting stalked by the local wildlife. What kind of planet has carnivorous sheep anyways?

THE DELIVERY JOB
or: The Rocky Road to Oriole

It’s been a few weeks, and I’m getting used to life on Verdant. The road to Oriole is coming along, and they need someone to help guard an important generator that’s getting delivered since they’ve had some recent trouble with bandits. We’re there mostly to provide backup for Oriole’s own Ava Loesan, but naturally, things don’t go as planned.

THE EASY JOB
or: Murphy’s Revenge

We’ve had a rough go of it, and as much as I’m loathe to admit it, we could use an easy job. One of Tanner’s rancher buddies has us go along with an old-fashioned cattle drive just to throw us a bone: it shouldn’t require much real work from us. Of course, literally everything goes horribly wrong.

THE TRACKDOWN JOB
or: To Catch a Thief

There’s a thief in Verdant! Or rather, there has been for a while, but the Rangers have only recently been able to close in on him, and now they’re asking for our help. He goes by the name of Blue, and he has an irritating knack at getting into places he shouldn’t be able to without being seen. Now that we’ve finally had a chance to actually rest and recover, our friend Paul Tarjian (Tarj) enlists our help in setting a trap and finally bringing Blue to justice.

THE SNATCHBACK JOB
or: We Thieve a Thief

After our work tracking down Blue, word gets around that we know how to think like thieves well enough to thwart them, and a private citizen hires us to steal back a particular item with implications for the colony as a whole. The job seems a little shady, but the pay is really, really good. We do it, but only after checking in with Tarj to make sure we get the full story.

THE ETHAN LINDSAY JOB
or: Never Trust the Man with the Thousand Dollar Smile

After a few successful jobs, we hit a good rhythm, and it’s easier and easier to get work as our reputation grows. The problem with that, of course, is that we get clients like Ethan Lindsay.

THE PRO-BONO JOB
or: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Now that we’ve been on Verdant for the better part of a year and have gotten ourselves nicely established, Tanner wants us to offer our services to a group of colonists heading out to set up a reliable water line to a new town in the Badlands, mostly as muscle while they install the machinery. Trouble is, it looks like someone in our little group has ulterior motives, and might be working for the other side.

THE RESCUE JOB
or: Out of the Fire, Back to the Frying Pan

A veteran bounty hunter hires us to help her scour the Badlands for a pair of troublemakers who have managed to get themselves on the wrong side of both the law and a couple of gangs. Oh, and they also happen to be the sons of a prominent local politician. What could go wrong?

THE PERSONAL JOB
or: Bearding the Lion in its Den

All our meddling over the past year hasn’t gone unnoticed. That, or one of Tanner’s side projects ticks off the wrong ganger. Either way, someone takes it upon themselves to kidnap Tanner, and it’s up to me and all the favors I can call in to rescue him.

Fiction, Fiction (Excerpts)

[Excerpt] Tanner and Miranda

“Miranda, get back in bed or I’ll break your other leg.”

That was my brother’s version of compassion for the wounded. But, as I was only ninety-nine percent sure that he wasn’t serious, I muttered something derogatory about his bedside manner and limped and crutched my way back to my sickbed and dropped back onto it. I also let my crutches clatter to the floor in a noisy protest. It was an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, of course, since I was going to be the one to have to pick them up next time I wanted to get around the room, but for now, I allowed myself to take some pleasure in annoying my brother.

“I’m not useless, you know,” I said. “I can still help.”

Tanner didn’t turn around as he answered me. “Sure. Right until the pain meds kick in. We went through this yesterday.”

And the day before, and the day before that. Though, granted, yesterday had been the worst.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “But don’t come complaining when you can’t find any leads.”

Musings

[Blog] Regionalism

Way back in high school, we had a unit where we studied American literary regionalism. (Click here for the Wikipedia article, if you’re curious!) I remember it being interesting, and our teacher tied it in with the idea that the setting of a story, when properly done, can be as much a character as any of the ones walking around on two legs. At the time, I thought it was a fascinating idea, but didn’t quite get it– certainly not enough to be able to articulate it all that well.

If I’m honest, that might still be true today, though I’m certainly closer than I was. At the very least, I’m close enough to start coming up with some theories of my own. In particular, considering how it relates to the ubiquitous advice to “write what you know”.

Now, as you can imagine, us science fiction and fantasy authors have a harder time applying that advice in its most boring sense. I’ve never been a freelancer on a distant planet, but that’s not stopping me from writing about a couple of siblings who do, so some folks might suggest that I’m not taking that advice to heart. That being said, I am one of several siblings, and I can guarantee that I’ve got the sibling banter thing down pat, so in that sense I am writing what I know.

Now, imagine you’ve got a locale you’re particularly familiar with. For me, that could be the Palouse area of Idaho and Washington: farming country, with lots of hills and fertile soil and not so many people. Next, add in the fantasy, magic, and adventure that I particularly enjoy writing about. Combine the two, and and you’re going to get a modern fantasy story set in the hills I grew up in. Probably involving werewolves.

Or, for those of you who watch Angel, you’ve got the same sort of thing with Los Angeles. It’s definitely set in LA… there’s just vampires and demons as well.

Basically, using a region that you’re familiar with is a fantastic way to write what you know– because as poor as that advice is when applied badly, you can’t get around the fact that it does have some truth to it. If you know something, you’re going to be able to write about it better. If, like me, you’re more the type who likes writing science fiction and fantasy, that’s probably going to look more like writing about relationships between friends and family than the the mundane adventures of a twenty-something-year-old. But it can also mean setting those same stories about the relationships you know in the places you know. Because it’ll make the story that much more real.

Musings

[Blog] (More) Musings on Spacestations

It’s entirely possible that working in an actual, honest-to-goodness city has gotten inside my head. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been spending sizeable portions of every week actually in Los Angeles for the better part of a year: I still stare up at the buildings like the country girl I apparently still am. In case there’s any question, yes, I’m completely okay with that.

Now, nerd that I am, staring at the seemingly never-ending stretch of buildings inevitably leaves me considering the logistics of space stations. Well. Some of the logistics. I don’t mean things like creating gravity and making sure life support works (okay, so maybe now I am, in a purely theoretical sense) but more what it would be like to have a city’s worth of people living suspended in space.

Assuming for a moment that the fictional civilization in question figured out how to build and maintain a structure that could support millions of people, what would it be like to live there? How would someone move between the different places they need to go? LA has its chaotic mess of tangled freeways, but it’s hard to imagine that this:

would translate well to this:

If only because it’s going to be hard to find a place to put all the cars (or their 25th century equivalents). It’s just not the most efficient use of space. Plus, in our modern day cities, you’ve got to deal with miles and miles between the places people live and the places they work. Or play. Or run errands. And part of that is because there’s a limit, either cultural or physical, to how much we want to build up as opposed to out, and because we do, to one extent or another, have the space to build out. That’s not going to be a luxury the fictional inhabitants of a massive space station are going to have.

On the one hand, that’s going to mean that anyone living in that kind of orbital city is going to feel more or less like a sardine. On the other, there’s a certain convenience to being within walking distance of anywhere you need to go. Add in a few snazzy, high-tech elevators that can bus you from floor to floor or from section to section at remarkably high speeds, and things might be a little more reasonable.

And maybe people will continue to be more and more able to work remotely, cutting down on even more of the need to scramble from one place to another. Or maybe some sort of complicated shift system would exist, which would preempt any overwhelming surge of people at a particular time of day. Imagine that… a world without rush hour! Even so, I suspect it would take a certain sort of person to be able to thrive in orbit.

It’s all speculation, of course. But then, isn’t that why so many of us enjoy the science fiction genre? Hard or soft, there’s something about such speculative fiction that keeps us excited, engaged, and curious. Something that keeps us wondering about what might come…

… in the 24th and a half century!

Fiction (Short)

Another Day in the Black

werewolfhijack

“What do you mean you haven’t found her? It’s not a big ship! What did she do, step out the airlock or something?!” The captain was snarling now, with the spittle flying from his mouth and that crazed twitch in the corner of his right eye. Ruby had served on the little pirate crew long enough to know what happened next: he would keep screaming until his voice cracked from the exertion. His face, already red, would turn purple. His vocabulary would expand to contain every known form of profanity, and several new ones besides.

It was hardly the first time it had happened. It wouldn’t be the last—assuming, of course, that this wasn’t the rant that finally sent him apoplectic.

The best thing to do was to just stay out of the way; not that poor Tomms had that luxury. It couldn’t be helped. He’d learn fast enough. She had. And sure, she liked the kid, but that didn’t mean she was going to stick her neck out for him when the captain was on the warpath. That would just be—

“Get back down there and look again!” She winced as the captain whirled on her. “And you too! Maybe together you’ll be better than useless!”

So much for that. Ruby scrambled to her feet with a hasty “yessir” and made for the door. Tomms gave her a pained and panicked look and bolted after her. Neither one said a thing until they were well beyond the bridge and out of the captain’s earshot. Neither one bothered to pull out their blasters even then. If they needed them, they could unholster them fast enough.

“I’m so sorry, Ruby,” hissed Tomms, tentatively, as if he expected her to use it as an excuse to treat him the same way the rest of the crew did.

Poor kid. Like she’d stoop that low.

She twitched a wry smile his way and shook her head. “Not your fault, Tomms. Let’s just get this over with.”

That was, of course, easier said than done. For such a small ship, it was carrying a whole lot of cargo. And instead of all being packed together in one huge conglomeration in the center of the hold, dozens of containers were all separated out in various stacks. No doubt, it was all part of some grand system of organization. The fact that they created a veritable maze was just a side effect.

“There’s a million places to hide in here,” said Tomm. His voice wasn’t quite a whimper.

“And that’s just counting between those cargo containers. You can double that if this is a smuggling ship.”

He did whimper at that. It was the only sensible response.

“She can’t just hide forever.” The tremor in his voice added in the unspoken “can she?

“No,” said Ruby, with entirely more conviction than she felt. Because this was her home turf, not theirs. And while the cargo hold might look like a bloody labyrinth to them, she probably knew it like the back of her hand.

And then there was the whole question of why she had so carefully put her ship in orbit around the nearest moon instead of going for a hard burn when she’d noticed the pirate ship closing in. It was an unconventional response to say the least. One that had Ruby wondering what their target had hiding up her sleeve. Sure, scans had shown she was the only one on board, but that just meant that Ruby had more questions, not less. Even the most hubristic explorers of the void knew better than to try their luck entirely on their own.

And this particular star sailor had not seemed to be the hubristic sort.

“Tomms. Watch yourself.”

“What?”

Ruby made a face. “Be careful. I’m not sure what she’s up to.” Whatever it was, it was probably more than hiding like a scared rabbit.

Probably.

Tomms grimaced. “Why are we doing this, Ruby? It’s her ship.”

“We’re doing this because if we don’t, the captain’s going to start using us for target practice.”

After ten minutes of searching the hold, though, and turning up absolutely nothing at all, Ruby was starting to wonder. She stopped on her prowl down one of the narrow pathways between crates to groan softly and glare up at the ceiling. Over to one side, the dark side of the moon could still be seen through one of the small portholes that lined the top of the hold. An odd structural choice, though there was something to be said for a little natural light when loading the ship, she supposed.

After ten more minutes, she started wondering if the rightful owner of this particular little ship hadn’t actually found some way off. Because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that she was actually still on board. That, or Ruby and Tomms both were going to have to ask some hard questions about their ability to search a vessel. There was also the question of what their current employment said about them as people, but that was less specific to the situation. And while Ruby wasn’t looking forward to finding the answer at all, it would be slightly easier to handle when their boss wasn’t raging and pirating about one deck up.

He wasn’t going to be happy about the lack of results. Frankly, Ruby was surprised she and Tomm had been able to search undisturbed for twenty minutes. It couldn’t last.

“Tomms?” Her voice echoed through the hold, bouncing between the stacked cargo containers. “Anything?”

Silly question. She knew he hadn’t. He would have told her if he had.

Nothing.

Ruby frowned. “Tomms?”

Still nothing. A distinct chill went wandering up Ruby’s spine. Her hand slipped down to her holster, and she grabbed her blaster. And she kept moving forward, glancing side to side. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.

And then, something. She wasn’t sure what made her stop and turn, but stop and turn she did, and caught the tail end of someone’s heel disappearing around the corner.

“Hey! Stop, you!”

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t. With an eloquent command like the one she had just given, Ruby would have, quite frankly, been more surprised if they had stopped. But it was something—more than something! She broke into a run.

And tripped right over Tomms’ body as she rounded the corner. Her heart jumped up her throat and started hammering at twice its normal speed, and it didn’t even start to slow down until her fingers found his pulse. Just unconscious.

A sudden clatter of footsteps on the ramp leading to the rest of the ship pulled snapped her away, and she jumped to her feet again and started running after the noise. She barely made it ten feet before she heard a faint click and a half a dozen cargo boxes tipped over in her path.

“Stop following me! Go see to your friend!”

The voice came from up the ramp, where the ship’s owner had paused just long enough to shout the command back. Even if Ruby had wanted to shoot at her, she didn’t have a clear shot.

“I—what?!” Of all the things she’d ever had people yell at her while she chased them, this was a new one.

But the ship’s owner was already gone. And as she was running up the ramp towards the rest of the ship, it seemed unlikely that the other more bloodthirsty members of their crew were going to need their help to catch her. Going back and checking on Tomms seemed like a good idea after all.

As much as she had made quiet fun of the portholes all along the top edge of the cargo hold, the sudden influx of bright moonlight as the ship’s orbit took them around to the light side of the moon provided all the light she needed to check Tomms over for injury. Which made it that much easier to see the big goose-egg bump that had sprouted from the back of his head. Ruby got the sudden impression that maybe, just maybe, they had underestimated their opponent.

For a fleeting second, she wondered if this scrappy little star sailor might be able to get the jump on the captain and their other two crewmates. If maybe the pirates would get sent scurrying. If perhaps she might have a use for a couple of crewmembers herself: even a ship this small was easier to run with a couple pairs of extra hands.

The three-to-one odds she was facing weren’t going to make that easy. Ruby glanced down at Tomms. The poor kid was out cold. Stable, but definitely unconscious. She paused. This was a terrible idea. The sort of idea you didn’t survive. The sort of idea that would get you used as an object lesson every time a certain pirate captain hired on untested hands for years to come.

The sort of idea that might be worth it anyway, just for the tiny chance that it might work.

Ruby squeezed her eyes shut. She took a deep breath. And then she checked Tomms one last time before starting off up the ramp on what was probably a complete fool’s quest.

She didn’t get far: no more than three steps. Because before she could take step number four, a terrible howl ran through the whole ship. A bone rattling, ship shaking, void piercing howl. And all Ruby’s new-minted resolve crumbled.

And then the ship went dark.

The next minutes were horrifying. The howl gave way to shouts and blaster fire and the occasional low rumble that sounded awfully like a growl. Ruby found herself cowered against the far side of the ramp, trying to think past the terrified mob of thoughts that ran wild through her head.

What was on the ship?

What had the captain unleashed?

Was this one of those deep space terrors that wasn’t supposed to exist?

Had their erstwhile quarry run straight into something even worse than pirates? That stirred something beyond panic. If the little ship’s captain had needed help before, she needed it more now. And she wasn’t going to get it from anyone else. Not with Tomms out cold and the rest of their crew being what it was.

Ruby’s throat was dry. Time to keep moving, then.

Somehow, she couldn’t manage it until a more pragmatic corner of her brain pointed out that hiding wasn’t going to fix anything, and would probably just mean that Whatever It Was would find her anyway when there was no one else to help. If she was going to survive this herself, going now was her best chance.

So she went. It disgusted her that she needed such selfish logic to motivate her, but motivate her it did. And she might as well make the most of it.

Halfway up the ramp, the ship went silent too. Ruby’s mouth was dry, but she tried to swallow anyway. It didn’t help. She still felt as terrified as ever, which was perhaps why it took her a few moments to realize that the sudden silence had not, in fact, been preceded by screams of agony. Which was a good sign. She hoped.

Somehow, she kept moving. Despite her best efforts, every step sounded like a gong on the metal ramp. A soft, muffled gong, but to her ears, a gong nonetheless. The blaster in her hand seemed like it wasn’t going to be much in the way of protection, should it come down to it. But just reholstering would have been worse, so she kept holding it in her cold, sweaty hand.

Halfway up the ramp, she got the feeling that someone—something was watching her, and her heart jumped, impossibly, even farther up her throat. She stopped. The ship creaked around her. The ship’s systems beeped and hummed, distantly.

This was ridiculous. She kept going.

At the top of the ramp, the feeling became certainty. She heard someone. Something. Breathing. Ahead of her. Above her, in the dark.

She should turn around. Going forward was insane. Going forward would get her killed. Or worse. Or—

Before she had a chance to go forward or turn back around, something came down on her head and dropped her like a sack of stones. But it didn’t knock her into unconsciousness. That would have been a mercy. Instead, stunned, she felt impossibly huge, impossibly hairy hands (or were those claws?) close around her ankles and drag her towards the bridge. She heard someone kick her blaster and send it skittering away, well out of reach. She saw, as they came out of the dark corridor and onto the moonlit bridge, three still forms lain out in a row next to each other. And she became the fourth.

That touched some primal mote of terror deep inside. So much for pretending to be unconscious and hoping for the best. She yelped and flailed and made to break away. She stopped as soon as her captor stepped into the moonlight.

It was huge. Eight feet tall, at least, and that was standing hunched. It was hairy. Wolf-shaped. Wolf-toothed. And its eyes reflected the moonlight and seemed to glow with evil intent. Ruby’s yelp became a whimper.

And the thing stopped. It bent down, bringing its muzzle within inches of Ruby’s own nose. It smelled like a sweaty dog, and its breath was terrible. Ruby flinched. She didn’t mean to. She just couldn’t help it. But the thing just watched her for three long seconds. Four. Five. And then it gave a low growl.

Ruby closed her eyes and shook.

And she stayed that way for half an hour.

It was only when someone (someone! Not something!) touched her shoulder that she dared open them. And there, staring down at her with a look of mixed wariness and vague amusement, was the little ship’s captain.

“You’re alright!” Ruby’s voice came out as a croak, but the other woman seemed to understand it well enough.

“Of course I did. I thought I told you not to follow me.”

“I wasn’t going to—but the howl, the growling, the other pirates… I thought you might need help.”

The other woman laughed. It was a barking, gleeful sound. And that was when Ruby noticed that her teeth seemed somewhat longer and sharper than those of most humans. And there was a certain wildness to her eyes. And…

“Oh. Oh no. Oh no.”

Ruby jumped away as the woman—the werewolf—brought her hand down on Ruby’s shoulder.

“What, you didn’t think it strange that I was out here in the black all by myself?”

Ruby managed a nod.

The woman grinned, showing those too-sharp teeth again. “The name’s Captain Marie Lupine. I knew you looked smarter than the rest of these idiots.” She gestured at the three pirates that lay to the side, and Ruby noticed for the first time that they were all tied up. And also all still breathing, though a few sported a few new, long scratches.

“Where’s Tomms?” Ruby’s voice was still entirely too dry for her liking.

“Your friend in the cargo bay? Still down there. I think I rang his bell pretty good. He should be alright, though.”

Ruby nodded.

Captain Lupine dropped down into a crouch and looked her up and down. “So, the way I see it, we have a couple of options here. One, I turn you and Tomms in to the authorities with the rest of these numbskulls.”

Ruby shook her head as violently as she dared. Captain Lupine grinned again.

“That’s what I thought. Or, two, I let you and him take that ship you jumped me with, and you get to keep pirating around. Problem for you is, of course, that the ship would be tagged as a pirate vessel, and I don’t much fancy your chances of survival for very long.”

Ruby looked uncomfortable.

“Or, three.” Captain Lupine eyed Ruby. “You and Tomms stay here on my crew. I turn in these three and the ship to the authorities, and I say that you’re both crew I picked up at the last space station. I write you up proper contracts of employment and you don’t have to attack innocent passers-by or watch your blood pressure spike when you get within hailing range of law enforcement anymore.”

Captain Lupine grinned one last time. “It’s your choice.”

And that was how Ruby and Tomms started working for a werewolf running cargo runs in the deep black. All in all, it was probably the best choice either of them had ever made.

Musings

[Blog] Great Big Planetary Empires

HEADER

Across the planet today, there are around two hundred different countries, between three and eight thousand different languages, and more cultures (and subcultures?) than anyone could possibly count– if they could even find a reliable definition of culture in the first place. Or put another way, our Earth is both very big and very small.

This is the sort of thing that comes to mind after watching entirely too many episodes of Star Trek in a row. Or pretty much any science fiction TV show or movie or video game or book, for that matter. Compared to our own, all the biggest, grandest worlds that we’ve created are just so small, so limited.

And some of that is by necessity. Take the aforementioned episodes of Star Trek*, for example: if you only have a little less than an hour to tell a complete story, then you just don’t have time to develop a complete and complicated set of geopolitics for your strange, new world, and to try it would be to take away from the story you actually want to tell. When a bunch of humans, Klingons, and tribbles all end up on the same space station, we don’t need to know anything about the inner workings of Klingon geopolitics in order to enjoy the episode.

Even in the infinitely more complex Deep Space Nine that spent numerous episodes exploring the conflict between the Bajorans and the Cardassians, both species have only a single culture, and any hypothetical divisions among them are ignored. It seems there is no such thing as Northern Bajorans and Southern Bajorans, and even those separate groups that appear as the series progresses all stem from the same basic culture, only different in the way they react to their common history. And again, that’s not a bad thing. Even as simple as it is by real world standards, it’s plenty complex enough for the purposes of the story.

That being said, I’d love to see a story that plays a little more with the ramifications of multiple major powers on a single planet with the capability of interstellar travel. What would happen if American explorers made contact and formed an alliance with the Greys from the planet Heru at the same time that Russian explorers hit it off with the Purples on one of the same planet’s other continents? And what would happen if the Greys and the Purples didn’t get along?*

I’m inclined to think that that’s exactly the sort of question that science fiction was born to answer.

 

* It strikes me as I write this that I’m poorly enough read in science fiction that someone may have already written such a story, and I just don’t know about it. If you happen to know one, do mention it in the comments below, as like I said the idea fascinates me!

Fiction (Short)

Aruri

FRONTIERSTATION

It was something about the way the girl moved. She was human, as were at least a third of the other passengers that the latest transport ship had deposited on Whitehorse Station, but despite the fact that she shuffled along towards the security check like all the rest of the travel weary crowd with her head down and her shoulders slumped, Taylor watched her and waited for her to do something that would explain the wary feeling nesting in his chest. She looked young, no more than eight or nine years old. She was thin, too, and wiry, though most children who grew up in space were the same. A mane of thin brown hair reached just below her shoulders, and a loose hair-tie could only do so much to keep it out of her eyes. She followed close behind a young couple wearing the sort of sturdy clothes favored by colonists, and Taylor almost convinced himself that he was reacting to nothing. Colony kids always seemed to be a little different.

But then she disappeared.

She looked at him first, glancing up from her feet and staring at him long and slow out of the corner of her eye. Taylor’s first impulse was to look away, though whether that was out of some irrational fear or to keep from spooking her he couldn’t say, so he kept on watching. Or rather, he did until some disturbance farther down the line stole his attention for a split second, and when he looked back she was gone.

He muttered something under his breath and looked twice all through the line. The young couple was still there, as was the scattering of other humans and aliens of a dozen different species— everyone except the girl with the wolfish eyes.

He tapped the comm in his ear, and it clicked softly as the line connected. “Lumyan, keep an eye out for a girl trying to get into the station proper. Human, not even ten years old. You’ll know it if you see her.”

Understood.” There was a pause, then his partner’s voice hummed in his ear again, this time with laughter barely held beneath the surface. “Anything else I should know? Is she the next big mob boss or something?

“Heck if I know. I’ve got a feeling is all. Just let me know if you see her and try to keep her from running off.”

Sure thing.” Lumyan paused again, then: “Want me to search for any puppies or kittens while I’m at it?” He didn’t need to see her grin to know it was there.

“Only if you want to. Taylor out.”

He hadn’t expected her to, but the girl had not reappeared. The young couple she had been following was still there, still looking tired and travel-worn just not like the parents of a child that had gone missing. He approached them anyway.

“Excuse me,” he said, and the two broke off a quiet conversation and looked at him. “Could I speak with you both for a moment? Are you traveling with a daughter?”

They were not. They had no children at all, let alone a girl almost ten years old. Taylor thanked them for their time and moved on again, scanning the crowd for the twentieth time in the vain hope of catching sight of her again, though he wasn’t at all certain she was still there at all. He just didn’t know where else she could be or how she had gotten there.

He had a better idea about five minutes later when the young couple caught his eye and broke away from the line to approach him and report that the bag that had contained their papers, currency, and a few valuables was well and truly missing. Taylor directed them towards the office that specialized in helping with that sort of thing and started for the front of the line. A clever adult would be able to come up with several ways to use the pilfered items to get inside. A clever child would have an even easier time of it. He tapped his comm again as he moved.

“Lum, she got her hands on some papers. Have you seen her yet?”

There was a pause of a few seconds the reply came, and Taylor grimaced at the delay. If the checkpoint was that busy, the girl might not have even needed the benefit of the papers to sneak right through.

Sorry, Taylor. We just got swamped over here with a couple of clowns who don’t think the rules apply to them. If she’s come through I haven’t— oh, hell. I think that’s her. She just snuck through with another family.

Taylor broke into a run. Colony papers didn’t have the built-in checks and safeguards the ones issued on the central worlds did. It was fiddly technology at the best of times, especially with the older printers that would be available on fledgling planets. The scanners would only be checking to make sure the numbers of people matched the numbers of passes.

As he approached, Lumyan looked up long enough to point and wave him on in the direction the girl had gone. “Towards the markets. Go! I’ll have Sarge send Rofik down to help me here!”

Taylor gave a grateful nod and bolted through. The wide hallway was busy, full of humans, feathered avings, four-legged xentou, and all the others who had just made their way through security and into the expansive rings of the station beyond the docks. The thirty seconds it had taken for him to get there was more than enough time for the girl to vanish in the crowd. And if— when— she made it to the markets, the haystack would get that much bigger.

He held out hope that he’d find her before she they reached the markets until the corridor spilled out into the massive, noisy, stall-filled room that was the markets. If futility ever needed a physical representation, this was it. It didn’t matter how long he spent winding his way through the bickering, bartering members of species from every corner of the galaxy. His chances of finding the girl were beyond poor.

After a few steps more he slowed, stopped and raised his eyes to the ceiling in a look that expressed his frustration better than words ever could. Then, he commed back to Lumyan.

“She made it to the markets. Nothing I can do for now. Might as well tell Rofik he can go back to napping in the precinct. I’m putting in an alert and heading back to you.”

The rest of the passengers passed through security without further incident, or at least without anything out of the ordinary. There were a few lost bags, a few complaints about the level of service they had received on board the transport ship, a few red-eyed travelers who weren’t certain where they were supposed to go next, but all that was to be expected. It took less than an hour to empty the rest of the line, and when the last of the exhausted passengers made it through and stumbled off towards the residential rings and the rest of the station, Taylor and Lumyan followed.

A single main passageway led through the entirety of the docking ring. Turning right would take them down to the markets, and Taylor stopped for a moment and looked off that way until Lumyan slugged his shoulder.

“Won’t do any good, mate. Well. It might make you feel better, but there’s no way you’re finding her in there.” She winked. “Your words, more or less.”

Taylor grumbled, but he turned and followed Lumyan to the left and the precinct office. It was a small room, just large enough to hold a pair of desks and four chairs and still be comfortable. Taylor sank into his seat and woke his console with the intention of updating the alert to something more detailed than “Human girl, brown hair, 1.5m tall, approx. 10yrs old. Contact security if seen.” If nothing else, pulling her image from the security cameras in the docking bay and attaching it might keep would-be do-gooders from trying to turn in any of the brown-haired ten-year-olds who actually belonged on the station. He had just found and added what he needed when the door hummed and slid open to admit a pair of g’keyli.

Taylor’s stomach turned upside down and slid back against his spine. He was ashamed to admit it, but of all the alien species humanity had encountered since taking to the stars, the g’keyli unsettled him the most. They looked, to human eyes, like massive, bipedal canines. The smallest he had ever seen was nearly two meters tall, and the pair that loomed above his desk now, staring at him, were bigger. The fur that covered their bodies was long, braided and beaded in places and dyed with dark colors in others. They wore little in the way of clothing beyond belts with pouches and pockets and what little their culture asked for modesty’s sake, and while the end result was both practical and sensible, it also seemed a little wild.

The smaller of the two, relatively speaking, took a slow, deep breath, then twisted her tongue around human, English words that fit so poorly in her mouth that they came out with a rough, growling lilt.

“Do you have a moment, Packprotector—officer? I am Niumra, this is my mate, Grumyu. We would speak with you, if you have the time.”

She crouched down so that her golden eyes were level with Taylor’s brown ones. It was a sign of respect. That was what some quiet memory desperately said again and again in the back of his head. He just found that hard to remember when a mouth full of long, white teeth dipped that much closer to his neck, even when that same mouth was saying such civil words. His own mouth was uncomfortably dry, and he had to swallow before responding.

“Of course. How can I help you?”

“The transport ship that is docked here now, is that the Azdatses?”

Taylor nodded. “It is. Do you need to board her?” He forced himself to match and keep the g’keyli’s sharp, bright gaze.

“No, thank you, Packprotector. We have our own vessel, but we believe that one of our own was aboard the big transport. A young one named Aruri. She rode the transport here, and we must find her before she gets herself lost any further. Will you assist us?”

Taylor swallowed again, a little more easily than before. Though not by much. “We’d be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m afraid you’re the first g’keyli we’ve seen on the station in months. You’re certain she was aboard the Azdatses?”

Niumra turned to Grumyu, and they spoke a few words in their own tongue before she looked back to Taylor and nodded once, pointedly. “Quite certain.” She was about to continue when Grumyu touched her arm with one of his heavy, paw-like hands and tilted his head in query.

Niumra’s ears flicked backwards, almost pinning, and the two canids held another hurried conference in their own language. It seemed more combative than before, and Taylor put his hands below the table to hide the fact that they were shaking. He had almost regained his composure a few seconds later when the comm station in the corner of the room chimed, and both he and Lumyan rose on instinct. She waved him back into his seat with a wink and an impish expression. He paused, but there was nothing to do but drop back down and attempt to calm his hands once more as Lumyan transferred the call to her own comm before stepping outside to answer it.

It only took the g’keyli a moment or two to finish, and Niumra turned back to him with an almost sheepish expression. “Forgive us. My mate and I disagree—”

But whatever she was about to say slipped away as Lumyan burst back in and called across the room.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Taylor, but someone saw the girl. She’s still in the markets, apparently trying to steal herself some dinner. Stall A-34. They think she’s still close. Go! I’ll cover here.”

Taylor was up and on his feet in half a second, and halfway to the door in one more. He was about to apologize when both of the g’keyli started after him, and Niumra’s paw brushed his shoulder.

“Wait, Packprotector. We will help you hunt.”

She phrased it like a statement, but the question was clear. Taylor hesitated, and fear twisted another knot into his stomach. But there was no time. Taylor gave a quick nod.

“It’s a human child, somewhere in the markets. ” He reached back and turned his console screen so that the two g’keyli could see the picture taken from the security footage. “She looks like this.”

Grumyu gave a short, sudden bark and followed it with a wild pattering of words in his own language. Niumra stopped him with a paw on his chest before whirling back to Taylor. “We understand.” There was a wild look in her golden eyes.

“She’s just a child. Be gentle!”

“We understand! We go!”

And they went. Rushing the the door, flying down the corridor. The g’keyli let Taylor keep the lead, but their mere presence was enough to keep the halls clear for their passage. Only idiots stood in front of a loping g’keyli. The effect was less noticeable once they reached the markets themselves, but even then they made their way through the crowds in half the time it would have taken Taylor alone. He also got the distinct impression, once they reached stall A-34, that the aving merchant was a great deal more polite than he might have been otherwise.

“I appreciate your coming so quickly,” he said. “It’s good to have some sign that you humans do care about the security of your station. Too bad you couldn’t stop the little wretch before she savaged my wares.”

The attempted raid was evidenced by the various meats and breads still spilled all across the floor beside the stand.

“Where is she now?” Taylor felt impatience rising up the back of his throat, and he fought it back down beneath a show of professional calm. It got harder as the merchant began to let loose a flood of complaints, none of which gave any hint as to which way the girl had gone.

“…and I demand reimbursement from the station for… failing… to…”

Taylor frowned in confusion and was about to ask what was troubling the merchant when he noticed that the aving’s eyes were focused over his shoulder. He glanced in the same direction and found the answer on his own: Niumra’s muzzle was wrinkled in annoyance, showing almost an inch of her long, white teeth. It was all he could do to keep his knees from giving out. His voice was husky when he spoke.

“Which way?”

The aving pointed further down the row of stalls.

He muttered a quick thanks, and the three of them were off again, moving quickly down the opening in the crowd provided by the presence of the huge canids. Even as they went, Taylor felt a rising certainty that it was all in vain. It didn’t matter how close they got without catching her, not when she could vanish into the crowd or between stalls at a moment’s notice. But perhaps if they split up.

“Niumra.” He stopped and turned around to look at her, and his whole heart jumped up into his throat. She and Grumyu were both just behind him, both standing at their full height. He forced his words out over a dry tongue. “We won’t find her this way. We need to cover more of the markets.”

“Of course, Packprotecter. I was about to suggest the same.” She was about to translate for Grumyu when Taylor forced himself to speak again.

“But one more thing. The girl, she’s human. She’s not as strong as you. Don’t hurt her.”

Niumra clamped her mouth shut and flicked her ears back. A chill tumbled down Taylor’s spine that grew a thousand times worse when something that sounded too much like a growl escaped the g’keyli’s throat.

“We are not fools, Packprotector,” was all she said. Then she exchanged a few words with her mate, and the two big creatures stalked off in opposite directions through the crowd, leaving Taylor to continue in the direction they had been going.

His progress was not as quick without the g’keyli to clear the way, but if it had been he might have missed the upturned container that drew his attention to a small space between two stalls. And if he had not seen that, he would not have seen a pair of hazel eyes staring back at him when he peered inside. He also wouldn’t have suffered a surprisingly heavy blow to the head when the girl hit him with a length of aluminum pipe she had clutched in both her hands.

She hurtled past him while he was still reeling and sprinted wildly through the crowd of milling shoppers. Taylor scrambled to his feet.

“Station Security! Stop her!”

No one did. A few tried, but the girl was too fast, too agile, too wiry. She slipped out of their hands or between their legs, and Taylor knew she was getting away all over again.

And then Grumyu appeared from around the corner of a stall, just ahead of where the girl was running. He barked something fierce and forceful in the g’keyli language, and the girl stopped and dropped to the floor. The big g’keyli stepped forward until he stood just beside her, towering above her tiny form and growling low.

“Grumyu, wait!” Taylor’s knees were weak again. The g’keyli didn’t understand any human tongues. He could only hope the alien would hear and understand his name.

If he did, Grumyu gave no sign. Instead, he bent down over the girl, still growling, and placed one enormous paw on her thin chest.

“Grumyu!” Taylor started running forward, horrified by the images provided by his own mind of what was about to happen. “Grumyu! No!”

He was still yards away when something caught his shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. It was Niumra. Taylor yelped and shrieked like a child.

“Hush, Packprotector. The girl is fine. You are fine. Stop your fear.”

Taylor went quiet. He couldn’t tell if it was because he had regained control or because he was too scared to make a sound. For the moment, he didn’t care.

A few yards away, Grumyu’s low, rumbling voice continued speaking. It was joined a moment later by a second voice, a tiny, thin, and piping voice that answered inexplicably with g’keyli words.

“Our pup,” said Niumra. “Our Aruri.” She lifted her paw from Taylor’s shoulder, tentatively at first and then more freely when he didn’t run. “She is curious and rebellious, and she found her way onto the transport ship. We did not realize until too late.”

It took some time for Taylor to find the courage to speak. When he did, a question came out first. “Your pup?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Niumra. “Our pup, since we rescued her from the broken ship where her blood parents died. She was tiny and very weak, but we helped her and raised her, and she is ours.”

“Ah,” said Taylor, and he nodded.

Niumra made a chuffing sound that might have been a laugh. “You are surprised?”

He paused and considered, then nodded again. “I think I am.”

“That’s alright,” she said. “Many are.”